Future Repeat Offender

I can’t breathe, wrapped in all this thick, bland plastic. Really I’d always been suffocating, I just didn’t know it before. Not until last night. When Audrey showed me what I’d been missing, with a little help from Ray.

I have no idea where Audrey is now, I only know where she isn’t. I’ve managed to figure out Ray’s location, and I know what he’s not. Not anymore. This room is full of tape-sealed bags and E-Z-Stor boxes of all shapes and sizes, but no Audrey. Uniformed people—mostly men, the occasional woman—walk up and down beyond the heavy wire mesh that keeps all of us evidence under lock and key. They haven’t yet cleaned the blood from my flat, bright face or my sharp edges, but then I suppose if they had then I wouldn’t be evidence.

In my past life, I dealt exclusively with fruits and vegetables. I don’t want to dwell on it, but even before Audrey woke me up I can kind of remember being jealous of my bigger, bolder siblings and their superior air of visceral glamour. They rarely spoke to me, but when they did it was usually to rub my pointy little nose in all their adventures with skin and meat and bone. Runt of the litter, they called me. It’s no fun being looked down on, treated like dirt. Once upon a time we were all atoms in the same boiling, shining soup, and I had no choice about what mould I got poured into. I cut, just like them, only on a smaller scale.

Audrey mostly used me to peel and chop, but sometimes—on those increasingly regular days when she was worried Ray would come home in one of his pitch-black moods, buzzing with bad temper, all his rage glowing white in his fists—she’d craft delicately sculpted flowers and birds from tomatoes or radishes or cucumbers, all kept on ice till her burning stressball of a husband bounced through the door. Sometimes those exquisite little works of art calmed him down—at least enough that he wasn’t too rough with her—but sometimes they made it worse, and her reward for what we’d created was chipped teeth and clumps of copper-coloured hair pulled from her scalp, the sunset-purple corona of battered blood vessels framing her faded blue eyes.

Last night he came home early, when she and I were in the middle of discovering the cute little bears that lived inside rough chunks of crimson and golden beets she’d boiled up earlier that afternoon. Audrey had been chattering happily to herself about Michelangelo and humming a pretty tune while we carved. The music died when Ray got home, making it no secret that he’d had an especially bad day at the office.

If any of these uniforms ask me, I’ll tell them: I genuinely don’t think she meant to do it—well, not at first, but I guess I don’t need to tell them that. But I didn’t do anything to stop her, so I don’t know how much they’ll believe me. And oh—that first taste of Ray’s hot insides, surging up through the artery in his neck that parted surprisingly easily beneath the edge of my blade. Whoa. I had no idea.

Divine.

And so much better than the bitter grey jelly inside his eyeballs a few minutes later, I can tell you that. By the time Audrey got it together to call 911 her hands were slippery wet, and shaking so badly she needed to place me down on the countertop, blood dripping quietly from my tip while those small and tangy bears stared at me open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Like bears are really that innocent. Anyway, after that it was all bright lights and white noise, and here I am.

I hope I’m not stuck in here too long. I hope they take it easy on Audrey—I mean, she hasn’t had the easiest life, and Ray was a huge dick. But you know what I hope most of all? I really hope I get to do all this again. And soon.

I feel like I’ve finally found my calling, you know what I mean?


Favors

Whenever Denny called it was important.  These days the only time my phone rang is when shit hit the fan and it’s gotten to a point where I’d prefer telemarketers.  Denny though? I’m always going to pick up. We went to kindergarten together and I got a spot for him.  He talked quickly and I half listened.  While he outlined his problem, I read a magazine about muscle cars with tattooed broads on every page.  I didn’t know shit about cars, but I was trying to learn. The women helped.

“So, what do you think?” Denny asked.

“Repeat yourself.  Couldn’t hear ya,” I lied.

“I’m in the shit, Luke.  Plain and simple,” he said.

Denny isn’t married and he never will be.  He’s the kinda guy who after staring at a chair too long might find it fuckable.  Nothing is off limits. He described a variation of the same problem he always had.  Denny had a few too many by himself at home and decided to go out. Sure enough when morning came, he wasn’t alone in his bed.  I was happy for him right up until he shared who it was.

“Yeah, it was Roth,” he said.  

“Hopefully just his wife?” I asked.  

The silence meant it was Meg, Billy Roth’s little girl.  I mean she wasn’t that little, in her thirties, and a dime but that didn’t matter.  Billy Roth was connected in every state house from here to DC. Word is Meg Roth is already some huge political operative without a lick of actual experience to her name.  Easy when your Dad is the longest serving leader in any state legislature in the history of the United States.

“He’ll kill me Luke.  You’ve heard the stories.  Broken legs, pulled fingernails, hits.  He does anything he wants,” Denny said.  He was right.

“Alright, come over and we’ll head up north to the cabin and lie low for a bit.  I’m sure Roth will get bored; the man has a lot goin on.” I heard a sigh of relief from Denny, he’d be fine.  I had his back like old times.

The thing is though, Roth hated Denny.  Always has. Some football shit when they were in high school.  The thought of the town vagrant with his daughter would not be something that Roth would soon forget and the history between them only made it worse.

Denny was over in a flash and we got the hell out of there.  I tried to keep him calm, keep the ride upbeat like one of our old road trips.  Waits in the CD player and a pack of cigarettes in between us trading stories about the time we played cards in Windsor.  We were in Detroit for reasons neither of us could recall and then ended up in some motel in Canada without any money left over.

“I think I told you this was the opportunity of a lifetime,” I said.  Denny laughed.

“Yeah, Windsor fucking Ontario.  Should’ve known you just wanted a new spot to gamble at,” he said. 

I checked the phone between my legs like I was waiting for something.  I was. Denny wasn’t an idiot and his comfort was waning a bit. The sirens were up on us in no time and the tailgating seemed like overkill.  Denny gave me a what the fuck look and I did my best to look surprised.

“Shit this is not good.  What the hell is going on,” he said.  He asked the question even though I was pretty sure he knew the answer.

I love Denny, I really do, but I’ll die for no man.  I did say I was sorry as some Roth goombah dressed as a cop pulled him out of the car and stunned him, so it looked like he was going willingly.  It was all so professional that I was sure Denny wasn’t the first person to get this treatment and he sure as hell wouldn’t be the last.  I went on driving, staying the course to the cabin and saw on my phone that the money from Roth came through.  It was hard not to get excited at the open road.


Hotdog Man

This guy.  The guy across the street. The guy on the opposite corner, selling dogs like I ain’t already over here with my cart.  He’s a real piece of work.  Thing is, I ain’t selling hotdogs, and neither’s he.  I mean we’re selling hotdogs, but hotdogs ain’t all we’re selling.  If somebody needs something a little harder than alcohol, or if somebody needs a guy’s arm broken, then they come see the hotdog man.

Everybody used to come see me to place a bet or get a small loan, but not no more.  The guy across the street got all the business.  Yeah, he’s looking at me right now.  “How are you doing, shithead?  Yeah, have a nice day, asshole.” Yesterday, I went over there and punched him in the head. Of course he hit me back.  Split my damn lip.  But that’s okay because today I’m coming out on top. 

I really ain’t playing. The guy on the opposite corner don’t take the hint, so I have to take extraordinary measures.  Nobody’s going to frequent his place of business after what I just did. See, when he ducked out earlier to take a leak, I walked over to his cart and poisoned his diced onion tray with arsenic. 

When the guy across the street comes back, I shoot him a sneering death stare from my cart. Damn. I got to water the crops now too. The paperboy who just showed up on the corner keeps an eye my establishment while I step away.  He knows what’s up.  I take my wad of cash though, I ain’t no sucker.  Down the street, I hit up the market.  The owner don’t have a public toilet, but he lets me use it anyway. He knows not to refuse the hotdog man.

When I return to my business, there’s a line of people queued up in front of jack-off’s cart across the street.

“Eat up, suckers,” I say with a laugh, and make my own hotdog.  I squirt extra mustard on it, and make it rain onions.  “Oh yeah, baby.”

“What’s so funny, pops?” the paperboy asks with a confused look on his face.

“Ain’t this a great place, kid?” I say.  “Some countries are known for opera and architecture, but us, we got hotdogs.”

“His hotdogs, pops,” The paperboy says. “Not yours.”

“It ain’t wise to move in on a hard workin’ guy’s business.  Guy does something like that ends up in unfavorable circumstances.”

“Like selling all his dogs while you’re stuck holding your own tube steak?”  The paperboy asks.  “Is that what you mean by unfavorable circumstances?”

“Heard there was a bad batch of onions going around,” I say, and disappear half my hotdog into my face.

“That’s weird,” The kid says.

“What’s weird?” I ask.  “They got all kinds of health hazards out in the fields.  Salmonella, listeria and what have you.”

“No, it’s weird you mentioning onions.”

“Why?” I ask.  “You don’t have onions and mustard.  You don’t have a hotdog.”

“No, that you said that guy over there might get bad ones.”

“I hear there’s something going around.  You got to know the right people in the produce business. Something tells me this guy don’t know the right people.”

“No, it’s weird because when you left to take a piss, he came over with a tray of diced onions, and put it in your cart.  I asked him what he was doing, and he told me he was returning the onions you gave him earlier.”

I look down at my half eaten hotdog.  A few diced onions lay against the gnarled sausage. 

I sidestep left, and collide hard with a street lamp.  Where the hell did that thing come from?  Why is everybody staring at me all of a sudden?  Is that blood in my eyes?  Didn’t realize how fast this stuff kicked in. I can’t see for shit.  Placing my hands on the cart for balance, I lean forward with a gasp.  My strength withers as my head plunges into the vat of hotdog water bubbling below me.


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.