Truckload of Trouble, fiction by Tom Leins

headerleinsI hear the rattle of the tow-truck’s rusted chain before I see it roll down the rutted track and into view.

The last time I saw the Mulligan brothers they hung a guy known as Blood Bubble from a hook by the roof of his mouth then beat him with crowbars until his pale skin burst. They left him hanging there when they had finished, and none of us had the nerve to drag him down. I still remember the queasy feeling in my gut when the dead weight got too much and his brainstem cracked. He lay crumpled in the dirt like an old fast-food wrapper, fluids turning black in the afternoon sun. Not even the dogs went near him.

I never even found out what he had done.

***

The Mulligans climb out of the cab, and squint at me like I’m roadkill–unidentifiable at first glance. James is the older of the two by a few years, fleshy and swollen-looking. He cracks the knuckles on his right hand, one at a time, and clears his throat.

“Lomax.”

I nod.

They start to laugh, although no one has said anything funny.

“Your brother around?”

I look over my shoulder, half-heartedly.

“Nope.”

My fuckin’ brother. I couldn’t care less about him and his clogged needles, his brittle veins, his junkie scams.

“You gonna pay his debt?”

I glance around the yard at the rusted engine blocks and broken-down machinery, then look back at James’s bloodshot eyes.

He smirks.

My mouth feels dry, but I spit in the dirt anyway.

“Nope.”

They laugh again. Louder than before.

I have no intention of making good on my brother’s drug debts.

“You know, I was hoping you was gonna say that.”

I also have no intention of taking a beating on his fuckin’ behalf.

They edge closer to me. Up close, James looks far older. Prison was evidently bad for his health. He has a small crucifix dangling from his left earlobe, and gelled yellow hair.

He smiles fully, showing all of his remaining teeth, and fiddles with his earring.

“Brothers, huh?”

***

James Mulligan was incarcerated in an adult facility at the age of 14, after being found guilty of aggravated rape. He cut the girl up pretty badly afterward with a broken beer bottle, and left her crawling around the Slop Shop parking lot, leaking blood.

Everyone in Testament agreed that he was rotten from birth, but Peter, his little brother–he was different. He was sensitive, or what passes for sensitive in this town. A little slow, maybe, but likeable enough.

He trained alongside me at Shriek Watson’s Ghoul School. Back then we were like crabs in a barrel. Every one of us was desperate to be the first boy out of Shriek’s cavernous basement.

It was 1987. The hottest summer on record in Testament. Everyone in town wanted to wrestle for Fingerfuck Flanagan, in the Testament Wrestling Alliance, and most of us regretted it, one way or another.

Every few weeks Fingerfuck came down to see Shriek and watch us fight. He sat on a folding canvas chair, smoking his cheap cigars, watching us boys, slippery with sweat, jabbing thumbs in eyes, rabbit-punching kidneys and twisting scrotums–anything to get ahead.

I put a boy named Burrachaga in hospital–just to impress Fingerfuck. Tried to bounce him off the greasy brickwork and put a big old dent in his skull. Fingerfuck cackled with laughter, patted me on the back with a callused hand, and told me I would go far in this town.

True to his word, he gave me my shot. 19-years-old. Mid-card at the ‘Slaughterhouse 4’ pay-per-view. Got my ass handed to me by Tiny Diamonds in a Russian Chain Match. He choked me so hard with the chain that I shat myself, and I had to walk back through the jeering crowd, legs and boots plastered with dehydrated yellow shit.

It was three years before he offered me another fight. Burrachaga. Fingerfuck had injected him with so much Metandienone he had swelled up like the fuckin’ Michelin Man. He beat me so bad I thought I was dead.

Payback, as they say, is a motherfucker.

***

Peter Mulligan was at the Ghoul School the day I busted Burrachaga open. I remember him vomiting all over his scuffed blue wrestling boots and passing out. Shriek’s wife revived him with smelling salts. He never did make the grade, but he has evidently toughened up a lot since.

He is easily the larger of the two brothers. Well-built, but his gut hangs over his greasy jeans like a bag of grain. He circles me, unlabelled work boots leaving heavy prints in the dirt.

I hold my hands up.

“Let me just take off my wedding ring first. I don’t want to dent it on your teeth.”

He grins nervously at his brother, and James nods.

Fuck that.

I didn’t even take off my wedding ring when I fucked their cousin Nikki. She had a slight overbite, and her pussy was constantly wet. Man, I would have gone to prison for that girl. Maybe not hard time, but I would have taken a jolt in the county jail for a sniff of her Friday night panties.

I make a show of taking off my ring, and turn slowly towards my truck.

I have a long-barrelled .38 under the seat.

I’m not even sure which one of these bastards I’m going to shoot, but the other one will be picking brains out of his hair all fuckin’ afternoon.

tomleinsTom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His wrestling noir stories have been published by the likes of Out of the Gutter Online, Spelk Fiction, Horror Sleaze Trash, Five 2 One Magazine and Fried Chicken & Coffee. Get your pound of flesh at http://www.thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com.

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Scarecrow, fiction by Hilary Leftwich

Scarecrow

Dolly fakes her death by starvation while the others at the table take seconds from the bowl of mashed potatoes and slices of meatloaf. Mama announces there’s no pie for dessert, just butter cookies. She has little tolerance left after 20 years spent as a Civil War reenactment soldier’s wife. Papa never learned to clean his rifle right and blew half his scalp off, leaving Mama a widow and me an orphan, in a sense. Mama spent more time crouching her way through the woods with a shotgun hunting rabbits than she did teaching me my lessons.

Dolly is my only girl and she has grown into two girls. One has eaten the other. Sunday suppers are usually spent with great aunt Lila, cousin Bennie and his two boys, and occasionally Uncle Rick and Mort, his deaf and blind cocker spaniel. I spend most of my time during the meal harpooning Dolly to her seat, slapping her hands as they reach for the buttered bread rolls, the game hens, and the chocolate pudding. My husband left me four years ago for a truck stop waitress who wears earrings in the shape of pineapples. Mama likes to sneak Dolly caramels from her knitting bag. Dolly stares at her with adoring eyes. The kind of stare I never get. You’d think I was starving her. I tell her, you’ll thank me for this when you grow up. That no man alive will marry her in the state she’s in now: swollen and pink like a spoiled lap dog. No decent man, at least.

We never had sweets in the house. Not until Papa blew his brains out all over a Kansas corn field. A month after his funeral, Mama told me to get in the Chevy and we bounced our way down the gravel road to the Pick and Save. She filled an entire grocery cart with clearance sale Easter candy. Breakfast was Cadbury Crème Eggs melted on top of butter rich pancakes. Lunch was Peeps placed precariously amongst sweet potatoes, their beaks poking up like tiny mountain peaks. Supper was barely a slice of meat followed by huge lumps of ice cream topped with chocolate covered marshmallow bunnies. After months of eating sugar my teeth ached every time I heard a candy wrapper being opened.

I tell Dolly, you would have such a pretty face if you just stopped stuffing your cake hole.

When everyone hoists themselves out of their seats and retires to the sitting room, Dolly runs upstairs to the bathroom while Mama and I clear the table like we do every Sunday. Supper plates and cups are gone in a single trip. I wait until Mama is bent over the sink, her hands covered in lemon-scented suds, to sneak into the sideboard. I grab the bottle I hid there earlier, tuck it inside my apron pocket and step outside on the porch into the night. I stare at the cornfield where the scarecrow hangs, a messy Christ figure in a straw brimmed hat. The crows like to gather on him as a meeting place. Their talons grip and tear apart the faded garments that were once Papa’s old button up shirt and trousers. They consider me a useless threat as I take a long swig from the flask—Maker’s Mark, sometimes Vodka–as they regard me. I hear Dolly crying from the open window upstairs and Mama humming as she finishes up the dishes. Uncle Rick is arguing with Great Aunt Lila over the cost of butter beans again. I lean against the side of the porch and take another swig, eyeball the crows. They have a funny way of picking at each other’s feathers. They have a funny way of cawing and squawking at each other also, like they’re having a squabble. Maybe they’re deciding to settle in for the night. Maybe they’ll decide to fly away, taking that old scarecrow along with them.

leftwichHillary Leftwich resides in Denver with her son. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, and pinup model. She is the associate editor for The Conium Review and Reader/Marketing Coordinator for Vestal Review. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart and appears or is forthcoming in Hobart, Matter Press, WhiskeyPaper, NANO Fiction, Monkeybicycle, Dogzplot, Cease, Cows, Pure Slush, FlashFiction.net, decomP MagazinE, Smokelong Quarterly’s “Why Flash Fiction?” Series, NANO Fiction’s “How I Write” and others.

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Law of the Whippoorwill, fiction by Cecile Dixon

In the dim, neon truck stop light, I studied Gerald’s face. His jaw was clenched tight as he said, “Pharyl, these things are complicated. It’s not like working at fucking McDonald’s,” Gerald rolled the words off his tongue giving sound to each letter. “You can’t just quit.”

Looking out over the empty parking lot, I thought a long minute before I replied. “I never give nobody a time or a date. It was just for a while, until I could get my shit together. Get the fuckin taxes paid on my land.” My mouth suddenly filled with bile and I spat it out the side window of the car onto the ground. “Some people are startin to poke around in my business. Asking questions. Truth is, I’m getting skittish.” Odds on my walking away were slim.

“You just lay low. If it was me I’d let you walk away, but the man” Gerald paused, I guess to give me time to conjure up the monster-man. “He won’t be happy. He doesn’t like to lose earners. When the man isn’t happy, people end up hurt, hurt bad.”

“Tell your boss to give me a time, a date or an amount,” I said. “ Ask him how much shit I have to move to buy my freedom. I climbed out of Gerald’s car carrying a black duffel bag. The same routine we’d done for almost a year. “I want out.”

I threw the bag into the seat beside me as I climbed into the cab of my truck. Instead of pulling onto the highway I exited on the service road at the back of the lot. Gerald had said to lay low. Didn’t he know I was laying as low as I could? I hadn’t been in town for over a month. I didn’t have a life. Just moving dope and trying to keep the Kudzu from over taking the farm.

I knew Grandpa had been strapped for cash the last few years of his life. Just not how bad. When Grandma got the cancer, she hadn’t wanted to go to the nursing home and Grandpa promised her she could die at home, in the house where she’d raised my mama and then me. Grandpa kept his word. He’d hired nurses from town to come in every day to give her medicine and bathe her body as the cancer ate it up.

After Grandma passed, Grandpa just give up. Still, he never said a word to me about the hard times he was having, not a word about debt. Seemed like Grandma took all his will to live with her. After I laid him in the ground, between Mama and Grandma, I went rambling through a shoe box of papers, looking for his burial insurance policy. Then I run across the papers that said Grandpa owed the bank pert-nigh ten thousand dollars. To top it off, there were three years of back taxes. I couldn’t raise enough tobacco to make a dent in the debt. I thought I’d found an easy, quick money scheme when I met Gerald. Grandpa had been right when he told me nothing that’s easy is worth having.

I saw Lonnie Earl’s sheriff cruiser before I got to it. He was parked on the old rock quarry road at the foot of the mountain. Cutting my headlights I pulled in next to him.

“Good evenin’, Sheriff. You waiting on me or taking a nap?” I asked.

“Pharyl, don’t go to gettin’ smart-assed with me. I got some news for you, Feds has got the road blocked about four mile up.” He nodded his head toward the winding mountain road. “They’re loaded for bear. I think they’re planning on bringing you off the hill tonight.”

I shook a cigarette from my pack and lit it. “I appreciate the information, but I don’t rightly understand why you, of all people, are telling me.”

“Two reasons. First, your grandpa was a good friend to me. I know he raised you right. Second is, they ain’t no love between me and those Fed boys. They come in here acting like we’re all a bunch of hillbillies that don’t know shit. I just decided that I’m gonna throw a few monkey wrenches in their path.” Lonnie Earl’s chuckle sounded like a donkey braying. “What them city boys don’t understand is that I could take you in, and might still, but they got no business interfering with ours. They’s them and they’s us. We take care of our own.” Lonnie Earl paused and rolled his chew around inside his mouth. “The bitch of it is that they really don’t give a shit bout you. You’re just small potatoes. They want names that you can give. Why don’t you make it easy on both of us and surrender to me right now?”

I swallowed hard and thought, Lord, I wish I could just say Gerald’s name and have this mess over, but I really didn’t want to find out what Gerald’s boss would do if I sicced the Feds on him. I shook my head not trusting that “no” would make it around the lump in my throat.

Hell, you’re as mule-headed as your Grandpap. Won’t take help when the hand is held out.” Lonnie Earl started the cruiser’s motor and pulled out onto the road toward town, without turning on his headlights. I followed suit, without headlights. Heading up the mountain instead. Toward trouble.

I was born on this old hunchbacked Kentucky mountain. Spent all of my twenty -three years here, walked my first steps here and drank my first sip of water from a spring here. My grandpa’s grandpa settled this place with his brothers when they weren’t nothing much here except Injuns. There’s a straight line running across this mountain from me to Ireland. I was the last one left, living on the land, and I didn’t plan on being the Murphy that broke the line.

At the backside of my grandpa’s place, there’s an old log road. If you didn’t know it was there you’d never be able to find it. Twenty years of sassafras bushes and kudzu have hidden the opening, but I had walked it all my life, first hunting with my grandpa, and then hunting alone, after he passed a year ago. The Feds thought they had my only route home blocked, but there was too much outlaw hill-jack in my heart to ever get boxed in. They didn’t know bout the log road that connected Highway Eighty-Nine to Mount Scratchum. Glancing at my black bag co-pilot, I made a sharp left and headed up the brush-covered log road.

Limbs scraped against the windows of the truck and at times if it hadn’t been for the ruts in in the road left by long ago log trucks, I wouldn’t have known where I was. Gripping the wheel tight to keep my hands on it, I tried to steer the truck in the ruts, using the full moon as my only light. I had to get to the cave about a half-mile up the hill and stash the black bag before the Feds caught up with me. Getting caught with four kilos of coke wasn’t going to happen.

The brush on the log road was getting thicker, and somehow I had steered out of the ruts. Still running with no lights I strained my eyes and I searched for some sign of the road. All of a sudden, there was two giant oak trees smack-dab in front of me. No time to turn the truck away from the trees. I tried to maneuver it between them. Not enough space. I locked my elbows and gripped the wheel with all my strength. Metal crunched as the truck came to a bone-jarring halt. The front quarter panels caved in with a loud metallic screech sound as the truck wedged between the trees. “Motherfuckin son of a bitch.”

Jamming the gears into reverse I tried to back out. No luck. I shoved the gear, hard into first, jammed the gas pedal. The truck rocked, but didn’t move. I continued to jam the gears forward, then reverse, shoving the gas pedal to the floor. Sweat burned my eyeballs. The engine roared, protesting my ill treatment. Black smoke boiled from the tailpipe. I couldn’t shake loose. If I wasn’t being followed I could get my chainsaw and whittle away at one of the trees, get loose. If they weren’t after me, I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

I flipped open the glove box and shoved my Glock 19 into the waist of my jeans. As I climbed out of the truck, I grabbed the duffel bag and continued up the hill on foot. The going was slower, but my sense of direction was stronger. From my vantage point on the hill, I could see a group of faint lights moving around on the hillside below me. The Feds must be looking for me with flashlights. “Stupid assholes.” Don’t they know how far light carries on this hill?

I left the log road and stumbled through the undergrowth to the mouth of the cave. Using my cigarette lighter, I searched around the wet limestone wall looking for a ledge to stash the duffel bag. Finally finding a crevice in the rock. I shoved the bag in as far as it would go.

OK, step one complete. Now I just had to figure out what step two was. I lit a cigarette and leaned against the damp cave wall to smoke and think. Lonnie Earl was right. They’s us and they’s them. The Feds didn’t have any stake in this mess. To them everything was black and white, right or wrong. I had to get back to town and turn myself in to Lonnie Earl. I crushed out the cigarette with my boot. It was going to be a long walk to town.

As I walked out of he mouth of the cave, I heard a loud rustling in the leaves. Dropping to a crouch I scanned the woods, looking for the source of the sound. After the darkness of the cave, the moonlight seemed as bright as day. To my left I caught a brief glimpse of a man just as he raised a pistol in his right hand up and fired a round. It hit the rock above my head and a spray of rock and lead fragments ripped through my shirt and embedded into the skin of my shoulder. I fumbled with the pistol in my waistband. Before I could free it the man fired off a second round. Sparks danced off the rock beside my head.

Finally freeing the pistol from my jeans, I aimed and fired two rounds off quickly in the man’s direction. I guess my night vision or aim was a little better than his because he screamed as he crashed into the underbrush. I dived behind a big log and listened. I could hear him breathing heavily. Each exhale was punctuated with a soft moan. He wasn’t moving.

I called out, “Don’t shoot. I’m coming out. If you shoot me, we’ll both die here on this hillside. It’s a lose-lose situation.” As I began cautiously scooting toward the end of the log, I paused, listened, still just the ragged, moaning breathing. I half-stood and began inching my way toward the sound. The toe of my boot connected with something hard in the forest leaf bed. It was his weapon. I picked up the Sig and shoved it into my pocket. Once again I strained my eyes, searching the underbrush. He was laying about fifteen feet away, tangled in leaves and grapevines. Even with just the moon for light, I could see blood splatter on the leaves and in the spot where his kneecap should have been was a big hole that spurted blood in time with his heartbeat.

Keeping my pistol aimed at his head, I watched as he weakly fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out a shield. I couldn’t make out the words, but I could see the letters DEA engraved on it. “You shoot-happy motherfucker, you just wanted me dead. I guess things didn’t work out like you planned.”

I tried to hold the Glock steady as I pulled my belt free of its loops. I threw the belt onto his belly. “Put this around your leg, pull it tight, and when I get to town, I’ll send somebody for you.” I watched as he struggled to stop the flow of blood with my belt. “Hang in there. Somebody’ll come for you,” I repeated, even though he knew I was lying. We both knew that he’d bleed out before I would get help to him.

I turned and started making my way back down the hill. I could hear the man grunting as he struggled with the belt. I could no longer see the dim lights. They must have wound on around the hill. That would explain why the man’s buddies hadn’t come running at the sound of gunfire. The hill must have muffled the shots, just like it now muffled their lights. I would walk about fifty yards then pause, listening, for the sound of anyone in the brush.

Occasionally when I’d stop I’d hear the rustle of small animals in the leaves, then a Whippoorwill began his lonesome cry far off in the deep trees. It trilled its sad cry, “Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, “the sound close, but just out of reach. A memory flashed in my mind, my grandpa and me coon hunting, late at night, in almost this exact spot. My Grandpa told me once that the Injuns said that the Whippoorwill was the spirit of the dead calling out to the living. Letting them know the dead was watching over them.

I had come up on this hill tonight a dope mule, and I was walking down a murderer. I wanted to howl at the dark sky, “I ain’t no murderer.” It sure wasn’t what my grandpa wanted when he left me this piece of dirt, along with all its debt and back taxes. Until that bird began to sing, I thought Grandpa meant for me to hold onto this land any way I could, but now I was beginning to understand that he wanted me to not only survive, but to thrive. He left me the land so I’d be grounded, to have something to work for. The debt he couldn’t help.

I turned around and headed back toward the cave, not listening for sound nor trying to be quiet. As I stumbled through the brush, I realized that I was more important to Grandpa than a piece of dirt. Just owning a piece of land didn’t mean nothing if you didn’t have family around you. It didn’t mean nothing if you had lost the part of yourself that was a human being. I pulled the two pistols out of my jeans and threw them hard as I could into the brush.

When I reached the DEA agent, he was pale and sweaty, but still breathing.

“This is going to hurt, but I have to stop the bleeding,” I said as I pulled with all my might, cinching the belt tight around his wounded leg. He cried out with pain, but the bleeding slowed to an ooze. I had to get him to help as quick as I could. Damn, if I hadn’t got the truck stuck……If I hadn’t jammed the truck into the trees, I wouldn’t be here right now, trying to save the man I’d put a bullet into. I was going to have to carry him off the hill. I’d carried gutted deer down before. I’d carry him in the same way, slung over my shoulders. If I could carry a deer, I could carry a man.

Dropping to my knee I tugged his body into my arms. Sticky, thick blood oozed from under the belt and ran onto my hands. The Agent’s eyes were glazed, but he looked directly at me just before I grunted with everything in me and hoisted him onto my shoulders.

He groaned weakly. A man, a dead-weight man, is a lot heavier than a gutted deer. The muscles in my legs quivered as I struggled to rise to standing. He groaned and I grunted as I heaved myself to my feet. Bracing his injured leg against my chest, I tried to stop the stream of blood with my body. I staggered and stumbled down the hill. The old log road would be easier walking, we needed to get off the hill fast and the fastest route was straight down, through the underbrush.

With each step I stumbled, my feet tangled in saw briars. I cursed and prayed when I tripped over half-rotten tree limbs. “Please, God, don’t let me be a murderer.” I wasn’t praying for the man’s life. I was praying for myself. With every blundering step, I repeated my prayer. My right foot sunk into a deep hole and I crashed forward onto my face. As I fell, I dropped the man. He thudded to the ground and rolled forward about three feet without making a sound. I lay there, sucking air into my lungs around the leaves that now filled my mouth. With each breath I tasted the earthy-copper taste of the agent’s blood. My ankle throbbed. Standing slowly I tested my weight on it. Painful, but not broken.

I limped over to the agent and as I searched his neck with my fingers for signs of life he opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered, “Thank you.”

Now I prayed, “God, don’t let this man die.”

I once again hoisted my burden onto my shoulders and began struggling on down the hill. Just as the lights from the Feds’ cars came into view, my boots became tangled in vines and leaves and I tripped, once again falling, dumping the agent into the tangle of kudzu vines.

The agents standing by their parked cars grabbed their lights to see the cause of the noise, the darkness was penetrated by beams of light from their high-powered flashlights. Suddenly the hill was lit up like a city street. I held my hands in front of my eyes to shield them from the blinding light as I struggled to my feet.

“Down on the ground! Get your fucking hands behind your back! Down on the ground or we’ll shoot!” Ten voices yelled at the same time. Then the distinct clacking of a pump shotgun being racked. Quickly, I dropped to the ground. I didn’t want to hear the next sound.

Before I could get my hands behind me, a booted foot stomped into the middle of my back, forcing all the air out of my lungs. I coughed and sputtered, as handcuffs were clamped tightly onto my wrists. Practiced hands patted down both sides of my body and tugged my wallet free of my back pocket.

“We got him! Boys, meet Pharyl Murphy,” said the smart-ass with my billfold. “In the flesh. He’s not a ghost after all.”

Rough hands pulled me to my feet and as I was shoved on down the hill, I saw men gathered around the agent. He wasn’t dead. They wouldn’t be moving so fast just to haul a body off the hill. Thank the Lord, he wasn’t dead, at least not yet. Without much ceremony, one of the agents read me my rights and threw me into the back of an unmarked patrol car. He leaned against the side of the car resting his hand on his holster.

“Man, is that guy going to be ok?” I asked.

“Shut the fuck up,” the agent growled.

I leaned back in the seat and tried to get a glimpse of the man in the unsteady flashlight beams on the hill. I could only see the movement of arms and legs. It wasn’t long before I heard the whine of sirens coming up the mountain.

When the ambulance pulled up to the base of the hill, I was surprised to see Lonnie Earl park his cruiser behind it. He followed the paramedics up into the brush, and it seemed like an awful long time passed before he followed the medics carrying the cot back down. As they quickly loaded the man into the back of the ambulance, I caught a partial look at his pale face. He appeared to moan as one of the ambulance boys stuck a needle in his arm. He was still alive. I might be a shooter, but I weren’t no killer. As I leaned back in the seat I became aware of the handcuffs digging into my wrists and the throbbing in my ankle. He was alive, and so was I.

“Can I have a word with your prisoner?” Lonnie Earl asked the agent who was guarding me.

“Guess it won’t hurt nothing. As long as I’m listening,” the agent replied.

“You hurt?” Lonnie Earl asked as he stuck his head through the car’s front window.

“I’m all right. Is that other fellow going to make it?”

“Looks like he lost a lot of blood,” Lonnie Earl nodded toward my shirt, which was stiff with the agent’s drying blood. “And most of its on you.”

“I guess it’s all on me.”

“Son, keep your mouth shut, and I’ll see you in the morning. Nothing’s going to get settled on this hill tonight.” Lonnie Earl stood, rapped the side of the car with his knuckles and walked slowly back to his cruiser. Somewhere far up the hillside the whippoorwill wailed a sad song.

 

dixonCecile Dixon is a retired ED nurse, who has returned home, to her beloved Kentucky hills to pursue her writing. She holds an MFA from Bluegrass Writers Studio and her
work has appeared in Tributaries, The Dead Mule, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel and KY Herstory Anthologies.

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Fiend’s Last Job, fiction by Matt Phillips

One

You do this job long enough, and you get so you want an audience; its not vanity, but a vague notion that youre not appreciated. If a little old wife watches you smash her husbands hand to pieces with a sledgehammer, then you know it happened—her screams and tears and vomit make the whole thing real. Oh, theres always the money. But I reached a point along about my forties when I stopped caring for the cash. I need enough for a steak dinner and a nights worth of Rolling Rock; simple tastes keep me happy; I never did latch onto fancy pleasures.

When I got the final call from corporate, I was laying in a lopsided motel bed on the outskirts of Blythe. Thats a little old California town halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix; I still had dirt beneath my fingernails from the night before, and fresh blisters shone plump on my palms. The temperature was 110 degrees—faulty air conditioner in the room—and my cellphone stuck to my ear when I answered it. Its Fiend here, you got me on a day off.

You already finished that other job, huh?

The voice—I knew this one—had a whistle to it, like when a guy gets a few teeth knocked out and has to tell the story before hes ready.

I said, Finished late last night. Already called it in.What you do is leave a message when you finish a job. They send you the rest of the money in the post, or you can pick it up when youre back in town.

I just got here,” the voice said. Hadn’t heard, but—”

Is Fairman in?

No, not today. You want to leave a message?

Tell him he owes me four hundred from the Monday night game. Ill go double or nothing if he wants.

You cant call him?

I dont have his number, in case.

Right,the voice said. Right. Ill tell him when I see him. Look, Im sorry about getting you so soon after another job. Its just, theres a thing that came up and youre closest.

I switched the cellphone to my other ear and let sweat build up on that side. I thought about the blue pool outside, how it was surrounded by sun-bleached lawn chairs and a few rainbow-colored umbrellas. A couple beers and a swim, that was next for me. Something in Phoenix?

No, Blythe—thats where you stayed, right?

Outside of there, but Im close.

The voice explained that there was a lady who ran a dry cleaning service in the business district. This lady needed help with a meeting, something about a delivery from little old Mexico. I imagined it was cartel business, had the drug trade written all over it, but I guessed I could stand there and look pretty (and tough) for twenty minutes.

What times she need me?

If you could get over there around six, I bet shed be happy. Shell pay you as soon as it’s done. You want me to put the pay from yesterday in the mail, send it to the PO Box?

Part of me wanted to run up to Laughlin and spend a few days in one of those river casinos; I liked the blackjack tables. Tell you what: Split it in half and send that. Keep the rest in the bank for me. I may run up to Laughlin for a day or two.

The voice said, Right, save some cash for when you get back. Ill get it in the mail, should get to you day after tomorrow.

Thats fine.

You dont mind the wait?

Fine with me. I like the heat.

Two

You drive more than anything in this profession. That, or you sit in a car and wait for something to happen, or you wait for somebody to call you, or you wait for so-and-so or whoever to walk out of this or that place. What it meant was a pinched nerve in my lower back; that evening, after my swim, I did some full hamstring stretches and a few deep squats before I climbed into the Buick. I didnt have a long drive—ten minutes or so—but over the decades I learned that discipline kept a habit fresh, and thats about as much as you can control in this life. Unless you have a gun in your hand; I carried a gun myself, but it wasnt something I used often. Like anyone, I waved it around when I had to, but I never used a gun when my sledgehammer would do. My grandfather—may God rest his eternal soul—taught me to use the least of tools for any job; that helps you make sure to put your own grit into it. After all, theres very little a bullet can do that a hammer and a few nails can’t. You just have to get closer, that’s all.

As I drove, the sun glared eyelike over the highway, a scalpel-thin strip that ran into knuckled desert-scape. I’d run that stretch from Blythe to Phoenix more times than I wanted to count. The way to get through it is simple: You put your sunglasses over your eyes and latch one hand onto the steering wheel. I thanked God the voice didnt ask me to run to Phoenix.

It wasnt far from my motel to the Blythe business district. I got off at the second exit, turned right, and found parking along the street near a billiards hall. Out the dusty windshield, I marked the dry cleaning service at the next intersection. It sat on the street corner, a faded blue building with a Native American mural on one side; the mural showed a warrior crouched against a slit of moon. In one hand, he held a long willow stick that curved at the end. I noticed he was scratching a line in the desert sand and, behind the line, a blue cloud came after it like water. Wrought-iron covered the buildings windows like prison bars. I watched for fifteen minutes. That was another thing all the years taught me: Watch before you run into something, even if the corporation sets the job up for you.

I’d be lying if I said I didnt suspect something odd with this job. I was getting up there; mid-fifties put me on the outside edge of productive, and I knew that Scrubber Joe had been put town before Christmas. Nobody knew why, but I had this itch inside me that said it was age.

Maybe it was time for me? No—I was still granite when it came to difficult jobs, and I always came back with what the corporation wanted. Here though, the chance for a drug angle made me uneasy. Most times, my gigs had to do with gamblers. As a heavy gambler myself, I knew when a man was lying, when he had the money, and when he didnt. I also knew—call it instinct—when a person could get the money. I carved out my niche, as they say.

Careful, Fiend, I reminded myself, careful with this one.

I left the car unlocked and crossed the street toward the blue building. Traffic was light and the sun began its low sweep into the mountains. Shadows ran from the buildings behind me. I stopped and scanned the street; I was pretty sure nobody was watching the building. Maybe the meet was somewhere else.

I reached the building and entered. I kept one hand close to my right leg; I had a small pistol strapped to my ankle, a professional obligation—I said before, I didnt plan on using the gun. It was cool inside the building. There was a counter and cash machine in front, a spot to hang garments off to one side and, behind that, a snake-looking machine that rotated the clothes when you pushed a button. I called to the silence: Anybody here?

Back here.A woman’s voice—not old—with a smokers edge.

I moved through colored dresses hanging in plastic bags and walked past the snake-machine. It was full with clothes, all kinds of colors: Coats, dresses, button-downs, slacks, womens blouses. Where are you?

Back here.

I followed the voice into a dingy office with an old desk. Receipts were pinned to the wall in bunches and a square-top computer sat on the desk. A wet soap smell filled the building, but it was strongest in the office. There was a small woman with long dark hair in a chair. She stood and held out her hand.

I shook it. They call me Fiend.

Fiend is pretty close to friend,she said. I’m Rosa.”

Hey, Rosa.” She was quite beautiful with soft brown eyes—man, those eyes!—and a coffee complexion. A memory slipped into my head: I saw a young girl with those same eyes hunched in a dark closet; I saw my own hands reach for her—I pushed the memory back where it belonged. We doing this here, or somewhere else?I leaned against the doorway and studied my dirty fingernails.

She cleared her throat and sank into the chair. She swiveled to a beige file cabinet and opened a bottom drawer; there was an upended lockbox in the drawer and she dialed in the combination. Across the street,she said, in the pool hall. Did you see it?

Sure, I saw it when I came in.

The lockbox opened and Rosa scooped fifteen fat bundles of cash into a canvas shopping bag. The bills were well-worn twenties; I knew it must be street money. Okay, so shes paying somebody for something. A debt, maybe.

Rosa turned to me and scratched one cheek. Thanks for coming, Friend.

Is there anything I should know before we go in there?

She lifted her eyebrows and I had that same feeling as before; those eyes are familiar, I thought. Could I have seen her before, on another job? No, theres no way in hell. Id remember a woman like her. I remembered most people. That was part of the job.

Do you have a gun?

A pistol,” I said. I hope not to use it.

You won’t. It’s just good to have. They may say angry things to you, but dont take it as a threat—it’s just the way they are.

A cartel?

Her shoulders bobbed and she lifted the money bag from the desk. Its not drugs. I promise. A money exchange, that’s all.”

I bit a fingernail, hesitated, turned away from her. Let’s get this over with. I got a medium rare steak waiting for me.

Three

Standard billiards hall: Dim light glaring over three rows of off-kilter, well-worn pool tables. A bar on the east side of the room, and a broken mirror behind a row of cheap liquor bottles. Rosa nodded at the bartender and sauntered through the tables. Against the far wall, I spotted a large shadow of a man—hes bigger than you, Fiend—and a small man with a lopsided mustache and reading glasses. I lingered a few feet behind as Rosa approached. Closer, I recognized the shadow; he leaned into a shard of light and his gap-toothed grin surprised me.

Fairman?I grew conscious of the pistol strapped to my ankle. How long for me to reach it? A second? Less? What are you doing here?

Rosa tossed the money bag onto a pool table; it dropped like cement mix.

The little man said, Is it all there?

All fifteen thousand, like we agreed.Rosa tilted one hip. You want to count it?

Whats Fairman doing here?I moved my hand toward my ankle.

Fairman said, “Dont pull a gun, Fiend. Youve made it this far.

I hesitated, looked to Rosa. Those eyes again; she stared at me like a child. And then I had it. A child. I recognized those eyes and a memory grabbed at my throat: That tiny girl in little old Gila. It had to be, what, twenty years ago? I remembered how I pulled her from a closet down there; it was in a safe house run by a coyote who called himself Dagger, a hard-eyed son-of-a-gun from El Centro. He held people he brought over hostage, kept them locked in the safe house until their families sent him more money. Every so often, in this job, a person gets what they deserve. Dagger got it, and I gave it to him. Nails in the kitchen table and—I’ll admit it—a bullet for the road. But I found the girl there. I took her to the police station, dropped her off and, before she turned to look for me, I was doing ninety miles-per-hour on I-8.

Sometimes they come back, I thought. Rosa did.

The little mans voice broke into my thoughts. Youre out, Fiend.

I looked at Fairman. Double or nothing next week?

Nope,he said. I wont be seeing you anymore. Not unless you talk.

He won’t.” Rosa stared at me, her brown eyes unwavering. Let’s go, Friend. It’s my turn to buy you a steak dinner—I know a place.

I’m out, I thought. Rosa bought me my retirement. Little old Rosa. But I got no money, no savings. Not besides what I have on me, and from the job last night. How am I going to live when—”

Push it if you want to, Fiend.Fairman stepped toward me, dipped a hand into his pocket. Youre an old man and there are two ways out. This,he nodded at Rosa, and the other way.

The hard way, I thought, and the worse way.

Little old Rosa. My, oh my.

Four

Outside the billiards hall, beside my car, Rosa studied me with her brown eyes. What are you doing, friend?

I popped the Buicks trunk. Fairman owes me money.I lifted my sledgehammer, propped it on a shoulder, and slammed the trunk lid. The clang sounded against the boulevards light traffic. I squinted at Rosa and motioned to the billiards hall. I need to go in there and take it from him.And then, with a half-smile, I said: I sure could use an audience.

mattphillipsMatt Phillips lives in San Diego. His books are REDBONE, BAD LUCK CITY, and THREE KINDS OF FOOL ( August 2016, from All Due Respect Books). More information at: www.mattphillipswriter.com

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Blue Lights, essay by Paul Crenshaw

When the cop pulled us over at close to 4 in the morning, my drunken uncle said to let him do the talking. The blue lights lit his face in the rearview mirror, and later it would occur to me how much time we spend looking behind us, but I was too drunk and sick with worry to wonder about anything then.

He had woken me at one by kicking the foot of my bed after he’d snuck into my mother’s house.

“Get up,” he whispered, “there’s beer to be drunk.”

In the dark room he was a greater darkness. I was 14 at the time, thin as the light through the open window. My voice was just deepening and here was my uncle wanting to take me out into the night because he had borrowed his boss’s car, a Turbo Z that would hit 120 on the long stretch of highway that took us toward town and somewhere close to 140 when we passed the police station on our way home.

I did let him do the talking, both when the cop leered outside the window and when he coaxed me out of the comfort of my bed. I got dressed in the dark while he stood in the hall hoping my mother didn’t hear, and we went out whispering, him telling me how fast the car would go and how much beer he had. He was 27, with a slim black mustache like the one I wished I could grow and black hair feathered back, my youngest uncle whom I adored because of times like these, because at that age I already had something swimming in my bloodstream like the alcohol I was soon to be sucking down, some predisposition for the dark hours. I knew where the night was headed.

My uncle folded himself into the small car and we screamed up to seventy before we cleared my street. Near the highway we hit a small hill so hard we came off the ground and spilled our already-opened beers when we landed, swerving, my uncle saying shit and fuck before he finally righted us. When he had the car under control he downshifted and popped the clutch and then we really began to fly. It was a movement toward who I would become, a man more like my uncle, driving fast and drinking hard and seeking sex in the small hours of the night before the woman who would eventually become my wife finally settled me down.

We went through town past the darkened houses and cruised through the parking lots of cinderblock bars. I didn’t know what we were looking for, only suspected there was something out there in the night we were drawn to. Already I knew there was something wrong with me, some hole I’d try to fill with booze or anger or disregard. I could tell you what it was now, for I’ve spent many nights looking for the same thing under the spinning stars and have more often than not found it, but I knew nothing then. We drove through nearby towns where the streets harbored yet a few teenagers and past yellow-lit bars where the glow of cigarettes in the parking lot looked like some pattern a person might parse to understand what it was that drew him out here. In the interior light of a Ford pickup a woman was going down on a man with his eyes rolled back in his head, and my uncle honked the horn to scare them before speeding off, but the woman never stopped what she was doing nor did the man look up. It was the first sex I had ever seen and I was already half-drunk from my half-beer and so told my uncle, talking tough, to get us some girls, man.

At a gas station in a deserted town we ran into two girls who invited us back to their house, where a bearded man a few years older than me and twice my size welcomed us in by downing a beer in one long drink then throwing the can at the wall. He offered his hand, squeezing hard. Later, when I was in the bedroom and awkwardly pushing inside the girl he had thought was his, he would scream at the locked door and tell me he was going to kill me, until my uncle told him to shut the fuck up. When we left he flexed his hands, deciding whether or not he could take my uncle and then me. The girl kissed me. She ran her tongue lightly over my lips and I thought I was dead or in heaven one. I didn’t want to go back home. I wanted to live in the Turbo Z and listen to REO Speedwagon unable to fight this feeling anymore, to stay drunk all my life, to never look in the rear view mirror. I wanted to stay inside the girl, her arching her back to my young quick thrusts before she spun me over and climbed on top and licked my left nipple. I was numb from booze and sex and when I came I told her I loved her but now I don’t even remember her name.

Nor do I remember the house. Or where we were or what town we were in or how long ago, really, that night has been. These are just the particulars of the case. The facts of the matter. They don’t really tell you anything. My 27 year old uncle, feeling his youth slipping away, got his 14 year old nephew drunk and laid and I loved him for it. Just as I would love him the moment when, after the cops finally caught up and blue lights bloomed behind us, how for just a second I thought we might go, and keep going.

crenshawPaul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.

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Taking Grandma Home, fiction by Ginger Hamilton

There are two main sections in the family cemetery, the unfortunate “soldiers of the cause” and the “damned Yankees.” Factions of my kinfolk still don’t speak to one another due to choices made during the War Between the States. This inability to agree is a clan trait.
The last time any of us from West Virginia had been to the farm some twenty-two years before, Grandma and her sisters had a spat with not a word exchanged since. Two of Grandma’s maiden sisters still lived there because they couldn’t agree on how to split the property. Israel and Palestine could give diplomacy lessons to our family. Because I loved my grandma and because she begged me, I agreed (with great reluctance) to take Grandma back to her childhood home the summer of 1985.

When I was a child, my family went to the farm during my breaks from school and it was heavenly. My younger sisters, Sally and Liz, and I twined daisy chains for hours and wore them as proudly as Mardi Gras queens. Sally gobbled apples from the orchard limited only by yellow jackets and tummy aches.

Eventually I’d tire of my sisters. A cool drink from the pump presented an excuse to sit with the women while they gossiped, deftly paring away the walls of our neighbors’ private lives along with the apple peels that fell from their razor-sharp knives. The few times a vehicle came up the dirt road, someone would look up from her work and make an explanation for the disturbance: “That’s old man Bryson’s grandson, carrying the grandchildren in from Roanoke.”

As a child I thought these women knew everything and everyone and lived an ideal existence there on that farm. But it had been twenty-two years since my last perfect summer on the farm, and now seven of us were traveling 168 miles crammed together in a stifling Lincoln Continental, like hogs going to slaughter.

To take Grandma home.

A lot had changed since the three sisters’ argument back in 1963. President Kennedy had been assassinated, man walked on the moon, Pop-Tarts were invented, and the interstate system had been completed. Grandpa was the tour guide on every trip to the “country,” as we called it and well before the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed, I had been taught never to question his word. Unfortunately, my grandfather had never driven the interstate and even worse, I was unaware of this. Both my ignorance and obedience proved regretful.

The Scandinavian region is famous for their saunas, but southern West Virginia in July is an immense steam bath. A sauna is hot, but at least it’s a dry heat. Late July in southern West Virginia feels like a blistering barber towel on your face. The humidity takes your breath away with a make-you-wish-for-winter kind of hot. We took Grandma home during dog days in August, and August in southern West Virginia makes July feel like Christmas.
This particular August day, six of us were in my Daddy’s brand-new Lincoln Continental. It had sleek leather seats and total climate control. The air conditioner could form ice on the windows — probably could have snowed inside if you wanted. That car was bought for total luxury, for traveling in comfort. I couldn’t live without air conditioning, but my grandparents never lived with it. Grandpa didn’t like air conditioning — didn’t trust it, swore it would lead to his death from pneumonia — so six of us traveled in Dad’s new Lincoln with our legs glued by perspiration to the leather seats so Grandpa wouldn’t die

from pneumonia.
Well, actually, there was a seventh occupant — Grandma Virginia. The heat never did bother Grandma.

Besides, she was cremated three days before.

Grandpa’s eyesight was bad and he couldn’t drive any more. I was the only other one in the family with a license, and I volunteered to take Grandma home. My parents were divorced and I had to move Heaven to talk Daddy into loaning me his car. I drove a Mercury Lynx and it just would not accommodate six passengers.

Grandpa was horrified when I suggested we put Grandma in the trunk, and so Grandma rode without a seat belt, on Sally’s lap. I figured no further harm would befall Grandma if we had an accident. As I helped Grandpa with his seat belt, I noticed a Folger’s coffee can between his legs.

“You know I have trouble with my bladder,” he grumbled.

My joy at working out the seating arrangements dribbled away with the mental image of Grandpa fumbling with his can and spilling its contents inside Daddy’s new car.
Our journey started off with a quiet, pleasant mood. It was early and the sun hadn’t risen above the mountains yet. Mom, Sally and Liz chatted happily and counted animals in the fields we passed.  Grandpa and the baby slept. It was the most peaceful hour of the trip.

Soon the sun topped the mountains and warmth quickly added to the discomfort of the already humid air. Mom lowered her window to allow some air movement but Sally whined, “My hair’s getting mussed and I just had it done!” I turned the climate control on and we got a moment’s relief before Grandpa hollered he was going to catch his death. Mentioning the word “death” set Liz off keening and wailing in a crying jag, and Sally glared at me. (Thank goodness for rear view mirrors or I never would have known). The baby was miserable and began to cry. Mom was miserable and began to cry. I told Mom it would be all right. (I told the baby that it would be all right but she knew more than the rest of us and continued to wail).

Sally started fooling with her hair and bumped Grandpa’s arm with her elbow, hitting his Diet Coke can. Watching Sally glare at me in the rear view mirror, I caught a glimpse of the white-and-red can spinning wildly in mid-air before it fell and Grandpa yelled “Land-a-Goshen!” Liz turned to see what was going on just as Sally, trying to avoid the soda spewing from Grandpa’s pop can, moved sideways and caught Liz’s eye with her elbow.

I was busy keeping the car in its lane at 65 mph and trying to watch the events in the back when Grandpa called out, “Turn around, we’ve gone too far!” I exited the interstate at the next exit. As soon as I stopped, the family scrambled out of that Lincoln like clowns from a circus car.

Mom checked Liz’s eye while Liz wailed Sally had “done it on purpose.” Sally climbed out, patted her hair, and insisted it was Grandpa’s fault. Mom declared Liz’s eye was swollen and sure to bruise. I took the baby out of her seat and began rocking her (she had started crying again). Grandpa struggled to get out of the back of the car and defend himself against Sally’s accusations.

Suddenly it dawned on me the genuinely important issue was to clean the spilled soft drink so Dad wouldn’t kill me when I returned his new car!

I thrust the baby into Sally’s arms and dug furiously through the diaper bag for something to clean the spill. Everyone was bickering on the left side of the car, so I ran around to the passenger side. Realizing Liz was no longer holding Grandma’s ashes, I peered inside and saw the box had tipped and now rested with its lid open on the transmission hump.

Grandma’s ashes spilled over into the well where Grandpa’s feet had been right before he kicked over the Folger’s can. The contents of the coffee can and the ashes formed a murky sludge in the well. The Diet Coke can added a surrealistic cherry-on-top dash to the appalling scene.

I wasn’t sure which was worse — the gruesome mix in the floor, or the rest of the family learning what was in the floor. I hastily righted the box.

I knew my father would kill me when I got home. I figured my Grandpa would keel over with heart failure before we got to Dublin. Three funerals in one week were two too many for any family, so I devised a plan.

“Why don’t you-all go inside that restaurant and get cleaned up and order some lunch,” I suggested, knowing my family would never turn down a chance to eat. “I need to clean the spill back here, and then I’ll join you,” I added, as they began to walk toward the building.

Sally held the baby just a little too far away from her body to look natural.  I had to smile. She was probably concerned the baby would mess up her pantsuit somehow. Grandpa huffed and puffed, trying to gain the lead from Sally.  Mom comforted Liz, who was still holding her eye and crying.

A lot of the ashes were still in the box but I couldn’t help wondering what wasn’t.  Shuddering, I realized that line of thinking wasn’t beneficial and forced myself to detach and address the task at hand, and I cleaned the mess the best I could. Perspiration trickled down my back as I entered the restaurant’s ladies room.  With a silent apology to Grandma and God, I rinsed out the Folger coffee can, washed my hands thoroughly, rinsed my face and joined the family at the table.

“Did you get it all cleaned up, Gee?” Mom asked.  Sally looked especially interested in my answer.

“Yes, it’s all cleaned up.”

I wasn’t hungry — guess it was the heat — so I sipped ice water while everyone else ate lunch.  When we got back to the car, Liz realized I’d left “Grandma” in the hot car by herself and began to weep again.

Sally snapped, “Hush up, Liz! Grandma never minded the heat one bit and I doubt she minds it now after being cremated, for God’s sake!”

Grandpa pulled a bandana out of his pocket and loudly blew his nose. Back to the car we traipsed. Everyone had settled down. Full bellies have that effect.

“Where’s my pee can, Gee?  Don’t wanna forget that,” he added.  I set the coffee can between his feet and helped him with his seat belt.  Liz and Sally refused to speak to one another or even ride beside each other, so Liz and Mom got in the back seat, and Sally climbed up front with the baby (who was hungry again by now). I began to nurse the baby and asked Grandpa if we could turn the air conditioner on.

“Not unless you want me to catch my death,” he told me again.

Considering the trouble I’d gone through to prevent that very thing, I figured we could endure without air conditioning for a while longer.  As soon as the baby was fed, I used the last of the wet wipes to clean her, and we set off for Grandma’s home place in Dublin, Virginia.

We hadn’t traveled too far when I started wondering if we were going the right way.  Grandpa was sure we’d shot past our exit while all the excitement was going on, and he told me to continue backtracking.  I really couldn’t remember so I exited and stopped at a gas station. The attendant told me I needed to turn around and head the other way for about thirty miles or so, and I’d see the Dublin exit.

Grandpa refused to believe the man, saying, “He’s just some dumb country cuss, Gee.  He’s prob’ly never been ten miles from whatever town it is he grew up in.”  I reckoned Grandpa had been down to the farm hundreds of times, so he had to be right.

We continued on our Grandpa-directed journey until he saw a road sign that indicated we were approaching the Wytheville/WV Turnpike exit.

“Turn around, Gee, turn around,” he grumbled. “You’re going the wrong way.”

I knew better than to point out he was the one who insisted we go this way. We exited at Fort Chiswell and headed back toward Dublin.  No one spoke. Even the baby was silent.

It was oppressively airless in the car. Starting to feel sick, I eased the windows open. Sally didn’t complain about her hair even though it had wilted and was clinging for dear life to her sweaty red face. Mom stared silently out the window.  Liz had fallen asleep leaning on Mom’s shoulder.  Grandpa watched out his window for a familiar landmark. I started to wonder what the temperature was inside the car, and if the heat could somehow damage

the leather upholstery.
“You’ve gone too far again, Gee!”  Grandpa bellowed. Startled and confused at how I could possibly have missed the Dublin sign, I slowed down and got into the right-hand lane.

“Grandpa, I didn’t see a sign for the Dublin exit.”

“You’re flying down this freeway so fast, nobody saw it.  But there was a sign saying Roanoke, and that’s too far!”

In a split second I realized what had happened. Having never driven the interstate, whenever Grandpa saw the sign for Roanoke, he assumed we were about to reach Roanoke, so he thought we’d gone too far! I explained that to Grandpa (and convinced him it was true), and we made pretty good time the rest of the way.  A trip that should have taken under three hours had turned into nearly six, and we still had to scatter Grandma’s ashes and return home.

Grandpa easily recognized the right route once we got to Dublin and soon we were out in the country. I pulled onto the winding lane in the family cemetery beside the old Methodist church. The church looked just as I remembered it — well, maybe it had a fresh coat or two of white paint added since I was a child, and the men’s and women’s outhouses had been chained and padlocked. The church doors were locked too, something unimaginable when I was a child. Essentially though, the church’s appearance remained unchanged. It was as if we had been transported back to 1963.

I found my great grandparents’ tombstones right next to the gravel road.  We each spoke our parting tender words about Grandma and sang a few hymns.  Grandma’s favorite song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” was sung as we scattered her ashes.  Interestingly enough, this was the official state song of Virginia until 1997 when it was declared the song emeritus and a new song chosen.  I figure the references to “Massa” and “darkey” finally became too much for even the most tolerant of black folks 130 years after the “War Between the States” ended. I imagined my great grandparents there to joyfully greet Grandma as we sang the last lines:
“Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore,
There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.”

After prayers were said and tears were shed, we wordlessly climbed back into the car. There were just six of us returning to West Virginia. This was Grandma’s last trip back home. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, she was once again in the care of her parents and the land she’d grown up on and loved so well. I felt a quiet satisfaction for my role in completing the circle of her life here on earth.

I also felt a rumbling in my belly.

And it wasn’t a gentle rumble that nudged me and said “Hey, you forgot to eat,” but a not-so-early warning of impending intestinal explosion. The hours of oppressive heat and pent-up stress hit my gut with the force of a train derailing. I had to go to the bathroom — now. Vivid images of padlocked chains around the outhouses and locked church doors taunted me. With startling clarity, I realized that we’d have to stop at the farmhouse.

Using reason is always pointless once my pigheaded relatives get set on a concept, and my futile attempt to use logic to sway my grandfather demonstrates what a state of panic I was in. I blurted “Grandpa, we gotta stop at the farmhouse and tell Aunt Joyce and Aunt Ellie about Grandma before we go” in a desperate bid not to reveal my intestinal situation.

“I forbid you to go there, Gee.  Grandma hasn’t spoken to those women in over twenty years, and I won’t disrespect her memory by starting now.”

“But Grandpa,” I pleaded, “They don’t have a phone and I can’t call them and I have to use the bathroom — and I have to go now!”  When all else fails, tell the truth.

Grandpa refused to go onto the porch once we got to the farmhouse.  Mom, Liz and Sally loyally remained in the car, and I raced across the spacious wrap-around porch and pounded on the front door.  After an interminable wait (during which my fear the sisters had gone into town for something and I was stranded with no relief in sight threatened to become the last straw in my ability to contain myself), two tiny shriveled old ladies peeked through a lacy curtain and stared at me curiously.

“Hello, Aunt Joyce and Aunt Ellie” — I didn’t know which was which.  “I’m Gee, Virginia’s granddaughter from West Virginia — you know, Lilly’s daughter?” I prayed they weren’t hard of hearing so I didn’t have to repeat myself. Time was indeed running out. I just prayed nothing else did.

The sisters turned to look at one another in perfect synchronicity like mechanical toy mice or mirror images. No word was spoken but some telepathic agreement was reached, and the door opened.

“Come in, come in.  You’re all grown up now, Gee.  How’s Virginia?” the mirror image on the left said.

Employing what few diplomatic skills I possess, I tried to convey the urgency I was feeling and said, “Oh my gosh, I hate to burst in and ask this, but my tummy’s real upset and I need to use the bathroom.”  By now I was bent over holding my lower belly with both hands and squeezing my legs together.

“Right this way,” said the mirror image on the right, indicating the room to her left. Excusing myself, I dashed past the mirror sisters, ran through the bedroom and entered the kitchen.  I saw the toilet through a doorway on the far side of the wall.  Relieved, I entered the bathroom, hurriedly closed the door behind me and pulled the chain to turn on the overhead light. That’s when I noticed the tub was full of potatoes. Disbelieving, I saw the sink was filled with apples.  Worst of all, there was no water whatsoever in the toilet bowl.

Panicking and bewildered, I turned back to the kitchen. The mirror image sisters had caught up and were smiling at me.

“Um, where can I use the bathroom,” I asked, hopeful they could point to some secret place in the two-room farmhouse I hadn’t already seen. They looked at each other simultaneously, employing that same secret telepathic timing, and the sister on the left said, “Papa never finished hooking up the plumbing to the bathroom.  You can use the chamber pot,” and she pointed to a bedside commode with a lid on it.  The right side sister removed the cover with a graceful flourish that would put a French chef to shame, revealing a banana peel at the bottom.

Thoroughly defeated, far past discomfort and in actual pain now, I could wait no longer.  The mirror sisters were virtual strangers — I didn’t even know which was Joyce and which was Ellie — but I knew I couldn’t delay another second. I barely sat down in time. This was truly the worst moment of my life.  Here I sat in the most humiliating situation I’d ever been in, doing the most embarrassing thing I’d ever done in front of anyone.

The mirror sisters calmly looked on as if I were only tying my shoe. “Where is Virginia?” the left mirror sister asked.

“Yes, how is she?” the right mirror sister inquired.
Minimizing my bodily noises, I wondered what the etiquette in such a situation was.

Panting, I thought out what to say.
“Well . . . Grandma has been very sick for a long time . . . and actually . . . she passed away . . . I’m sorry . . . a few days ago.”  The mirror sisters turned to look at one other as calmly as if we were all sitting at the kitchen table drinking cider and I’d just said Grandma was in the car and would be right along directly.

“Where will she be buried?” the one on the left asked.

“Yes, where will she be buried?” the one on the right parroted. Oh, hell, I thought. It just keeps getting better.

They stood, patiently waiting for an answer.  I sat, patiently waiting for toilet paper.

“Um, excuse me but where is the toilet paper, please?”

“Oh, we keep it in the bedroom and bring it back and forth when we need to,” Left Mirror Sister answered. Right Mirror Sister disappeared into the other room and returned with the toilet paper roll.

I had been wrong; that hadn’t been the worst moment of my life.  It was getting worse. Lacking the nerve to ask them to leave at such a crucial time in breaking the news, I performed the final humiliating paperwork with an audience blandly looking on, expectantly waiting for an answer.

“Well, Grandma wanted to be cremated. She asked me to scatter her ashes on your parents’ graves, and we just did that before I stopped here to inform you.”

Both my jobs were done. Now all I had to do was craft small talk, wash my hands, and make my get-away. Once again, the plan was easier developed than carried out.
The mirror sisters walked out to the car with me.  Mom and my sisters got out and the five women began talking and weeping.  Grandpa took a little longer to warm up, but eventually he too chatted with my great aunts.  He even knew which was Joyce and which was Ellie.

Aunt Ellie (Left Mirror Sister) admired the baby and told me how much she looked like my Grandma Virginia.  Grandpa seemed to get along better with Aunt Joyce, and they moseyed down the lane to continue their conversation. The rest of us walked around the farm, lost in our own memories.

A little later, we all went inside. Chairs materialized and we sat around the rough kitchen table and continued chatting. Everyone ate thick ham sandwiches prepared by Aunt Ellie while I nursed the baby. Grandpa helped Aunt Joyce pull an ancient trunk out of the bedroom closet and we looked through family photographs dating back to the Civil War. Listening to stories about all those dead relatives made me sad knowing another had joined their ranks.

We hugged, kissed, promised to write one another and visit again soon. The West Virginia branch of the family piled back into the car to return home.  Just before I backed down the drive, I asked Aunt Joyce what the sisters’ disagreement had been all those years ago.

“You know, Gee, I don’t remember.”

“Neither do I,” Aunt Ellie added.

It was dark by the time I got on the interstate.  Each of us was exhausted from the trip, the

heat and the emotional toll, and soon all my passengers (except Grandpa) were sleeping.

“Thank you, Gee, for what you did today.”

“You’re welcome, Grandpa. I was honored to be able to do it.”

“No, I mean bringing the family back together. Thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome, Grandpa. I love you.”

“I love you too. I have a favor to ask.”

“What’s that, Grandpa,” I asked, a little nervous and hoping he didn’t ask me to take some back country road that I was sure to get lost on.

“When I go, do you promise to scatter my ashes where Grandma’s ashes are?”

“On two conditions.”

“What conditions,” he asked.

“One, that you don’t try to give me any directions on the way down. If you do, I swear my hand to God I’ll throw your ashes out on the interstate.”

He laughed and agreed. “What’s the other condition?”

“That I can run the air conditioner and you won’t complain about it, even if you do catch your death of pneumonia.”

Grandpa chuckled, then giggled, then laughed till he had to wipe away tears with his old bandana. He was once again my ornery joke-loving grandfather for the first time since Grandma passed away. Soon, he nodded off to sleep. I drove the rest of the way without once getting lost except in my own thoughts about family relationships and how easily rifts form for silly reasons.

The next evening, I received an irate phone call from my Dad. He’d found the Diet Coke can under the front seat of the Lincoln.

“Dammit, Gee,” he said, “I let you take my new car and I find a soda can under the seat.  The least you could have done was thrown it away! You are so irresponsible!”

Before I took Grandma home, I’d have responded with an argument about how responsible I’d been to clean everything else up without anyone even knowing the ashes had spilled. Before I took Grandma home, my righteous indignation would’ve kicked in and I’d be offended at my Dad’s comments. But since I took Grandma home, I drew a deep breath, and simply apologized.

hamiltongingerGinger Hamilton is a ninth-generation Appalachian writing from a dark hollow in Central West Virginia. More than a dozen diverse print anthologies feature her work.

Recognition for Hamilton’s writing includes: Grand Prize in The Binnacle Third Annual International Ultra-Short Story Competition, finalist for the Fifteenth Glass Woman Prize 2014, selected for AHWIR Homer Hickam’s Master Class, and a finalist in West Virginia Fiction Competition 2015.

Fun Fact: Ginger Hamilton’s story “Bringing Home the Bacon” is used in the curriculum of a senior level Computer Science class (CS-475 Game Development) at West Virginia University. It was also inducted into Fairmont State University’s Folklife Center as a story which preserves traditional Appalachian heritage (hog butchering).

 

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Bear Takes a Meeting (Trinity Ridge)

Our Complaints & Questions Bureau
is based in the bottom of a dry well. We will
help you down there if you wish to file
a report on my associates’ conduct.
Which creek-bed is your favorite?
We’ll mud you in, blame accidental causes
if ever a fisherman snags on an ankle. It’s simple.
There’re zero murders on the books in Trinity,
though dying strange ways trumps the totals we lose
to natural old age. We’re the law they’ll call
to solve your mysterious disappearance.
That’s what happens if once we think
you aren’t with the program. Nod twice
if you track my meaning. Promise silence
and the tape comes off. The ropes.
We never had this friendly conversation.
Go on with your normal day
and let’s not talk again.

toddmercerTODD MERCER won the Dyer-Ives Kent County Prize for Poetry in 2016, the National Writers Series Poetry Prize for 2016, and the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts Flash Fiction Award for 2015. His digital chapbook, Life-wish Maintenance, appeared at Right Hand Pointing. Mercer’s recent poetry and fiction appear in: Bartleby Snopes, Blast Furnace, Cheap Pop, Eunoia Review, The Fib Review, Flash Frontier Magazine, Fried Chicken and Coffee, In-flight Literary Magazine, The Lake, The Magnolia Review, Softblow Journal, Star 82 Review and Two Cities Review.

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Anna, Whose Last Name Is Covered In Lichens, 1851-1920, poem by Matt Prater

And I was there as well, I saw. My hands, too,
went out and made the world. I did not
only imagine the soldiers, I touched them.

I soothed, with cool rags, the dying Johnny soldier;
I soothed, with cool rags, the dying Michiganite;
I caressed their tender knobbed muscles, tender paunch;

soldered, with iron set to the banked blaze, more iron;
slammed the errant wagon wheel in place;
hammered in the things for hammering;

wiped the drooling face of the orphaned cow
whose mother was stolen by Lincolnites;
and dreamed to caress the tender muscle

of one Lincolnite who robbed as Robin Hood,
who spied me one whole week from a distant ridge
as I went through my nurse and farm girl chores,

and when he had stolen our second stolen cow
left me my allotted pitcher of blue cream. Know:
I, too, would have tendered my body on the field,

though I was tender, tender as any boy who could not say it–
who I would’ve killed, or as easily’ve doused,
at the first request, with my amorous wet.

mattpraterMatt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Winner of both the George Scarbrough Prize for Poetry and the James Still Prize for Short Story, his work has appeared in a number of journals, including Appalachian Heritage, The Honest Ulsterman, The Moth, and Still. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech.

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I Hear You Weeping, fiction by Robb T. White

Jimmy Shannon from Sheboygan, as he liked to introduce himself to people who came into his bar, had never been to Wisconsin in his life. He’d done time for check forgery in Michigan and three years in Pennsylvania for hustling a widow with Alzheimer’s out of twenty-eight thousand dollars. The judge also ordered him to pay restitution, but Jimmy had picked up some new tricks in prison; once he’d reported to his probation officer after serving eighteen months and gaining early release, he was a gone goose—skipping straight across the state line to Ohio. His cellie was a career forger, and Jimmy admired him. He told Jimmy for three or four thousand he could get new papers and a Social Security card that would stand up to a check.

A few weeks of boozing in bars and making casual conversation led him to Cleveland where he found a guy who knew a guy—and so on through a long list of bullshitters, wasting a few hundred of the widow’s cash on these losers, until he ultimately hit pay dirt. It cost him a thousand more than his cell mate said it would but Jimmy felt it was worth it because he was going legit from here on out. Although his cellie made thousands on his scams, and Jimmy believed him, he was oblivious to something Jimmy realized when the bars clanged shut on him once more: he wasn’t going to die young. Doing jail in your forties is not like some gangbanger going in where it’s a rite of passage. Jimmy’s hair was turning gray and last week he noticed a bald spot on the back of his head the size of a grapefruit.

Jimmy was a natural talker and tending bar was more an avocation than a job to him. He’d put up almost all the rest of his cash on this dump of a bar at the end of the Strip in this second-rate resort town. It had gone through several transformations before Jimmy’s ownership from a psychedelic lounge in the sixties with black lighting through a country-western bar with a mechanical bull to its current state as a sleazy trysting spot for cheating spouses. Its fading red-and-black décor with velveteen booths was its final makeover. The bank that owned it as a result of forfeiture had given him generous points on the loan in the hope of unloading it before it gasped its last breath and the dozers flattened it for a parking lot for the restaurant next door.

But Jimmy had a plan that involved using the rest of the widow’s money on an expensive sound system. Jimmy had looked over the bars on the Strip and he came to the conclusion that the twenty-somethings were not being served by the rash of shitkicker and punk-goth-grunge combos everywhere else.

Jimmy’s gamble was paying off at the right time: it was the height of the tourist season and all the college kids were looking for places to drink and hook up. Jimmy installed a DJ for weekends and the autotracked, fast-beat techno music hit the right nerve with this crowd. He’s already hired two more serving girls for week nights because the word was out and Raul’s—Jimmy’s exotic-sounding brainstorm the day he signed the papers—was taking off. Jimmy took a kickback from two drug dealers peddling Ex in his place. What the hell, he thought, they’d be selling it anyway. Jimmy also paid off one of the beat cops to tell him when vice was hanging around. Sometimes jimmy wished he could talk to his cell mate again. He’d tell him how he had learned from his errors of the past. “Pay the right people off and don’t whine about it,” Jimmy said into his mirror while shaving, as if he were talking to Harry as they used to do at nights after lights out in the bunks. He nodded his head sagely at himself. “Greed will get you right back in the slammer with Harry,” he added. He winked to his image before leaving the rental cottage. Jimmy had plans for this aspect of his new life, too: he’d be financially able to return to the bank and apply for a house loan.

Jimmy had one small problem and he meant to deal with her today. Some old hag of a bar fly had decided to drink in Raul’s and, though this wasn’t affecting the bottom line (Jimmy was using lots of financial lingo these days in his swagger mode), it was irksome to see this disgusting old crone in her frumpy clothes come into his bar to finish up her nightly boozing.

Last night, for example, a couple young girls were chatting her up while waiting to be served at the bar—just mocking her, Jimmy knew—but instead of being offended, the ugly old bitch basked in their flattery. She did something that made Jimmy’s stomach churn with acid. She popped out her dentures and gummed the air like an old snapping turtle. The girls shrieked with laughter, but Jimmy saw a red mist come over his eyes.

Most of the time, when a new customer entered Raul’s and looked around, that person, male or female, knew right away whether this was the right place. Most of the white-haired tourists who stumbled into the place by mistake had the good sense to down their mixed drinks and piss off. Certainly, by the time the serious night crowds began to gather on the Strip, the oldsters knew better than to drink in Raul’s. Jimmy had given his bartenders and bouncers tips on how to discourage these types from frequenting his oh-so-trendy place. There were exceptions: middle-aged-guys on the prowl with credit cards and cash to burn in their pockets. “You see one of these older dudes on a pussy prowl,” Jimmy ordered his staff, “keep the drinks coming and get them to buy rounds for the ladies.” He showed them how to mark the receipts so that Jimmy could give them bonuses in their paychecks. Las Vegas had its whales; Jimmy had his select group of horny husbands who each dropped several hundred a week in his place.

Jimmy’s dream was to expand. There was an old cement-block, hillbilly bar that Jimmy had his eye on. The Strip was crawling with teenaged runaways—girls who would trick for a little dope money. He’d have no shortage of gorgeous, hot-looking strippers. Once Jimmy had the chamber of commerce president, the precinct commander, and the mayor in his pocket, he was going to seek a change in the city ordinances that would permit a “gentleman’s club.” Two of the three were regulars at Raul’s anyway. It was just a matter of getting that dim-bulb mayor to go along with it. If he didn’t bite at a bribe, Jimmy thought, he’d go the next route, which was to help his own candidate get elected. Jimmy was silently hand-picking potential candidates for that position from among his clientele.

But the street hag had to go first. She was a nuisance and an eyesore. Tonight was the night he would put his plan into motion.

That night while the music was pumping bass guitar riffs through the speakers, jimmy watched his bartender go up to the witch and lean over her. It was too loud to hear a word even if he were sitting on the next stool, but he watched the harpy palm the fifty-dollar bill Jimmy’s man left. She looked about as if she couldn’t believe her luck, then she swiveled her huge behind off the stool and made for the door.

Good riddance,” Jimmy said watching her go and hoisted his drink in the direction of his bartender, who winked back at him.

See, Harry,” Jimmy told himself grandiosely, “that’s where you made your mistake. Pay up and your problems go away like that.” He snapped his fingers to put an exclamation point to his own sagacity. “Poor Harry,” he sighed to himself. “That’s why he’s in there and I’m out here.”

She was back the next night—and the night after that, and the nights after that.

The fifty was replaced by a c-note and a simple but precise explanation what the money was for. Jimmy had his bartender practice it in front of him. “Make sure the goddamned old simpleton gets it this time,” Jimmy said with too much heat.

The woman had an iron gullet for all the booze she put away. But she knew how to nurse her last drink until almost closing time and the more prominent she was, sitting alone down there at the end of the bar, the angrier Jimmy became. He fantasized smashing a bottle of Four Roses over her skull (Jimmy wouldn’t waste a good brand on her). Sometimes it was the bouncer’s fish billy he used in his imagination; he could hear the crack and see the fractures like spider webs crisscrossing the skull bone.

But there she was again, night after night. Jimmy was getting ulcers over it.

No more Mister Nice Guy,” he told his bartender when he reported for work, “I’ll handle it myself.”

Jimmy sidled over to her after he’d seen her down her fourth Rum-and-Coke of the night. He set a new drink in front of her and said, “Hi there, I’m Jimmy from Sheboygan.”

She eyed him and then the drink he was sliding toward her. She grunted something and wrapped her thick fist around the glass. Jimmy barely kept his grin in check. The drink was spiked with a tab of acid he’d bought on the street.

Jimmy stayed near the end of the bar pretending to polish glasses while he watched for a reaction. About fifteen minutes later, half the drink gone, she started to fidget. Jimmy had to turn his back so that no one could see him laughing.

The scream that erupted from her throat was loud enough to pierce through the music. The old woman fell off the stool, and hoisted herself to her hands and knees. She looked like a spavined horse having a seizure. Her mouth hung open and she gasped for breath like a dying fish on the shoreline.

Then, like magic, as if she were a suddenly nimble twenty-something herself, she scrambled to her feet and fled out the door nearly knocking over a young man just entering.

Jimmy experienced a pang of fear. “What if she dies, stumbled into traffic, gets run over . . .?” Thoughts like these haunted him all night until closing.

He never saw her again. Whatever guilt he felt that night was long gone and he was moving forward with his plans to purchase Jimmy II, his name for the strip-bar-to-be. Things were going so well that he could afford to lose a few bucks before he had all his chess pieces lined up for the switch to the gentleman’s club.

His regular bartender didn’t show that night so Jimmy had to fill in to keep the drinks moving back and forth. Jimmy realized he loved his work and his life was finally in the right place.

You see, Harry,” he said, summoning his ex-cell mate’s familiar ghost, to read yet another lesson learned—or, in Harry’s case—unlearned. “You have to deal with every problem when it arises. Don’t treat small problems as insignificant. That’s how snowflakes accumulate to become avalanches.” Jimmy had forgotten that it was Harry who had lectured him about the old sociologist’s maxim of the broken-window theory. “One broken window, Harry, means ninety-nine are going to follow it sooner or later,” Jimmy would say when his staff couldn’t overhear.

Jimmy had an extra shot-and-beer at closing, a reward for pitching in, not holding back like a boss and looking for someone else to fill in.

He was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Jimmy thought the light penetrating his eyeballs was too much sunlight this early. He must have forgotten to pull the shades near his bed in his exhausted state.

When he opened his eyes fully, he knew it was something else. The old limbic brain at the base of his spine was tingling a warning sign. This wasn’t ordinary sunlight but a flashlight probing his eyes and face.

Jimmy sat straight up in bed as if electrocuted.

Mother of God, Jimmy realized as his brain collected itself and understood the image. Someone was in his bedroom.

That someone put on the room lights. That someone was a very big, bearded male in his late thirties. He wore denims and a vest with—Oh God—outlaw biker patches. Jimmy saw the Mongols logo, the one-percenter patch and, worst of all, the dozens of scrambled tattoos up and down the man’s massive arms. Jimmy heard men in boots walking around downstairs. “My friends,” the big biker said, “you don’t mind, right?”
“No,” Jimmy said, “help yourself. Take my money. I think I have a few hundred in my wallet.”

The biker smirked at him as if that were something funny.

I can get the night receipts,” Jimmy offered. “There’s at least three thousand, all cash, small bills. Please . . . please take it and go.”

It’s not your money we want, Shannon. It’s your bar. I have a paper for you to sign—”

He took out a wad of folded papers from his back pocket and tossed it to Jimmy.

Jimmy realized, with a sickening dread, these were in fact legal papers. He noted the pathetic figure entered as the sale price.

As if reading his mind, the biker said, “I know how much cash you have in the house and how much you keep in the bar and I know to the penny how much you have in your bank accounts, personal and business. You’ll be able to pay taxes on the sale and then you can skip town with your life.”

What if I don’t sign?” Jimmy was astounded at the courage he mustered just to get that out, say it to this brute.

Without raising his voice, the biker said, “Don’t matter. You’ll disappear. That’s what them dudes downstairs is for. Your call. I’ll give you five minutes to think it over. I’m going for a beer and when I’m done, I’ll be back up to see what your answer is.”

Jimmy watched him go. He noticed his cell phone and wallet weren’t on the bureau top where he placed them every night after work. He leaned over the side of the bed and noticed that the phone jack was still in the outlet but it had been cut in half.

Time stopped in its tracks; it seemed seconds had passed but he heard the heavy tread of the big man coming back up.

What’s it to be?”

I’ll sign, I’ll sign your paper,” Jimmy said.

Jimmy signed the document and handed it to the biker who folded it haphazardly and thrust it inside his grotty Levi’s. “Now we got us one more thing to clear up,” he said and reached down where he groped under the bed and came up with the Louisville slugger Jimmy had put there when he first moved in and long since forgotten about.

He watched the biker’s big fist wrap itself around the meat end of the bat and clean it of the dust that had gathered on its sleek varnished surface.

What—what are you doing?” Jimmy whispered, half-choking on his words. “I signed the paper.”

Yeah, man, you did.”

The man didn’t even look at Jimmy as he took a practice swing that made the air ripple around Jimmy’s head. “That was business. This is personal. You’re going to be in the hospital for a long time. When you get out, you get out of town. Understand?”

What—what are you saying?”

You gave my old mother a mickey finn. She spent a week in the hospital, crying every day. She wrote me about it. When I got paroled at Chillicothe for good behavior, I decided to come see the lowlife prick that would do something that shitty to a harmless old lady.”

Jimmy said nothing; he waited for the blow without taking his eyes off the biker. He hoped he’d go unconscious right away and not too many bones would be broken when it was over. When the biker approached him from the side of the bed where he had more clearance for a good swing, Jimmy shut his eyes. He heard Harry’s ghost snickering in his head: “I told you, Jimmy. I told you always to treat your mark like you’d treat your own mother.”

The bat took Jimmy under the jaw. Before the citadel of his brain could register it and assess the damage from nerves shooting from jaw, broken teeth, and bloodied, impaled lips, he was back in the same pod, the very same cell with Harry, who was standing there shaking his head in dismay at Jimmy’s return. Jimmy tried to explain, tried to tell him about that irritating old woman, but somewhere deep below his feet—below the entire prison tier—a rumbling, whirling, black vortex was sucking in all his words and thoughts and, finally, the heaving sobs pouring out of his chest and spilling into the air.

robbtwhiteRobb White publishes the Tom Haftmann private-eye series, most recently Nocturne for Madness. He has two noir mysteries: When You Run with Wolves and Waiting on a Bridge of Maggots. He has a collection of short stories: ‘Out of Breath’ and Other Stories. Special Collections won the Electronic Book Competition of 2014 by New Rivers Press.

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The Last Thanksgiving, poem by Taylor Collier

first appeared in Tar River Poetry Spring 2010

During dinner my uncle’s behind the house
helping a heifer through her first delivery.

Inside, dry turkey, hot dinner rolls.
The heifer’s cries bellowing through the house.

Green beans, sweet potatoes, and cornbread
stuffing. All with the tang of

this might be his last.
And who even remembers?

I’m staring out the back window
at the heifer’s uterus prolapsed

on the muddy grass.
The vet and my uncle hose it

with peroxide and shove it back
inside like a beating heart into a wine bottle.

The trees haven’t even begun to turn,
and my grandfather can still speak.

Knowing we will soon be gone,
he’s telling every dirty joke he can remember.
taylorcollierTaylor Collier currently lives in Tallahassee.  Work has appeared or is forthcoming in some places like Birdfeast, The Journal of Applied Poetics, The Laurel Review, Nightblock, Rattle, Smartish Pace, Tar River, Zone 3, and others.  More poems and writing about poetry at taylorcollier.com.

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