T.w. Moran

The Oil-Slick Rainbow

Maybe a month after Old Mar had cycled out of X-House up in Dixon, he caught six more months in Centralia for rearranging Jimmy Sullivan’s face at the Y. Jimmy zigzagged across two courts, Old Mar hounding him, cornering him, cracking him. Suddenly, Old Mar just stopped, and Jimmy scampered away. Mar sauntered into a corner, thumped his forehead against a padded steel column, berated himself like a mad mime.

When New Mar emerged, he tracked Jimmy’s blood trail dot by dot and found a wounded man perched on a parking block, his face a faucet, a batter of bodily fluids puddling at his feet.

New Mar hovered over him, shaking his head, asking Jimmy why he had to say that awful word; why he couldn’t just let it pass through his head; why he made Old Mar do him like that. Then New Mar yanked off his hoodie, knelt down, and ruefully dabbed Jimmy’s tumid face.

When the police arrived, it seemed like New Mar had denatured order itself. Those cops didn’t even bother cuffing New Mar, just permitted him to open the door himself; just allowed him to turn and tell Jimmy that things would be alright; that he could use the vacation anyway; that he’d probably come home too soon. Then those cops just let New Mar close the door.

And there he sat, in the perp seat, bare-chested and penitent, watching Jimmy give a muffled statement. After a minute, Jimmy froze, dropped Mar’s shirt into that puddle; the cops tracked his slack-jawed stare to find the word sorry smudged on the window and New Mar putting the finishing touches on a tiny heart using the blood left on his knuckles.

Nose widened, sight neared, Jimmy wheezed his way through life nonetheless alive, Old Mar having permanently effaced that word from his backwards vocabulary. Hell, Jimmy didn’t have the heart to shoo a black fly after that. Though, he no doubt slept better knowing Mar could no longer stick a toe across the county line without a court summons.

Old Mar used to say that sometimes you had to slap somebody with an axe handle so they could learn to smile without teeth; he took especial pride in reconstructing humility. This New Mar, he was a breathing paradox, a poetic disaster.

But regardless of state, Mar had always been my friend. We were wayward explorers confined to a patch of crops populated by Christians and convicts, each of us cursed with curiosity, intrigued by intoxication.

Being locked up had indeed changed him, though. One could abruptly learn that simply knowing New Mar wouldn’t get you off Old Mar’s hook, just meant that he might feel shame after realizing how bad he’d hurt you, that he might be able to keep his demon tucked whenever he felt it clawing.

Even Mar himself recognized going away again was a blessing. He’d often remarked that the summer air here was different, as if the green waves exhaled an oxygen that instantly corroded the stainless hinges Mar had affixed to his demon’s door while away.

New Mar bore the scars of these breaches—unsightly gaps in his smile, amber plaque on his eyes, ashy crevices between his knuckles. His demon sought repast in the inebriating single-mindedness of Old Mar’s nostalgia, and sometimes it’d wedge its foot just far enough into the jamb to slide a missive to New Mar, a love letter reminding him how much disregard could taste like ambrosia.

So when I spied Mar—fresh out, walking westward down DeWitt in the light of day, his bundled braids dusting the collar of a basil button-down he’d tucked into the crisp indigo cords tenting his courtroom loafers—I had second thoughts about stopping, but he’d already made my plates. When he hopped in, he seemed happy to see me, and I noticed his new front tooth, his whiter eyes, his moisturized hands. Still, he had been wandering, breathing.

He right away said he had nine whole hours left on his pass before anyone would come looking, that he was craving a spiked lemon-lime Mr. Misty like we used to drink. So I bought us some slushes and drive-through liquor and grabbed some big-gulp cups from the gas station to conceal our cocktails, and we cruised out into the cornfields and reminisced our escapades as tar bubbles popped beneath the tires.

Once we had slurped our ice clean, Mar asked me who would be holding these days. I heard faint scratches on the breeze.

Liquored up, I mentioned Vic, who was a just pudgy kid last Mar recalled. Told him Vic was trying his hand at hustling these days, and Mar scoffed. He never did have any patience for part-time players; I’d seen him feast off the wares of infatuated pretenders before, guys who loved to suit up but hated running drills.

He told me to pull over, pop the trunk. When Old Mar returned—eyes glary, voice grainy—he held a long flat-head screwdriver I didn’t even know I had. He stuffed it down his sock.

“Let’s get to it,” he said.

I tried to coax New Mar back into the mix, but Old Mar wasn’t having it. That demon of his needed only a crack of daylight, and I’d kicked the chain off the wall.

“You want to sit this out,” Old Mar growled, “just drop my ass around the way and find yourself a pew.”

I did as he asked, unsure what might happen if I lingered too long between predator and prey.

Thirty minutes later, feeling uneasy, I slid by Vic’s spot. He was pacing his front yard frantically, his right palm pressed to his neck, blood oozing through his fingers onto his white Pippen jersey, his flip-phone glued to his ear. I sidled up to the curb and lowered the window.

Vic crouched next to the car, trembling, caught somewhere between adrenaline and affright masked as anger. He snapped his phone shut and asked if I’d seen Mar.

I recoiled. “Mar’s in town?”

“Just ran up in here and robbed my ass!”

He couldn’t maintain eye contact, even more rattled than he was high.

I kited my eyebrows, checked the rear-view.

“I didn’t even know he was around,” I lied. “And that?”

Vic removed his palm to reveal a flat, superficial puncture below his jaw.

He sprayed out details in coke-fueled bursts: played good host when Mar just showed up out of the blue, laid out some lines; Mar asked to buy; Vic grabbed the stash; Mar pounced, stuck the screwdriver to his throat, said he was taking it all; caught Vic reaching into the cushions, stuck him with the screwdriver, snatched his snub from the sofa, said he was taking that too; Mar pointed his own gun to his head, said, That’s what you get for playing, bounced out the back door.

Apoplectic, Vic muttered, “Big Man’s gonna kill me, bro …”

I shoved out a sympathetic breath. “I see Mar, I’ll let you know.”

Vic nodded too long, jerkily popped open his phone, walked away dialing.

After circling adjacent blocks, hoping Mar by chance had holed up somewhere, I surveilled Vic’s place from a safe distance and noticed Big Man’s Caprice in the driveway.

Old Mar’s return had flipped a few hourglasses in short time, and I could feel the sand in my shoes. Who had seen us together? How long before word got back? I scanned street after street for him, unaware what I’d do once I found him, certain I had to before anyone else did.

It wasn’t long until I glimpsed a shady figure a couple blocks up struggling to pedal a child’s bicycle down a backstreet alley. I tapped my horn and watched Mar crane his head, stand, toss the bike into a rusty burn barrel, then jog my direction down the grassy median.  

I didn’t know which Mar was coming, but I had no reason to believe I’d be able to restrain whatever I’d set free. Now with a charge in him, and a gun on him, I was probably beginning to look less like a cook and more like a meal.

About a hundred feet out, Mar paused, removed that flat-head from his sock, squeegeed it clean with his fingertips, rubbed his fingers together. Gripping the tool by the handle, he marched forward. Unable to see his eyes, I hit the lock switch.

About halfway, Old Mar slowed like he was fighting a headwind, then came to a halt. He held up the screwdriver, studied it, swiveled away. I observed his head droop, shake; he flung the tool aside. When he wheeled back, it was New Mar in control. I unlocked the doors, checked my mirrors, readied for departure.

Within spitting distance, something braced him again. He pushed a couple steps farther; then, drilling his fists into his forehead like he was unscrewing antennae, he reversed his tracks.

When he stopped, he stuck his hands into his pockets, calmly turned to me. A crooked grin sliced across his face.

I hit the lock switch.

He heard.

The grin flattened and his brow pinched and he took one long, deep, interrupted breath. As he turned his back to me, a lone firefly flickered near his head.

Beyond him, the sinking sun carved citrus wedges across the stomachs of scattering clouds. Mar stood there gazing, a liminal silhouette resting upon that canvas.

When he unearthed his hands, he held Vic’s piece in one. In a single motion, he pressed it to his temple, cocked, fired. His body heaped forward like a scarecrow loosed from its pole.

I visored my eyes, held my breath, unlocked the doors, stepped out. The metronomic chime of the ignition bell dissipated as I measured my paces from the car.

Mar’s body lay prostrate, his head bowing toward the vanishing sun. Blood sluiced through the rocks like spilled ink, reflecting twilight upon coursing channels, where hues eddied into an oil-slick rainbow.

T.w. Moran (@tdubwrites) hails from Humboldt, Illinois. Many moons ago, he studied creative writing at Lake Forest College and eventually earned an MA in English from Western Illinois University. After a pandemic-shortened but decorated tenure as a writing director at Beijing Language and Culture University, Moran now resides in Riga (Latvia) with his wife, a primary school teacher. In addition to The Dillydoun Review, his works have featured in The World of Chinese magazine and are appearing in Emerge Literary Journal. A first novel in progress, Moran spends his days making the best of perpetual lockdown by putting pen to paper.