Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Man With The Barbed-Wire Eye-Patch

Up here, people come out of nowhere.

That's the way they disappear, too.

And that's the way it was with Patch. He showed up in town one day in a pickup that was more rust than Detroit steel. Stopped at my diner for a piece of Saskatoon berry pie. That's where I met him. Saskatoon berry pie is my specialty. See, I'm a Canuck, misplaced by a border and a thousand miles. Don't like this state. Don't like this town. Don't like this diner. But work is work, so I stick to my pie and my business. Meaning: I stick to the two things I know best, even if all the dollars in this country are as green as raccoon shit and look exactly the same. Me, I like my money with queens on it, and just a little bit of color that might have bled out of a Union Jack.

Anyway, back to pie. Patch ate one slice of Saskatoon, then another. Then one more to grow on. Three cups of coffee to chase down every one of 'em. Regular, not unleaded. Black. Hot. You top off a guy's cup that many times, you notice a few things about him. But the main thing I noticed about this guy was the patch. You couldn't miss that. It was a hunk of black leather with a Special Forces insignia on it, and it was cinched around his skull with what looked like a braid of barbed-wire.

"That rubber?" I asked.

"No," he said.

I shrugged. Couldn't figure why a guy'd walk the earth with a prickly-pear Jesus hatband cinched around his skullcap, but it really wasn't my business one way or another. So I didn't ask, and he didn't tell.

He had other things on his mind. "Any work around here?"

I thought about that (as a businessman), but just for a second. I needed a dishwasher, but not a guy like this. There was more to it than the barbed-wire patch. His other eye bounced around in the socket like the black plug of an exclamation point. Made you wonder what thoughts were firing back there in his brain-pan. Plus, it seemed like the only reason he blinked now and then was that he figured it might be fun to flip that wild iris off his eyeball like a Tiddly-Wink and watch it roll across the counter. As for the rest of him, everything below the eye was kind of squared-off. Like something Jack Kirby would have drawn back in the day. Picture the Thing if he'd never moved out of those sewers where he hung his hat back in Fantastic Four #1. Except this guy wasn't orange and made out of rocks.

"Still with me?" Patch asked. "Any work around here?"

"Nothing much," I said, totaling his check and trading it for the empty coffee cup. "But there's a cannery about ten miles south, roosting out on a little peninsula. You can't miss it. Seems like you might fit in there just fine."

* * *

Scrape the varnish off those words and they were only half a lie. Meaning: No one who could fit in anywhere else came to this particular stretch of nowhere, even if the law was nipping at his ass like a starving Kodiak. But that was exactly the kind of guy who ended up working at the cannery. One kind, anyway. The other was the kind of guy who didn't think or talk much about what happened out on that little finger of land... the kind of guy who'd already lived there all his life, and whose granddaddy had lived and worked at the cannery same way as his granddaddy before him.

Turn off what passed for the main road and you'd end up on couple miles of two-lane blacktop that led out to the place, jutting a little bit south along that peninsula so that the stretch of road had about as much twist as the wrung neck of a chicken. Along the way there were trailers, some occupied by the old-timers, some by stragglers like Patch who'd ducked in for a buck and a breather in a corner of the world where no one was likely to find them.

That's the way the place worked a hundred years ago, and that's the way it worked until the end. About halfway down the two-lane you ran into a gate, and a guy with hammerhead eyes would give you a look and either wave you through or tell you to hit the bricks. Hey, it was quicker than filling out a job application. Seemed to work just as well, too.

The guard must have waved Patch through when he showed up. Past the gates. Past the security cams someone had mounted way back when in the eighties, snaked with coaxial cables that connected to not so state of the art Toshiba VHS decks manufactured when a guy named Reagan was still in the White House.

Not that I cared about any of that. I didn't think about the cannery or Patch for damn near a month after he paid for his coffee and shambled out of the diner.

Then, one night, he showed up again.

I'll never forget the look of him.

I'll never forget the things he said, either.

* * *

You probably never worked in a cannery. You do that for any amount of time, you learn one thing quick -- everything cinched up inside a fish is already dead. Couldn't stink so bad if it wasn't. You breathe that smell day in and day out, you cut it up and gut it and stick your fingers in what's left, you work double-shifts and fifteen-day stretches, and it puts your mind in a different place. A pink, meaty place. A place where the only thing you hear is the soft whisper of a blade, and a hundred black fins cutting water somewhere south of Davey Jones' locker.

Over the years, I'd seen plenty of guys walk into the diner who had nothing much left in their heads but those sounds. Every one of them looked a month past dead. Only words that would pass their lips was their order. Then they'd sit alone with those whispers, and eat, and pay, and leave.

As bad as any of them looked, Patch looked worse on the night he showed up for the last time. He came in and sat down at the counter. It was way past late. He was the only customer. Sweat on his brow, and little flecks of blood around that barbed-wire strap. He ordered a piece of Saskatoon berry pie but just picked at it with his fork. He looked kind of sick, in places that couldn't get better.

"That thing was full of eggs," he said finally, picking at his pie. "They looked just like these berries."

"What thing?"

"The thing they brought in on the black trawler."

"What are you talking about?"

He just sat there, staring at me with that Tiddly-Wink eyeball of his. Looking at me like I was stupid, like he wanted to flip his eye right over my head.

I don't mind telling you: It made me a little nervous.

A couple minutes later, Patch set down his fork without taking a single bite.

"They had gills," he said. "The people who worked at the cannery."

I didn't say a word, just slid the plate away from him.

"Most of them did, anyway."

He smiled, the fork in his hand again, digging the tines into the empty counter between us.

It scratched across the surface, carving little trenches.

"Gills," he said. "That's what they had. And that's why I killed them all."

* * *

Of course, I figured Patch was crazy. Watched him stumble out the door, into the night. Heard his rustbucket truck start up. Figured he'd pile himself into a tree before he made it a mile down the road. And maybe that would have been the best thing that could have happened to him.


Because it wasn't long before I started hearing the stories. Folks talking about a black trawler they'd seen cruising past the docks at night, heading for the cannery with nets slung low and heavy like they were heaped with dead babies. That got under my skin, dug in down there and curled up with Patch and his scraping fork. And one afternoon I mentioned the whole thing to a State Trooper, who decided to head out to the cannery and ask some questions about Patch.

What he found there... well, he found plenty. Dead bodies. Blood on the floor. The remains of something that stunk worse than a million dead salmon. Something that was filled with eggs.

Of course, no one believes much of that. I wouldn't, either. Except that Trooper was a friend of mine. He got hold of those VHS tapes from the surveillance system at the cannery. Shoved them in one night when we were sharing a bottle. And that made it one night where one bottle was not enough.

Because Patch did his work, all right. We saw it all on those tapes. He worked on those gill-men who'd run the cannery for generations. And he worked on the thing they unloaded from the black trawler -- the thing that made those misfits drop to their knees and cough up a bunch of words that seemed like they'd be right at home in the mouth of a fish, the thing that was full of eggs as dark and shiny as jellied blood.

Patch did his work and then some. With knife, with gun, with hands that might as well have been claws. I saw it on television. I know it happened. But that wasn't the end of it.

Because when he was done, Patch got busy. He worked beneath the soft whisper of a blade, and the sound of a hundred black fins cutting water somewhere south of Davey Jones' locker. He worked on man and monster and things that lay between. He worked from night until morning and back again.

And everything he'd killed, he canned.

* * *

And who knows what happened to Patch after that? I don't. Not for sure, anyway, but I've heard stories. The one I like best came from my State Trooper buddy. A friend of his had a hookup with some colonel in Special Forces who heard a story about a guy with a barbed-wire eye-patch who ended up in Arizona. Guy said he'd never leave the desert. Said he didn't want to be anywhere near the ocean ever again. The way my buddy told the story, the guy would yank a pistol if he so much as heard a toilet flush.

Maybe that was Patch and maybe it wasn't. Either way, I think about him sometimes. Early mornings, late at night... mostly when I'm spooning a filling of dark berries into a raw crust. I think of those black eggs in the belly of that dead thing I saw on television, and I imagine Patch out there somewhere in the desert. Under a moon, sitting in the back of that rusty pickup, a dry wind blowing up from Mexico whistling through the pockmarked bumper. He's got a can in one hand and a grapefruit spoon in the other, and a hundred empty cans are scattered in the sand dunes behind him from a hundred nights that came before, and there isn't a lake or a puddle anywhere within a hundred miles. He's staring up at the stars as the serrated tip of that spoon does its work, cutting the tightly packed meat inside, sliding it bite by bite into his mouth.

Chewing. Remembering. Then chewing some more.

For more tales from The Secret Life of Laird Barron... click here.