"Teague at the Edge" was published in Carrier Pigeon, with illustrations by my departed friend and collaborator Christopher Darling.
Copyright Christopher Stanton
Teague at the Edge
I’m a liar and a thief, Teague thought, as he climbed the stairs to his third-floor apartment. It was Friday night. The stolen merchandise was in his pocket. I’m a bandit, he added, just to put an exclamation point on the whole idea. A brigand.
Teague wasn’t sure why he’d swiped the plastic snow globe from the dashboard of the Dodge Charger. He was twenty-two and had blond spiky hair and always found a way to invite trouble into his life. He had a decent job in the service department of Gonzalez y Gonzalez Dodge, driving the malfunctioning automobiles from the Reception Area back to the garage where the mechanics worked. Once the fan belts were replaced or the radiators flushed, he maneuvered the cars out of the garage and around to where the owners were waiting, usually with a smile of thanks. He also swept smashed cigarette butts off the sidewalk and replaced the toilet paper rolls in the staff bathroom when Mr. Gonzalez requested it. Those were tasks he was less proud of, so he omitted them when he was chatting up young ladies at the Bronco Busters restaurant, down the hill from his apartment.
His most valued material possession was the copy of The Man Who Would be King that he carried with him at all times. It was tattered and the spine was bent, and he had highlighted several passages in yellow. Teague had learned what a brigand was from Kipling. The title alone inspired him; it was the only book he had ever read more than once.
Teague had ample opportunity at work to rummage through the glove compartments of the vehicles, or to check the change containers above the gear shift for quarters, but he had never indulged in such behavior-- strictly prohibited by Mr. Gonzalez and the upper-level management-- until that afternoon, ten minutes before quitting time.
Teague reached the top of the stairs and paused for a moment. He heard the traffic from the access road outside, and a baby wailing from somewhere down the hall. Satisfied that there was no one coming, he reached into the pocket of his grease-stained khakis and pulled out the snow globe.
The souvenir was plastic and chipped and barely the size of a yo-yo. There was a statue of a mermaid inside; she stood guard at the edge of a plastic blue harbor, with sailboats sailing away in the distance. GREETINGS FROM DENMARK, large white letters proclaimed beneath her. The K was faded and nearly gone.
He shook the plastic orb. Tiny silver flakes, tinged with green shiny glitter, swirled in the harbor. They settled on the flat plastic ocean. The mermaid watched the clouds on the black horizon. Something about her comforted him, but he wasn’t sure why.
Teague knew he would be out of a job if Mr. Gonzalez found out about the theft. Teague wasn’t proud of the mistakes he had made since high school. He’d been kicked out of his freshman year at college after setting fire to his dormitory cafeteria. After that incident, he’d moved back in with his parents and slept on a cot in the furnace room in the basement. Then, a business associate of his father arranged him a prime job as a bicycle messenger for a posh downtown law firm. That work kept him relatively busy until Patsy, a girl whom Teague had been seeing socially, informed him that she was pregnant. He was obligated to spend most of his wages on the abortion.
I’m glad I’m not having this baby. It might turn out an idiot like you, Patsy told him, the last time she’d seen him. It was at a bus station in the middle of the night. You can’t do anything without screwing it up.
Those words echoed in his head as he made his way down the dim narrow hallway to his apartment. Teague knew that his parents loved him, even if Patsy never did. It was the only thing that he had to hold on to. His mother was a first-grade teacher; his father was quiet and wore a thick mustache that curled up at the ends. He sometimes cried over a glass of whiskey after dinner. When he hugged Teague, it seemed like he never wanted to let him go.
Teague unlocked the heavy wooden door and entered his apartment. The carpet inside was stiff and gray, and the kitchen faucet dripped all the time, even in the summer. His parents had helped him get settled there, after the Patsy incident. They lived on the other side of town.
The air was still. Teague hummed a bit, so that the silence wouldn’t seem quite as loud. He turned on a few lights and set the snow globe on the coffee table near the lumpy sofa bed. It seemed like the best place for it. He got a soda from the refrigerator and turned on the TV to the local news. The sports report included a preview of a Heavyweight Championship Fight that was to be held later that night in a Las Vegas casino. The fight would be broadcast on cable TV.
Teague went to the closet to hang up his jacket. He looked down and was surprised to find a hole, about the diameter of a baseball, in the floor underneath the rows of empty hangers.
Teague bent down on one knee to get a better look. The hole was round and perfectly black inside. Teague thought he could see things moving, insects with thin sharp wings and multiple legs hissing and crawling along the edge. It was too dark to tell for sure.
A dank breeze, smelling faintly of cabbage, kissed his hair. Teague moved his running shoes to the far corner of the closet, away from the hole. He realized that his good penny loafers, the shoes he’d worn to his cousin’s wedding, were gone.
Teague stood up. There was an apartment directly beneath his own; a thirtyish woman lived there. She had three small children who beat the walls with baseball bats and screamed for their oatmeal in the mornings. Teague wondered why he could not see into the bedroom below. He wondered why the landlord had not informed him of any maintenance projects, and why his penny loafers were missing.
* * *
Half an hour later, his apartment was still quiet, even with the TV and the lights and everything else. Teague called his friend Taco Wallace on the phone.
Taco, you watching the fight tonight? Teague asked. Let’s go to a bar.
I can’t hang around you no more, Taco said.
Wait, Taco. What did I do?
Taco worked in the donut shop across the street from the dealership. Teague sometimes played bloody knuckles with him on his lunch break, or smoked marijuana in the woods back behind the drainage ditch.
The boxing incident, Taco said. You know.
He hung up.
Teague sat there a moment on the sofa, listening to the metallic silence.
The boxing incident had occurred the week before. Teague had seen a movie on the late show in which Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges played boxers in California who were struggling to find better lives for themselves. Bridges’ character even had a girlfriend who looked an awful lot like Patsy. He picked strawberries at night to provide for her.
Teague had drawn a direct parallel between their own situations and the lives of the characters in the movie. He convinced Taco that they could become Golden Gloves champions and then quit their jobs and make it out of the west side of town.
They practiced sparring one night in Teague’s apartment. Teague hit Taco so hard that he urinated blood for three days afterward.
Teague sat there, watching a woman in a sparkling silver dress on TV turn over flashing letters on a huge board. The phrase was three words. Teague couldn’t figure out what it could be.
He got up from the sofa. He turned off the TV and went to the closet to get his jacket so that he wouldn’t have to sit there and think about Taco’s thick glasses and crooked smile any longer.
The hole was bigger now, almost a foot across. Part of the closet wall was gone, and as Teague watched, the edge of the blackness lapped at the mouldings and the bottom of the door. Empty coat hangers shifted in the wind that blew strongly from somewhere far below.
Teague grabbed his lucky sombrero instead of his jacket. He ran out of his apartment, leaving the snow globe behind.
* * *
Teague made his way down the hill to the highway, walking along the side of the road in the tall, dark weeds. Eighteen-wheelers groaned past him, their headlights carving paths in the dusk as they carried their cargo up the steep incline.
Teague often spent Friday nights at the businesses that were clustered just off the highway; they were only a five minute walk from the plain brick apartments where he lived. On one side of the overpass was Rusty’s Truck Stop, which had a brand new Travel Plaza, including public Internet terminals for travelers who were tech-savvy. Teague had heard rumors about prostitutes roaming the back lot where the truckers parked their rigs to sleep or watch TV. He’d once convinced Taco to hide in the cedar woods behind the lot with him at 3 A.M. to observe any transactions that occurred. The only person they saw was a Chinese woman in a pink mini-skirt who smoked five cigarettes and listened to a Walkman while sauntering between the rigs. It had started to rain, so Teague threw a rock at her. Then he and Taco split before she could call the Highway Patrol.
The buildings on the other side of the bridge were more interesting. There was Bronco Busters, a family establishment that served outstanding sirloin tip and mashed potatoes with melted garlic butter. And the Snarling Cougar Hotel, which was ten stories high and had a three-star restaurant and a Grand Ballroom, for gala events. Teague often spent evenings in the bar, which was dimly lit and played soft country folk music and had interesting furniture to sit on. On more than one occasion, Teague had successfully convinced women who were in town for business conventions to allow him back to their rooms for evenings of intimacy. That was how he’d met Patsy.
Teague entered the Snarling Cougar and made his way across the carpeted lobby to the bar, taking a moment to wink at the large woman behind the check-in counter. She wore a string tie and a cowboy hat. The woman seemed to recognize him, and frowned.
Teague kept walking. He entered the bar and surveyed the area. There was a gaggle of attractive twentysomething patrons at the counter, sipping imported lagers and eating pretzel twists from a shallow bowl. They were a bit too stylish to be locals, Teague deduced. He was relieved to see Mr. and Mrs. Sims sitting in their regular booth in the corner. Mr. Sims was reading a paperback crime novel to his wife, who was nodding absently and nursing a glass of bourbon.
The boxing match had begun; it played on a color TV that was mounted to the ceiling in the corner. The two fighters stunned each other with heavy blows as they danced across the ring.
Teague sat down at the bar, just few seats down. The barkeep didn’t seem to be on duty at the moment. Teague wondered if he was getting something to eat from the restaurant across the lobby. He hoped the barkeep wouldn’t remember him from an unfortunate incident the week before, involving vodka and a dead skunk.
Teague looked at his reflection in the beveled glass mirror in front of him. Teague thought he looked attractive enough, although he hadn’t done as good a job shaving that morning as he would have liked. The bruise over his left eye had faded a bit. It had been a remnant of the boxing incident with Taco.
Teague wondered then if he should call Taco again, just to see if he was still sore at him. He figured it couldn’t hurt to check.
That’s some sombrero.
Teague looked to his right. A young woman, slim and clear-skinned with long red hair, smiled at him. Her companions, the twentysomethings he had spotted before, were gone.
This here is my lucky sombrero, Teague said. He removed it from his head. I was wearing it when I fell off the ferris wheel at the fair, he explained. Fell thirty-eight feet with only a sprained ankle to show for it.
It really fits you well, the young woman said.
Not only that, it’s lucky, Teague said. The sombrero was frayed around the edges, but still relatively intact. It reminded Teague of how he felt inside.
Do you read Kipling?
Teague smiled. Well, he’s it, far as I’m concerned. Teague took the book out of his back pocket and handed it to her. He’s my main man, he added. The best.
Is that right? she replied, feeling the bent spine delicately, as if it were an architectural find from an ancient civilization.
Teague got up from his stool. He decided it would be appropriate to sit down next to her.
Make yourself comfortable, the woman said, and smiled. She wore a soft peasant blouse and clean blue jeans. Teague thought she might be a professional volleyball player, or perhaps a spokesmodel. I read a lot of Kipling when I was studying literature abroad, she said. When I wasn’t scuba diving, that is. I’d rather spend time in the water than hanging out on land like everybody else. My mother said I should’ve been born with fins, instead of feet.
Teague wondered what abroad was, but he didn’t want to come off as being unintelligent. That’s probably information I should know, he thought.
Teague looked at her. Something about the way she watched him, serenely and patiently, comforted him a bit.
Would you like to buy me a drink? she asked. Her red hair glowed like embers from a dying fire.
Teague thought that he might like that, very much. He wanted to ask the woman more about scuba diving. Sure, he said.
She placed a hand on his knee and smiled. You never told me your name.
Teague, Teague said. Pleased to meet you. On the television screen, the boxers collapsed in their corners, ready for the tenth round.
Something’s bothering you, Teague, she said, so softly that he wondered if he’d only imagined her speak. Isn’t it?
I’m fine, he said. I feel outstanding.
Are you sure?
Teague figured it was easier for the woman not to know about the millions of thoughts rushing through his head, like he was on the water slide at Sea World, spiraling downwards through the plastic darkness. Positive, he said.
The woman reached up just then; she reached up and touched his cheek and gently moved it so his eyes met hers.
We all get them sometimes, she said. Her eyes were piercing blue, like the depths of the ocean itself. You just have to confront them. No matter how deep, or how dark inside they are.
Teague stopped breathing. He knew then why the woman seemed so familiar, her patient stare and her long red hair. I don’t think I can do that, he said. He remembered his penny loafers, disappearing into the hole; the metallic silence on the phone after Taco hung up on him.
Greetings from Denmark, he thought.
The woman lifted her hand from his cheek. Stare into it, until it looks back, she said.
* * *
Teague avoided going home for as long as he could. He stood on top of the overpass and looked down at the highway in the freezing cold night. He counted the number of trucks parked in the lot behind Rusty’s. He even bought a Super Gulp from the cashier inside the Travel Plaza, but only drank half of it. He dumped the rest in the drainage ditch beside the road.
Then he stood inside a phone booth for a while, where it was warm and quiet. He found sixteen cents in the returned coin slot, and a used wad of chewing gum. He dialed Taco’s number twice, but hung up when his mother answered, both times.
Teague finally walked back up the hill to his apartment. When he opened the door and stepped inside, he immediately saw that his bedroom was gone; what was once there was now the hole, black and dark and still growing.
Teague heard noises from the living room. He stepped carefully around the edge of the hole and saw that the TV was still on. Highlights were playing from the boxing match earlier that night. The winning fighter held his infant son in his arms as he paraded around the ring. The boy wore a paper crown on his head.
The snow globe was still on the coffee table, right where he’d left it. Silver-green flakes swirled around the mermaid now, who still stood guard at the edge of the harbor, waiting.
Teague picked up the snow globe and walked to the edge of the hole, where the fuzzy blackness licked the stiff gray carpet. The dank wind caressed his shirt and spiky hair. He remembered what the mermaid had told him, back at the bar, and how much he wanted to believe her.
Teague took a deep breath and stared down into the blackness, which was deep and moaning and filled with shifting shadows. He felt its invisible tentacles fasten around his feet. They grabbed his lucky sombrero and jerked it down into the dark.
Teague stood fast and concentrated hard. After a while, the face of his son, the boy he had never named, appeared in the center of the hole. Soon, every line of the boy’s face, his blue eyes, his pale eyebrows, came into focus.
The man who would be king, Teague thought. He began to cry. You didn’t deserve an idiot like me.
But his son stared back at him, watching him from inside the blackness with a patient smile that Teague had never felt before, a soft smile of forgiveness that soaked into him and comforted his heart. The room filled with silver-green light as Teague’s thoughts begin to filter through his mind slowly, like raindrops on a windowpane. He smelled his father’s musky aftershave. He felt the rumble of a perfectly tuned engine, beneath his grease-stained touch. He heard Taco’s shy laughter at the Cheech and Chong films they often watched together in Teague’s apartment, just before the sunrise.
Finally, Teague remembered how proud he felt when he found out that Patsy was pregnant; the joy that he had helped create a human life, if only for an instant. He stood there with his arms wrapped around his son as the hole shrank around him and the room filled with the light from the snow globe in his hands.