Hangin’ Out at the Git and Go, poetry by Jason Ryberg

Hangin’ Out at the Git and Go

The moon tonight is
the lone, pink sodi­um street
light of one more no

name, gas sta­tion / grain
ele­va­tor town with no
bar, no din­er, no

movie the­ater
(since 1980-something),
noth­ing to do on

a Fri­day or a
Sat­ur­day night but get in-
to trou­ble in some

oth­er town the next
coun­ty over, or hang out
here, at the Git and

Go, and watch a few
cars pass­ing through; some­times some
out­ta town types pull

in to gas up and
walk around a while, stretching
and jok­ing, asking

them­selves, each other
and, final­ly, one of us
where the hell are we?

Jason Ryberg is the author of eigh­teen books of poet­ry, six screen­plays, a few short sto­ries, a box full of fold­ers, note­books and scraps of paper that could one day be (loose­ly) con­strued as a nov­el, and, a cou­ple of angry let­ters to var­i­ous mag­a­zine and news­pa­per edi­tors. He is cur­rent­ly an artist-in-res­i­dence at both The Pros­pero Insti­tute of Dis­qui­et­ed P/o/e/t/i/c/s and the Osage Arts Com­mu­ni­ty, and is an edi­tor and design­er at Spar­tan Books. His lat­est col­lec­tion of poems is The Great Amer­i­can Pyra­mid Scheme (co-authored with W.E. Leath­em, Tim Tarkel­ly and Mack Thorn, OAC Books, 2022). He lives part-time in Kansas City, MO with a roost­er named Lit­tle Redand a bil­ly­goat named Giuseppe and part-time some­where in the Ozarks, near the Gas­conade Riv­er, where there are also many strange and won­der­ful wood­land critters.

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Wrong Kind of Rain, fiction by Steve Lambert

Bill stood up and pock­et­ed his hand­ker­chief, looked up at the grey sky, and watched three turkey buz­zards glide a low, loose cir­cle direct­ly over­head and, in the dis­tance, high above the lemon grove to his right, he could just make out a small del­i­cate-look­ing heli­copter float­ing in and out of the clouds, like a dragonfly. 

The body at his feet, in the shal­low ditch, was a dump job. He knew that. He glanced around. “Like a giant laid the poor bas­tard down in the dirt.” He talked as if he were accom­pa­nied by an atten­tive but qui­et com­pan­ion. To his left, on the east side of the ditch, was the small dirt lot, no tire tread marks, Coun­ty Road 27 just on the oth­er side of it. West of the ditch, Grant Parson’s Mey­er lemon grove, row upon row upon row, the size of a small town. 

It had been Sug­ar Burk­son, in fact, Parson’s ret­i­cent chief cul­ti­va­tor, who’d dis­cov­ered the body just before sunup. He’d called Par­son instead of the police and Par­son called it in. Ear­li­er in the morn­ing, Bill had asked him, more in pass­ing than to get infor­ma­tion, “What you fig­ure, Sug­ar?” His only com­ment was “Fuck if I know.” 

Bill walked back to his truck in the bur­geon­ing morn­ing heat, looked at his watch: eight-thir­ty. He opened the tool­box in the bed of his truck and pulled a can of Busch Light out of the cool­er hid­den inside. He lis­tened to the squir­rels bark and squee in a near­by oak tree. The first few gulps were hard to get down and he almost heaved, but by the time he got to the bot­tom of the can, there it was: the slow spread of soft gold­en inte­ri­or light, and he began to feel right again. He chucked the can, emp­ty but for an ounce or so of swill, in the direc­tion of the squir­rels. “Reck­on that’s Wal­ter Pound’s charred corpse?” he said to his phan­tom partner. 

Ought not to lit­ter, Sher­iff,” said Deputy Lloyd Barnes as he approached Bill. “It’s a five hun­nerd dol­lar fine in High­lands Coun­ty.” He smiled at the sher­iff, stopped in front of him. “Lit­tle god­damn ear­ly for an adult bev­er­age, ain’t it?”

Bill’s drink­ing was no secret to any­one, but most peo­ple, out of respect, didn’t give him any shit about it. Togeth­er they walked back to the shal­low dip in land between the lot and grove where the body lay. Bill wasn’t sure he want­ed to tell his deputy what he thought.

Lloyd nudged a black leg with his boot and a crack­ling sound issued from it. 

Crispy fuck­er.”

Quit kick­ing at it, boy.” 

Barnes glanced around, pulled a can of Copen­hagen from his shirt pock­et, tapped it three times. 

Right off the bat, I got some ideas.”

Wal­ter Pound was Lloyd’s cousin. They were, in fact, first cousins. Walter’s dad­dy, dead for some time now, had been Lloyd’s uncle. If this body was Wal­ter Pound’s, Deputy Barnes would have some opin­ions on the mat­ter, and Bill wasn’t quite ready for that. 

Do tell.”

Even with­out know­ing who this dead bas­tard is, I’d start with Evil Dead.” Lloyd squint­ed an eye at the sher­iff as he put a pinch of dip into his mouth and tongued it into place. It began to light­ly rain, just more than a mist. 

Lloyd squat­ted down and took a clos­er look. “Who are you?” he whispered. 

Plau­si­ble,” said Bill. Evil Dead were some­thing of a scape­goat for Lloyd. Still the bik­er gang had crossed his mind, as well. Of the three in the area, they were the most bru­tal, and they were respon­si­ble for many hor­rors com­mit­ted in Dur­din. Wal­ter had been mixed up with them. But some­thing told him this had not been done by Evil Dead. This, to his mind, was the result of hate, not business—maybe even deep, famil­ial blood hate, the kind that many of the Pounds and Bag­gotts had for one anoth­er. Things had been qui­et between the two fam­i­lies for a while, but rela­tions always soured every few years, and when they did, shit would go down. 

Lloyd looked up, the way the sher­iff had ear­li­er. The rain had intensified. 

Almost seems like the son of a bitch was dropped out of the fuck­ing sky, don’t it? But there’s no impact impres­sion any­where.” Lloyd spat a brown stream of dip, then wiped his mouth. “What you want me to do? I’d love to go put the fear into some dip­shit bikers.”

Just hang tight for now.” He want­ed to ask him if Enid, Walter’s wife, still lived in Sah­wok­lee, two coun­ties over, but didn’t want to get Lloyd’s mind work­ing. If he asked about Enid, Lloyd would no doubt make the leap to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the body being Walter’s, if he hadn’t already. “For now, let’s just get out of this rain.”

 

Thir­ty-five years ago, Wal­ter Pound fell out of a cedar tree on the Dur­din Ele­men­tary School play­ground and scraped his elbow. Mrs. Hill­man, their kinder­garten teacher, an ordi­nary townswoman, igno­rant of back­woods feuds and ways, request­ed Enid Bag­gott walk Wal­ter to the school clin­ic. Enid held his hand the whole way there, wait­ed while the nurse fixed him up, and walked him back. At the age of five, they were bare­ly aware of their own last names, much less any ten­sion between their fam­i­lies, and from that day on, Wal­ter thought often of Enid, despite what he would lat­er real­ize about their fam­i­lies’ extreme dis­like for one anoth­er. Some six­teen years lat­er, at Lil­lian and Dill Talbert’s wed­ding, some­thing drew them togeth­er, and they stayed tan­gled up. 

As Sher­iff Bill Reg­is­ter pulled off the small dirt lot of Parson’s lemon grove, he believed, but could not yet prove, he’d found evi­dence of the grim open­ing sal­vo in a new inter­fa­mil­ial skirmish.

Upon leav­ing Parson’s grove, Lloyd decid­ed he’d not “hang tight,” as the sher­iff had told him to do. Instead, he found him­self turn­ing onto Fire­break Road, a few miles south on twen­ty-sev­en, just out­side Dur­din city lim­its, and pulling into the chalky white lot of the Evil Dead Club­house. The build­ing had been a VFW, but the bik­ers bought the build­ing a few years back when the VFW moved to a new loca­tion clos­er to town. Two vehi­cles sat in the lot: a Harley with a con­fed­er­ate flag fuel tank and a black Ford F‑150. The truck was always in the lot. The block build­ing was still white with red trim, but there was a nar­row sign over the door that read 

EVIL DEAD m.c. est. 1945.

If this is Hell, it’s real­ly not that bad.” ‑Duchess of Durdin 

Lloyd could smell fire, which remind­ed him of the charred body in the grove, and he felt a wave of nau­sea, but forced it down. As he approached the back of the build­ing, he heard voic­es, and as he turned the cor­ner he saw anoth­er motor­cy­cle, an old Tri­umph, all black and chrome. Just beyond the bike, a smok­er and two men stand­ing next to it. Lloyd knew bet­ter than to sneak up on these men, so he yelled “Boys!” and waved as he came into view. 

Deputy dog,” growled the big one man­ning the smok­er. Doug Cren­shaw and Lloyd had grown up togeth­er, had even been friends in their ear­ly teens. Doug was not a Bag­gott, but he’d grown up swarmed with them. When Doug had joined up with the Evil Dead he’d tried to recruit Lloyd. But Lloyd was set on prowl­ing through South­east Asian jun­gles instead. The sec­ond man, a skin­ny tweak­er named Spi­der, watched, as Lloyd approached. 

Get­ting an ear­ly start,” said Lloyd, point­ing at the smoker. 

Takes about eight hours, if you do it right. Gives you a rea­son to start drink­ing ear­ly, too.” Doug raised his Bud­weis­er and took a swig. He was a big boy, at least six feet, prob­a­bly two-fifty, but not as big as Lloyd. The one watch­ing was thin and short but wiry. 

Man, that smell…” Lloyd took a few steps clos­er. The inten­si­ty of the smell was about to put him over the edge but puk­ing in front of these two was not an option. 

Doug opened up the lid and dense, blue-grey smoke tum­bled up from inside.

Take a look.”

Lloyd stepped into the prox­im­i­ty of the two men and stood next to the smok­er, next to the big man, and the spi­dery one moved in on Lloyd’s right. 

God­damn,” said Lloyd. 

Doug drank the rest of his beer and hurled the bot­tle into a met­al drum close by. He closed the lid on the smok­er and Lloyd stepped back, and so did the twitchy one named Spider. 

Was want­i­ng to ask you,” said Lloyd.

Here it comes,” said the big one. “I knowed you weren’t pay­ing us a social vis­it.” He looked at his partner. 

It ain’t like that.”

It damn sure is like that. It’s always like that. Any-damn-thing occurs and you or Bill comes peep­ing around the cor­ner. What’s it this time? A purse-snatching?”

Fine,” said Lloyd. “It is like that. No sense in play­ing make believe.” Lloyd fished out his can­nis­ter of Copen­hagen, put in a dip, spit off the few grains of tobac­co stuck to his bot­tom lip. Some­how this helped with the nau­se­at­ing feel­ing from the smol­der­ing pork butt. “Y’all vil­lains, big man,” he con­tin­ued. “Some­thing bad hap­pens, I come talk to the bad guys.”

The wiry one took a big step inward.

You bet­ter set­tle the fuck down,” said Lloyd, with his right hand out in front of him. The man stopped

Doug smiled and nod­ded at the other. 

Lloyd Barnes, Viet­nam badass!”

The thin one chuckled. 

You might be able to scare teenagers and lit­tle old ladies talk­ing like that, but you ain’t shit here. We’ll knock you on the head and drop your ass in a phos­phate mine, bury you in an orange grove, come back and eat some bar­beque. Ain’t no thing to us.” 

Speak­ing of groves,” said Lloyd. “Found a burnt-to-a-husk bas­tard just north of here in a lemon grove. Just set down in the ditch like god laid him there. You wouldn’t by chance know any­thing about that, would you?”

Sounds gruesome—but then, being a war vet, you seen all kind a shit, ain’t you? Dead babies and whatnot.”

Lloyd spit a deep brown gob at Doug’s foot.

Look here,” said Lloyd. “You and your meth­head pal hear any­thing you let me know. I’ll be back and I’ll be expect­ing a fuck­ing anec­dote or two.”

No one spoke. Lloyd touched the brim of his hat and turned his back on the two men and walked back to his truck.

 

Back at the sta­tion, Bill called Sah­wok­lee Coun­ty Sheriff’s Office and talked to deputy Ben Lin­coln, act­ing sher­iff. Bill’s coun­ter­part in Sah­wok­lee, Sher­iff Frank New­some, was six-months retired and had not yet been replaced, so the erst­while deputy had tak­en over. Lin­coln, all knew, would assume the role of sher­iff offi­cial­ly once the coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers got used to the idea, but that was going to require a brief “mourn­ing” peri­od, as Frank had char­ac­ter­ized it to his nephew Ben. 

Bill asked Ben about Enid, Walter’s wife. Ben con­firmed that Enid did, to his knowl­edge, still life in Sah­wok­lee County—presumably the small town of Cortez.

As you know, she report­ed Wal­ter miss­ing three days ago. But I ain’t laid eyes on her drunk ass in a while. No telling where she might be.” 

As I know? I don’t know shit. You ain’t gone look­ing for Walter?”

Not active­ly. Who gives a shit about Wal­ter Pound—other than Enid? And I told your boy Lloyd to tell you about Wal­ter when he called yes­ter­day ask­ing about Bradford’s cat­tle gone missing.”

Bill told Ben about the body in the lemon grove and his the­o­ry on who it might be. 

Lloyd did tell me about Enid’s report,” said Bill, lying to save face. “I must have for­got. Old age. Think I should talk to Enid though,” he added. 

Have you ever talked to Enid, sher­iff? She ain’t exact­ly a sparkling con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. And I’ll be hon­est, she’s smart as a snakebite, knows what to say and how to say it and has fun doing it. Likes toy­ing with ass­holes like us.”

Bill told Ben that he had talked to Enid before, sev­er­al times, and that he knew how to deal with her. When Bill hung up with Ben, he sat in his chair and tried fig­ur­ing how to move ahead until he felt the heav­i­ness of his fad­ing beer buzz and drift­ed off. 

When Bill woke he had a slight headache but he felt sur­pris­ing­ly rest­ed. It was only ten o’clock. Let’s see, he thought. Take about forty-five min­utes to get to Cortez. Dri­ve around Sah­wok­lee for an hour or so, see what I see. Get back by about one or two. He stood up and pat­ted at him­self, look­ing for some­thing to look for. Deb­bie Creel, his sec­re­tary clip-clopped into his office. 

Nice nap, Sheriff?”

He grunt­ed.

Med­ical Exam­in­er called. Parson’s grove body being exam­ined as we speak.”

Thanks, Deb.”

She nod­ded and stood there watch­ing him look around his office. 

You all right, Bill? I don’t like it when you’re all qui­et like this.” Bill was always qui­et, and she knew it. 

I’mma ride out to Sahwoklee.”

Deb­bie sighed. “This one’s got bik­er stink all over it, don’t you think?” 

It’s plau­si­ble.”

I’d say a damn sight more than plau­si­ble. Who else could have done some­thing like that? Could be Cuban mob—Tampa. Just drop­ping a body off ‘in the boonies’ or something.” 

He smiled and nod­ded and touched Deb­bie on the shoul­der on his way out. 

You see Lloyd, tell him to radio me, please, will ya, Deb?”

Deb­bie fol­lowed him out to his truck and knocked on his win­dow. Bill rolled it down. 

She whis­pered: “Could be a Pound-and-Bag­gott thing—that burned up body. That’s what you’re think­ing, Bill. I bet it is, ain’t it?” 

He winked at her.

Any thoughts on whose body it is?”

He put the truck in reverse.

Greedy old bas­tard,” said Deb­bie and she stepped away from the truck. 

As Bill Reg­is­ter pulled onto the road, the fact that Enid had report­ed Wal­ter miss­ing pressed down on him. This is some­thing, he thought. The dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Pound man found burnt up in a lemon grove. Could be a Bag­gott that done it, could be some­one else. More than a few folks hat­ed Wal­ter enough to want him dead. Even, as Deb stum­bled on, Cuban mob and affil­i­ates. Even, as Lloyd had sug­gest­ed, Evil Dead. It was even pos­si­ble that Bradford’s miss­ing cat­tle fig­ured into things some­how. Any­one of con­se­quence in the crime world on this whole damn penin­su­la has had, at some point, a rea­son to at least want the tar beat out of Wal­ter Pound. Also, may not be that fire was what killed him. The burn­ing could be post-mortem. Could be they burnt him up to cov­er up evi­dence. High­ly pos­si­ble. What, he thought, would Lloyd do if this all turns out to be true? What if that is Wal­ter Pound’s body?

 

Back at the sta­tion, Lloyd was vir­tu­al­ly accost­ed by Deb­bie Creel. 

You at Parson’s with Bill this morn­ing?” she said as Lloyd sat down at his desk chair. She knew the answer. 

Yes, ma’am.” Unlike Bill, Lloyd would tell her all he knew, he usu­al­ly did, but he also enjoyed stringer her along. 

What you reck­on hap­pened to that poor soul, Lloyd?”

Well. Ms. Deb­bie, I fig­ure he was burnt up.”

No shit, Lloyd. I mean—who you think it is that done it?”

Can’t say. Evil Dead, likely.”

Inter­est­ing,” said Debbie.

Why’s that?”

For the same rea­son as the sher­iff, Deb­bie didn’t want to say too much to Lloyd about what she thought, about who she thought the body belonged to. If he’d brought up on his own the pos­si­bil­i­ty, she’d have been more than hap­py to dis­cuss pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios with him—but she didn’t want to be the one to plant the idea in Lloyd’s head if it wasn’t already in there. 

No—it’s just that that makes sense. Any idea who it is—the body?”

Come on out with it, Deb­bie. I know your minds working.” 

She picked up a mug from ear­li­er that morn­ing with about an ounce of cold cof­fee in it and swirled it once then walked it over to the lit­tle stain­less-steel sink in the cor­ner and dumped it out and ran some water into it. 

Hell, what do I know, Lloyd. You the one been out there.”

He sighed, took off his wide-brimmed deputy’s hat and set it on his desk, looked down at his left hand. 

I do know for a fact that Enid report­ed my piece of shit cousin Wal­ter miss­ing a few days ago. Not ready just yet to men­tion this to Bill. Maybe he already knows. Maybe he doesn’t. But that’s fam­i­ly business.”

I’ll be damn,” said Deb­bie. She could bare­ly con­tain her delight at Lloyd’s men­tion of Wal­ter and Enid. “This here—I think you’re right, Lloyd. This ain’t no bik­ers done this….How’d you know about Wal­ter? Sher­iff didn’t say noth­ing about that.”

He tell you every­thing he knows, does he?”

She just looked down, then over at the wall.

I called yes­ter­day and talked to Ben, over in Sah­wok­lee, about a lead on them Brah­mans gone miss­ing and he told me—asked me to relay to Bill that Enid had report­ed Wal­ter miss­ing. I did not relay that mes­sage to Bill.”

Deb­bie nodded. 

Lloyd con­tin­ued: “Wal­ter miss­ing. Burnt-up Wal­ter-sized bas­tard this morn­ing. Don’t take too much intel­lect to sort out the pos­si­bil­i­ties, does it?”

Well, Bill talked to Ben his­self just before he left ear­li­er.” Deb­bie pat­ted at the side of her head. “Whose cat­tle was that gone missing?”

Them was Leon Bradford’s Brahmans.”

Leon Brad­ford, Deb­bie knew, was mar­ried to a Bag­gott woman. About fif­teen years ago, he and Michaela Bag­gott, Enid’s cousin of some vari­ety, got spliced up on the prop­er­ty Leon had bought a year pri­or for cat­tle graz­ing. It had been a big par­ty, over a hun­dred peo­ple in atten­dance. A Bag­gott mar­ry­ing some­one wealthy like Brad­ford was a big deal. Deb­bie had been there. Kurt Big­nall, the gro­cer, had asked her to go with him. Deb­bie did not like Kurt much, but she did like wed­dings, so she’d accept­ed Kurt’s invi­ta­tion. She asked her­self, would Wal­ter Pound be dumb enough to steal Brah­mans from Leon Bradford—and would Leon be bold enough to kill Wal­ter for doing it? Lloyd must have read these thoughts on Debbie’s face. 

Deb­bie, Walter’d be crazy enough to steal Leon’s cat­tle, wouldn’t he?”

She told him yes, she thought he would.

 

Bill pulled into the dirt lot at Fuzzy’s, looked around, saw one oth­er vehi­cle, a white Ford F‑150. There was a chained dog lying in the shade off to the left side of the door. He knew the dog but couldn’t call its name. The dog raised its head when Bill slammed the truck door, watched him walk all the way up to the entrance. There, again, was a light rain. But, as Bill stopped to look at the sky, he noticed a dark, almost pur­ple shelf cloud to the northeast. 

Bill went straight to the bar, where­at he noticed two oth­ers sit­ting, but couldn’t make them out until his eyes adjust­ed to the dark. 

Whiskey and a beer,” he said to Roof, the tall half-Indi­an bartender. 

Right up, Bill,” said Roof. 

Bill lit a cig­a­rette, glanced to his right, took a drag and said, “Jack­pot.”

Roof set down Bill’s drinks and shift­ed his eyes over to the two lost souls sit­ting at the bar to Bill’s right, then glanced back at Bill. Next to Bill was a slumped over man in his late fifties or ear­ly six­ties, a near emp­ty mug in front of him, his fin­gers curled around it. Next to that man was a very small, pre­ma­ture­ly shriv­eled woman in cut­off den­im shorts, a striped tank top and flip flops. Enid Pound. Bill was tak­en by how qui­et it was in the place. 

Bill set his cig­a­rette in the ash­tray groove, did his shot of whiskey, and fished a dol­lar bill from his pants pock­et, got up and walked over to the juke­box, which was lit up like Vegas, des­per­ate for a few songs. But when he got clos­er to it, he real­ized the juke­box was bust­ed up. Big chunks of the jukebox’s plas­tic dome were bro­ken off and there were cracks in it. It was still blink­ing and flash­ing, but he paused before putting his mon­ey in. He also noticed that to the right of the bust­ed up juke­box was a chair, one leg broke off, leaned up against a post.

What hap­pened to your juke­box, Roof.” He said, putting the dol­lar back into his pocket. 

There was a fight. Juke­box lost.” He chuck­led and glanced at Enid, who was also chuck­ling, but hers was more of a wheeze. 

Does it still work?”

I gath­er it don’t,” said Enid, turn­ing on the bar stool and fac­ing the sher­iff. She propped her elbows up and leaned back against the bar. 

Enid Pound—that you?”

You know damn well it is.”

You’re just the woman I was hop­ing to run into today.”
“Sure are pop­u­lar with sher­iffs today,” said Roof.

What’s that, Roof?” said Bill. 

Old Frank was just in here about an hour ago,” said Enid. “He’s retired, but don’t act like it. Find­ing it dif­fi­cult to enjoy the autumn of his life.”

I bet I know why,” said Bill.

Don’t take a rock­et sur­geon to fig­ure out,” said Enid.

Reck­on you and I can have a chat ourselves?”

My pol­i­cy on talk­ing to the author­i­ties in a drink­ing estab­lish­ment is simple.”

Let me guess: I buy, you talk.”

Enid smiled and walked over to Bill, still stand­ing by the dilap­i­dat­ed juke­box, and they both sat down at a near­by table. As they sat, a gust of wind drove rain at the tin roof of the bar, mak­ing a loud racket. 

Ooh,” said Enid. “I love it when the weath­er is hos­tile, don’t you, Sheriff?”

 

The dri­ve to Leon Bradford’s ranch from the sta­tion was about thir­ty min­utes. Lloyd went over what he would say, what he would ask, what he would look for. Brah­mans missing—Walter miss­ing. Two facts with a lot of open air between them. He also knew that Bill would not have approve of this trip to Bradford’s. Bill did not approve of “hunch­es” and “gut feel­ings.” Bill was a hard-facts man, a cau­tious and thought­ful man. Lloyd respect­ed Bill immense­ly, but Lloyd had his own ways and they had not yet failed him in a major way so he had no rea­son to sec­ond guess himself. 

The dou­ble track up to Leon’s home on the back of the prop­er­ty was par­tial­ly canopied and Lloyd found him­self dri­ving slow­ly to savor the dark, cool atmos­phere, a scene, he thought, right out of a sto­ry about Robin Hood or King Arthur. It was one o’clock now and the sun was high and it was hot and humid, when not under the heavy shade of old-growth. But there was the hint of a storm in the north. He noticed fresh tire tread marks in the dirt and won­dered if the Bradford’s were even home. 

When Lloyd emerged from the cave of trees onto the lawn of Leon’s home he was some­what sur­prised to find Leon and Michaela out­side. Leon stood with his hands on his hips, look­ing down at some­thing Lloyd could not quite make out, and Michaela was pulling a water hose around the right side of the two-sto­ry red­brick home. She even­tu­al­ly was out of his view. Leon didn’t so much as glance Lloyd’s way until he was out of the truck and walk­ing towards the house. 

The thing on the ground in front of Leon turned out to be a dead white­tail doe. 

Jesus,” said Lloyd, as he walked up to Leon. 

Damnedest thing.”

Looks fresh.”

Leon grunt­ed.

How is it that you’re just com­ing across it then?”

Leon final­ly looked over at Lloyd. 

What you doing here, Deputy?”

Want­ed to talk to you about them Brah­mans stole.”

Leon nod­ded, point­ed behind him.

Michaela and I just got back from town not ten min­utes ago. Left here—shoot—around eight, and I don’t recall see­ing it here then.” He scratched at the crown of his head. 

Looks like it just dropped dead, don’t it?” said Lloyd. He knelt down and gen­tly put his hand to its neck. 

What I thought.” 

Lloyd won­dered if a doe could have a heart attack or a mas­sive stroke.

Michaela came back around with her water hose. 

Deputy,” she said. 

Lloyd and Leon stopped to watch her. Leon smiled at her. 

What you doing lug­ging that hose all over the yard for?”

Just water­ing.”

Leon, you too cheap to have some irri­ga­tion put in for your wife?”

Says she likes the water­ing. Gives her some­thing to do.” Leon turned back to the doe. “You help me pick her up and put her in a wheelbarrow?”

 

Bill watched Enid take a sip from her new mug of beer and watched her light a slight­ly bent cig­a­rette she’d pulled from a crum­pled soft pack of gener­ic cigarettes. 

Walter’s can­dyass cousin still work­ing for you?” said Enid, blow­ing a cloud of cheap smoke. 

Lloyd still does, yes. Wouldn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly call him a can­dyass, though. He ain’t the bright­est star in the sky, but he’s a tough son of a bitch and a loy­al offi­cer of the law.” Bill wasn’t being fun­ny. He meant what he said. 

Enid grinned a tooth­less grin and coughed a quick laugh. 

Okay,” she said. “Guess you don’t know him like I do.”

Being that he’s a Pound and you’re a Bag­gott, I wouldn’t think you knew him much at all.”

I am mar­ried to his first cousin—and I’ve heard all the same sto­ries as every­one else in this part of the world, except I’ve heard the real versions.”

Real ver­sions? You mean your and Walter’s versions?”

The realest versions.”

She smeared out her cig­a­rette and skat­ed the mug of beer around in the con­den­sa­tion pud­dle on the table. 

Speak­ing of Wal­ter,” said Bill.

Enid looked him in the eye, and Bill winked. 

You find out any­thing about his whereabouts?”

Not pre­cise­ly.”

Let me get this right. You’re talk­ing to the per­son who report­ed him miss­ing to try and find out where he is? That don’t make a damn bit of sense, does it?”

It does if you know what I know.”

Enid fin­ished her beer and lit her flat­tened, bent last cigarette. 

Bill held up two fin­gers and Roof turned around and grabbed two clean mugs. 

Go on, then.”

First I want to ask you a few seri­ous ques­tions. No more of this play­ing around.”

Who’s been play­ing? You ask, I answer.”

It’s just that, if you real­ly want to know where Wal­ter is, you’ll want to answer me true. I don’t give a good god­damn about Wal­ter. He could fuck right off, as far as I’m con­cerned. He could trip over and fall off the edge of the Earth, and I wouldn’t even spill my drink. And to be hon­est: whether he’s alive or dead or some­where in between—that don’t real­ly mat­ter to me, nei­ther. But it’s my job to fig­ure things out. So let’s you and me fig­ure this shit right here out.”

Enid put out her cig­a­rette and crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. 

Bill leaned in, put his elbows on the rick­ety table. 

Wal­ter do some­thing to severe­ly piss off any of these bik­ers we got around these parts?”

You got some paper and some­thing to write with? We’ll make a list.”

Bill sighed and leaned back. “Any­thing late­ly or seri­ous and longstanding—anything that might stand out in your mind?”

He’s got some out­stand­ing debt with them Evil Dead pussies. But they like hav­ing a lit­tle debt on you so they can get you to do shit for them to sup­pos­ed­ly ‘can­cel’ that debt, which nev­er actu­al­ly hap­pens. They scum­bags, but they ain’t stu­pid, least not the ones run­ning the show.”

You talk like you know about Wal­ter and his deal­ings with folks.”

Wal­ter wouldn’t make a left turn with­out I told him ready on the right.”

Got him trained, do you?”

He’s just smart enough to know he’s stu­pid, is all.”

So he con­sults with you on every lit­tle thing then?”

Every lit­tle impor­tant thing.”

Then you’ll know the answer to this ques­tion, I reck­on: did Wal­ter steal Leon Bradford’s Brahmans?”

Enid smiled.

I’ll answer that ques­tion. I’ll answer it thor­ough­ly. But first you answer a ques­tion for me.”

Fine.”

You think you know what hap­pened to him, where he is?”

Bill fig­ured he was in a good spot here, tac­ti­cal­ly, and decid­ed that telling her the truth would make her angry, put her right in his hands, get her to talk wide open.

This morn­ing, in one of Parson’s lemon groves, offa twen­ty-sev­en, we found a body. A burnt up Wal­ter-sized body.”

But you don’t know it’s Walter.”

Well, the body ain’t exactly…pristine. The body ain’t exact­ly rec­og­niz­able.” Bill looked at his watch. “Mat­ter fact, med­ical exam­in­er prob­a­bly just now fin­ish­ing up with it. I’ll make a call, soon as we’re done here, and I’ll let you know on the spot what they tell me. But, right now, I want to know what you know.”

Enid low­ered her head and Bill thought she must be cry­ing. Her shoul­ders jerked a few times. She then held her head up and took a deep breath, looked back at Bill, eyes aglow, brow set.

Wal­ter did steal that crazy fucker’s cat­tle. Stole the shit out of ‘em. But see­ing how Wal­ter don’t own a fuck­ing tea tow­el, he had to line up some help. And that help, I reck­on, fucked him.”

Go on.”

Wal­ter had the idea of using a cou­ple side-by-sides, cor­ralling as many as they could into a semi-trail­er, and high­tail­ing it. In and out. Wee hours. Only Wal­ter, like I said, ain’t got shit. So he went to that Evil Dead dick Dou­glas. He and some oth­er ass­hole got the side-by-sides and the semi and trail­er and they pitched in on the job. Dou­glas had anoth­er ‘friend’ of his rebrand the cat­tle and take them to auc­tion. Got top dol­lar, too. They sold them Brah­mans and didn’t give Wal­ter a red fuck­ing cent. About two days after that I lost track of Walter.”

So you do think Dou­glas and his bunch killed Walter.”

You asked me if he stole them Brah­mans. I told you he did and told you how they did it. I didn’t say word fuck­ing one about who I think killed Wal­ter. But since you brought it up, I’ll tell you what I think for free.” She paused and glanced to the left. “I need to take a trip to the lit­tle girls’ room.”

You ain’t gonna run off, are ya?”

What the hell for? But there bet­ter be a fresh one on the table when I get back.”

Thought this one was gonna be for free.”

Recon­sid­ered. Noth­ing worth hav­ing is free.”

When she returned, Bill offered her one of his cig­a­rettes. She took it, lit it, and took a long pull on the new beer in front of her before beginning. 

Bill held up two fin­gers again and Roof hus­tled over two more mugs of beer. 

Thing is, you cain’t nev­er be too sure with these water­heads we share blood with. Why Wal­ter and I moved out here to Cortez. We still close, but far enough that we ain’t hav­ing to con­stant­ly worry.”

Bill and Enid sat and sipped for a while. Bill was per­plexed. If Enid was telling the truth, he wasn’t sure how to pro­ceed. He lit a cig­a­rette and noticed Enid watch­ing him. He reached his pack across the table and she took anoth­er one from the pack.

Winston’s,” she said. “Fan­cy.”

He watched her take a match from a fold­ed-up match­book and slow­ly drag the match across the igni­tor strip. She help up the match and looked at Bill, then lit her bor­rowed cigarette. 

After exhal­ing a drag that seemed to con­sume half the cig­a­rette, Enid spoke.
“What about Leon. You go and talk to Leon and Michaela about any of this?”

What do you mean, what about Leon and Michaela?”

Leon is a sad bastard—but you cain’t imag­ine the shit Michaela’s man­aged to do with­out any law find­ing out. She’s small but she’s cun­ning and she’s a nasty lit­tle bitch. Leon wouldn’t hurt a yel­low fly but Michaela—being mar­ried to Leon is like a mask of respectabil­i­ty. She’s shady.”

Sounds ridicu­lous,” said Bill. 

She smiled as she smashed her cig­a­rette butt into the ashtray.

She likes it that you think so.”

 

The deer was not heavy but it was some­what dif­fi­cult to pick up and maneu­ver into the wheelbarrow. 

Got a roll-off around the house,” said Leon. 

Lloyd fol­lowed Leon. They walked by the garage, door open, and Lloyd admired Leon’s old cad­dy, a fifty-nine.

You’ll have to take me for a ride in that beau­ty one of these days.”

How about today?”

Lloyd did not respond as they were at the roll-off and Leon had set the wheel­bar­row down next to it. 

I guess,” said Leon, “just take your side and I’ll take mine and we’ll hoist her up and over.”

It was quick work and as they were walk­ing back to the garage to put away the wheel­bar­row, Lloyd remem­bered why he was there.

Any­way,” said Lloyd. “I was mean­ing to ask you about them Brah­mans you had stole last week.”

Leon nod­ded.

Michaela came around the cor­ner, into the garage.

Y’all done with the ‘bar­row?”

Leon said yes and she picked up a bag of Black Kow and dropped it into the wheel­bar­row with a grunt, then wheeled it off. She was a lit­tle younger than Leon, and she was strong for her size, too, which Lloyd guessed to be about five-foot-three. 

Have y’all made any progress on the case?” said Leon.

This ques­tion almost star­tled Lloyd and it took him a few sec­onds to answer. 

No sir, but I want­ed to ask you some questions.”

That’ll be fine,” said Leon. 

I know you and Michaela ain’t ones to get mixed up in all this Pound-Bag­gott garbage—as you know, I ain’t either—but I still want­ed to ask you if you was aware of any­thing that might have passed by me. As far as I know, things have been fair­ly qui­et lately.”

Well, hell,” said Leon. “You’d know more than Michaela and me. We’re far removed from all that fight­ing and whatnot."

Lloyd nod­ded. He was begin­ning to become aware of a sound behind him, a thump­ing-whirring sound, that seemed to be com­ing from all directions. 

That’s what I fig­ured, too,” said Lloyd. He turned and saw a heli­copter com­ing clos­er. “I had to ask, though.” He had to talk loud­er, as the heli­copter was quite close now. He looked at Leon and Leon grabbed his shoul­der and point­ed towards the front of the house. Leon’s hair was raised up now and he squinted. 

They both jogged to the front yard. 

Leon—why’s a god­damn heli­copter land­ing in your backyard?”

Leon smiled ner­vous­ly, his demeanor some­what changed. 

Michaela has always been fas­ci­nat­ed. Always want­ed to learn.”

Learn what—to fly a fuck­ing helicopter?”

Yes, that’s right. She’s tak­ing lessons.”

From who?”

That Sugar—Parson’s boy.”

Where’d he learn to fly one?”

Air Force, I reckon.”

An idea was begin­ning to form in Lloyd’s mind. It wasn’t all joined up yet, but there was enough. He thought about how the body at Parson’s lemon grove seemed to have been laid there by mag­ic. And Sug­ar had alleged­ly found it. 

Keep calm, he told himself. 

Well I think that’s great,” he said. “Good for her. Man, how’s she com­ing along? I bet it’s com­pli­cat­ed. I know it’s hard to learn.”

Oh, pret­ty good.” Leon’s hands were in his pock­ets now. 

How many lessons she have so far?”

Not sure, a few.”

Bull­shit, thought Lloyd. If she were tak­ing lessons, they’d be expensive—he’d know exact­ly how many she’d tak­en. Course he might just be ner­vous. I need time, thought Lloyd. 

Any­way, I want­ed to ask you—you got any idea who might have stole your brah­mans? Just thought I’d ask. Wasn’t sure if any­one had asked yet.”

How the hell should I know, Lloyd? Don’t you think I’d have told you some­thing like that, if I had an idea?”

Lloyd could bare­ly hear any­thing but the heli­copter now. He gave Leon a smile and a thumbs up.

They both stood and watched the heli­copter hov­er in the air, just above roof-lev­el. Sure enough, it was Sug­ar pilot­ing the thing. 

Michaela bent over, scram­bled up to the helicopter. 

Leon waved, Lloyd did too. 

Michaela and the man both waved back. After a few sec­onds, she walked around and got in the pas­sen­ger side of the heli­copter. The heli­copter slow­ly turned and, as it turned, float­ed high­er upward, then it moved out towards the pas­ture­land behind the Brad­ford home. 

The sound of the heli­copter fad­ed and Lloyd got an idea.

So, Leon, I think I’ll take you up on that ride in the Cad­dy anoth­er day.”

Leon nod­ded and smiled a lit­tle. Do I have enough, thought Lloyd? Bill would say that he didn’t, he knew that much. He thought about the med­ical examiner’s office—what had they found out by now? If it’s Walter’s body—and if he stole the cattle—and Leon knows….Would they have had Wal­ter killed? Michaela’s a Bag­gott. Would have rea­son to hate Wal­ter beyond the cat­tle thiev­ing. Not poor old Leon, though. Sure­ly not Leon.

As he walked back to his truck, it took every­thing he had not to turn around and cuff Leon and bring him in. 

Lloyd made it about halfway down the long dirt dri­ve from Leon’s house back to the road before he met up with Bill’s truck com­ing up the dri­ve. He noticed some­one in the pas­sen­ger seat, some­one small, the top of a head the only thing vis­i­ble. He waved, and Bill pulled up along­side and Lloyd rec­og­nized Enid.

We bark­ing up the same tree, looks like,” said Lloyd.

Bill winked and glanced over at Enid.

Med­ical exam­in­er iden­ti­fied the Parson’s grove body as Wal­ter Pound,” said Bill. “Den­tal records. My sympathies—to you both,” he added. “I know he was sor­ry but fam­i­ly is family.” 

They all sat qui­et for a moment. Enid spoke first.

It’s Michaela what’s done it,” she said with author­i­ty, looked over at Lloyd.

I think so, too,” said Lloyd. “Just watched her hop on a heli­copter with Sug­ar and whirl away. Lessons they called it.”

Enid sat and lis­tened whie the two men talked. 

I don’t reck­on Leon knows the first thing about any of this, but Michaela and that Sug­ar Burk­son bastard—I’d bet the farm they did this together.”

For Michaela, moti­va­tion is there. The thiev­ery and the fam­i­ly history.”

Don’t for­get the being crazy as a shit­house rat part,” said Enid. 

Lloyd smiled at Enid’s comment.

Enid, just thought of some­thing,” said Lloyd, rain­drops begin­ning to tap on their truck hoods. 

Hoyt Bag­gott was Michaela’s uncle, wasn’t he?”

She nod­ded. “And my first cousin,” she added.

Well,” said Bill, squint­ing at the dark gray sky. “Start­ing up again.” 

As the rain picked up, Lloyd wait­ed impa­tient­ly for Bill to lay out their next moves. He told him to wait just off Bradford’s prop­er­ty for Michaela’s pos­si­ble return by heli­copter. Lay low and watch. Despite the rain angling in, Enid had not rolled up her win­dow. Wal­ters dead. Her man is dead. She seemed to be look­ing down at her hands, rest­ing palms up in her lap, fin­gers curled inward, two dead spi­ders. Enid could have been some­one, thought Lloyd, as Frank angled the truck into a three-point turn. 

Steve Lam­bert was born in Louisiana and grew up in Flori­da. His writ­ing has appeared in Adiron­dack Review, Broad Riv­er Review, BULL, Chi­ron Review, Con­trast, The Cort­land Review, Emrys Jour­nal, Into the Void, Lon­gleaf Review, New World Writ­ing, The Pinch, Saw Palm, Tam­pa Review, and many oth­er places. In 2018 he won Emrys Jour­nal’s Nan­cy Dew Tay­lor Poet­ry Prize and he is the recip­i­ent of four Push­cart Prize nom­i­na­tions. Inter­views with Lam­bert have appeared in print, on pod­casts, and pub­lic radio. He is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tions Heat Seek­ers (2017) and The Sham­ble (2021), the chap­book In Eyn­sham (2020), and the fic­tion col­lec­tion The Patron Saint of Birds (2020). His nov­el, Philis­teens, was released in 2021. The col­lab­o­ra­tive fic­tion text, Mor­tal­i­ty Birds, writ­ten with Tim­o­thy Dodd, appeared in 2022. He and his wife live in Florida. 

 

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War Whips It Out in Public

which may give you a bet­ter sense of what I'm look­ing for here at FCAC.

 

War Whips it Out in Public

In the night a war steps in the room,
a toad­y­ing lick­spit­tle war with bad teeth,

a sav­ior com­plex and spindly red­dish hair.
In the dis­tance a mosque looms big as the sky.

The war decides to bomb the shit out
of it and the phrase col­lat­er­al damage

comes out and vex­es. The tone is off,
war is a fuck­ing crook, everyone

knows it as soon as it steps in the room
all Visig­oth and thunderhead,

the poor mosque doesn't know what
to do and shits itself in a pan­ic shedding

dome and minarets and brick and glass
all over the grounds. But war doesn't

care it just smithereens the walls down
and calls it fght­ing for love & peace.

Orwell smirks in his grave and rolls over,
presents his ass for war to kiss but old 

war groans out anoth­er bomb in Yemen
and chil­dren incin­er­ate in the maelstrom.

What does war want any­way? More war!
What do we want? Nobody can agree!

War goes on just fuck­ing us over,
like so many lice in the infested,

over and over and over again: Yemen
Iraq Afghanistan just off the top.

When war walks into the room and grabs
its crotch no one knows what to do,

we all sit and stare like idiots as it
makes us talk dumb and slicks its hair

back with a wet comb and sneers.

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Tin Pedals, fiction by Lucas Flatt

Shuck’s plan was fuck­ing stu­pid. Every­body told him so, though “every­one” meant only his guilty con­science and the imag­i­nary Jiminy Crick­et voic­es of his semi-girl­friend Mag­gie and best friend Doc and his dog Bis­cuit, all in his head say­ing: “Jesus Christ, don’t do it!” The bal­lots felt like feathers—light, frag­ile, too ethe­re­al for touching—and Shuck’s hands fum­bled slick with sweat.

The tent was warm and qui­et, the fes­ti­val stages dark. The pick­ing tent cast a pleas­ant ring and buzz, the night’s breeze car­ried rip­ples over the riv­er. Shuck had two sacks: one filled with coun­ter­feit bal­lots, and the oth­er emp­ty for the real ones. He was going to cheat the Jam the Riv­er blue­grass festival’s raf­fle, for a guitar.

(And don’t get this wrong; maybe the gui­tar want­ed some­thing. You can’t say it didn’t. Don’t go on think­ing you’re bet­ter than this guitar.)

(What kind of gui­tar was it, you say? It was cus­tom-built for Shuck's friend Doc's new­ly pop­u­lar blue­grass fes­ti­val and donat­ed in con­junc­tion with Gruhn Gui­tars, a world-class estab­lish­ment in Nashville. And it was built by none oth­er than Pete Kisanou­vich of Kisanou­vich Gui­tars, which, if you haven't heard about, you might not know enough about gui­tars to appre­ci­ate this story.)

(So far as words could do her jus­tice, she had the world’s most endan­gered rose­wood for the fret­board, stuff you had to jump into the Ama­zon bush for and prob­a­bly come out shooting.)

(Set gen­tle in that pre­cious board were moth­er-of-pearl inlays milky like the creamy stuff of god­ly loins. It’s gross how beau­ti­ful this gui­tar was. The inlays were shaped like ham­mers and sick­les, some kind of hip­pie joke; doesn’t mat­ter; the hard­ware was bur­nished gold, and the head­stock wore a rose of sparkling, tech­ni­col­or tin to catch stage lights and strobe them back on rows and rows of bleached blondes and scream­ing, red-faced dudes.)

Alone and shak­ing in the raf­fle tent, Shuck scooped tick­ets into his emp­ty bag, his fin­ger­tips squeak­ing on the bot­tom glass. He dumped in the fakes. His eyes watered over. His name was on every sin­gle one. He'd done his best–that is, poorly–to change the hand­writ­ing every time, which only made it take longer.

He stirred them with his fin­gers, then ran cry­ing out loud past the big stage and down the crafters' thor­ough­fare with the closed shops and food stalls, then west through the camp­ing fields by the riv­er that formed the south­ern bound­ary of Doc's fam­i­ly lands. It was quite a haul, par­tic­u­lar­ly wail­ing and wip­ing away tears and stum­bling some­times in the dark.

###

Mag­gie slept in a lawn chair with her feet up in Shuck’s seat. Their dog, Bis­cuit, slept twist­ed under­neath, his goober ass stuck out. Shuck gave him a prod and dumped Maggie’s feet from his chair—he want­ed com­pa­ny. As expect­ed, Mag­gie kept snor­ing, but Bis­cuit com­plet­ed a grunt­ing extrac­tion and cir­cled to sniff Shuck’s lap.

On his Walkie Talkie, he buzzed his bud­dy and fes­ti­val run­ner Doc: "Tuck­ing in for the night. Come burn one, if you can."

Roger that. Wait for me.”

Mag­gie snored with her mouth open and her ton­sils jig­gling. She had the long, aus­tere build of the myth­ic Valkyrie and when low, as now, he some­times envi­sioned her in full bronze and plume regalia fly­ing him around the stage of some gen­uine Ital­ian opera, him tucked away like a foot­ball and her spear­ing past the fab­ric clouds and thwart­ing card­board foam thun­der­bolts. Alas, he could not place this feel­ing as love so much as abid­ing respect, even admi­ra­tion. But what did it mean about him?

In a flash of repen­tant ecsta­sy, Shuck reached and tugged her tank top and said, "I did it. I cheat­ed and I am ashamed!"

Maggie’s eyes popped open, one after the oth­er. “Shut up.” She snored and the eyes snapped back shut in the oppo­site sequence.

The dog licked his elbow; Bis­cuit didn’t give a shit about man’s laws. Maybe that meant he was part­way forgiven.

(And what’s the worst thing you ever did? Think about it; you might be, already. Or, hey, don’t. Don’t ever think about it. Maybe that’s better.)

(It’s OK. They say the one true almighty sky­ward friend for­gives you. That’s Jesus Hor­a­tio Christ.)

(I don’t have the pow­er to for­give or not for­give; I’m just an omni­scient nar­ra­tor. Or am I lim­it­ed? Sure feels that way, for all of us down here in the morass.)

Shuck felt bet­ter for about 30 sec­onds until Doc and Ange­line showed up on the Mule, parked by the dying fire.

Make sure that goes out before you go to bed,” Doc said. He always had to assert con­trol like that, keep folks on notice. He winked, was always wink­ing, too. He was a con­trol-assert­ing, wink­ing type of moth­er­fuck­er. “We got a bunch of reports about some guy run­ning around the camp­sites cry­ing and play­ing with him­self. Prob­a­bly a sex-peep­er. Can I get a hot dog?”

"Sex-peep­ers ought to be shot," Shuck said. Ange­line fur­rowed her brow across the fire­light. Mag­gie snored.

Doc gave Shuck a long look. "Okay? Prob­a­bly just kick them out, is all." Doc rum­maged around, look­ing through Shuck's camp for a hot dog. "We've gone five years with­out no sum­ma­ry executions."

Ange­line kicked him light­ly as he passed. “Stop talk­ing like some dumb cow­boy or I’m tak­ing that hat.”

The hat. The god­damn hat. Only offi­cials of the Jam the Riv­er fes­ti­val wore offi­cial straw cow­boy hats of that spe­cif­ic tint and diam­e­ter. Shuck had been promised one five years run­ning, for­got­ten every time.

Mag­gie woke up talk­ing to her dream: "Put that up, no high­er, there, in Heav­en." She smiled at every­one. "I was hav­ing the nicest dream." Bis­cuit perked, fart­ed the inter­rog­a­tive case, and wan­dered off into the black.

Shuck said, “How’s The Blue Busters? I missed them.” He took a wiener from Doc and poked it with a coat hang­er and stuck it in the fire.

Doc nod­ded. “Good.”

Doc liked any­thing musi­cal with twang. But Shuck hard­ly came out for the bands, missed as many as he caught. He most­ly liked to play in the pick­ing tent, and they had a lot of good pick­ers and fid­dlers, but Shuck was right there amongst the best.

Ange­line sighed heav­i­ly and stretched out in a chair. “We haven’t sat down all day.” She wig­gled her toes over the fire. “Shit. That’s nice.”

Turn it, Shuck,” Doc said. “You know how I like my wiener.”

Mag­gie laughed too loud, then, embar­rassed, announced she’d get the hot­dog fix­ings. She rum­maged in the dark through the arma­da of cool­ers Shuck had appro­pri­at­ed from the Lowe’s store he assis­tant-man­aged. She came back with her cig­a­rettes and no buns. They all laughed, and she went back sheep­ish. Ange­line caught Shuck’s eye, mouthed, “I like her.”

Shuck squirmed at the com­pli­ment, know­ing only a few cures for it: he lit the joint, passed it del­i­cate­ly to Ange­line. She threw her head back and took a long drag, shook her hair out of its bun.

Mag­gie yanked the joint from Ange­line and dragged it hard, shoot­ing sparks. Then she coughed and stomped, cough-stomp­ing all around the camp­site blow­ing bil­lows like a dragon.

Not to be out­done, Shuck took the joint and blast­ed on it, held it up in a big, spec­u­la­tive, cock-eyed appraisal, held up a fin­ger like wait, there’s more, and hit it again, real­ly bore down. Then he coughed so hard he threw up some in the grass and hoped they couldn’t see him in the dark.

(They did see it, but let it pass, in the name of friendship.)

Y’all got ketchup?” Doc asked.

Shuck scowled and wiped his mouth. That’s right, ketchup. Fuck you and your Paul New­man face and per­fect, sweet­heart girlfriend—ketchup. “We got mustard.”

But Mag­gie found Doc ketchup.

Doc asked, “You played much yet? I heard some guys going at it in the pick­ing tent just a while before.”

Not yet,” Shuck said, face burn­ing in the dark.

Now Doc was being so qui­et it was like he had Shuck fig­ured out. Final­ly, he said, “You talked to Dad?”

I haven’t.”

About time y’all make up.” He meant the par­ty last Christ­mas, which con­clud­ed with Shuck shout­ing at Doc’s locked door, giv­ing up, shiv­er­ing on the long, drunk walk to his truck, where he slept with­out heat—he’d lost his keys—and hoped the pre-dawn chill would take him.

Shuck said, “It was you that threw me out, not him.”

What choice did I have?” Doc had a way of chuck­ling at you con­spir­a­to­ri­al­ly like at the bot­tom of it all, you agreed with him. And part of you did, the part you want­ed to punch in the face until your hands and face turned goo. “You wouldn’t shut up about the gui­tar, how we owed you some­thing. You know how you get.”

"He has a con­di­tion called King Baby," Mag­gie said like she was help­ing. "It's what the ther­a­pist told us."

"Aw," said Ange­line. "Poor King Baby." She reached to pat his head despite the good ten-foot dis­tance, the fire in between. "There, there, king baby."

Shuck imag­ined crawl­ing into the fire. “I didn’t mean no insult, but your Dad knows I helped you think this whole thing up, and now I’m no part of it at all.”

Well, Dad wants it in the fam­i­ly. Plus, you called him a ‘tyran­ni­cal mas­tur­ba­tor’ in his San­ta suit in front of his wife in his own dri­ve­way on Christ­mas. So, get over it.” Doc rose like mist, not prop­ping or boost­ing him­self but sim­ply slid­ing upright like a mar­i­onette. “The past is done, pard. Let’s go for a ride. I got one more thing to do before I call it.”

Shuck stared out into the dark. His eyes watered, just as they had when he’d run the half mile back to camp, like he’d wept in his car at Christ­mas, chat­ter­ing cold. “All right,” he said, eying around the camp­fire. “Hold on, Doc. Now we’ve heard about my dark­est moment. What about y’all? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

"Dat­ed you," fired off Mag­gie. She tried Ange­line for a high-five, but Ange­line polite­ly demurred, so Doc swung in and clapped her hand roundly.

No, real­ly,” Shuck said. “What about you?” He stared right at Angeline.

Huh.” She tapped her chin, considering.

Doc sighed, raised his hand. “I cheat­ed in every class I ever took from grade school through two years of com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. Every sin­gle class.”

Ange­line kicked him again. “I bet I know how you pulled that off. Was it some poor, love-struck girl you cheat­ed off?”

Doc shrugged. “Some­times. Some­times I paid in weed I stole from Dad. I have essen­tial­ly no edu­ca­tion.” He gave his trade­mark dead­pan look around the fire. “Did I use that word right, ‘essen­tial­ly?’ I heard some­one say it before. You ready, Shuck?”

Mag­gie cleared her throat. “I called in a bomb threat to my high school. I want­ed to go to Star­wood to see Incubus and it was sup­posed to be a school night.” Every­one nod­ded in appreciation.

Not bad,” Doc said. “You lose points for Incubus, but I love the creativity.”

Star­wood was what they called the Ascend Amphithe­ater back when us old-timers were in short pants,” Mag­gie said to Angeline.

I helped my ex-boyfriend com­mit insur­ance fraud with his boat for like fif­teen grand.”

Ange­line frowned. “Don’t tell any­body. Please.”

Only Shuck didn’t laugh. “Y’all wan­na hear mine?”

Doc cleared his throat. “Nope. I doubt our hearts could take it.” Before Shuck could object, Doc added, “Come on–step it up, pard. It’s not you that spent the day work­ing.” Rare irri­ta­tion crept into his voice. “You don’t under­stand, this gig is hard work. And I came by your camp to ask for help, what, three times? Four? Found you drunk off your ass.”

Shuck rose shak­i­ly. “Where we headed?”

Check the bon­fires, put them out.”

Doc climbed into the Mule and Shuck slid in by him. "Here." Doc reached behind the seat and found anoth­er straw ranger hat. He gave Shuck a point­ed look. "Dad want­ed you to have this. He ordered it for you spe­cial, 'cause your head's so fuckin' big."

Stunned, Shuck took the hat, and they went bump­ing in the dark over grassy hills steep as dunes.

Hats nev­er fit Shuck’s water­mel­on of a head, but he scrunched and crammed the ranger hat over his crown and sat back, one hand fixed to the brim lest it flew off into the sea of snores. And he beamed, despite himself.

They twist­ed through the camp­sites, the riv­er a dark gur­gle on the left and the last lights from the fes­ti­val burn­ing up ahead. They bumped down the grav­el thor­ough­fare by the shop booths where Doc stopped and gath­ered the trash from the big bar­rel cans. Shuck felt so hon­ored by the offi­cial head­gear that he stum­bled out and pre­tend­ed to help. Head­ing past the shops and main­stage toward the bon­fires, they rode past the raf­fle booth and Shuck winced.

Doc must have noticed, because he said, “Your ass still sore about that guitar?”

It’s a nice gui­tar, is all.”

Well, save your mon­ey. He’s got more for sale.”

I could win it,” Shuck said.

Nope.” Doc ges­tured at the ranger hat. “Con­test is just for pay­ing cus­tomers. No staff. Sucks to get what you want, some­times, huh?”

Three bon­fires were spaced even­ly along the field at the east­ern edge of the prop­er­ty, where Doc and his father pas­tured hors­es most of the year. The first fire was smol­der­ing but the sec­ond still flick­ered, and they found there an old cus­tomer howl­ing at the moon, stripped to patched, old-timey britch­es. Shuck took him by the waist of those britch­es, and with the hat on like a badge and the cheek-tin­gling, wide-open feel­ing of being out on the farm, the vig­or of the damp clean air, he would have tossed the drunk into the fire out of over-exu­ber­ance, but Doc cooly inter­vened, talked the old camper down from howl­ing and sent him sheep­ish back to camp. Doc's voice and his easy man­ner mes­mer­ized folks that way.

At the dregs of the last fire, they shared a cig­a­rette as coals smol­dered. “Any­way,” Doc said, “the draw­ing is first thing tomor­row. I thought we’d get more tick­ets. If you weren’t a ranger, now, you just might have had a shot.”

Back at the camp, Shuck took out the Aria, a mis­er­able, dingy thing fin­ished like a rot­ten cel­lar door and made in red Chi­na. He didn't check his voice despite the qui­et camp­ing, shun­ked and sang his own new ditty.

(Ever heard of Chris Sta­ple­ton? Well, this is his sto­ry. Not real­ly. But he record­ed at the Jam the Riv­er for their PBS spe­cial pro­gram a year or two before he blew up. The whole fes­ti­val served as a set up for the show, the grand vision of The Old Man, Doc’s Dad­dy, who looked like Kevin Cost­ner and inter­viewed in a weird, lacon­ic way. He liked to ref­er­ence pre-inter­view con­ver­sa­tions, so the view­er always felt a lit­tle left out. Great cin­e­matog­ra­phy, though.)

All Shuck had want­ed was his chance, and he got it. Ear­ly days, a night-time shoot on the new­ly out­fit­ted main stage, a warm-up before the fes­tiv­i­ties began the next morn­ing. Lights up, sear­ing­ly bright, Shuck had to keep his hands just so to keep the Aria's pick­up from buzzing. They'd tried just a mic but couldn't mix it well. Every­one was learn­ing. Every­thing was qui­et: must be time to go. Pick the long ride into "Aunt Hoot's Root Cel­lar for a Toot-e-nany."

Wait, Shuck.” Can’t dis­tin­guish the voic­es, the Old Man, Doc, Doc’s broth­er Virge, the sound guy. Hands won’t stop fuck­ing shak­ing. Don’t you blow this thing, don’t blow this thing.

By the time they got things right, he could only play chords and a lit­tle turn­around, some kind of lilt­ing vari­a­tion on "Old Susan­nah," first thing he'd learned in lessons twen­ty years ago.

"Thanks, Shuck." That was that. They put it in the sec­ond show, with some reel of a horse in a field and some strange baby run­ning out of a chick­en coop. His name in with a heap of names cred­it­ed as "Add'l Music" ass-end of the credits.

Some­one, Mag­gie, would call his name, ‘Hey Shuck, you’re on!’ and not mean any mean­ness at all, and he had to go to the liv­ing room and pre­tend to be delight­ed with her as his dreams ran out the punc­tured sack of his life in semi-sync with a baby falling in mud in grainy black-and-white. He flubbed the same note, every god­for­sak­en time.

There could have been more chances, maybe. He nev­er asked. He gave up. It hap­pens. I’ve giv­en up on this tale a time or two. Maybe this time, it ends up different.

To say Shuck didn't sleep well, what with his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the pos­si­bly felo­nious fraud he'd com­mit­ted and its deep­er impli­ca­tions con­cern­ing his char­ac­ter, wouldn't quite get near it. He lay face down on a thin sleep­ing bag out­side the tent grind­ing his big teeth on rocks. Bis­cuit wheezed and whined next to him, flut­ter­ing her paws in protest like she dreamt of Shuck being her owner.

And of what did Shuck dream? Noth­ing. That was over for him.

###

Shuck sat up wild-eyed at twit­ter­ing dawn. He start­ed his day by drink­ing an MD 20 20 Maggie'd brought—it was orange fla­vored specif­i­cal­ly for break­fast. He crept into the tent and drank and watched Mag­gie snore, won­der­ing why he couldn't love her.

There was no clear answer. She was a strong, kind, love­ly woman.

So why hot tears welling? He could say it: She pitied him. (She didn’t.)

He didn’t want it. (A God damned lie; it’s all he wanted.)

She deserved bet­ter. (Ain’t that the truth?.)

He here­by released her with a bene­dic­to­ry ges­ture of the bot­tle, which spilled a lit­tle by her foot. Afraid she’d wake and find him leer­ing like some kind of sex-peep­er, he stum­bled out of the tent and rolled down a lit­tle hill into anoth­er camp.

He saw a fist­fight break out between anoth­er set of campers, didn't both­er to rise as he rub­ber­necked. A fiery red­head with droopy, mossy eyes and yel­low lip-and-chin whiskers stag­gered around his camp, crash­ing through the fur­ni­ture. He back-flopped onto a lit­tle pic­nic table and buck­led it.

A woman with some alle­giance to deco­rum or the table yelled, “Get up!” over and over.

A thick guy with short dark hair came scrab­bling from a tent bewil­dered, sur­veyed the scene, and went to help his fall­en com­rade. But the red­head came up swing­ing, smacked his friend in the nose. The girl yelled, "Don't hit him, Frankie! Don't!"

Frankie could have been either one, but the kid with the bloody nose reared back and

knocked the cold piss out of the red­head­ed table-buster.

No, Frankie!” the girl yelled.

Too drunk to go down or die, Red reeled and pitched, locked Frankie up in a headlock.

Now Frankie was mur­der-angry, but at last, the woman got them apart. Shuck mum­bled, "There's a fine, strong woman." Red slumped against a tree, every­body paced. Frankie bid­ed. The girl drift­ed too far away, sur­vey­ing the fur­ni­ture dam­age, and Frankie charged, bashed Red's head against the lean­ing sug­ar maple. The clang rang out across the campsites.

Red went down flop­py, start­ed yelling: "You hit my head into a tree, Frankie. I'm going to give you a red-ass beat down when I'm sober. I'll find you when I'm sober, Frankie. I'll beat the tar shit out of you. The tar shit! Tar! Shit!"

Mind cleared of tur­moil for that bright instant, Shuck chuck­led, Huh huh, into the dewy grass. Red kept hol­ler­ing “tar shit” until the words were dis­persed into Shuck's men­tal soup.

The woman had wan­dered over to where Shuck lay. “You all right, there, mister?”

Shuck nod­ded face down in the grass.

Let’s get you up.”

###

With the girl in the shade of the main stage, Shuck fig­ured now was near­ly time for the raf­fle, felt the ice water of incom­ing pan­ic in his arms and gut like he’d read about in war sto­ries. He told him­self to con­fess, here, now, and end this thing. Doc would get pissed, sure­ly send him home. They’d fix the raf­fle box.

Instead, Shuck sipped Gatorade by the fan in front of which the woman had parked him.
She told him, "Stay put and you'll feel bet­ter," had a husky voice, looked in her late twen­ties but cured by hard-liv­ing, hair in corn­rows and tied with tie-dyed rib­bons. A thin dress and no shoes. Freck­les and brown eyes. Shuck want­ed her to stick around for what was com­ing, why, he didn't know. He said, "I'm Shuck. What's your name?"

Syd, short for Sydney.”

Yep.” He came up with noth­ing else, and she took a long look around and tapped her foot.

He was sober­ing up, noticed for the first time the mass of pur­ple thun­der­heads perched to spill into the val­ley. Sal­va­tion, per­haps, if they’d roll on over and spoil the morn­ing itinerary.

What’s the mat­ter, Shuck?” Syd prod­ded his foot with her own. “You look like you just caught your dog wolf­ing down your baby.”

Jesus. What a ter­ri­ble thing to say.”

(And, were Syd present back at the impromp­tu camp­fire con­fes­sion­al, she’d have tak­en the grand prize for scin­til­lat­ing regrets; behind her ear were the ini­tials TK tat­tooed in thin blue ink and the sto­ry there­by allud­ed defies the scope and sen­si­bil­i­ties of this pal­try tale.)
(Suf­fice to say, injus­tice abounds. But all shall be for­giv­en, and those who tra­verse the rolling world with­out the weight of sin are babes alone who must tar­ry not with freight­ed souls lest they pass the precipice them­selves and lose their grace. Such may have been the fate of TK, depart­ed too soon, but, strict­ly speak­ing of the spir­it, not soon enough, per­haps, ergo, alas.)

(But what do I know? I’ve nev­er done any­thing; I’m only sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, the ghost of these sev­er­al thou­sand words.)

Syd tried to laugh it off. “Just con­cerned, is all.” She punched Shuck’s shoul­der, quite hard.
“Ouch. I’ve done some­thing very stu­pid.” He didn’t know he’d admit it before he did, and the rush of relief was so great he near­ly stood up.

Yeah? What’s that?”

I cheat­ed Doc and I’m gonna go to jail. It’s the worst day of my life, I feel sick. I’m already drunk.”

Yeah. I smelled your break­fast on your breath. Who’s Doc?”

The guy who runs this thing.”

Field of Dreams Kevin Cost­ner or Yel­low­stone Kevin Costner?”

Field of Dreams.”

He looks like a dick.”

He isn’t. I mean, kind of. Not really.”

How did you cheat?”

The raf­fle. For the Kisanou­vich. The guitar.”

No big­gie. I think all the guys in my camp must have put their names in two or three times.”

No. I took out all the tick­ets and filled the box up with my own.”

She dropped her smirk. “Oh, man. You’re fucked. The Cost­ners are gonna beat your ass.”

Shuck shud­dered. One lit­tle baby teardrop slipped down his trem­bling cheek.

They’re gonna take you and throw you in that pit in Wyoming. The mur­der pit. You watch that show?”

Shuck did watch that show. He cried a lit­tle more.

"I like to shoplift," Syd offered by way of con­so­la­tion, which it wasn't. Peo­ple stole all the time from his Lowes store and hereto­fore he'd stood in judg­ment, always pressed charges. No more.

That’s it–he’d change his life. He’d let peo­ple steal from the Lowe’s. Maybe Old Man Lowe had hurt them some­how in the semi-recent past. He just couldn’t know a thing like that.

A cold breeze came down from the ridge. Shuck stood up and paced a few yards, Bis­cuit eager­ly attend­ing him every step of the way. He came back and crossed his arms across him­self, said, “That’s a stun­ning admis­sion, and I feel hon­ored and all that. But I think I bet­ter get out of this place before I’m exposed.”

Doc came over look­ing seri­ous, caught Shuck by the shoul­der, and said, "Hey, man, come help me set up for the draw­ing. We're going to get going and hope the rain waits."

Syd stepped in and said, “He was going to help me hitch a camper. That OK?”

Doc looked up at the clouds and tipped his hat back. "Well."

It’ll just take a second.”

But they’d wait­ed too long: helpers unveiled the raf­fle box already trans­port­ed onto the stage. The Old Man stepped up to a squeal­ing mic and wished the gath­er­ing crowd good morning.

Syd elbowed Shuck, “Let’s go, man. Don’t just stand there.”

But Shuck was mes­mer­ized by the Kisanou­vich, which Ange­line now car­ried across the stage. Whis­pers of admi­ra­tion bur­bled through the crowd. Despite thun­der­heads rolling down from the ridge, the last bits of sun danced on the tin rose. Ange­line gave a wide smile and curt­sey, put the gui­tar on a stand.

Syd pulled on his belt, but Shuck dug his feet in. The old man reached in, with­drew and read the card. Shook his head. Said into the micro­phone: “Shuck Johnson.”

Ange­line shot Shuck a smile and picked up the gui­tar again. Held it out. Every­body clapped.

The Old Man said, “Get up here, Shuck.”

He thought he’d have to crawl but made it upright up the short plank stairs to the stage, took the gui­tar in his hands; it thrummed elec­tric with per­fect, ultra-light craftsmanship.

Doc’s father nod­ded to the mic for Shuck to make some kind of speech. Instead, he ran, down behind the stage and around, the crowd part­ing. He glanced back and saw Doc with his hands in his back pock­ets and his hat still cocked up, tall and stern like Gary Coop­er on the stage, squint­ing down at his flee­ing friend in con­fu­sion or embarrassment.

Mag­gie stood at the edge of the crowd with her arms out like Shuck would, in his ela­tion, want to embrace, but he mis­took her for fes­ti­val secu­ri­ty, juked hard, and sent her flat on her face in his dust, Bis­cuit stop­ping for a con­cil­ia­to­ry nuz­zle before charg­ing on.

Shuck want­ed to leave the gui­tar but could see no safe place to dis­card it as he ran. Then, he saw Doc's Mule ATV idling in the horse pasture.

###

They—Shuck, Syd, and a whin­ing Biscuit—were tear­ing through the woods by the riv­er in the Mule before Shuck real­ized he’d just added grand theft auto of a farm all-ter­rain vehi­cle to the rap sheet. Syd held the gui­tar to her chest, too scared, per­haps, to look up but any­way fix­at­ed on the tin-plat­ed head­stock. She moved her lips as she read the ser­i­al numbers.

He found a trail and bounced through the riv­er dan­ger­ous­ly, glad the morn­ing chill still kept the campers off; oth­er­wise, he'd have squashed man, woman, dog, and child, had any swum where there where the riv­er inter­sect­ed the wind­ing road up out of the val­ley, where Shuck head­ed now.

They made it to the top of the ridge and Shuck clicked off the motor. Got down and lis­tened for a while, wait­ing to hear some­one dri­ving up. He heard a shout or two below but far away, seem­ing­ly dis­in­ter­est­ed, or rather inter­est­ed in some­thing else entirely.

Well,” Syd said from the pas­sen­ger seat, “you might as well play me a song, Shuck.

Shuck said, “I think you bet­ter slip off some­where. I appre­ci­ate you com­ing along but this is going some­where ugly. You’ve had a bad enough morn­ing.” The calm creep­ing into his voice both­ered Shuck more than the woman’s ease with the con­spir­a­cy; she only shrugged and plinked on the gui­tar herself.

Nah,” she said. “I’ll just say you kid­napped me.”

That’s not funny.”

Yeah. Guess not. Here, play something.”

At first, he couldn’t play. His fin­gers trem­bled and the last dregs of the Mad Dog churned in his sloshy head. He couldn’t remem­ber how any­thing went, even after his fin­gers found their prop­er places. But then the Kisanou­vich spoke to him, in a voice sonorous and clear. It said: “We was meant for one anoth­er, pal. I’ll nev­er let some­body hurt you ever again.”

He played “Aunt Hoot” flaw­less­ly for Syd, who did not hide her stunned weeping
admi­ra­tion. As he fin­ished, Doc’s Jeep bounced in beside the Mule. Doc and Ange­line stepped out.

Doc said, “Uncool, man.” He said it again: “Unnncool.” Angeline’s big eyes sparkled. Syd lit a cig­a­rette and shuf­fled in the deep, dead leaves. Doc pat­ted Shuck’s shoul­der. “How drunk are you, you son of a bitch? That was the goofi­est shit I’ve ever seen.” He ran a mock­ing, wob­bly-armed cir­cle around the clear­ing, revers­ing course at invis­i­ble adver­saries, and Ange­line dou­bled over laugh­ing. Doc stopped and beamed at Shuck like this was all for laughs. “So, you got wast­ed and entered your name like fifty times. Please tell me you remem­ber doing that.”

Shuck set the gui­tar down in the Mule. “I won it,” he said, that creepy calm still in his voice. He couldn’t look Doc in the eyes.

Dad cov­ered for you.”

He was real­ly smooth,” Ange­line added.
Doc shrugged. "So, I guess, no harm done. We just played it off like it was a gag. It took a long time to get all your goofy bal­lots out, though. Set us back half an hour. Why'd you write them dif­fer­ent­ly? I have to know."

No rea­son.”

I think your girl­friend is pissed. Shit, what’s her name?”

Mag­gie,” Ange­line said, still laugh­ing. She hopped up on the hood of the Jeep. “I liked her.”

Doc spun. “Watch the finish.”

You call­ing me fat?”

Shuck felt like he was in a dream watch­ing some­thing fall on his head that wouldn’t quite land. It kept get­ting clos­er, an anvil maybe, or a big black boul­der, but it couldn’t close the dis­tance. He said, “Well.”

"Well?" Doc smiled at him, their lives already reset­tling back to normal.

Ange­line caught Shuck’s eye, a smile of recog­ni­tion dawn­ing on her freck­led face. “Wait, is this why you were ask­ing us to con­fess our sins last night? Shuck, is this the worst thing you’ve ever done, steal­ing from your best friend in the world?”

Her eyes hard­ened and she held his gaze for a full three sec­onds, then blew a rasp­ber­ry fart in her elbow and laughed. “One time, I was dri­ving these guys around and by like, the sec­ond liquor store, I fig­ured out they were rob­bing them, because, duh, the masks.” She stared wist­ful­ly out over the tree­tops. “But yeah, we must have hit like four that night, a drug store, too, and then we got fucked. Up.” She clapped her hands for empha­sis. She sighed. “Been sober six years, though,” she added, near a whisper.

I got caught for all that cheat­ing and I cried and said Mar­jorie Simp­son copied off of me and she got kicked out of school and didn’t get to go to the prom after her moth­er worked all those night shifts at the Dol­lar Store and days nurs­ing the geri­atric psych ward just to buy her dress. I could have still tak­en her to the prom as my date, but I didn’t want to. Ha-oooh—" Doc gave a tremen­dous bleat as he pound­ed his chest like Tarzan. "Damn, it feels good to get that out there."

Syd grinned, scrolling through her cell phone. “If we’re let­ting it all out there, y’all ever heard of yodel-fuck­ing? ‘Cause I’m kind of famous. Wait, dang, I don’t have any reception.”

Shuck cleared his throat. “It was mean of you to embar­rass me at Christ­mas when I asked to buy the gui­tar at a friend­ly rate. You hurt my feel­ings and you told me once I could even ask you anything.”

Doc squint­ed at him, apprais­ing qui­et­ly, not lik­ing what he was seeing.

Shuck tried not to cry. “You said we were brothers.”

Ange­line said, “Aw.” Syd went and sat a ways away, her back to every­one, still play­ing on her phone and grum­bling. Doc looked out over the cloudy morning.

Shuck said, "I just want­ed it 'cause it's got our Jam the Riv­er logo right across it. You remem­ber I came up with that design."

I do.”

Well.”

Doc hooked his thumbs into his belt loops. “Well.”

Shuck looked up into the tree­tops and said, "You can have it back."

Doc said, “We thank you. Your girlfriend—Maggie—left with all your shit.”

I fig­ured that. Don’t believe she’s my girl no more.”

Shuck threw a glance at Syd, who had swiveled back to watch the reuni­fi­ca­tion. “But maybe that’s for the best.”

Syd shook her head, gave the slow thumbs-down of a Roman emper­or. “Total les­bian. One hun­dred percent.”

Every­one is, when it comes to Shuck,” Doc said, dis­tract­ed by the com­ing weath­er. “Sor­ry. I just can’t help it.”

But then the clouds broke. The sun shone down on the gui­tar and Ange­line look­ing pret­ty and in love lit up hold­ing it, the scout­ing ray glit­ter­ing on tin ped­als. Hell, she looked like the ver­i­ta­ble “Angel of the Morn­ing Light,” which was the name of a song Shuck had writ­ten and sung for his spe­cial girls, includ­ing Mag­gie, missed bad­ly now and gone for­ev­er with his tent and cool­ers, which were the prop­er­ty of Lowe's, but he wouldn't report the theft. Instead, he'd write Mag­gie songs and sing them to her win­dows until she took him back. Star­ing at his friends, he didn't know what in the world could be bet­ter, how he could ever tru­ly be part of some­thing like that.

Doc reclined against the Jeep under that lone­ly, only ray. Ange­line waved the Kisanou­vich around, laugh­ing as it cast a dance of sparkles across Doc’s bare, goose-pim­pled chest.
Every­one had what they want­ed, but him. He said to him­self, “It ought to be mine. I earned it.”

(And if it wasn't true, and if Shuck, not giv­en to intro­spec­tion, or, for that mat­ter, appre­ci­a­tion of the kind­ness shown to him by abid­ing friend­ship, didn't feel the least bit sor­ry, so what? If we can't write it off as "poor Shuck" or say "Ah, fuck him and the giant head he rode in on" or sew the world's lit­ter of Shucks up a pil­low­case and toss them in the riv­er, where does that leave us?)

(Maybe we just give him the damn thing, because he wants it. Like that poor jilt­ed girl want­ed to go to the prom­e­nade with hand­some young Doc. Like Bis­cuit wants, just once, to eat everyone’s din­ner while they cow­er in fear at his dom­i­nance. Like peo­ple like Doc and Ange­line, seem­ing pos­ses­sors of every­thing, must want some­thing, too. Maybe just line them up–everyone–and give them what they want.)

(And is it possible–might this all have occurred there on that ridge to Doc, watch­ing his sulk­ing friend, chew­ing his lip, mulling over the next move? Maybe so. My nar­ra­to­r­i­al intu­ition sug­gests it's just what Doc was going to say.)
Then Ange­line asked, “So how are we going to decide who real­ly gets the guitar?”

Shuck had it back before she could stop him. "Just let me see it for a sec­ond," he said and ran. And before Shuck tripped, before he bounced down the ridge and crushed the Kisanou­vich to smithereens beneath him, he turned back his head and told them, "You said I only had to ask."

Lucas Flatt's work has appeared in Puer­to del Sol, Type­house Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, Sun­dog Lit, and Ellipsis…literature and art. He won the 2016 Lar­ry Brown Short Sto­ry award at Pit­head Chapel, and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Vol­un­teer State Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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Budweiser Blues, fiction by Cecile Dixon

Bud­weis­er Blues

by Cecile Dixon

Lar­ry

When my olé lady, Kourt­ney run off with Dwayne, I took to drink­ing beer. A lot of beer. I still got up every morn­ing and went to work. My broth­er Jimmy’s sheet rock busi­ness didn’t suf­fer because of my drink­ing. But, as soon as five o’clock rolled around I’d climb in my truck and head to The Liquor Barn for my night­ly case of Bud and two packs of Marl­boro reds, in the box.

I didn’t pay the nosey ass cashier no mind when he stat­ed, “You sure buy a lot of beer.”

That’s a fact,” I answered and walked to the door.

See you tomor­row evening Lar­ry,” he called to my back.

At home I’d open a can of some­thing that Kourt­ney had left in the kitchen. She’d either been plan­ning on leav­ing and thought I’d starve or she was prep­ping for Armaged­don, cause the pantry was stuffed with canned goods. There must have been two cas­es of pork and beans alone. Not the good kind, but the store brand.

I leaned against the sink and ate pork and beans, straight from the can. That lit­tle bit of flab, that weren’t like no pork I’d ever seen, went into the trash.

After I’d fin­ished my sup­per, I iced down my Bud’s in the cool­er on the front porch, start­ed a George Jones cd and kicked back in the reclin­er that I’d moved out there. I’d fig­ured that after Kourt­ney left I could dec­o­rate any way I want­ed. My style was com­fort­able. By the time the cd got to “He Stopped Lov­ing Her Today”, I was on my fifth beer. Good tim­ing. I stood and pissed off the porch and sang with George. A dog down the road howled along.

What’s the mat­ter, your bitch leave too?” I yelled into the dark­ness. The dog quit howl­ing and the disc end­ed. Time for Hank Junior. I popped the top on can six, but before I could start “Row­dy Friends”, I heard the dis­tinct sound of a Cum­mings Diesel. To be exact Dwayne’s Dodge. The hair on my neck prick­led and I downed the beer with one swal­low and was open­ing anoth­er when that black Dodge rolled up in front of the house.

The moon was pert-near full that night. I didn’t have any trou­ble mak­ing out Dwayne set­ting behind the wheel. He didn’t say noth­ing, just looked hard at me. So I give him my hard­est look back. After a long minute he grinned, flipped me the bird and floored that Dodge. Black smoke rolled out of its twin stacks.

You moth­er fuck­er,” I yelled at his tail­lights. I could feel hot mad burn­ing my jaws. Son of a bitch might get away with tak­ing my woman, cause after all she will­ing­ly walked out the door, but he wasn’t gonna rub my nose in it. I threw my cool­er in the truck and lit out after him.

Now it’s a fact that a Cum­mins diesel is a strong engine and it’ll pull a brick house out of a shit hole, but it ain’t known for speed. I floored the ped­al on my old gas guz­zling-Ford and it fish­tailed onto the pave­ment, before lay­ing a lit­tle rub­ber then it smooth assed flew up the hol­lar. It weren’t long before I came upon Dwayne’s taillights.

I down­shift­ed and slammed right into his bumper. The quar­ter inch plate steel my winch was bolt­ed to held fast and I heard a crunch from his tail­gate. Olé Dwayne must not have been expect­ing me to pull up on him like that cause he swerved straight into the ditch, and before I could get stopped that steel bumper of mine caught his rear quar­ter pan­el. It opened up the side of that truck bed like open­ing a can of peanuts. The sound of split­ting met­al drowned out the noise of both motors. My cool­er flopped around and before I could grab, it slid to the floor. The lid held fast.

I jerked the wheel hard to the left and my bumper tore loose from Dwayne’s Dodge, tak­ing a big hunk of his door with it. I stopped the truck and climbed out to sur­vey the dam­age. The only dam­age to my Ford, far as I could tell was my steel bumper was jacked around a lit­tle and my winch might have got­ten pinned up. Now that Dodge was a mess. Most of the bed was gone or wadded up. The tail­gate was lay­ing in the mid­dle of road about twen­ty-foot back. Dwayne was try­ing to shoul­der his door open with­out any luck. He final­ly give up and climbed out the pas­sen­ger side. I was feel­ing bad about his truck until he opened his mouth.

Fuck you to hell and back Lar­ry,” he spit the words into the night. “Look what you did to my truck. I just got it painted.”

It came back to me. This was the sawed off fuck­er that Kourt­ney left me for. He start­ed this whole mess tonight. All my mad come roar­ing back. We stepped toward each oth­er at the same time. Some­where about the mid­dle of the road I swung with my right. Me being taller and longer my fist con­nect­ed with his nose. I felt, more than heard, his nose give way. When you’re hot mad there’s noth­ing more sat­is­fy­ing than the crunch of cartilage.

Blood poured from his nos­trils. He swung at me and before I could duck, his fist caught my jaw. My right ear rang. Pain shot into my tem­ple. “My mama hits hard­er, you fuckin pussy,” I yelled.

Now I’ve heard ath­letes talk about get­ting in the zone. It’s true for a fact. When your body gets loaded with adren­a­lin you don’t feel pain. All you can think about is get­ting to the fin­ish line. Or, in my case, whip­ping Dwayne’s ass. I want­ed to give him the pain of my emp­ty bed. The pain of talk­ing to myself. The pain of pork and beans.

I stepped in and land­ed three short jabs into his nose. His eyes began to swell. Dwayne land­ed a gut punch at the base of my breast­bone. Air whooshed out my mouth. I dou­bled over to try to catch my breath. He broad armed me across the back of my head. I stepped back out of his reach. Sweet night air filled my burn­ing lungs.

I hand­ed a hard blow to his swollen right eye. The lid split. He raised his chin up. My next punch caught his teeth. I felt my knuck­les tear open. He went for my gut again. I danced and his fist land­ed on my right side. I jabbed his right eye again. Blood washed over his face. He caught my lips with a hook. My mouth filled with blood. I sum­moned every ounce of mus­cle in my body. I swung a round­house. It hit his left tem­ple. He went to his knees hard, like a sack of led. I kicked him in his left ribcage. Bone crunched. He fold­ed up on the pave­ment. I was gear­ing for anoth­er kick when he raised his hand. He was done for. Whooped.

I stag­gered back against my truck and let my mind adjust to the fact that it was over. I leaned there, try­ing to slow my breath­ing and all the pain I hadn’t felt rushed in as the adren­a­lin fad­ed. There wasn’t a spot on my body that wasn’t throb­bing, burn­ing, bust­ed or plain raw.

Dwayne groaned and rolled onto his back. I could see his chest heav­ing. I spit a mouth­ful of blood and teeth out. My Ford was still run­ning so I opened the door and cut the engine. The red Cole­man cool­er was wedged on its side in the floor­board. I wig­gled it free and opened the lid, grab­bing two beers.

I tapped Dwayne’s boot with my toe, “here.” I hand­ed him a beer and he pulled him­self to sit­ting before open­ing it.

I sat down on the Ford’s tail­gate and resist­ed the urge to groan with the move­ment. The first mouth­ful of my beer stung like rub­bing alco­hol and I used it to rinse with before spit­ting it out. The sec­ond drink went smoother. I watched Dwayne fum­ble to get his beer open. When he final­ly did he drank a long pull.

I fin­ished my beer and threw the can in the ditch before get­ting out my tow chain. “Come on Dwayne, let’s get you out. I got­ta work in the morning.”

Kourt­ney

Kourt­ney, when are you and Lar­ry gonna give me a grandbaby?”

Every fuck­ing Sun­day before din­ner was over, my moth­er in law would ask me this same damn ques­tion. Today, before I could give her a vague answer my hus­band, Lar­ry, spoke up.

Mama we’re try­ing like heck,” Lar­ry said with fake seri­ous­ness and put his arm around my waist, “We try every chance we get. As a mat­ter of fact we…”

Bea, my moth­er in law laughed and swat­ted Lar­ry with a dish­tow­el, “You are bad, down right vulgar.”

The moment passed. I dread­ed these Sun­days and tried to get out of com­ing every sin­gle time. Some­times the feigned headache worked. Today it hadn’t. So here I sat, sur­round­ed by Larry’s fam­i­ly, his par­ents, and his three sis­ters their hus­bands and so many scream­ing kids I couldn’t count them. All dressed in their Sun­day-go-to-meetin clothes and cov­ered with the smell of fried chick­en grease.

Bea hadn’t liked me since the day Lar­ry and me run off to Ten­nessee and got mar­ried. She said we should have wait­ed and had a church wed­ding with a preach­er. She sus­pect­ed I was preg­nant, and then she was dis­ap­point­ed when I wasn’t. We got mar­ried because of a baby all right. But it weren’t mine. It was my mama, preg­nant at thir­ty-eight with num­ber six. Each one of us with a dif­fer­ent dad­dy. I wasn’t hang­ing around as the live in baby sit­ter any­more. I con­vinced Lar­ry to elope.

This Sun­day we were the first to leave the in-laws house. We usu­al­ly were if I had my way.

In the car on the way home, Lar­ry said, “You sure are qui­et. You pissed about something?”

No,” I mum­bled and lit a cigarette.

You can’t let Mama get to you. She sure don’t mean no harm.” Lar­ry reached over and squeezed my thigh. “She don’t know how bad we want a baby.”

I don’t want to talk about it right now Lar­ry. I’m tired, I just want to go home.” I low­ered the win­dow a crack to let the smoke out.

Maybe its time we went to see one of them fer­til­i­ty doc­tors.” He swal­lowed deep and stared straight at the road. “After all we been mar­ried four years and…” He let his voice trail off with­out say­ing it. With­out say­ing four years mar­ried and we didn’t have a baby.

I ain’t ready to be poked and prod­ded,” I reached down to turn the radio on and Lar­ry grabbed my hand.

Kourt­ney, we…” I jerked my hand away and cut him off.

I said not now.” I turned the radio on. Even though it was a com­mer­cial for a lawn­mow­er, I cranked the vol­ume up, loud enough to drown Lar­ry out.

That night he gave up try­ing to talk to me and drank beer until he passed out in his reclin­er. I slept alone and pulled the cov­ers over my head the next morn­ing when he came in to get ready for work. He stood beside the bed for a minute. I pre­tend­ed I was asleep. I didn’t want pick up where we left off the night before. He must have been too hung over to fuss because he left with­out say­ing anything.

After I heard his truck pull out of the dri­ve, I got up and show­ered and got ready for work. It was my ear­ly day. I’d have to open and get my reg­is­ter draw­er filled before turn­ing on the lights and unlock­ing the Pig­gly Wig­gly door. I didn’t mind ear­ly days. It meant I’d get to leave ear­ly and have two full hours of me time. Time I didn’t have to account for.

I fixed my cof­fee and added an extra splash of sweet Ital­ian cream­er. The liv­ing room reeked of beer and I start­ed to pick up the emp­ty cans that were strewn around Larry’s reclin­er. But I stopped myself. They weren’t my mess. I reached to the top shelf of the book­case and pulled down my grandma’s old Bible. The zip­pered case was worn and cracked, so I was extra care­ful each morn­ing when I took it down. I ran my fin­gers across the gold let­ter­ing, Ada Jenk­ins.

Sigh­ing I tugged the zip­per open and felt inside the back cov­er for the pale green com­pact. The phar­ma­cist label read No-Ova, with Kourt­ney Hoskins under­neath. I pushed a small pink pill from its bub­ble and popped it in my mouth. Then I tucked the com­pact back in the Bible and placed it care­ful­ly on the top shelf before swal­low­ing the pill with a sip of coffee.

Kids, was all I ever heard from Lar­ry and his mama. Like hav­ing a bunch of brats was the sole rea­son to live. I want­ed to have fun, to dance and laugh and par­ty. I want­ed to fuck for fuck’s sake. I want­ed to do all the things my mama and her brats cheat­ed me out of.

On the way to work I punched num­bers into my cell. I had them mem­o­rized because I couldn’t keep it stored in my phone. Dwayne answered on the third ring.

Hey, guess what? It’s my ear­ly day,” I held the phone to my shoul­der so I could down­shift at the light.

Ummm, I bet I might be able to sneak away,” Dwayne’s voice low­ered to a growl.

Where do you want to meet at?” I pulled into the Pig­gly Wig­gly lot. Del­ma Peters was already wait­ing at the door. She glared at me as I ignored her and con­tin­ued my conversation.

We could meet at the creek over on coun­ty line…” Dwayne whined, “I’m kin­da strapped for cash right now. Car sales are down, so my com­mis­sion wasn’t much.”

I don’t real­ly fan­cy the idea of get­ting buck assed necked in broad day­light.” Dwayne wouldn’t ever take a prize for his smarts. “I got the cash, I’ll meet you out on the lake, at the Lodge. I’ll try to get a room around back.”

Dwayne chuck­led, “That’s my girl. I love you Babe.”

I’d bet­ter get my forty five dol­lars worth.”

Oh trust me you will.”

I end­ed the call. “I guess I’d bet­ter get this store open so Del­ma can get her some Ex-Lax. Olé bitch is lookin kin­da con­sti­pat­ed.” I said to myself as I plas­tered my best cus­tomer ser­vice smile across my face.

Dwayne

Dwayne stared at the dark­ness in the direc­tion of the ceil­ing. He didn’t want to move and wake up Kourt­ney. He could feel her there, sleep­ing on his arm, like she didn’t have a care in the world. Sleep­ing in his bed, in his bed­room, in his apart­ment. In her mind she believed she had a right to be there.

Soon as Dwayne got home from work, there she’d be, wait­ing. Wait­ing, like she had every evening for the last two months. At first it was nice, Kourt­ney wait­ing with his din­ner ready. Wait­ing to drink some beer. Wait­ing to fire up a joint. Wait­ing, ready to fuck. But now, it had got­ten to the point where her con­stant wait­ing turned him off. She was just too will­ing. Last night he’d just want­ed to watch The Big Bang The­o­ry. But then she’d rubbed his crotch and his sol­dier had betrayed him.

So now here he laid, a pris­on­er in his own bed. Back when he first met her down at the Two Step, he was flat­tered when she bought him a beer. She was good look­ing and for an old mar­ried chick she had a body that made him stand to attention.

They’d been slow danc­ing to Josh Turn­er growl out Your Man. Kourt­ney whis­pered in his ear, “Show me your truck.”

In the park­ing lot, unlike most girls he hadn’t had to coax her into any­thing. She didn’t object when he rubbed his hands over her ass as he picked her up and set her in his truck. She’d pulled her jeans off and tugged his down before he had time to even feel guilty cause she was mar­ried. She didn’t even both­er to take her ring off.

It had got to be a reg­u­lar thing. She’d call him when she could sneak out. It was fun and he was free to live like he had, see who he want­ed. All with the side ben­e­fit of a steady piece.

But, then two months ago, at three in the morn­ing, she’d knocked on his door. “I did it,” she said like she’d won a prize. “I left Larry.”

She threw her arms around him. He pushed her back. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

She looked like she was going to cry, “So we could be togeth­er,” she touched his face. “Like we talked about.”

Dwayne tried to remem­ber back. Lots of times she’d talk about leav­ing olé Lar­ry, about what an ass­hole Lar­ry was. Dwayne would grunt agree­ment and try to grab one of her big olé tit­ties. He didn’t care if she left Lar­ry. That didn’t con­front him none. But he didn’t want a wife, Larry’s, some­body else, or his own. Now he guessed was too late to tell her.

Every Sat­ur­day night she still want­ed to go to the Two Step and dance. She could dance with whichev­er good olé boy caught her eye. But, if he so much as tipped his hat at a girl, they’d be hell to pay. She wouldn’t even wait until they left the bar. She’d cuss him right there in front of God and every­body. Then she’d tie in on the girl, threat­en to scratch her eyes out. Dwayne knew he was fast becom­ing the laugh­ing stock of the coun­ty. Pussy whipped was what they said.

Here he was lying with a whole woman snor­ing on his arm, when he’d only want­ed a lit­tle part of her. He care­ful­ly slid his arm from under her head. She mum­bled some­thing and smacked her lips a cou­ple times. He flexed his fin­gers to get the cir­cu­la­tion back. If only she’d stayed with Lar­ry. Now olé Lar­ry had want­ed her. He’d heard down at the garage that Lar­ry was still moan­ing the Kourt­ney left me blues. Dwayne slid his leg off the edge of the bed. Maybe if he could con­vince Lar­ry that Kourt­ney saw her mis­take, olé Lar­ry might take her back.

Dwayne shift­ed his weight to the edge of the bed. Kourt­ney flung her arm out and slapped him across the chest. Dwayne froze until she rolled over and her breath­ing got even and deep. He’d go talk to Lar­ry tonight. Right now.

Slow­ly he crept out of bed and to the liv­ing room, slid into yesterday’s jeans and car­ried his boots to the stoop to put them on. Once dressed, he put his truck in neu­tral and let it roll down the hill before start­ing it. He felt good. He was gonna be a free man again. Dwayne laughed out loud.

As he drove he prac­ticed what he’d say to Lar­ry. First off he have to say he was sor­ry. He wouldn’t have to lie. He was tru­ly sor­ry. Then he’d have to tell Lar­ry how sor­ry Kourt­ney was and how much she regret­ted leav­ing. This was where lying would come in handy. He’d have make Lar­ry believe that Kourt­ney was just pin­ing away.

He’d pull up and knock on the door, real respect­ful. When Lar­ry opened the door he’d stick out his hand and say, ‘Man I want to apol­o­gize for any hurt I’ve caused you and I’m here to try to make it right.’ Yeah, that was a good start. They’d shake hands and he’d wing it from there.

Dwayne swung a right off the high­way and onto Larry’s road. He sung along with the radio, “And this bird you can­not change.” He down shift­ed and let his diesel stacks cack­le. “Lord knows, I can't change.”

He saw Larry’s house just ahead. He low­ered the radio vol­ume and slowed down. Just as he was get­ting ready to turn in the dri­ve, he saw Lar­ry. The Dodge’s head­lights lit him up, stand­ing on the edge of the porch with a Bud in his hand. Behind him was a reclin­er, a box fan, a table with a boom box and a Cole­man cool­er. A par­ty on the porch.

Dwayne pulled his eyes back to Lar­ry. Lar­ry looked sur­prised, but he didn’t look heart­bro­ken. His jaw was tight, but he didn’t look like a man who want­ed his wife to come home. He looked like a man who was free to par­ty all night long. All night on his front porch if he want­ed to. One thing he sure as hell didn’t look like. He sure didn’t look like he want­ed Kourt­ney back.

All the hope Dwayne had felt just before came rush­ing out, like air from bal­loon. Lar­ry wouldn’t gonna take Kourt­ney back. He was stuck with her. Here Lar­ry stood with Dwayne’s free­dom, while Dwayne was sen­tenced to life with Kourt­ney. “Fly high, free bird, yeah,” played softly.

Slow­ly Dwayne raised his mid­dle finger.

 

Cecile Dixon is a retired ED nurse who, after a thir­ty-year sojourn to Ohio, has returned to her beloved Ken­tucky hills to write and raise goats and geese. Cecile holds and MFA from Blue­grass Writ­ers Stu­dio. Her work has been pub­lished in Dead Mule School of South­ern Lit­er­a­ture, Fried Chick­en and Cof­fee, Pine Moun­tain Sand and Grav­el, Still the Jour­nal, Women of Appalachia, Of A Cer­tain Age, KY Her­sto­ry and oth­er anthologies.

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Epiphany, fiction by Larry Thacker

Epiphany.

That’s exact­ly what it was like. An epiphany.

It was 2:46 in the morn­ing. I know this because I’d start­ed play­ing a lit­tle game with myself try­ing to guess the time at night as I woke up off and on, whether it was the nurs­es check­ing on me or just wak­ing up from the bed being so uncom­fort­able. After a week in, I need­ed some­thing to pass the time. I’d awak­en, look at the room, the lev­el of dark or light out­side the win­dow, lis­ten for the traf­fic, to con­ver­sa­tions down the hall, then try to tell the time before look­ing at the clock to my left on the wall. I was get­ting pret­ty good.

When I woke up to the rev­e­la­tion that I’d sue Rev­erend Alamo, I guessed it was near­er morn­ing that it actu­al­ly was. I thought I could see the slight­est hint of morn­ing twi­light grow­ing from the moun­tains in the east. It must have been the moon or some­thing. It wasn’t even three. I had hours to go before it was time to stir. Before things woke up along that hos­pi­tal wing. No one was awake who I could have called and explained my real­iza­tion, talked out my ideas. I’d have to wait for daylight.

 

I don’t recall most of the acci­dent. I was already out cold before my car hit the tree head-on. I didn’t feel my face impact­ing the steer­ing wheel, nose first. Or my legs get­ting pinned and bro­ken. My hand burn­ing. Who’d have want­ed to be con­scious while all that was hap­pen­ing? Lucky me.

I’ve attend­ed the Rev­erend Jack­ie Alamo’s ser­vices at least ten times. He stops through Labor Coun­ty once or twice a year. He uses the local uni­ver­si­ty bas­ket­ball are­na, that place where they hold the mon­ster truck ral­lies and Shriner Cir­cus. It packs in 15,000. He can almost fill it. Like it’s a Tim McGraw concert.

I used to take dates from church to go see Alamo. They loved it. I’d get tick­ets for as close to the front as I could afford, up near the action, which got pret­ty expen­sive. Alamo had a way about his preach­ing. It’s like he could lull the whole place into a spir­i­tu­al trance, get you feel­ing like any­thing was pos­si­ble. Wasn’t that the goal, I sup­pose? To believe in mir­a­cles. Real mir­a­cles. After all, to believe in Jesus is to believe in mir­a­cles, not just way back then, but up to today as well. He’d say, “If you want a mir­a­cle, be the mir­a­cle!” Alamo preached and healed in a way that made it feel okay to believe, as if he wasn’t the usu­al snake oil slinger.

We’d be so worked up after watch­ing all that scream­ing and heal­ing we’d end up skin­ny dip­ping out on the riv­er. I’m sur­prised we didn’t evap­o­rate it up we were so hot. Any preach­er who’d assist me like that in get­ting lucky was alright in my book.

So, yes, I was a believ­er, I guess, what­ev­er that means. That can be some­thing dif­fer­ent for who­ev­er you ask. Mamaw swears he healed her sco­l­io­sis. My third cousin Ronald claims Alamo cured his chron­ic hem­or­rhoids, right there in the mid­dle of a ser­vice. Said he could hard­ly sit on those hard are­na chairs one moment, the next moment the pain was gone and Ronald was toss­ing his blow-up donut into the aisle and doing a lit­tle hap­py dance. Ronald said it’d been worth every pen­ny he’d giv­en over the years dur­ing the offertory.

Every­where Alamo goes peo­ple claim they’re get­ting healed by this man. Some when he lays hands on them, some just sit­ting in their wheel­chair across the are­na floor. He gives the invi­ta­tion after an hour of singing and anoth­er hour of holler preach­ing and they line up by the hun­dreds. He claps the palm of his hand right to their fore­heads as fast as his dea­cons can walk, limp, or roll the afflict­ed across the stage. Once he begins there are twitch­ing bod­ies all over. He’ll aim is hand out into the first few rows and zap a few and the aisles fill with half-con­scious mum­blers. The band and choir grow loud­er the cra­zier it gets. Some are even healed from great dis­tances. That’s how I end­ed up here in this hos­pi­tal bed. Here with noth­ing to do but watch a clock in the mid­dle of the night.

 

Rev­erend Alamo runs a pub­lic access show on Chan­nel 6 on Tues­day evenings. Prayin’ at the End Times, it’s called. It simul­casts on the radio as well. He’s got singers on the show, guest preach­ers, he inter­views peo­ple. There’s usu­al­ly a small crowd in the stu­dio made up of guests and fam­i­ly. Enough to say plen­ty of Amens and Bless their hearts through the hour.

He says since it’s impos­si­ble for him to pray for every­one indi­vid­u­al­ly, and since God responds bet­ter to specifics when it comes to prayer, he takes the week’s prayer requests and puts them all in a round fish­bowl and pulls the “Lucky 7” at the end of each show.

Lord, Ms. Greene wants her son to quit the pills!”

Jesus, Lord, help the Mayes Fam­i­ly get through Papaw John’s colonoscopy alright.”

Help Mr. Jenk­ins with his ‘spe­cial prob­lem’ with the ladies, Lord!”

Stuff like that.

He has a spe­cial guest every show. Some­one who needs relief from some ail­ment by some “good old-fash­ioned healing.”

 

He was talk­ing direct­ly to me that evening. I knew it just as plain as day.

I’m not a reg­u­lar lis­ten­er to Rev­erend Alamo’s show, but we don’t have that many radio sta­tions around here, so I just hap­pened to land on his show and stay dur­ing my fif­teen-minute dri­ve home from work.

The top­ic of migraines caught my atten­tion. He was inter­view­ing a lit­tle kid named Frankie who suf­fered awful migraines. So bad he had to be home­schooled. He’d have them every day, his moth­er said. He’d have to take a nap in a dark room for an hour or two once they hit. It was debil­i­tat­ing, espe­cial­ly for a lit­tle kid in third grade. He shouldn’t have to be deal­ing with that. It was wor­ry­ing his poor moth­er Joann to death over the boy.

My prob­lems with migraines wait­ed until my mid-thir­ties. Fine one day, lit­er­al blind­ing migraines the next. I was at a music store in town, talk­ing gui­tars. A tiny blind spot popped up to the right of my sight, but I thought noth­ing of it. Until it start­ed grow­ing. Then light­ning streaks began puls­ing down along the blind spot. The blind spot got even big­ger. I had to sit down. I was half blind. My head start­ed hurt­ing. I thought I was hav­ing a stroke. It set off a pan­ic attack.

It was a “migraine with aura,” the doc­tor said. At first, they’d come and go. A few times a week then noth­ing for a month, then days in a row. No sense to it what­so­ev­er. But they’d got­ten worse, min­i­mum, one or two, a week. They’d make me late for work or I’d have to go home ear­ly. Call in a sick day. Ruin plans. A con­stant anxiety.

 

Alamo was talk­ing up a big game on the radio with Frankie, the migraine boy.

This afflic­tion, broth­ers and sisters…this neu­ro­log­i­cal ailment…back in the old­en days, when Jesus walked with us in the flesh…I’m sure a migraine episode would have been inter­pret­ed as some form of demon­ic attack…and per­haps the Lord him­self would have thought it was some kind of dev­il­ish pos­ses­sion – and I ain’t say­ing the Lord would have been wrong, but who are we to say we know all the work­ings of the brain? Who’s to say the Great Liar doesn’t have a hand in caus­ing such a chron­ic pain and dis­com­fort in a boy’s life, caus­ing his poor moth­er to wor­ry like she does?”

He was actu­al­ly open­ing the door to Satan hav­ing some hand in migraines.

We’re gonna do what we can to help you, son, okay?” he said soft­ly to the boy. “Let’s pray for Frankie,” he began, but before he start­ed, he added, “and y’all keep in mind that next month – June – is coun­ty­wide Migraine Aware­ness Month as declared recent­ly by our Coun­ty Judge Exec­u­tive and coun­ty board. Remem­ber to wear your spark­ly sil­ver rib­bons, y’all.”

I was pay­ing atten­tion, but half-heart­ed­ly up to that point. Sure, the lit­tle kid had migraines. Him and me and a mil­lion oth­ers. But then he homed in on me, or at least it felt like it.

But Frankie here ain’t alone in his suf­fer­ing, broth­ers and sis­ters in Christ! Some­body out there’s got the same prob­lem as lit­tle Frankie here! The same bad headaches, these awful migraines,” he said, sound­ing like he was only a breath away from hav­ing a fit of tongues. “I feel they’re on the road tonight – lis­ten­ing right now to the show. Lord, you know who they are. Where they’re at out in the big world tonight.”

I laughed. This would real­ly hit home with the few that have migraines who just hap­pen to be lis­ten­ing in on this sta­tion at this very moment. For all I knew that might have been only me at that moment. The more he talked, the more it felt just like that. Alamo call­ing out to me across the radio waves on a Wednes­day evening. I’d just had one ear­li­er that morn­ing, out of nowhere. I was almost late to work over it.

 

You know who you are. You and Jesus. Frankie and me are gonna pray for a heal­ing. For him. For you. Who­ev­er you are!”

Alamo got loud­er and more excit­ed. I was pay­ing very close atten­tion by now.

Lord, you are the Great Physician!”

But why just poor lit­tle Frankie? Why just me lis­ten­ing right now?

You know what’s caus­ing these headaches, these ter­ri­ble migraines!”

What’s up with all this pick­ing and choos­ing, why not cure it all in one swoop of the mirac­u­lous heal­ing hand?

Reach down your heal­ing hands and take this burden…”

I might have start­ed out intrigued by Alamo, but I have to say, I was get­ting angry by then. Alamo was like this – con­vinc­ing one minute, ridicu­lous the next.

I felt like my ail­ment, my bur­den, was just a prop for his show, for that moment of atten­tion he craved. I’ve been on the fence about the guy. I’d get some­thing use­ful from one of his ser­mons, have a good date from the expe­ri­ence, doubt most of his heal­ing the­atrics but walk away thor­ough­ly enter­tained. Even inspired. It was some­thing to do.

But now? Now the whole obvi­ous­ly staged rou­tine was just piss­ing me off. Alamo was just using Frankie and his moth­er. Hell, he was using me and didn’t even know me, some blank face out there with a con­ve­nient headache problem.

Screw you, Alamo,” I remem­ber say­ing, reach­ing for the radio dial to find anoth­er station.

 

Peo­ple say, the next thing I knew, this and that, etc., and it can be an exag­ger­a­tion. It’s true, though, I reached for the radio knob, there was a spark like a shock, and the next thing I knew I was com­ing to in the hos­pi­tal. I’d gone off the road straight into a tree. My hand was scorched, which con­fused every­one since there was no fire in the car. I’d bashed my face into the steer­ing wheel (the airbag had been deployed before and not replaced when I bought it). The dash had dropped and pinned my legs at the knees, caus­ing fractures.

The doc­tors and nurs­es inquired about my hand.

At first, I couldn’t remem­ber what I’d been doing at all, but after a day things focused back. I explained what I’d been lis­ten­ing to and the explo­sive spark when I’d reached for the radio. They fig­ured I was con­fused and checked me again for a con­cus­sion. No, I insist­ed, I remem­bered clear­ly now. It was com­ing back to me. I reached to turned the sta­tion and the radio explod­ed and every­thing went black. Next thing I was in the hospital.

Elec­tri­cal mal­func­tion, obvi­ous­ly, the doc­tor fig­ured dis­mis­sive­ly. The nurs­es nod­ded. Why argue? I hard­ly knew myself. But with my injuries I had days to lay around think­ing on it. Bet­ter details came to me what had hap­pened. Alamo’s show. The kid and his moth­er. Migraines. The more I remem­bered, the angri­er I got.

 

After my “epiphany,” I called up an old friend of mine. Ram­sey Mid­dle­ton and I went to school togeth­er. He attend­ed law school and came back home and set up a solo prac­tice down­town. I called him up from the hos­pi­tal. He came to vis­it, and we talked. He didn’t doubt me. Didn’t doubt my sto­ry. He didn’t need to, he said. His job, he said, as an attor­ney, was to lis­ten and tell me whether he thought I had a case. I did, he said. A good one.

But, I won­dered, how could a preach­er, miles away, who didn’t know me, didn’t know where I was at the time of inci­dent in ques­tion, be held respon­si­ble for my accident?

Answer me this,” Ram­sey asked, “Did he cause your accident?”

Yes,” I said. I tru­ly believed he had.

What caused you to have the acci­dent?” Ram­sey asked. I felt like I was in a deposition.

Get­ting shocked and knocked the fuck out by the radio in my car,” I said.

Right. And what caused that? A malfunction?”

Not as such,” I said.

At this point I had to make a deci­sion, didn’t I? Had the good rev­erend sent his heal­ing vibes out over the mys­tic air­waves and zapped me? Or, had I touched the dial of my radio at just the pre­cise moment it mal­func­tioned with a long-over­due short and knocked myself out from the electrocution?

I’d been in the hos­pi­tal for a week and a half. I’d thought hard on it. Had I expe­ri­enced a migraine in that long. Not that I remem­bered. How long had it been that I’d gone a week or more with­out a bad headache? Had some­thing the doc­tors giv­en me helped? Was it the sim­ple relax­ation? Change of envi­ron­ment? Diet?

Or was I healed?

Com­mit to some­thing,” Ram­say encour­aged. “It’ll dic­tate where we go with this. If you’re serious.”

Oh, I was seri­ous. This guy was going to pay for this.

I’m seri­ous.”

 

By the next day: no migraine. I was ready to com­mit to the idea of being both mirac­u­lous­ly healed and the vic­tim. Healed through a mir­a­cle man. The vic­tim of that same man of God’s abil­i­ty to reach out willy-nil­ly and zap peo­ple with­out their per­mis­sion, healed or not.

I called Ram­sey up and told him where I’d set­tled on my com­mit­ment. Def­i­nite­ly healed. Def­i­nite­ly a victim.

Our plan? Invite Alamo to come see me, a fan and fre­quenter of his ser­vices, explain­ing my recent and seri­ous injuries. Maybe he’d vis­it. We’d spring our accu­sa­tions on him.

He’d deny any involve­ment, of course. Ram­sey saw it like this: Alamo would claim he’s not respon­si­ble for injuries, which means he’d have claim one of at least two things — one, that I wasn’t “touched” by the Spir­it through him through the radio, basi­cal­ly that it didn’t hap­pen, though it could have, since he’s tal­ent­ed like that, but I was lying, or two, that because he’s a fraud, the whole thing’s impos­si­ble to begin with. One makes me look like ambu­lance-chas­ing fool. Two makes him a crook. Which do you think he’ll claim?

We’d find out.

 

Half a week lat­er the Rev­erend Jack­ie Alamo said he was com­ing to vis­it. Ram­sey and I were ready.

Lord, son, bless your poor heart,” he start­ed as I rat­tled off my injuries. “Two frac­tured legs just above the knees. A bust­ed nose.” My eyes were just then start­ing to clear up from the awful bruis­ing. “My hand’s still heal­ing from the burns,” I said, shak­ing my head.

Was there a fire, son?” he asked.

More of a big spark that burnt me, when I touched the radio…” I began.

He nod­ded, tak­ing it all in.

…at just about the time you were pray­ing with that kid with the migraines, and his moth­er, on your show…remember?”

Alamo blinked once, looked around, at Ram­sey and back to me.

You were lis­ten­ing to the show, were you?”

Yes, sir, I was. And I’m one of those peo­ple I guess you were reach­ing out to with that migraine prayer you were doing.”

Well, I hope you’ve had some relief, maybe, from them…since?” he asked, a lit­tle sheep­ish suddenly.

I nod­ded, “Yes, sir…I think maybe…I’ve been cure. It’s been almost two weeks. No headaches.”

His eyes widened and he gave a lit­tle gasp.

Glo­ry to God!” he sort of yelled, but not loud enough to dis­turb out in the hall. “That’s won­der­ful news, young man!” He was excit­ed. “When you’re bet­ter we should have you on the show. Peo­ple will love hear­ing about your story…”

I con­tin­ued, “The shock came from touch­ing the radio, preacher…that you were send­ing the heal­ing through.”

He smiled, proud­ly. “I have no doubt, young man! This wouldn’t be first time we’ve had heal­ings from a dis­tance through faith, yes, sir!”

Ram­say inter­rupt­ed about that time. He’d shoved his hand into his coat pock­et and pro­duced a mani­la enve­lope. He hand­ed it to Alamo, who looked up at Ram­sey and at the enve­lope as he took it with is hand.

Ram­sey smiled his “gotcha” smile and said, “Mr. Alamo – you’ve been served.”

Alamo’s eyes got even big­ger. “What the hell’s this, buddy?”

My, how his atti­tude sud­den­ly changed.

I con­tin­ued, “Right as I got shocked and burnt with what­ev­er you were serv­ing up over the air­waves, I blacked out, you see, and didn’t stop until I’d wrapped my Toy­ota Corol­la around a big sycamore. All this is from that car wreck, you see?” I nod­ded at my injuries.

Ala­ma looked up from scan­ning the letter.

And you’re suing me? Why would you do such a thing?”

Ram­sey chimed in. “Now let’s not play dumb, Mr. Alamo.” I noticed how Ram­sey was refus­ing to call him rev­erend or preach­er. “It is our con­tention that your spe­cial and mirac­u­lous pow­ers are what caused these injuries. What caused him to wreck. My client’s lucky to be alive.”

You can’t blame this one me!” he whis­pered, point­ing at all of my injuries.

You heal peo­ple, don’t you? In per­son and from a distance?”

God does, son, not me,” he countered.

That’s not how you sound­ed just now. A lit­tle while ago you sound­ed very much will­ing to accept that you’d been par­ty to a mir­a­cle. Even respon­si­ble. Want­ed him to come on your pro­gram to show him off,” Ram­sey remind­ed Alamo.

I can’t help what God caus­es!” Alamo hissed.

You’d blame this on God,” I asked, hold­ing up my charred appendage.

Yes! I mean, no!”

Alamo was get­ting real­ly frus­trat­ed. He tried calm­ing down.

But if you are cured,” he tried again, “why ques­tion it? Some­times God trades us one thing for anoth­er. Maybe this unfor­tu­nate acci­dent had to hap­pen, along with your healing?”

Ram­sey jumped in. “You’re going to make that argu­ment in front of a jury of your peers, sir?”

Are you shak­ing me down, young man?” he asked Ram­sey. “It wouldn’t be the first time some­one tried cost­ing me some mon­ey over a heal­ing sup­pos­ed­ly gone wrong.”

Oh, is that right?” Ram­sey said. “Good to know. Look, preach­er man,” Ram­sey tried again, “You either did or didn’t heal him? He says he’s healed. Is he healed?”

I won’t call any­one a liar who says their healed by the grace of God, no sir.”

Is it pos­si­ble you helped heal him by means of his lis­ten­ing to your program?”

That’s pos­si­ble, yes.”

Is it pos­si­ble your heal­ing caused him to wreck when it happened?”

Alamo gave that some thought, prob­a­bly real­iz­ing he’d talked too much already, mum­bled some­thing about call­ing his lawyer.

Ram­sey said, “The way I see it, either my client is lying about being healed, lying about his inci­dent, or you didn’t or can’t heal in the way we’ve described. That’s a lot of choic­es for a jury to dig through, if you ask me.”

Alamo didn’t like so many choic­es. He got up in a huff and pulled on his coat and walked for the room door and turned.

I’ll see y’all in court, damn you!” he yelled, this time loud enough for the whole wing to hear him.

 

A few months lat­er and we were in the thick of it. We’d learned just how tough Alamo’s pri­vate attor­ney, Jes­si­ca Hicks, could be. She’d first tried to get the whole thing dis­missed on the grounds of friv­o­li­ty, at one point call­ing us “sim­ple idiots” for claim­ing such a thing as “dam­ages by way of neg­li­gent spir­i­tu­al heal­ing.” Still, no migraines. A miracle.

Dur­ing fur­ther dis­cov­ery, Hicks said about me, “It doesn’t mat­ter if he was healed or not. That’s beside the point. Only the plain­tiff was in the vehi­cle at the time before and dur­ing the acci­dent. All we have to do is show doubt as to whether he’s being truth­ful. We don’t know if he, in fact, suf­fered from migraines. We don’t know if he, in fact, was lis­ten­ing to the Rev­erend Alamo’s show that evening. We don’t know if he, in fact, was burnt by the radio. There are no wit­ness­es. We just have to paint the plain­tiff as a liar and a kook.”

Still, no migraine.

Ram­sey told me he wasn’t feel­ing 100% on our chances. He said Hicks was used to fight­ing for Ala­ma, that was obvi­ous. “I’d rather not go to tri­al if we can help it, bud­dy,” he told me.

But I’d col­lect­ed up my pre­scrip­tions from the doc­tor. I had copies of my doctor’s exams. Was I a migraine suf­fer­er in the past? Indeed, I was. We could prove that. And I hadn’t tak­en my med­i­cine in a while, so I had more than I should have. Every lit­tle bit of evi­dence would count, even if it there were objections.

No migraine.

My insur­ance wasn’t cov­er­ing $23,560 worth of my treat­ment (so far) and we were claim­ing anoth­er $100,000 worth of pain and suf­fer­ing. I was deter­mined to press it, even though I’d got­ten past the point of free advice from Ram­sey and his bill, though dis­count­ed, was accumulating.

 

By now I’d gone two-and-a-half months with­out a sin­gle migraine. I was all in, con­vinced I’d been cured by a mir­a­cle. I wasn’t exag­ger­at­ing. I thanked Rev­erend Alamo dur­ing a set­tle­ment meet­ing. He seemed stunned, at first, as if I was act­ing the part, but I think he saw through all the strange­ness going on around us, past the law­suit, past the attempts at prov­ing this or that, and final­ly believed in his own miracle.

The more I agreed that, yes, this was a mir­a­cle, and that, yes, he’d helped heal me, the more he want­ed peo­ple to know the fact. The more he want­ed me on his show. Maybe it was due to so many of his pri­or heal­ings being bogus. Hicks could tell Alamo wasn’t depend­able when it came to stick­ing to his plead of “not guilty” of neg­li­gence. He might say it out loud, but his demeanor would be pride in the court­room. Hicks sensed this.

Maybe Alamo just need­ed a win. For him­self. And God.

 

I agreed to be a guest on Prayin’ at the End Times. To say how I’d been healed, once a poor suf­fer­er of the Devil’s headaches. How I didn’t miss work any­more because of those awful migraines. I’d prayed with Rev­erend Alamo along with his oth­er guest, an old man suf­fer­ing from life­long GERD, or acid reflux. His poor wife Sheila was with him. We prayed for his heal­ing, and told any­one out there suf­fer­ing with GERD and lis­ten­ing on the radio and plead with them to reach out and touch the radio dial for a great bless­ing. Amen.

I got a check in the mail a week lat­er for $123,560.

 

Lar­ry D. Thacker’s poet­ry and fic­tion is in over 200 pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Spill­way, Still: The Jour­nal, Val­paraiso Poet­ry Review, Poet­ry South, The South­ern Poet­ry Anthol­o­gy, The Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Poet­ry, and Illu­mi­na­tions Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zine. His books include four full poet­ry col­lec­tions, two chap­books, as well as the folk his­to­ry, Moun­tain Mys­ter­ies: The Mys­tic Tra­di­tions of Appalachia. His two col­lec­tions of short fic­tion include Work­ing it Off in Labor Coun­ty and Labor Days, Labor Nights. His MFA in poet­ry and fic­tion is earned from Wet Vir­ginia Wes­leyan Col­lege. Vis­it his web­site at: www​.lar​ry​dthack​er​.com

 

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The Colonel, fiction by Kurt Taylor

A hun­dred times the Colonel had walked into Rip’s bar­ber shop and nobody had ever stared at him until now. The Colonel felt the tat­tooed kid’s eyes track­ing him as he walked to the chair wear­ing his Army uniform.the

Rip sat the Colonel in the chair and fas­tened the cape over the medals and pressed blue cloth.

Haven’t seen you in uni­form in a while,” Rip said. He ruf­fled the Colonel’s hair with his fin­gers, tak­ing scis­sors and a comb from the counter under the mirror.

Reserves. Guys try­ing to remem­ber their best days,” the Colonel said.
Rip pulled the comb up the left side and worked the scis­sors around the Colonel’s ear.

Your best day, you weren’t even in uni­form,” Rip said, nudg­ing the Colonel’s head to the right.

These days,” the Colonel said, “Reserves is like a social club. Old roost­ers drink­ing cof­fee and for­get­ting the pain.”

The punk kid said some­thing into his cell phone, talk­ing about some mil­i­tary freak just walk­ing in. The Colonel didn’t like that tone, sneer­ing as he said it while he looked the Colonel in the eye.

The Colonel rose and faced the tat­tooed kid. The ink was dark and fresh on the winged ser­pents and snakes coil­ing from his arms to his neck.

Keep your mouth shut when I’m in the shop,” the Colonel said. The kid had no reac­tion. “Respect the uni­form.” The Colonel thought the kid had the dead eyes of a boy who didn’t care much about anything.

The Army fought for your free­dom and men died in far­away jun­gle swamps and drowned and sank in the mid­dle of the Pacific.”

The kid didn’t blink, star­ing at the Colonel. Drugs, the Colonel fig­ured. Some kind of indif­fer­ence that sep­a­rat­ed youth from the tor­tu­ous process of grow­ing up, and he fought the urge to slap the kid but final­ly got back in the chair.

Rip put the cape back on, trimmed the sides and lay­ered a lit­tle on the top even though there wasn’t much hair up there. Rip put the scis­sors away and switched on the elec­tric clippers.

Trim up that neck, and a lit­tle men­thol after shave.” Rip buzzed the Colonel’s neck and fin­ished up with the comb and some tonic.

The Colonel rose and slipped a twen­ty into Rip’s hands and wait­ed for the kid to go sit in the chair. The kid lin­gered but the Colonel stood there. The punk kid climbed into the chair. The Colonel stood to the side of the kid.

You want to talk about wars?” the punk said. “What kind? Gang wars?” One side of his mouth curled into an ugly sneer. The Colonel thought about hit­ting him in the face, knuck­les on chin.

Don’t ever com­pare a gang to the Unit­ed States Army,” the Colonel said.
The kid rose and moved toward the Colonel, stand­ing right in front of him.
“Get near me again, I fuck­ing blast you,” the kid said. “Come up when you’re not look­ing. Pop your crack­er ass.”

The Colonel didn’t respond well to threats, nev­er had, and he said, “Come on, you scum,” and grabbed a pair of scis­sors from the blue jar of alco­hol and pressed the sharp point against the punk’s tat­tooed neck until Rip yelled and grabbed his arm and made him drop the scissors.

For days after­ward the con­fronta­tion kept the Colonel up at night replay­ing how the argu­ment went beyond any­thing he’d imag­ined it would be.

Two weeks lat­er the Colonel sat in the bar­ber chair under the cape ask­ing Rip for a new hair style, Rip clank­ing scis­sors in the ster­il­iz­ing bath.

Rip thumbed through a men’s mag­a­zine, found a pho­to and showed it to the Colonel.

The fuck is that?” the Colonel said, stab­bing a fat fin­ger at the picture.

Some­thin’ new.”

Dude’s twen­ty years old.”

Ain’t a lot­ta choic­es with hair like you got.”

One time I’m try­ing for a dif­fer­ent look and you flash some punk with a fade and a tat.”

Come on,” Rip said. “Let’s go with the usu­al. Lit­tle talc and ton­ic, you as good as a sailor in Hong Kong.”

Scan­ning the mag­a­zine pho­tos, con­tour fades and too much pomade wasn’t what the Colonel had in mind. He need­ed a nod and a word from Rip that every­thing was cool, his hair wasn’t thin­ning out too much. Not too bad Colonel, it ain’t that thin, seen less hair on thir­ty year olds. If he said some­thing like that, it would be good, the Colonel thought.

The Colonel watched Rip in the mir­ror look­ing him over, Rip say­ing, “Relax, just ease on down, nice trim and some men­thol, go down to Freddy’s and have a cold beer around five and I’ll meet you for a drink.”

You remind me of a bar­ber I had in the Philip­pines,” the Colonel said,

thought slap­ping men­thol on a dude solved everything.”

Rip didn’t say any­thing, just smoothed the Colonels hair with his hand like he was pet­ting a cat.

The Colonel said, “Ah, man. Didn’t mean to sound like I don’t respect you and your place. Come in, get a good cut, you lis­ten to all my war sto­ries and bullshit.”

The Colonel looked at him­self in the mir­ror. Age comes quietly.

You guys use pomade back in those days?” the Colonel said.

Any­thing greasy, we used it.”

Shit, back then it was 57 Chevys and girls, tak­ing it all down­town. Dean Mar­tin on the box singing Sway I’d be danc­ing and get­ting lucky. It’s dif­fer­ent now.”

I’m dif­fer­ent now. You don’t want to notice the lit­tle things that are hap­pen­ing to you. It was hard for him to think that way, and he didn’t want to say it out loud. He knew Rip knew it too. But Rip’s job was to make men feel good with­out lying to them, with­out expos­ing too much about what he knew, gen­tly let­ting on where the thin patch­es were and if you had a big mole on the back of the neck or some­thing ugly grow­ing where it shouldn’t be.

The door swung open and street sounds flood­ed in, horns and engines and the punk kid came in and walked past the chair, ear­phones plugged in and he hummed and stared at the Colonel in the mirror.

Rip clicked on the trim­mer and the low buzz whined around the Colonels’ ear. The Colonel felt the tick­le of the clip­pers shear­ing off his lit­tle hairs, and the stare of the punk in the mirror.

Get you look­ing real good there, Colonel,” Rip said. He put the mir­ror in the Colonel’s hand. In the mir­ror the Colonel saw the punk mea­sur­ing him. He told Rip to swing the chair around. Rip took a bot­tle of ton­ic off the counter and opened it, spread it through his hair with his fin­gers, but he didn’t swing the chair around. The kid, reflect­ed in the big mir­ror on the wall, was scratch­ing his side, stand­ing, watch­ing the Colonel. Rip rubbed some more ton­ic through the Colonel’s gray hair and the back of his neck.

The punk shift­ed his weight and the Colonel caught a flash of some­thing, a knife maybe, along his belt line. The Colonel put his thumb through a lock of hair and smelled the tart cit­rus of the hair product.

Nice head of hair.” Rip drew the comb through the Colonel’s hair. “Some of this juice make it grow a lit­tle faster.”

The Colonel felt Rip’s hand touch the top of his fin­gers of his left hand.
“You want,” Rip said, “I’ll call Vicky. Have her come over and do a man­i­cure. These fin­gers look a lit­tle rough.”

Maybe some oth­er time.”

The punk turned and walked out.

The Colonel paid Rip twen­ty and went out­side. He didn’t see the kid any­where, like he dis­ap­peared down the drain into the sew­er and out to sea. See­ing the kid set off the mech­a­nism the Colonel still hadn’t got­ten rid of, trig­ger­ing his defens­es, set­ting him on high alert.

The air was thick with fumes from cars and bus­es pass­ing on the street. A church bell chimed as the Colonel set­tled into his Chrysler and start­ed the igni­tion, checked around the car and in the mirrors.

The Chrysler’s tank was almost full but the Colonel want­ed to park under the gas sta­tion over­hang in the shade next to the pumps so he could watch the inter­sec­tion. Two bus­es and a motor­cy­cle with a rid­er wear­ing a red hel­met and leather jack­et roared past him. It was some­thing he did, inspect­ing the mov­ing traf­fic as if he had a duty to do so.

Inside the trunk, the Colonel found the small can­vas pouch, unsnapped the fas­ten­ers and found a squeeze bot­tle of per­ox­ide and some ban­dages. He got the key from the atten­dant and unlocked the restroom out back. The cold water hurt the cuti­cles of his fin­gers, blood­ied and curled from the Colonel pulling the skin from the nails, his ner­vous habit. The per­ox­ide burned. He stood with his back to the mir­ror and attached small ban­dages to the tips of two fin­gers on his left hand. His ring fin­ger, where he used to wear the wed­ding ring, was bad­ly chewed and he poured more per­ox­ide on that one until the bleed­ing stopped. He’d put the ring away five years ago, six years after the divorce.

A cou­ple of years ago he’d go to the bar­ber shop and talk to Rip and oth­er men even when he didn’t get his hair cut. His sto­ries seemed from anoth­er era, and he sensed when oth­er men tuned him out, read­ing their news­pa­pers or chang­ing the sub­ject. The Colonel want­ed some place to go and talk with oth­er men, noth­ing fan­cy or any­thing, just a place to go and be with peo­ple. Dri­ving around occu­pied his days now but it gave him too much time to think and be alone. The kid had got­ten under his skin and made him uneasy, the way he felt when clothes didn’t fit right or he’d for­got­ten to do something.

 

Freddy’s place was dark. Two fel­lows sat at the bar. Two years ago, Fred­dy slumped behind the bar and stopped breath­ing just as the Colonel was fin­ish­ing a beer, about to order anoth­er. The Colonel thumped on Freddy’s chest for five min­utes like he knew CPR or some­thing but he got him tick­ing again. When he came back to work Fred­dy said he didn’t want to talk about it so they shared long silent glances at each oth­er. The Colonel had seen blank stares like that in the war, when boys saw things they shouldn’t have to see and looked for answers that nev­er came.
The Colonel took a seat and Fred­dy gave a nod and poured a beer and set it down. After a few moments Fred­dy was back with a tow­el to wipe down the wood­en bar. He asked the Colonel how things were.

Like they always are, Fred­dy.” They talked, say­ing noth­ing, back and forth, the weath­er, the heat, the slump of all the estab­lish­ments along the street. If Fred­dy couldn’t stand talk­ing about his health, how he was feel­ing and get­ting along, the Colonel couldn’t see bring­ing up the punk kid and the threat he was feel­ing. You didn’t go places with some men when they sig­nal off lim­its to cer­tain things in the past. The con­ver­sa­tion fad­ed after they con­clud­ed that the neigh­bor­hood joints were los­ing to the nation­al brands and base­ball sea­son was just too long.

Fred­dy nod­ded and turned away to ser­vice some cus­tomers. Bar­tenders did that, the Colonel knew, indulging in small talk until it seemed appro­pri­ate to move on down the bar. There were always things to do behind the bar, and the Colonel was relieved when Fred­dy moved away. The Colonel took a seat in a back booth, fin­ished his beer and went out the door to the alley where a man stood hunched over with his hand down inside of a shop­ping cart.

It was almost five o’clock. Rip might be com­ing by soon.

Too much think­ing, that was the Colonel’s prob­lem. He knew it but he couldn’t stop watch­ing for signs of the kid walk­ing past the thrift shop, the taco joints, the used musi­cal instru­ment store and the oth­er cheap store­front busi­ness­es. Like a com­pass nee­dle swing­ing north, his thoughts veered back to the kid.

He’d turn and look down the brick alley; the kid’s image filled his brain. Look out toward the street with the pop­ping and the siren fad­ing now in the dis­tance; there was the kid in his mind com­mit­ting a crime, a bur­glary, rob­bing a con­ve­nience store and the cops chas­ing his ass into an alley with a slice of blue sky over­head where an old man sat with his cart and a used up old war vet­er­an stood immo­bi­lized think­ing too much about what things should have been like and nev­er hav­ing the courage or des­per­ate self-real­iza­tion to tell some­one that he was alone and he’d be alone and he want­ed to be alone but he knew it was pulling him into a dark, dark place where he’d fade away and nobody would know and nobody would care.

When Bet­ty left him, he tried to come to terms with his demons and she lis­tened for an hour but it was too late, she said, too late and she’d grown weary of his self-imposed soli­tude that gnawed the guts of their marriage.
Hair­cuts now and once in a while a beer and a word or two with some­one paid to wait on him or cut his hair and, hell, the stare-down with a punk while he was grip­ping a pair of scis­sors was the strongest human inter­ac­tion he’d had all year and he hat­ed it, but he need­ed it.

The sky was going grey. The Colonel wait­ed on the cor­ner watch­ing lights go green-yel­low-red and the cross­walks fill­ing with peo­ple fil­ing through glass doors onto side­walks laugh­ing and chat­ting soft­ly in low dull noise, blind to the Colonel’s vigil.

A woman with two can­vas tote bags hold­ing a cell phone got off the bus and stepped around the kiosk and faced the Colonel, look­ing down at the phone and back at the Colonel.

Is this the place to get the good chur­ros?” she said, point­ing at the cell phone screen. Her red head scarf was tied off in the back. Her hands were thick and dark.

The Colonel didn’t know any­thing about chur­ros, what they were or where to get some­thing like that, some Mex­i­can dish he’d nev­er heard of.

Is that Mex­i­can food?” he said.

Hablas Espanol?” the woman said.

No.”

Yes, it’s at the bak­ery. La panaderia.”

La panade­ria.” The Colonel repeat­ed the word, try­ing to say it the way the woman had said it.

Tu ves? Tu hablas Espanol.” She laughed. “My daugh­ter is home now and she ask for los chur­ros. Only los chur­ros, Mama.”

The only bak­ery I know is around the cor­ner.” He point­ed to the right where the bus turned down the boulevard.

Would you mind, por favor,” the woman said, “walk­ing with me. No se este barrio.”

They walked togeth­er toward the bakery.

The woman asked the Colonel about the neigh­bor­hood. “Is it safe at night?”

Most of the time.”

Every place has prob­lems,” she said.

Keep an eye out for your sur­round­ings. Do you have a good flashlight?”

The woman didn’t know the word.

A light. Some­thing to use in the dark.”

Oh, la luz. No, I don’t have one.”

They have them at hard­ware stores,” the Colonel said. “Get a good one. Twen­ty or thir­ty dol­lars but worth the money.”

It is impor­tant to feel safe.”

Yes, the Colonel thought, it is impor­tant to be safe. Giv­ing the woman some help­ful advice felt good to him.

Peo­ple didn’t ask him things like that any­more. He’d be in the uni­form and peo­ple would say, ‘Thank you for your ser­vice’ some­times, but no one ever asked him in a store, for instance, what you need to have in an emer­gency, or how to pro­tect a home from bur­glars. A whole day in uni­form, walk­ing around, eat­ing in a café, drink­ing at Freddy’s and not once would a stranger engage in con­ver­sa­tion about a first aid kit.

The woman walked next to him with long strides, point­ing at pink and white blos­soms in the wood­en planter in front of a dress shop, tug­ging on his arm as they stopped to look in the store win­dow dis­play filled with beau­ty prod­ucts, crème rinse bot­tles and plas­tic combs and she sighed as a woman inside primped in front of the large mir­ror. The woman was star­ing now at the beau­ti­ful woman inside spray­ing her sleek black hair and the styl­ist behind her smooth­ing the shoul­ders of her blue shirt.
Inside the panade­ria cas­es were filled with pas­tries, cakes and cook­ies. Women and men swarmed around eat­ing and drink­ing cof­fee, laugh­ing and chat­ting in Span­ish. It smelled the way it did when his wife, Bet­ty, used to bake oat­meal raisin cook­ies and apple pies. Cin­na­mon, fresh cof­fee and warm frosting.

The women took the Colonel’s arm and point­ed to the chur­ros, dust­ed with pow­dered sug­ar and said she would like to buy him some­thing for help­ing her find the bakery.

That’s not nec­es­sary,” the Colonel said, thank­ing the woman. “My pleasure.”

She ordered chur­ros and sug­ar cook­ies. The counter man wrapped the baked goods in waxed paper. They went out­side to the cool air. It was dark. The woman opened the bag and took out a length of chur­ro wrapped in paper and hand­ed it to the Colonel, who took it and thanked her.

I can walk you back to the bus stop,” he said, “and then I have to go.”

They start­ed down the block, walk­ing slow­ly, step­ping aside as men and women passed them on the side­walk in the ear­ly evening. It had been a long time since he’d walked with a woman, maybe years, but he couldn’t remem­ber exact­ly how long. He’d called Bet­ty a few years after they’d divorced to ask her if she’d meet for cof­fee, take a walk around town, just to see how each oth­er was doing, noth­ing inti­mate or lead­ing. She’d agreed, and they set a time and place. When the time came the Colonel dressed in a new white shirt and blue sport coat and wait­ed at the muse­um where they were sup­posed to meet. He wait­ed two hours before he got in his car and went home.

The tat­tooed kid and the threat was in the back of the Colonel’s mind now, still there, but not so pronounced.

The Colonel stopped and said, “There’s a Sur­plus Store around the cor­ner a cou­ple of blocks. We can get you a good flashlight.”

I don’t have much money.”

Come on, I’ll buy you one.”

She agreed, say­ing over and over she didn’t want to take char­i­ty. She used anoth­er word, some­thing in Span­ish. The Colonel looked at her as she was talk­ing. She was smil­ing and nod­ding the whole time.

The Colonel found her a small pen­light that would be per­fect for a purse. Not too big. Small enough to con­ceal in her hand but enough light to stop a man from see­ing any­thing when the light was shined into the eyes. He pur­chased the light for thir­ty-five dol­lars and unboxed the light and insert­ed bat­ter­ies. They went out­side. The Colonel clicked the light and showed the woman it had three lev­els of bright­ness. He had her click on the light a few times. Peo­ple were com­ing down the side­walk, so he hand­ed it to her and told her to use it when­ev­er she need­ed to.

The woman slowed down as they approached the bus stop, rear­rang­ing the bag under her arm. The Colonel want­ed to ask if she need­ed a ride, and he almost said it but he didn’t and the bus came and the woman thanked him. He watched her go up the steps into the bus and wave at him as the bus began to move. He knew there wasn’t a way that he could have made the short encounter with the woman mean any­thing more than what it was, but he wished it had last­ed a lit­tle longer. He had han­dled him­self with dig­ni­ty, he told him­self, and he felt a lit­tle fool­ish think­ing that he want­ed to make some­thing more, when the woman only want­ed some pro­tec­tion when she didn’t know the neighborhood.

The amber street lamps threw a soft glow on the side­walk cast­ing shad­ows behind trash cans out­side the stores and reflec­tions of gold­en light sparkled in win­dows and the eyes of peo­ple and off of their shiny shoes. The Colonel walked in the direc­tion of the park­ing lot where his Chrysler was under a tree in the third row. It was a few blocks away.

The chur­ro she’d giv­en him felt warm in the bag. He peeled back the wax paper and took a bite of the soft doughy bread. He could have been a crim­i­nal on the street, but the woman had trust­ed him and had cho­sen him from the peo­ple stand­ing at the bus stop.

He drove home and entered his apart­ment, closed and locked the door and wait­ed in the dark for a moment before turn­ing on the light. Lis­ten­ing for any unusu­al sounds, he found every­thing qui­et and amused him­self when he real­ized the only sound he heard was his breath­ing. He turned on the light, went to his small record col­lec­tion and pulled out Dean Martin’s Great­est Hits and set the vinyl disc on the turntable.

 

Two days went by. The Colonel drove his Chrysler around, watch­ing, wait­ing. On the third day he made cof­fee and cleaned up and dressed and went out to the car port to the Chrysler, not know­ing where he would go. There was no place in par­tic­u­lar he had to be, or any­one he had to meet with. The met­al cov­er­ing on the car port was heat­ing up with morn­ing sun­light and a dog barked on the oth­er side of the fence of an old two-sto­ry manor house where kids played in the back yard some­times, but not now, not on this weekday.

The dog growled and barked again, near the fence, and the Colonel heard him rustling around, dig­ging pos­si­bly, dig­ging for his bone or try­ing to make a tun­nel under the fence and get out of the back­yard and face the neigh­bor­hood and see the sights and be a dog who once in a while escaped his con­fines and made his way out for a walk among the won­der­ful crea­tures of the world.

The Colonel heard a scrape of shoe behind him just before he took his keys out of his pock­et. He turned around. Two punks behind him, and he heard a third in front of him now. They’d con­verged as he’d lis­tened to the dog till­ing the soil at the fence. He could only see the two at one time, or look at the one who’d appeared from the oth­er angle. He was sur­round­ed on two sides, and on the oth­er side were the Chrysler and the fence. It wasn’t the same punk kid from the bar­ber shop. None of them were famil­iar to him. Both kids were com­ing straight at him and the Colonel turned just enough to see the third kid step­ping toward him.

They closed in and stood a few feet from the Colonel at the back of the Chrysler. The dog was bark­ing very loud. The Colonel didn’t say any­thing, look­ing at the two who stood togeth­er to his right. On his left, he could feel the cold stare of the third boy in his sleeve­less white t‑shirt and shaved head. The Colonel had his right hand in his pock­et and acti­vat­ed his phone to call 911.

Don’t turn around now,” the Colonel said. “See that cam­era up there?” He point­ed over his shoul­der at the upper eaves of the apart­ment build­ing. “And you hear that dog?”

White T‑shirt sniffed but the Colonel focused on the boys on his right. They both looked up at the eave.

The fat one on his right wore a red hood­ie and pulled the hood over his head and tight­ened the string. The oth­er stood still. White T‑shirt stepped in front of the Colonel as if he thought he could hide from the cam­era. The cam­eras were just for effect. They weren’t func­tion­al. The Colonel had the phone in his hand now, out from his pocket.

A female dis­patch­er respond­ed. “911…what is your emergency?”

What the fuck is that?” White T‑shirt said, whip­ping a small switch­blade out and up in front of the Colonel’s nose.

The Colonel respond­ed. “Three men assault­ing a cit­i­zen at 866 Alvara­do Drive.”

Are you in dan­ger?” The dis­patch­er kept calm.

The Colonel held the phone out in front of him and the fat one in the hood­ie said, “Drop the phone. Now.”

Send­ing a patrol car,” the dis­patch­er said. The Colonel dropped the phone on the pave­ment at the foot of Hoodie.

Two min­utes to kill me. Is that enough time?” The Colonel stared at Hood­ies eyes, black and shad­ed under the hood.

Edward fuck­ing Scis­sorHands. You like that old bar­ber shop, get that scis­sor cut, yeah?”

These were the goons, the Colonel knew now, homies assigned to the kill squad by the punk in the bar­ber shop. He only had a few moments now to twist things a lit­tle to see if the boys were ready to do the job. Make them exam­ine their qual­i­fi­ca­tions and get them to think about what was going to hap­pen. Oth­er thoughts came to mind too, the same ones he thought about at home at night, the famil­iar cycle of soli­tude, being alone, and new ones that just appeared as if from nowhere. Would there be a news arti­cle? What page would it be on? Where they were going to bury him?

Let’s talk about death,” the Colonel said.

Talk about yours.” Hood­ie pulled out a knife and flipped open the blade, four inch­es of ser­rat­ed steel.

The Colonel said, “You know what a judge tells you when he sends you up?”

Hood­ie said, “Been there, old man.”

The Colonel looked at White T‑Shirt. “You’re gonna have a lot of friends in the joint. Real close per­son­al friends.”

Just do it,” White T‑shirt said to Hoodie.

Slow­ly the Colonel moved his right hand, show­ing his hands to the thugs. “Take my wal­let, the cash, you’re gonna do it any­way. Take the bills.” He con­tin­ued, mov­ing his hand to his wallet.

He pulled his wal­let out and hand­ed it to the kid next to Hood­ie. “Take the cash. Go to the Panade­ria on Sec­ond Street. Buy all the chur­ros and give ‘em to kids. Think you can do that?” Sirens howled a few blocks away and the dog barked and slammed against the fence. “Kill me now, buy some treats.”

Hood­ie was sweat­ing and his eyes shined and White T‑Shirt twitched and the third kid walked in tight lit­tle cir­cles pound­ing a fist in his palm.
Hood­ie showed the gun, a shiny large cal­iber pistol.

And one more thing,” the Colonel said, look­ing down the bar­rel of the .45 semi-auto.

Hood­ie sneered, “You had your last meal.”

I’m not hun­gry,” the Colonel said.

They’re com­ing,” Red Hood­ie said.

The Colonel said, “My last song.”

Shoot him, Ese,” White T‑shirt said. His words had force, the dog barked and slammed the fence.

Sirens get­ting clos­er, the Colonel turned slow­ly toward the cam­era mount­ed on the eave and began to sing.

When marim­ba rhythms start to play, dance with me, make me sway.” Voice crack­ing, trem­bling, he kept singing with his eyes to the cam­era, the cam­era that wasn’t record­ing any­thing but the Colonel hoped its blind eye would see and hear his spirit.

White T‑shirt was scream­ing in Span­ish and Hood­ie cocked his pis­tol and put it to the Colonel’s ear as sirens whooped and rose in pitch, near now.

Hold me close, sway me more…”

The Colonel felt the steel bar­rel in his ear.

When we dance you have a way with me…Stay with me, sway…”

The blast was very loud and it silenced the dog and the Colonel slumped to the pave­ment with a thick crunch of skull on asphalt. Hood­ie slipped the gun in his sweat­shirt pouch and shout­ed some­thing and they ran down the park­ing lot and found a locked gate at the end.

Patrol cars round­ed the cor­ner down the alley along­side the cov­ered park­ing area and screeched to a stop, sirens rag­ing up and down and car doors opened, both patrol cars, and the offi­cers rushed out guns up and heard the sin­gle bark of the dog. Two offi­cers ran toward the bangers who had jumped the fence, call­ing in for backup.

All units, shut Alvara­do between 2nd and 3rd, all units.

The first offi­cer to get to the Colonel touched his neck and shook his head. The oth­er one radioed for the coro­ner and a crime scene unit. The first offi­cer, a lean man in his ear­ly thir­ties, reached into the Colonel’s pock­ets for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, but found noth­ing except a fold­ed piece of paper.

He unfold­ed the paper and glanced at it and hand­ed it to the lead offi­cer in charge.

The lead offi­cer read out loud.

To Rip, many thanks, safe trav­els. Fred­dy, I should’ve said more. The woman at the bus stop, I’ll see you some­day. Sway with me. And Bet­ty, Bet­ty, Oh, Betty…I could have done bet­ter. For all the rest of you, I’m nobody. Nobody then, nobody now. God bless the soldiers.”
Blood leaked out of the hole in his head and the Colonel’s mouth was open as if his teeth were gnaw­ing the ground. The pave­ment was get­ting hot and the blood dried and smelled of iron fil­ings like an auto shop garage.

The tall offi­cer spoke first. “Sway with me. What’s that?”

The lead offi­cer said, “It’s an old Dean Mar­tin song.”

The shit you know.”

My mom’s a fan.”

For sure I’ll put that in the report. John Doe Dean Mar­tin fan killed in a park­ing lot.

The two pur­suit offi­cers jogged back from the locked gate at the end of the park­ing lot, breath­ing heav­i­ly and wet with per­spi­ra­tion. They removed their hats when the approached the body and said they lost pur­suit at the gate and nei­ther got a look at the assailants.

They all stood in the hot sun and the dog let out a howl and scraped along the back side of the wood­en fence.

Know a Rip, or Fred­die?” the lean offi­cer in charge asked.

The offi­cer looked at his watch. “I’ll check around.”

The lead offi­cer scanned the note again. “Bet­ty. Sounds like some old business.”

The pur­suit offi­cers squint­ed in the sun. The tall offi­cer turned and walked to the patrol car, opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat, leav­ing the door open. He keyed the radio and spoke. The blue and red lights on top of the cruis­er stopped flash­ing and he sat look­ing out the front win­dow before he closed the door.

Kurt Tay­lor has an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side, and spends his time search­ing for Mojave Desert vis­tas to pho­to­graph and enjoy. His writ­ing has appeared in NOHO>LA, his blog Indi­an Hill, and he wrote and appeared on numer­ous tele­vi­sion shows in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia includ­ing Inside Dodgers Base­ball, and Inter­ac­tive LA.

Kurt lives in South­ern California.

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The NIght Dick Clark Actually Died, fiction by F. John Sharp

Do you remem­ber that time I swore I’d heard that Dick Clark had died and you said you hadn’t. I said, “It was on NBC, and why would NBC tell me Dick Clark was dead when Dick Clark wasn’t dead?” And you said “NBC didn’t say Dick Clark was dead, because he isn’t dead.” In the days before the inter­net was in our pock­ets there was no way to check, except to wait for New Years Eve when, by god, there he was in Times Square, nar­rat­ing the drop­ping of the ball.

You said “you must have been high,” but you know I don’t get high, and you know how crazy I get when you don’t want to fuck, but say you still love me and pre­fer my penis to almost every oth­er penis you’ve expe­ri­enced. I am com­pelled to ask each and every time, “When was the last time you expe­ri­enced a penis that wasn’t mine?” You always name-drop peo­ple you could nev­er have had sex with, espe­cial­ly since we live in Cleve­land, then you sug­gest we dri­ve to Wal­Mart for Advil and pie. I always shout YES, even though I know we have plen­ty of Advil and more than half a pie.

I gained clo­sure once Dick Clark final­ly died, years after I had spread word of his pass­ing to most of our address book. You threw me a lit­tle Dick Clark Real­ly Is Dead This Time par­ty, where you and I were the only invi­tees. We had cham­pagne and choco­late cake, and spent an hour try­ing to fig­ure out what NBC had real­ly said that made me hear, “Dick Clark is dead.” Then we fucked in every room of the house while you told me mine real­ly was the best penis you ever expe­ri­enced. I knew you were lying, but as long as the answer to, “When was the last time you expe­ri­enced a penis that wasn’t mine?” is always the same, I real­ly don’t care.

F John Sharp lives and works in Kent, Ohio. He is the fic­tion edi­tor for Right Hand Point­ing and his select­ed works can be found at FJohn​Sharp​.com.

 

 

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Two Poems, by Matthew Borczon

Some­thing you don’t see every day

Miller was

telling me

that his

moth­er had

used rope

pul­leys and

a cement block

to build

the per­fect

sui­cide she

had tied

a plas­tic

bag over

her head

then pushed

the cement

block off

the bed

and its

weight pulled

the ropes

tied around

her wrists

through the

pul­leys down

and to the

ends of her

bed where

she died

cru­ci­fix style

unable to

pull the bag

off even if

she want­ed to

It was

an impres­sive

piece of

engi­neer­ing

for a woman

who nev­er

fin­ished high

school, Miller

said

It’s too bad

she couldn’t

use that

fore­thought

and inge­nu­ity

to fig­ure out

a rea­son

to stay alive

he said this

just before

look­ing up

at the giant

moon still

in the 6 am

sky he pointed

and said

now there

is some­thing

you don’t

see every day.

Before Afghanistan 

I had

a wife

and 4 kids

and a job

and friends

and I guess

I still have

those things

but now

I also have

the war

and the war

says I

am your wife

I am

Your chil­dren

I am

Your job

and I

am your

only friend

but don’t worry

I will not

let you

be that vet

who puts

his head

in the noose

but you

will be the

one I send

to cut him down

over and over

again in your dreams.

 

Matthew Bor­c­zon is a poet and a recent­ly retired Navy Sailor from Erie Pa. He has writ­ten 17 books of poet­ry, his lat­est, PTSD: a Liiv­ing Will, is avail­able from Rust Belt Press. When not writ­ing Matt is an LPN and a father of four children.

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April 5, 2022, 11:13 PM, prose by Bart Solarczyk

I got the 2nd anniver­sary of Tami’s death creep­ing up on me in less than an hour, one tic past mid­night. I have a sense of dread & ris­ing anx­i­ety, like I’m going to break when it arrives. It didn’t help to get extra stoned. I’m not usu­al­ly prone to para­noia but I’m walk­ing a fine edge tonight. There’s so much I miss about her but most­ly it’s her friend­ship, she was the one who knew me best & she loved me uncon­di­tion­al­ly. We talked about grow­ing old togeth­er & now I’m here with­out her, gone at 61. She’s missed 2 birth­days & I miss her all the time but work hard not to dwell on it. And I’m start­ing to feel bet­ter, less tense, bet­ter pre­pared. It’s rain­ing, I hear it pat­ter the roof. I like that. I took Pit­tie out a lit­tle while back. She quick­ly peed & made a bee­line for the front door. We were out all of 2 min­utes. Now she’s crashed under a blan­ket on the sofa next to me. So I’m not so alone, I have this hap­py dog who some­times is a pain in the ass. But we love one anoth­er & she makes me move & gives me anoth­er life to care about. Tami saw to that. She stayed long enough to help us find Pit­tie & get her set­tled & then she was gone. Two years, fast & slow but always real. So here I sit, writ­ing this, remem­ber­ing, tak­ing things a minute at a time. Not so curi­ous about the future, it’ll come & I’ll have to let it hap­pen. Then some­day Tami here again, or me there, how­ev­er it hap­pens. Or noth­ing, noth­ing above or beyond, not even a black hole, just orig­i­nal noth­ing. I won’t know it any­way. I’ll be noth­ing too.
Bart Solar­czyk lives In Pitts­burgh, PA with his dog Pit­tie & cat Mil­lie. His poems have recent­ly appeared in Big Ham­mer, Road­side Raven Review & Pitts­burgh Mag­a­zine. His book Tilt­ed World is avail­able from Low Ghost Press. Anoth­er col­lec­tion, Clas­sic Chap­books, is avail­able from Red­Hawk Pub­li­ca­tions & on Amazon.
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