Death of a Seizer
(from Florida Palms, a novel in progress)
Seizer was shaving again.
At first light he walked naked into his bathroom, flipped the switch, got the hot water running in the sink. Pulled a towel over his waist and located the leather bag in the cabinet, retrieving the white bowl and badger-hair brush that reminded him of a hometown apothecary’s mortar and pestle. He took his time with the lather. Liked shaving. Shaved as if the world were emptied of its triviality by the practice of this ritual. And always before showering; liked to feel the water pressure on his raw face. Finding the grain and stubble with his fingers, he stretched the old roosterflab taut. Remembered when he first ran away as a kid to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, living among the retired mafia, old men skipping pawns at the café tables. The little bathroom he had then, the shower piping hot until the room clouded over and the mirror disappeared. The elegance of talc and suds. The simple strokes of a precise tool edging off the body’s excess. Imagined his grandfather crossing the ocean from a small harbor village, packing along with the leather casing this very same bone-handled straight razor, whittled from a hart’s thigh. How in a cabin at ship’s bottom, endlessly rocking, eager to seek prominence in a new world, he was perhaps afraid—but not, and Seizer was sure of this, while shaving. Of the many benefits of steam, there is a calming assurance married to a sense of replenishment, dripping sweat. The ashen skin the first line of defense for the internals, so he cared for it, kneaded it, memorized its faults and ravines, the moles delicately raised for trimming. If he’d had a son, this is what he would have passed on. Could have with Duke or Lisbon, but he was away and when he returned they’d already taught themselves. Something the world considered a trifling matter, an everyday occurrence. But this is how a man ages, unmasked daily by this essential ceremony. Whole groups like the hasidim in Williamsburg announced themselves by their denouncement of the thing. Shaving. The amish from Lancaster and the Amana Colonies and hillbillies sprinkled along the Blue Ridge. The articulated styles of the arabs and egyptians, the mongolians and muslims. The hippies. The goatees of american fifties radicals, couched in subversion. Castro’s Cuba, all fish and music and cigars and the poor. Bearded. And to strip that away, this hair—a look considered by some the trademark of finance, gain, power, cleanly shorn with a tie knotted cleanly at the neck, the image of capitalistic venture, of the conservative mind. An ideal. But that was not it, he thought, tapping the porcelain’s edge, wiping the blade on a towel. Not it. Not my ideal. Not political, not a matter of scruff or anti-scruff, as some would have it. But a process of the spirit. The reclamation of Self, confronted by one’s own image in an empty room. This is what a son would have understood. It was a way to reappraise fate. The flesh you had been dealt, the life you’d chosen. It teaches a soul to be silent, to listen, to take one’s time. They would have stood side by side, the boy on a stool ladder, staring into the mirror together. They would begin with patterns, inching away the lather with a toothbrush, moving later to a butterknife, and finally the razor. Then one day the boy would ask him to leave, citing privacy, and he’d wait outside the bathroom door, calling out every few seconds, walking him through the motions, hoping he didn’t slit his throat. How it always started at the base of the earlobes, the water bleating. A dense fog growing in your chest where a kind of pride incubated. The mustachioed mexicans and policemen. The wispy artistic lines of the japanese. The sideburns of bikers. We make unto ourselves, ourselves. Facing all futures and pasts alone in the watery heat to regain some incommunicable peace with this and many other realities, this was shaving.
But Seizer was not alone.
Gumby watched through a slit in the door ajar, not admiring the technique but focused rather on the exquisite bone-handled blade now raised slightly beneath a hopping adams apple. Gumby knew what he was interrupting, the heat and dense beauty of the light. But it was the object that pulled him—the craftsmanship of the razor was astonishing. Bone white with whittled, brown channels, overlaid by a thin lacquer. How it swiveled neatly on a short pin. His special intimacy with knives and his desire to own the most exceptional examples were perhaps a decrepit form of the obsessive longing Seizer felt for a blood heir, to have a hand in determining what persons or objects accounted for your place in the world. Knives, blades, shivs—edges, which are the geometry of death. All matter exists to be fashioned and refashioned; all things fall away under the cutlass of some horizon. Slowly he let the door creep open, stilling his breath as he entered.
As Seizer raised the blade to his throat, Gumby pounced, yanking him back by the arm, the razor flung red into the porcelain sink. But the room was too small and Gumby’s force too great. Entangled in each other’s lack of balance they romped, waltzing almost, overturning a shelf of hygiene products on their way to the floor where they locked together and wrestled like Darwin’s beetles. Gumby kept behind, shifting his weight to secure his leg’s grip under the ribcage, one arm around Seizer’s neck and the other beating his bald scalp with the blunt end of his hunting knife. It was over in less than a minute. Seizer lay motionless on the tiles. Gumby unfurled himself and scooted into the hallway where Cueball stood rigid by the door, palms flat against the wall.
“Goddamn that old cat had some moves,” huffed Gumby, out of breath. He lay flat on the floor, staring up. “Did you see how meaty thick his neck was? I had no idea. I had absolutely no grip on him.” Rubbed his leg. “Whew. I cramped up. Goddamn.”
Cueball inched forward, his fingers not leaving their position on the wall, and peeked in to get a better look at the bloodied naked man lying spread-eagle on the floor.
“Is he dead?”
“No he aint dead. Not yet at least.”
Gumby dug the hunting knife in the floor and spun to his knees, favoring a leg as he stood. He rewrapped his rattail behind his head and dropped it down his shirt. Limped over and patted Cueball shoulder, handing over the blade dangling between two fingers.
“Well, I guess that about wraps up my end. It feels weird to be the guy helping out. I don’t know what to do with my hands,” he said, smiling as he balled and unballed his fists. “Now get in here and help me lift him in the tub. Then he’s all yours.”
“I don’t think I can do it.”
“You can do it,” said Gumby. “Just remember what we talked about. Ferret out that hole. Meditate on your sacrifice.”
During the three weeks of rushed apprenticeship Cueball learned a great deal about knives and close-quarter melees but nothing prepared him for this moment now and the actual execution of his instruction. It was like learning to drive stick and then being plopped down on the track of the Indy 500. They’d sat in Gumby’s kitchen going over diagrams, eating sparingly, training when they weren’t sleeping. Gumby had no TV and all his books were weapons catalogues and outdoors survival guides and wildlife magazines. Cueball submitted without much outward reluctance to all the drills and memorization of combat techniques. First of all, there’s no such thing as a knife fight—there’s the person doing the cutting and the one getting cut; you’ll have to think on your feet; you’ll only get a few strikes in before they want to wrestle; thrust up through the lungs stops the screaming; tuck the bade under your forearm like this, so you slash when you punch and on the ground you can dig back into their stomachs. They slept in hammocks and cooked rice and pork in a pan over gas. Gumby disappeared and returned at night without warning, carrying off boxes of dart frogs, tanks of snakes, cages of alligators—cleaning house for his hiatus, and keeping Cueball’s nerves permanently on-call. They discussed the blowgun once to dismiss it—Cueball would be the son of blade and bullet, as each man must find his particular style of weaponry to suit his nature. But blade to begin with, as Gumby demanded his protégé’s first hit be carried out eye-to-eye and messy, so it registered.
By far the strangest thing required of Cueball though was this ‘sacrifice’ Gumby insisted upon, based on a questionable assertion which held that by killing something you loved, of cosmic lesser value than yourself, before killing something you didn’t love, of equal or greater value, you might somehow salvage your humanity. But Cueball went with it, thought about what he loved, which sadly wasn’t much, and finally suggested his collection of Garbage Pail Kids, a series of grotesque and humorous stickers culled from a decade’s worth of bubble gum packs. His idea was to burn one for each hit, or use them as a calling card of sorts. The novelty of it made him smile. Gumby responded by slamming him into a wall. “Show a little fucking respect! You think I’m some kind of psychopath? You think I just do this?” He unclenched his nails from Cueball’s neck and paced the linoleum. “If I’m the psycho, what the fuck does that make you?” he asked. Cueball couldn’t guess, and that satisfied Gumby enough to change his tone. “These people we hunt, they’re not good people,” he said. “Killing is like feeding. And if you’re not careful these people will poison you with regret, which they don’t deserve. You’ve got to feel nothing doing it. For those of us not born touched that means emptying out your spirit and replacing it for a little while with something else. Now tell me…what can you kill over and over again, even if it’s only in your head. And it’s gotta be something important, and it’s gotta be something you’re responsibility for.”
Cueball didn’t even have to think. Little Julio was already there beside him. From that point on, things became easier and harder.
Gumby stood over the body of Seizer, flicking himself near the nipples as he watched the steady but shallow breath-beat. “Get him under the feet.”
Cueball scooted around the doorjamb and stepped lightly over the body. He caught a glimpse of the bloody razor in the sink, noticed the fresh wound leaking from Seizer’s jawline. Gumby found a towel and twisted it into a snake and wove the snake between Seizer’s armpits for handles. Cueball pulled the shower curtains back on the lion’s claw tub and together counting they hoisted laboriously the slumberous boss into the basin like a dolphin caught in the nets.
“Big old son of a bitch,” said Gumby, clapping his hands together. “Okay then. Grab the knife. I’ll wait for you outside.”
“What you mean outside?”
“You want me to wait in the hallway?”
“But you said we were doing this together!”
“Well, we are. I mean, I’m complicit,” said Gumby. “I don’t have any blinders on. I’m helping you kill this man. But I won’t be around for the others, and it’s important you do this part yourself.” Sensing Cueball’s continued reluctance, he said, “Here, hand me the shortblade. And just remember, people die all the time. Think of our boys in Afghanistan popping the brains out the back of the Taliban. Pick your target and strike.”
Cueball fished around the sink and produced the razor. Gumby took it and sat at the edge of the tub. He poked the soft flesh of Seizer’s chest and stomach, reiterating the internal damage to be caused by striking various body points. Cueball found it hard not to watch Seizer’s eyes for movement, the blood from his cracked dome issuing down in rivulets. He turned the hunting knife over in his hands.
“Pay attention. He aint waking up. Probably already brain damaged.”
“I am. I’m just going back over things we talked about.”
“Good. Keep it fresh. You been practicing with that rubber knife? Good. Did you get that punching bag, fill it with sand? Okay, so you’re ready. So let’s do it.”
“I’m not sure about this,” Cueball said, staring at the blotchy skin and purple cheeks, the hirsute sprays of hair. “A knife just seems awful. Like you said, I gotta find what I’m comfortable with. And I think I’d just rather shoot him, if I have to.” He looked down the hallway. “I got mine in the car.”
Gumby didn’t know what to say. Just whipped his hair loose, staring away. The absolute nerve of this kid. “Fine. You wanna be a pathetic little shoot-em-from-behind killer, with no honor to it, no code, well you go on ahead. This shit’ll eat you alive, but fuck it, right?”
“Wait don’t leave.”
“No, you wanna go your own way? That’s just fine by—”
Seizer came alive, catching Gumby’s arm. Pulling himself up he swung bearishly without aim, flailing and catching his side on the tub’s edge. Gumby tried grappling with him but Seizer rolled over and forced Gumby into a headlock, wrestling until they both fell sprawling from the tub and rammed into Cueball, spilling the hunting knife from his hands. On the floor Cueball kicked furiously at anything close. The yelling stopped abruptly, replaced by a groan and fits of wheezing. He turned to find Seizer lying not three feet away, watching him, gulping air like a land-stranded fish, the hunting knife pinched between his ribs as the blood came gushing, liquefying his socks. Seizer’s eyes rolled back as Gumby kicked him in the head until the labored breathing cinched in his throat. Then Gumby went to the sink and swiftly fell to one knee. He opened a slit across Seizer’s neck with the razor and the boss gargled the last bit of himself onto the white tiled floor. Cueball’s arms went rubbery and shook as he pitched forward and retched beside a small radiator. Before he knew what was happening he was being dragged from the bathroom by the shirt collar and rolled onto his side.
Straddling him from behind, Gumby blew on the back of his neck. “Deep breaths, partner,” he huffed. “Let it go now. Let it go.”
Cueball couldn’t imagine ever describing this to anyone. He felt like a rising balloon whose insides had suddenly crystallized and left him plummeting. Gumby slipped off to look him square in the face. “You’re famous bud. You did it. I told you. Let it take you where you’re going.”
Cueball tried to concentrate on his breathing, which came from his mouth now that his sinuses were clogged with vomit.
“You’ve come out the other side, brother. I knew you could do it. Your pop said pick the craziest motherfucker I know and I told him: that boy—he’s a live wire. He beat a man twice his size. I’ve worked around enough poison to smell it.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Take it easy. Feel your stomach move. Feel the air in there. You feel it? You’re a dust ball on the wall, you’re so light.”
Cueball imagined himself a dust ball on a wall.
“Believe it or not, you’re handling this better than I did the first time. Just know this: you don’t have to fear anything ever again. Never again, little buddy. I’m so proud of you. Seriously, I couldn’t be more proud.”
Cueball wanted to say he didn’t do it. That the knife fell from his hands and spun on the handle as if attempting to locate some true north, and that Seizer had simply fallen on it. But he could say nothing, slipping into the numbness. What just happened was either fate or magic. He welcomed unconsciousness.
Gumby smiled, unveiling the vampiric tooth as his hard hand smoothed the pallid sweaty face of Cueball as if comforting a child with a fever, his voice gone quiet and soothing as a lullaby: You did it, boy. You did it. My boy. Do you know what you’ve gained here, son? Do you know what you now possess? You’ve gained the multitude. This is you born again. Yessir. The whole world’s yours to lean on.