Epiphany, fiction by Larry Thacker


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.


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


for a woman

who nev­er

fin­ished high

school, Miller


It’s too bad

she couldn’t

use that


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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Her Hotel, fiction by Timothy Gager

She bought a hotel, on the ocean, because God told her to. For this, she need­ed help, so she turned to God, and gofundme​.com to raise ten mil­lion dol­lars for the pur­chase. She dec­o­rat­ed her hotel with stars and starfish, or any­thing hav­ing to do with mariners, and the ocean, but most­ly stars and starfish—-and thought, God is the stars.

Her hair was thick and curly, and hung down to mid-tor­so, both he loved to wash when they shared a tub. After he gen­tly mas­saged in sham­poo, he slow­ly poured water over her. The both shared this feel­ing of cleans­ing. After­ward, they would lay in bed in crisp sheets, the walls as glossed as a blind­ing light, looked at her ceil­ing, a flat blue-black, with specs of light paint­ed on it. He drove up there the first three days of every month, as long as it wasn’t the week­end, as the hotel filled dur­ing those times. He said he was there because he loved the ocean, but didn’t wor­ship it like a God, and he also let it slip that he loved her too. 

Before the next month, she told him not to come. It was sud­den, He rep­re­sent­ed too much of her old world and her spir­i­tu­al­i­ty demand­ed some­thing which she could only describe to him, to make him under­stand, as some­thing like their bath sev­en days a week, twen­ty-four hours a day, He tried a few times to get in touch with her, even call­ing the hotel’s office, but the record­ing only said that she/they were no longer tak­ing phone calls but leave a mes­sage, if you felt called to do so, and would be returned if she/they were able and felt called to do so as well. 

This all hap­pened because there were things she nev­er told him. It was a long sto­ry, which she had worked through, but it was impor­tant for her to be viewed as she was now, nev­er as she was then. Before she was brought to the place she is in now, she used to work as a den­tal hygien­ist. She hat­ed the ear­ly patients, first thing in the morn­ing who rolled out of bed and did noth­ing to their mouths because they were get­ting brushed and flossed there. She hat­ed the patients seen after lunch who only brushed twice a day, and not after lunch. They were the ones that left fish between their teeth. She had no respect for those who didn’t have self-care. Most­ly it all came down to not brush­ing and floss­ing because if every­one brushed and flossed, she wouldn’t be need­ed as much. 

The den­tist who owned the prac­tice became her lover. He was old­er, but not yet of the age where he smelled of being old. She liked how he ran the office, pay­ing atten­tion to her, and all the employ­ees. He had empa­thy, and even com­mis­er­at­ing about the morn­ing and after lunch peo­ple she despised. The sex was great after hours, on a den­tist chair, exper­i­ment­ing with the exter­nal oral suc­tion machine, which she was respon­si­ble for the san­i­tiz­ing of after­ward. Then the sex was good at his house, and after she moved in the sex wasn’t as good.  It became his way, and at his times. She also was stunned to real­ize he wasn’t at all the way he was in the office. He was unsup­port­ive, crit­i­cal, jeal­ous of some of the patients she worked on, and ver­bal­ly demand­ing and abu­sive. She no longer could stand him, but he was her employ­er, he was her home, and he had become her only life­line, and he knew it. She felt an urge to do some­thing bad enough to him to land her­self in jail, or if she didn’t, land her­self in an impa­tient facility.

The only way pos­si­ble to leave him was men­tal­ly. As long as he thought she was com­ing on to patients she thought, why not graze her breasts against the back of the head of the men she from behind as she scaled his teeth? Why not whis­per in their ear if they seemed respon­sive to that, about a place to meet lat­er and a time? Why not give her­self some sort of con­trol?  At first it seemed excit­ing, almost right­eous, but often it brought her to anoth­er dark place where she want­ed to take the sharp scal­ing tool and plunge in straight down through the next patient’s sub­mandibu­lar duct.

And then came the day, she and her den­tist drove up the coast, and some­thing was said, which she can’t remem­ber, because he pushed her head hard against the pas­sen­ger side win­dow caus­ing a con­cus­sion. She was in a hos­pi­tal, and he was nowhere to be seen. When he did come back for her, the next day, she was gone, referred to a woman’s shel­ter on the ocean, run by a group of nuns known to be part of the Mary­knoll Sis­ters. She loved the nuns, because of their pres­ence of love, and that they gave her space to heal, and med­i­tate and work her way out of her PTSD. She walked the beach, pick­ing up shells, drift­wood and dried starfish. The wood once impor­tant, had end­ed up here, exact­ly where she was, get­ting ground­ed in space. This was impor­tant, as the sand, the sea, and the stars, gave her peace.

She also began writ­ing a book about over­com­ing her abuse, and broad­cast­ing some of her sto­ry on the inter­net. The seg­ments were heavy and touched on how she had been saved, and her redis­cov­ered faith. She con­fessed she want­ed to be a nun, a key rev­e­la­tion which would become the con­clu­sion of her mem­oir. Peo­ple fol­lowed her broad­casts, thou­sands of them, engrossed by her and her sto­ry. The nuns also tuned in. They liked her, but she wasn’t Catholic, and that was a rea­son good enough why she couldn’t become one of them. She would do the next best thing. She bought the hotel next door.

    The hotel either had guests who loved the ocean, or guests who went there as an instru­ment of God’s teach­ing, based on her pro­mo­tion. It was all fine with her, because she believed Gods was the stars, so why not it be the sea, or a man with a beard. 

Occa­sion­al­ly she missed the man who used to vis­it, and want­ed to have time with him, but then the thought made her feel uncom­fort­able and con­fused. She thought maybe it was fear, or per­haps love, but the one with the small “l”, not the big “L” which she lived for. She knew, with­out know­ing her sto­ry, he couldn’t know her, and he could nev­er be the One who knew the num­ber of hairs on her head. She gave her sto­ry out to the world, but not to him, which rep­re­sent­ed some­thing. The day she told him not to come back she already knew, he could nev­er be He.

Tim­o­thy Gager has pub­lished 17 books of fic­tion and poet­ry. Joe the Salamander,is his third nov­el became an Ama­zon #1 Best Sell­er in its cat­e­go­ry. He host­ed the suc­cess­ful Dire Lit­er­ary Series in Cam­bridge, MA from 2001 to 2018, and start­ed a week­ly vir­tu­al series in 2020. He has had over 1000 works of fic­tion and poet­ry pub­lished, 17 nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart Prize. His work also has been nom­i­nat­ed for a Mass­a­chu­setts Book Award, The Best of the Web, The Best Small Fic­tions Anthol­o­gy and has been read on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio. 

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Fist Fight at Applebees, fiction by Dan Leach

I missed the begin­ning, but we know how it hap­pens. Either the old man with the lazy eye said the wrong thing to the young man with the neck tat­too, or the oth­er way around. I was there for the mid­dle, and that’s the most impor­tant part because that’s when everyone’s still fight­ing like God’s in their cor­ner. I can nev­er tell whose cor­ner God is in. I know this: the young man keeps drop­ping his hands, and the old man’s left is a ham­mer. There’s blood on both their faces. There’s a grow­ing, hap­py crowd. Some­times it seems like God’s in no one's cor­ner. The losers down here have truth, but they’re hate­ful and incon­sis­tent. The win­ners have sta­tus, but they use it for com­fort, and com­fort has ruined them. No one is hum­ble. And isn’t God hum­ble? Isn’t He gen­tle and open and low­ly enough for any­one hurt­ing? Okay, the fight. Some­one got cracked.  Someone’s head hit the pave­ment. The crowd screamed, and a child wept, but I was too far gone to see who won.

Dan Leach has pub­lished work in The New Orleans Review, Cop­per Nick­el, and The Sun. He has two col­lec­tions of short fic­tion: Floods and Fires (Uni­ver­si­ty of North Geor­gia, 2017) and Dead Medi­ums (Tri­dent Press, 2022). An instruc­tor of Eng­lish at Charleston South­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, he lives in the low­coun­try of South Car­oli­na with his wife and four kids.

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Everything is Relative, fiction by Michael Bracken

Use my bed,” Zelda said. “I want to sleep in the wet spot.”

Alexan­dria stared at her younger sis­ter for a moment and then grabbed my hand and led me upstairs to Zelda’s bed­room, where she attend­ed to my needs with the lights off and her eyes closed.

My cousin and I had played doc­tor and gone skin­ny dip­ping togeth­er through­out our child­hood, but noth­ing came of it until after Uncle Mort’s still explod­ed. The fire­ball instant­ly killed him, melt­ed off half my face, and scarred a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of my left side. Back then, my father was serv­ing time for shoot­ing a rev­enuer, and my mama and my Aunt Sara were work­ing twelve-hour overnight shifts at the cot­ton mill. So, after I was released from the hos­pi­tal, they left Alexan­dria to watch her lit­tle sis­ter and care for me. And Alexan­dria did, tak­ing advan­tage of my inca­pac­i­ta­tion to sat­is­fy her curios­i­ty about the sins of the flesh.

After­ward, as we lay in the dark with­out speak­ing, the door­bell rang. A moment lat­er, Zel­da yelled up the stairs. “It’s Goodwin.”

Alexandria’s boyfriend.

Shit,” my cousin mut­tered. Then she yelled back, “Stall him.”

We quick­ly dressed. After I retrieved the pro­phy­lac­tic and its wrap­per, Alexan­dria head­ed down the front stairs and I slipped down the back.

Zel­da was stand­ing by the kitchen door. She asked, “Is it wet?”


She smiled as she opened the door for me.

Out­side, I shoved the pro­phy­lac­tic into the garbage can, care­ful not to make unnec­es­sary noise. Then I climbed into the Ford my father and uncle had mod­i­fied for run­ning ’shine, released the park­ing brake, and rolled down­hill in the dark until I was far enough away from Aunt Sarah’s house to safe­ly turn on the lights, key the igni­tion, and dri­ve home.

* * *

The next after­noon I took Zel­da to town with me to do a lit­tle shop­ping. While peo­ple stared at me—or pre­tend­ed not to stare at me—she pock­et­ed a few items. The first time she did it, near­ly a year after my release from the hos­pi­tal, she took a choco­late bar, and it was half-melt­ed by the time she pulled it from her under­wear and showed me what she’d done. As Zel­da grew old­er, we per­fect­ed our tech­nique and now often left home with a shop­ping list. That day we shopped for eye­lin­er, ear­rings for Zelda’s new­ly pierced ears, and pro­phy­lac­tics for my time with Alexandria.

Goodwin’s sweet on my sis­ter,” Zel­da told me on the way home. “He don’t know about you and her.”

And you’d best not tell him,” I insist­ed. I didn’t know if what I was telling Zel­da was for my own good or for Alexandria’s, but it didn’t mat­ter. That Zel­da knew about us at all was the result of her arriv­ing home unex­pect­ed­ly two years ear­li­er. She caught me limp­ing naked into their bath­room and Alexan­dria sprawled across her bed, and by then Zel­da was old enough to under­stand what that meant.

Zel­da didn’t respond to what I’d told her. Instead, she showed me the ten-pack of pro­phy­lac­tics she’d boost­ed from the drug store and said, “They’re ribbed.”

* * *

My only work expe­ri­ence had been help­ing Uncle Mort with the still, so my job prospects were lim­it­ed when I was final­ly old enough to seek a real job. Martha Kuk­endahl hired me to wash dish­es at the Road­side Inn, but she insist­ed I enter and exit through the restaurant’s kitchen door and that I nev­er show my face in the din­ing room.

Jede­di­ah!” she said when I stepped through the back door a few days after my shop­ping trip with Zel­da. “You’re late.”

I glanced at my watched. “Two minutes.”

Third time this month,” she said. “If you weren’t Gladys Wright’s kid, I would have fired you already, you ugly lit­tle matchstick.”

I held my tongue because I need­ed the job, which I only had because Martha felt she owed my mama for some­thing that hap­pened when they were teenagers, some­thing nei­ther of them ever spoke about. With my father in prison, with my uncle in a grave, and with­out the mon­ey we’d once earned from their still, there just wasn’t enough mon­ey com­ing into the house to pay our bills with­out me work­ing. Besides, Good­win was Martha’s son.

Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I’ll do better.”

The Road­side Inn did good business—a com­bi­na­tion of locals and peo­ple trav­el­ing through—and I scrubbed dish­ware from the moment I arrived until well past clos­ing time, when I helped Isa­iah the Gimp clean the ovens and the stove­tops and pre­pare the kitchen for break­fast the next morning.

I was near worn out by the time I arrived at Aunt Sarah’s house that evening, but Alexan­dria was wait­ing up for me. She took my hand and led me up the stairs to her bed­room, where she sat­is­fied both our needs in near darkness.

How do you do it?” I asked when she fin­ished. “No one else even wants to look at me.”

I close my eyes and remem­ber how hand­some you used to be,” Alexan­dria said. “Those oth­er girls only see you as you are now.”

She didn’t real­ize how much her answer hurt, but I didn’t tell her.

* * *

The fol­low­ing Sat­ur­day, Zel­da and I went to town again. This time the shop­ping list includ­ed fem­i­nine prod­ucts and cold cream and socks to replace the pair I had worn though. I also need­ed to stop at the drug­store to pick up a pre­scrip­tion for my mama. While we were work­ing our way through the Woolworth’s, a cou­ple of girls from school saw us. They lived on the oth­er side of the tracks, where the bankers and the mill own­ers lived, and they made rude com­ments under their breath, just loud enough for us to get the gist of their com­ments with­out hear­ing the actu­al words.

They’re laugh­ing at you,” Zel­da said.

They always do.”

Do you ever think of oth­er girls, Jed?” Zel­da asked. “Girls oth­er than my sister?”

I used to, but who would have me?”

You might be surprised.”

We left Woolworth’s with the three items on our shop­ping list and had to vis­it the drug­store for the last item. After­ward, we drove down to the riv­er, hung our legs over the side of the bridge, and shared a Coke that Zel­da had tak­en while I paid for my mama’s prescription.

Things just ain’t been the same since Daddy’s still blew up,” she said.

We’d nev­er talked about that day, about the explo­sion that had tak­en her father’s life and near­ly tak­en mine, and about how our fam­i­lies had fall­en on hard times with­out the mon­ey that still brought in. “And it ain’t ever going to be the same,” I said. “Some things are bet­ter. Some things ain’t.”

She pon­dered that for a bit.

Dad­dy used to beat mama some­thing awful,” Zel­da said. My dad­dy had been the one who put a stop to it most times, but when he shot that rev­enuer and went to prison, there wasn’t any­body left who could stop what Uncle Mort was doing to Aunt Sarah.

Except God.

Or so we thought.

You got your daddy’s car,” Zel­da said. “You ever think of run­ning ’shine for one of the oth­er stills?”

It’s been six years,” I said. I’d been four­teen and Zel­da had been twelve. Since then, rev­enuers had shut down most of the stills, and the remain­ing few most­ly pro­vid­ed small batch­es for local cus­tomers. “I don’t think there’s enough work for a driver.”

* * *

My mama and my aunt had to fend off the advances of the mill’s super­vi­sors, ugly men who demand­ed per­son­al favors, and they talked bad about the women who dropped to their knees in exchange for day shifts. They talked even worse about the hus­bands who turned a blind eye rather than jeop­ar­dize what was often their household’s only steady income.

It ain’t worth it,” my mama told Aunt Sarah one night in our kitchen. I had stopped just out­side the door to lis­ten, some­thing I did more often than they real­ized. “No mat­ter what that man promised you, it ain’t worth it.”

But I got two daugh­ters,” Aunt Sarah said. “At least your boy can work, bring in some money.”

Wash­ing dish­es,” my mama said. “That ain’t much of a job for a boy.”

But it’s a job, a job he wouldn’t have if it weren’t for what you done for Martha all them years ago,” Aunt Sarah said. “It’s mon­ey ain’t com­ing into my house. We had enough money—more than enough money—before you—”

My mama hushed her. “You wasn’t okay with what Mort done to you, and Jim­my wasn’t around no more to stick up for you,” my mama said. “You be all right, just you wait and see. That Kuk­endahl boy, he’ll do right by Alexan­dria. I’ll see to that.”

I slipped away, not want­i­ng to hear more about Good­win and Alexan­dria. I knew he was sweet on her and that some­day she would stop meet­ing my needs. But I sure­ly didn’t need to lis­ten to my mama and my aunt talk about it.

* * *

Can I watch?” Zel­da asked a few nights later.

We left the light on. Alexan­dria did things she didn’t usu­al­ly do, as if she were per­form­ing for her lit­tle sis­ter, and did it all with­out pro­tec­tion. We fin­ished with her strad­dling me, and after­ward, after Alexan­dria had left the bed and gone into the bath­room, Zel­da crossed the room and let her fin­gers trace the scars on my face, an act more inti­mate than what her old­er sis­ter and I had just done. When she fin­ished, Zel­da left me alone in her bed­room, lis­ten­ing to Alexan­dria show­er, won­der­ing what had just hap­pened. I didn’t have much time to think because I soon heard a pound­ing on the front door, and Zel­da called up the stairs to her sis­ter, telling her she had a guest. I scram­bled out of bed, grabbed my things, and high­tailed it down the back stairs as qui­et­ly as I could.

I found Zel­da wait­ing for me. She said, “You should see the look on your face.”

My face wasn’t all she could see. “Good­win isn’t here, is he?”

My cousin shook her head.

It isn’t fun­ny,” I said. “What do you think’ll hap­pen if he ever finds me here like this?”

He won’t be none too happy.”

I pulled on my clothes. “What do you think will hap­pen to your sister?”

Zel­da shrugged. “She’d have to choose.”

I glared at her for a moment before stomp­ing out of the house, climb­ing into the Ford, and leav­ing my cousins behind.

* * *

A few weeks lat­er, my anger at Zel­da had dimin­ished enough that we took anoth­er shop­ping trip. At the gro­cery store she man­aged to tuck a cou­ple of oranges into her bra, but the peo­ple at the drug­store had cot­toned to our scheme. They watched her clos­er than they watched me, and I had to pay for the box of pro­phy­lac­tics I’d selected.

After­ward, we drove down to the riv­er and hung our legs over the side of the bridge. We threw orange peels into the riv­er far below and watched as the cur­rent sent them spin­ning away. We had almost fin­ished when Zel­da asked, “How come you nev­er do this with Alexandria?”

Do what?”

Zel­da looked at me. “You know, take her places,” she said. “Like this.”

Things ain’t like that with your sis­ter. She don’t want me for that. She’s got Goodwin.”

She just uses you for one thing.” Zel­da stuffed an orange slice in her mouth and bit. Juice drib­bled down her chin.

I ain’t the only one being used,” I said.

Zel­da put her hand on my thigh and looked at me in a way I’d nev­er seen before. Uncom­fort­able, I threw the last of my orange into the riv­er and pushed myself to my feet. “I need to get you home so I can go to work.”

* * *

After leav­ing Zel­da at Aunt Sarah’s house, I con­tin­ued on to mine. I need­ed to change shirts before I went to the restau­rant, and when I came back down­stairs, I heard my mama and her sis­ter talk­ing in the kitchen. They obvi­ous­ly didn’t know I was there, and I lis­tened from out­side the kitchen door.

Your boy ain’t right,” Aunt Sarah said. “He ain’t been right since—”

He wasn’t sup­posed to be there,” my mama said. “He was sup­posed to be in school.”

I had nev­er stopped to won­der how my mama had reached the still so quick­ly after the explo­sion. That she was near­by because she had arranged for it to hap­pen had nev­er crossed my mind. I lis­tened to her explain to Aunt Sarah how she had rigged the still, think­ing it would blow Uncle Mort to king­dom come and nobody would be the wis­er. She was get­ting back at him for what he had done to dad­dy and what he was still doing to his own fam­i­ly. When she found me half toast­ed by the explo­sion, she drove daddy’s Ford hell bent for leather down the moun­tain to the near­est hos­pi­tal, where the doc­tors did their best to patch me up.

I know you done it for me and the girls,” Aust Sarah said, “but it ain’t my fault you blew up your own kid.”

I couldn’t lis­ten to any more. I didn’t want to lis­ten to any more. 

* * *

You’re late again,” Martha Kuk­endahl said when I dragged into her restau­rant an hour lat­er, “and those dish­es ain’t wash­ing themselves.”

I glanced at the over­flow­ing sink. I wasn’t think­ing about work. I was think­ing about what my aunt had said. I said, “No, ma’am, they ain’t.”

Bad enough my boy is sweet on your cousin, I got to have you wash­ing my dish­es.” She crossed her arms and glared at me. “If it weren’t for your mama—”

My mama? What’s my mama ever done for you?”

Martha grabbed my good arm and pulled me into the pantry where she kept all the dry goods. “You mama ain’t nev­er told you what she done?”

She don’t tell me noth­ing,” I said. “She hard­ly ever even looks at me.”

Well, you ain’t noth­ing to look at, let me tell you.”

We stared at each oth­er for a moment while she made up her mind.

Twen­ty-five years ago your mama stole mon­ey from your grand­pap­py and bought me a bus tick­et out of town,” she said. “I come back three years lat­er with a baby, a wed­ding ring, and a sto­ry about a hus­band who died in a mine collapse.”

That made no sense to me. “Why would my mama buy you a bus ticket?”

She didn’t do it for me,” Martha said, “She done it for your Aunt Sarah. She’s always done every­thing for your Aunt Sarah.”

I under­stood that. I’d lost half my face because my mama was pro­tect­ing my Aunt Sarah.

Twen­ty-five years ago your Uncle Mort—he weren’t your uncle then ’cause you wasn’t born yet—put me in a fam­i­ly way. He wouldn’t have noth­ing to do with me after ’cause he was sweet on your Aunt Sarah and I was just a drunk­en one-nighter.”

My mama—?”

She done it to keep your aunt from know­ing what kind of man her hus­band was. Your Aunt Sarah knows what your mama done for me, but she don’t know why your mama done it.”

That means Good­win and Alexan­dria are—”

Too damn close, but I can’t do noth­ing about that,” she said. “Now get your ass out there and wash them dishes.”

* * *

I scrubbed dish­ware until well past clos­ing time. Then I helped Isa­iah the Gimp clean the ovens and the stove­tops and pre­pare the kitchen for break­fast the next morn­ing. When we fin­ished, I drove direct­ly to Aunt Sarah’s house. I want­ed to tell Alexan­dria and Zel­da what I had learned, and I found my cousins sit­ting in the kitchen.

Zel­da took one look at me and shook her head.

We can’t do it no more,” Alexan­dria said as held up her left hand to show me a dime-store engage­ment ring. “Good­win just left. I’m get­ting married.”

Mar­ried?” I asked as I strad­dled a kitchen chair. “Why?”

I’m preg­nant.”

Do you think it’s—?”

Doesn’t mat­ter,” my cousin insist­ed. “Good­win thinks it’s his.”

Before I could say any­thing else, Alexan­dria left the kitchen and then left the house. A moment lat­er, Zel­da said, “I’ll take care of you.”

But you’ve never—”

She smiled. “You’ll be my first,” she said, “and I won’t even close my eyes.”

I had so much to tell her, but maybe right then wasn’t the best time. She took my hand and led me upstairs.

Michael Brack­en (CrimeFic​tion​Writer​.com) is the Edgar and Shamus Award-nom­i­nat­ed author of 1,200-plus short sto­ries pub­lished in The Best Amer­i­can Mys­tery Sto­ries, The Best Mys­tery Sto­ries of the Year, and else­where. He is also the edi­tor of Black Cat Mys­tery Mag­a­zine and sev­er­al antholo­gies, includ­ing Antho­ny Award-nom­i­nat­ed The Eyes of Texas: Pri­vate Eyes from the Pan­han­dle to the Piney Woods. He lives and writes in Texas.




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FCAC reopened for YOUR submissions!

Yes, after a lengthy hia­tus, FCAC will be post­ing con­tent of inter­est from all cor­ners of the rur­al hard boiled land­scape again . Nev­er fear for my oth­er projects, Tough and LNP will con­tin­ue apace; I just need the burst-wide feel­ing FCAC gave and con­tin­ues to give me. Like, there's a gem of a sto­ry or two poems that just need a good place to live.

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Hello People!

Tonight I was a force of nature. 1336 words in 1:15. First night like that in ages. I also had enough ener­gy to clean out my cub­by­hole of poet­ry. I dis­cov­ered I can drink black cof­fee and be con­scious for 16 hours with­out sleep­ing half the time away. I can promise the two were unre­lat­ed! All by cut­ting carbs. Of course my blood sug­ar was still sky high, and there was a near-con­stant back­ground of almost-threat­en­ing voic­es, but still. It was a good day.

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