Conflict Resolution

Red pulled out of the lot a few minutes early and parked on a side street facing the exit gate, turned off the lights, and waited. Traffic was light for a Friday night. Red felt the heater blowing on his cold hands and clicked over to the country station.

After several minutes, he saw the green Volkswagen Jetta pull through the exit gate and take a right turn down McLoughlin. That was the car. Red waited for a beat, then peeled left through a red light, following the Jetta from several yards away, switching his lights back on.

Red followed the Jetta onto 17th, then up Powell and down 39th. He’d never tried to tail somebody like this; he’d only seen it on T.V., figuring he just had to keep a safe distance and try not to get noticed.

The Jetta took a right up a residential side street. Red slowed down, waited until the Jetta was up the block, then switched his lights back off and followed. Three blocks up he saw the Jetta back into the driveway of a small house.

Red parked on the street a block away and watched the man get out of the car, grab his lunch pail, jacket, keys, and go into the house. Red just sat there, quietly listening to Waylon Jennings on the radio, trying to figure out exactly what he was going to do.

It was a little after ten. Two hours had gone by of him sitting there. The lights were off in the house, there was no traffic, and nobody was out on the street. He put on some rubber gloves, put on his hoodie and wool-knit cap, and pulled out some cutting shears from the trunk of his car, being careful to make as little noise as possible.

He crawled under the Jetta, staring at its underside, searching with the small penlight. He laid there, confused, looking for the brake line. Should have googled it first, he thought. Should have googled “Volkswagen Jetta brake line.” He could see the oil plug, the catalytic converter, the control arms. Those were the parts that he knew. He couldn’t find any kind of line that would be a brake line.

Frustrated, he scooted out from under the car and quietly went back to his car. He thought, don’t get mad, get even. It was something he’d heard before but wasn’t sure where. Probably on T.V, or maybe from one of his brothers.

He went to his trunk again and grabbed a small pry-bar that he’d used on some construction jobs. He walked, faster now, over to the Jetta, and tried to pry the gas cap open. He figured it would just take a shirt soaked in gasoline to blow the damn thing up.

Red was starting to sweat, frantically trying to pop the gas cap.

He saw the porch light go on and the front door swung open.

“Who’s there?” said a man’s voice.

The man walked over to the driveway and looked at his car. As he came around the other side, Red came up behind him and hit him in the head with the pry-bar. The man fell and a pool of blood began to puddle around his head. Red kicked him a few times, afraid he might wake up and make noise.

“Oh jeez,” said Red. He put his finger under the man’s nose and felt air. Red sighed in relief.

It took some maneuvering for Red to back his car up to where the man was lying and to get him into the trunk.

When the man came to he was tied up in Red’s basement with his mouth taped shut.

“You shouldn’t have yelled at me, Gary,” said Red. He put some beans and water out and said, “You scream, I’m gonna wail on you,” and watched Gary eat.

Back at work, the boss asked the boys, “Where’s Gary?”

Nobody knew.

“Maybe he’s in anger management,” said Red. Some of the guys laughed.

One said, “He’s been pissing everyone off lately.”

“Sure has,” said another. Back in Red’s basement, Gary had fallen asleep. He wouldn’t wake back up.


Molly

Molly Stewart was an angelic British child: rosy apple cheeks and cascading auburn curls and at five years of age, was the pride of her parents.

The Stewarts were an average upper middle class family. Mr. Stewart was the owner of a thriving hardware business, who often worked past eight o’clock in the evening and spent little time during the week with Molly. Mrs. Stewart, an attractive woman, taught at a nearby elementary school often bringing home grading that occupied much of her evenings.

Little Molly, being a precocious child, would, more often than not, keep to herself during school recess time. When the other children were playing in groups or running in every which direction, she preferred to stand aside and observe their activities. She felt quite complete staying within her own thoughts.

Her bedroom too was her place of sanctuary and she did well occupying herself after school and in the evenings what with television and a bedroom packed with all manner of enriching opportunities. She played quietly and maintained a neat and tidy room that often gained praise from her adoring parents.

She fed and watered her pet mice, Bubble and Squeak each evening, was read to before bed, never going to sleep without a tender moment from both mummy and daddy. Her joyful and level demeanor gave no obvious clues or forewarning of deeper waters.

Squeak, the older of her two mice, was a grayish, off-white little fellow with bright red eyes and was now about two years old. He lived in the safety of a fish tank filled with clean pine shavings and plenty of food and water. Bubble, stayed busy shredding cardboard toilet tissue tubes was a replacement for another that had died suddenly sometime a little over a year ago. Bubble.

 All in all, it was a happy environment for the two little guys.

It was one lovely spring day when Molly was in her room coloring when she became distracted by Squeak’s chittering. She watched him for some time before reaching into a desk drawer retrieving a length of cotton string onto which she deftly tied a slip knot as she’d seen her father do many times before at his store.

Removing Squeak from the tank, she placed the string around his tiny neck, being careful not to make it too tight, then walked him about the desk as if he were a puppy on a walk in the park. She turned him this way and that but tired of Squeak’s halting response to her guidance and, after a brief moment, lifted Squeak up by the cord. Because he was so light and agile, he was able to swing himself on the cord and climb to her hand which brought a smile to her cherubic face.

With Squeak, now in her hand, she removed the cord from about his neck, turning him so she could see his bright red eyes and as she gently stroked his head, she began to squeeze him so that he could not take the slightest breath. Holding him close so as to see him all the better, she smiled her sweet little smile as Squeak’s now bulging eyes, began to show distress.

When Squeak’s eyes grew still and blank, she smoothed his fur and returned him to the fish tank.

“Mummy… mummy come here,” she called out in a tone that was sure to make her mother come quickly. “Mummy, something is wrong with Squeak, he’s not playing anymore,” she said to her mother with tears welling in her little eyes.

Mrs. Stewart looked at Squeak through the glass, removed the mesh from the top of the tank and, using a tissue, lifted the lifeless Squeak out.

“Oh my dear, he must have just passed on… he’s still quite warm,” she said in her most consoling voice as she took her daughter in her free arm to comfort her.

“You must understand that everything that is alive must eventually die.”

“Even people?” asked Molly.

“Yes my dear… even people must eventually pass on.”

“Even you and daddy?” she asked.

And, as her mother held her ever so comfortingly, Molly’s bright little eyes considered the many possibilities.


Love and Death at the Red Onion.

“What do murderers look like Professor Crawford?”

Natalie Crawford turned in her seat at the front of the bus to stare at her class. The twelve students were juniors at the local college. Natalie’s course on “Advanced Studies of the Criminal Mind” was required for the Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology that each sought. But one student in particular, seemed fixated on fleshing out the contours of those who had taken the life of another human being.

“Well, Cora if we knew what a murderer looked like we might be able to get one step ahead of someone planning a murder, or someone capable of killing in a moment of passion or lack of compassion. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to create a test for that.”

Cora Bradford considered the answer as the bus pulled up to the penitentiary entrance. Built in 1998 it was a Super-Max facility housing 848 of the most violent prisoners in the state. The students would meet with the warden, prison psychiatrist and three men convicted of murder who had agreed to being interviewed. The class stared out the bus windows at the guard tower where a uniformed man with a rifle stood peering down at them.

Once inside the office Natalie and the students went through the metal detector and checked purses and book bags. They were then escorted to Warden Dan Dunsford’s office for a two hour question and answer session on how convicted murderers were handled at the “Onion” as the prison was known. At noon they met for lunch with some of the staff.

The warden guided the group into the large, state of art kitchen area, where meals were prepared three times a day for over eight hundred inmates and the staff that tended to them. He explained that a new program trained prisoners to work in the restaurant industry upon release.

The group noticed two prisoners in a corner of the prep area putting together a two tiered cake and arranging plates, cups, plastic forks and spoons and ice cream containers on a cart.

“Do you celebrate birthdays with parties and cakes?” asked a wide eyed student.

The warden smiled.

“No, but today is unusual. A court granted a prisoner the right to marry a woman he has known for some time and allowed for cake and ice cream after the ceremony.”

 “Oh yeah. That guy that killed at least 14 or 15 people all over the U.S.” another student offered.

The students had moved closer to look at the cake and continued to discuss whether it was right to allow for such an event for a convicted serial killer. They noted the prisoner was even getting his own small container of peppermint ice cream as a gift from his bride.

The three murderers who were to be interviewed arrived in the kitchen. They shuffled by in shackles, whistling and catcalling to Natalie and the female students, diverting everyone’s attention. Eventually, the students joined them in a conference room.

At 3:30, with the field trip completed, Natalie and the students boarded their bus and rolled out the gate just as an ambulance roared in. Everyone except Cora turned to watch. At 4:30, pulling into the school parking lot the radio music was interrupted:

“At approximately 3:00 this afternoon, convicted serial killer Carl Courtland died of respiratory failure from an apparent overdose of drugs, shortly after marrying his longtime fiancé. A source that did not wish to be identified said a note, found taped to the bottom of the victim’s special order ice cream container read:

“Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.”

Don Corleone

Everyone sat silently for a few minutes and then Natalie guided the students off the bus.

Cora Bradford, the granddaughter of one of Courtland’s victims killed eighteen years before, said goodbye and headed to the city bus stop. As she walked, Cora caught a glimpse of her reflection in a passing car window and wondered again: “What does a murderer look like?”


New Man on the Hill

It was dusk on a Tuesday, and in the woods behind the stadium Terence raced down the path on his silver mountain bike. He was dressed all in black: black baseball cap, black North Face jacket, black jeans, and black sneakers two sizes too big for his feet. Charlo said they belonged to another boy in the gang, and were the closet fit he could find.

Terence had double-knotted the laces, but his insoles kept slapping against his heels when he raised the bike pedals. He was fourteen years old and had already gotten mugged for his stash. To repay the debt, Charlo from Druid Hill Gang told Terence to shoot one of the guys in Paper Crew, a new gang that had started dealing coke on the east side of the stadium.

He saw few cars and fewer people on Greevy Road. Terence spotted his target two blocks down the street and hid his bike behind an oak grove. When the Paper Crew guy passed him on the sidewalk, Terence sprinted from cover and pointed the sawn-off shotgun at his back.

“Bitch,” he said, and pulled the trigger.

• • •

When he returned to the convenience store, Terence did not find Charlo but Charlo’s boss, Washington.

“Charlo made a mistake,” Washington said, and Terence took a seat in one of the white plastic chairs. “He set up a job without permission . . . You bring a change of clothes?”

Terence shook his head.

“Blood on those sneakers—anyway, they’re too big. Your mother living in that half-way house?”

“Out last week,” Terence said. “They gave her one of those apartments on Chestnut.”

Washington said, “You did good calling HHS. I mean, for her beating you. She knows you’re serious, not to be pushed around like a boy, and in the meantime you and I have gotten closer.” He placed his hand on Terence’s shoulder and gently squeezed it.  “I knew your father. Jesus, he died in a prison riot . . . He was good but reckless. If you can be good and careful, there’s no limit for you on the Hill. You ever been out county? A phone and a place to sleep for a few weeks. You’ll pay off the debt, so let’s forget about Charlo, huh?”

• • •

In the apartment on Chestnut Street, his mother sat hunched over a gray formica table in the kitchen.

“How was jail?” Terence said.

“They feed you, don’t they?”

“I’m sleeping here tonight.”

“Why tell me?”

Terence saw there was a sofa in the living room and he walked over and stretched out on it.

“Terry,” she said, “why did you tell them I hit you?”

“You did.”

“I did, but not like what you said. You shouldn’t talk to those people.”

“I’m leaving Thursday,” Terence said. “Out county.”

“Oh, you’ll be a nice boy in the country.”

“Bitch.”

His mother laughed and said, “The blood on that jacket is yours? You’re too much of your father, Terry. Soon you’ll be gone. You’ll be gone earlier than that

bastard . . . So what, if I hit you? What else do I do with this son . . . You came from a hole in the ground.”

“They said Dad was reckless.”

“Sure they did. And what did someone tell me at the half-way house? The kid who robbed you was Charlo’s nephew.”

“So?”

 “They own you now.”

Terence got up and slapped his mother. Her head shook and she staggered back to the table.

He walked upstairs to what was supposed to be his bedroom.

He would ask Washington about Charlo’s nephew.

At one in the morning he got a call.

“You wear a small, right?” Washinton said. “Twenty-eight waist? Don’t worry, we got a pair of black Nikes—this time, size nine.”

“Did, uh, did—”

“You’re going out county. You want clothes or what?”

“It’s just—”

“Quick.”

Terence looked down at the broken gutters on Chestnut Street: “I’m a twenty-seven.”

“Tell you what—a belt.”

He left the house in a three o’ clock van.


Litany for Your Neighborhood Watch

That’s your house? You don’t leave it at night without the porchlight burning, and that sticker in the window that says beware of owner, means beware of gun, lies cause all that’s in your top-drawer are balled up tighty-wighties? Beware of what, then? Beware of you who ducks down the alley, when you see him walking that slobbering dog stretching taut its chain?

Beware of you who loiters outside his yard at night, nervous where shadows pool beneath the orange tree, eyeballing the bicycle on its side that you swear belonged to you, would swear it to God if that same claim did not prove he was strong enough to take it? What else he got in there? That stereo missing, replaced by the cold air from the open window, when you got home from your date? Think he got Jimmy’s Dayton rims? Junie’s girl’s cherry? Just what-all fine-ass things is he trashing?

Don’t he stir in the dark on his porch? You see his red-tipped cigarette arc over the silver-wet grass? One night soon, won’t you break down, break into his home, like he’s done to yours? But for now do you hear the screendoor open and shut him safe inside? You eyeball the dog curled on the porch, mangy, yellow, cropped ears and tail, no end or beginning—doesn’t the eye pulse like a fly’s egg? Just take stock of all the wrongs been done, right? You know there are other thugs like this one but you’ve made this one yours, and don’t he belong to you as much as what he’s stolen used to?

Stop asking questions. You even begin to ask a question, you already know the answer: wait. Take stock. Just you take some stock. As you stroll home empty-handed, tally all the losses. As you pass the neighborhood-watch sign, planted just before your yard, go on, jump up and, for now, slap that thing’s cold face.


Lazarus Party

They’d died three times in the last six months.  Billy brought them back.

Tonight’s score was hard won, evidenced by the blood stain on the lapel of Trina’s jean jacket. 

“You were supposed to scare him!” she’d cried, Billy dragging her and the contents of the John’s wallet out of the alley.

“Not everyone gets to come back,” he’d replied, not looking over his shoulder towards the expanding pool of blood beneath the man in pleated blue jeans and a tan windbreaker.

Slim had stayed in the car, a boxy ‘84 Toyota with peeling blue paint.  When he saw Billy hauling a sobbing Tina behind him, he fired the ignition and reached behind to unlock the door.

Billy shoved Tina in first, then slid in beside her and rifled through the wallet. 

“Close to a hundred.  Lazarus party tonight!”

They’d all met at the shooting gallery six months ago, back when Slim was sober enough for a straight job fixing cars and Tina was with him instead of Billy.  Slim and Tina were from Sacramento, but couldn’t remember why they’d left.  Now, they were too poor and strung out to go back.  Billy was from Tennessee.  He’d come to the Bay to work the docks in Oakland.  He didn’t get on with the Union, but managed nonetheless.

After a mechanic found Slim asleep in the bathroom for the third time, their heroin money disappeared, and Tina gravitated towards big Billy.  Billy taught them all how to die, and return.

“Who’s Lazarus?” Tina asked the first time.  She’d asked a lot of questions after Billy told them he’d traded their heroin money for something else.  Why couldn’t he be satisfied with heroin?

“Man who died,” replied Billy, “and came back.  In the bible.”

Fentanyl was for broken femurs and childbirth, and hit a hundred times harder than heroin.  Before Billy, they’d avoided it.  He’d shown them how to smoke it, and how to use the magic of the Narcan inhaler when it hit too hard.  It ended the high, but it brought you back.

Now they had a routine.  They sat in a circle inside the SRO, and Billy tore up squares of tinfoil.  He lined up the Narcan inhalers to the side.  Slim picked one up.

“These things expire?” he asked, holding it up to the desk lamp on the floor.

Billy shrugged, and tapped out a couple grains onto a square of aluminum.  It didn’t take much.  He handed it to Slim.

“You first.”

Billy held the blue flame under the aluminum, and Slim inhaled, immediately falling back against the stained grey carpet.  After five minutes without movement, Tina grabbed one of the inhalers.  Billy slapped her hand.

“Not yet.”

Three more minutes staring at Slim’s unmoving chest, then Billy nodded to Tina, who tore open the package and sprayed the fine mist into Slim’s nose.  Was it casting death out, or pushing life in?

For a moment, nothing.  Then the muscles in Slim’s neck tensed.  He lifted his head, groggy.

“Nice to see you,” said Billy.  “Not everyone gets to come back.”  Tina reached out for the lighter, but Billy turned his back to her and lit his own.  “Don’t end it too soon,” he said.

Twice the size of Slim, Billy inhaled deeply, smiled, then collapsed to the floor.  Tina and Slim stared down at him, waiting.  He didn’t move. 

Slim began to unwrap the second Narcan inhaler, but Tina put her hand on his wrist.  She reached over and picked up the John’s wallet, which had fallen out of Billy’s leather jacket.  A Sears photo of a couple kids with slicked-back blonde hair and white shirts smiled inside a plastic holder.  She opened the billfold, revealing a thick wad of cash.

“Looks more like 600,” she said. 

Slim whistled.  “That’s enough for weeks.”

“Enough to go back to Sac,” Tina whispered, choking back tears.

Billy’s breathing shallowed, and his cheeks turned grey.  Tina looked at Slim, and they both looked at the money.  A silent calculation.

Tina packed up the roll of aluminum, then the wallet and Billy’s lighter. “Not everyone gets to come back,” she said, turning off the lamp on the floor. 


Valley Girl

Next door, that skank Isabella is at it again. Four o’clock on a Tuesday night, by which I mean Wednesday morning, and she’s crowing to Jesus while she gets plowed to high heaven. Bad enough her bedsprings creak. Bad enough her headboard slaps the wall separating our studios like a fishmonger slapping his wares against a rock. The worst part is I know damn well who’s hoeing her rows, and that’s my brother, Tony Romero, born at San Francisco General and raised on 47th Avenue in the Sunset District, just like me.

            “Some of us have to work.” I fling a platform at the wall, knocking the dead zinnia off my bookshelf. I’m five-one, but my Danskos add a few inches. The fifth graders at the remedial school where I teach give a person no quarter, and if I don’t get my shuteye, I’ll be in deep doo-doo. Hotshot freelancer Isabella has time for a roll in the hay on a weeknight.

They knock it off, but they’re giggling.

“Take it easy, Julie,” my brother says, “willya?”

The small humiliations my brother has visited upon my head over the years seem mild in comparison to the fact he got my neighbor’s digits the other week when he was helping me move my bookshelves, and now he’s got her open like a Quik Stop. My brother waits tables at one of those places on Fisherman’s Wharf that sells tourists chowder in bread bowls, so he doesn’t have a real job, either.

“I hope you catch a yeast infection,” I yell.

That shuts them up, but after a few minutes, the bedsprings start again.

I pull the pillow over my head and squeeze my eyes shut so tightly I start to cry, wishing chlamydia on both of them.

Isabella’s a Valley Girl, but she’s no bimbo like in Clueless. She’s from Visalia, a cow-town south of Fresno that might as well be Oklahoma, or so I learn next day when I lift her mail. The locks on the boxes are broken, and the place stinks of mold, but I’m paying through the nose to live here since the city demolished the overpass, and the neighborhood started to change. Pretty, successful, a sweet contract gig with The Gap, men lining up to fill her bed, Isabella is everything I wish I was, so I hate her. She doesn’t even kill her houseplants, or so I can tell from peeking in her window, spying on her perfect life with her two calico cats.

“Hi Julie,” she says when I pass her walking up Hayes Street with a bottle of kombucha and her yoga mat under her arm. I’m buying Tilex. I snarl.

Looking smug, Tony shows up late to Mother’s Day brunch. At the buffet, I grab his hand, sniff.

“Been dipping your fingers in that fish chowder?” I say.

“Very funny.” He slurps a canape. He’s in his waiter pants and a leather jacket. “Maybe if you got someone to unclog your pipes, you wouldn’t be so concerned about me.”

“Doing Isabella later?” I ask, wide-eyed, like I don’t already know that’s over.

“After work.” He grins.

A class act, my brother. When we were younger, his meathead friends joked about resting their beer bottles on my head, but he never defended me. He still doesn’t know he loves me best.

His phone rings, and his face lights up—it’s her. But something’s wrong. He doesn’t have to tell me what she’s saying, or what she found in that apartment.

He pockets his phone, points at me. “Someone broke into Isabella’s place. They wrote her parents a letter. What do you know?”

I bat my eyelashes. Those houseplants didn’t escape my fifth graders, the best young B&E men west of the Cascades. The cats didn’t, either. Now that her strict Jehovah’s Witness parents know the details, it’s kaput for her and Tony. He’ll be mine forever.

“It’s for the best,” I tell him.

“I loved her.” He’s crying.

Oh, please.

Wait till she drinks the kombucha spiked with Tilex in her fridge. “You weren’t the only one.” I shrug. “You know how those Valley Girls get around.”


Trouble: Chunked, Covered & Country

Miller savored a bite of his patty melt. Yankee comics mocked it, but they never understood The Waffle House’s context in southern culture. Also, for a simple fare, it tasted so fine, especially after a job.

He’d been two hours on the road after the split from taking down an Outfit owned Nashville record label. His boss went by a different name on each job – Porter, Walker, McClain- and loved hitting The Outfit. He used Miller for southern jobs. Probably because of his charming drawl or being a dead shot with a Colt .45 three inch. Anyway, the job went smooth and his cut was sweeter than Aunt Betty’s ice tea. Still, he was tired and hungry.

Then that yellow neon sign appeared out of the night, welcoming him like it always had; after football games and late-night partying in high school. The first meal he ate, back in the States from the Sand Box, and the first stop after a five-year stretch. It was his oasis and this night proved special, limited time blueberry waffles.

He thought about them for dessert as he plowed through his hash browns, chunked, covered, and country; diced cheese, ham, and gravy for the uninitiated. The boss always needed a woman after a job. All Miller asked for was plates covered with gravy and syrup.

He dined with the classic 3A.M. crowd. A Long-haul driver read his paper, four stools down, drinking his fifth cup of coffee. Some college buddies in the booth behind him sobered up over plates covering the entire table. A nurse worked a crossword puzzle in her booth, deflated from her shift. Then the quintessential lone traveler in battered cowboy hat and handlebar mustache. When you walked through the doors, you entered an Edward Hopper painting of a Johnny Cash song.

His waitress, Dawn, put his check down.

“I’m far from done.”

She graced him a working-class angel’s smile. “I’m here all night.”

“I might out last you.”

She noticed the full duffel bag on the stool next to him. “Always bring your laundry?”

“Just robbed a bank.”

“You think ladies will believe anything.”

The flirting and the vibe broke with two assholes storming in, one with a shotgun, the other swinging around a .38.

Miller sized them up. Both tightly wound, no aiming at anyone or asking for the manager. Amateur night. Surprised they weren’t sporting Born To Lose tattoos. Hell, they were robbing a Waffle House. Didn’t they know, no shirt, no shoes, no knuckle-heads?

Thirty-eight finally pointed the pistol at Dawn. “Register.”

She did as she was told, taking herself out of the line of fire. Miller read an energy in their eyes that told him they never flipped a trigger. The Three-inch strapped between his T-shirt and loose flannel one in a pancake holster practically tingled on his back.

Thirty-eight kept the gun on her. “Everybody else, hands on the table.”

Miller followed the order. “This going to take long?”

“Where do you have to be at this time of night?”

“Just trying to get back home.”

“Hand over that bag and maybe you can.”

Miller took his chance, kicking the bag onto the black and white tiles. Both robbers looked down at it. He tore out the Colt, grouping two shots into .38’s chest. He yelled at the college bros to get down as he dived into the booth behind them. Shotgun blasted off tearing into the seat. Miller popped up and blew away what little brains Shotgun had out the back of his head.

Only the ringing of spent bullets hummed through The Waffle House until one of the college kids peered up and said, “Cool.”

Miller got up, retrieved the bag, took out a stack of bills, put it next to his ticket, told Dawn to keep the change, and walked out.

Everything would be fine. The plates on the truck were switched and he could dump it in a Tupelo chop shop and pick up something else. Still, he felt bad.

Oh well, there was a Waffle House in Tupelo. He’d get his blueberry on there.


Fists and Principles

Jimmy Gallagher did not throw fights. It was one of the few rules he lived by.

He never wore suits off the rack.

He never slept with married women.

And he never threw fights.

But he drank. And he gambled. And he drank while he gambled. So he owed money to Frank Diamond.

“How are we gonna settle this, Jimmy?” Frank sat behind his desk in the back of the Three Kings Lounge.

“I’ve got a good feeling about a horse,” Jimmy offered. He put a cigarette to his lips and searched himself for a lighter.

“Your good feelings are bad for my digestion. Besides, all bets are off for you until you get square.”

“Well that’s the door shut. Do I see a window opening?”

Frank struck a match and leaned over the desk. Jimmy met him half way and took the offering. Frank wasn’t a bad guy, just a little serious when it came to money. The Shylock’s Curse.

“Whalen’s been asking about you. He wants to try his luck in the ring.”

“Whalen’s tough.”

“He’s tough, but he’s no Jumpin’ Jimmy Gallagher.” Jimmy wasn’t so sure he was either. Frank went on. “I could get a lot of action for a fight like that. You take a dive and that would get you square and then some.”

“Not interested,” Jimmy said. Frank’s eyes got cold.

“I didn’t ask if you were interested.”

“Frank, I’ll mop the toilets in this joint before I take a dive. I wouldn’t dive if you put Jesus Christ in the ring with me, and I sure as shit won’t dive for Jack Whalen.” Jimmy let that sit for a minute. Frank leaned back in his chair.

“Then I’m gonna have to put you to work.”

“I ain’t afraid of work.”

Jimmy banged his meat hook fist on the tenement door. He could hear kids on the other side. That made him mad. The Polack opened the door in his shirtsleeves. The smell of cheap gin wafted off of him like gasoline fumes.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m a friend of Frank Diamond’s.”

“Oh.” The Polack had the good sense not to try to slam the door. One look and he could tell Jimmy could break it down with a huff and a puff.

“You have something for me?” Jimmy asked.

“Listen-”

“You listen,” Jimmy cut him off. “Either you give me something or I give you something. And you don’t want what I’ve got to give.” The Polack’s wife stepped into view inside the apartment. The kids were running around back there.

“Who’s at the door?!”

“Mind your business!” her husband shouted at her. She said something in Polish that sounded nasty and huffed off. The place was a sty.

This fucking bum. Jimmy gambled, sure. He owed money, okay. But he didn’t have a wife and kids to take care of. He wasn’t half in the bag during the work day. He wasn’t weak.

“What’s it gonna be?” Jimmy asked. The Polack twitched.

“I’ve got a little. It ain’t much.”

“A little’s a start.”

“It’s right here.” The Polack went inside and Jimmy followed. He went to a bureau. Jimmy saw him open a drawer with his left hand as his right hand disappeared. When he swung around with a bottle in his hand Jimmy was ready. He dodged the blow, easy. Jimmy hooked him in the small ribs. The man doubled over.

“You goddamn bum,” Jimmy said. “Make me do this.” Jimmy grabbed him by the face and lifted him upright. “Piss ass drunk with kids in the house.” Jimmy thumped him right in the liver. The Polack hit the floor and puked on Jimmy’s shoes. Jimmy kicked his ribs so hard he flipped onto his back. Jimmy put a foot on the man’s chest. He was about to get nasty when he saw the kids watching from the other room. Big eyes. Dirty faces.

It unmanned him.

“Don’t make me come back.” It wasn’t a threat. It was a plea. Jimmy got all the way to his Caddy when he realized his hands were shaking. It was ugly work. But Jimmy did not throw fights.


Leg Breakers

The moon rushed through a black sky like the headlight of a speeding train. Stars glittered like chunks of a broken wine bottle. An ominous silence roared.

Nick Hardin pulled the dark Grand Marquis behind a parked white Toyota. “What’s two nice guys like us doing in a neighborhood like this?” Nick asked.

They were in Coney Island near Sea Rise and Graveson. His partner, Large Louie Grillo, grinned and chomped on the Big Mac he was devouring.

Nick, a mean street fighter, and Louie, an ex pro wrestler, were leg-breakers for a Brooklyn loan shark.

“So far so good,” Nick said. “That’s fast Freddie’s car so he really must be in that dump across the street.”

“There’s nothing like a cunt rolling her squeeze when she thinks he’s cheating on her,” Louie said.

They got out of the car. Three tough looking black dudes leaning against the wall of a dive bar passed a toke and glanced their way. 

Nick said, “You dudes mess with that car and I’ll kill you.” 

The black guys sized up Nick and Louie and nodded.

Down the street Nick noticed an SUV, motor running. Nearby, two men were trying to get into a parked blue sedan.

Nick and Louie entered a rundown four-story apartment building. The inside smelled like sour piss. Dim spectrals of light vomited from a 40-watt bulb protected by a rusty mesh helmet. At the top of each flight of stairs Louie huffed and puffed.

Nick pounded on door four-one. “Open up Freddie or we’ll kick the fucking door in.”

No response. Nick kicked door four-one. It didn’t budge.

Louie nudged Nick aside. “You Ukrainians got no oomph. How’d that Kletchko ever get to be heavyweight champ? Marciano would have killed him.”

Nick smiled.

Louie gave the door a shoulder block. The hinges creaked and gave. They switched on a light and saw Freddie lying on a worn carpet. A wet red ribbon meandered from ear to ear.

“What a way to get out of paying us the twenty grand we came to collect,” Louie said.   

Nick went to a window, pushed aside a dirty curtain and looked out. The black dudes were gone but down the street those two guys were still trying to unlock the blue sedan. Nick saw a cockroach skitter across the windowsill.

Louie eyed a half-eaten pizza on the table. “You think that’s any good.”

“You fucking crazy?”

“Just wondering.”

Nick scratched his head. “Freddie borrows ten grand from Vince and now he’s dead. What’s that tell you?”                 

“That somebody whacked him.”

“It tells me Freddie was in on something over his head and got double crossed.”

Dust motes gyrated in the spare light as they ascended the stairs. Outside the moon glowed strange.

“I got an idea Freddie double-crossed his double crossers,” Nick said. “Let’s find out.”

They approached the two guys trying to unlock  the blue sedan. Up close, in the moonlight, Nick and Louie saw dirty faces and ragged beards.

“That’s not Freddie’s car,” Nick said.

The two guys faced Nick and Louie. “Freddie gave you assholes a wrong address,” Nick said. 

One of the men flashed a knife. Nick raised a Glock and shot the man once between the eyes. Blood and bits of brain splattered the hood of the blue sedan. The man staggered backwards and dropped. The other man showed a gun. Louie shot him in the chest with a .357.

“Get the car keys Freddie gave them,” Nick said. He went to the SUV. On the front seat he saw a yellow canvas gym bag. He opened it and saw stacks of bills. “Jackpot,” Nick said. “Freddie’s payoff, but for what?” Nick fingered the money. “At least thirty grand here.”

They ambled down the street to Freddie’s car, the white Toyota. Nick opened the trunk.

“Holy fuck,” Louie said. “It’s loaded with plastic explosives and detonators.” 

Printed on the brick-sized packets was one word, “Semtex”.  “That prick Freddie got out of the drug business and was dealing with terrorists,” Nick said. “We should go back up there and make sure he’s dead.”

“I go up those stairs again and an undertaker carries me down.”

Nick laughed. “What kind of an American are you?”

“I can’t help my country dead.”

In the Grand Marquis Nick said. “We’ll give Vince his twenty g’s, minus our twenty percent, and keep the rest.” Louie nodded. “Maybe we can stop for a pizza. I’m fucking starved.”


Donutland Blairs Ferry Road, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1996

Two elderly women approach the register. The place smells of oil and sugar and burned coffee. A stain from a spilled drink stretches out from under one of the orange plastic-covered booth tables. A community college student in a ballcap and sweatshirt and emerging beard studies from a biology textbook at a swivel chair facing the window. He looks out to see a pick-up truck, a brown Toyota, pull up to a spot, the afternoon sun gleaming off a corner of its dented bumper.

The teenaged girl at the register in a Donutland cap, alone on her shift, says they are out of crullers. The women settle on dark-cherry flavored donuts, which are colored bright pink. They bring their donuts and coffee to one of the booths and chat. The driver of the pick-up gets out. The community college student leaves his investigation of the Krebs’ cycle to see the driver’s face shadowed by the hood of his green sweatshirt.

The driver pulls the hood to reveal his ski mask as he enters and sets off the door chimes. He points his gun, a chambered pistol, at the teenaged girl. She holds up her hands, then brings them down to empty all the cash into a waxed-paper bag intended for donuts. As she hands the bag over, the two elderly women are on the floor, hands over their heads, and the glasses of one of the women have landed on the tile floor and one of the lenses is cracked. The community college student is also on the floor. He asks, “You okay, ma’am?” The man in the ski mask says, “Shut up. Stay down.”

The teenaged girl’s mother once used a pistol to scare away her father. He never came back. She presses the button for the police.

A squad car arrives. The would-be burglar turns to leave. He turns back to the counter. The teenaged girl stands with her hands over her head. He fires the pistol, putting a large hole into the plastic slots displaying soft drink prices. The girl yells. She ducks. The police then run in and jump the man and disarm him. On his way down he fires another shot hitting the community college student in the calf.

The student misses his biology test. His classmates send flowers and balloons. A few meet him at the hospital with a white frosted cake. He is a hero in Cedar Rapids. The incident becomes a story of how he called the police when it was the girl at the register who had pushed the button. The warped truth of the incident dismays the biology instructor at the community college, along with the hassle of rescheduling the test for the student, who never takes it. The instructor heard it firsthand—he didn’t do anything but be polite to the elderly women and sustain a gunshot wound. The instructor passes the student out of exasperation.

The teenaged girl takes classes from the same teacher before doing pre-med at the University of Iowa. She continues working at the Donutland. Another job—McDonalds, KFC—would be as risky. When the chimes ring her pulse quickens. She feels light-headed. She presses the button. The police stop coming.

Another burglary happens at the Donutland the year the Donutland is to close. There is barely any money in the register this time, but the burglars succeed, and the girl is elsewhere. She is now a young woman and is graduating from the University of Iowa.

The woman gets her medical degree from Columbia and works in an emergency room in Queens, New York. Her first night on the job she treats a young man with a gunshot wound in his thigh. She removes the shell with pincers and drops it into a dish, a little dull metal piece with flecks of blood. She still balks when she hears door chimes. She has even disabled the doorbell on her apartment building door. It’s difficult for friends and her aunt who lives nearby to get into her place to visit her. The pain of the victim is familiar. The gunshot wound is also hers


Church of War

My eyes strained to adjust to sudden nightfall. The church’s cross stood sillhouetted against the last ditch rays of a gorgeous sunset; both of which I knew I didn’t deserve.

Why was I volunteering for a non-profit when I was broke, two steps from destitute? I had my reasons. It was my first teaching gig, facilitating a writing class for local Vets and Active Military to help heal the wounds of war. I’ve never served, but I had a hole blown in my spiritually bankrupt soul that I was pouring booze into all week. All it did was sink me deeper into my own trenches. Perhaps it wasn’t the most ethical choice to bee-line from Happy Hour to a church, where we were gonna have group exorcism with guys who had really seen Hell On Earth.

But like I said, I had my reasons.

I walked in, clipping my shoulder on the door jamb. I was impressed they had all beat me there, their instilled military punctuality ahead of schedule. Until I looked at the clock on the wall and saw I was actually twenty minutes late.

I felt like a fraud, the way they all displayed their own heroic Hellscapes by regions on their Ballcaps of Honor – Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan. Then the other Scorched Earth campaigns – Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom. I imagined the complexity of guts, glory and deception that these men represented. To be both hero and pawn for our country that couldn’t keep its tongue out of a beehive.

And who was I? Some spoiled brat that could have everything going for him if he hadn’t created a guilt-ridden Hell with his own two hands, that’s who. But I had found my people, at least for what I came for. If anyone would understand, it would be these compromised men.

I proposed we all dig deep, exhume every ghost that woke us up at night screaming.

“Hello, my name is Bradley Miller, and I’d like to start by saying ‘thank you’ for your service,” I said. I was met with a couple nods of acknowledgment while the others just stared a thousand miles past me.

“I’d like us to start with a prompt I’ve prepared. I’d like us to explore regret. What’s the darkest, most remorseful thing you’ve experienced that you’ve never gotten to dissect?”

Nearly everyone communicated reluctance, if not full denouncement of the exercise. I realized I had forgotten the most important part.

“And by the way, this is all confidential. Let us pledge that none of this will leave the room. You have my word.”

Mr. Vietnam was the shotcaller of this tight-knit group. He chided the others, reminding them that I was the one in charge, to do as I say. Show the kid some respect, he said.

Heads went down as pens scratched pads. I was an outsider, but grateful for this opportunity. Maybe this was all I needed to get a good night’s sleep.

It was gonna be fine. I was convinced whatever these guys were going to share – war crimes, hasty decisions that cost their buddy’s lives, maybe – all bound to be far worse than my one-time moral hiccup last week. Especially considering larger body counts these men have under their belts.

I was the first one finished. To give them the confidence to share, I went first.

I let it all out – what I did to the guy, where his body was now, what I did with the gun. What he did to cross me to justify the permanence of my knee-jerk vigilante justice.

But they went rogue on me.

One guy wrote about putting his dog to sleep. Another guy wrote about cheating on his wife. Another wrote about never seeing his kids and some other guy just wrote about his boring morning that day.

While Mr. Afghanistan recalled the time he nearly blew his own brains out, I saw Mr. Vietnam with his back turned, talking on his cell, urgently relaying the address of the church.

I jumped out of my seat, lunging for his phone as he swung at me, connecting with my nose.

Maybe it was Mr. Desert Storm that whacked me with his cane while I held my nose to stop bleeding, but the flashing lights made a blurring strobe before everything went black.