Homecoming

You learned three things from your no account deadbeat of a father:

–Always wash up after you put on aftershave. No one wants to smell like you all day after shaking hands.

–Always shine your shoes. To do that, of course, you need to wear shoes you can shine. Tennis shoes are for tennis.

–Always weigh down the body with something loved ones will recognize. It won’t give the cops anything to go on, but it’ll let the family know to keep quiet and start grieving. Why should they suffer not knowing?

You were six at the time, so none of this meant much to you. This was his big parenting moment, taking you aside before they put him away.

The aftershave thing was indirect. He never bothered. The priest at our parish favored Old Spice, too, so while everyone else came away from mass thinking of a high school locker room, we always thought about him.

Ten years. That’s what armed robbery earns these days. That’s with time off for good behavior. That’s a first. Why did he wait until he was behind bars to learn that trick?

Ten years of “uncles” coming around to check on us, give us an envelope of cash now and again, try to get in my pants. Ten years of you putting up with being called “Teddy Two-Nuts Jr.” as they cuffed you on the head. Just because Vinnie Cruz lost a ball to cancer doesn’t mean your father’s stupid boast about being all man should follow you like a rabid dog.

You tried, God bless ya. Twelve years old and you told Moe Scalsi to call you Theo or you’d knock his nuts up into his throat. Lucky he laughed at that. Said you oughta be called Teddy Three Nuts. “The balls on this kid.”

Things tapered when they realized I wasn’t going to repay their charity with a lay. You made sacrifices. Bagging groceries instead of going out for eighth grade football. Dropping a few bills in the coffee can. Helping to keep the lights on.

You hadn’t seen that no good, so-called father since you were eight. It was part me not wanting him in your life, part him not wanting to be seen like that, and part, I swear to God, of you not giving a shit. How’d he look? Wait, don’t tell me.

Still, I see the influence. Those damned shined shoes. You did it this morning, didn’t you? For a trip to the penitentiary, for Christ sakes.

Old bastard had a point, I suppose. If he’d known then, point four could have been, “Don’t wear your pants hanging off your ass.” People look. People judge. You’re a good kid. You should know better.

While you were up there, I decorated the house for the party. Welcome home sign over the door. Streamers, balloons. Wait until you see it. Big deli tray coming tomorrow. I hope people come or else we’ll have those little roast beef sandwiches for every meal from now until Labor Day.

Are you all right? I know it’s a lot to deal with right now, but it was for the best. Surprised he fell for it. You two never went fishing in your lives. Only time you were outside together was to walk from the house to the car and the car to the convenience store. Ten years can mess with a man’s mind, I suppose. Give him hope.

I hope it felt good for you, but not too good. Tire iron can do a lot of damage. It was about the act. Redemption. Let’s not start a pattern here, Okay?

Was everything where I left it for you? The rocks? Body bag? His old bowling ball? That’s a nice touch, I gotta admit. I’ll bet he slipped out the back of the truck and into the reservoir without a splash, right down to the bottom. Next stop, hell, for all I care.

Now hang up, son. Time to get home. We need to look excited tomorrow.

Hey, before you go. I’ll bet you reek of Old Spice. Wash your hands before you get here. I can’t stand the smell.


Shirtsleeves

  1.  Seamus McCarty’s hands were made for work, rough-hewn tools that had never caressed a woman’s cheek, rarely made a wasted move. They picked potatoes and stashed money, then grappled with ropes during a sea crossing that saw softer hands fall still. In the new country, they built things; first wooden toys then ice chests then automobiles. They continued to stash money until they were able to use a stack to purchase a dealership. The next stash bought a second, the next a bank. By the time they started to soften, these hands could differentiate denominations by feel alone. Late in life, they held a crying newborn.
  2. Liam McCarty’s hands bore scars from the factory floor, scars that had faded to pale lines against the surrounding tan. They placed a bourbon rocks back on a ring on the blotter. Their fingers ran along a line of numbers on a spreadsheet, then pushed buttons on a desk phone. They pointed, they poked chests. They gripped the wheel of a sports car, they fumbled with one bra clasp in late afternoon and another before bed. They traced the dimples of a golf ball and steered the rudder of a fishing boat. Later, one cradled a yellowed photo while the other held a middling report card.
  3. Jack McCarty’s hands pulled a classmate’s pigtails, cupped a pair of dice, clenched into fists to lash out. They rarely held a schoolbook when a remote control was within reach. They were held up in protest against work as much as they carried it out. They were used to punish more than to embrace, to strike more than satisfy. These hands were adept at flipping quarters, at popping tabs, at rolling twenty-dollar bills. They took. Money slipped through them with ease. These hands shook others to seal deals of questionable wisdom and more questionable legality. They waved dismissively at the housekeeper’s news that the boy was his.
  4. Luis McCarty’s hands never held a toy, rarely brought something sweet to his mouth. They never flipped a Frisbee, never gripped a bat with the purpose of hitting a ball. They grasped many doorknobs behind which was a place to sleep, but never a home. They were stained yellow from nicotine. They destroyed; they did not build. These hands knew their way around a gun. They knew how to take what wasn’t theirs. They rarely held these things for long. They gripped cold, steel bars and plastic trays. They were free, then gripped the bars again. This time for good. They never knew the warm touch of new skin. Never cradled. Never calmed.
  5. Seamus McCarty’s hands were made for work, rough-hewn tools that had no time for a woman’s touch. They cracked books and clacked keys. They pinched pennies and planted seeds. They pounded nails and sawed boards. They never held a drink. Cupped a smoke. Popped a pill. They pressed against the floor in a pushup. They gripped a barbell. They pinched more pennies. Then dimes. Then dollars. They wrote plans. Their fingers ran along the columns on a bank statement. They clenched into a fist in celebration. They would never, ever hold a baby.

Malcolm and the Burglar: Journalists, Criminals and the Art of Saying Too Much

“Okay, so this is an interesting phenomenon, you pushing in my door and jabbing a gun in my stomach. Statistically, this is a safe neighborhood, and the likelihood of my being hurt in a burglary attempt is significantly less than the chance that I will be hurt in a traditional household mishap such as falling down the—

“Sure, yes, I understand you could actually throw me down the stairs if I don’t shut up. That is an effective coercive technique because, as I wrote in my latest book, the thought of something happening is often much worse than the thing itself. I imagine myself in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, dead from a broken neck, but it is much more likely that I would emerge relatively unscathed with little more than cuts and—

“Wow, Hollywood really downplays the effect of being smacked in the face with a gun, doesn’t it? The hero typically pops back up, emboldened, ready to fight, but I must say, I am dazed and find it hard to speak. We know this, right? That being hit in the face by a metal object with both blunt and sharp characteristics that is being swung with considerable velocity is going to hurt, but we have been conditioned to—

“Ow! All right. I get it. You don’t want me to talk anymore. Nevertheless, how can I tell you where my valuables are if I can’t speak? That doesn’t make sense. Your actions are counter intuitive because you are letting emotion guide you. And yet, sometimes it is best to follow your gut even when that instinct flies in the face of convention. As I wrote in my second—

“Is that a rope? You’re looking for a straight-back chair, right? Dining room, off to the right. You know, my dining room is to the right of the kitchen, whereas Martha Stewart’s is to the left. I attended a dinner party there once. Do you suppose we instinctively seek dining room placement that corresponds to the side of the brain that dominates when we cook? I’m clearly right-brained in the kitchen, whereas Martha is more strategic—

“Of course I’ll sit down. I mean, you have the gun, right? That is interesting, because most home invasions don’t involve firearms, and in those that do, the perpetrator is just as likely to be shot as—

“Ouch! That is a very tight knot, well tied. You clearly have mastered the skills necessary to be a successful burglar. Did you have mentor, or is there some sort of apprenticeship? Informally in your case, of course. If you don’t mind my asking, how long have you been doing this? I would guess at least ten thousand hours, because that is the point at which you really start to—

“Wow, still hurts to be hit in the mouth with a gun! Corroborative evidence certainly is effective when conducting research, but I think we can safely say that further analysis is unnecessary at this point. Still, after three times, I’m now dreading it more than I would have thought. Sure, I survived each of the first three and therefore ought to be less fearful of the fourth blow, but your accuracy is uncanny and that spot is really—

“You really can stop doing that now, okay? I should be inclined to tell you where to look for valuables so this concludes before I suffer more, but I must say I find this to be irresistible, a front-row seat for a live show in our socio-economic circus. Oh wow, that’s good. ‘Socio-Economic Circus.’ Not a book title, of course, but part of a subtitle in the least. And to experience something firsthand instead of simply regurgitating anecdotes from other books? This could launch me from the bestseller list to prize-land! A book about crime. It’s perfect! Maybe I’ll even call it ‘Crime.’ I could recycle that ‘broken windows’ stuff from ‘The Tipping Point,’ and include some stuff about Wall Street to keep it topical. Not sure how to work in the Martha Stewart stuff. Could you bring me my Dictaphone? This is—

“Hey, where are you going? Don’t leave! You didn’t even take anything yet… we have so much to talk about!”


Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell

You’d never write, “must be devastatingly handsome” in the job description, but Don found it useful nonetheless. He’d guess he had screwed half of the women he visited, and this was after telling them he was repossessing their television or dryer or sewing machine. Tears would well up and they’d say something about their deadbeat boyfriend, followed by, “but you wouldn’t understand, a big handsome fella like you.” Before he knew it, he was consoling them with a quick, emotionless lay, sometimes bent over the very thing he was about to carry out of their home.

This didn’t work with the guys, but even they seemed cowed by his looks, unwilling to challenge as he Slim-Jimmed his way into their cars and hotwired them, perhaps afraid he’d take their girlfriends, too.

Knowing he could have it made him want it less, so he started to build challenges in for himself. The first time he was downright mean, telling a woman that losing their sectional was part of a pattern of defeat brought about by her homely looks. It didn’t work, and he was left to explain a certain fresh-looking stain to the store when he made the return. The next time he berated the temporary owner of a used 2007 Camry, questioning his manhood in hopes they guy would throw a punch. Instead, the guy went inside to weep while his girlfriend balled Don in the Toyota’s backseat.

Then came Heidi at the Java Hut. She was batting her eyes and licking her lips before he’d even reached the counter. She was a bit overweight, but there was something about her that he liked.

“Let me guess: you want a tall, dark and handsome,” she said with a smirk.

“Nope. I want that,” he said pointing to the espresso machine. He pulled a sheet from his back pocket and read, “La Pavoni Bar Star Series Commercial Espresso Machine, brushed silver. Three thousand, four hundred and twelve owed. Six months late on payments.”

Heidi nodded. “Don’t suppose I can work it off?” she said, batting her eyes again.

“Sorry,” Don said. “With all due respect, I’m guessing you don’t have three thousand dollars worth of tricks behind that apron.”

“You might be surprised,” she said. “Anyway, can I get you something? Might as well get one last use out of it.”

Don smiled. There it was: capitulation. He’d get a latte and a lay, and then carry this beast out and be done for the day. She went to the back and came back a moment later with two big ceramic mugs. She made the drinks, then grabbed a stirrer and swirled it through the foam to make a design. He’d seen leaves and snowflakes and even a snowman around Christmas. Heidi had something else in mind.

“Here you go,” she said. Floating on the foam was a drawing of some aroused block and tackle. He looked at hers and saw a rather obvious open flower. He glanced up at her and she raised her eyebrows.

“Takes awhile for these to cool down,” she said. “Give me a sec to straighten up and then meet me in back.”

He waited a moment, then went through a set of saloon doors, down a long corridor narrowed by stacked boxes and into the kitchen where she stood clad only in the apron. She grabbed his belt buckle.

“May I?” she said.

He expected a quick rut, but she took her time, clearly enjoying it. When they finished, she said she wanted to freshen up and ducked into the bathroom. He was still buckling his belt as he came through the saloon doors and saw an empty space on the counter where the espresso machine had been. A beefy guy stood on either side of the void.

“Have fun with our sister, pretty boy?” the taller one said as he smacked a wrench in his palm.

“She was right,” said the other. “You are awfully handsome. Must be hard for a fella like you to keep ’em away, huh?”

“Where’s the machine?” Don said, smiling. He’d never dealt with brothers before, but figured it wasn’t much different than a boyfriend.

He figured wrong.


Interview: John Kenyon

When you think about “Things I’d rather be doing?,” generally it’s a more personal thought. For me that’s how I was introduced to John Kenyon, whose website Things I’d Rather Be Doing acted as a gateway to all things that interest John. Part blog, part magazine, it is an introduction to John’s thinking, manner and style. Since then I’ve gotten to know John through his fiction and his publication Grift Magazine, even shared lunch with John and his interviewer, Chad Rohrbacher, along with some shop talk.

John, a former newspaper man, get’s the tables turned this week with Chad asking the questions.

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

I suppose it all dates back to my Dad and the Hardy Boys. He read them as a boy, so there were some of those iconic blue-spined books passed down when I was a kid, and I devoured those. From there it was a constant progression through to the point where I started reading mysteries as an adult. Lawrence Block was my gateway drug, leading me in all sorts of directions.

As for crime fiction vs. straight-up mysteries, I’m more interested as a writer in exploring the impact of a situation more than the situation itself. The whodunit, while still interesting, doesn’t grab me the way an exploration of the social and economic impacts of crime do.

Tell us a little about yourself. Just a little background

After 20 years in journalism, I have moved to the nonprofit world. Iowa City is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature, and I am the director of the nonprofit that manages that designation. It’s a dream job, working every day to spread the word that books matter.

Can you talk a little about your writing process: computer? Long hand? Dark corner in an office? By candle light? Coffee or whiskey?

Stories usually start out with a scribbled note about a situation, followed by couple hundred hastily banged out words the next time I can get to a computer. Then I’ll pick at it until it feels like it’s going to work. From there, it’s usually late nights working in the home office after everyone’s in bed.

So your collection, “The First Cut,” recently came out via Snubnose Press, can you tell me a little about the collection?

For the most part, The First Cut collects the best of the stories I’ve published over the past five years or so, including a couple that first appeared here at Shotgun Honey. There’s one new story that I didn’t really perfect until it was time to submit the manuscript which is new to the collection, and one decade-old story that appeared in a great regional journal here in Iowa, The Wapsipinicon Almanac.  It’s all crime fiction, save for the last, which was more a stab at literary fiction but which still has sinister overtones that I feel makes it a good fit with the rest.

Did you listen to music while you wrote any of the stories? Is so, what? Did you find them affecting your narrative?

I can’t listen to music with words while writing, so it’s a lot of jazz and instrumental stuff. White Lunar, an album of soundtrack work from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Angelo Badalmenti’s soundtrack to “The Straight Story,” are two that I return to a lot. If I need to get hopped up, I’ll do it with something loud and fast before I sit down.

Were there any specific people, places, or incidents that inspired a story?

For some of them, yes. But in most cases, it would be something small that set my mind to wandering, and it’s the eventual mental destination that led to the story. More often my stories begin with a “what if?” proposition. What if an organ transplant guy had his vehicle break down and had to take the subway? What if a mobster’s attempt to bury a recently deceased colleague didn’t go as planned? What if someone wrongly caught up in the War on Terror decided to exact revenge? I set challenges for myself with these questions and when I have successfully answered, I know I have a story worth keeping.

Can you explore the process of putting the stories in the particular order in the final version? Did it change? If so, can you share some of the choices you made and why.

I knew from the moment that I thought of assembling a collection that I wanted to start with “Cut.” It sets a tone I wanted. It’s dark, but also funny in spots. It also was my first real success, thanks to the fine folks at Thuglit. From there, it was simply a matter of wanting the stories to flow, mixing long and short, dark and funny. I also wanted to end with “The Bluffs,” which is the oldest story in the book. It’s the most different, stylistically, and the longest, and it felt like a good closer.

In this book, there seems to be a real clear throwback to old-time pulp and the late 40s-50s radio thrillers. Do you find those as influences? If so, any in particular?

That’s the first I’ve heard that description, but I’ll take it. Really, my aesthetic is less hard-boiled than that of a lot of my peers (or the rest of the Snubnose stable), and that’s part of it. I suppose as well that it is my journalistic background. I’m used to telling the entire story, and so perhaps my plotting reflects that.

So you have a magazine? What was your thinking behind it?

As I said above, I have a different aesthetic from some people. I love the other publications that are out there, but there wasn’t one that offered exactly what I wanted. The only way to get that, I realized, was to do it myself. I wanted something that offered strong stories as well as some solid non-fiction with essays and reviews. The first issue was something I’m very proud of; replicating that has been difficult. Which leads us to…

How do you balance your editing versus writing work as I imagine both take a lot of time?

If you asked any submitter for the second issue of Grift, they would say I balance it in fairly lousy fashion. It has been a struggle. As I launched Grift with the first print issue this spring, my writing really took off. It was hard to balance the two (particularly when you add in family, job and other pursuits). It’s a matter of being mindful of the need to tackle both jobs. I have a duty to the people who took the time to contribute to Grift, but I have a duty to myself to keep working on my own stories and projects.

The website looks fantastic, so what made you want to also have a print version and not just on-line?

Thank you. I’d like to take the credit, but it’s really just a well-tweaked WordPress theme. As for having one or the other, the print mag idea came first. I wanted a web presence, and then figured it would be a good idea to have news, reviews and flash fiction there as well. That has proven more difficult to maintain than I thought, but it has been a nice way to keep the name out there during the long wait between print issues. Plus, I have had the honor of publishing some great short fiction from the likes of Matthew C. Funk, Andrew Waters, Thomas Pluck and many more.

With the your collection, The First Cut, behind you and the ongoing Grift Magazine, what’s next for you as a writer? What’s your next pitch?

My hope is that my next thing will be a novel. I have one done and edited, and now it is being read by a few friends with the hope of having it polished and ready to send out very soon. It’s a crime novel, but more funny (I hope) than hard-boiled. I’m about halfway through a second novel and have an idea for a third that would be a fairly radical departure. While I’m juggling those projects, I’m working in earnest on a contribution to the Fight Card series of novellas about boxing that should come out early next year.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple — that’s creativity.” – Charles Mingus.


Red Head

Gwen fingered the tooth in her pocket as she dropped to her knees and wondered what would bother James more — that his mother was hustling blowjobs behind Tim’s Tap, or that the tooth fairy was.

The boy was seven and gave up on Santa long ago, confident his Christmas haul was the same with or without the fat man. But he clung to the tooth fairy. Gwen couldn’t tell if he was innocent or mercenary. Regardless, she wasn’t going to tuck her last ten dollar bill under the pillow tonight, so she decided to put in some work.

She told Tim she’d like to make a little something as he replaced her ten spot with a two-dollar bottle of High Life. He nodded and slipped the bill in his pocket. He returned fifteen minutes later.

“Fella at the end of the bar’d like some company,” he said.

Sensing the guy was from out of town, she offered him her red head special, and didn’t even crack a smile when he handed her a fifty for something locals knew they could get for twenty.

The mouthful of candy was burning the inside of her cheeks now, so she knew he had to be feeling it. Sure enough, he groaned a bit, then said, “Ow!” and pushed her away. She hit the gravel and looked up at him questioningly.

“What the hell?” he said, grabbing himself. “Why is it burning?”

She spit out the candy and rose to her knees.

“That’s the red head special, hon. Mouth full of Red Hots,” she said.

“I thought that was because of your hair,” he said. “God, that hurts!”

She pushed herself to her feet and wiped gravel dust from her backside.

“Most guys like it. Say it gives it a little extra kick.”

“Well I don’t!” he yelled.

Realizing she might need backup, Gwen hustled around to the front of the bar and went inside. She heard the door behind her.

“I want my money back!” the guy said as he grabbed her by the arm.

“I’m not the one who ended it,” she said.

“You practically burned it off!” he said.

Tim stepped up.

“Listen fella,” he said.

“This is between me and her,” the guy said. He turned to Gwen. “I want my money back.”

“No,” she said. “I earned it.”

The man backhanded her hard across the mouth. She staggered, hit an empty table and fell over a chair. She got up slowly and reached in her pocket, deciding fifty bucks wasn’t worth a beating. She came out with James’ tooth instead. As she stared at it, she worked up some spit. It sprayed her hand and the floor, the Red Hot juice dark under neon.

“Jesus,” Tim said. “You knocked her tooth out, you son of a bitch!”

He pulled a baseball bat from behind the bar. The guy put up his hands in surrender.

“God, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was just looking for a little fun. You all right?”

Gwen looked at the tooth, covered in red spit, and saw opportunity.

“No, I’m not,” she whispered. “I’m pretty fucking far from all right.”

The guy pulled out his clip and peeled off a couple of twenties.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “Really, I just…”

His voice trailed off at Gwen’s lack of response. He opened the clip and fanned the money. Gwen raised an eyebrow as she mentally counted. The man took that as agreement, folded the bills and handed the wad to her. She grabbed it and pocketed the money with the tooth.

“Now beat it,” Tim said. The man hustled to the door.

Gwen sat down, slipped a twenty from her jeans and sat it on the bar.

“Another?” she said.

Tim sat a bottle in front of her and slid the bill back toward her.

“Your money’s no good here tonight, darlin’,” he said.

She nodded and took a drink, wondering if maybe James didn’t have the right idea about the tooth fairy after all.


Circumstantial

“So, Juanita, let’s go over this, OK?”

Briggs was leaning back in the metal chair, the crack in the worn vinyl seat cushion pinching his ass. West was leaning against the wall by the door, eyes closed; probably asleep on his feet. Briggs marveled at the skill.

“What you wanna know?” said Juanita. She was a woman for whom the term “spunky” was invented. She was short — maybe four-eleven — and compact, the kind of chick who would have a handful of someone’s hair within the first three seconds of a catfight.

“OK, here’s what I know,” Briggs said. He leaned forward and the chair’s front legs hit the floor. Still nothing from West. “You were Paco’s girlfriend, and –”

“Taco,” she said.

“What?”

“It’s Taco. You know, like Bell? Not Paco. You’re saying it wrong.”

“Seriously? Nickname, right?”

“Nah, his Papi liked tacos, so…”

“All right. So, you and Taco were boyfriend and girlfriend, right?”

“Yes,” she said as she twirled her long black hair around a finger, clearly bored.

“Then, what, he left you? Slept with your sister? I mean, this is a lot of anger we’re dealing with here,” Briggs said. He looked over at West, still stock still against the wall. They had money riding on this. He said sister, West went kinky and said mother.

“No, not angry.”

“Come on, Juanita. His head had been hacked off and placed on the nightstand next to the bed. Whoever did that wasn’t exactly happy with Taco.”

“OK, I get that,” she said.

Briggs felt relieved.

“You do?” An actual breakthrough! When was the last time a suspect actually agreed with anything a cop had to say in the box? He was going to ask West, but didn’t want to wake him. “I mean, of course you do. So my question is this: why did you do it?”

“Me? I didn’t kill Taco. Look at me.” She stood and twirled. “How could I do something like that?”

Briggs actually had no trouble imagining it, but tried a different tack.

“Can we talk about your ink?” he asked.

“You like?” she said, smiling. She held out her arms, which made Amy Winehouse, God rest her soul, seem demure.

“Let’s talk about the one on your left shoulder. That’s a pretty nice tat of Taco, right?”

He pulled a mug shot from the folder in front of him and slid it across the table. It was clearly the source material for the tattoo.

“Yeah,” she said. “So? I got that when we started going out.”

“A fine expression of love,” Briggs said. “But I can’t help but notice that it has been altered. It’s nice, work, actually. But I can’t help noticing that the arm holding his head up by the hair seems new. Like, really new. That and the bloody neck stump.”

“What? Just because Taco’s head was cut off and I have a tattoo of his cut-off head on my shoulder, that somehow means I did it?” she said, her voice rising to a screech.

Briggs shrugged, impressed that she was going to play hardball.

“I’ll admit, it’s circumstantial,” he said, leaning back again. “The timing, however, makes me wonder. We talked with Tank down at Tattoo You, and he said you had that done yesterday. The coroner is pretty sure poor old Taco lost his head a couple of days before that. Just seems, well, too convenient, you know?”

Juanita sat motionless for a moment, something that seemed to require effort.

“It’s a metaphor for our–”

“Juanita…” Briggs said.

“No good?”

“No, it’s not bad, actually,” Briggs said. “First time I’ve heard that word in this place. But it’s over.”

“The tattoo was a bad idea, wasn’t it?” she said.

“Didn’t help,” Briggs said. “You confess, it might be, well, who am I kidding? You cut off your boyfriend’s head. Emotional distress is the best you’ve got. Did he hit you?”

“No. He fucked my sister, that whore.”

“Damn.” This was West, who pushed himself away from the wall, pulled out his wallet and tossed a twenty on the table. He then grabbed Juanita by the arm. “All right, off you go to lockup.”

 


Bleed American

Foley stomped across the apartment, slammed open the sliding glass door to the deck that was just wide enough to accommodate two lawn chairs, and pulled a tattered American flag from the railing. He came back inside, stepped onto a scarred end table, reached up and unhooked another flag hung sideways with thumbtacks in the wall.

He folded each flag in turn, then set them on the kitchen table. He walked across the room to the disheveled college student still sitting stunned in a threadbare recliner, grabbed him by the front of the shirt and dragged him across the room to the table.

“This is not a Cubs banner,” he said, pointing to the tattered flag from outside. He pointed to the other. “And this is not a Bob Marley poster. This not art. It’s a symbol of your freedom.

“Take this one to the Legion post and dispose of it properly, and keep this one folded up until you can think of a more proper way to display it,” he said. “I know you kids think this is some big joke, but boys your age fought and died to keep this flag flying. Show some respect.”

The kid, fully awake now after having dozed off in the middle of a video game before Foley knocked his door in, pulled out a kitchen chair and slumped into it.

“Who are you?” he said. “Some sort of flag patrol?”

“I’m the guy they call when guys like you owe a shit-ton of money, Kyle,” Foley said.

“Are you gonna kill me?”

“That’s a real possibility,” Foley said.

“Then what’s with the Betsy Ross act?”
“Principles are principles,” Foley said. “If I let you live, then I have done you a favor by teaching you an important lesson. If I decide to shoot you, those flags won’t be sitting around waiting for your stoner friends to decide to paint a pot leaf or peace sign on them.”

“Principles?” the kid said, a little fight coming into his voice. “You talk about principles when you readily admit you might shoot me because I owe the mob some money?”

Foley sighed. He was tired of this. Of the job. Of these entitled brats. Of the country sliding down the tubes.

“You owe money,” he said. “Used to be, that meant something to people. You want principles? How about making good on a promise? You promised to pay us back. You didn’t. We promised to kill you if you didn’t make good. So, who is more principled?”

“That’s fucked up, man,” the kid said, the brief hint of bravado now gone. His leg began to shake violently, and he ran a shaking hand repeatedly though his stringy hair.

“So,” Foley said, pulling a pistol from his waistband. “Do you have the money?”

“No,” the kid said.

Foley pulled a silencer out of his jacket pocket.

“Can you get the money?”

“No.” The kid was dripping sweat now, his eyes locked onto the silencer as Foley slowly twisted it into place.

“Is there any reason for us to expect that you will be able to get the money?”

The kid swallowed hard, and a yellow puddle started to form under his seat.

“N- n- no.”

Foley stuck the gun against the kid’s temple and pulled the trigger. He immediately slumped onto the table. The blowback from the kids head left a spray of blood and brains on the wall where the flag had been.

“Now that,” Foley said as he gathered up the flags and headed to the door,” is art.”


Pleasure

The first time he called he asked whether the shoes were available in a wide size. She looked it up, told him they were. It was the easiest job Stacy had ever had.

She had been apprehensive. You know, telemarketing. But these were inbound calls, she was told. They want something from you.

She didn’t have a choice. An English degree? What was she thinking? It was summer and the pool was calling, but with student loans due, she needed a job. There was constant turnover, girls getting fed up and just not showing up for work, the HR woman speculated. Don’t become one of those and there’s a future for you. As if, she thought.

He called again the same time the next day. It was the way he thanked her – “Always a pleasure” – that tipped her off. He hung up before she could respond.

The next day, as the clock approached 3 p.m., she realized she was waiting for his call. Her headset beeped. It was him, again with a question. She answered, and before he could sign off, she said, “You’re not really interested in clothes and shoes, are you?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“You’ve called me at 3 p.m. the last three days in a row,” she said. “Do you just want to talk with someone?”

“You are very perceptive, Stacy.”

“How do you know my name?”

“You introduce yourself when you answer the phone, Stacy.”

“Oh,” she said with a sigh of relief. “Yes, that’s true.”

“Well, now what?”

“Now what, what?” she said.

“You have escalated our relationship, so now what?”

“OK,” she said, giggling nervously. “What’s your name?”

“Kyle,” he said.

“What do you do?”

“Nope. That’s not how this works. Now I get a question. What are you wearing?”

“All right, now that’s kind of creepy, Kyle. This isn’t a phone sex line,” she said.

“And I don’t assume you’re going to say ‘a lace teddy,’ Stacy. Just making conversation.”

“OK, that’s fair,” she said. “I’m wearing a light green top and khaki skirt.”

“Always a pleasure,” he said. That was followed by a dial tone.

Strange, she thought, forgetting about him by the end of her shift. But he called back the next day and they talked a bit more, and she actually felt a connection of sorts.

Calls came in from all over the country, so this guy could be from anywhere. Some harmless flirtation to break up the day, she thought. No commitment. Perfect.

One day, Jessica grabbed her during a break.

“Have you seen Emily?” her co-worker asked. Stacy said no. “She hasn’t been to work in three days. She doesn’t answer her cell. She was going to meet some guy she took calls from, and I’m worried.”

Stacy was worried, too, but not just for Emily.

When Kyle called at 3, they talked a while. Letting curiosity get the best of her, she asked, “Do you know Emily from here?”

“Are you jealous?” he asked.

“What are you talking about?” she said.

“You needn’t be, Stacy. She wasn’t the first. She won’t be the last,” he said. “Then again, neither will you.”

She disconnected the call and ripped off her headset. She got up and ran to the bathroom to splash water on her face. She was shaking and couldn’t stop. She knew she should tell someone, but she didn’t know how to explain.

She decided to go home for the day and call in later to say she’d had female trouble. She walked to her car, heading to the last row where a lucky few parked in the shade of some nearby trees. As she keyed the remote and opened the door, she heard someone behind her.

“Hello, Stacy.” She turned and saw it was one of the janitors from the office.

“What do you want?”

“That’s not how this works. It’s my turn to ask a question.”

“What?” she said as her eyes grew wide. “Kyle?”

He grabbed her roughly by the arms and tossed into her car.

“Always a pleasure,” he said as he got in the car after her.