With the impending snow, I thought I might put up a story that brings back fond memories for me. I wrote the story in a single cold, cold evening at an art gallery in the cold, cold Bop Shop on Division Street. Enjoy.
Never Come Lopez
by Wayne Allen Sallee
It began quite innocently.
No, perhaps I should start another way, to be as blunt with the reader as Lopez was to me the first and only time we met. Some nights, when my sinuses are astonishingly uncongested, I will turn from my computer or awaken from a brief sleep, for I can almost smell the dank and fetid breath of the vile being. The odor of road kill and chick peas. A gag reflex sets in, and then the pungent effluvium is gone. It makes a man want to give up Benadryl.
The confrontation occurred on Division Street, in a neighborhood where I am its expatriate son. My name is Johnny Algiers, and I’m a private-eye. I use my mother’s maiden name because Johnny Shehostacowicz doesn’t really have a ring to it. Plus, the cost of my business cards would be a lot higher had I kept my true name. I return to this street, specifically where it intersects with Hermitage, knowing full well what the results will be; a similar scenario that gets played out is my tongue working to loosen a temporary crown on my right molar while I’m on the Congress-O’Hare elevated line. While on Division Street, I keep a low profile and always wear a retro grey sweater with white stripes. Even in summer, like when I got involved with that mess after the Therrio art showing.
Some call this street, with its stained neon and mumbling pedestrians, a way station for the damned. I would rather believe that honor belongs with Division Street out east, toward the lake. Singles’ pick-up joints where drunken suburbanites take every major sports victory as a reason to overturn unlicensed jitney cabs and pose as media poster children for the incurably idiotic.
No, not the east side. The section of Division Street where the twisted events unfolded is as dark and cloying as an illicit affair with a cousin by marriage. A stretch of asphalt where you had to have as much on the next guy as he had on you to live through the night.
Or the next chicken.
The next rubber chicken.
The one known only as Lopez.
The night in question, I went to The Bop Shop, a legendary jazz joint that once had been a Puerto Rican pool hall. The generation before that, it was a Polish bar called The Lucky Stop. A wall separated the drinking and falling down crowd from the dance floor. When Kate Smith bought the place, she turned the dance floor area into a showplace for artwork by Chicago artists. String ensembles such as Three Years Ghost, or interactive plays by Slackbelly, would appear on a small stage in the rear. (When the pool hall was open, no one from the neighborhood quite recalls what the adjacent room was used for, though a mainstay stewbum everyone knows as Coco Loco claimed it was known on the street as “The Rumba Room.”)
The only thing that annoyed me whenever I was there was an aged cat that would leap from a Miller Lite sign above the bar toward my groin whenever I was at a crucial point at the Barb Wire pinball machine.
During the course of the evening, a man I’d’ call Joe told me the inside scoop regarding the topic of several of his paintings. A rubber chicken named Lopez, who was more flaccid than my penis (at the time, I was facing surgery for a kidney stone in my ureter).
A Texas man named Tony Miles—my detective instincts told that it was likely a pseudonym—had reported the rubber fowl missing, and days later had received shots from a Polaroid Land Camera of a supposedly kidnapped Lopez held captive in Juarez, Mexico. That day’s newspaper, the Juarez Chronicle, was propped above a soiled bedspread. It was eventually discovered that the abraded chicken had staged his own abduction, and used the ransom money on call girls and rentals of Jackie Chan movies.
The man I refer to as Joe heard of this story and painted the scene (minus the kung fu film on the old Philco and the newspaper), a painting which now hung ignominiously on the east wall, near the stage. In my travels as a private investigator, I had found there was a Juarez, Arkansas, not far from Texarkana and the original setting for the 1973 film The Legend of Boggy Creek, at least until Teamsters disguised as Ku Klux Klan got involved. I did not let my ruminations be known because, frankly, they had little to do with the story.
Or so I thought.
Before I left, Joe told me that on most Thursdays, he, Rick, Pete, and Small Axe would each paint scenes from a new Lopez painting. Perhaps I should change the order of their names, to protect the innocent. And the day of the week.
Every Tuesday morning, Pete, Small Axe, Rick, and he would paint.
When I am bottomed out with no new cases (in truth, I am never really flush with the big bucks), I write stories and an occasional freelance article. So the men in the IRS suits never get wind of my second income, I use a pseudonym, Wayne Allen Sallee. I had not intended to implement a middle name, but it turned out that there was already a Wayne Sallee with NMI (that’s “No Middle Initial” in cop talk) in Streator, out in Livingston County, who wrote pornographic novels with titles like, My Dachsund, My Lover.
I said my good-byes, reminded Kate about a small change pickpocket working the strip (spotting him was easy because the man had only one eyebrow covered with lint, so that it looked like the rim of an old fedora), mentally cursed that cat while cupping my groin from my inside pocket, and walked out the front door into a mild snowstorm.
As soon as I was out of view from the patrons, I was cold-cocked from behind.
The last thing I remember of that moment was the hot breath that was a mixture of chick peas, baklava, and Richard’s Wild Irish Rose. As I fell to my knees, and then face first into the snow, I was mystified by small three-toed tracks all around me.
In the damp snow, they resembled chicken scratching.
I have trained myself not to remain unconscious for long periods of time. It is not some Middle Eastern technique I learned while training for my P.I. license. When I was young, I had received a golden retriever as a gift from some spiteful relative, and the mutt’s favorite game was to use my ear as a chew toy and fling me repeatedly into an end table. After several dozen dog-induced acrobatics as a child (it stopped when I gained enough weight to create a sort of stalemate), added to several somewhat embarrassing incidents as an adult which involved me wearing cowboy boots with Dr. Scholl’s cushioned insoles, I had “evolved” into having what could be best be described as a beetle-brow. I try to keep a low profile, but there have been several photographs accompanying newspaper articles following several awkward cases I have worked on, most notably the Siamese twin organ donor from Kankakee, which display my bulging forehead in grainy black-and-white.
I was out fifteen minutes, tops, no longer than a bathroom stop for a mildly-constipated man.
When I awoke, I was blindfolded. Rather loosely, I might add, but I did not let on. Noting my head movement—actually, my neck, as I had a crick—my abductor started in on the same spiel I’ve heard from just about everyone who has ever held me captive. From The Scarlet Corgi on down to Mister 1934, each began their little soliloquy of mad lunacy by stating how foolish I was to fall prey to their special brand of revenge against a world that wronged them.
And crap like that. I had a running bet going with several of my fellow P.I.’s on how many of our captors implemented the word “misbegotten” when giving their life story.
Well, this one didn’t use the word, but I did note that when he spoke, his voice came from somewhere around my waist. He tried to get me to believe some half-assed story about the chicken scratching in the snow on Division Street being the markings of an alien craft that had momentarily touched down to refuel.
I suspected that he would next tell me some fabricated nonsense about a Trilateral Poultry Commission and a Cigarette Smoking Chicken. My captor’s madness went far beyond such conspiracies.
He seemed distracted enough that I could slowly loosen the blindfold by expanding and contracting the muscles in my ears. I could sense that he was walking in a circle as he spoke. He explained that he was indeed Lopez, and that there was a very simple reason for him knowing about my conversations within the Bop Shop and the minor deviations I had made in my retelling of the Lopez tale.
The rubber chicken wheezed that he was Future-Lopez, and he was aware of everything that occurred in the first seven millennium, except for several decades in the 27th century when he had suffered from recurring alcoholism. I feigned interest, hoping his additional blathering would keep him from noticing my almost having freed myself from the blindfold.
He spoke of changing the past, of having gone back to ancient Egypt to ensure their god Anubis would bested in battle and fall into antiquated obscurity. Future-Lopez suggested that the Museum of Science and Industry now had an entire exhibit on the Chicken Gods of Egypt. I somehow doubted that.
Before he could go on about his involvement in the Franco-Prussian Wars or the downfall of the Hasbro toy company, I came free of my blindfold with one last ear lobe contraction. And I understood why my abductor sounded chicken-sized: he was a white-haired man who had simply shrunken with age. He was missing so many teeth that when he smiled—and that was every time he expelled chick pea-smelling gas—he resembled a jack o’lantern.
And he balanced himself with a three-pronged cane, which explained the strange markings in the snow.
He knew the jig was up even before I told him that said jig was indeed up. I had assumed my arms were bound the whole time. Truth was, they had simply fallen asleep from when I was lying on top of them during my trip to dreamland. I raised one arm, wincing from the needle-sharpness of my circulation returning, and the old man surrendered.
His name was Jeremiah Belcaster, a stewbum pal of Coco Loco. He had crept into Kate’s place before the obligatory four dollar cover began, and only because he saw the caterers bringing in the baklava, pita bread, and chick peas. After eating his fill, he then pathetically tried to hustle some Armitage Avenue yuppie in nine-ball.
“Then I heard Joe tell you the story about his rubber chicken,” the old man wheezed. “I knew you were that detective guy who uses the name Johnny Algiers when you write your stories up. Coco told me about that time you chased down Mr. Vitriolic during the Loop Flood of ’92.”
I did recall that. Coco Loco had been living in a box on Lower Wacker that year, doing undercover work for one of the local news stations, in hopes of getting the goods on the meter readers.
“I figured I could maybe make some money offa your friends by kidnapping you,” he said. I did not reply that most of my acquaintances were artists and musicians, and so had blessed little money to part with. The same is true for myself, which is why I try to make a few bucks from selling my memoirs piecemeal.
I moved forward, which caused the old man to panic. He tripped over his cane, let loose with a tremendous expulsion of flatulence, the force of which knocked his head against a metal sign advertising Yoo-hoo Chocolate Drink, rendering him unconscious.
I found a back stairwell that led out to Milwaukee Avenue, and started walking toward the subway. Several blocks up, I thought I heard a soft clucking sound from an alleyway, but it was only the noise made by some rumdum’s throat as he gummed down an Aqua Velva and Night Train Express cocktail.