Dan MacRae: The Smile-Maker

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Painting by Dan MacRae

Reaching to the bar with both hands he picked up two glasses of neat whisky, and brought them to the corner booth. A cigarette hung from his bearded face. The bartender yelled through the 80’s pop music blaring behind him, “Thank you for the generous tip for that round, but make sure you don’t light that thing, or I’ll chuck your asses out of here!” DeMillo shook his big head at the guy. He handed me the glass and said, “You’re the hardest drinking paralegal there is!”

“Thanks.” I drank twice a month, if that, drinking can be an occupational hazard in any legal profession.

I was a paralegal, American Bar Association certified, including the Illinois Bar, under the employment of tax attorney, Tomas DeMillo. We were celebrating the successful mediation between the IRS and an international corporation called, Intelitrade.

DeMillo kept the cigarette between his fingers, sitting in a disheveled suit: tie undone, shirt untucked. His brown eyes half-closed, blood alcohol level rising. Then he lifted his bearded head, turned his skull to the side, and showed me a scar curving upward on the right side of the mouth. The beard was groomed, but thick with graying hair. “I ever tell you about this,” he coughed, emotion bubbling up behind his eyes. It was the type of drunken conversation where the talker got a gleam in their darkening pupils that made me nervous: those gleaming talkers, those strange liars.

“I met this temporary mistress,” DeMillo continued, clearing his throat, “A couple miles away from this place at a bar that no longer exists. I don’t remember the name. I was in the final semester of law school, and wanted to have a glass of scotch after days of studying for the Illinois Bar exam. I used to be clean shaven. Back then I hated facial hair. My ex-wife Emily hated facial hair. The temporary mistress was Christine. Christine appeared next to me on a barstool. She was a history major, something about Chile, and that’s all I remember of her. Maybe the long red hair and the lips. And how she sat at an angle. The rest of her became a shadow. She lived somewhere in the West Irving Park area.  It was close to the Brown Line. I lived next to the Red Line. After our alone time, ‘cause the story isn’t about my fucking abilities. It’s weird how you’re lookin’ at me now.”

“How am I looking at you?”

“Like I shouldn’t continue the story—”

“You should.” I didn’t care if he did, or not. It was already a long day at the courthouse and an even longer night.

Being tempted to get up and leave, I sat hunched forward, ready to bolt at the first opportunity.

DeMillo sensed this, calmed down.  “You’ll want to hear rest of it.”

I said nothing, taking a sip of whisky, knowing I was stuck in place.

“I wasn’t ready for the below zero temperature drop, or for the cold walk home. I sensed. I sensed, I was being followed, but there was no going back. I snuck out while the temporary mistress slept. Then heavy stomps in the snow like three sets of boots. Thump, thump, thump, running after me. I started to run, but a patch of ice on the fucking sidewalk. Then gravity fucked me harder as I fell and smacked the cement in total fear. Total fear, man. I was on my stomach, and they kicked and punched me. I took out a little hunting knife from my backpack. Through the kicks I found it. Huddled forward, I opened the blade and stabbed one of them in the knee. The man screamed, falling backward in agony. The kicking stopped. My nose was bleeding. Mouth was full of blood. I scrambled around, trying to get away, get away, get away. I hobbled up and began dragging a sprained food, amongst other injuries. I felt relief. I wanted to call the police. I wanted to call Emily. I looked back.” DeMillo smacked his hand again on the table and the cigarette rolled to the floor. “I saw a blue utility van make a right turn off Damen onto Irving Park. I yelled, ‘Help! Help!” trying to wave them down. Of course, the driver accelerated right on by. Then the two fucking guys start running after me again, leaving their fallen buddy on the ground. I hobble, going as fast as I can, but it’s too late. There’s no cabs, no buses, no police cars, no ambulances. The one time in Chicago when the whole fucking city went silent, free of all transportation. I start screaming, ‘Somebody help me!’ I was close to whimpering. Then one of them punches me in the back of the head, and I turn around seeing his face, his brown eyes and disjointed nose. A nose you could tell that had been broken a half-dozen times. He held a steak knife. I took out my wallet, removed the driver’s license and gave it to the fucking guy. He takes the cash, the cards and throws the wallet in my face as hard as he can. Then he said something like, ‘Not enough.’ My head deflated down to my chin. ‘No, head up, head up, you stabbed my friend,’ he said, grabbing my chin and forcing it back into the brick wall. He pulled one side of my mouth back, and centered the cold tip of the blade at the crease of my lips. I began tasting blood before the blade sliced from mouth almost to my cheekbone like a rare steak. There was no time to react. The other guy gripped the top of my hair so hard I had a headache for a week, let go and began punching my forehead. Nerves, blood, muscle I felt all of it was exposed to the freezing air. The van whirled around, they ran toward it, jumping inside, slamming the van door. Once the van was gone, I walked into the middle of the street and didn’t move. If cars were going to hit me, fuck it, they were going to hit me, kill me, lose all my blood over the city’s precious concrete. My winter clothes glistened with fresh blood. It began to snow. Holding my bloody face, a guy in a box truck braked and pulled to the side of the road. The trucker called 9-1-1. But the story didn’t end there. If you can believe this shit. If you can believe anything.”

“They did good job with the stitches and the facial reconstruction,” I added to make him feel better as he relived this Hell. I was drinking too fast. My glass was getting low. “It took me a while to notice.”

“Fuck those doctors. They don’t know shit.”

“Sorry that happened.”

“But it doesn’t end there, Pete.”

“Tomas—”

“Don’t poke the bear, dumb fuck. Five years later when Emily divorced me, and I was a junior lawyer at Lear & Associates, working for the lead partner, Edgar Lear, who was the biggest goddamn psychotic that roamed around the office berating the legal assistants, like a lunatic on a cocktail of meth and Viagra. One evening I walked down State Street to the Jackson Red Line stop. Not paying attention to the city life around me. Stroking my beard. When I recognized a pair of brown eyes and the disjointed nose in front of me, even though it was yellowed with jaundice, Hep A, Hep C, and whatever else. Not long for this world. I felt nauseous. My arms felt weak. He was on the ground, covered in rags, bone skinny, holding up a sign, reeking of urine with a hefty stink of unwashed clothes. Not ten feet away from me. I crossed to the other side of State Street close to the Harold Washington Library. Feeling safer the further away I retreated. When my breathing came back and the cortisol in my blood began reaching normal levels, I took a seat on a bench and closed my eyes.” DeMillo leaned toward my face.

I sat back in the booth.

“Do I kill him? He scarred me. He scarred my face for life. In his fragile state, he would welcome me picking him and whipping his bony ass under a CTA bus.”

DeMillo’s eyes glared at me.  

Picking up my drink, I finished the last remnants of bourbon. Unsure of what to say, how to move, how to breathe.

“I wrestled with it for days, and walked a little closer to him each day. It was October, then it was early November and the first frost hit one morning. I decided it was in my best interest to confront him at least once. Victim-to-attacker. Man-to-man. I worked late on an IRS case to help the deranged Lear, while he made arrangements to take the Florida Bar, for a criminal case that one of our Eastern Bloc investors had a vested interest in. It was a death penalty case. I left the office, briefcase swaying in hand. Wabash and State Street were wind tunnels. The wind howled with the grinding sound of the above ground trains, the sirens, the whole city was in my eardrums. Putting on a Cubs hat, it didn’t take me long to find the old bastard. I found him lying next to the wall covered in trash bags, bandied scarves around his legs and body—between a Walgreens and a closed storefront. His kneecaps shivered. It. The murder. Becoming a murderer. It built up in my head, that this was possibly the end of my career, all the hard work and education down the drain for a night that shouldn’t have happened. I nudged his moldy form with my foot. ‘What is it? Don’t kick me, brother. It’s cold, man. You got some money, sir. I would really appreciate something.’ I got down on my haunches and felt the hunting knife poking through the pocket of my black wool coat. ‘Do you remember me?’ I asked him. We were staring each other down. ‘Nah, never seen you, brother,’ he hissed through missing teeth and blackened gums. I showed him the scar. ‘Terrible thing that scar, and you think I did it?’ he pleaded. ‘You did it,’ I corrected him. ‘Now you want revenge, so what?’ he paused, ‘you can do whatever you want to me now. Fuck this shit. I can see you have the murderer in you, but the real demon hasn’t arrived yet. The real demon is contaminating your thoughts. The real demon will get there. When it does, you can find me again. You ain’t ready for no fuckin’ kill on your soul. To cross that line. But one day find me again. I’m a shitty man, and generally shitty men get to live forever,’ the man smiled at his joke. I trembled, my hands shook once the possibility of killing him was no more. I left him there, went back to the apartment and mopped the floors, feeling refreshed the next morning.” DeMillo stood up from the table. “I gotta feel better now, and go take a piss.”

“Did the demon arrive?” I asked.

“One doesn’t talk about such things,” he said with darkening eyes. A fear took hold of me. “But don’t worry he’s no longer on State Street.” He turned around and walked toward the restroom sign. “Maybe Wabash!” I put a twenty-dollar bill under my glass and did a near run out of the bar. “Maybe all the way to Detroit!”

On a normal night, I would take the bus back, but hailed a cab.

When I got in the condo, my girlfriend was watching television in a gray T-shirt and sweat pants on the couch, like a sexy, tired, Cleopatra. Her long brown hair tied up in bun. She wasn’t wearing a bra. She stood up, giving me a hug and a kiss. She was Tomas DeMillo’s ex-wife, Emily.

“Pete, did you tell Tomas that you’re leaving the firm?” Emily asked.

The story above is an inspired spin-off of “The Dollmaker’s Grin” by Dan MacRae, published in Zizobotchi Papers: volume 2, fall, 2017.

Zizobotchi Papers is a literary journal dedicated to the novella. Think double feature of long form fiction, with a paperback spine instead of a marquee. Purchase copies of volume 2 here, preview it below: 

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