The Howitzer

from The Great American Suction

Shaker’s furniture has started to slowly creep away from him. His share of the duplex is already a spartan kind of deal. The change is blatant enough. So he marks his folded metal chairs and card table and the one grimy throw rug with chalk, noting their new angles and positions, their late-hour shadows steep in the sun. The next day, the furniture and chalk silhouettes have migrated a few subtle inches eastward. It’s almost as if the whole living room lifted up on one leg and all its contents slid loose. Shaker heads outside and asks the Hooster girl if he slept through an earthquake.

“You on drugs?” she replies.

“Not anymore.”

“Maybe it’s time you start again,” she says.

Standing in his entranceway, Shaker is marinating in these and other small mysteries when his eyes focus upon the imposing scale of the Howitzer filling Shaker’s kitchen. The bar bouncer’s broad back is turned. The water is running. The Howitzer is washing Shaker’s dirty flatware in Shaker’s dirty sink.

“Almost done here,” the man says.

Shaker is too stunned to shut the door. He dodders on one foot, then the other, feeling disproportioned, kind of brain-heavy.

“You’re letting in a draft,” the Howitzer tells him and indicates the luminous dishware on the countertop. “You should really get yourself a drying rack, Shaker.”

Shaker may be rundown with worry and maybe a foreign germ or two, but the vision seems genuine. The Howitzer resumes rinsing a selection of chintzy plastic knives included in a pumpkin-carving kit. Shaker once assembled the kits for cash. He kept one, just one for himself, and has endured a nagging guilt ever since. He wonders if the Howitzer’s tetanus shots are up to date. He notices, not without a mild voltage of terror, the Howitzer is wearing rubber gloves. Shaker owns none.

“How are things at the bar?” Shaker asks. “Am I still, uh, barred? Banned?”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that.”

“Well,” Shaker says. “What do I need to worry about?”

“Don’t forget that drying rack,” the Howitzer replies, cranking off the faucet’s flow and moving around Shaker to exit the still gaping door, he and his gloves, gone. Shaker is left to stare slackly around his kitchen, noticing now the rust barnacles are chiseled off the toaster, the sink is spotless, the pantry dusted, the scrub brush replenished with a superior brand of detergent.

His whole house has been cleaned.

The sun has yet to rise. Shaker goes barefoot to the kitchen and finds the faucet in the dark, guzzles from it clumsily, and—toweling his chin with his undershirt—he returns to the futon, where the Howitzer is taking a short rest. The man’s speech has slowed, he’s gesturing less vividly. These late-night invasions are siphoning some vital spunk from him. Shaker imagines a pacemaker seam across the Howitzer’s sternum that once unzipped would reveal a vacuum-cleaner bag full with pruned organs and a metric ton of dry mulch. The vision consoles him somewhat. Then he slaps the man’s shoulder, and the Howitzer jerks awake.

“You must’ve been dreaming,” says Shaker, pointing at the Howitzer’s slurry chin puddle. “Got some residue on you.”

“Doubtful,” the Howitzer replies. “I have a pretty mundane inner life.”

“Well, it leaks.”

“And what about you, chief?”


“What is holding our good man Shaker together these days?”

“Bubblegum, hot solder, spiritual malaise. A whole lot of dried glue.”

“How dry?”

“It’s just glue,” Shaker mumbles. “Old glue.”

The Howitzer knuckles loose a sleep chigger from his eye socket. “Sometimes, when I turn off the lights at night, I see myself sitting at an enormous banquet table. I’m wearing a nice cloth seafood bib and hip sunglasses. The table is full of dead babies. Pieces, limbs, bones, all cooked in a pile. I’ve been ripping apart and eating them like fried chicken. Horrible, just horrible shit.”

“But that’s not a dream?”

“Maybe it’s penance for some horribleness I’ve done in an earlier life. Or maybe a life that has yet to come. Maybe it’s all the same thing.”

“You believe that karma stuff.”

“I think it’s important for people like you to believe it,” the Howitzer says.

“I see just fine up here in the nosebleeds.”

“I doubt that, too.”

“Can’t say that I love them,” Shaker says. “The nosebleeds.”

“You go to a lot of movies?”


“You read books? Do you have any subscriptions? Have you cultivated a rich interior life?”

“That’s why I got a dog,” replies Shaker, waving an arm around his dogless duplex.

“I let some men love me,” the Howitzer says. “But I’m pretty sure I’m asexual.”

“At least you know.”

“It’s lonely, candy-assed carpet-munchers like yourself that truly sadden me.”

“Me too,” Shaker says.

“Too much empathy can be a curse.” The Howitzer glances around the room with an anxious attention, not taking stock exactly, just roving his overlarge, dreamless head. “Nice place, once you sandblast off the grime.”

“You think so?” Shaker asks, a little too desperately.

The Howitzer suckles his thermos, caps it, and begins reeling up the measuring tape he had been stretching around the room when Shaker came home and interrupted him hours ago. An accordion file is on the table, the notebook inside inked with elaborate algorithms, scientific hieroglyphics. Somewhere Shaker found them, stole them, but he’s not sure where. His home is embellished with a number of rogue items—dog collars, diaries, bleached bones, gilded trinkets—that mysteriously entered Shaker’s possession, all carefully curated yet unexplained. Shaker feels like he is one of these items himself, and now so is the Howitzer. He would like to conclude their friendly ceasefire on an upbeat note, but the hour is late and old-fashioned hospitality can indeed be a chore.

“You sliced apart the window screen,” Shaker blurts. “You crawled in.”

The Howitzer scowls, a dismissive shake of his bald head.

Shaker continues anyway. “You tunneled up through the carpet. A trap wall, a hidden chimney. You are astral-projecting yourself onto my crappy futon.”

“That would be something, chief.”

“I’ve had worse nightmares.”

“This is no nightmare.”

“Still,” Shaker shrugs, “I’ve had worse.”

Whatever delirium he has tried all night to rebuff or deflect, Shaker has succumbed to it. He rubs his damp shirt into his damp chest. The cold shirt feels more alive than his alive parts do. The Howitzer packs up his tape with his thermos and electric stud finder and stun gun and caffeine pills. “Been missing you down at the Beagle.” He says this with a gentle yet firm stare.

“I miss it, too,” Shaker says. “The barstool oracles. Bums sleeping in the bathroom. Christmas carols in the middle of July.”

“Stop over and see us one of these nights. We’ll screw a few on.”

“So I won’t get clubbed to death?”

“I didn’t say that,” the Howitzer replies.

There is some early sun tinting the landscape orange, its pocks and folds. Shaker finds little solace in the glow. He watches the Howitzer plod out the door to the bulky motorcycle aslant on its kickstand. The bald bouncer walks the machine down to the road before revving it awake. Shaker shuts the door and waits, wants to wait, tries waiting. But he’s already on his feet and inspecting the windows, the locks, the cabinets, his runaway furniture, his sock drawer, his socks. Shaker sprawls facedown on his mattress for ten agonizing minutes before getting up and auditing it all again.

Three o’clock in the morning and Shaker is fully freighted with drink. The room has stopped spinning, but he’s still digging his hocks in the rug, establishing temporary traction in case the carousel resumes. The crowbar is in his lap. He sees it but doesn’t feel it. My contours, Shaker thinks. I do not fit my own contours. He looks up. The Howitzer crowds the doorway in his unzipped windbreaker and Regal Beagle Staff shirt, skin bronzed, a neon lanyard full of keys hung around his beefy neck. He has removed his ivory moccasins, and Shaker admires the manicured toenails that accessorize the bouncer’s feet. The Howitzer fastens each shoe on a shoe-tree branch and activates a few more lamps and sits across from Shaker in a leather recliner that has brew holders built into the posh arms, an electronic control panel, digital hi-fi. The man seems to Shaker a small nation of tranquility.

“I didn’t need it,” Shaker says, indicating the crowbar. “Your window was unlocked.”

“Silent alarm.”

“Okay,” Shaker nods.

“I already called the cops, told them not to bother. Just a confused fawn wandering in lost from the forest. So I shot it. They applauded my initiative and stellar marksmanship. I knew you’d do something foolish eventually.”

Shaker requests the Howitzer move to the center of the room. The Howitzer sighs and reluctantly rises. He stands there on the rug examining the pink wicks of his fingernails as Shaker leaps from his rocking chair and slams into the Howitzer’s chest. The unsuccessful tackle more and more resembles a desperate hug the longer Shaker stays latched around the Howitzer’s middle, as if still clinging to the slender notion of vengeance itself.

“You got any beer in this cabana?” Shaker asks, face nuzzled in the Howitzer’s stomach.

“Smells like you’ve already hit your quota. How about something from the tap?”

The Howitzer detaches himself from Shaker and returns with a glass of water. Shaker sits and accepts the drink with a vulgar gesture he immediately regrets. The Howitzer remains standing, a geometry of skis and poles racked over his head. They very nearly resemble antlers.

Shaker takes a prolonged sip and says, “Because I can’t get any sleep in my own fucking Winnebago.”

“That’s probably the point.”

Shaker studies the sweaty glass, unsure if the sweat is his or the tap water’s.

“I know that’s the point,” he says.

“You’re not the only one suffering here. Waking up at odd hours, stumbling around your place in the dark, finding new and inventive ways to unravel you. That crappy little duplex depresses me, chief.”

“I always liked it.”

“That depresses me, too,” the Howitzer says.

Shaker holds the wet glass to his forehead, rolling his attention from one Howitzer foot to the other. Big, pulpy bricks. The man must need special sneakers. He must shop in special stores. Shaker imagines the Howitzer as an awkward teenager, sulking out of all the usual franchise chains at the only local mall, mocked by slobbish salespeople, his monstrous feet sore in too-small shoes.

“Is that nail polish?”

The Howitzer gently lifts Shaker’s head away from his stumpy toes and aligns it at eye level. “Shaker,” he says.

“One day I’d really like to learn the bolero,” Shaker says through clenched molars. “Just let me bolero.”

“Don’t you ever wonder why the shitstorm started?”

Shaker can’t nod with his head in the Howitzer’s hand, so he blinks once, twice, once, a Morse code of facial tic. But even then, he’s still not sure his answer.

“I do a special kind of freelance work for people,” says the Howitzer. “People who don’t like you. If my bank account is any indicator, their numbers are legion.”

Shaker twists his mouth, a confused funnel.

“I thought I was a people person,” Shaker says.

The Howitzer smiles tiredly and takes the glass from Shaker. “You can stop blinking now.”

“Viva,” Shaker replies and pretends to lift an imaginary glass. The pantomime feels heavier than the real thing.

“As much as I’d like to stay up for the slumber party, I need sleep,” the Howitzer says. “Gotta get up early tomorrow morning to disconnect the heat at your house.”

Shaker nods slowly. “I’m sure I have some errands, too.”

He rises and steadies and is aiming for the door when he begins patting his pants, his shirt pocket.

“Think I lost my house key,” he mumbles. “Must’ve bounced from my pocket when I climbed up your roof and took a hot stinky piss on your bonsai garden.”

“You think I have a spare key to Casa de Shaker,” says the Howitzer.

Shaker shrugs. “You’re getting in somehow.”

The Howitzer reaches around Shaker and opens the door, then stands with his arms folded, refusing to budge that great, meaty mound of a head. He gives a rugged smirk and slides a key off his neon lanyard’s ring.

“Gracias,” Shaker says, pocketing the duplicate.

“No problem,” the Howitzer tells him. “But I’m gonna need that back tomorrow morning.”

Still, even more mysteriously, Shaker cannot continue inside. He loiters under a sputter of starlight on the yard, feeling tedious, unawake. There is sitcom chatter on the Hooster half of the duplex, television voices, and the canned laughter seems aimed directly at the character Shaker has been duped into playing. An insomniac is running a vacuum somewhere. Someone is sending a casserole through a paper shredder. Shaker has slipped off his shoes and is rubbing his toes in the crisp sod. His windows are dark, all dark. He can almost imagine his indoor self framed and illuminated against those black squares, a restless animal in exhibit, oblivious to any audience. But he can’t quite see the look of stunned witlessness on his usual face.

“You locked your idiot self out?”

The Hooster girl is at her window, TV gibbering behind her. Shaker holds up the copied key. “I’m admiring the view.”


“Needs more bonsai gardens flooded with urine. Maybe a tiki torch or two.”

“I thought you were that guy,” the girl says. “The fix-it guy with the weird hours.”

“I’m him tonight. How’s your water? Your heat?”

“Normal. Unlike you.”

“He’ll be back tomorrow.”

“He helped me fix up the bike you broke.”

“I didn’t break it,” Shaker says.

“It’s not meant to be rode on by drunk, old, idiot jerks. He got me a new chain and unbent the banana seat and even put on pink reflectors for free.”

“He’s a good specimen.”

The Hooster girl nods.

“Am I?” Shaker asks.

“Are you what?”

“A good specimen.”

Shaker shifts uneasily, fumbles a shoe.

“You alright out there?” the girl asks.

Shaker kneads his jaw until he hears the tired bone click.  

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