Blue Christmas

“Why was Father Christmas upset when he got a sweater for Christmas?”
+++++I shrug.
+++++“Because he was hoping for a screamer or a moaner.”
+++++Clive Clayhill laughs gutturally, then offers me a nasty grin – his rotten teeth are the same colour as Elaine’s gravy. I push my empty plate away and scuff my chair back on the faded linoleum, feeling strangely nauseated.
+++++That’s what happens when you buy your Christmas crackers in the fucking Sex Shop…

***

It is Christmas day, and Clive is the only other guest staying at The Swanson. He is a spectacularly ugly man, even by local standards. His skull looks like a used roll-on deodorant – stray hairs plastered across the pale skin.
+++++I spent last Christmas in prison, so this place is a genuine step up for me. No one got me a present this year, but when I checked in, I found two pairs of mouldy crotch-less panties stuffed behind the radiator and a tube of genital wart cream in the bathroom cabinet.
+++++The Swanson used to be a hot-sheets hotel, and briefly functioned as a bail hostel for paroled sex offenders. Now it is supposedly under new management. Out of season, it is just a hotel with no guests.
+++++Elaine, the landlady, has strung up a few threadbare strands of tinsel in the TV lounge, and there is an artificial sprig of mistletoe in the lobby. I’m not sure whether the mistletoe is intended as a challenge or a threat: Elaine is half my height and twice my weight.
+++++I often hear Clive grunting like a hog through the paper-thin walls late at night. Sometimes he cries afterwards. I guess his willpower isn’t as strong as mine.

***

Clive smokes in silence as I finish my beer. There is no ashtray, so he drops his high-tar cigarette in an empty Skol can on the table. He lights a second, and passes me a black and white photograph. I vaguely recognise the suits and hairstyles from my childhood, but little else seems familiar.
+++++He gestures towards the two men – a pair of cops called Benson and Hedges– with the glowing end of his cigarette. Then he tells me that they abducted his younger sister back in 1984.
+++++I swallow his story and it sits heavier in my gut than Elaine’s roast dinner.
+++++Clive tells me that they are planning to snatch another girl.
+++++I start to feel sweaty. The gauzy dining room curtains twist lightly in the winter breeze.
+++++I ask Clive how he knows.
+++++He tells me he has been hired as their driver.

***

Clive told me that Benson and Hedges like to unwind at a place they call the Clubhouse. It’s an old portakabin that has been dumped in a field adjacent to the Ocean Spray Caravan Park.
+++++I manage to find a taxi idling next to the public toilets. The driver adds on a £10 surcharge, but doesn’t question the well-worn pick-axe handle across my lap.
+++++I trudge across the winter mud towards the ramshackle structure. The phrase ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ has been painted across an old floorboard and nailed to the wall. I hope it is an idle deterrent: I have already been shot once this year, and it wasn’t pretty.
+++++Despite the icy temperature, the door is wide open. A portable heater pumps out stale heat. Benson and Hedges are sitting on a faded leatherette couch, ties loosened, their shirts yellowed with sweat. Hedges is the larger of the two – handsome in a big-boned way, with a thick swathe of white hair spilling over his collar. Benson is thin and corpse-coloured, with stringy hair.
+++++The portakabin smells of burnt food and stale urine. A skeletal Christmas tree leans against the back wall, like an afterthought. The two men seem to be playing snap with a deck of pornographic playing cards.
+++++I shake the slush off my boots and tap on the doorframe with my pickaxe handle.
+++++“Planning a Christmas party, gentlemen?”
+++++“Who the fuck are you?”
+++++Hedges has a gap-toothed smile and a boil the size of a billiard ball on the side of his neck.
+++++“I’m a friend of Clive Clayhill.”
+++++“I wouldn’t admit that in public, pal. Clive Clayhill is a junkie cat burglar with a penchant for eight-year-olds.”
+++++I relax my sweaty grip on the pickaxe handle.
+++++“Huh?”
+++++A rotten chuckle bubbles up from Benson’s withered chest.
+++++“Out is he?”
+++++I’m not sure how to respond, so I grunt.
+++++“We have long memories, son. We knew Clive when he was wanking off other junkies for spare change. He has spent the last decade in Channing’s Wood. We were the ones who banged him up.”
+++++I grunt again.
+++++“Clayhill is a conniving little fucker – if he wants you out of the way it is for a reason.”
+++++I suddenly feel embarrassed and shuffle out of the portakabin.
+++++Hedges claps Benson on the shoulder.
+++++“Well, old friend, the plot fucking thickens…”
+++++Their diseased-sounding laughter follows me across the dead field.

***

I head back to The Swanson. The street is empty except for two burned-out cars, and a 12-year-old, breathing glue out of a plastic bag. The B&B sits between two weed-choked vacant lots. Last year, the body of a missing psychiatric patient was found in the condemned hotel that used to sit next door. The case made the national press. The killer was known as the Ladyscraper. You can still see scraps of faded yellow crime scene tape in the weeds, but only if you look hard enough.
+++++The TV lounge is empty, but the boxy television set crackles with canned laughter. Men who have been dead longer than I have been alive mug for the camera. The volume has been turned up loud enough to fucking wake the cadaverous bastards up again. I yank the power cord out the wall and the screen fades to black.
+++++I take the stairs two at a time, and bang on Elaine’s door with my clenched fist. As she opens it, her leopard-print robe falls open. She is wearing low-heeled shoes and no underwear.
+++++Behind her, the room is empty. The only sound I can hear is that of her vibrator, throbbing idly on the bedside table.
+++++“Changed your mind about that Christmas kiss, darlin’?”
+++++“Where’s Clive, Elaine?”
+++++She knots the robe and pouts. She has a thick white scar down the side of her chubby, heart-shaped face. It clashes with the freshly applied cherry-red lipstick.
+++++“How the fuck should I know? I’m his landlady, not his fucking parole officer.”

***

I stomp down the corridor. The lock on my door has been popped with a screwdriver. I don’t bother checking inside. I only have one item of value.
+++++Further down the hallway, Clive’s own door is ajar.
+++++He is laying on his bed, smoking. Naked. The ashtray is balanced on his sickly looking chest. In the wintry half-light his face looks raw and uneven, like a badly rendered wall.
+++++On the threadbare carpet, at the end of the bed, lies a half-deflated rubber sex doll.
+++++On top of Clive’s chest of drawers is my £5,000 retirement fund, still wrapped in the pillow case from my old rooming house.
+++++I drag him off the bed by his wisps of greasy hair, and he lands on his bony knees with a crack.
+++++He holds up his hands pleadingly. He tries to say something, but my pick-axe handle caves his teeth in before he has a chance.
+++++I want to say something smart, something threatening, but I don’t have the energy.
+++++I retrieve the pillowcase full of cash from the sideboard, and leave Clive drooling blood on the carpet. He tries to crawl after me, so I kick him in the gut – hard enough to rupture something.
+++++Elaine is standing in the corridor, robe open once again. The vibrator buzzes helplessly in her hand.
+++++She tries to peer round me, but I slam the flimsy door.
+++++I dip into the pillowcase and retrieve a £50 note. I hand it to Elaine.
+++++“Sorry about the mess…”
+++++She shrugs.
+++++“What mess?”
+++++I hand her another banknote and keep on walking.Fuck it.
+++++She shouts down the hallway at me: “Merry fucking Christmas to you too…”

Pancakes

We did not celebrate Christmas in the house I lived in as a kid unless my old man was locked up. He was a mean drunk and he was drunk most of the time. If he was around and you were lucky enough to make it through the day without getting your ass kicked that was a gift.
+++++One year he was doing ninety days for some drunken shit he had pulled. On Christmas morning, my mom made pancakes but she got high and burned them. Kenny and I each got two, with no butter and a splash of syrup. Some judge got in the holiday spirit and gave a bunch of prisoners from the county slam early release. My dad walked in later that day, already drunk, and found mom in the sack with his friend Billy Flynn. He carved them up like Christmas turkeys.
+++++Kenny was two years older than me. We went into the foster system. I got lucky, Kenny didn’t. He bounced from one home to another .He went to juvie when he was 13. He spent most of the next twenty years incarcerated.
+++++An amazing couple adopted me. Frank Carson was a doctor and his wife Maureen a stay at home mom to me and two other kids they had taken in. My first Christmas in their home was like something out of a movie. I had a stocking with my name on it above the fireplace. On Christmas morning, much to my delight, I found it stuffed with candy and little toys. Under the tree were new bikes for all of us and a baseball glove for me.
+++++And that’s how my life went. These wonderful people taught me respect, humility and unconditional love. They told me everyone has opportunities in this life. It fell on the individual to take advantage of them. I counted my blessings and thanked God for my good fortune.
+++++They put me through college and like my adopted dad I became a doctor. I married an incredible, beautiful woman who graced me with two wonderful kids. Our lives were close to perfect. We had a circle of friends; we were involved in our children’s lives and found time to volunteer in the community.

***

Then Kenny came back into my life. I was on my way home from rounds at the hospital when my wife called, asking me to pick something up. Instead of stopping at the super market, I pulled into a convenience store a few miles from home.
+++++It was dusk. In front of the store, a small group of unkempt men all with long, greasy looking hair drank cans of beer concealed in paper bags. When I exited the store, one of them approached me as I reached my Lexus and asked for money. I reached for my wallet and he slugged me, knocking me to the pavement. He grabbed my wallet and ran.
+++++As I unsteadily got to my feet, I saw him returning. This time there was something familiar about him.
+++++He held my wallet, opened to my driver’s license.
+++++“Michael, man is that you? Damn, I’m sorry, I didn’t know”
+++++“Kenny?” I said.
+++++“Yeah, it’s me. Been a long time. Looks like you’ve done okay little brother.”
+++++He hugged me. He reeked of body odor, beer and cigarette smoke.
+++++“What can I do for you Kenny? Are you using?”
+++++He nodded his head.
+++++“Let me get you in rehab,” I offered.
+++++“Nah, I’m good. Guess I got the old man’s genes huh?”
+++++Those words would haunt me.
+++++“You could slip me a twenty if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. I could use a fix.”
+++++I gave him two twenty’s and a ten and went home to my comfortable life.

***

A week later, just after dinner there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, I found Kenny. He looked worse than he had before.
+++++“Swell place you got,” he said as he glanced around. “I’m in a bad way. Can you give me fifty?”
+++++I did and sent him on his way.
+++++Two days later my wife returned from a charity lunch and found our home had been broken into. Jewelry, cash and some other small items were missing. When I got home the police were there. They explained there was a heroin epidemic in the area and burglaries like this were becoming common place. When they left, I drove to the convenience store where I had first encountered Kenny. Sure enough, he was lurking in the shadows with two other men.
+++++I motioned him over.
+++++“Let me get you some help.”
+++++“No man, I don’t think so. I like my fucked up life. Rather live it than that masquerade you take part in every day. You ever think maybe you forgot where you came from?”
+++++“Look, here’s how it’s going to be you won’t get help, don’t come around my house again. Understand?”
+++++He stared at me with a menacing glare that caused me to shiver as I drove away.

***

Two days before Christmas, I arrived home just after dark. No lights were on, nor was the Christmas tree. The front door was open. The house had been ransacked. Wrapping from gifts were strewn about the tree, a bottle of Scotch tipped over on the carpet.
+++++I went from room to room calling my wife and my children. I didn’t get a response.
+++++I found them in our bedroom, swimming in a sea of blood. My wife’s lifeless body covered my kids. She died trying to protect them.
+++++Shock turned to rage. In the garage I had a shotgun I used for duck hunting. I sped to the store.
+++++Kenny grinned at me. I got out of the car and by the time the gun was empty there wasn’t much left of him. Guess I inherited something from my birth father as well.
+++++Christmas in prison isn’t that bad. Just this morning we had bacon. And pancakes- they weren’t burned and they even came with butter and as much syrup as I wanted.

The Kringle

The first step went unheard by all except its maker. Little more than a soft crunch as the midnight snow compressed against the roof tiles. The second, however, caused Jimmy Gibbons to stir beneath the comfort and warmth of his spaceman duvet.

Santa’s here!

Excitement raced through him. A flurry of thoughts about new toys, and treats, and games.
+++++He sat upright in bed and listened beyond his eager heart. He didn’t have to wait long before his ears confirmed his hopes through the dark. A footstep. Loud and defined and unmistakable. Then another, followed by several more leading to where Jimmy knew they would lead.
+++++The chimney.
+++++Jimmy knew there was nothing to fear. This moment was a dream come true, and he deserved it.
+++++He swung his legs from under his sheets and plopped them down on the soft carpet. On the tips of his toes, he crept across his room and out into the hall, taking care not to tread on the discarded toys from the previous Christmas.
+++++He considered the door to his parents’ room but chose to let them sleep. He didn’t want to share this moment with anyone, but especially not with his younger brother who often slept in their room.
+++++Jimmy moved toward the stairs where the warm lights from the Christmas tree cast playful shadows on the wall below. Delicate clusters of green, red, and gold beckoned Jimmy down to the living room.
+++++As he reached the top step, a distinct rustling drifted up to him, like a racoon fumbling for vital leftovers. Jimmy froze at the sound, letting the thrill wash over him, his hand on the wooden bannister, a single foot hanging out mid-step.
+++++Below, the festive glow dimmed as a large shape moved past the lights. Jimmy crept down, his bare toes feeling for the wood and gripping each edge until he reached the bottom.
+++++He turned toward the living room, and his breath caught in his throat.
+++++The creature stood on six armoured legs, each one a foul combination of joint and muscle beneath the layers of its interlocking carapace. Jimmy had seen a crab before, and he tried his best to make sense of this horror, but this was no crab. It had the torso of a four-armed man, with an oversized wolf’s head. Four menacing red ovals set deep inside its skull gleamed with bright intent as it turned toward Jimmy, repositioning its legs with grim precision over the toppled Christmas tree.
+++++The creature snarled, exposing razor-sharp teeth.
+++++Jimmy shook as his bladder released in a warm trickle that ran down his pyjama bottoms and pooled at his feet. The creature pulled a hessian sack from its shoulder and let it fall open. Jimmy saw blood and gore inside, and an infant’s red shoe that he thought he recognised, but before he could scream, before he could call for his father, the creature lifted him by his delicate throat and drew the sack beneath his trembling feet.
+++++In The Kringles’ grip, Jimmy’s body folded like dry kindling. Its powerful arms made light work of snapping his bones and crushing his organs before stuffing him in the bag with the other naughty children.

An Odd Thing To Say

Bobby Lindstrom was napping on his ratty old couch when he got the call. Whenever he talked about it later, which was often, that was how he always referred to it: “The Call.”
+++++“Hello, who’s this?”
+++++“It’s Bobby, Charlie. What’s up?”
+++++“So, you know me, right? Is that who I am? ‘Charlie’?”
+++++“Just a sec,” said Bobby. “I just woke up and either you’re talkin’ nutso or I’m still comin’ around. Now let’s start again. What’s up, Charlie?”
+++++“How did you know it was me before I said who I was?” asked the person on the other end.
+++++“Well, my ringtone started playing its really cheesy rendition of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” the little Caller ID box said ‘Charlie,’ and ‘Bango’, I said to myself, ‘that’s Charlie.’ Have you been smokin’ somethin’ that you should have shared, ol’ buddy?”
+++++“I just picked the first number on ‘Recent Calls’ and it said ‘Bobby.’ I’m in some kind of trouble; I don’t know who I am. I woke up and don’t know who I am or where I am.”
+++++Bobby let that sink in for a bit before he answered. “You’re puttin’ me on, right? I think that I was right the first time: You’re at your place with Eddie smokin’ somethin’ and you guys decided it’d be fun to mess with me. How’m I doin’? Pretty close, right?”
+++++“If this is my phone and you’re Bobby, then you must know me. But I don’t know me and I don’t know you. And another thing; sittin’ on the couch next to me is a guy who looks like me.”
+++++“Ya mean like your brother, Tommy; he kinda looks like you.”
+++++“No, not kinda; I mean exactly like me. Before I called I took a piss. When I looked in the mirror over the sink, I didn’t recognize my own face. But this guy next to me on the couch has that same fuckin’ face. He looks just like me.”
+++++“Put him on,” said Bobby. “Let me talk to him.
+++++“I don’t think he can talk. He’s just sitting there with his eyes closed.”
+++++“Ya mean like he’s unconscious? Or like he’s dead? He ain’t dead, is he, Charlie?”
+++++“Not dead; more like he’s not powered-up.”
+++++“Not powered-up? Now that’s an odd thing to say….”
+++++“What? What did you say, Bobby?”
+++++“Nothin’, nothin’. Sit tight; I’m comin’ over there.”
+++++“Over where?” said Charlie, his voice rising a little at the end. “I don’t even know where I am.”
+++++“Look at the coffee table in front of the TV. Are there a lot of beer bottles and empty pizza boxes on it?”
+++++“There’s beer bottles, but no pizza boxes. There’s some empty Chinese take-out boxes, though.”
+++++“You’re at your place; I’ll be right there.”
+++++It took Bobby about ten minutes to drive over to Charlie’s. When he knocked on the door, somebody answered. Bobby always says “somebody answered” when he’s telling the story.
+++++“Hi…, um, Bobby. How are you?” the somebody asked.
+++++Bobby nodded, and after stepping into the apartment’s small living room, he pulled up short when he saw the coffee table. The usual mess was gone and the table looked like it had been polished. There were two magazines on it that were positioned like they’d be if the table was on the cover of “House Beautiful.” The magazines, however, were cheap sex magazines; not “Good Housekeeping” or “Reader’s Digest.”
+++++“I’m really busy right now; you can’t stay.”
+++++“I’ll just make sure that you’re all right; you didn’t sound so good over the phone,” said Bobby.
+++++The Somebody Charlie grabbed one of Bobby’s biceps and started to lead him to the door. When Bobby tells this story, usually at a bar with somebody else buying the drinks, he swears that this Somebody Charlie had an iron grip; there was no resisting him.
+++++“I don’t know,” said Bobby. “You don’t seem like your old self.”
+++++“Why, Bobby, what an odd thing to say.”
+++++Having been ushered out into the hallway, Bobby stopped and looked back at the closed door. He tried the knob and found that the door was now locked. He knocked for a bit but nobody answered. Then from inside the apartment, he heard Charlie scream, “Bobb-eeee!”
+++++Bobby lifted his right leg and was just about to kick in the door when he heard something hit it on the other side so hard that it loosened the woodwork. Plaster dust drifted down from the ceiling like snow. Bobby lifted his leg again but stopped when he saw blood start to seep out from under the door into the hallway. Then, as Bobby stared transfixed, leg still in the air, the blood no longer seeped, but actually flowed for a few seconds. Two teeth that were mixed into the blood sailed out from underneath the door like two tiny ships on a placid crimson ocean. Bobby slowly lowered his leg and quietly started down the hall toward the stairs.
+++++When he got down to the street Bobby used his cell phone to call 911. “Send some cops to 1452 Elm Street right away; I think somebody’s gettin’ murdered.” The 911 operator asked him to stay on the line trying to get more details, but it wasn’t very long before Bobby could hear the wail of the sirens so he hung up. Three black and whites pulled up in the street and six officers ran up to Bobby.
+++++“Upstairs, fourth floor, apartment 3; my friend Charlie’s in trouble. He’s either hurt real bad or maybe even dead.”
+++++Four of the officers ran into the building with their guns drawn. The other two stayed with Bobby and started asking questions. While they were talking to him, something happened that Bobby never mentions when he’s telling the story. The cops had their backs to the building and Bobby saw himself walk out the front door, down the front walk, and then turn to go down the street. As this Somebody Bobby walked past Bobby and the two cops, he nodded and smiled at Bobby giving him an exaggerated wink. Blood was spattered all over his face and all over the white T-shirt and jeans that that Bobby had last seen Charlie wearing. The cops never missed a beat; they just kept talking to Bobby like they never even saw the Somebody Bobby.
+++++“There’s a helluva lot of blood up there by the door, but there’s nobody in that apartment,” said one of the returning officers. “The other guys are starting with the apartments on the first floor and moving up. They should come up with something.”
+++++“Is there a back door to this place?” asked one of the officers who had stayed with Bobby.
+++++Bobby wanted to yell at him, “He walked right past ya, asshole!”, but instead just mumbled, “I don’t know; I don’t live here.”
+++++The cops took Bobby downtown, listened skeptically to his story two or three times for an hour or more and finally told him not to leave town. Right then, there was nothing Bobby wanted to do more than to leave town. Something very strange had happened at Charlie’s place and he didn’t want that “something” to happen to him. Just by the action of grabbing his biceps the Somebody Charlie had been able to morph himself into Somebody Bobby.
+++++He kept the story to himself for a couple of weeks, but gradually came to see that it could be good for a few beers and now he tells it every chance he gets. But when Bobby gets to the end of the story, he has his own reasons he doesn’t tell the part about the Somebody Bobby passing him and the two cops on the street. To him, that would be like tempting fate; jinxing himself. He ends it with the cop saying that there was nobody in Charlie’s apartment. Bobby then throws in some dialog that could have come right out of The Brothers Grimm.
+++++“…..and I never saw my buddy, Charlie, again.”

The Con After The Storm

The storm knocked out the neighborhood’s power. It was still raining the next day as Eddie and I drove through the old folk’s trailer park. Tree branches littered front yards, and the gutters overflowed with runoff and debris. The elderly residence sat under eaves on their front porches, waiting for the restoration of electricity. At the last trailer on the block an old lady sat alone in a rocking chair, knitting a quilt.
+++++“Her,” Eddie said.
+++++I turned the corner, and parked the van.
+++++I first met Eddie in Juvenile Hall. He was my cellmate. Like me, his youth was spent in abusive foster homes. Eddie landed in Juvie as a result of his violent tendencies. I gained residency in the Hall for borrowing other kid’s video game consoles. I didn’t think it was a problem, but apparently appropriating something from a locked house with nobody home was a no-no.
+++++Eddie was a massive hulking giant with an exceptionally small head, a limp and a harelip. The other kids in the Hall mocked him obsessively about his large stature, tiny head and goofy walk until he started cracking skulls. After that, nobody messed with him.
+++++I was an average kid of normal height and build with one exception: A shock of white hair blazed across the left side of my black locks. Everybody called me Skunk and ostracized me, but it wasn’t until puberty that I really attained freak status.
+++++Most kids have acne in adolescence, but one morning I woke up, and oozing red boils had colonized the entire surface of my face. Real estate was especially desirable on my nose. My carbuncular appearance made me the ridicule of every schoolyard I hallowed. In Juvie, Eddie stuck up for me. If my bubbly face offended some kid, Eddie offended the kid’s face with his fists. After Juvenile Hall, the plundering wens disappeared as mysteriously as they had arrived, leaving my head a pockmarked moon.
+++++Our socially unacceptable physical appearances, and our similar experiences growing up in shitty foster homes initially bonded us while doing time together, but it was grifting that solidified our camaraderie. Released from incarceration around the same time, we split the rent on a dumpy apartment. Stealing video game cartages from Wal-Mart, and hocking them at the used video game stores was our initial source of income. We made rent with this line of work for several months until the venture ceased being lucrative. Our next endeavor entailed rolling drunks after the bars let out, and again our enterprise kept a roof overhead until Eddie got a little too rough with a drunkard one night, shattering the poor bastard’s teeth with a ball-peen hammer.
+++++It was a rotten thing to do, but I figured nobody cared enough about an alky’s dental work to cause a stink. I was wrong. The incident made the evening news. They even broadcast sketches of the suspects. The profiles looked nothing like us. I don’t know how you screw that up because a haggard skunk and a giant with a baby’s head are sights you don’t soon forget. I attribute the misidentification to luck, but regardless of our good fortune, the gig was up, and we were forced to seek other means of gainful employment.
+++++We sat in the van, eating a cold pizza. I didn’t like the look in Eddie’s eye, and I certainly didn’t like what he’d done to the last old lady we’d marked. I meant to have a chat with him, but I never got around to it. I finished my half of the ductile pie, and pulled a dark work cap low over my brow, obscuring my hair and face. I exited the van into the rain, wearing a denim shirt and khaki pants with a flashlight in my pocket. Eddie stayed put, washing his pizza down with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. When I reached the old lady’s porch, the rocking chair was empty.
+++++“Who’s there?” an old woman’s voice asked from within after I knocked on the front door.
+++++“Electric company,” I said.
+++++“Power’s been out all day,” the voice replied, and the door cracked as much as the chain allowed. “There was a loud crash last night, and the lights went out.”
+++++“Lines down all over town,” I said. “I’m here to restore your juice. Can I come in?”
+++++“You’re with the electric company?”
+++++“Yes,” I said. “We’re going door to door.”
+++++“I don’t know,” the voice hesitated.
+++++“It’ll be several days to a week before we can get you back on the grid if you miss this appointment.”
+++++“Okay,” the warbling voice said, and the door opened.
+++++I switched on my flashlight, and entered the darkened living room. A couch and a table stacked with quilts occupied the space. There was also a recliner, and an old television set. Embroidered kitsch hung on the walls, and a framed certificate of sobriety. A musty smell lingered in the air.
+++++“Where’s the breaker panel?” I asked, and the old woman led me down the hall to a closet.
+++++The tiny walk-in was filled with quilts. Various intricate patterns and colors adorned the folded blankets. She removed a stack, revealing a metal box in the wall. I pointed my light at the breaker switches, and rubbed my stubbly chin.
+++++“I’ll have your lights on in no time.”
+++++“Oh good,” she said.
+++++“It’s an easy fix, but it requires a fifty-dollar down payment.”
+++++“Fifty dollars,” she said, wrinkling her brow and wringing her hands.
+++++“Standard procedure.”
+++++“Hold on,” she said, and disappeared into the bedroom. I stood still, listening to a drawer open and close. She returned with a fifty-dollar bill. I stuffed Grant into my pocket, and flipped the breakers on and off.
+++++“Where’s your husband?” I asked.
+++++“Passed away,” she said.
+++++“Sorry to hear that. I left my voltmeter in the truck. I need it to check your current. Be right back.”
+++++Normally, I’d just take the money, and move on to the next sucker, but old people don’t trust banks. They tend to keep their savings squirreled away in their homes. Not to mention, I didn’t even know what a voltmeter was, or how to use one, but I sounded like I did.
+++++“How’d it go?” Eddie asked as I climbed into the van.
+++++“As expected,” I said, and flashed the fifty-dollar bill. “She’s alone, and keeps her money hidden in her bedroom.”
+++++“Dentures?” Eddie asked.
+++++“Let’s go,” I said, ignoring the question. “She thinks I went to get a tool.”
+++++I grabbed my loaded snub-nosed .38 from the glove compartment, and put it in my pocket. I wasn’t expecting trouble, but I wasn’t taking chances either. We exited the van, and made our way through the rain. I wished Eddie would at least try not to limp. If somebody saw us, and had to give our descriptions to the authorities, a giant with a hitch substantially drained the pool of suspects.
+++++The door was still unlocked, so we switched on our flashlights, and entered the living room. I tried to tell the old lady I brought along a co-worker, but before I could say anything, Eddie knocked her to the floor.
+++++Eddie was never really in it for the money. He enjoyed making people suffer. I came to this realization back when we rolled drunks. My interest was strictly financial, but Eddie delighted in blackening an eye, breaking a bone, or powdering some poor bastard’s teeth. Fortunately most old ladies we conned were toothless, but regardless, I needed to rein Eddie in before we lost another form of employment.
+++++“Lighten up,” I said. “She’s frangible.”
+++++“Grab the dough,” Eddie barked.
+++++I went into the old lady’s bedroom, and pointed my flashlight at an oak dresser, removing drawers, and turning them upside down. The top ones contained clothes, and the bottom ones were filled with more colorful quilts. I rifled through everything, but found no money. I was about to check under the bed when I heard Eddie swearing.
+++++“What’s wrong?” I asked, running back into the living room.
+++++“She’s got an emergency alert device around her neck,” he said. “I saw her push the button. We better dip before the cops show.”
+++++“We’re safe,” I said. “The power’s out. She can’t notify anybody.”
+++++“I don’t like it,” Eddie said, and removed the electronic pendant from her neck. “You get the money?”
+++++“I’m still looking,” I said, and returned to the bedroom.
+++++I tore apart the bed, and searched under the frame, finding more quilts. I pointed the flashlight at a nightstand, and removed the drawer. I discovered a leather satchel, opened it, and hit the jackpot, locating several thick bundles of cash. I snatched the money, stashing it in my pockets as something else inside the bag caught my eye.
+++++I trained my flashlight on an old yellowing photograph. The image was of a young boy. He looked about three years old. He had a toy ball in one hand and a water pistol in the other, and Band-Aids taped to both knees. A small streak of white hair marked the left side of his head.
+++++I paid special attention to the boy’s facial features. His smiling eyes were completely ignorant of the horrors that lay ahead. I ran my fingers over my scarred visage, gazing at the child’s smooth complexion until a mournful sound drew my attention away from the picture.
+++++I returned to the living room, and pointed my flashlight at Eddie. He stood over the old lady with his pants around his ankles.
+++++“Give me a minute,” he said, looking back with a sneer.
+++++The old lady was on the floor, crying. I drew my .38, and shot Eddie in the back of his tiny head. His massive body crumpled, and blood gushed from the wound.
+++++I pointed the flashlight at the old lady.
+++++“Don’t hurt me,” she said.
+++++I pocketed the gun, and turned the flashlight onto my face, removing my ball cap, and revealing the shock of white hair against my blackened coiffure.
+++++“Skunky-Poo?” She asked in bewilderment.
+++++I helped her to her feet as the front door opened, and a police officer with a drawn service revolver ordered me to put up my hands, and get down on the ground. I lay on the floor, realizing the crucial mistake I’d made: the emergency alert device ran on batteries.
+++++I had hoped to beat the rap on those home invasions, but fingerprints don’t lie. Fortunately I wasn’t charged with Eddie’s murder, or I’d be facing twenty-five to life. The judge at my trial deemed it self-defense. My return to incarceration has been hard, especially without Eddie there to protect me, but I can’t complain.   It could be worse. At least I have one of mom’s hand stitched quilts to keep me warm at night in my prison cell.

Hatchet

In the early 1980s, in the USSR, the monstrosity that was the Soviet state had already begun to die, but it hadn’t yet started its death rattle. Among the millions of dissidents, the KGB had imprisoned an angry, slightly talented poet of little note. Ivan Ratchikakhov became an enemy of the Soviet state merely because he voiced his dislike for it.
+++++This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Ivan liked nothing, ever, and Ratchikakhov was a bad poet. His poetry failed to resonate with anyone, other than the very angry, and inconsolably frustrated. Among his problems was that he lacked empathy. He was unfamiliar, and thus inarticulate when trying to express human emotion of any description, except anger. He had the anger thing down pat, and in spades.
+++++When the Soviet Union crumbled, ending the Cold War, the gulags jettisoned their dissidents, setting them loose to pursue their happiness in a new, free Russia. That presented a dual problem for Ratchikakhov. His angry poetry was now quite pointless, and he had absolutely no idea what happiness was. With no income, Ratchikakhov emigrated to Brooklyn, where he found work as a porter in his building. There he married and had a son, Gustav.
+++++Given his unlikability, and utter lack of potential for anything other than menial labor, it wasn’t long before Ivan’s anger morphed into blazing resentment. He resented how his life turned out. He resented the fact that he had to live it in a land he would not have chosen. Rather than being grateful for having a roof over his head, and steady employment to keep it there, Ratchikakhov resented everyone he perceived as being responsible for the fact. In his bitter and limited imagination, that would be everybody. The two people nearest at hand to bear this resentment were of course his wife and son. He expressed his disappointment most frequently to his wife and son with a cruelty and brutality unmatched by anything other than its consistency.
+++++Ratchikakhov’s wife, Mariyah, bore it until Gustav was six. Then she fled back to Saint Petersburg, leaving her son to fend for himself. The boy was tough. Years of cruelty will do that to anyone. But, all young Gustav knew was pain. So much so, that it lost its significance. Nothing he did had any effect on the amount, frequency or severity of the torment. It was constant, and yet somehow random. Savagery absorbed without limit or reason, soon became understood by Gustav as a normal condition of life. His only ambition was to one day be the inflictor; as opposed to the target.
+++++Gustav’s own capacity for cruelty began to develop when he was young, first torturing neighbors’ pets. When that failed to satisfy him, he started killing them, in more and more elaborate ways. He experimented with fire. Gustav found the screams enjoyable, but it lacked the satisfaction of cutting or bludgeoning. He was after a motif to satisfy his blood-lust. He was looking for something to make the act of the destruction of another living being, all his own.
+++++While in elementary school, Gustav naturally graduated to bullying. Bigger than the other children his age, what distinguished him from his peers was his willingness to inflict all manner of pain on others. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. He was only limited by his imagination. The bullying had the effect of helping Gustav expand upon that. He liked the fear he inspired in his classmates. High School became a laboratory for his developing viciousness. He hurt a lot of people. He also picked up a nickname. Because of his penchant for violence, and his Russian heritage, he became known as Red Gus. He embraced the name, and the concept.
+++++This burgeoning talent for violence, coupled with Gustav’s utter void of human compassion, soon drew the notice of a local loan shark. Gustav was hired as a Mob collector. This was an over-reach. Because of his legendary lack of compunction, Gustav seldom left his clients with the ability to work. He could not understand that the goal was to scare the victim. If you crippled them, they couldn’t pay anything. His failure facilitated his ascension to the vocation he was meant for.
+++++Sabato Melchiore was the Capo of the Genovese family in Bushwick. He had a use for Gustav. He offered him a job.
+++++“I notice you like to hurt people. Ever think about killing them?”
+++++“All the time. Bill collecting sucked. What’s the point?”
+++++“I think the point is to leave them well enough to go to work, so they can pay their debts. I have something less frustrating, and not nearly as nuanced. Sometimes, I need to make someone dead. I need it public, and messy. I’m sending a message as much as anything else. Interested?”
+++++“Sure,” Gustav didn’t hesitate.
+++++“Don’t you want to know what it pays?”
+++++“You’re going to pay me?” Gustav asked with wonder.
+++++So began Gustav’s career as a hit man. He was good at it, and he loved the work. So well, that he began free-lancing. He started selling himself for short money to anyone that wanted someone dead. He was doing so much wet-work, that he was on the verge of killing more people than cancer. His blood-lust was insatiable, but there was a point to all of this mayhem. Gustav was in search of that one method of murder that he could call his own. He thought he found it when he took that contract from Jimmy Gutless Ciocio. Gustav became more concerned with perfecting his craft, than with his due-diligence. The opportunity to kill blinded him to the huge gaps in the background information the client provided him. Other than the fact that the girl was Ciocio’s ex-girlfriend, he knew nothing about her.
+++++In his quest for the perfect method of murder, Gustav discovered there is nothing as satisfying as the sound of a hatchet being buried in a living skull. It feels good too, he admitted. Like making perfect contact on the sweet spot of the baseball bat. You don’t even feel it. It’s the same with a hatchet and a head.
+++++He was glad he learned to look at his victims’ faces, because it was worth it. They would get that Oh shit look, accompanied by the sound of their bowels giving way in a liquid splat. The uncontrollable twitching, Gustav found amusing as fuck. I really like this method, he thought.
+++++Every hitter had a signature; that one method that was their own. This one was Gustav’s. He used it until he thought he had elevated it to an art form. But his growing fascination led to over-use. Over-use leads to mistakes. The rising blood-lust prevented Gustav from appreciating as much. Other than the exhilaration of snatching the life right out of his many victims, Gustav had trouble appreciating anything.
+++++So he definitely didn’t appreciate the irony of the position he was in at the moment. He had made a canoe of the head of his boss’s niece. He hadn’t known she was Sabato Melchiore’s god-daughter. When the naked and broken body of Celine Abandondo showed up on Decatur Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue, with her head caved in, Melchiore was briefly distraught. When he composed himself, he knew instantly who he had to speak with. Jimmy Ciocio was called Gutless for a reason. Even though his own death was already a certainty, he rolled over on Gustav within seconds.
+++++That is how Gustav Ratchikakhov found himself tied to a chair in a filthy Bushwick basement. The feel of his own urine, warm and spreading down from his lap, pooling at his feet, brought Gustav into intimate contact with the fear had had inflicted upon so many others. When Melchiore picked up the dull hatchet, swinging the tool to get the feel of it, Gustav was forced to concede; I really don’t like this method of murder at all. It was the very last thing he ever thought.

Blue

As I step to the edge, an absurd feeling of vertigo creeps across my skin, raising hairs beneath my shirt sleeves and lingering in my palms as a tingle of cold sweat.
+++++To remain steady, I look toward the horizon but instead catch my reflection in the windows of the building across the street. A man-shaped outline seems to spoil the brilliant blue glazing. A well-dressed imposter, standing motionless amongst the endless conveyor belt of reflected clouds and sky.
+++++London is quieter from the rooftops, as though playing through headphones hanging free around my neck. The familiar roar of commerce and infrastructure quelled to a whisper, diluted by the wind as it whips around the uppermost levels of the capital’s iconic structures.
+++++With one hand, I loosen my tie, working a finger into the pinstriped knot and pulling harder than the poor thing deserves. It is a magnificent tie. Oxford Blue with grey detailing. Fine quality silk with wool interlining. Hand-finished stitching. Dry clean only.
+++++As the knot surrenders, I tug the length of blue silk out in front of me, pausing to enjoy the warm glow on my neck as the material skims the underside of my collar. It fights my grip like a captured creature, urging for me to release it into the wind, flapping with wild abandon, desperate to fly from its troubled master.
+++++I ignore its plea and pocket it before taking a moment to consider my watch.
+++++On an average day, I would be tipping the wrist a dozen times to see its familiar face. Double that, if a deadline approached. It had become the master of delivering reassurance-at-a-glance, rewarding an extra hour in bed, or a moment to grab a coffee.
+++++But it could also be cruel.
+++++Without words, it could bestow panic and distress. A firmer press on the accelerator pedal, a dash to beat the red light. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde of modern chronology, and a gift from my two-faced wife.
+++++The watch tells me I’ve been away from my desk for one hour and forty-eight minutes. I’m late back from lunch but feel no urgency. Who cares where I am? There’s nothing for me here anymore, and even less at home. Good timekeeping no longer matters.
+++++The irony of that is palpable, a bitter taste that interrupts my daydreaming. The most significant event of my life had occurred last month when I arrived home earlier than she expected.
+++++Without allowing myself to dwell on that memory, I turn my wrist upwards, pinching the clasp to release its grip. I pull the watch from my wrist and, without pause, cast it into the air ahead of me.
+++++After watching the billowing of my tie for so long, I expected the watch to blow away in the breeze, but it falls, without ceremony, toward the street below.
+++++My wrist appears bare for the first time in years, a slight mark on the skin where the pigment differs is all that reminds me of it ever being there. I hold up my hand, covering the sun with my palm, allowing the rays to flick between my fingers.
+++++A glint of gold directs my attention.
+++++“That has to go,” I say while eyeing my wedding ring.
+++++Before I can attempt it, the feeling of vertigo comes back. Looking into a moving sky makes me feel weak, I feel off-balance. I close my eyes and plant my hands on my knees while I regain my composure. A few deep breaths and I decide not to look up again.
+++++When I open them, I can see beyond my brown leather shoes; a crowd has gathered some thirty or so floors below me. A halo of people surrounding what I can only assume are the skeletal remains of an Omega Seamaster. For a moment, I think I can hear it ticking.
+++++As the tremble subsides, I open my palm once more to examine my ring finger. It looks tight. I knew that already, but I look at it now with different eyes. I don’t see the love anymore. It no longer lives there as a token of our bond. It is just another reminder of all that she has taken from me.
+++++“It’s a lie,” I say with a contempt that threatens to choke me.
+++++I grab at my finger and pull the ring. It doesn’t budge. My finger only fattens as the ring bunches my loose skin together. I can feel warmth building in my cheeks as I am seized by a frustrated determination to rid myself of the promises I made nine years ago.
+++++Promises I kept.
+++++Without thinking, I shove my finger into my mouth biting hard on the base in a final act of bitter resentment for my wife. My beautiful, cheating wife. I taste blood, but I continue to clamp down as pain floods my hand. I struggle against bone as I grind my jaw back and forth hoping to saw through.
+++++In the end, the pain is more than I can bear. I withdraw my hand. The bite mark is moist with what little saliva I have, blood fills the dents where my teeth have sought to liberate my finger. Maybe that will be enough to show my intention, but I am ashamed I can’t finish the task.
+++++In a glimpse of regretful hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t fill myself with scotch before coming up here. I am too sober, and now my hand throbs with a pulsing reminder that I can’t even get that right. I have not had alcohol for years; it had not occurred to me that this might be the time to get off the wagon.
+++++I look beyond my feet once more; there are lights now. Flashing blue lights and the yellow box of an ambulance. I am too far to see details, but I can spot police as they usher people away from the building. Arms spread wide, shepherding my colleagues behind a cordon.
+++++Out of the splash zone.
+++++Will this hurt? I don’t imagine I will know. It can’t be worse than the pain I have suffered these last few weeks.
+++++A loud crash behind me as a door is flung open; the access has been kicked in. I turn around and face the three people now sharing the roof with me. I don’t recognise two of them, just police officers, generic faces in black and white.
+++++But the third. I knew her …
+++++She had been a happy-go-lucky college student, a formidable artist, a wild lover, a blushing bride—
+++++“Sir, we are going to have to ask you to come down from there, you can’t be on the roof.”
+++++— A distant stranger, a selfish liar —
+++++“Sir, we need you to come down, we would like to talk to you.”
+++++— My wife. My beautiful, cruel wife —
+++++She screams something, her face more alive in this moment than it has been in months. I must have been crying. The tears that had clung to my cheeks make a drastic whip sideways as I let myself tip backwards into the London air.
+++++The sky looks peaceful as I see my favourite tie, rippling on an ocean of endless blue.

95 Degrees

The zit-faced copy center clerk looked over the counter at Rummy and said, “What’s the name supposed to mean, this Crystal Crust?”
+++++“Means we got the best pizza in town. What’s it come to?”
+++++“I’ve never heard of you. And I eat a lot of pizza.”
+++++Rummy looked down at the clerk’s gut and held his tongue. He said, “We’re new. What’s it come to?”
+++++“No joke. I really love pizza.”
+++++“I said what’s it come to.”
+++++“Twenty bucks.”
+++++Rummy fished two 10s out of his pocket and handed them to the clerk.
+++++“Maybe I’ll give you guys a try sometime.”
+++++Rummy shrugged. He picked up the box of flyers and headed out the door into the suffocating post-storm heat of the late afternoon. His cousin Lauren was parked around the corner. The short walk to her Corolla was enough to make Rummy’s Orlando Magic tee stick to his chest with sweat. He tossed the flyers in the backseat and slid in alongside them. He tugged on his shirt collar, fanning himself. “This goddamn heat, man.”
+++++His other cousin Markie was in the passenger seat, rolling a joint. “They say 95 degrees is the temperature when most second-degree murders happen. The ones people don’t plan ahead of time. Something about that temperature makes people come unhinged. Lose they goddamned minds.”
+++++“You shitting me?” Lauren said pulling out into traffic.
+++++Markie was too focused on the joint to reply. He sealed it up between his lips and examined the precisely crafted work. Nodded in satisfaction. “Who’s smoking? Rummy, you smoking?”
+++++“Naw. Last time I got high in this kinda heat, I puked.” Rummy shifted his ass sideways, tried to make himself comfortable – an impossible task when cousin Markie was around. He always put a knot in Rummy’s stomach. 10 years Rummy’s senior, Markie always seemed to be on the edge of violence, like he was perpetually playing “punch for punch” with the world, but the world didn’t know it.
+++++Rummy flinched a lot when Markie was around, but he was desperate for money since his mom’s disability checks stopped coming in the mail. The state had caught wise to her “brittle ankles” and severed her lifeline. So now it was up to Rummy to provide and cousin Markie’s pizza flier scam was a moneymaker. Tourists were always easy prey and what better way to get them to open their hotel doors wide than pizza.
+++++“Getting blazed in the blaze,” Markie said slowly, like a prayer, letting the weed smoke float out of his mouth. “Getting blazed in the blaze.”
+++++Lauren merged onto the highway, towards the tourist hotels that pockmarked south Orlando.

***

Cliff Baxter stared into the mirror of his hotel bathroom. Stared through his own bloodshot eyes, through the mirror and into the storm banging inside his head. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.” Even with the door closed and both taps on the faucet running, he could hear his youngest son Aaron wailing over the lost E.T. doll.
+++++He clamped his fingers on the sink, gritted his teeth, and then threw a punch at the mirror. He held back at the last second, stopping inches from his reflection. He squeezed his fist tight enough to make it hurt. “Shut up, shut up, shut the fuck up!”
+++++He splashed cold water on his face and didn’t bother to towel off.
+++++“Why would you throw your brother’s doll in the lake?” Cliff said coming back into the room. Aaron was curled up on one of the beds, his face shoved into a pillow. It did nothing to muffle his cries, which had reached a sonic pitch that blurred the edges of Cliff’s vision.
+++++On the other bed, Owen, the eldest son by three years, was lying on his stomach, legs kicking in the air. He was flipping through the channels on the television perched in the cabinet in front of his bed. He stopped on a cartoon.
+++++Cliff took the remote out of his hands and switched off the television. “Answer me, Owen. Why did you throw his E.T. into the lake?”
+++++Owen shrugged. Cliff looked at his eldest, dumbfounded. His chest puffed in and out. “I said answer me, Owen!”
+++++Owen rolled onto his side and looked up at his father with those flinty eyes he inherited from his mother. “I’m hungry.”
+++++“You’re hungry?”
+++++“I’m hungry.”
+++++Cliff sighed. “Aaron, your brother’s hungry. Are you hungry?”
+++++Aaron removed the pillow from his face. His freckled face was void of tears, his eyes clear. Like he hadn’t been really crying at all. “Yes, I’m hungry.”
+++++Cliff’s wife was delivering a speech at one of the nearby convention centers. It was her idea to take the kids to Universal Studios for the two days of the expo – leaving Cliff alone with them. Alone in the madness of the theme park and the crippling Central Florida humidity. Screaming, sweating, pissing, fighting, and one nose bleed. This was what Cliff had used up his vacation days for.
+++++“Dad!” Owen said. “We’re hungry!”
+++++Cliff nodded slowly, staring at the carpet pattern as he remembered something.
+++++Before Owen had inexplicably hurled Aaron’s E.T. souvenir doll into the lake that bordered the hotel’s parking lot, Cliff had pulled a flyer off his windshield. It was for a local pizza place. Yes, that’s it. Fill their little garbage mouths with pizza. Seal them with cheese. Bind their lips with tomato sauce forever. Then, the peace.
+++++“Who wants pizza?”

 ***

“Crystal Crust Pizza, pickup or delivery?” Lauren said. The caper only worked if they wanted delivery. The man gave her the name of a hotel and his room number. She hung up the payphone and walked back to her car.
+++++“We got an order,” she said, getting behind the wheel. “Triple Sands Resort. Room 305.”
+++++“Shit, about time,” Rummy said, stifling a yawn. He thought about phoning home to let his mom know he’s okay. Instead, he shot her a quick text saying he’d be home in about an hour with some dinner. “Was starting to think today was gonna be a bust.”
+++++Markie opened the glove box and took out the snubnosed revolver. He held the short barrel up to his lips and said, “Order up!”
+++++Lauren and Markie laughed. Rummy slumped down in the backseat and said, “Time to get paid.” He tried his best to sound enthusiastic.

 ***

“Can we do the Transformers ride again? Dad? Dad! DAD!”
+++++Which son was screaming now, Cliff couldn’t tell. Could be Aaron or Owen. Or a third child. An invisible one sent from Hell to push his insanity along. A triplet, like the third head of Cerberus.
+++++After ordering the pizza, Cliff had gotten changed and the boys had been absorbed in the TV. He’d put on a nice buttoned shirt and some chinos his wife had bought him the week before. She liked him in chinos. Changing into these clean clothes, Cliff managed to feel somewhat human again. It quieted the storm a bit – pushed it back out into the ocean. But then a commercial for the new Transformers movie had come on television and their voices cracked again and the crown of high-pitched chaos returned for Cliff to bear.
+++++There was a knock at the door, followed by both sons screaming PIZZA in unison.
+++++Through the peephole, Cliff saw a young man holding a pizza box. He grabbed his wallet off the dresser. When he opened the door, Rummy rushed through the door, shoving the empty pizza box in Cliff’s face, pushing him off guard. Markie came in next, his arm extended, covering Cliff with the revolver.
+++++“Your money!” Markie said, kicking the door shut. “Give it up!”
+++++The boys ran to the corner of the room, hugging each other and screaming.
+++++“Shut those kids up, man!” Rummy said.
+++++“Shut em up, pops!” Markie said, stepping further into the room. He was in between Cliff and the kids now. The kids screamed louder. Rummy was blocking the door, bobbing on his toes, ready to strike. “I said shut em up!”
+++++The screams of the strangers and his children merged inside Cliff’s head, behind his eyes. They rattled together for a moment and then he heard nothing. Like someone had hit the mute button. There was only a dull humming where the noise had been.
+++++The silence jarred Cliff. He had to steady himself on the bed. He looked at the intruders, their mouths contorting, no sounds coming out. He looked at his sons.
+++++Their faces like little wolves howling. He heard nothing. It was here, finally. The peace.
+++++But it wouldn’t last long, Cliff knew. The peace gave him this clarity. He had to make it last. Make it have an impact.
+++++Cliff took one step towards Markie and punched him as hard as he could in the side of the head. Markie went down and the gun dully bounced once on the carpet. Rummy made a dive for it but Cliff was closer. He snatched it up and aimed it at the two men.
+++++Rummy crab-walked backwards to the wall and hunched close to cousin Markie, who was shaking his head to maintain consciousness. “Yo, we’re sorry!” Rummy said. “My mom’s got a disability! I just needed some money for her, man! For food! Keep the gun, just let us go!”
+++++Cliff looked over his shoulder and saw his boys holding each other. They had stopped crying and were looking up at their father, their faces distorted with a mixture of fear and confusion and something else. Something he’d never seen in his sons’ eyes before. Awe?
+++++Cliff glanced out the window. The moon was reflecting off the hotel’s round lake, giving it a ring of silver. Like a crystal crust.
+++++He turned to Markie and Rummy and smiled. “Either of you guys know how to swim?”

 ***

Lauren held the smoke in too long and let out a painful hack that burned her throat. She knew she should slow down with the smoking, since she had to drive all the way back to south Orlando, but this shit was making her nervous. What was taking her cousins so long? Usually it was in and out. The tourists hand over the cash or the traveler’s checks and they split it up on the ride home. Tonight’s caper was taking too long.
+++++She couldn’t worry about it for too long because she dozed off. The humidity and weed will do that to a person.
+++++Markie and Rummy opened their car doors, jolting her awake. Markie was rubbing the side of his face as he plopped down into the passenger seat. He did not look like someone who had just scored.
+++++“What happened to you?” she said.
+++++She could smell Rummy before she turned sideways in her seat and got a good look at him. He was sopping wet and looked even more miserable than Markie. “Why the fuck do you smell like a dead fish?”
+++++“Just drive,” Markie said. “For the love of God, just drive away from here.”
+++++Lauren turned the engine over and flipped on the headlights. They lit up to reveal Cliff walking back towards the hotel entrance. He turned and waved at the Corolla.
+++++“Who the fuck is that guy? And why is he carrying a fucking E.T. doll?!”

When Everything Around You Starts To Buzz

Benji lives at 865 York St. in Oakland, California 94610. He lives there with his wife Tess, his dog Raider, and a big ass gun. I didn’t catch the name of his big ass gun. I’m telling you right now, he doesn’t play nice.

***

“What are we playing?” Scotty asks.
+++++Scotty is built like a pit bull. His neck disappears into his shoulders and his wide jaw resembles a bunch of wood planks and cement bricks slapped together willy-nilly. No shit. Scotty is a weekend player. We all are. Some worse than others. Scotty is worse than others. The man is a billboard. A bad hand- he likes to grind his molars back down into calcium and sawdust and his temples throb. A good hand- he’d trace the tip of his fuck you finger along the edge of his cards and smirk like an arch villain. Last time we played, Scotty helped me pay rent. He is the last one to the table and I am happy to see him.
+++++“Seven card, nothing fancy, fifty to get in, no limits.” Benji answers. “Nico, get me a beer. Tess bought a case earlier: It should be behind that tofu stuff she eats.”
+++++“Benji, do I look like a bitch?” Nico barks back with no bite.
+++++“Well, yes. Yes, you do.” replies Benji not looking up while he shuffles a red and white deck.
+++++Nico fetches us all a round of piss beer.
+++++Nico cannot play cards. He doesn’t have the guts for it. What Nico can do is talk a nun naked and then convince said nun that god can only hear her prayers when she is bent over and her hair is being pulled. That doesn’t mean shit at cards but sometimes helps away from the table. He has a healthy disdain for gambling and gives up on most hands. He’s only here because of the snacks, I think.
+++++I met Nico years ago at Bozo’s Bandwagon on Grand Ave. We were drinking the same brand of cheap whiskey. We both knew whiskey wasn’t so much of a drink but rather a way of life. I wouldn’t call the man my best friend but he was the closest thing to it. He knew how to laugh with little reason and somehow he never let the grind get to him. I liked Nico for that.
+++++“Stop spilling your drink on the goddamn table. Tess is gonna kill me.” Benji snaps at Scotty. “O.K. who’s in?”

***

We are deep into the game at this point. A few hours in and the money and the luck and the drink are swaying back and forth between the four of us but I have the biggest stack…
+++++We started the night at Bozo’s and then proceeded to twist the night into a blur of booze and smoke. Both kinds. All kinds. Nothing good ever comes from this but all men feel lucky and strong during these hours so we thundered on. We drenched last call with drunken laughter and idiot applause. We didn’t leave Bozo’s until we swallowed the last drops, and slapped the bar’s wood grain slabs with our empty bottles, and said our final goodbyes to the D.U.I.’s and the one night stands.
+++++It was 2a.m. when we stumbled out of the bar. It was 2a.m. when Benji whispered in my ear, “I feel like hurting something.”
+++++Benji knows the game. He plays it close to the vest. Nevertheless, he does have a tell. When the cards are bad for him, he flares his nostrils quickly and only once; like a coked up bull ready to charge without the sprinting Spaniards. When he’s drunk and losing big his temper trumps reason. He starts to bully the other players with big sad bluffs. Not so much “pushing his luck”, more like shoving and spitting on it.
+++++My pops told me once that when it comes to any kind of successful hustle, alcohol and stupidity should never mix. Tonight, 865 York St., Oakland CA 94610 is brimming with alcohol and stupidity. I barely know how to play cards. Nevertheless, I can’t walk away as pops would have liked. Poker is complex and difficult thing to learn, people are not.
+++++Scotty was easy money. Benji will risk his first born when he’s drunk. Nico is a nimrod with a sugar momma. And I have my wife and my daughter waiting in a pay-by-the-week room that’s past due. I need the money.
+++++“So Scotty, you still doing side work for Big Al?” Nico asks.
+++++“Naw, fucked up the wiring in one of the apartment units. Some kid walked into a room, flipped the light switch on, and now the kid can’t talk right, slurs or something.” He replies, shaking his head. He pauses for a bit and in one mammoth gulp drinks almost half a fifth of whiskey. “Now every time I ask Al for work he mumbles something about insurance.”
+++++“What he really means is you’re a brain dead who, when push comes to shove, couldn’t find the ON button on a T.V. set,” Benji states through a cocked smile.
+++++“Speaking of ON buttons, I finally got that Puerto Rican bartender at Limelight to help me scratch an itch.” Nico bellows.
+++++“What happened to Stacy?” I ask, tugging at my sleeve.
+++++“Nothing happened to Stacy. Anyways, last night I go over to her spot and everything gets real nasty real quick.” He says, almost delirious. “She slams me against the wall, knocking down pictures of her and her kid at some beach somewhere, rips down my pants, and starts sucking my dick like it was her favorite food. Then she stops, gets on all fours and, I shit you not, screams, screams, at me to finger her asshole hard. Real hard. Like I was supposed to knock her out through her butt hole.”
+++++“What the fuck did you do?” We all say in unison.
+++++“1st round knock out.” Nico answers with his head tilted up.
+++++“Such the fuckin’ gentleman.” I say, smiling and shaking my head.
+++++“Whaa time issit?” Scotty slurs aloud to no one in particular. The whiskey has won.
+++++“Almost 7 in the morning.” Lighting another cigarette as I answer. Our bender waning.
+++++“Shiiit, I godda go. Los so much money t’nigh.”
+++++Scotty staggers to his feet, takes one last tug from a random leftover beer, and stops moving.
+++++“Rochelle iz, iz… gonna kill me.” He says while staring at his empty hands as if they are telling him a secret only he can hear.
+++++The story should have ended there, right when Scotty left. I should have finished my drink, pocketed the money, and walked the fuck out but Benji was drunk and getting a ruthless run of bad cards, and Nico was still stupid, and Lady Luck was blowing all her kisses my way. I had to see how far I could take it.
+++++“Raise you $30.” Benji slurs, nose flaring.
+++++Benji doesn’t have shit.
+++++“I’m out.” Nico says, running his hand through his hair, fixing it for the eighth time.
+++++“What was that!?” Benji snaps. “With the hair?” Benji looks down at his cards then back at us.
+++++“Shut up. It was nothing and I call.” I reply, scratching my neck.
+++++I win that hand big. It isn’t close. Benji looks at Nico with a mix of disgust and suspicion but doesn’t say a damn thing. He sits back on his chair and takes a slow, long drink of the remaining vodka.
+++++The early morning sunlight is now piercing through the cracks in the shades like burning bullets. One of the stray lights hits the clear bottle as Benji takes his drink and the light immediately shatters against his face. I stare at him without saying a damn thing.
+++++“Damn. What was that, six maybe seven, big hands in a row?” Benji snarls. Completely drunk. Shifting hard in his seat.
+++++The last time I saw Benji this faded he ran into the kitchen at Applebee’s and started to choke the cook. I still don’t know why. It was funny at the time but I wasn’t the one trying to cook chicken fingers for a family of four with Benji around my neck.
+++++“Something like that. I guess the cards are going my way.” I say.
+++++“Sure you’re not gettin’ any help?” Benji stares directly at Nico without blinking.
+++++Nico deals the next round. I watch as the cards drop and with each one, I feel Benji grit his teeth meaner and meaner. Two of clubs for him. Ace of hearts for me. Seven of diamonds for him. Ace of diamonds for me. By the fifth card, I know I will win. For a split second, I consider throwing the hand, but that will make the situation worse, so I let it play.
+++++“It’s only us again.” Benji says, no longer disguising his anger. Nico folds early so he tosses the sixth card to us and waits. Nico can feel something is not right. He begins to get nervous. He starts talking fast and at a higher pitch. The big dummy.
+++++“So how’s your wife?” He asks. I want to scream, shut the fuck up. “Heard she went Tahoe this weekend.”
+++++“When did you start to give a shit about Tess?”
+++++“Just asking.” Nico’s voice raises another octave.
+++++“Hey, your dog is a Rott, right? Raider, right? I hear they can get vicious. My neighbor had a Rott once. Scared the shit out of me. Thought it was going to bite at any moment. One day it got loose…”
+++++“Shut up and drop the last card.” I say as calmly as possible, with just a hint of annoyance.
+++++Nico tosses the seventh card and wipes the sweat off his palms onto the felt table. Shit.
+++++“What the fuck was that!?” Benji says.
+++++“What?”
+++++“What!? You know exactly what, you mothafuckin’ cheat.” Snaps Benji.
+++++“It’s nothing.” I casually respond in an effort to try to calm everything down before it explodes.
+++++“Nothing!? Let me see what you got.”
+++++I have a fat, sexy, beautiful full house. Benji can’t even slap together a pair.
+++++“Hold on.” Benji says. He gets up and stumbles drunk into the back bedroom. Nico wants to run and is staring at me for the go-ahead. Nothing is said between us. I sit there with a dumb smile and shrug my shoulders.
+++++Benji walks back into the room holding a fistful of something in his right hand. Hanging from his left hand is that big ass gun I never caught the name of. What kind of gun was it? I don’t know and I don’t care. The only thing I want to know about any gun is the direction of its barrel.
+++++“I can’t believe you guys cheated me.”
+++++Benji opens the revolver, places six bullets on the table, and finishes half a beer in one swallow.
+++++“We didn’t, Benji. That’s how the cards came.” I say, trying to deliver the line without the tipping him off to my rising fear.
+++++“WHY?” Benji screams. “I trusted you boys” he then says quietly into his chest.
+++++Benji then picks up a single bullet, loads it, and clicks the revolver to an empty chamber.
+++++“We’ve played before and I took your money before. I didn’t cheat then…

Load and Click.

“…and I didn’t cheat tonight.”

Load and Click.

“I took you into my own home and you disrespect me like this.”

Load and Click.

I look over at Nico and it appears he is about to cry.

“Benji, stop fuckin’ with us. No one cheated. You know I’m stand up.”

Load and Click.

“All those signals, back and forth, all damn night, you were cheating me out of my hard earned money. You know I got a baby on the way…”

Load and Click.

“WHY DID YOU DO THIS?” Benji screams. His eyes are bloodshot and begging for violence. I look over again at Nico who is now crying.
+++++“Benji, listen, for the last time before you shoot my pretty face off. I took your money clean. Nothing dirty about it. So put that big ass gun away and get me a beer before I call Tess and tell her that you didn’t use the coasters.”
+++++He cracks a smile like daybreak and lazily drops the gun to his side. He gets up and sits next to me, placing the gun on top of my stack of twenties. I gently push the barrel away from me. Nico gets up slowly from his seat, pauses a moment, and then runs out the door. I light two cigarettes, hand Benji one, and we sit there staring at the overflowing ashtray in front of us for a few minutes. No one says a damn thing.
+++++It is about 8a.m. and Bozo’s is about to open. Benji wants to apologize by keeping me drunk until noon. To tell you the truth, I need that type of apology. We walk into Bozo’s as Sue is plugging in the Pac Man Pinball Machine. A sad jazz song fills the dead air. We stroll over to the pool table and put two quarters in. Benji racks. Scotty walks in asking Benji if he can crash on his couch, Rochelle kicked him out again. With their backs turned, I pull out an Ace of Spades from my sleeve, fold it in half, and stuff the card in my back pocket.
+++++“Hey Benji, you want to play for a drink? I’m feeling lucky.”

The Turnpike

The way it starts, the fragment of memory that forms the shadow of my rebirth, is hurt. I keep coming back to that; call it ground zero. A searing sort of pain, not the fleeting kind, the kind that puts unexpected tears in a grown man’s eyes and makes him smile quickly, embarrassed. Nor the kind that gets his blood up and sends a shock to his heart that he—that I—actually get a kick out of.
+++++No—just a monotonous pain some quarter-million years old; an angry sneer twisting the crimson face that mocks me in the rear-view mirror of my concussed brain. When I hear the slurred words elbow their way through the hurt I see a dim movie show flickering in the shadows of my shaken skull. I’m watching an old Driver’s Ed film I sat through one time in High School, stomach dancing with squeamishness and hee-haw adolescent nerves again: a tragic Midwesterner in a buzz cut and plaid shirt, late 1950s, flip-flopping gently in the front seat of a crushed Edsel; jaw crushed in too, agonal respiration, nervous system on auto. Signal 30. The narrator, a State Highway Patrolman in mirror-lens aviators (I like to think), speaks with authority, each word coming with less echo distortion. Comforting in the absence of anything not slick with blood or oil:
+++++‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’

***

I’m reborn and the pain is all but gone. I’m dressed in a hospital gown and when my fingers reach up to explore the band of tightness around my head they find an eye patch over my right eye and, beneath it, the rough, inflamed tracks of scarring all down my cheek. If I pushed my finger against the soft fabric of the patch, the whole thing would sink inwards into the empty socket. I can’t get used to it. I think only how I must resemble the commandant in an old POW escape movie, and then my remaining eye darts back to the little glass sphere resting on the bedside table, watching me right back—a lonely glass eye with a sad, blue iris. I click my Zippo lighter open and shut in my other hand because the brassy coldness and the solid clicking are reassuring. The Highway Patrolman, who is actually a Doctor (I know he’s a doctor because there’s this stethoscope hanging over the collar of his white coat, see), says ‘You know you can’t smoke in here, Josh?’ and I snap back at him…
+++++‘The sound … Something about it helps me remember.’
+++++I remember. I have my own two eyes, thank God, at the wheel of my lust red soft top roadster on the Campo Road stretch of State Route 94. Lucy is alongside me, wrestling with a road map, wearing red teashade granny glasses and, behind her, luggage is crammed in with my Spanish guitar. My arm is rested on the door frame soaking up the sun and the radio hums gently. Blissful. My blue eyes (which Lucy adores) flick up to the rear-view mirror to study the road behind intensely, and it shimmers there in the glass, wide and sleepy. Lucy grows bored of the unwieldy map and its confusing circuitry of interwoven roads, and she holds it outside the car where the real road zooms past and lets the whole thing disappear, whisked back behind us to take flight then tumble along the empty asphalt. ‘To Hell with it,’ she says with a cute/crazy giggle and instead puts her bare feet up onto the dash and lets the wind catch strands of her hair. We both break into laughter and the speedometer slowly creeps up as if in measure of my contentment. The Doctor speaks again and I’m back in the hospital, half-blind. Not contented.
+++++‘Wake up Josh … You’re alive.’
+++++‘Lucy?’ I ask faintly, as I reach up and feel the rough gauze of the bandages which cover half of my face. A nurse dressed in white, a fleshy out-of-focus blob as she peers at me, steps to my side and gently eases my arm back down, whispering reassuring hush words, and all I can do is groan the word ‘Hurts,’ as the stale air escapes my lungs. I hear the Doctor say, ‘Give him another shot,’ as if he’s underwater. I settle.
+++++You’re alive?

***

The medical light box flickers on and reveals the blue-grey horror of my x-rays: skull, ribcage, leg bone. The Doc sits opposite me and I can tell my incessant clicking on the Zippo lighter bugs him more than ever. He hands me a photograph, black & white, and I struggle to judge the distance with one eye, missing my reach by inches. Adjusting, I seize the photograph and see that it—and the others like it on the little coffee table below—are of the scene of the road accident.
+++++‘They’ve withheld the more graphic ones,’ he says, and it’s almost as if he’s trying to make me snap.
+++++‘Can I see my fiancée?’
+++++‘That won’t be possible.’
+++++‘I don’t remember the … impact. Just … whiteness … a blank—like I short-circuited.’
+++++‘They moved what was left of the car from the pound to a junkyard. Sporty little thing,’ the Doc tells me. ‘You’re lucky to be alive, Josh, try to remember that.’
+++++‘I want to see her body,’ I say.
+++++‘No you don’t, Josh.’
+++++I look at the images of twisted metal and black stains on blacktop and I break down, bowing my head and blubbing like a tired kid.

***

I prefer to sit up, awake, do stuff. I get nightmares at night. When I lie in bed I stare up at the ceiling and I hear screeching brakes and tyres, shattering glass, twisting metal; the kind of sounds that cut me up.
+++++I’m pleased when the Doc comes around, closer to getting out. My good eye is fixed to the TV mounted on the wall on which a Coup de Ville has just swerved, speeded up, through a barrier and off a San Fernando hillside. It rolls and explodes, disintegrating. I’m sitting on the edge of my hospital bed and the Doc, oblivious to the clumsy entertainment in the background, is cutting and peeling off my bandages with the kind of scissors that jut up at the ends so he doesn’t stab me in my already tattered face, which I guess is kind of thoughtful of him. ‘Apart from your eye, the physical injuries were minimal. Bruising mostly. The medication kept you under…’
+++++Not content, I ask, ‘Did you really have to take my eye, doc?’
+++++‘The accident did it for us,’ he tells me. ‘You’ll adapt to using just one, adjusting your sense of perspective.’
+++++‘When can I speak to the police?’ I ask him.
+++++I can see the Doc frowning. He ignores me. ‘Any flashbacks yet? Nightmares? Weird déjà vu feelings?’
+++++I think back a little before I say, ‘I sold up and hit the open road with my future wife. We were driving cross country. There was an accident, now she’s dead. I’m just filling in gaps.’
+++++‘Give it time,’ he reassures me.
+++++‘I had a lifetime ahead of me… with her.’
+++++He removes the last of the bandaging and lets it drop to the floor, a tad too disgusted for my liking. He examines my face close-up—what I can only imagine to be the black, empty socket of my squished-by-blunt-trauma right eye.
+++++‘We can give you an artificial eye, the glass kind. Match it right up to your real colouring.
+++++Until then, you might like to wear this…’
+++++I take the black eye patch he’s offered me but I don’t thank him.
+++++I put on my dressing gown and the eye patch too, then I head out to the payphone and call the police. A bandaged, wheelchair-bound patient rolls past me, others ambling zombie-like along the corridor. I quickly get agitated as I try to make a case: ‘Just put me through to a detective. I was involved in a road accident… My wife … my fiancée … was killed three or four weeks ago. I’ve been out cold in a hospital bed. The wiring of my brain is out of whack.’
+++++I plead with them but I get nowhere. Forget it. After I slam the receiver down I take out the bottle of pills the Doc gave me and swallow a few dry.
+++++When I sleep I dream of the road and the sun is shining so brightly it makes my eyes water. Lucy is bored and looking through a cheap souvenir slide viewer—the kind shaped like a TV set and which houses miniature picture postcard slides, faded and already thirty years old. The clicking bugs me. She stops and notices a chip in the windscreen caused by a stone kicked up from the road. She touches the fine, blood-vessel crack in the glass.
+++++When I wake the Doc asks me, ‘Ready to try the new eye?’
+++++I stall, nervous and more than a touch queasy at the thought. ‘What if it rolls around backwards and I don’t notice?’
+++++‘Then you’ll scare little kids in the street and you won’t win any beauty pageants.’
+++++Wise ass. ‘I think I’ll need a cigarette first.’
+++++‘Twenty-a-day man, are you Josh?’ he asks me and, strangely, I can’t quite recall. I search for even the most fleeting of memory, but they don’t seem to be there. Not when I’m awake at least.
+++++‘I have nightmares … about Lucy,’ I tell him. ‘In the crash, her head is taken clean off.  Is that true, doc?’
+++++He tilts his own head, firmly attached to his neck, and shrugs giving me a grim feeling that makes me glad I don’t remember more.
+++++I do remember one thing, at least. ‘There was another car that night, tried to overtake but ran us off the road. It wasn’t my fault, Doc.’
+++++‘There was no other vehicle, Josh. This is natural—you’re shifting feelings of guilt to a figment of your imagination, a phantom. Face the reality and heal.’
+++++I shake my head. ‘No.’
+++++‘The police report concluded that the hazardous glare of the low-angle sun had made you swerve off the road. Others have perished there too—it’s known as the Devil’s Elbow, damn dead man’s curve. The police won’t take it further.’
+++++‘But they must…’
+++++‘I mean they won’t charge you, Josh.’
+++++I stare him down as best I can, outrage in my single wide eye. The Doc hands me a small cutting from a newspaper, which I take and read, holding it closer to my face to compensate for the lack of vision. The newspaper print headline reads, “BLINDED BY THE SUN: ROAD TRIP COUPLE IN WRECK, ONE DEAD”
+++++‘Face the reality,’ he whispers.
+++++I read their choice of words again bitterly: Blinded. I gather my thoughts, try to be practical. ‘When’s the funeral, Doc?’
+++++‘You were unconscious.’
+++++‘Why wasn’t it me?’ I wonder out loud.
+++++‘It was her time.’

***

It’s not at all bad, the phony eye. Maybe a chilly stillness to it if you stared too long; a certain deadness, but … Hell, what do you expect.
+++++The reflection of my face stares back at me with two eyes and I tilt my head back and forth, up and down, to test the glass one. I’m on the road to recovery, maybe off-road. Enough to get out of bed though, to pull my own trousers on and zip my jacket over a green hospital scrub top. Too cocky, I remove the eye and look at it in the palm of my hand as if it’s a weird sea urchin I’ve caught in a rock pool. I blink first. I glance momentarily up at the reflection again and when I see the empty blackness of my socket it disturbs the crap out of me and damned if I don’t drop the puppy dog eye on the floor. It rolls across the room and I have to chase it, thankful it’s harder to break than the original.
+++++On the bed, I lay out the things they salvaged from the wreck. Holiday photographs, some burned around the edges. There’s a small old suitcase made of leather with stickers on it, the trendy kind, and Lucy’s John Lennon glasses, their lenses shattered. I cradle the broken glasses in my hand gently and take care not to drop them like I did my stupid eyeball.
+++++I checked myself out of the hospital and I’m heading south, thumbing a ride by the side of the road, flinching every time a truck roars past.
+++++The suitcase feels heavy and impractical and I hope someone picks me up soon. When a guy stops I eyeball him apprehensively, then climb in and sit quietly, staring out of the passenger window and daydreaming while the guy watches the road, equally silent. He takes me only part of the way and the rest I walk. I get lost a few times, take a few wrong turns, but eventually I find the place. It’s a pretty little rural cemetery with rows of graves, patches of colour from floral tributes here and there. I walk slowly through the maze, plot serial numbers counting up as I search for one particular grave—Lucy’s. 145… 146… 147… I stop at 148. Lucy.
+++++Beats me what I do now, I hadn’t planned that. I stare at it for a long moment, a simple wooden marker over a mound of fresh earth. I don’t have any words or thoughts so I light up a cigarette with the brass Zippo, cough violently, then open the suitcase and take out the holiday photographs. Leafing through the snapshots I see Lucy carefree, relaxed, young and beautiful; happy images of her in the sun, clowning around and posing with the guitar. One photograph of Lucy is burned, the emulsion melted and blistered. What a price she paid.
+++++When I look back to the grave I have some words. ‘I didn’t kill you.’
+++++I leave the photograph propped on the grave and hitch-hike away from there; another vehicle, another reticent journey. I almost climb out as I lean through the side window, hair blowing in the breeze, face directed up at the vast pale blue sky. Spots of rain begin to patter on the bodywork of the car and that’s the only reason I don’t jump.
+++++By the time I get to the junkyard the rain is lashing down, wet and warm, hitting the junked vehicles stacked six high in sharp white sheets. It splashes off twisted spare parts, cubed cars, bald tyres and flows down a wall covered with hubcaps. Along a miry aisle I pass twisted metal frames in rust brown and charred black. I see the wrecked sports car on my left, sandwiched between two other write-offs. I see the crushed bodywork, scorch marks and flaked red paintwork, jagged broken headlights, and spider web patterns on the windscreen.
+++++I stare at the wreckage for a long time before stepping in closer to examine the damage. Without thought, my hand runs along the once-smooth fender and I peer in through the letter-boxed driver’s window. I see blood on the windscreen, a single blonde hair glued to it despite the best efforts of the rain.

***

I wave off the driver of my third ride and I’m left alone, the road off the turnpike winding along behind and ahead of me. A flat patch of red and grey fur lies at my feet, old roadkill. The sun is setting and the sky is a candyfloss mix of yellow, orange, pink and deep black, making the toll booths on the horizon appear like blocky teeth in a lower jaw. Beside me, flowers have been left under a rusting road sign and they’ve since died themselves and turned brown. The sign above reads: ‘LAST YEAR: 59 ACCIDENTS, 12 DEATHS.’
+++++The surface of the crooked road carries thick black tyre skid marks cutting across from the middle of the lane and the yellow thermoplastic stripes, off the side of the road and continuing as double tracks of churned-up scrub and earth. I look over my shoulder nervously before following the tracks to the edge of a steep verge and, looking down, I see exactly where we came to rest. I struggle down to the foot of the bank and then look around me.
+++++This is where she died: ground zero, near the turnpike, off the Devil’s Elbow.
+++++I slip the cigarette lighter from my pocket and begin clicking the lid, anxiously. Happy, I suppose, that the Doc isn’t here to bitch about it at least. Wandering around the scrubland below the road, searching the grass with my foot, I see a small patch of red hidden in the grass. Hesitant at first, I crouch and pick it up and see that it is Lucy’s little red TV-shaped slide viewer.
+++++The light is fading and the rain has passed. I stumble farther from the main road, between tall trees, swing the suitcase and throw it into the undergrowth, thinking Screw it. I fall to my knees, get back up and walk a little more, steadying myself against a tree trunk which feels cold and damp. I have to hold my head in pain before taking out the pills the Doc gave me and swallowing several, spilling the rest to the forest floor. The fleshless lips on the impish crimson face peel back into a wicked smile, mocking my torture.
+++++‘That maniac took everything from me; I’ve paid with my future…’ I mumble in despair.
+++++I dream of hypnotic sunlight on the windscreen. Lucy speaks to me, ‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
+++++When I look up at the rear-view mirror, the road behind me is empty, except for a bouncing blur which resembles a jelly fish under water, trailing tendrils of blonde and pink hair: a severed head tumbling across the hot road, splashing scarlet.

***

I wake up half dead as well as half blind, on the forest floor with my back against a tree. My glass eye has been open the whole time, keeping watch. Aching and groggy, I get to my feet. Minutes later I’m hitch-hiking again, not fancying my chances with my clothes and hair in such disarray, but a truck pulls up for me nevertheless. The driver leans across in his cab to look me up and down, then flips down the sun visor on his glasses, saying helpfully, ‘You look like you got hit by a car, buddy.’
+++++We stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and I remember that we stopped there before. Lucy got out to stretch her legs and buy a soda from the vending machine, while I pumped the gas. She popped the cap with the machine’s bottle opener, drained it and spun the bottle in the gravel, watching it make four or five revolutions amid a little dust cloud. When the bottle had slowed to a halt and the dust had settled, she saw that the neck was pointing back where we’d come from. A disappointed look appeared on her face and she headed back to me.
+++++The truck pulls into the gas station and we open its two doors simultaneously like elephant ears flapping at troublesome flies. I climb down from one side, the trucker from the other, and just as Lucy had done, I stretch my stiff legs, kicking around at the ground as I wander over to the vending machine. When I look into the glass front I catch a brief, imaginary reflection of her face there, before I turn back to the truck, where the trucker is checking his rig.
+++++Idly I watch a man fill the petrol tank of his car. I forget that my bladder is half-full too. I crouch down beside the front bumper and stroke my fingertips over chips of red paint scraped there after some prang. The owner at the pump looks at me, frowning, until I back away. I find Lucy’s glass bottle, still there in the dirt, pointing just where Lucy had left it. Back.
+++++A kid on a skateboard is in front of me, staring bleary-eyed. I stare right back, then lift my hand to my right eye, fumble with it for a second and hold out the fake to show the boy. He yelps and flees back to his family’s station wagon, terrorised.
+++++‘Keep your eye on the road!’ I call out after him, and when he’s gone I drop the nettled goofball act, stupid and angry, putting the glass eye back, and looking down at the bottle again…
+++++The trucker mounts up and I hear the engine cough to life. Back on the road, I silently take out Lucy’s miniature slide viewer, hold it up to the light and look through it, clicking the lever. My lips twitch into a faint, bitter smile and I lower the viewer and clench it in my fist as I did her glasses.
+++++I remember looking over at her and smiling and I am wearing those round spectacles myself which give everything a vivid red tint. Lucy is bathed in lust red. She holds the viewer up for me to see before returning it to her own eye: a beautiful Mexican sunset over the ocean and a white sand beach. I smile some more. She lights up a cigarette with her brass Zippo lighter before she reaches across and takes the rose-tinted sunglasses from my eyes and puts them on herself. The dying, orange sun shines right into the windscreen, all dazzling bright white and flare.
+++++The trucker holds a packet of cigarettes towards me, offering me one, and I think about it, even taking out the brass lighter. Eventually, I tell him, ‘I don’t smoke. She did.’
+++++He shrugs, thinking maybe I am crazy after all.
+++++In my hand, brought out from my pocket with the lighter, is the Doc’s newspaper cutting. As I read it, I think of his police photographs of mechanised death:
+++++‘Blinded by the Sun: Road Trip Couple in Wreck, One Dead … A police spokesman reported that the tourists’ vehicle left the road, ploughed down a steep bank and settled upside down, where the engine caught fire. The driver, who suffered facial injuries and has been hospitalised, crawled free of the wreckage, while the passenger—thought to be his fiancée—was killed instantly. Police refused to comment on suggestions that she had been found decapitated at the scene.’
+++++I remember oil and blood dripping in the heat haze; Lucy’s blood-matted hair against a metal backdrop. I am a ghoul in a Driver’s Ed film as I lie face down in the scrub, lifting my head slowly as it glistens with blood, my right eye gone. Its oozing, egg-like fluid gazes uselessly into the grass nearby and its unharmed twin sees Lucy’s souvenir slide viewer. My head drops back down and I am unconscious.
+++++I hold the newspaper cutting out of a narrow opening in the passenger window. The paper flutters wildly in the wind, before I release it. The cutting vanishes immediately. The sun is low; the day’s time has come.
+++++The turnpike has taken its toll.

Deuce

I walked down the alleyway again, making sure that there was only one way in or out of this converted garage. If Rance actually lived in that dump, this wasn’t going to be a murder. It’d be a mercy-killing.
+++++I stepped back into an alcove while a car drove down the narrow alley. There wasn’t much traffic – I’d been here for almost an hour and that was only the second car to drive by. No one else lived on this alley. Rance seemed to have the only garage that was made into living space.
+++++Enough surveillance.
+++++I went up and knocked on the door. I wondered if Rance could even get out of his apartment if his door was blocked by a van or trash truck.
+++++I heard mumbling from inside, and the door finally opened. It opened inward, which was smart – if it opened outward, a passing truck might’ve tore it off its hinges. That’s the kind of place this was.
+++++Rance was not aging gracefully. I’d seen homeless guys who looked better. Of course, we were three times as old as the last time we met. But at least I’d kept in shape.
+++++“Hey, buddy!” I said, grinning like an idiot. “Long time no see, Rance!”
+++++He was half in the bag already. There was no recognition in his eyes.
+++++“St. Polycarp High? Football? The Fightin’ Swordfish?”
+++++He didn’t recognize me, but he remembered the team. He whispered its name, questioning.
+++++“That’s right, buddy! You gonna invite me in?”
+++++I pulled a quart of Jack Daniels Black out of the pocket of my trench coat. The prospect of some decent liquor forced the decision. He stepped back and waved me in.
+++++The place was all one room, with a curtain half-concealing a toilet in the corner. There was no sign of a shower or bathtub, but from the smell, Rance rarely washed. He evidently slept on a beat-up sofa that took up one entire wall.
+++++He slumped into the only upholstered chair in the room. It was next to a table and faced a beat-up television, which was showing a baseball game with the sound turned down.
+++++He made a feeble attempt to act like a host. “Pull up that chair. And there should be a clean glass over the sink.”
+++++There was only one other chair in the room, a hard-backed chair in the kitchen area. It was next to a low, built-in counter, where he probably sat to eat. The few glasses were in a shelf over the sink. I found two almost-matching lowball glasses, then brought them and the wooden chair across the table from his armchair. I noticed that the table had a drawer facing him. The drawer was half open. I guessed that he kept a handgun in there. You’d need one in a neighborhood like this.
+++++There was an empty fifth of cheap whiskey on the table. He’d been drinking it out of a tall water glass. When I cracked the Jack Daniels open and started to pour, he held out his water glass, refusing the clean one I’d brought over.
+++++“To each his own,” I said, as I poured his glass half full of Jack.
+++++“To St. Polycarp!” we toasted. I sipped mine. Rance drank his down in one long swallow.
+++++He’d been pickling himself for so many years that four fingers of whiskey had no visible effect. But he looked me over with rat-cunning. No doubt he wondered if he could get something out of me besides liquor.
+++++“Looks like you’ve done all right for yourself,” he said.
+++++“I’ve done OK. Lot of medical expenses lately. Old football injuries, they just get worse as we get older, right? Even if you were second string, like me.”
+++++I’d been watching the television out of the corner of my eye. As Rance was trying to work out something to say, I shouted, “Did you see that catch? Beautiful!”
+++++His attention returned to the baseball game as he watched the instant replay. He also reached over to a transistor radio on the table and turned up the sound. The Old School Way to Enjoy Baseball: watch the game on television, and listen to the superior commentary on the radio.
+++++And with his attention diverted, I filled up his tumbler again. I also dropped a crushed pill into his drink, swirling the glass to dissolve it. Nothing exotic – just the sort of anti-anxiety medication that someone like Rance would be likely to mix with his alcohol.
+++++I saw yesterday’s newspaper on the floor next to his chair. It was open to the obituaries. When I picked it up, a cockroach scurried out from underneath. I folded the paper so Minka’s obit showed and placed it on the table. Rance was draining half his glass again.
+++++“Damn shame about Minka, isn’t it?” I asked.
+++++Rance’s face fell, either from the pill I’d slipped him or the death of his old friend.
+++++“That old Polack,” he slurred. “He was the best!” We toasted, and he downed the rest of the Jack in his tumbler.
+++++I filled it up again, smiling like a shark.

***

We talked for quite a while. I told him all the stories I knew about Minka, and a few I made up. I’d gotten them all second-hand, back then.
+++++If Rance remembered that I wasn’t part of his clique, he didn’t say anything. Not as long as I kept the Jack Daniels flowing.
+++++“Y’know wha he did for me? Y’know wha that Polack did for me?” Rance sniffed, holding back a tear.
+++++“No, Rance. What did he do for you?”
+++++“Senior year. I was gonna get cut from the team. I played on that team all the damn way through school, and they were still gonna cut me! Just ’cause I hadn’t grown as much as some of the others. Is that fair?”
+++++“No, it isn’t fair, Rance. What did Minka do?”
+++++“There was this egghead on the team. Nobody liked ‘im. Stand-offish, too good to party with the rest of us. So, day before coach announces the cuts, Minka comes to me and says, ‘That snot-nose is gonna steal your spot on the team, Rance. We haveta take him out, so he can’t play.”
+++++“And did you?”
+++++“Did we ever! In the scrimmage, I kicked ‘is knee hard as I could, twice. And seconds later, Minka tackled ‘im! Blindside! Slammed ‘im inta the ground hard enough to break ‘is ribs!”
+++++Rance made a little noise, which might have been a laugh.
+++++“Wasn’t Coach mad at you for injuring a fellow team member?”
+++++“Yeah, he was mad, but he hadn’t even been watching. So what could he do? He didn’t even know who to blame, and everyone kept quiet, even the egghead. No one ratted.  That egghead was out for the season, an’ I got to stay on the team!”
+++++A tear rolled down his face. “Minka was the best frien’ I ever had!”
+++++We were silent for a minute. Rance drained his tumbler yet again.
+++++Then I pulled something out of my jacket.
+++++“You know, Rance, we should send this to Minka’s family.”
+++++I spread the cheap condolence card out on the newspaper, positioned next to Minka’s obituary photo. I laid a ballpoint down next to it.
+++++“Sign it, Rance. Show them how you felt about Minka.”
+++++Rance was crying openly now. Weeping for his best friend Minka, for his lost youth, for what his life had become. He lifted the tee shirt that stretched over his belly and blew his nose on it.
+++++“What do you say, Rance? Just this once, tell Mika how you really feel?”
+++++“Wha do I write?”
+++++“Write, ‘I always loved you, Minka.’ That’s right.” I had to hold the sympathy card in place as he scrawled on it. “And write this, ‘How do I go on without you?’”
+++++It wasn’t overly legible, but the cops could dope it out. I poured him another drink, making sure to slip another crushed pill into it.
+++++“Good job, buddy.”
+++++“Won’t they thin’ I’m a fag?”
+++++“No. They’ll know that you and Minka were best buds.” I handed him the drink.
+++++A few minutes later he was snoring. I took the gun out of the drawer and left it on the kitchen counter.
+++++I quickly looked around the converted garage. Amazingly, he had some clean towels and sheets in a closet. Worn, but clean.
+++++I draped one sheet over me. I’d brought some big rubber bands, and used them to keep the sheet wrapped around my arms. With my left hand, I pulled it away from my face so I could see. I walked over to Rance, looking like a threadbare ghost.
+++++Then, with my right hand covered by the sheet, I picked up the gun and put it in Rance’s hand.
+++++Then I put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
+++++The sheet kept the blood splatter from getting on my clothes. The result wasn’t perfect – now there was missing blood splatter in the room. But in a dump like this, maybe no one would notice. The cash-strapped local municipality wasn’t going to spend thousands of dollars on forensic tests for old Rance.
+++++And if they did, well, it really wouldn’t matter. Not anymore.

***

After wiping down the bottle and anything else I might have touched, I balled up the bloody sheet and put it in a plastic bag. It was then that Rance opened his eyes.
+++++He made a gurgling noise, trying to get blood out of his esophagus.
+++++“Gee, Rance ol’ buddy, it looks like you screwed up your suicide. You just took out a little of your brain and your sinuses. Burned your mouth, too. They might be able to keep you alive on a ventilator for months, until you get an infection they can’t cure. I can’t imagine how much that hurts, though. Not the way I’d want to go. But, like I said, to each his own.”
+++++I have no idea if he understood any of that, with part of his brain gone. His eyes didn’t track me, but that could’ve been because he’d shot up his optic nerve.
+++++Whether or not he understood, I had one more thing to say before I left.
+++++“By the way, that egghead that you and Minka sandbagged? That was me.”
+++++“That’s why I killed Minka a few days ago.”
+++++He turned his head towards me as I exited.

***

The alleyway was still deserted. I walked down it for three blocks to where I’d left my car. The trash bag with the bloody sheet went into a dumpster. My bad knee – the one Rance had injured some forty years ago – didn’t hurt at all. That was probably due to the titanium replacement.
+++++Of course, waiting forty years for revenge would be crazy, even for me. The fact is, I hadn’t thought much about my football injury until I got my knee replacement last year. I was lying in the rehab ward after the operation when I realized what had really happened.
+++++Call me stupid, but I hadn’t believed that Rance and Minka had injured me on purpose. Their own teammate? I was naïve about human nature back then. I’d always thought it was an accident.
+++++Immediately after High School I was a little too busy to think about it. My knee and ribs healed just in time for me to get drafted and sent to Vietnam.
+++++It was in the ‘Nam that I learned about the cruelty and randomness of life. And that’s when I decided what I wanted to be: a badass. Like the mob guys I’d seen growing up. Guys who did what they wanted, when they wanted. Guys who’d kill you if you got in their way.
+++++I could never be a made man or an actual member of LCN. You had to be 100% full-blooded Sicilian for that, not an Irish-Italian mutt like me.
+++++But I knew that, if I became good at something useful, the mob guys would employ me. Sometimes they beat or killed their enemies themselves. Sometimes they employed freelancers. That’s what I became, a freelance assassin.
+++++The Army taught me how to kill.
+++++Vietnam taught me to like it.
+++++But La Cosa Nostra let me make a living at it.

***

I’d changed a lot since I lived in this town. But there was a chance someone would recognize me, and I didn’t think I wanted to die here. When the cops catch up with me, I’m planning to shoot it out. I’ve been in prison, and I don’t want to do that again at my age. Prison was a lot easier when I was an angry, musclebound twenty-four year old. I’m slower now, my hearing is bad, and I know I can’t fight unarmed the way I used to. So no prison for me, thank you very much.
+++++But you never know – they might come for me while I’m asleep, for instance. Better to pick my time and place, then go out with guns blazing.
+++++I’m on borrowed time as it is, ever since Simon Pasko got himself arrested and told the cops everything.

***

I planned to drive far away from here, as soon as I got something to eat.
+++++There used to be a pretty decent 24-hour diner on the interstate. Turned out it was still there. I pulled into the lot and circled the building, just from force of habit. Then I parked – front facing out for a quick exit – and headed inside.
+++++They’d put in a closed-circuit camera over the front door. Damn things were everywhere these days. Before I came in camera range, I pulled a long-brimmed baseball cap out of my back pocket and put it on. I made sure the brim hid my face from the camera.
+++++There were some vending machines for newspapers next to the door. The hour was late enough that one of them had tomorrow’s paper. I bought a copy, then went inside.
+++++The place was nearly empty. In a few hours, when the bars closed, it would be full of drunks. But I needed food, to counter the alcohol I’d had with Rance. I sat myself, picking a table in the corner. Back to the wall, as always.
+++++I took off my cap. The nuns of St. Polycarp had trained me well: don’t cuss, hold the door for others, and no hats inside.
+++++After serving another table, a waitress spotted me and headed over. Halfway to my table she recognized me and smiled.
+++++“Deuce! Welcome back!” she said.
+++++That’s not my real name. But since I never give my real name, it’s what people call me.
+++++She was a fine-looking woman, Pearl was, about ten years younger than me. I never made a pass at her – well, not after the first time – because she was a lesbian. That doesn’t bother me, although it must have made for a rough divorce. Don’t people know that they’re gay before they get married to the opposite sex?
+++++I gave her a sincere smile, not the idiot rictus I used with Rance. Of course, I genuinely liked Pearl.
+++++“How long has it been, Deuce?” she asked. “Two, three years?”
+++++“Closer to four, I expect.”
+++++“And here I am, slingin’ hash! You’d think I’d have found a better job by now.”
+++++“Well, Pearl, the world needs waitresses.”
+++++“I suppose. Life being sweet to you?”
+++++“Can’t complain.” I didn’t ask about her life, because I knew it had been hard. She kept her two boys after a bad divorce, but her new girlfriend left her, her momma died of the cancer, and then her oldest boy died four or five years ago. So I don’t ask.
+++++As for why they call me “Deuce” – well, I tip in two-dollar bills. I started doing it with strippers. It made me stand out: a roomfull of guys tipping in ones, and me tipping in twos. Then, since I always had a stack of twos in my pockets, I started giving them to waitresses as well. I tip well. That’s part of who I wanted to be – a dangerous guy who tips big, like a mobster. (A classy mobster – some of those clowns walk on their checks, knowing that no one will dare stop them. Do they care that their waitress gets stuck with the tab when someone walks? Do they even know?)
+++++Another reason I tip big is that I’m always picking a table in back, preferably in the corner. If I have to make someone with sore feet walk further, of course I’m going to tip well. I don’t want them to spit in my food before they bring it out of the kitchen.
+++++Pearl and I talked a while about nothing, then I placed an order. I ordered a lot of starchy crap, pancakes and pasta. When I was a kid in the army, I would put Tabasco on the lousy army chow. Nowadays, even drinking alcohol gave me indigestion.
+++++I read the paper as I ate. I was thinking I’d dodged a bullet until I turned to the B Section and found the Pasko murder case on the front page.
+++++Along with a mug shot of Simon G. Pasko.
+++++And two nice, clear pictures of me, the unnamed assassin Pasko had hired to kill his wife. I even made it look like a robbery. But all I can do is confuse the issue. The cops figured out that the only person who wanted her dead was her husband.
+++++What kind of moron films his meeting with an assassin-for-hire? Yet that’s what Simon Pasko did. Maybe he did it so he’d have something to bargain with if he got caught. Or maybe he did it because he was afraid of me (which he was, as I recall). I suppose he might have thought that, if I’d shot him, a DVD showing the act would be a sort of revenge. He was a civilian, not one of my mob employers.
+++++Whatever the reason, the cops had a DVD featuring me, and they put stills from it everywhere – on the internet, on television, and in the newspaper.
+++++Briefly, I wondered if I could get out of the country. Maybe go back to Thailand, where I’d had my knee replaced. Medical tourism, they call it, having operations done in a country where it’s cheap. I was sure I could have plastic surgery done there, too. Get a new face.
+++++Maybe I could’ve done that before 9-11. But now there were no-fly lists and TSA agents who check everyone going in or out of the country. And with cameras everywhere and facial-recognition technology, I probably wouldn’t even make it as far as an airport. My big, scarred mug was too damn easy to recognize.
+++++No, all that was left for me was deciding where I’d make my last stand. I should be happy that I’d finished my bucket list of people I wanted to kill. Rance and Minka were the last ones on the list.

***

“What’s the matter, Deuce? Don’t like the pancakes?”
+++++So much for situational awareness. I hadn’t even noticed Pearl’s return.
+++++I put the newspaper face down, so she couldn’t see my pictures in it.
+++++“Just not as hungry as I thought I’d be, Pearl.”
+++++“Anything else I can get you, then?”
+++++“No, I’m done.”
+++++“Well, then, mind if I sit down? You’re my only table at the moment.”
+++++“Please do. I could use the company.”
+++++As usual, I’d picked a table big enough for four people. She sat and put her feet up on another chair. Like I said, waitresses get sore feet, especially when they do this job for twenty years.
+++++“Got a story I’ve been wanting to tell you, Deuce, if I ever saw you again.”
+++++“I’m listening.”
+++++“You know that my oldest boy, Jimmy, got killed just a few blocks from here. That’ll be four years ago come June.”
+++++That was in the local paper, which I read online. “I was really sorry to hear that. My condolences.”
+++++“Yeah, well, Jimmy was a wild one. He was always in some kind of trouble or other. But here’s the thing: when Jimmy got killed, he was still living at home with me. And I couldn’t bring myself to go through his things. I left his room just the way it was. It’s only been recently that I could bring myself to do that.”
+++++“So, the other day, I was going through his books. Jimmy wasn’t a big reader, but he still had his schoolbooks. Don’t know if you know this, but when kids go to Catholic school, they make the kids buy their own books. Not like public school, where they loan the books to the kids each year.”
+++++Usually I’d lie about my background, but there didn’t seem any point in it now. “I went to Parochial school, Pearl. I remember.”
+++++While Pearl was talking, a state trooper entered and went over to the counter. The counterman poured him a cup of coffee in a go-cup. But the trooper eyed the whole room, and he spotted me in the corner.
+++++“OK. And I know I told you several times that I gave those two-dollar bills you tip me with to my boys. They liked them.”
+++++“I remember.”
+++++The trooper turned away from me and sipped his coffee. But he was looking at me in the reflection from the front window. I hoped we weren’t going to have to shoot it out right here. I didn’t want Pearl hurt.
+++++“My youngest son, I’m sure he spent every one I gave him. He’s that way – money burns a hole in his pocket. But Jimmy, I could never tell what he’d do.”
+++++The trooper made a decision and left the restaurant. Maybe he didn’t recognize me after all. Or maybe he decided that an assassin-for-hire required backup.
+++++“So, I’m going through Jimmy’s books, and there’s this big atlas they made him buy for school.”
+++++“Catholic schools still teach Geography. Or they did, when I went there.”
+++++“Right! So I open up this atlas, and can you guess what I found inside?”
+++++Since it was that worthless son of hers, I was thinking drugs. But I wanted to be polite, so I just shook my head.
+++++“It was those two-dollar bills of yours. The ones you tipped me, and that I’d given him. On every page, laid out four to a page. Pressed flat like they was a corsage from the prom!”
+++++“God damn!” That I had not expected.
+++++“He saved them. He almost had enough to fill up the entire atlas. I don’t know why, but they meant something to him.”
+++++“So I just wanted to thank you, Deuce. You gave some kind of happiness to a troubled boy.”
+++++“Oh, and no charge tonight. It’s on me.”
+++++I had no idea what to say. Thankfully, a young couple came in and sat down just then, so Pearl got up and gave them their menus.
+++++Look, I’m a bad guy. I know I’m a bad guy. I made that decision back in Vietnam, forty-some years ago.
+++++And I can’t ever remember doing something good for no reason. Tipping big? That was part of my image, and I expected quick service for it. Every good thing I did with the expectation of some kind of reward.
+++++Except for this, this thing with the tips and Pearl’s son Jimmy.
+++++I don’t believe in an afterlife. But if I did, I’d be glad that something I did was good. One simple, unselfish act.
+++++And that’s when I spotted the lights of a police car in the parking lot. From different angles, so there had be at least two of them. That state trooper must have called for backup, after all.
+++++I stood. Pearl had comped my meal, but I paid her, anyway. I turned my wallet upside down and let all the bills fall on the table. Several hundred dollars, a final tip for Pearl. I wouldn’t be needing money any more.
+++++Then I hustled through the kitchen and out the back door. I held my gun out, ready to shoot. The cops should’ve had someone there, but they didn’t. Not yet. Clumsy.
+++++All that was left was to choose the place for my last stand.
+++++Well, the alley where Jimmy died was just a few blocks away. I’d try to make it there. On foot, since the cops were by my car.
+++++I knew exactly where Jimmy died.
+++++After all, I was the one who killed him.
+++++I didn’t know that he was Pearl’s kid, of course. He was just some lone, drunk kid who decided to mess with an old man with a limp. Maybe he’d planned to rob me, maybe not. I shot him dead without a second thought. I didn’t even bother to confuse the crime scene, like I usually do. Like I did with Rance.
+++++Can’t say I felt bad about it, either. Although I am glad that I’m carrying a different gun. It wouldn’t do for forensics to show that my gun killed Jimmy. Pearl wouldn’t like that.
+++++My new knee felt fine as I jogged across the field behind the restaurant. This was as good a place to die as I could expect.
+++++And the only thing I felt bad about was that the pile of cash I’d left for Pearl didn’t include any two-dollar bills.

The Mexico Joke

My head bobs like a balloon on the barstool. Alcohol melts and mixes with adrenaline in my blood, swirling like the Spanish conversations sweeping back and forth across my head. It sounds like an audience getting settled.
+++++The theater where I performed is across the street. You can see it through the bar windows. The headliner was killing it when I left. He’s an older Mexican comedian with a TV show in the States. You’ve heard of him. He’s famous for jokes about displacement, being an immigrant in a strange country. I made a joke about that shtick, saying it finally makes sense now that he’s telling the jokes in Mexico. He lived most of his life in California, you see. Maybe I should have explained that. We shook hands as I left the stage and he said, in unaccented English, “Nice job, kid.”
+++++I taste his words now like a weird wine and can’t decide what they mean. Praise? Sarcasm? Was he angry at my jocular slight? Or maybe just indifference. It does sound like something you’d say to a shoe-shiner.
+++++Whatever. Who the fuck cares what he thinks? Only the audience matters. I try and remember their reaction objectively, but my memory is a rage. Fear and despair and adrenaline twist together in a great maelstrom. Which laughs did I invent to make myself feel better? Which silences did anxiety stretch? It’s all aftershocks. I can’t trust my own mind.
+++++But I doubt it went well. I felt drunk up there, the world twisting under my feet. I’d never performed for a crowd that size. Hundreds of people, but they didn’t come for me. They’d never heard of me. My thirty minutes was a prerequisite to the headliner. Price of admission. I knew it, the audience knew it. The only person who didn’t was my manager. “Do you know how much dick I sucked to book you this gig?” Frankie said that when I asked to drop out. He was convinced this would be my big break. There’s no sense moping around Los Angeles. He said I should move on. Forget her. Learn to laugh it off. “You’re a clown,” he said, “and people don’t like sad clowns.” I don’t like Frankie.
+++++My beer is gone and I want something stronger. I flag the bartender with a two hundred peso note. He’s fat and jolly with an impressive beard. Looks like a younger, browner Santa Claus. He rolls over to me and says something in Spanish ending with ‘señor.’
+++++Shit. They speak Spanish here. Obviously. I panic and fail to translate the order I had in mind. Shit. I wish I’d composed the question before flagging him. How did I order the beer? Oh that’s right. I just said ‘Corona.’ I concentrate on college Spanish classes tucked away in a dusty mental nook. The bartender waits with a patient smile. I want to apologize but can’t remember ‘I’m sorry’ either. Eventually I half-speak, half-mime a request for ‘liquor of wheat.’
+++++Por favor,” I add, over-pronouncing the more familiar phrase. The bartender grins magnanimity through thick facial hair.
+++++Ah! ¿Quieres whisky?”
+++++Si, gracias.
+++++He pours whisky and soda into a tall glass and slides it to me. I take a large gulp to hide my embarrassment. The drink tastes strong and pleasingly clinical, like mouthwash. I take time composing my next question. “¿Cómo, um, dice ‘whisky’ en español?
+++++Whisky,” the bartender says.
+++++“Oh,” I say, and the bartender laughs. It’s a unique laugh, his head tilting backwards and firing rhythmic barks at the ceiling. I’m very fond of unique laughs. Especially when I perform. Picking them out of a crowd is reassuring. Like a lighthouse on stormy seas.
+++++The laughing music infects me, and I laugh along with him. Except my laughter is a little too strong, a little too frenzied. People around the bar cast curious glances our way. I think maybe I’m not laughing about my language error, but about something else.
+++++The bartender smiles nervously and asks if I’m ok.
+++++Me llamo Chris,” I say, offering a handshake.
+++++Marcelo.” He takes it, his massive hand all bone hardness and crushing strength. I down my whisky and ask for another. My mood and Spanish both improve as go, boosted by alcohol confidence. Marcelo guesses that I’m a comedian before I tell him. Comedians, he explains, are the only Americans who know how to drink. I laugh because he’s right, but if I were sober I think I’d cry. My performance keeps popping around in my head, stubbornly refusing a liquor oblivion. I tell Marcelo, almost bragging, that I opened for the big-name comedian. He squints. Is the show over? I lean into my whisky and pretend not to hear.
+++++Suddenly my stool shifts and tips backwards. I grab the bar for support. For a moment my stool is on two legs and my ass protrudes backwards into space. A stranger brushes it.
+++++Straightening, I give Marcelo a ‘Can you believe I almost fell?’ look, which I want him to read as ‘Please don’t ask about the show.’ He makes no comment.
+++++I was supposed to stay after to sign while a kid sold my CD in the lobby. He’ll probably be wondering where I am. Or maybe he won’t. Does it really matter? Nobody will buy anything. They only care about the big-name. Frankie said this festival is a chance to get some exposure, get my name out. I’m not sure. “It’ll be aired on TV,” he said. I’m pretty sure they’ll cut my part out. They don’t need me on television.
+++++I could get a video from the event organizers, but I don’t think I can stand to relive it. My world might twist and spin like it did on stage. God… It felt like standing on a ramp, looking at the audience through a kaleidoscopic peephole. I’ll feel the same way if I watch the video. I just know it.
+++++I can’t even watch my decent performances without cringing. That’s an unhealthy trait in my business. Melissa cared enough to watch the tapes. She’d sit cross-legged on the living room carpet with a notebook in her lap, chewing the end of a pencil. Her laughs would come suddenly, thrusting her chin at the me on the screen. Later she’d spread out her notes on the kitchen table. We’d analyze them carefully, architects conferring over blueprints. Sometimes I’d even find the strength to watch short bits for clarification on this or that point. Melissa watched me hungrily as I did this. The lovemaking was long and slow and intimate on those nights. It’s the kind of memory I’d write about if I were a poet instead of a comedian. But because I am a comedian, I write about things going wrong.
+++++After a few more whiskies I am out of pesos. Marcelo won’t take my American twenties, but he lets me start a tab on my credit card. There’s not much money in the account, but it should be enough for tonight. I lose track of how many drinks I’ve had, detaching from conscious memory.
+++++A surge of people takes the bar and booze is making me chatty. I plunge into the crowd. In my mind’s television I laugh at my own bumbling. I wonder if I’ll write a new joke about this night? Warm whisky smiles flash from my face as I talk to people, struggling equally with English and Spanish. There comes a point in each conversation where the person has nothing else to say. They sidle away and retreat into tight circles. I am disconnected, standing statuesque in the middle of the room. I nod with the music, trading smiles for feigned recognition.
+++++I return to the bar feeling lonelier than before. But Marcelo grins and says something in Spanish. I want to ask him to repeat himself but I can’t remember the word for ‘slower.’
+++++“Uh, retard-ay?” Not right. That’s asking him ‘to retard.’ To retard. I start laughing and can’t stop. I’m sliding down the alcohol-greased road between depression and absurdity. There’s loneliness, but I can’t stop laughing. The empty feeling only makes it funnier. Now I’m in tears, holding the counter for support. I just want to go home and curl up under the covers.
+++++Marcelo chuckles and waits for my fit to pass. Then he says “Se-ñor-i-tas” in slow, annunciated syllables. Following his finger, I see the disco silhouettes of two slender women across the room. One shadow bends deep into the table, her chest teasing the surface. Her ass curves out into the room like an invitation. The second silhouette has one hand on her hip while the other hand hugs a beer against her shapely breasts. I imagine the cold bottle raising goosebumps on naked skin. Suddenly she shifts posture and blocks the light. The women vanish. A second of suspenseful darkness. My eyes adjust, then features materialize. Miraculously summoned into being. Her face is creamy caramel with a doll smoothness and scarlet lips like cherry lollipops. She’s frowning, looking around for someone.
+++++Hablen ingles,” Marcelo says.
+++++I process the information slowly, dissolving it piece by piece.
+++++I have a shot with one of these girls.
+++++Maybe both of them? My heart flips in the big, deep way of a man when his body recognizes opportunity. Maybe the silhouette is Melissa. That thought lasts only an instant, but I fight an impulse to take off running north. I would run and run until I reach her. And then I would embrace her, and I would feel the full length of her body, every curve of it against mine.
+++++But I know that won’t happen. I’m not that drunk yet. My head nods on a hinge. “Si, mi amigo,” I say. “Muchas gracias.
+++++Marcelo laughs and slaps me on the back. He fills two margarita glasses and walks over to the girls. They don’t look surprised when he gives them the drinks and points in my direction. The doll-faced girl looks at me, her dark eyes blank and unreadable. Then cherry lips spread into a sumptuous smile. A rush of desire sweeps over me and my crotch tightens. I want to skip the formalities. Skip the introductions and the playful banter and the making out. I want, need, to lie in bed beside this woman. I need her to look at me the way Melissa did. That way a woman has of looking at you that says she wouldn’t trade you for anyone. And somehow you believe her.
+++++The women appear on either side of me. It’s sudden and jarring. One second I’m alone and then I’m flirting. No segue. Doll-Face has straight black hair that parts like a beaded door to frame her soft face. Her scarlet dress drapes light and ghostly on her shoulders. It seems so thin a randy breeze might peel it away. I see it slipping to the floor, falling slow like a feather.
+++++The other woman has plump lips painted with glossy pink. Her springy hair bounces each time she turns her head. A shineless black fabric wraps her midsection, more towel than dress. She smiles, but doesn’t pay much attention to me. She’s scanning the room.
+++++“You are such a gentleman to buy us drinks!” Doll-Face says in accented English. Her palm presses against the crux of my chest and rubs slowly, intimately. Marcelo winks.
+++++Doll-Face’s accent has a sexy sophistication. It’s unlike the Mexican accents I’ve heard back home, slow and greasy with American slang. She speaks with an almost British formality. I picture her reciting English lessons in eighteenth century garb to a tea-drinking governess. An exotic rolling of R’s punctuates her speech, transforming words into music. Her voice is alien enough to be alluring.
+++++I tell her my name and make her repeat it. It must seem ridiculous, but I need to hear my name on her lips. Doll-Face says it slowly, syllable by syllable, tasting the feel of it in her mouth. Her dexterous tongue flicks up and down.
+++++Black-Dress tries too, but her English is less practiced and she can’t quite grasp the pronunciation. Doll-Face laughs and whispers to me, her breath on my ear. Black-Dress shrugs and goes back to scanning the room.
+++++The girls have names, but I quickly forget. All of my focus is on the next thing I will say. I brag about having performed at the big theater across the street. Then, Doll-Face asks for a joke. I should have seen this coming. People always demand a joke when they find out what I do, perhaps as some kind of proof. I want to refuse, but her eyes light up with perky enthusiasm. Her lips part. She looks like a child awaiting presents. Another man might have the willpower to disappoint that face.
+++++My addled brain strains to recall my best bits. Doll-Face waits with adoring puppy face. I remember something. It’s a somewhat dirty joke about trying to get laid at a Los Angeles bar. I’m halfway through the routine when I remember that Melissa inspired it. It’s about the first time we met. I feel my face turning red. My heart thumps and I’m sweating. Abort. Immediately. Pretend it never came up.
+++++But I’m too deep into the joke. My only choice is to finish it. I trip over words in a dash to the punchline. The pace is ruined, but things really fall apart when she doesn’t laugh. I have to backtrack and explain an American slang term which is lynchpin to the humorous wordplay. That seals it. My joke is dead.
+++++But miraculously, Doll-Face laughs. In fact, she shakes with laughter, gasping out a hiccupped chuckle. Her body convulses in gorgeous rhythm. The red dress sways with her like a cape. I’m in awe. A mangled, unrecognizable joke, yet she deigns to laugh. I love her for this. I’m in love with her.
+++++I look into our future, past the fevered sex of this evening. I see us dating. She’s in the crowd at my shows. I see her laughing that hiccupping laugh at a joke she’s heard a hundred times. Afterwards we drink beer at the bar, leaning into each other, trading secret jokes. Fans stumble up and compliment my performance. She smiles proudly, one arm around my waist so everyone knows. Cut to Doll-Face and me watching my first televised special. I scrutinize the little flaws, but she reassures me every time. She says it’s brilliant and I believe her. Montage of my successes. TV show. Movie deals. Talk shows. Cameo on Saturday Night Live. Melissa crying, filled with regret. Then cut to us visiting her father’s ranch – I can’t imagine him not having a ranch – and I meet her gentleman brothers. Her father is hefty like Marcelo, but with the beard groomed down to a neat Mario mustache. I ask his permission to marry Doll-Face – very formal, very tasteful. He barks out joyful laughter and slaps me on the back. Then we both gaze out at the Mexican countryside, a living thing, breathing, like a Cormac McCarthy novel.
+++++A happy squeal interrupts my musings. Black-Dress is embracing a tall and muscular man with short curly hair.
+++++“Her boyfriend,” Doll-Face explains. I swing around to hear her, then whip back to introduce myself. The quick movement upsets my balance. I wobble like a pin before the fall.
+++++A strong hand arrests my shoulder. “Careful, hombre,” the stranger says. He and Doll-Face pull me upright.
+++++“I am Rafael. It is nice to meet you,” he says. His accent is thick and long. Struggling pauses separate his words. “You are trying to pick up my girlfriends. Yes?”
+++++Laughter and a torrent of Spanish explode from both women, half chiding and half flirtatious. Rafael shrugs as if to say, “I can’t help it. I’m just that good.” I am not catching any of their machinegun Spanish, so I just smile and wait to be reabsorbed into conversation. Doll-Face turns to me and confides that Rafael is “stupido.”
+++++Rafael accepts a mug from Marcelo, although I don’t remember him ordering. Half of it falls down his throat – cool, uninterested, like it had nothing better to do – before his butt hits the barstool. Black-Dress sits on Rafael’s lap and puts his arm around her waist. Rafael toasts his glass, webby with residue, towards me and eliminates the second half. I attempt to match this feat, but I end up coughing and spilling whisky on my shirt. Doll-Face pats my back.
+++++Rafael says a few words to Doll-Face. She turns to me and speaks in smoky tones. “We are on our way to a party and I have no one to take me.” She pouts with purest puppy dog eyes, and there’s the hint of an illicit smile behind those lips. I don’t hesitate.
+++++As we walk out the door, I hear someone calling my name. Marcelo waddles out from behind the bar. In his hand is a credit card and receipt. I nearly forgot it in all the excitement. I thank him and leave a big tip. Looking at the final number I regret the generosity, but Marcelo snatches the paper before I can change anything. His smile is corporate as he shakes my hand. “Buenas noches,” he says and blesses us with a wink and a flourish.
+++++We walk across the theater parking lot. A few cars huddle under streetlamps like abandoned children. Earlier it was hectic with people selling and buying and laughing and arguing. Pulsing with the electricity of hope, of anticipation, of life.
+++++An albino man smokes in the bed of a pickup truck. The streetlamp spotlights him. His eyes, old with work and life, follow our approach. I expect him to do something, say something. I’m not sure what I expect, but there has to be a reason he’s here. The man does nothing. Says nothing. He watches us pass the way he might watch a rabbit from his porch.
+++++Rafael’s car is a taxicar-yellow sedan. I think that’s funny but no one else laughs. I climb into the back with Doll-Face. The seats are rough and scratchy, but nobody seems to mind. Doll-Face crosses one leg over my knee and pulls my arm around her. Her smile promises amazing things.
+++++We drift through a city of music swelling and falling. “There is always a party somewhere,” says Rafael, and it feels true on a primal level. Black-Dress passes out lukewarm Coronas. Rafael holds his bottle against the steering wheel with one hand. His other arm hangs out the window and spanks the car in time with Spanish hip-hop on the radio, which is somehow in time with the music blasted from passing houses. The world is in perfect rhythm.
+++++Doll-Face whispers in my ear an intimate and sensual request that you’d only tell a bedmate. Her fingertips move on my pants, first dancing lightly over the growing bulge between my legs and then rubbing deliberately, pumping. Our noses and foreheads touch, her hot skin against mine.
+++++I kiss her. I can’t stop myself. A small wince of surprise, but then her tongue is in my mouth and she’s kissing me hard, with sucking breaths.
+++++She’s rubbing my leg, my chest. I want to run my hand all over her body. Her legs, her breasts and her ass, and I do it. And I feel her liking it, wanting more.
+++++The world outside doesn’t exist anymore, and all I know is this moment. Everything leading up to this moment was worth it. All the pain, loneliness, and mistakes were worth it. I have an unprecedented feeling of being in the right place in space and time.

***

The car slows back into reality and stops. I look around. There are no buildings, just miles of desert in all directions. It’s quiet. When did they turn off the music? Rafael and Black-Dress get out. “Where’s the party?” I ask Doll-Face.
+++++“Not far,” she says. “But you need to walk from here.” I exit the car and offer her my hand. “Such a gentleman,” she says, almost sadly.
+++++When I turn around, there’s something blurry in my eyes. Some flying insect, maybe a bee or a large fly. I stumble backwards into the car. The fly jumps forward and pins me against the door. It slowly comes into focus and becomes a grey circle. Then a long grey barrel attaches itself to the circle. Steadily the scene snaps into sharp clarity. It’s Rafael. He’s holding a revolver.
+++++I squeak and try to move backwards, pushing against the car. Loose dirt slips underfoot and I land hard on my tailbone. “Argh!” I groan. The three of them start laughing. Harder than anything I’ve heard all night. Hysterical laughter, the kind you can’t fake, can’t control. They’re doubled over laughing, even Doll-Face. I want to give up. I want to curl up and cry.
+++++Rafael straightens himself with an effort and shakes the laughter out of his limbs. He says something to Doll-Face. She giggles that seductive laugh of hers. “He says you are a very good comedian.” Somehow that makes me feel better.
+++++They make me stand and lay my hands flat on the car. Doll-Face empties my pockets. She takes my wallet, phone, keys, and even the pocket notebook where I jot down joke ideas. They leave me my passport, but Black-Dress makes me hold it in my teeth. “¡Perrito!” she says. They all laugh. She commands me to sit and they laugh some more. “¿Perrito quires galleta?” they say. I sit and beg and play dead, and they just laugh and laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more captive audience.
+++++Rafael looks me up and down. He says he likes my suit. Doll-Face begins to undress me, but then a wicked smile comes over her. She dances and rubs against me in cartoonish burlesque. My pants come down. With a succubus grin, she runs satin hands down the skin of my legs, coming close. The others hoot and holler encouragement. Doll-Face sinks to her knees and looks up, her mouth an accepting ‘O.’
+++++“What’s wrong, gringo?” says Rafael. “Isn’t this what you wanted? Maybe you prefer the guys, eh?”
+++++Tears are moving down my face in salty, wet streaks. I can’t say when they started. I move to wipe them, but Rafael warns me to keep my hands up. My sniffing is loud and mucous-heavy. Rafael and Black-Dress laugh at me again, but Doll-Face just smiles. I tell myself it’s because she doesn’t want to do this. Perhaps she’s forced by poverty or threats or peer pressure. Nothing either of us can control. Maybe there’s hope.
+++++Doll-Face is rough and business like as she continues to strip me. She won’t look at my face, but her touch sends pulses of ecstasy through me. I can’t help it. Everyone notices when my erection pushes against my boxer shorts.
+++++They burst into laughter, harder than before. Rafael laughs so hard that he drops his gun. Doll-Face covers her mouth in an amazed sort of laughter and stares at my stiff member. I like to imagine she’s a little impressed.
+++++She raises an eyebrow. “A little too confident. Don’t you think, gringo?”
+++++I shrug and say, “Maybe you’d like one for the road?”
+++++My reply is reflexive. I’m not trying to be funny. The joke simply spews from my mouth like vomit, and like vomit I am powerless to suppress it. It elicits the most hysterical laughter of the night. If this was a set, I think that would be my closer.
+++++My captors lose it. Teary-eyed, gasping, they roll around and pound the street with their fists. I look at them in wonder and recognize my opportunity. I can escape if I want. Grab the gun before Rafael recovers.
+++++But I don’t want to. In this moment, the idea of escape is inconceivable. Imagine leaving during the greatest show of my career! I’ve never had an audience so rapt, so responsive. I don’t want it to end.
+++++The absurdity of it all hits like a punchline and I break into fitful laughter myself. Here I am, giving an exclusive self-deprecating performance for muggers. Here I am, laughing and aroused, nearly naked on an empty Mexican highway. Here I am, laughing because it’s better than the alternative.

***

Taillights shrink into an aura at the horizon. I sway back and forth, hands still raised. With sudden, bleeding clarity I know I won’t see Doll-Face again.
+++++A midnight blanket smothers the rocks and shrubs around me in blue darkness, creating a weird lunar landscape. The spattering engine noise fades, replaced by the chirps of a thousand alien animals. They are determined to ignore my presence, forget my existence.
+++++Doll-Face’s half-finished bottle of Corona stands by the road where she forgot it. I bring it to my mouth and taste cherry lipstick on the rim. Face upturned, I see the stars. They push and shove one another, crowded and suffocating in the night sky. Lightyears away, they still seem closer to me than Doll-Face. Much closer than Melissa. I reach out, but the stars retreat into their frigid abyss.
+++++I want to hate Doll-Face. I throw her bottle at the shadowy shape of a cactus, and it makes a hollow thud. That’s a little comforting. At least crickets and cicadas will see the bottle and know I exist. Maybe I smashed the tail of a mouse and that mouse will remember me, the giant who hurls boulders from the sky. Perhaps alien explorers will find that bottle in the desert. The last monument of a dead People, they’ll say. They’ll detect the two strains of DNA on it and they’ll say Doll-Face and I were lovers.
+++++After the bottle, there is nothing else to throw. I am tired and depressed and I’m wondering if I’d have ended up here in the middle of nowhere if I was with Melissa. Probably not. I bet we’d have been happy. In fact, I’m sure we would. I know it with a martyr’s faith. I like to believe she misses me. We were perfect together. Couldn’t she see? I just needed a bit more time. Just a bit more.
+++++But fuck it. If I’m forced to die alone, I guess I can do that. I see my future in a cheap armchair, drinking and watching porn every night. I get greyer and greyer, I sink deeper and deeper into my chair until it engulfs me entirely. And then there’s nothing. And then the landlord finds me when I miss rent.
+++++It’s not a great life, but fuck it. It’s better than being robbed while trying to get laid.
+++++It’s actually kinda funny. I bet I could write a new bit about tonight. I walk towards the city lights, composing jokes in my head. Tears are drying on my smile.

Two-Fer

Why is it, no matter what you do and what you say, there are some guys you can’t stop from running over a cliff?
+++++I tried to tell Joey that Charlene was forbidden fruit, that no way was he going to have a girl even like her.
+++++That Charlene wasn’t nice, in any way you could take that to mean.
+++++That, first, she’d been around—hey, I’m not mudslinging, hell, I’m admiring! And also, that she’d been around, in other words, knew all the ropes.
+++++But Joey thought he was the brightest cock in the yard, if not the biggest, and that Charlene only had to meet him and she’d two-step to his doodle-doo.
+++++I told him he was going to piss somebody off, Charlene not the least, but he said: “Mick, just get me near her, and I’ll show you.”
+++++What could I do? If a guy wants to play with fire that badly, who am I to deny him matches?
+++++As it happens, I knew she frequented the bar off Main on Clover on Thursdays, so the next one to appear on the calendar, off we went.
+++++We got there early, ready to wait in a corner until she showed, but she was already at the bar and Joey made a beeline for the empty stool on her left, leaving me to saunter to the one two stools down from her on her right. I knew from experience she didn’t like to be boxed in.
+++++The bartender was just asking Charlene whether she was having the usual, when Joey said, “I’d like to buy the beautiful lady a drink.”
+++++Charlene moved her head around slowly without looking anywhere, the way she does when she’s considering her next move. She raised her head and looked directly at the bartender.
+++++“Not tonight, Sid. Got a job, gotta stay focused.”
+++++“How about doing a job on me, doll?” Joey asked.
+++++I made a strangulated sound, something between a gurgle and a gasp. Charlene kept her eyes fixed on the bartender, then moved her head slowly to look at me.
+++++“Friend of yours, Mick?”
+++++I spread my hands apologetically. “He’s a great admirer of yours, Charlene.”
+++++At that, she turned for the first time to Joey, who gave her what he considered a dazzling smile, mainly because of those new, totally aligned front teeth he got when one of his buddies tried to wisen him up by knocking his natural crooked ones out.
+++++And then, my mouth dropped open, because she started chatting him up. Charlene’s a great comic once she gets started. People talk about her riffs that leave them in the aisles. Everyone thinks she could have been a professional, well, she is a professional but not a comedian. When she’s “on,” she’s “smokin’ hot.” That’s what everyone says. That she’s also “smokin’ hot” in other ways doesn’t hurt, but no one who knows her uses the second meaning, at least not out loud and not to her face. You don’t fuck with Charlene. Those of us in the know, know not to talk about it. Leave it at: She’s got a gravity.
+++++That made her attention to Joey the more puzzling. I figured she’d made up her mind to have her fun with him, because this was one of the occasions that she was “smokin’ hot.” The hell of it was, Joey thought he was the one being funny, never mind that everyone gathering around was laughing at her jokes, not his. I knew Joey, and I was scared for him. Pretty soon he’d be thinking he was hot shit and say or do something really bad.
+++++And then it happened. Charlene slid off the stool saying, “Gotta go, got someone waiting,” and Joey made as if to grab her arm. I never saw Sid move faster with the stick behind the bar. It came down with a crack just between Joey and Charlene.
+++++Charlene was still smiling at Joey. “You gotta know the rules, kid, before you play the game,” and she moved off, with the boys in the bar forming a phalanx behind her.
+++++Sid rapped on the bar twice for emphasis. “You try that again, you stupid prick, and the stick will lay you up for a week. As for you, Mick, choose your friends better.”
+++++“He just needs a little polishing, Sid, a diamond in the rough, you know?”
+++++I tried to keep the tone light, but it was the wrong tone.
+++++“Don’t give me your crap. Get him out of here.”
+++++I muscled Joey outside. Once we were past the door, he said, “Did you get a load of that guy?! Who the hell does he think he is?!”
+++++“Are you crazy? You don’t lay a hand on Charlene, you don’t lay a finger on her, not a fingernail!”
+++++“Why not? She’s a dame like any other.”
+++++“Joey, please, listen for once. She isn’t like any other dame. You’ve got to give her all the room in the world. If she likes you, she’ll let you know.”
+++++If she likes me? She loves me! Did you hear her in there?”
+++++“I heard her being Charlene. I heard her insulting you, not just a few times.”
+++++“She was kidding around. It was sweet.”
+++++“You didn’t catch it.”
+++++“I’ll tell you what I’m catching. Maybe a little jealousy, my friend?”
+++++Before I could answer, he practically shouted, “Do you see what I see? Over there!”
+++++I looked. It was Charlene and Mr. Kovack under the lights of the filling station across the street. Mr. Kovack was giving Charlene an envelope.
+++++“Oh no,” I said, with a sinking feeling. “We gotta go.”
+++++“He’s giving her money in public? What the crap!”
+++++“Joey, it’s not what you think! Joey!
+++++But he was off on his fool’s mission, thinking he was going to defend the honor of the woman who’d just declared her love for him. All I could do was watch.
+++++They saw him coming, spouting his bullshit. Mr. Kovack’s bodyguard stepped in front of him, but when Joey got close enough, Charlene took her professional piece out of her purse and shot him in the head.
+++++She called to me. “This is on you, Mick. Now make him disappear. And don’t count on favors from me, just because our mothers are best friends.”
+++++“I’m sorry, Charlene. I’m sorry, Mr. Kovack.”
+++++I felt like shit. I knew I couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes helping out friends.
+++++As I dragged Joey away, I heard Mr. Kovack say, “You didn’t have to do that, Charlene.”
+++++“Consider it a two-fer, Mr. Kovack,” was her reply.

The Tattoo

Today should be the best day of my life. Here I stand, in the sunshine after two hard years in a Mexican prison, breathing the air of freedom. Only it’s not the best day, not even close.
+++++“Hey gringo, you coming or not? I got room for one more. This train leaves for Juarez in five.”
+++++I don’t want to get into the back of the dusty Toyota idling at the curb. I know what will happen if I do. I should just turn and walk away, make my way back to the border and hope they’ll let me through. The problem is I’ve never been one to hope. Life has been one swift kick to the nuts after another, and guys like me don’t get the luxury of hope. Every fiber of my being screams no as I throw my duffle into the rusted out truck bed and hop in. We pull out and I watch the shacks of corrugated tin and the mangy dogs, all ribs and teeth, fade into a cloud of dust.

***

“So Raul, this bolillo is your man? What did you do, drag him behind the truck? He looks beat to shit.”
+++++“No, no hefe, he’s the real deal. His face just looks like that. He was a boxer I think.”
+++++The boss turns to me. “What do you say gringo? You up for some work?”
+++++I’m standing in a warehouse that’s hot enough to bake bread and sweat is running down the back of my legs. The fat man behind the desk is some kind of mid-level shit kicker and judging by the way the others avoid his stare, he got Cartel weight behind him. I look him in the eyeand don’t blink.
+++++“I just need some cash to get back across the border. If the pay is good, I’m your man.”
+++++The fat man scratches his hairy jowls and takes a minute to think. I see the wheels turning, they’re small wheels, rusty with broken teeth. He’s wondering if I can be trusted, if I can do the work. Raul is sweating bullets, his balls are on the chopping block for vouching for me. Poor kid thinks he owes me for saving his ass in the prison yard, but I didn’t bust those guys up to save him, I did it to get some time in the hole. I needed space to think. Time to plan without the worry of a shank in my kidney.
+++++“Alright, bolillo, it’s your lucky day. Hector will fill you in on the details, you just make sure you do what you’re told and you’ll get paid.”
+++++“How much?” I say.
+++++The fat man squints at me, intrigued by my lack of fear. “Enough to get you home. Comprende?”

***

The job is simple enough, we’re supposed to hit a convoy of panel vans moving up through Juarez from the south. I have no idea what’s inside and nobody bothers to tell me. There are five of us, and Hector is running point. He’s a short, barrel chested man, ex-military with a temper. Raul and two other kids barely out of their short pants are crouched in the ditch on the other side of the road. I’ve got a pair of bolt cutters and my job is to open up the truck after the others flash some guns and pull the driver over. My gut tells me this is a poorly constructed plan, but when I try to say something to Hector about it, he spits on my boots and tells me to shut the fuck up. A clear message in any language.
+++++I hear a rumble coming from down the sun baked highway and spot the convoy in the distance. Hector gives the signal to get ready and after the first three trucks pass through, he and the others step out into the road with some antique AK-47s pointed in the air. The last truck slides to a stop and Hector yanks the driver out by the neck and puts a bullet in his head right there on the cracked pavement. Raul and the boys watch the road in case the other trucks decide to turn around and I run to the back and cut the padlock off the roll door.
+++++I nearly fall over myself backing up when the door opens. It’s full of bodies. They’re stacked like firewood and wrapped in plastic. The stench is so overwhelming that I gag and wretch until a breeze kicks up and I get a reprieve of fresh air. Hector comes around the back with a blue bandana wrapped around his face. He doesn’t seem surprised by the cargo.
+++++“Alright gringo, time to earn your pesos. We are looking for a man with this tattoo.” He holds up a Polaroid picture. It shows a crown of thorns etched in black ink on a muscled forearm.
+++++“What, you want me to unwrap all these rotten bodies?”
+++++Hector tosses me a folding knife. “Just slit the bags and look at the arms.”
+++++“You got to be fucking kidding right?”
+++++Hector points the Soviet era rifle at my chest. “Fucking do it gringo.”
+++++I flip open the knife and jump up onto the bumper of the panel van. The hot stench of rotting flesh is thick as soup and sticks to my clothes and claws at my eyes. I cut open the first bag and vomit down the front of my shirt. I find the arms and give them a quick look over. No tattoos. I move on down the line trying to hold my breath as best as I can.
+++++“Hurry up motherfucker. Time is almost up,” Hector says looking down the highway toward the horizon.
+++++I’ve worked through the first two stacks but come up nil. Half way through the third pile of bodies I spot what I’m looking for. The ink stands out a tangle of black in stark contrast to the bluish white skin around it. I yell for Hector and he gets Raul to climb up and help me pull the bag down to the ground. Hector inspects the body while one of the other kids pulls up in the station wagon that serves as our ride.
+++++Raul and I lift the bag into the back and Hector puts a blanket over it. He makes the sign of the cross and mutters something under his breath.
+++++“Alright, everybody over to the ditch, we have one last thing to take care of,” Hector says looking at his watch. The driver gets out and joins the rest of us in the red dirt by the side of the highway. My gut’s screaming that something’s not right. I see Hector’s finger on the trigger of the AK as he walks over and it dawns on me what’s about to happen. I quietly pull the folding knife from my pocket and take several steps away from Raul and the others who are high fiving and oblivious to the cleanup that’s about to take place.
+++++The first shot splits Raul’s head wide open, spraying the others in a mist of blood and bone. They fall to their knees with their hands in the air and Hector opens up on them, mowing them down. I move in quick, leaping from the ditch and manage to get the knife into Hector’s neck before he can swing the barrel around on me. The gun goes off next to my head and I feel my right ear drum rupture. Hector’s a strong bastard and he struggles and fights until he bleeds out, nearly pulling my hand off the handle of the knife in his throat. When he’s dead I lay there in the blazing sun, exhausted, covered in blood and surrounded by dead bodies, new and old.

***

I should’ve just made my way to the border, let the guards work me over and try to explain why I didn’t have a passport. Sure it might mean some more prison time on the other side, but at least I’d be out of this shit stain of a city. I should’ve, but I didn’t, and now I have to let this thing play out. I swear, if I’m still breathing at the end of this, maybe I’ll buy a lottery ticket, my luck will have surely turned.
+++++“Where the fuck is Hector?” I hear Hefe say in Spanish to sweaty man in a police uniform. “He’s late and if we don’t have the package, it’s our heads on a stick come morning.”
+++++The sun is starting to go down behind the hills of dirt and rock and the warehouse has taken on a burnt orange glow. I’m crouched behind a pallet of fertilizer with Hector’s AK waiting for the darkness to settle in.
+++++“He’ll be here Miguel, Hector’s our best man.”
+++++The fat man takes a puff from a cigarillo and leans back in his chair. “It doesn’t feel right. He should have called by now.”
+++++The two men hear a commotion outside and turn to the large roll door. It looks like the guards have found my little gift. The man in the police uniform tells the boss to stay put and goes out to see what’s going on. The sun has slipped below the horizon now and I move from one shadow to another, closing the distance between us.
+++++The policeman comes back in carrying a plastic garbage bag in one hand. His face is pale and his jaw slack. He places the bag on the boss’s desk and opens it up. The fat man flinches when he sees Hector’s head, the eyes rolled back and the tongue out and swollen purple.
+++++I step out of the darkness and put a single round in the cop’s head, sending him crashing to the concrete floor. The boss goes for something in the bottom desk drawer but thinks better of it when I close in. The shot echoes off the sheet metal walls alerting the two guards outside who rush in and pull their weapons on me.
+++++“Tell them to back away or I’ll pop your skull right now.”
+++++The boss takes another puff from his cigarillo and flashes a toothy, yellow grin. “Now bolillo, why would I do that?”
+++++I pull another plastic bag from over my shoulder and toss it on the desk. It falls open and the arm with the tattoo rolls out onto a stack of papers. “If you want the rest of this bastard, you’ll do as I say.”

***

Guys like me don’t have the luxury of hope. We go through life looking over our shoulders, waiting for the bullet or the blade that will finally send us to hell to face the awful things we’ve done. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised when the border agent took a quick glance at my new passport and waved me through. He didn’t even give my duffle bag a second look. It wouldn’t have been hard to find the eighty grand stuffed in the lining.
+++++As the barbed wire and concrete fade into the dust behind me, for the first time in years I look ahead to what might be. For an instant I push out the doubt and let the empty space in my head fill with the strange and unfamiliar thought that today just might be the best day of my life.

Pens Down

ENGLISH LITERATURE GCSE MOCK EXAM

Name: Katie Miller

Seat Number: 121

“For the first time, I felt what the duties of a creator were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.”

In the light of Victor Frankenstein’s comment, discuss Mary Shelley’s presentation of creators and creation in Frankenstein.

[30]

Creation is a theme which is present throughout Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. The protagonist spends months constructing his masterpiece, secure in the knowledge that its unveiling will announce his genius to the world. It is at the eventualsparking of life that Frankenstein realises the horror of his creation and begins to regret the thoughtlessness with which he pursued his goal. Frankenstein does not learn from his error, however. Construction of a second creature is begun before the protagonist fully understands the selfishness of his actions.
+++++This self-centredness is in marked contrast to the creature who from an early stage in his existence seeks to integrate with the world, albeit unsuccessfully. The monster laments “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion…” He lacks a teacher, someone to nurse him into the world, and is forced to spy on a family to raise himself to a social level he considers appropriate to communicate with others. It is this difference between creator and created that forms the backbone of the narrative.
+++++Frankenstein is less concerned with responsibility than with the ambition to see himself placed on a pedestal above his scientific peers. Reckless aspiration is considered to be another major theme in the novel, but are the parents of modern-day children really that much different? Do their thoughtless creations do them any more credit?
+++++A quick glance around the exam hallprovides an answer. No.
+++++Exhibit one sits in my seat. A testament to my parents’ ordinary looks, I nevertheless seem to have cherry-picked the worst features from both, combining mum’s lank, mousey hair and lack of tits with dad’s overbite and cocktail-stick-thin legs. Add teenage acne bubbling away on my skin like molten lava and we’ve got ourselves a real horror show; the kind that makes boysstep back involuntarily on meeting me.
+++++This being a high school, I don’t have to look far for the next genetic mistake. Eugene Williams sits a few seats in front of me, huge sections of his arse hanging over each side of the chair like a bulldog’s jowls and sweat beading on his mushy forehead. Eugene is a guaranteed fail in this exam but the school forces him to sit here and humiliate himself, just to make sure.Next to him is Ruth Whitelaw. Aleper even amongst us geeks, she shat herself on the third year field trip to the science centre after swapping her lactose-free lunch for an egg and cress baguette.
+++++We were all born of our creators’ desire for happiness, not their urge to make us happy. My sitting here in this drab prison is a testament to that. Mum will probably be sitting in the sunlit living room with her book now, the mantelpiece clock tick-tocking contentedly. Contrast her and that with me and here-a child’s toy wound up and set down on the assembly hall floor to perform in front of bored invigilators. Do well and it’s all down to my parents’ shrewd tutoring. They’ll smile as my achievements are listed at their friends’ dinner parties, all the while stacking up cheese and crackers and glugging back red wine. Perform badly, however, and it will be entirely down to my own failure to prepare/hormones/too much TV (delete as necessary according to parents’ particular mood).
+++++They will not be quite so fucking smug after today. I have to lean slightly to my right to see it;a mother checking her infant in its cot.I patiently await its wakening.My creation.
+++++A teacher walks past the air vent at the base of the stage and my toes curl up in my plain black shoes. He doesn’t look. I’m not particularly worried though-I can think of nowhere better for it. I’ve lost count of the times I have had to sit in the assembly hall and watch the social elite of the school parade in plays, musicals, fashion shows etc.etc.etc. on that stage. I’m expected to be grateful simply to be in the same fucking room as them. For their acts to shine a ray of sunlight upon my drab little life.
+++++Such an alpha-arsehole is sitting to my left. I sneak a look at him.
+++++Strong jawline. Tick.
+++++Rugby player shoulders. Tick.
+++++Baby blue eyes and artfully messed hair. Tock.
+++++And then he looks! He actually looks! Olly Beddingfield actually looks at me. One hand buried in that shock of dirty blonde hair, he scansthe room briefly, pen still going like mad. It is only a dart of the eyes, but I know what it means-shared pain, shared frustration. Maybe the glance was to admit that although we are separated by the stupid rules of school society, they are all that divide us. That under different circumstances we would have been friends. That only in this exam hall, where appearance and status count for nothing, can we share something.
+++++I wait for his next look up. I’ll blow my cheeks out, raise my eyes to the ceiling, and maybe even mime a gun to the side of my head. We’ll share a small smile. Perhaps he’ll shake his head at my nerve before returning to his paper, a smirk still tugging at his mouth. That moment will lay the foundation of something. We’ll have a past; a shared experience; something to build from.
+++++But he doesn’t look again.Prick.
+++++And why would he? What has he to gain from interacting with social kryptonite like me? I’m barely a blip on his radar, hardly a footnote in his high school yearbook.Any smile coming from him isn’t by way of friendship. It’s to take the piss out of me for my cheap clothes and the fact that my stupid parents won’t let me wear makeup to cover my acne. His high school persona, polished and perfected, ensures him a flock of simpering female admirers and back-slapping jocks.
+++++“No-one is perfect,” my mum would say, and in this at least she is right. Everyone has a doubt about themselves; something hidden, something secret. I look at the clock out of the corner of my eye. Nearly time. I keep expecting to hear a rusty mechanism turning over or for someone’s attention to be caught by a blinking red light. It doesn’t work that way though. Relax. Soon the complicated social circuitry of high school, with its jealousies and petty intrigues, its bullying and cruel, CRUEL fucking mockery, will be overloaded.
+++++I set my jaw every time a teacher’s eyes brush over me. I needn’t bother. Blank, vacant expressions tell me that I could probably start dancing the can-can without attracting attention. Cheap polyester suits and sagging guts speak of thwarted ambition and poorer-than-expected degrees. It’s all about going through the motions with the staff here. Just make it through the tantrums and protractor stabbings until lunch, then make a run for the staffroom.
+++++I, of course, am as anonymous to the teachers as I am to the other students. Time is spent on the show-offs, the violent and the plain stupid, with anyone capable of thinking for themselves being left alone to do exactly that. I swear I saw Mr. Grainger glance down to make sure of my name before running through his kids-that-don’t-cause-me-much-hassle spiel at parents’ evening. “Quiet”, “well behaved”, “hard worker”, “will go far if she continues like this”.I could probably write this paper in my own blood and it still wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Pupil causes no problem leads to teacher writing good report leads to parents swelling with pride-the OFSTED triangle.
+++++Any assessment of me after today will read quite differently. Breaking news reports will be followed by profiles and opinion pieces, perhaps on violent video games and the dangers of YouTube. Local TV stations will show footage of students sobbing into each other’s arms outside the school gates whilst smoke still rises from the assembly hall. People who sat next to me in chemistry and geography will strain to remember the last time they spoke to me whilst telling reporters that I “just seemed so normal”.

Five minutes.

Normal will take on a new meaning after today though. I’m not so soppy as to think that my actions will bring people together. Creating something artificial is, as Frankenstein found, a shite idea. Rather it will separate them into more suitable groups. Me, the fanatic, the outcast, the monster; and the rest of the school.

Two minutes.

People will realise that Olly’s jawline and Marissa Bench’s flawless skin are all just pieces of flesh to be mopped up along with Eugene’s arse (admittedly in differing quantities). Flying stage splinters, shards of window glass and whirling desk legs will see to it that no-one will come out of this as prom kings and queens. There will be no open casket funerals. None of them will be lonely though. They will be forever bound; Olly, Marissa, Ruth, Eugene, Mr. Grainger and all the rest.

It’s time…

Pens down.

You appear to be making good progress Katy. You approach the subject matter thoughtfully and create a sound argument within your essay. You are a hard-working student and with sufficient revision before your real exam you should do very well.

Mr. Grainger

The Tall Man

I sit on a bench in the darkened park and watch The Slug get out of his car. I am dressed head to foot in black and holding a black briefcase. The Slug walks up to an apartment block and opens the front door with a key. He doesn’t leave a real trail of slime behind him, of course, just a metaphorical one.
+++++The Slug is a very bad man, for sure; drug dealing, loan sharking, money laundering, people trafficking. He has his grubby fingers in so many dirty pies. But he has friends in high places: power and influence. So he has remained untouchable by the law for a very long time.
+++++He is also a creature of narrow habit. Come rain or shine, hell or high water, each Monday, just after midnight, he visits his Colombian mistress in her luxurious penthouse apartment atop an expensive West London apartment block. One hour later, he returns home.
+++++I wait for fifty five minutes and cross the road to The Slug’s Daimler. I take the Semtex out of the briefcase and strap it under the car. The sciatica in my back and knee hurts as I bend and stand up again. I massage my joints. And then go home to sleep the sleep of the just.
+++++I have much in common with The Slug. Once upon a time I was a very bad person, too: working for people like him, killing for money, until what my creative writing teacher called an ‘inciting incident’ occurred and I changed my ways. After a fashion.
+++++I am also a creature of narrow habit. Each and every morning I have a cup of sweet tea and a bacon sandwich at The Star Coffee Bar, just off the Walworth Road. And as per usual, I listen to Jazz FM and read the tabloids. I open a copy of The Sun, a loathsome rag that I stopped buying after Hillsborough, and find out The Slug is still alive. The article says that he is in intensive care after a suspected terrorist attack and under 24-hour police protection.
+++++I take out my mobile phone. It’s an old Nokia: less easy to hack than a Smartphone. I send a one word text message: Coffee.
+++++Like The Slug, I have friends in high places. And low ones too. Detective Sergeant Steve Toshack is somewhere in between, I suppose.
+++++He arrives at noon and orders a black coffee with hot buttered scones.
+++++He sits in front of me. As always, he wears a waxy raincoat and his long moustache is ragged, in need of a trim. Tosh is also a creature of narrow habit. Maybe it’s an age thing.
+++++‘A bit of an oops moment, then,’ says Tosh.‘A faux-pas.’
+++++‘He’s either a lucky bastard or I’m losing my touch,’ I say. ‘Where is he?’
+++++Tosh hands me a betting slip.
+++++‘That’s the hospital and that’s the room,’ he says, tapping the paper. ‘The copper on duty is a bloke called PC Whittaker. He’s a useless sort, been on the take for years too. He’s due a suspension. If you do the job on The Slug he’ll be up shit creek without a paddle: might even be able to get him to name some names.’
+++++‘A win-win then,’ I say.
+++++We sit in silence while Tosh finishes his food and drink. I try not to look at him while he eats.
+++++After my inciting incident, I decided to go in to business for myself: getting rid of undesirables. I built up a large client base, too, including a couple of governments and police forces.
+++++Now, I use the name The Tall Man and give out business cards that contain only a drawing: the elongated silhouette of a man, and a mobile phone number. Very few people know who I am and even fewer others are able to guess my identity: especially since I’m short. And I’m a woman.
+++++Tosh leaves and I wait for fifteen minutes and get up: my sciatica bites.
+++++I straighten my tweed skirt and pull my tartan shopping trolley towards the front door, waving at Pete and Jason behind the counter. The shopping trolley jams as I try to get it out of the door.
+++++A massive builder gets up and helps me with it.
+++++‘There you go, pet,’ he says, straining with its weight. ‘Bleedin’ hell, that’s heavy. What have you got in there?’
+++++‘Slug repellent,’ I say and step out into the autumn rain.

The Designated Day

Jim knows today’s date even though he hasn’t seen a calendar in years. Eight years at least. Fear resonates from the sinews and marrow of his bones. His heart palpitates hard, unrelenting. The panic attacks aren’t new. They are a nightly occurrence and sometimes they strike in the middle of the day. But those panics are often based on past torments, this panic is about the future. About today. Now.
+++++The lights are on and his door is open. It’s time to get up. He doesn’t want to get up, but he must. Staying inside his room is a like a death sentence. Maybe he can get some place with some witnesses and a camera. Not that it would matter much.
+++++Standing is difficult for Jim. His right big toe is gone and his left kneecap is busted to pieces. He looks around with his one good eye, the only one. The other is a hollowed hole. Nobody is in his room, yet. Good. Teetering, he stands up and shuffles with agonizing steps to the can. He grabs the waistband of his drawers with the remnants of his hands. His right is thumbless, the left is missing the index, middle and ring. This situation makes life much tougher. He drops his trousers over the stool and squats. He can’t stand like he used to since there is nothing there anymore. Just a mess of pubes over a scar with a hole.
+++++Once he’s finished his piss, he walks out of his room and looks down the hallway. It’s quiet. Too quiet. The men he sees are in their rooms, watching him with cold, hard stares. Rivulets of sweat run down Jim’s face. Then he feels a heavy hand clamp down on his shoulder from behind. It’s happening. He would yell for help if he still had his tongue. Still he screams an incoherent babble as he is tossed back into his room. Three bulky men swollen with muscle and saturated with ink bound inside. One holds a Polaroid camera, another has a crudely made hacksaw. Jim shrieks in terror as the man with empty hands pulls him up off his feet and punches his good eye. Semi-conscious on the floor, he stares through his ballooning eyelid and sees the rusted blades coming towards his nose.
+++++Jim thrashes his head from side to side screaming to his lungs’ capacity. Meaty hands grab his temples to keep him from moving his head.
+++++“Happy anniversary,” one of the men says as the jagged blades start to tear into the cartilage before his eyes.
+++++In that moment, even with the intense pain, all Jim can think about is his face. I used to have a beautiful face. A face that people trusted. These assholes are destroying it. Making me into a monster.

***

Brenner sits at the table waiting. He sees a huge man enter from the back of the room after a guard opens the door. The hulk sits across from him. Although thick Plexiglas separates them, Brenner believes the material would not be an adequate barrier if this man wanted to break through. Which is to say the man is perfect for his job. Brenner and the brute grab their respective phones simultaneously.
+++++“It’s done,” the man with the handle Vicious says.
+++++Brenner nods. “Evidence?”
+++++Vicious looks both ways before pulling out a few Polaroid pictures from his shirt. This subterfuge shouldn’t matter, Brenner thinks, but you can’t take the paranoia out of the prisoner.  When the pictures are smacked against the window, Brenner is revolted. He wants to turn away, but he doesn’t. Not this time. Not any time. He paid for this. And all of the others. Jim the pedophile, abductor, rapist, and murderer is paying as well. One day a year for the rest of his life, one piece at a time.
+++++Brenner remembers that monster’s inhuman smirk throughout the trial. He remembers the horror of the other victims’ families when he testified, pleading with the jury to give the smug murderer a life sentence instead of the death penalty in spite of the heinous acts he had committed. That was one of the hardest things in the world to do: plead for the life of one who didn’t deserve it. But Brenner knew that justice would be slow and a lethal injection, regardless of what anti-death penalty advocates say, would be infinitely more painless than what he put his victims through. His beloved. His cherished. No more.
+++++Brenner refocuses, looking at the photo of the bloody gaping hole in the monster’s face and even more importantly the terror displayed in his eyes. The satisfaction he derives is limited. It will not bring back his daughter. He knows that. But it’s something, balancing the scales, maybe overburdening it…
+++++“Yo, man, you wanna see the nose?” Vicious asks, patting his waistband.
+++++Brenner shakes his head, unable to speak.
+++++“We doin’ this next year? There isn’t much more to take, if you get what I’m sayin’. I don’t mind doin’ it. My family thanks you for your, uh… generosity.”
+++++And so do the guards’ families, Brenner thinks. His house is triple mortgaged and he’s cashed in all his investments. Retirement is something he’ll never see. No matter. Since his wife left, nothing matters except this once a year event, the date of the abduction when Brenner’s agony transfers for a day to that monster.
+++++He studies the photo one more time. Is it enough? Pain and fear was captured on the monster’s face. Has justice finally been served?
+++++He hears his daughter’s faraway laugh, remembers her goofy smile. His heart hammers a surge dark energy, rattling his body. No, it is never enough.
+++++“Next year is on,” Brenner says with as much control as he can muster. “I’ll figure something else to take from him.”
+++++He leaves the prison knowing he is less a man and more a monster. He can live with that.

This notion of a fire

Dane Franklin lived in the far side of the forest close to where the tall, black pines shaved down to the moor as hair shaves down to a skull. He lived in the remains of an old caravan with his sister, Suzanne, who had, over the years, turned more than a little crazy. She’d wander the moors and woods in stone-cold rain and beneath clouds the colour of bruises in wind that ripped like a flail across bracken and heather. Dane, the wrong side of 40, with a nose that had broken more times than his heart, would stumble after her and drag her back to the caravan that served as home to the both of them. It stood on the corner of land belonging to his boss, Max Clifford, close to the dark water of the river, and Max would often wander down from the village with a bottle of cheap cider along with the wages he paid Dane for the odd jobs he did. He was an old friend, maybe Dane’s only friend. ‘Now listen,’ he’d say, usually after the third glass had gone down sweet as a baited hook. ‘You’re going to have to get ‘er put someplace she won’t get into bother, mate. You don’t know the half of what’s going on.’
+++++Dane, seated in a folding deckchair beside an electric heater, would gaze from the bars glowing like two bones in hot moonlight, to his sister laid on the cot; her dirty blonde hair hung over the side, sweeping the floor. ‘I promised my old man on his death bed I’d look out for her no matter what, that was on his deathbed, mate; she wasn’t always this way.’
+++++‘Nobody’s always any way.’
+++++‘I’m just saying she needs me more these days than ever she did.’
+++++‘And what’s it cost you?’
+++++‘Nothing I wasn’t ready to lose.’
+++++Max sipped from the cracked plastic tumbler before him. ‘Lost you Jane, lost you your job when you could have had her someplace safe where she’d be cared for.’
+++++‘A barmaid with a wandering eye and shit work in an abattoir aren’t the things to set your life by, not when there’s family and not when you owe them.’
+++++‘Dane, I’m just saying, you can’t be here all the time, and while you’re not here she wanders. I caught a few lads from town the other day, following her back into the wood. If I hadn’t been there, anything could have happened and, let’s be honest, there’s not a way you’d know. Doesn’t talk at all does she?’
+++++Dane turned and looked over at her. She’d walked eleven miles that day along the course of the river, through brush and thorns so tangled, he wouldn’t have believed a rabbit could pass. She lay sleeping, her breaths coming in frantic gasps as though she was some fresh-born beast testing natal lungs for the first bloody time. She’d been beautiful once, before the fire and, even now, beneath the scars smeared across her bones like thick clay, there was something of that loveliness remaining. ‘She hasn’t spoken a word to me in 12 years.’

***

The next day beneath a July rain that was hot as tea, Dane worked at repairing a wire fence on the river bank. The oily mud splashed as he drove a fresh post into the earth to replace one older than he was. He became aware of a movement on the far bank and looked up. Three young men stood watching him from beneath hoods. One, the closest to him, wore a baseball cap beneath the hood, and the legs of his track suit bottoms were tucked into his trainers. Another puffed at a cigarette he held away from the rain in a cupped hand. The third carried a child’s fishing rod. ‘Now then,’ the first said, ‘any good fishing round here, mate?’ There was arrogance to the voice, a scorn Dane heard all too clearly. He’d heard it all his life.
+++++‘No fishing round here lads, this is private.’
+++++‘You couldn’t look the other way, bud, just let us cast a few lines in?’
+++++Dane looked across the water at them. The river was the colour of old beer bottles beneath overhanging trees, flowing quickly down from the high moors behind. In spite of the rain it was hot, and he took the cloth cap from his head and wiped his face with it. ‘It’s just as I say, boys, it’s not up to me; it’s private all this.’
+++++‘Private?’ One of the men asked with a laugh.
+++++‘Aye,’ Dane said, confused by their lack of comprehension. ‘Private, as only he what owns it gets to use it.’
+++++The man with the cigarette said. ‘Like your sister, eh?’
+++++Dane stood very still. It felt as though a trap door had just opened beneath his ribs, and that his heart was falling like a bird with a bullet through the wing. The river washed darkly at the clay of the banks. ‘The fuck did you just say?’
+++++The men started laughing. ‘Take it easy Forrest Gump,’ the one with the rod yelled, ‘nobody wants to roll with a mental fucking pork scratching, no-one except you that is.’
+++++‘Fucking hillbilly,’ said the one with the cigarette. ‘Fuck your fishing and fuck you.’
+++++Dane stared down at the quick water. ‘If you were on this side …’
+++++But the boys were already walking back onto the trail headed to the estate at the edge of town. ‘You’d do fuck all, mate.’
+++++The rain eased up and a haze of small flies hovered over the fresh turned mud at his feet and it was a long time before Dane turned back to his work.

***

The sun was a blaze of gold in the pink misted clouds that washed over the hills. Dane sat on the deckchair in front of the caravan and watched it sink as he smoked a cigarette he’d rolled. He rolled them in the same way his father had and as he watched the sun he thought of the flames that had taken his sister’s house as he’d been passed out on the sofa, drunk on whisky and stoned, and of the two little boys’ asleep upstairs slowly choking to death on the smoke. He thought of the scream that woke him and how Suzanne, home from work early, dashed face first into the blaze too late and the scream of sirens and the last thing she ever said to him, “You killed them.”
+++++She came back close to midnight with her dress torn near enough to rags and her face beaten blue and bloody. She wasn’t crying, just came into the caravan, sat down, and started to comb her hair. He rose from the cot, walked across to her and held her face in his hands close to his. He knew it would be useless to ask sure as he knew who was to blame. He pulled the axe from beneath the bed and headed out into the night, locking the door behind him.
+++++Later, when he returned from the camp the boys had set up in a low field on the far side of the river, he tossed the axe into the river. His jeans were soaked in blood that wasn’t his and there were tooth marks on his knuckles. ‘Suzy, he said, ‘where are you?’
+++++The boys were half asleep and stoned on weed beside a fire that was more cinder than flame when he’d found them. He’d stood behind them and, with the blunt side of the axe head, despatched them one after the other the same way his Dad did the pigs back in the day. They had barely even screamed.
+++++He found her stood in the river, her yellow dress floating on water dark as obsidian, dark as a scrying mirror, the fabric pale in the moonlight like tarnished brass. He climbed down the muddy bank, slipping once or twice and stepped into the chill embrace of the water. ‘I’ve done something mad, Suzy, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry for everything. Sorry for everything I did and didn’t do and everything I am and everything you ended up as, and I’m sorry for the boys, yours and them, and I’m sorry,’ he listened to a distant siren echoing off the crowded hills, ‘I can’t watch you no more. I’m a stupid fucking man, a stupid bloody curse.’ He sighed and glanced at the silver stone of the moon hanging over a dark land. ‘I’m good and bloody sorry.’
+++++He reached for her and leaned her back into the river as though baptising her. The ruined beauty of her face vanished beneath the peaty water. She did not kick or cry out, and he held her there until the first police car burst into the valley in an explosion of light.

Long Black Veil

Every midnight Katharine Lee Jackson appears like a ghost in the live oak and ceanothus scrub on the hillside above the Azimuth County Jail.
+++++Speaking to no one, she drifts silently out of the darkness, a widow’s veil concealing her pale face. Sometimes the moon shows her clearly; when the weather is foul and rain soaks her mourning clothes, she is barely visible.
+++++Each time she visits, she reminds me of the woman in the song by Lefty Frizzell:

She walks these hills in a long black veil She visits my grave when the night winds wail Nobody knows, nobody sees Nobody knows but me

I watch for her because I dressed her in those widow’s weeds when I turned her husband into worm food.
+++++But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
+++++My name is Johnny Ray Deets and I’m a chain rigger, tree faller and straw-boss for the Daugherty Lumber Company. At least I used to be.
+++++I fell in love with Katharine Lee Jackson the first time I laid eyes on her, a couple of years before I quit school in the eleventh grade to take my old man’s place in the woods.
+++++I still love her today, but the real world got in between us and we took different paths.
+++++When I spotted her in the corridor at Horace Greeley High School, I thought she was the prettiest girl in the world.
+++++I’d heard her father was the new manager of the local bank. That didn’t mean anything to me. In my family we respected anyone who worked hard, regardless of whether they wore a suit or a hard hat.
+++++Most of the kids had dads who worked in the woods like mine. Many barely scraped by and had a low opinion of people higher in the pecking order.
+++++Their kids picked up the attitude like valley fever. They viewed the new girl with suspicion.
+++++One day as I looked for a place to eat my brown bag, I saw her in tears surrounded by three boys jawing at her about how her old man’s bank was bleeding their parents dry on the loans they’d taken to make it through rough patches. As I walked up, one of them spat on her and called her a “rich bitch.”
+++++I was pretty big as a kid—already six feet tall in the ninth grade and beefy enough that I got tagged to play varsity football in what should have been my redshirt year. I wasn’t just bigger than most of my classmates; I was faster and a hell of a lot stronger.
+++++Maybe because of my size my old man raised me to hate bullies and I’d jump into a fight with anybody picking on somebody smaller or weaker. Hurting a girl or calling her names were probably the most awful crimes I could imagine.
+++++Particularly a girl as pretty as Katharine Lee.
+++++I grabbed the kid who’d been running her down, swung him to face me and drove a left hand into his chin. As he fell back, I followed with a right cross, just like my pa had shown me. The bigmouth wound up coldcocked on the blacktop.
+++++“Learn some manners, you ignorant asshole!” I growled as his chums dragged him away.
+++++When they left, I turned and stared at Katharine Lee like an idiot. “C-can I sit next to you?” I asked, my face suddenly blood red.
+++++She wiped her tears away. Patting the bench next to her, she smiled and said, “Why not? Nobody else will.”
+++++We ate lunch together each day for the rest of the year.
+++++From that day forward, the teasing stopped. I was Katharine Lee’s protector, her champion.
+++++We dated at homecoming through my junior year. She had me over to her house twice for dinner with her family (her old man was delighted she had snagged a first-string football player who had decent table manners). When the Junior Prom rolled around, I even used the money I made summers pumping gas to buy her a corsage of gardenias and a decent suit from the Monkey Ward Catalog so she wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with me.
+++++Afterwards when I took her home in my pa’s pickup she kissed me at her front door. Her lips were the sweetest thing I ever tasted.
+++++But that same year, things went sour. My old man was helping to rig a turn for the cold deck when a bum tie-down gave way and one of the big-assed logs rolled up on him. His legs were pulped right up through the hip. He died a week later.
+++++We couldn’t live without pa’s paychecks. I was nineteen and big enough to fall lumber, so I grabbed my old man’s calks, helmet and beat-up McCulloch 3-25 and plugged into the Daugherty operation, working six shifts a week plus overtime during good weather.
+++++I was a perfect fit. I didn’t even have to change the name on the hard hat.
+++++Ma never got over pa’s death. A year later, she passed on herself.
+++++Clarence Daugherty, the company’s founder, ran Azimuth County like a cotton plantation in Mississippi. He was a tyrant and his word was law, but he was a lumberman to the core with sawdust in his veins. He took a shine to me because there was hardly a job in the woods I couldn’t do, usually faster and better than the men who’d been working there for years.
+++++“Johnny Ray is the best hand in Azimuth,” he’d say. “I’m proud to have him on my push!”
+++++When he died of a stroke two years ago his son Richard took his place in just about everything, including the day-to-day of running the company.
+++++Richard was about my age but never had a job that made him sweat. He didn’t care for the lumber business. He stopped producing finished lumber for homes and businesses and went to cutting Japanese Squares – unfinished logs for shipment overseas. He brought in suits from Los Angeles to make most of the show mechanical and he started going through the payroll and getting rid of older hands with real timber skills.
+++++Pretty soon nothing was left but a skeleton crew to operate the machinery and cable cut entire hillsides. All the old timers ended up at home, staying drunk on rocking chair money. When their unemployment ran out, they either lived off food stamps or starved.
+++++Eventually Richard Daugherty sold what was left of his old man’s company to some big outfit in Asia. The only thing they kept was the company’s name.
+++++Daugherty Lumber was pretty near the only show in town and most folks for a hundred miles in each direction depended on it for their living. Times fell hard in Azimuth County.
+++++I was one of the last to get the ax. That’s a joke, friend.
+++++Daugherty didn’t have the courtesy to tell me in person. I found out from the pink slip in my pay envelope. I’d gone from being one of the highest paid guys in the woods to living off unemployment like everybody else.
+++++I was trying to figure out what to do, but my options weren’t attractive. There was always working as a gyppo, but the work was irregular as hell and there weren’t enough indy logging operations to get steady income.
+++++I could always poach trees off private property but most of the good stands were gone leaving nothing but snags. Pirating firewood was another non-starter: there was no cash in beaver bait and blow downs, even when you hawked it to suburbanites.
+++++So I went on unemployment for two years.
+++++The bank in town is where I cashed my last go-to-hell check. There, sitting behind a desk in a little glass office, was where I spoke with Katharine Lee Jackson for the last time—only now the little black plastic plate on her desk said she was Katharine Lee Daugherty, Vice President.
+++++I watched her talking on the phone while I waited for a teller. She still was a stunner, the most beautiful woman in town, but she had a bruise around her left eye that was starting to fade from brown to green and her free arm was in a sling. Under it you could see a plaster cast that ran from her fingers to the bend of her elbow.
+++++She spotted me taking my cash and getting ready to leave when she was hanging up.
+++++“Johnny! Johnny Ray Deets!” she said as she got up and left her little office. She was walking with a slight limp and I noticed an elastic bandage around her knee. “Wait, Johnny! It’s me, Katharine!”
+++++She stopped in front of me, smiling through her pain at the effort. “Do you remember me at all?”
+++++It felt so good to see her and hear her voice I couldn’t help but smile back. “Hell, how could I forget you?” I said gruffly. “You’re the only girl I ever kissed. You were the love of my life.”
+++++She looked surprised. “Then why’d you quit school? I heard you’d gone to work as a lumberman.” She shook her head sadly. “I never understood it. You were all-state in football—had a chance to go to the University on full scholarship. But one day you were just gone. You never even said goodbye.”
+++++“I didn’t have much choice, Katharine Lee,” I said. “My pa got crushed on the job. I had to support my mother. That meant getting a job, and the only thing I knew was working the woods. I knew all the logging jobs ‘cause I’d been watching my pa do ‘em all my life.”
+++++I gestured to the sign on her desk. “Lest you forget, the Daugherty’s have this county sewed up. You want to make a real living, you best lug a saw or drive a log truck. Everything else is barely subsistence wages.”
+++++“I can see you did okay for yourself, though,” I said, a note of bitterness creeping into my voice. “It must be nice having a banker dad and a millionaire husband. Glad one of us grabbed the brass ring.”
+++++She blushed. “I started as a teller and worked my way up,” she said. “Had to take a test and pass an interview to get my foot in the door—with no short cuts. My dad died of a heart attack three years ago when I was still working the loan desk. Bank headquarters liked my work and made me his replacement.”
+++++“As for Dick, I married him because he was the only guy in town who showed an interest in me besides you,” she said. In a voice so low he could barely hear her, she added: “Believe me, having a millionaire husband hasn’t been a bed of roses.”
+++++“How do you mean?”
+++++She bit her lip. “He goes off at the slightest provocation. I think under all the money and fancy cars, he feels inadequate and tends to take it out on those around him. He’s wretchedly jealous. Every time another man looks at me, he thinks we’re having an affair.”
+++++I looked at her eyes. They looked haunted.
+++++“I thought he only treated us working stiffs like dirt,” I said, my voice softening. “Did he give you that shiner and break your arm?”
+++++She hesitated with tears welling in her eyes. “No, uh—I fell down a flight of stairs at the house.”
+++++She was obviously lying. I squeezed her uninjured hand gently. She didn’t pull away.
+++++“Come on Katharine Lee,” I said. “Tell the truth. Did he abuse you?”
+++++She leaned onto my chest, trembling and beginning to shed those tears.
+++++“Yes,” she whispered. “More than once. But for God’s sake don’t say anything to anybody about it. When he broke my arm two weeks ago, he said he’d kill me if I reported it to the sheriff. He said he’d know because Creed Moreland and his deputies have been in the Daugherty family’s pocket for years.”
+++++“The rotten son of a bitch,” I said, biting off my words through clenched teeth.
+++++Moreland had been sheriff forever. I knew when the elder Daugherty was alive, most every Saturday Creed played poker with him and Azimuth’s mayor, Carny Davies. My pa told me the only time he knew the old man to bug out of the game was the night Richard got drunk and ran his Corvette into a logger’s station wagon, killing the driver and critically injuring his wife and kids.
+++++Clarence stepped out “to make a couple calls,” my pa told me. Not only did Richard get off without so much as a traffic ticket, but there wasn’t a word about the accident in the local paper.
+++++By sheer bad luck, Daugherty Junior walked into the bank at that moment. He saw us with our heads together, holding hands. I could tell from the blank look he flicked my way he had no idea I was a former employee.
+++++“What the hell is this all about?” he demanded of Katharine Lee. “You shameless cunt! Are you hooking up with your fucking lovers in your damned bank now?”
+++++Snake quick, he grabbed her by her broken arm and pulled her away from me. Showing his teeth, he slapped her across the face and backhanded her on the return.
+++++I jerked him away from her and she fell to the floor with a cry of pain, a ribbon of blood trickling from her nose. I drew back my fist to pound Daugherty senseless but he was holding a snub-nosed pistol pointed at my middle.
+++++“Stand back, cowboy,” he said. “This is just between me and my so-called wife. I’m going to let you walk out of here intact. Just edge out that door. If you don’t, I’ll either shoot you myself or have the sheriff arrest you and charge you with something that puts you away for decades.”
+++++I’d grown three inches taller during my first couple of years working as a faller. A decade of wrangling logs, dragging chains and toting a McCulloch with a 30-inch bar had made me stronger and more limber than when I was playing free safety in high school.
+++++But I was shocked at how fast Daugherty moved. Only an idiot takes on a man who has a gun aimed at his belly so, fuming with rage, I half raised my hands and backed slowly out of the bank.
+++++Once I was outside my anger took over completely. I wanted to kill the son of a bitch, no matter what the cost. I could reach my pa’s red International Harvester with just a few steps. The Ruger carbine I use to hunt deer was locked in a rack behind its seat.
+++++But when I got to the truck, the coil of hooked log chain in the bed gave me a better idea. I pulled it out and wrapped enough around my hand to leave four feet of steel hanging and slouched back in the doorway of a boarded-up shop to watch the bank’s entrance.
+++++Daugherty came out a few minutes later and turned my direction as I ducked out of sight. I waited until he drew alongside and said quietly, “hey, asshole!”
+++++He turned, pulling out his snubbie and I wrapped the chain around his wrist with a single quick swing. The gun slipped from his shattered forearm and went off when it hit, telling me it had been loaded and cocked.
+++++He yelped like a kicked hound and staggered back, grabbing his arm as the chain unwound. I stepped up and chain-whipped his shoulders with a sound like a sledge hammer crushing a pile of walnuts.
+++++As he went to his knees, I wrapped the chain around his head with a final vicious lash. The pulpy crunch stifled his screams of agony permanently.
+++++Sprawling on the sidewalk, the cracks in Richard deformed skull oozed blood and a gray and pink goop that looked like cottage cheese. His eyes bulged between the loops of iron that seemed to be the only thing holding his head together.
+++++I let the rest of the chain unwind from my hand into a pile next to him. It seemed unlikely I would ever get a chance to use it again.
+++++It made no sense to run; I had nowhere to go. I figured wherever I ended up, I wouldn’t be there long, anyway. Count on it: murdering a millionaire gets you the needle these days.
+++++Sheriff’s patrol officers quickly arrived, followed by an ambulance and two paramedics. While the cops put me in handcuffs and stuck me in their black and white, the sawbones declared Daugherty dead where he fell.
+++++As the cops drove me away, I saw Katharine Lee watching through the bank’s front window. She was crying and she pressed her uninjured hand against the plate glass. Once again, I had been her champion and protector.
+++++I wanted to keep Katharine Lee from sitting through a painful trial that probably would have required her testimony so I pleaded guilty to murder one and was sentenced to die. No big loss. I would have been convicted anyway, what with Daugherty’s kin and hot-shot cronies in the driver’s seat.
+++++My only regret is that there isn’t a vacant cell in Death Row and I’ll be stuck in the county jail until the state is ready to stick me. I guess it makes sense: I spent my whole life in Azimuth and I’ll be here until they take me to San Quentin.
+++++That’s why I see Katharine Lee walking the hills in mourning clothes. Each night she appears on the pine-topped bluff that shields the jail from the Northwest wind. Sometimes I seem to hear the breeze carry her quiet weeping across the gulch near the razor wire fence. Or maybe I just imagine it. I can’t be certain.
+++++I am sure she knows I’m watching. After all, she isn’t there to grieve the man I killed. Her tears are just for me.

Fallen Phoenix

The bar was a skid row stage; its gamblers improv performers, their facial expressions skits apeing greed, desperation, disappointment, panic, hope, and they the only audience in an otherwise empty theater.
+++++An eclectic mélange of pop music from the past forty years; James Brown, The Four Tops, Sting, even Buddy Holly, and even older country stuff—Take This Job and Shove It—competed with the incessant thumping coins feeding starving hoppers of bar-top video poker machines lining the length of the bar. Mostly street wise Vegas locals crowded the machines. Jonesing rock-hoes played to earn twenty dollar rock double ups served up by the bartender, and with luck, they would not have to sell their asses this day to get sprung. Muscled up thugs contributed the proceeds beaten out of their prey; panhandlers gave up their day’s collections, then left to walk the median islands at busy intersections for more. All played peekaboo with the elusive progressive jackpot. Barring a Royal Flush, a less profitable return on their risky investments; a four of a kind, a full boat, even a dead man’s hand would do.
+++++The woman claimed a stool at the bar earlier that morning. A five dollar poker machine lay before her. Her back faced the entrance. “Country Honk” thumped base tempos two decibels too loud. A tinny treble twang distorted Jagger’s lyrics as if he had substituted an empty soup can for a mic with the string attached to the bottom end of it the twisted cotton conduit broadcasting his fuzzy lyrics to the blown speaker directly above her. She placed a large bill on the bar and said, “Gimme a rack and a Long Island iced tea.” A plastic caddy quickly appeared loaded with a mix of one hundred silver dollars and casino minted dollar size tokens equal in weight and size to the bona fide government issue coins. Her morning wake-up tea arrived thirty dollars into the rack. By noon the woman at the bar had nested six hours at the same stool, the same machine, drinking free and losing.
+++++The couple arrived well after lunch hour.
+++++A late August Santa Anna gusting wind hurried the couple in, ripped through the foyer and battered the woman at the bar. Mitch Ryder wailed “Girl with A Blue Dress” rattling the adjacent ceiling tiles. The woman’s hair flattened forward. Her back stiffened plumb. The automatic door closer struggled to beat back the belligerent desert gusts. The woman at the bar kept drinking, slipped five dollars more in the slot, and finger brushed her hair back, disturbed less by the couple’s blustery entrance than the losing hand just dealt her. “Another hundred closer to broke,” she mumbled to her machine. She hunched over her comped cocktail and became one once again with its content.
+++++“Damned wind, it beat me up; I feel like I just lost a brawl in a dark alley,” he said. He patted and brushed the desert off the portion of his clothes that weren’t sweaty wet, and slapped his frayed Oakland A’s ball cap against the thread worn knees of his blue jeans.
+++++“Can’t feel the balls of my feet,” she said. She was a veteran topless pole dancer in the Vegas strip clubs just off the strip locally known as Naked City. Her fuck pumps were designed to enhance her shapely calves on stage, not embark on an urban stroll along five city blocks of sun-seared concrete. “My hair feels like a burnt Brillo pad, and I just sweat off a pound getting here, coated in dust, and I need to pee.” The couple adapted their sight to the neon-lit dusk inside and moved on.
+++++The woman at the bar tipped her glass and emptied the last of her Long Island Ice Tea. She raised it high above her head and rattled the melting ice cubes inside impatiently gesturing for another comped refill, “And another rack too,” she said.
+++++He stopped further up the bar with his back to the woman. His lover headed for the lav. He leaned an elbow on the bar top at a vacant machine played twenty dollars, and earned a comped double off-brand whiskey neat from the well. He contributed another twenty to the progressive jackpot pool, flashed a two-dollar tip to the bartender, emptied the glass and played another twenty while he scanned the restaurant crowd for those he owed, those that owed him, and undercover cops in fake beards. No one. He ordered another double and guzzled it before she returned.
+++++The couple sought a place on the restaurant side. They settled on a cluttered booth in a sea of cluttered booths in need of bussing. They sat together on a faded abused bench seat with an equally tattered padded back. Parts of the vinyl upholstery had split and stiffened over time; the foam under it lost its firmness after the Mob, who still owned the tavern, town. Two concave molds had formed on the seats from the past twenty years of punishment by every shaped ass imaginable. Carved graffiti littered the aged soft pine wood table top. The couple faced the bar.
+++++“Damned wind’s brutal,” she said. She slipped her arm around his neck and closed in, leg to leg, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder.
+++++“But this is Vegas—the best lit desert oasis in the world—Paradise,” he said.
+++++“Another county heard from,” she said. “Find work, get a car with air conditioning and tinted windows; that’s Paradise.”
+++++“But, I got work.”
+++++“Credit card fraud is theft hon, not work. I was thinking of an occupation that won’t land you back in the penitentiary too soon.”
+++++He glanced up at the bar and recognized the woman slumped over her already half empty refill. “I’m sick of your bug infested room at the Blue Angel too?” his date said. “Let’s lease a place together as far from Fremont and Eastern as we can, furnished, maybe Boulder City or Henderson.”
+++++“Sure thing, let’s get a cat too, buy bright shiny things, get monogrammed pillowcases, paper the walls,” he said. “Quit carping.” A pregnant pause occurred, then, “I wonder,” he said. “Is she anticipating some sign of monumental import rise in a mist from the backwash in her glass?”
+++++“What babe?”

***

He and the woman at the bar quit each other after twelve off and on years of arrests, prison, playing the streets smack back or sprung on rocks. Her sin? Too many long runners chasing the high until her current date ran out of money. His? Sampling her myriad bi-sexual rock hoe friends, at first with her involved, but toward the end without her knowledge. Since the breakup, they slept together on rare occasions both crossed paths half sober, sprung on rocks, sometimes nodding off on a dose of Afgan tar. Before, as a couple, they were an institution on Freemont Street, well known amongst the whores, slot cheats, drug dealers, thugs, and cops. The woman at the bar was bound to find them out; both knew each other from their tit dancing days together, and they remained chums since. He figured someone he swindled in the past might vengefully expose the couple to the woman at the bar. Come another time, another place, alone with her face to face; that was fine, he would tell her then. But not now, not here, not by a chance encounter in a downtown Vegas skid row bar, not at the risk of a Bukowski style Wanda/Tully catfight.
+++++“Look to the left near the end of the bar,” he said. “See her huddling with her cocktail. She’s almost wallowing in it?” She looked up toward the bar spotted her friend and groaned. In full blush, she turned to him, her breath raining humid warmth in his ear. She whispered, “What now? If she sees us, well, if she sees us…”
+++++“…You’ll lose a close friend.”
+++++She pulled away from him, “And you’ll lose a fuck buddy.” She no longer whispered.
+++++“Doubt I’ll miss that, long as you keep your motor running.”
+++++“We were close once, even before you. Not now, though. She’s distant, or too busy whoring to find time for me.”
+++++“Off and on, I squandered nine years of my life with her; years I’ll never get back.”
+++++“She cheated on you when you were in prison.”
+++++“Betrayal begins with implicit trust. I’d have done the same if she were locked up. She knew that. Look; she’s emptied another Iced Tea dry. She’ll be blind ‘til this time tomorrow,” he said
+++++“Do you trust me implicitly babe?”
+++++“And then her drinking,” he said. “She’s a sadistic mean bitch; loves to roll around in the dirt scratching and clawing anyone who offends her.”
+++++“Yup, she’s a scandalous drunk alright.”
+++++“Hell, she’d get blacked out stumbling drunk clock me in the jaw, call
+++++Metro, blame a two day old bruised wrist on me and off I’d go to the city jail overnight.”
+++++“Shouldn’t have slapped her around so much.”
+++++“I don’t recall ever leaving a mark.”
+++++“Still a bit bitter?”
+++++“No. Remorse? Yes. Bitter? No.”
+++++“After all, it wasn’t all on her; you worshiped that bottle just as much as she did.”
+++++“That’s what heavy drinkers do.”
+++++“She wasn’t street until you got to her. You turned her out. Her golden gash kept you supplied with a steady stream of rocks, liquor, and threesomes with her and her lezzy girlfriends. She’s your creation, your invention; now she’s just your cast off debris.”
+++++“I’ll call her over; we’ll have a threesome.”
+++++“I’ll pass. She was a decent pole dancer when we worked the tit clubs together in Naked City. She always walked away with two, three hundred dollars a night, more than the rest of us. No drugs and she never tricked. I think of what you did to her; you’re good at exploiting the worst in women. Makes me wonder what you have planned for me? Gonna turn me out? Share a needle with you?”
+++++“Naa, none of that, just your dirty love later.”
+++++“Look at her,” she said. “Probably drunk before we had breakfast. Bet she got new tracks, not on her arms, they’re sieves by now. Who but a smack back addict like her hides tracks wearing long sleeves in a hundred-ten degree heat? Stabbing between her toes now, I’ll bet. She’s got one foot in the gutter, and one on the curb’s my guess.” He glanced at his rolled up sleeves relieved they covered the crooks of his arms.
+++++“Got granite for a heart too,” he said. “Cold, lifeless; dynamite might chip off a chunk of it, but no amount of effort will ever penetrate it.”
+++++“You turned her cold,” she said. “Call it like it is.”
+++++The woman at the bar put a straw atop her drink got up from her stool and left with the man to her right. She came back alone twenty minutes later, called out, “Another rack,” and laid down a large bill she had just earned in the back seat of a ’62 Ford Fairlane.
+++++“She’s pinned her street degree back on her ass and gone to selling it again,” she said.
+++++“Now here she is, face down in a downtown shit hole bar,” he said. He caught a harried waitress in mid-stride with an authoritative, “Hey, order here.”
+++++“You again,” the waitress said. “Who’s the new squeeze next to you? Hell, forget it, I don’t care, just don’t stiff me when you leave. Interest you in a top shelf margarita? Maybe, a Maker’s Mark high ball?” the waitress said.
+++++“Naa, double sour mash whiskey here, double gin for her, neat in rock glasses. Just the cheap no name off brand swill from the well; we drink for effect, not taste,” he said. He nodded to the dishes still on the table. The waitress cleared the leavings away, wiped the table down, sneered a grin at his friend, wrote up their meal order and scrambled off.
+++++“Let’s sit on the other side of the booth, backs to the bar,” he said. “Less chance she’ll spot us.”
+++++“Why do you keep screwing her?”
+++++“This is as close as I’ve been to her since we split the sheets.” She caught him lying; all three mutually knew the street-wise cast offs on Fremont; rumors there spread fast as the click of a minute hand. Their last instance together occurred a few weeks earlier and stretched into a three-day carnal spree; him chasing rocks and smack, and her whoring for the money to buy the shit. Then there were the Extacy tainted threesomes with her and her rock fiend hooker friends. His current lover had heard about their recent runner before their first day together ended.

***

The woman at the bar signaled for a refill and invested five dollars more on another losing hand. The ice cubes were noisier this time; they had little chance to melt.
+++++Their appetites had dulled by the fourth round; their meals sat half eaten and cold. “Drink up,” he said. “Let’s hoof it to my crib. I got a bottle of Wild Turkey, and the liquor store is just across the street. We’ll shower up, do some lines; you dig up that hot pink thong and corset outfit along with the sparkly make-up shit you left behind last week. We’ll swing from the trees until they come to change the sheets Sunday.” Her eyes slit narrow with lust. She firmly gripped his inner thigh, stroked it softly from his crotch to his knee as a gesture of consent.
+++++“Ah yes, been waiting for you to mention rutting season. Let it begin,” she said. She squirmed closer to him as if she were an estrus doe spraying an overdose of pheromones in the direction of her randy buck.
+++++The couple kept their heads down avoiding eye contact on their way to the door. They made it unnoticed to the vestibule unscathed, both lit on ninety proof, wobbling a bit. He opened the door for her to pass. The storm had calmed; stillness intensified the desert heat. She brushed close up to him, copped a feel and kissed him. She hummed a throaty moan as her tongue stabbed past his lips, then she moved on. He looked toward the bar and cast an eye at his creation clutching a half empty chimney glass, her face wallowing inches above video screen. Then he turned his back to her assured he had successfully convinced another Phoenix of the streets to languish in her flames ‘till death than rise.

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