Locust House Variations, A Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade, Chapter 2
A Short Novel in Serial Form
Chapter 2, The Swan and the Pumpkin
By Adam Gnade
After Allen Kale told her about Gabby’s kidnapping, Agnes walked the four and a half blocks to the Golden Hill apartment Eddie Ramos shared with his sister Marigold, their cousins Flaca, Josy, and Roman, and their aunt Nena with the aim of borrowing Nena’s car. Standing in the dim light of the living room, the TV blaring Nickelodeon, Eddie and Agnes hashed out the terms of the loan while Marigold sat on a bar stool at the kitchen counter, face low to the tabletop, drawing in her notebook.
Eddie stood a few inches taller than Agnes, and he (disregarding her current condition) was built the same way—wiry, thin, narrow shouldered. He wore black slip-on Vans, black jeans, a red leather belt, and a black sleeveless shirt with “The Cramps” printed across the chest in white horror font above an old clip-art image of a woman’s screaming face, her hands held to her cheeks.
Eddie set the rules: Agnes could borrow the car provided she fill up the tank and take Marigold along and keep her for the day.
“Dude, Eddie, no, she’s a kid. I’m not taking her. She’s, like, seven.”
“I’m ten!” shouted Marigold from the kitchen.
“She’s ten, Aggie, and she’s a really smart ten and that’s my offer. Take Marigold and the Swan is yours until—” he looked at his watch “—let’s say, nine.” Eddie held the keys in front of her face, shook them lightly, then snatched them away and stuffed them in his back pocket. “Or you leave the Swan here and you can take the bus. I know you love taking the bus.” He brushed his bangs out of his eyes and they fell back in again.
“You’re a dick, Eddie. You know that? Sometimes I forget why I like you.”
“Listen, pregs, I’m the nicest person you’ll ever meet and it’s very nondickish of me to offer the car all day. Taking Marigold will—” he dropped his voice and made praying hands “—do me the hugest fucking favor, Aggie, because I got important shit to do all day and I can’t babysit.”
“I’m not a baby!”
“You’re not a baby! She’s not a baby. She’s absolutely not a baby and you taking her will be like hanging out with a four-foot-tall adult and I’ll get to do my shit. Think of it as practice for—” he nodded down at her belly. “You gotta start training for little baby Jesus here. Second Coming’s only come once, Ag.”
Agnes shook her head. “I’m sorry you’ve got important shit but, Eddie, c’mon, our friend is missing and you can’t expect me—” whispering now “—to figure this out with a little kid fucking dressed as a fucking PUMPKIN following me around and—”
“I’m not little!”
“She’s got superhuman ears. You hear that Marigold?! You’ve got superhuman ears and that’s a compliment so don’t get testy with me!”
“Okay, fine, I’ll take your sister with me, but FUCK. Ugh, I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Eddie smiled big and whipped his head to the side to flick his bangs out of his eyes. “Hell yeah.” He pulled the keys from his back pocket. “Agnes McCanty, you’re a star.” Eddie tossed the keys straight up in the air and she snatched them as they fell.
Driving down Broadway, Agnes worked through her plans, rehashing the information she knew already, turning over each detail and looking at it from all possible angles.
Marigold, still wearing her jack-o’-lantern costume, sat in the passenger seat with her notebook in her lap. She flipped open the cover and shut it again.
“Do you have a gun?”
“If you’re going to find your friend you might need to shoot some people. You’re way too pregnant to fight and I’m a kid so we need—”
“Marigold, I’m … no, Jesus fucking Christ I’m not going to SHOOT anyone.”
“Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. Eddie and Nena swear all the time. I’m used to it. I know all the really bad ones if you want to hear them.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
They passed rows of parked cars and colorful apartments, palm trees lining the sidewalk stretching up tall and shaggy-topped against the overcast sky, then large gated Victorian houses and an older man pushing an elote cart up Broadway.
“What’s your brother’s big important thing he’s doing today?”
“I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me. He’s been weird all week. You don’t think my brother did it, do you?”
Agnes clicked her turn signal and they made a right on 20th.
“Your brother has a motive, I guess. Gabby broke up with him, but unless he’s hiding it really well, he doesn’t seem to be taking it all that hard. As motives go, it’s flimsy. Isn’t he seeing Joey Carr’s friend, that ad writer Anna-Lou-something?”
“Yeah, AnnaLucia. Is that going well? I feel like I haven’t seen him out for a while.”
“I think so. They’re together all the time and they seem really happy.” Marigold flipped her notebook over and began to draw the face of a cat on the back cover. A circle for the head. Triangle ears. “Nena’s always like, Mijo, marry that girl, don’t let her get away.”
“I can’t imagine your brother getting his shit … sorry, stuff together enough to convince or hire or whatever a couple guys to dress up like executioners and pull this off. He’s always broke and none of his friends are, y’know, the strongarm type. No offense, but your brother’s too flaky and babyish for this kind of thing. It’s weird because AnnaLucia’s so business.”
“Should we go shake him down?” asked Marigold, her dark eyes flashing. “Good cop, bad cop?”
“Easy there, pumpkin. We’re not shaking anyone down and I seriously doubt your brother had anything to do with this. If you want I’ll talk to him again when I drop you off and see if I can’t sniff anything out. First we’re gonna—” Agnes hit the brakes and put the Swan in reverse. She braced her right arm on the back of Marigold’s seat and looked over her shoulder as she pulled into a parking space between a pickup truck and a minivan. Agnes shut off the engine. “First I’m gonna search Gabby’s apartment and see if I can’t find anything that stands out.”
“Cool! I’m in.”
“Yeah, you’re in. You’re in the CAR and you’re staying in the car.”
“What if I’m kidnapped too? They might sweep me away to some stormy, deserted island or a castle in the Black Forest and tie me up somewhere and torture me because I know too much!”
“You won’t get kidnapped.”
“What if we got followed? What if the Executioners are watching us with binoculars or … or with one of those big ol’ sniper rifles where you can blow someone’s head right off their body from 11 miles away?!”
“No one’s following us and no one’s gonna shoot us from 11 miles away.”
“Alright, FINE, okay, you want to come in so badly, you’re coming in, but stay behind me and don’t touch anything.”
Agnes and Marigold got out of the car and walked up the brick pathway through the small yard to Gabby’s studio apartment as a mass of dark clouds passed over the sun.
Marigold tripped on the space left by a missing brick in the path, then stopped and looked up at the grey sky, squinting, wrinkling her noise. “It smells like rain. It smells like hot asphalt and tires and water from the garden hose.”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“Agnes, how are we getting in?”
“Just watch and don’t ever do what I’m about to do. Okay?”
Looking first to see if anyone were watching, Agnes slipped her driver’s license into the crack of the door next to the handle and the door popped open with a sharp click.
“See? Easiest trick in the biz.”
“I’m totally doing that when I get a license.”
“You are totally NOT doing that when you get a license and don’t you dare tell your brother or Nena I showed you that.”
Agnes pushed the door the rest of the way open and she and Marigold stepped into the dark apartment.
“Oh, ewww, Agnes, ewww, it stinks in here,” said Marigold, holding the front of her pumpkin costume up over her nose.
“It always stinks in here. Gabby’s kind of a slob. Don’t worry. Anyway, all houses stink. Yours, mine. We just don’t notice our own anymore.”
In the corner of the room stood a twin-size mattress propped up on its side against the wall and held in place by a row of open cardboard boxes full of LPs. Scattered across the carpet were 7” records, CDs, empty wine bottles, guitar cables, multiple beer cans torn in half as ashtrays, dirty clothes, crushed cigarette packs, snaggled piles of jewelry, a hairdryer, assorted tubes of make-up, an electric guitar without strings, and behind the door a Fender bass lying on the floor. In the opposite corner behind the small kitchen island counter—a fridge, a sink, and a row of blonde wood cabinets.
“Why’s the kitchen so clean and the room … Agnes, it looks like someone ransacked the place.”
“Where’d you learn ‘ransacked’?”
Agnes stood next to the door, flipping through a stack of Gabby’s mail. “It’s always like this. Gabby eats out every day. I don’t think she’s ever used the stove and I bet you those cabinets are empty. Last time I was here she was keeping an ant farm in there.”
“An ant farm. You don’t know what an ant farm is? It’s … it’s a box … wow, this just sounds weird now that I’m saying it out loud. It’s a box full of ants and you just, like … sit and watch them.”
“So they live in the box?”
“Yeah, they live in the box.”
“I don’t understand. Can they get out if they want?”
“No, they’re trapped.”
“Forever until they die?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Agnes, that’s a CRIME.”
“I guess if you wanted you could let them out at some point.”
“I would. I would keep them for a while, at least until I name them and start learning their personalities, and then I would let them go free. What’s the box made out of? Is it like a shoebox?”
“Let’s see if it’s still in here and I’ll show you.” Agnes opened the cabinets one by one. “Nope, nothing. Okay, so it’s a clear plastic box that’s … it’s upright on a stand like a TV and the box itself is full of … I guess sand? You raise a whole group or a herd or a family or whatever of ants in the box and you can see them as they set up their—”
“It’s not really a farm, it’s more like a—”
“Why do they call it a farm?”
“Didn’t I say stay behind me and don’t say anything?”
“You said stay behind you and don’t TOUCH anything.”
“Okay, new rule, don’t DO anything, at all, that includes everything. Just be here because … because you have to and let me do this.”
Agnes stepped over a mound of clothes and opened the bathroom door.
“What I’m about to do is gonna look gross, but don’t worry, the water in the tank is totally clean.”
Marigold stood in the doorway, hands on the door frame, her costume’s jack-o’-lantern face extended to its full crooked smile.
Agnes lifted the heavy porcelain lid off the back of the toilet, set it gently on the seat then reached her arm into the tank.
“Agnes! What are you doing?!”
“Jesus. Chill out. Gabby’s paranoid about banks so she keeps her money in—” Agnes pulled a red construction brick dripping with water out of the tank and set it in the sink, then a Ziplock bag of crumpled dollar bills and coins. “—in here. So, the toilet’s her bank and she … oh, wait now, holy shit.”
“What? Agnes, what’s holy shit?”
“Shhh. Uh, so Gabby keeps her tips in here and there’s usually a bag about this full of cash under the brick, but check THIS out.” Agnes pulled a second bag from the tank and held it up for Marigold to see. “Look at this.” Inside the bag—a thick, paper-bound stack of new hundred-dollar bills. “There’s gotta be 30 grand in here and check it—” Agnes showed Marigold a third bag “—another big ol’ stack of hundreds.”
“Where’d she get all that money?”
“Not waiting tables at Ranchos.”
Agnes replaced the bags of money and set the lid back on the tank.
“Alright, alright, I need to get some info. You hungry?”
“I had a Miracle Whip sandwich.”
“No, gross, why?”
“Nena lost her job so we’re eating a lot of Miracle Whip sandwiches, but it’s okay, I love them! They’re my favorite!”
“We’re going to Humberto’s. I’m buying you some real food.”
“The taco shop?”
“You know Archangelo Ramirez?”
“He’s friends with my brother.”
“He’s friends with everybody and if shit is going down, Archy knows.” Agnes turned on the tap and washed her hands. “If I know Archangelo he’ll have an idea or two about the money.”
“So, we’re gonna shake him down?”
“Marigold, we aren’t shaking him or anyone down. We’re going to have a nice conversation with my nice friend and no one will have guns or binoculars and we’ll eat some burritos.”
“Can I get a quesadilla instead?”
“Some burritos and a quesadilla and we’ll try to see what’s up with Gabby and all this toilet money.”
(Continued next week)
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