Return to Sender
When Louis Dumkowski woke up the first thing he became aware of was the pain.
His chest hurt; in fact, the whole front of his body felt like it had been doused with gasoline and set aflame. His first thought was, Ow that hurts! His second thought was, You’re not supposed to feel anything if you’re dead.
And, dead is what he thought he was; or at least, what he should have been. Vinnie Williams had shot him in the chest with a shotgun. The crazy bastard had shot right through the door.
Louis looked down. The front of his body was red and brown. Red from droplets of blood that seeped through his ruined shirt, and brown from the little speckles that covered him from the middle of his hairless, puny chest to his little beer belly. Yep, he thought, I’ve been shot alright. So, why does it hurt so much?
Louis Dumkowski didn’t like a lot of things; getting up early to go to work, going to work, paying bills, or cleaning up after himself. What he didn’t like above all other things, though, was pain. Louis had stained and decaying teeth because he refused to go to the dentist, because the hygienist always hurt his mouth when she cleaned them, which hadn’t happened in a dozen years because of the painful experience the last time he went.
So, needless to say, he was a bit put out with Vincent “The Enforcer” Williams for shooting him and causing such discomfort. In addition, it had ruined his best shirt, and the landlord would probably keep his security deposit to pay for the ruined door.
It was true that he owed Vinnie a large – a very large – sum of money; a sum that was beyond his means to repay. But, to shoot him through the door; ruining his best shirt and the landlord’s door; well, that was just tacky.
Louis had a standard response to situations that he couldn’t control, or that made him uncomfortable – he ran away from them. Now, he had two situations to run away from; the broken door, which he could not pay for; and, of course, when Vinnie found out that he failed to ‘cancel’ Louis, he would surely want to come back and finish the job.
The problem he faced was where to run to. He’d thought sneaking out of his old apartment and renting in a different part of town under an assumed name would have worked. Who was to know the post office would be efficient for the first time in its history, and find him? No, he had to go where no one would ever expect to look for him, not even the post office.
There was one other thing Louis didn’t like; didn’t like because it gave him headaches – thinking. But, headache or no, think he did. He sat in the middle of the ruined living room floor, picking at the splinters from the door that had peppered his chest and stomach, and thought hard. The pain of removing the splinters helped focus his mind.
“I got it,” he said to no one in particular, because there was no one else there. “I’ll go bunk with Cleatus. Nobody’d ever think of looking for me at his house.”
Cleatus was Cleatus Washington, a high school classmate with whom he’d had frequent contact since the two of them dropped out of Albemarle High together five years earlier. In high school, Louis and Cleatus had been close friends. Louis had entered Albemarle in his sophomore year when his parents moved to Detroit from Chicago. He’d been the only white kid in a school of blacks and Hispanics; although, most of the Hispanics were from Puerto Rico, and were technically black as well; and he’d been the target of hostility, what with him being white and with a name like Dumkowski. Cleatus was the only kid in the school who’d speak to him for any reason other than to pick on his name. Cleatus was the only boy in his family, sandwiched between two mean sisters, so he knew what it was like to be picked on.
Louis remembered that Cleatus lived near the projects on the south side, in one of those neighborhoods of brownstone houses with the small front stoops, houses that were one room wide and four rooms deep, with a postage stamp sized front yard and a backyard that was only slightly larger. Vinnie would never think of looking for him in a black neighborhood. In fact, Vinnie was afraid to venture into the black neighborhoods.
He decided to wait until dark, so no one would see him leaving his present abode. He thought it just a bit strange that no one had come to investigate the sound of a gunshot, or had come to complain about the large hole in the front door of the apartment. Sheesh, did I pick a lousy neighborhood, he thought. Cleatus’ place’ll be a lot better. “I shoulda thoughta that in the first place,” he said again to the wall opposite where he was sitting.
It was just after seven in the evening when Louis Dumkowski mounted the front porch of the brownstone house at 246 Walnut Grove; one of ten similar houses on the block. He thumbed the doorbell button, and heard the sounds of “Jesus Loves Me” ringing inside the dwelling.
After a few minutes, during which time, Louis continued to look over his shoulder and up and down the street nervously, the door swung inward.
“We don’t want none,” a strident voice said from somewhere about a foot above Louis’ head. He didn’t see the face at first. Filling his vision was two of the largest breasts he’d seen since the time he and Cleatus had sneaked into the strip joint on 34th Street and got a look at the star act, a woman who’d had herself chemically and physically augmented. “You don’t look like no salesman. What the hell you want?”
Louis looked up into the face of Eula Mae Washington, Cleatus’s older sister. She had grown considerably since Louis saw her – mostly in the chest area, although, as he looked her up and down, he noticed that she had expanded quite a bit in the hips, thighs, and arms as well. The girls he remembered as buxom in high school had become fat. She still had the same beautiful, cocoa-colored face, but now, instead of smiling, she was scowling down at him.
“Hi Eula Mae,” Louis said. “You remember me, don’t you? Louis Dumkowski; me and your brother was in the same class at Albemarle.”
The big woman squinted down at Louis, her head cocked to one side. Her fleshy lips pursed. “Oh, my goodness! You that little runt used to run around wit’ Cleatus,” she said. “What the devil you doing here this time of night?”
“I was looking for Cleatus,” he said. “I need a big favor from him.”
“What kind of favor? If you need money, you in big trouble. Cleatus got laid off at the car plant, and if it wasn’t for me and Ora Belle, he wouldn’t have a pot to pee in. We the only ones working in this family right now.”
Louis remembered Ora Belle, the youngest of the Washington clan, as a skinny kid who used to follow him and Cleatus around, a real pest. Eula Mae, on the other hand, had been the subject of many of Louis’ more erotic dreams. Looking at how she’d turned out, he shuddered inside to think how the skinny one had developed.
“Naw, Eula Mae,” he said. “I don’t need no money. I just need me a place to stay for a few days. I was hoping Cleatus could put me up; just for a little while you understand.”
He was getting nervous, a skinny white guy, hanging about the front door of a house in a black neighborhood, and with Vinnie probably looking for him to boot.
She pursed her lips again; that little pout that drove him crazy in high school. Even with all the weight she’d put on, Louis felt a little tingle every time she did that.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Well, I guess you can stay a little while. Cleatus ain’t around right now. He over in Chicago looking for work. Come on and get your skinny butt on in the house.” She stepped aside to let him enter. He brushed against her bulk, feeling another little tingle.
“I really appreciate this Eula Mae,” Louis said. “I just need to stay a day or two, then I’m outta here, promise.”
“I didn’t say no day or two,” she said. “I said a little while. Ain’t proper us having you staying overnight or nothing.”
“Could I at least stay tonight,” he pleaded. “I won’t be no trouble. I just need a place to crash for a little while.”
“You running from the po-leece or something?”
“No, worse than the cops. There’s this guy I owe some money, see, only I can’t pay him right now. I just need to lay low until I can save up what I owe him.”
“Looka here, boy,” she said. “I don’t want to be messing up with no loan shark. They worse than the po-leece. Them muthas shoot folks.”
How well Louis knew that. “Don’t worry, Eula Mae. He’d never think to look for me here.”
She looked skeptical, but he was Cleatus’ friend; the only white friend her brother ever had. And, he did look pitiful, all skinny and pale. “Okay,” she said finally. “I guess you can stay a couple of days. But, you gotta pull your weight ‘round here. Doing chores and stuff. Me and Ora Belle gotta work, so somebody gotta do the house stuff.”
“I can do that,” Louis said. Of course, he could do no such thing. Louis couldn’t boil water, and him and housecleaning weren’t even on speaking terms. But, if it got him a safe place to hide out, he was willing to try anything.
Just then, a vision of loveliness walked into the room. She was about Louis’ height, small breasted (but, not too small), narrow hips, long legs, wearing a pair of tight blue jeans and a tee shirt that was a size too small. She was dark; the color of fresh-brewed coffee, with a flawless complexion and amber colored eyes, and her dark brown hair was cut close, hugging her skull. She was a thin version of Eula Mae. Louis’s heart skipped a beat; his eyes goggled, and his breath came in little pants like a thirsty puppy.
“Well, I’ll be,” the vision of loveliness said. “If it isn’t Louis Dumkowski. What on earth are you doing in this neighborhood?”
“I – uh – that is. . .,” Louis was dumbfounded. The skinny little brat who used to bug the crap out of him had turned into a beauty queen.
“He in some kinda trouble, and he come to git Cleatus to help him out,” Eula Mae said. “We lettin’ him stay a few nights.”
“Oh, how nice,” Ora Belle said. “I haven’t seen you in a long time Louis. How have you been?” There was none of the adoration in her voice that Louis remembered, but it still sounded like heaven to him.
“I been okay, I guess,” he said. “Sure is nice of you to let me stay.”
“You just remember, you got to pull your weight around here,” Eula Mae said. “’Course, you so skinny, that won’t ‘mount to much.”
Both girls laughed. Louis couldn’t tell which was which from their voices; but his eyes told him the differences. And, what a difference a few years had made.
They made up the couch in the living room for him, with a pillow, sheets and a blanket. Around midnight, after several hours of catching up, a supper of collard greens and fried chicken, and watching some dumb reality show on TV, they all went to their respective places to sleep.
Of course, Louis didn’t sleep much. Between nightmares of Vinnie finding him, and erotic dreams of Ora Belle the transformed, he tossed and turned throughout the night.
He was rudely awakened by a bright stabbing light in his eyes, and the sound of a cat being pulled apart – Eula Mae yanked the blanket off him and screamed for him to get his “lazy butt up and fix breakfast.” He hastily covered his underwear-clad form, meekly asking her to please leave the room so he could get dressed.
“Shoot,” she said. “I seen a lot more than you got. Come to think of it, I already seen what you got, that time you and Cleatus was playing in his room and you didn’t think nobody was looking.”
Louis reddened and scurried off to the bathroom, clutching his trousers to his middle.
When he was presentable; or as presentable as Louis Dumkowski could ever be, he emerged from the bathroom. Eula Mae was waiting for him in the kitchen, her pudgy hands on her ample hips, tapping her fleshy right foot on the linoleum. “What took you so long? It’s time for breakfast, and it’s your turn to cook.”
Now, Louis had two problems with that proposition. One, he had not been made aware of the rotation of cooking duties, and two, he could not cook; had never cooked, preferring to eat out. He informed Eula Mae that he could not cook. She snorted, harrumphed, and made a few other disgusting noises through her broad nasal passages. “Well,” she said when she’d finished making the disgusting sounds. “I guess you just gonna have to do the cleaning.”
In the process of “doing the cleaning” Louis found another thing he didn’t like. He tried washing the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, but misread the amount of detergent to add, and ended up having to mop two buckets of suds off the floor. While mopping, he broke two glasses, cut his ankle, and had to spend several minutes staunching the bleeding and searching the bathroom for a bandage. In the process of doing the laundry, he put in too much bleach and one of Eula Mae’s red skirts came out pink.
By the end of the day, when the two women returned home from work, Louis had decided that he was not cut out for housework. After one look at the mess he’d made of the house, they agreed with him.
“Louis, this just ain’t gonna work,” Eula Mae said. “It takes too much work cleaning up after you.”
“For sure,” Ora Belle said. “And, you can’t cook. What good are you?”
Louis had no answer. He’d never been asked before. He’d never before asked himself. He just was. “Maybe when Cleatus gets back, we can figure something out,” he said.
“Don’t know when he’s coming back,” Ora Belle said. “He might be in Philadelphia a long time.”
“But, Eula Mae said he was in Chicago,” Louis said.
“Oh, did I say Philadelphia? I meant Chicago,” she said. “Anyway, I don’t know when he might be coming back.”
Now, Louis wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the pack, but he knew when he was being lied to. He told lies often enough himself that he recognized the signs. “Come on, now,” he said. “Where did Cleatus go?”
They looked at him sheepishly, then at each other. Eula Mae nodded. “Well,” Ora Belle said. “We don’t exactly know. He just up and left; and he didn’t say where he was going, or when he’d be coming back.”
“So, you’re telling me he ran away from home?”
“She didn’t say nothin’ like that,” Eula Mae said. “He a grown man, and grown men don’t run away from home.”
Not exactly true, Louis thought, having run away many times himself since attaining the age of twenty-one. While he was thinking, the two women were arguing; Eula Mae wanting Louis gone, and Ora Belle wanting to give Cleatus’ friend a place to stay as long as he needed it. They went back and forth like the Williams sisters at a tennis match. Louis swung his head back and forth trying to follow the thread of their debate, his eyes crossing until he saw four of them waving their arms and arguing their points vehemently.
Now, Louis Dumkowski wasn’t exactly an angel, but he didn’t like being the cause of strife and arguing. The arguments his mother and father had in his presence was his reason for leaving home at the age of fourteen.
Watching them argue, he did something that was both alien and common for him; first he thought; an alien concept for Louis, but then he did what he always did when things got troubling. He ran away. Well, he didn’t actually run; he walked quietly. The two women were so engrossed in their argument, they never saw him get up from the sofa, pick up his knapsack, and walk softly to the door.
He looked back for one instant, then exited and softly closed the door, pulling it to make sure it locked behind him.
Louis stood on the stoop for a few minutes, looking up and down the street. He hadn’t thought much about where he would run away to this time. He couldn’t go back into the city; Vinnie would be waiting, and he might not shoot through a door next time. Then, he remembered his mother talking about her home town, a little farm town somewhere down south in Texas. Vinnie would never think of looking for him there. As far as Louis knew, Vinnie had never been out of Detroit. His mother had some cousins in Texas, he couldn’t remember their name, or the name of the town, but he figured Texas was a long way from Detroit, and he’d remember it before he got too far.
He walked off the stoop, turned left and walked to the corner, where he turned left which was south, and was the way out of Detroit. He didn’t have much cash, and had never had a credit card. Maybe I can hop freight,” he thought. “Like a hobo.” Louis had never seen a real life hobo, and had never been anywhere near a freight train, but that’s the way his mind worked, when it worked at all. He was never sure what he would really do until he was just about done doing it.
So, he just kept walking south, humming a tune, the name of which he couldn’t remember, but it pleased him to hum it.