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cold 1

    BWAK!
    A shot rang out.
    Christ! I fell off my couch and stumbled over to the only window in my place. I lived in a basement apartment, so this window I had faced out onto this driveway that separated the apartment building I lived in, really a converted house, from a row of restaurants next door. This was a driveway that got pretty damned busy during business hours and pretty damned loud in the early morning when the garbage and delivery trucks came beep-beeping through. So where in the hell did that shot come from? I saw nothing out on the driveway, no dead bodies or running feet, nothing like that. I heard no screams or police sirens. I figured that maybe I'd just dreamt the damned shot but, no, that wasn't right, either. I hadn't been dreaming about any guns. I'd been dreaming about this young Asian woman with wide, brown eyes who was trying to...she had something she needed to...Christ, thirty seconds after waking up, and I'd completely forgotten what the damned dream was even about.
    In other words, I needed me a smoke.
    I went to reach for one when the phone rang.  
    "Hello?"
    "Jimmy?"
    "Yeah?"
    "Jimmy Lomax?"
    "Yeah, this is Jimmy Lomax." I was about to add, "And who the hell is this?" when as quick as a finger snap, I knew who it was. It was Karen Brawley, although, since the summer she divorced my good buddy Mitch, I couldn't say for sure exactly what her last name was anymore. "Karen, my God, I..."
    "Did I wake you?"
    "No no, it's just..."
    "It's your birthday, isn't it?"
    Christ, that's right. I'd completely forgotten. I looked at the clock on my nightstand. It read 12:03 A.M.. I'd been forty-years-old for all of three minutes and didn't even know it. "You're right, you're absolutely right," I said. "Thanks for reminding me. So how's Tracy? It's her birthday too, isn't it?"
    "No, her birthday was yesterday. Your birthdays are one day apart."
    "Sure, that's right. I remember now. So, she's graduating from high school this..."
    "Tracy's in college, Jimmy."
    "She's..."
    "Eighteen. She turned eighteen-years-old yesterday. She skipped a class when she was in grammar school."
    "That's right, she's..."
    "She had a small party in her college dorm room."
    "And her major?"
    "She hasn't decided yet, but I assume it will be something in the business field. She'd love to own her own business one day."
    "Wouldn't we all. Last time I saw Tracy she couldn't have been more than three-years-old."
    Karen had no reply to that. My ancient heat register made this click-click sound, like this flecks of paint within hollow stone sound, which meant that the heat was flowing just fine. My not-quite-as-ancient-but-still-very-old refrigerator emitted this low electric buzz that I heard only when the apartment was very quiet.
    "I shouldn't have called," Karen said.
    "Well if..."
    "It's late. It's after midnight."
    "That doesn't..."
    "I'll tell you what. Why don't we try this again tomorrow? What time do you get up?"
    "Look, it's..."
    "I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"
    "You just called. What are you hanging up again for? Wait a second. I know what's wrong. I need a smoke. I was just about to grab one when you called. Hold on for a second, okay? Give me one...no, give me ten seconds, count to ten, so that I can..."
    "You know, it really is..."
    "Karen, please." I pulled my smokes off the nightstand, slid a cigarette out of the pack, lit up, and took the first, full drag of my forty-first year.
    Then went into a coughing fit so fierce it made me sweaty. My vision blurred. The spit in my mouth suddenly tasted strongly of bile and tooth blood. I couldn't catch my breath. It took ten long seconds for the fit to subside. Finally, though, I was able to grab one full breath, then another. I took a second drag to calm myself down, then put the phone back to my ear. "You still there?"
    "Are you all right?" Karen sounded afraid she might have to dial 9-1-1 for me.
    "No no, I'm fine. My lungs just don't have anywhere near as much give as they used to, is all. So what'd you call me for, anyway?"
    "I believe I called to wish you a happy birthday."
    "Hmm, okay, but let's try this instead: you're in trouble. You need me to protect you from somebody."
    "I never said that. I never so much as intimated that."
    "No, but that's the reason you called. You remembered that help I gave you and Mitch that one time, right? That was a long time ago, Karen, when I was much younger and stronger and dumber."
    "You almost killed Jody."
    "No, uh-uh. It was never a question of that. The paramedics got there in plenty of time."
    "I hated you for years."
    "I know."
    "Every time I thought about what you..."
    "He left your family alone after that, though, didn't he?"
    "Yes he did. He most certainly did. We had a problem, and you took care of it for us. There's no doubt about it. And Mitch never touched a line of coke after that, either."
    "Least that's what he told you."
    "No, I would have known if he'd gone back. He learned his lesson about that cocaine. He became a boozer instead, or I should say more of a boozer. I don't suppose you've seen him."
    "Mitch? I see Mitch all the time. We moved some furniture for some people over on Percey Island just last summer."
    "And your children, Jimmy. How are they?"
    "Bill and Eddie are still in school. Andrea's got a boy of her own now. Trevor. I'm a grandfather, if you can believe that. I saw them all for maybe an hour last Christmas but, you know, after the divorce...Betty got remarried almost immediately and..."
    "Do you expect to hear from them today, it being your birthday and all?"
    "Andrea might call. She's always had a soft spot in her heart for the old man." I took a deep drag from my cigarette, then released the smoke slowly through my nostrils. I watched it drift towards the ceiling, and I thought, that came out of me. That cloud of filth just came out of the center of me.
    "So what's the problem?" I asked again.
    "I'm not ready to go into that yet."
    "So where are you living these days, Karen? Here in town?"
    "I live about a half a mile from you, Jimmy."
    "You live on Empire Hill?"
    "I was driving along Greatway just last week, and I saw you walking down the sidewalk. I just about stopped and picked you up."
    "Why didn't you?"
    "You still live where you always used to?"
    "Hell yes. I've lived here ever since the divorce. My rent's so low at this point I can't afford to live anywhere else."
    "I'm renting a one-bedroom on the corner of 13th and Penny."
    "There's an apartment building on every corner of 13th and Penny, isn't there?"
    "Southwest corner? No, wait a second. I've got that wrong. Northwest corner? Gray building?"
    "You don't live a half a mile from me, Karen. You live, like, two blocks from me."
    "Really? How could I be that far off? You live..."
    "Right behind Hamburger Heaven on the corner of 15th and Mark."
    "My goodness, that's true, isn't it?"
    "I can't believe this. How long have you lived up here? Why haven't we run into each other before this?"
    "Think it's going to snow?" she asked, changing the subject.
    "It can't snow. It hasn't snowed in this town in ten years."
    "I heard that it might snow."
    "That'd be horrible."
    "Truly."
    "Seatrailia drivers can't even handle the rain, much less a snowstorm, and it rains half the fucking year."
    "I've come to truly despise that word, Jimmy. Please don't use it again."
    "Oh. Oh no. Oh no, I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I'm sorry you've become such a snooty bitch, I thought. Out loud, to kind of needle her, I asked,
    "So, what do you think about those Starkillers, huh?"
    I heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line, and I almost laughed out loud. Karen used to hate warball when she was married to Mitch.
    "I do not want to talk about the Seatrailia Starkillers."
    "Aw, come on, they're the comeback kids. Look at what happened between them and Atlanta."
     "I'm sorry, but you have no idea..."
    "There's not a single person in this town..."
    "Who isn't talking about the game tomorrow. I know. That's what I'm saying. This town has talked about nothing but 'the game' for the last two weeks, and Susan's been talking about it for the last ten years, and on top of all that there's this...this jerk...this...I'm at the end of my tether, Jimmy. I shouldn't even be here. I should be at the cathedral with everyone else, and, I know, I know I'm not making any sense right now, but you know what? And this is the bottom line. I'll be so happy when tomorrow is over I can't even begin to tell you."
    "Actually it's today."
    "What's today?"
    "Hyperday. It's after midnight, right? It's my birthday, right? My birthday's on Hyperbowl Sunday this year."
    "I hate them. I hate their uniforms. I hate their stupid shaved heads and their stupid smirks. I hate their insignias..."
    "But the Starks have never been to the Hyperbowl, Karen."
    "You can't..."
    "They've been a franchise for something like thirty years, and they've never gone to the Hyperbowl even once."
    "Why are you even defending them, Jimmy? I thought you hated warball."
    "No, you hate warball."
    "You too. Mitch used to try and talk you into going to a Starkiller game all the time in the old days. You never did."
    "I was a busy man. Those games go on for three, four hours sometimes."
    "And you never played the game."
    "Well now you're..."
    "Lie to me, Jimmy. Tell me you were a member of your high school warball team."
    "Well, you know, I started smoking pretty..."
    "Did you even watch a Starkiller game this year?"
    "I'll be watching tomorrow. You can count on that. So I could be at your place in five minutes. Walking."
    "You don't drive your Dodge anymore?"
    "I loved that car so much. I cried like a baby the summer it died. So you going to let me into your building or what?"
    "This is all going a little fast, Jimmy."
    "You called me, remember?"
    "And now I'm beginning to..."
    "I can't help you by just sitting here alone in my apartment."
    "I'm so sick of pushy people I...okay. Okay, fine." A dramatic pause, then, "You're in for quite a surprise, Mr. Lomax."
    "Really? How so?"
    "Just get here. And Jimmy?"
    "Yeah?"
    "Thanks Jimmy," she said, then hung up the phone.  


                                                                CONTINUE