Monday, March 12, 2018

Detour, by Tom Andes

As the plane circled New Orleans, Kachenko looked at his watch. They’d left Dallas an hour and twenty minutes late. He sipped the last of his bloody mary mix, rattling the cubes in the plastic cup.

He saw Jonas at baggage claim. At least he felt reasonably certain it was Jonas; years had passed since he’d seen the other man, and then Kachenko had encountered Jonas in a professional setting, also. Kachenko’s garment bag depending from one shoulder, the small attaché case with his personal effects dangling at his side, he brushed past a person who strongly resembled Jonas, at any rate, and who broke a grin and raised his white hat as he passed Kachenko and hurried outside. Waiting for the shuttle to the rental car center, Kachenko saw Jonas—or the man he took to be Jonas—at the cab stand a few hundred yards down the curb. With a hissing of air brakes, the shuttle arrived; at almost exactly the same instant, the white hat disappeared inside a yellow cab, and the race was on.

On the shuttle, Kachenko opened his flip phone. His contacts were empty. He dialed the number from memory.

“Yes?” the voice answered, with a touch of the familiar impatience.

“He’s here.” Kachenko’s voice betrayed only a trace of an accent.

“Who’s there?”

“Jonas,” Kachenko said.

“Are you sure of it?” the voice asked him, after a silence.

Kachenko considered the question. Was he certain? He thought of the white hat, the broad grin, the clear expression of recognition…“Yes,” he said.

“Very well,” the voice said, and the person on the other end of the phone sighed. “You know what this means, and you know what you have to do.”

Kachenko closed the phone. He held it in his fist for the duration of the ride, watching the lights on the runway in the distance as the shuttle trundled along the access road.

The kid behind the Hertz desk told him he’d been upgraded, free of charge, and led Kachenko across the lot to a gray Suburban. Kachenko tossed his garment bag in back; he set the attaché case on the passenger’s seat. He found the pistol attached to the underside of the dashboard with packing tape, just as his instructions had promised it would be, along with a silencer and two extra magazines, and he screwed the silencer onto the pistol and checked to be sure the pistol was loaded before he started the vehicle. Opening his notebook, he punched the second of the two sets of coordinates he’d written down before he left Los Angeles into the GPS; he’d already determined he would have no time to go to his hotel.

On the highway, halfway between Kenner, the suburb where the airport was located, and the city itself, there’d been an accident. All five lanes on the interstate had backed up, and red brake lights irradiated the night, filling the windshield with a spectral glow. Gripping the wheel, Kachenko scanned the backs of the cars in front of him until he thought he saw that familiar white hat through the rear window of a yellow cab several car lengths ahead of him in one of the passing lanes, though he couldn’t be certain, as the cab’s window was filthy.

Traffic progressed at something less than a crawl. Like the spine of some antediluvian creature raising itself from the primordial muck, the highway stretched ahead of him, eastbound traffic retarded to a trickle while oncoming traffic streamed past, headlights glaring in the darkness. Kachenko consulted his GPS. Alongside the highway, the flashing red and yellow lights on the rescue vehicles played across the surface of a canal.

At the next exit, Kachenko signaled, and he nosed across two lanes and turned onto Veteran’s Boulevard. Driving through the suburbs, he observed the speed limit. Box stores, plaza malls, and family restaurant chains flanked the dual carriageway; cross streets disappeared into darkness. Traversing another canal, he entered New Orleans: on his right was the Office of Motor Vehicles, a gray monstrosity of a building rising like a tombstone into the night.

Here, his GPS seemed to have abandoned him. He found himself navigating a subdivision, crooked paving blocks jutting from the roadway. The SUV bounced over the seams between the blocks; twice, the Suburban bottomed out, its brakes grating as they locked.

“Son of a bitch.” Kachenko smacked the wheel.

He’d come to a dead end. On the other side of a cyclone fence, a railroad trestle drew a faint charcoal line through the darkness; behind him, the residential homes with their pristine lawns and carefully tended hedges seemed to have been dropped into that devastated landscape from some other part of the world, perhaps from someplace where disaster didn’t seem quite so imminent. Kachenko threw the truck into reverse, and he nearly backed into a garbage can as the Suburban bounced in and out of a massive pothole, or maybe it was a sinkhole, Christ, Kachenko wondering he hadn’t snapped an axle.

As he turned, his headlights swept a DETOUR sign with an arrow pointing to the left.

Kachenko signaled—one had to retain some sense of order in the midst of so much chaos, after all—and he piloted the SUV onto an empty boulevard named for some dead French king (one of the Louies, he would remember later). After he’d gone three blocks, he understood this detour would be interminable: though he scanned the near distance for another orange sign that would point him back to the path he’d been on, setting him on the way to downtown New Orleans, he knew he would never find it.

He pulled to the curb, and he punched the same set of coordinates into the GPS. Orange barrels marked the periphery of the construction zone; he had to drive the wrong way down a one-way street to escape the subdivision. Recalibrating, the GPS repeated in a bland voice that nevertheless seemed to excoriate him for having failed to obey its directive. Signaling, he turned, and he drove toward the center of the city at exactly five miles per hour over the speed limit; under the streetlights, he glanced at the gun on the seat beside him.

He parked several blocks down the street from the hotel and convention center on Poydras, which was clogged with yellow cabs. Stuffing the gun in his trousers, he adjusted his suit coat to cover it, and he locked the Suburban, which chirped, flashing its lights. The Wyndham rose from Poydras in a pillar of light. Approaching on foot, Kachenko thought he saw that familiar white hat enter the hotel between the marble columns, though he couldn't be certain.

Inside, the concierge, a bald-headed man of about fifty, asked if he could take Kachenko’s bags.

“I don’t have any bags,” Kachenko said, his eyes scanning the crowd over the other man’s shoulder for that white hat, trying to glimpse the banquet hall through the massive doorway at the other end of the lobby.

“Perhaps I can help you in some other way, sir?” The concierge leaned closer, trying to catch Kachenko’s eye, barring his passage. “You are staying at this hotel, I presume?”

Kachenko fixed on the man’s small black eyes. A hooked nose protruded from the concierge’s face like a beak; he’d already reached the age where his ears and his nose had begun to outgrow the rest of his face. Though he stood several inches taller than Kachenko, they had roughly the same build.

“Yes, please,” Kachenko said, wringing his hands. “I only meant I needed your help. Come this way, please…”

Stooped, bent—in spite of himself, intrigued—the concierge followed. In the hallway outside the men’s room, with the other man close on his heels, Kachenko stopped, turned, and drove his elbow into the concierge’s windpipe. The concierge’s larynx cracked; staggering, he grabbed his neck, his face purpling as he drew a wheezing breath. Before he could fall to the floor, Kachenko caught the concierge around the waist, and Kachenko dragged the concierge into the bathroom, locking the door behind him.

In the handicapped stall, Kachenko snapped the other man’s neck, and he propped the concierge up on the seat, removing his suit coat and his shirt. Where the clothing had fit the concierge loosely, hanging from his frame, it fit Kachenko snugly. Yet it fit, Kachenko thought, shooting his wrists through the sleeves. Beneath his undershirt, the concierge’s white skin looked like a turkey buzzard’s, and Kachenko thought of his own childhood, that distant village: he experienced a patchwork recollection of children with tear-stained faces (had he been one of them?) kicking a soccer ball in the dirt and making way for the military vehicles rolling through. He didn’t know where he’d come from, didn’t know whether the memories were his or something he’d invented after seeing the evening news. Regardless, the years between then and now seemed a blank.

The concierge gave a last tremor of life, and his foot shot out, catching Kachenko’s shin. Out of reflex, Kachenko punched the dead man in the face. He stared at the other man as though he’d come back to life; then, kneeling in front of the toilet, he began to remove the concierge’s trousers.

“That son of a bitch isn’t getting my money,” he said. “He’s not getting there first.”

The words echoed in the empty bathroom.

His nose curled. The concierge had already voided his bowels.

He left the concierge on the toilet seat with a copy of the Baton Rouge Advocate he’d found on the tile in front of the baby changing station unfolded on his lap. He looked at himself in the mirror, squeezing a blackhead and splashing some water on his face before he left the room. Dressed in the top half of the concierge’s uniform, Kachenko crossed the lobby at a brisk pace, whistling to himself as he walked. Chandeliers glittered beneath the ribbed vault of the ceiling. The room seemed to hold the voices of everyone in it, echoing, with an air of hushed expectation, like a concert hall before the symphony starts. In the dining room, Kachenko stood next to a tray of bread puddings, scanning the rows of pillars along the perimeter of the room for that white hat.

The candidate occupied a position of honor at the center of the room. Six foot one, hair graying at the temples, scion of some local political dynasty, he projected the kind of benevolent grandfatherly charm that might have appealed to a populist reformer at either end of the political spectrum, though whether he was running for president, councilman, alderman, city coroner, or for the school board, much less what his politics were, Kachenko didn’t know; he only knew that in order to get paid, he had to finish the job, and he had to do it before Jonas did it. The white hat appeared on the other side of a pillar at the end of the banquet hall; then it disappeared again.

His hand on the butt of the pistol, which he’d stuffed in the pocket of his trousers, Kachenko crossed the room, weaving between a pair of waiters who followed him with their eyes. At the far end of the dining room, that white hat appeared between the pillars—and there, closer at hand, he thought he saw that same white hat on the other side of the room, and he didn’t know how Jonas had moved so quickly. Blinking sweat from his eyes, teeth gritted, as he approached the candidate’s table, he withdrew the pistol from his pocket, and he fired three shots at point-blank range into the candidate’s heart. Muffled by the silencer, the pistol’s reports sounded like a set of flapping wings. Kachenko knocked over the headwaiter, upsetting a dessert cart, scattering silverware across the floor. The candidate had risen halfway from his chair, as though he meant to shake Kachenko’s hand; he pitched over backwards, blood spreading across the white ruffles of his shirt beneath the tuxedo jacket, blue eyes glazing as they rolled upward in his skull, as though he were gazing at the bandstand.

Silence fell over the room. Kachenko kept walking. He dropped the pistol in a tureen of crab and corn bisque on a buffet cart and proceeded at a calm but steadily accelerating pace toward the doors.

As he pushed the doors open, a woman—the candidate’s wife—shrieked.

Kachenko emerged into a long hall decorated with Chinese lanterns. At the end of the hall, a doorway opened onto the street. As Kachenko walked the length of the hall, he brushed past a man in a white linen suit wearing a hat similar or perhaps identical to the hat Kachenko had seen Jonas wearing in the airport; he saw several other similarly attired men lurking along the periphery of the hall, but none of their faces cracked open in recognition; none of them seemed to notice him.

He stripped off the concierge’s jacket as he descended the marble steps in front of the hotel and stuffed it in a garbage can by the curb.

Wearing his undershirt, he crossed the street, digging in his pockets for the keys to the Suburban. In the distance, a siren shrilled. Kachenko kept walking, and he didn’t look back; he didn’t want to know what was happening behind him.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Switchblade III, a review by Rusty Barnes

Switchblade Issue III boasts a number of contributors familiar to anyone who follows the small press crime scene, writers like Eric Beetner, Morgan Boyd and Preston Lang. As well, there are a number of writers I know mostly from their Twitter feeds and the occasional scuttlebutt. I realize it's still early on in Switchblade's career, but it's safe to say they've become prominent in a short time. All told, editor Scotch Rutherford has put together a well-done and entertaining issue here.

Some highlights include the aforementioned Preston Lang, who gives us "Press it Down," a story about a former musician turned mayhem artist, a granny who turns out to be skilled in the use of a golf club. I've found his stories always deserve more love than they receive: he's well-published, but merits further recognition, and kudos to Rutherford for recognizing that and giving him a spot in multiple issues.

In "Burning Snow," Morgan Boyd writes about how even a simple job like shoveling snow can become a criminal web of intrigue and violence. Told by our narrator Max, who's got a secret or two himself, the story ranges across the snowy landscape, artfully and simply revealed, to an unforgettable description of a fat man in flagrante delicto. The ending is a punch in the gut that  tells us what some of us could still stand to learn: some people never have the luck.

Eric Beetner's piece, "Family Secrets," about a child who witnesses a gruesome crime and is forced into a criminal act himself, is something I've found typical of Beetner, in novel or short story mode. His work is well-paced and  deftly written, always in service to the narrative, not flashy. It's solid prose exemplified by lines like "I didn't buy the fake sincerity in Mom's voice when she told me Dad would be okay. But beyond wondering if my Dad would live or die, I tried to figure out how in the world he ever come to be shot."

Other stories are largely successful but not necessarily my bag.  I recognize the effort each of the writers here, though, and I appreciate too the effort it takes to put out a quality journal several times a year. It's an often Herculean effort sustained only by the love you get from writers and occasionally from readers, and certainly not in monetary rewards. The kinks in the production process notwithstanding, I expect Switchblade to have a long successful career highlighting the best the small press crime scene has to offer for as long as Rutherford can keep the magic going on the back end.

The stories are out there waiting, and I see the job of small press crime journals like Switchblade, Pulp Modern and Tough to bring them to the forefront and provide an alternative--however the individual journals define that-- to the larger venue/larger payday every writer generally shoots for. Our job is to get large in vision, but stay small in practice, to highlight writers before they reach mainstream success, and to bring attention to those mainstream writers who still need the boost. Their success is our success. Every Switchblade issue, every Pulp Modern issue, every story, every time we get our names out there in the small press crime scene, is a success for all of us.

Monday, February 26, 2018

St. Girard's Ink Den, by Mark Rapacz

I woke up at noon because it sounded like there was a cat-fight in my yard. I went outside and instead there was a raccoon biting its tail. I didn’t know what to do. The sun was hot, and I was still sweating from a restless sleep. The raccoon was sick. Likely rabies. It foamed at the mouth and gnawed on its tail. It sounded like it was hacking something up, but at the same time it shrieked like a dying cat. It retched a bloody mess onto my driveway. I realized I was watching for a little too long, but my neighbor came up to me and said he could shoot it with a pistol he had. He was always looking to help since I cleaned his gutters last spring. I said, no, I’ll take care of it.

By the time I grabbed my shovel, a group of neighborhood kids had gathered in my yard. I swung and stabbed at the animal’s neck. I chopped down, again and again, and the resilience of its neck muscles was surprising. It shook its head back and forth, growled, and foamy mucus flew from its mouth. I kept hacking and I wanted the kids to turn away. My neighbor grabbed a bat and hit it in the side, but his swings only agitated the animal. Finally, as the sweat beaded off my forehead and dripped onto the little beast, its legs started twitching, and then it died. I buried it in my garden, and went back to bed.

Lying in the still sweat-soaked sheets, I rolled over to wake up Megan to tell her what happened. She pretended to sleep. It was twelve forty-five. I would get up at one o’clock and make some coffee. I would pour Megan a cup and make her breakfast, but she wouldn’t eat it. I would keep pouring her coffee, and I would tell her all about the raccoon, but she would just read the paper. We would stumble around until two o’clock when I would go to the parlor, and she would head off to work as a waitress. She would tell me she hates her boss, and that she needs a new job. I would agree with her. We would kiss each other goodbye and then we would tell each other we would miss one another. I would spend all day inking other people’s flesh, and then I would come home and be with Megan again, and we’d go to sleep. I would wake up the next day at one o’clock and then make breakfast.


I owned the oldest Tattoo parlor in the Bay Area, or so it said on our neon sign that didn’t work--St. Girard’s Ink Den, Oldest Tattoo Parlor in the Bay Area--but it was nowhere near the oldest. It was a burrito shop when I ended up on this coast twenty years ago. My shop attracted the younger crowd who got tattoos that didn’t mean shit. They’d be kids coming in after finals or after humping in a dorm room, wanting to put a name on their arm, or on their pelvic bone.

Between appointments, I’d work on my paintings. I never thought they were any good, but some artsy kid from university said they were something else, and he bought one. It was a dragon eating a blood-filled egg. The kid said there’s a market for this type of work. He also told me another time, “You have some natural skills,” after I finished up a chintzy Chinese symbol. I didn’t know what it said. The book translated it into meaning something like, “luck,” “providence,” or “god;” something like that. For all I know it could mean “sausage,” or likely, “idiot” for getting such a cheap tattoo. Although the kid wasn’t referring to his arm, he was pointing at a pencil sketch I did of a skeleton princess. She had bones for a body, and a rotten fleshy head, but I did my best to make her look beautiful. The kid went on and said I reminded him of an artist that started with an S. He asked if I knew the guy, or had seen the guy’s work. I said the only work I see is in my head or in these tattoo books.

I ran into the same kid, one late night, when I was heading to my car and walking by one of the college bars. He looked at me, and he was obviously drunk, but he wanted to talk. He was average-sized and good-looking too. He wore all black. Smart kid. He said he wanted another tattoo and wondered if I had the time to do it right then and there. It was a bone cross. Terrible, but he had done it himself on a bar napkin. I don’t ink drunken kids, so I told him he should keep the design and look it over tomorrow to decide if he’d want it. He looked off into the distance and started saying a lot of stuff about art and inspiration, the way that type does when they’ve had too much to drink. Then he looked at me.

“Where are you from? Chicago?”

“Never been, where you from?”

“No, I mean what school did you go to? NYU, LA? What?”

I’m a disheveled guy, wild hair, wild beard, ratty clothes, but I’ve never been mistaken for an artist before. I looked at the kid like I was his parent and I said, “Wouldn’t you like to know.” He smiled like he knew something, and I smiled like I knew what it was he knew, but I didn’t. “Later, man,” I said, and I kept walking.


Megan left me a burger and fries from the restaurant in the fridge. The ketchup on the burger reminded me of the raccoon remnants so I couldn’t eat it. I poured myself a 49ers souvenir cup of whisky and tea over ice and sat on the front step. It was late and Megan was already in bed. I watched the sporadic traffic drive by and the brown clouds skirt around the moon. Across the street my neighbor was watching television. He never slept. I wanted it to rain. I drifted in and out of a surreal buzz from the booze with thoughts of Megan sleeping alone in my room. Megan used to cut herself. I never actually saw her do it. Not once. She could have been over it, I don’t know. I tried not to spend much time looking at the scars. They were there, but she was too, and that was the important part. I met her at my shop. She wanted a tattoo, one of those tattoos that chicks get these days, the kind of Asian or Mediterranean thing at the small of their backs. I talked her out of the tattoo. I’ve seen tattoo fads come and go, and I didn’t want to mess up her perfect back.

“Man with the style of a hippie with a biker problem gives me advice?” was what she said.

“You don’t need to listen to me. You just have a nice back. Don’t want to ruin it.” I didn’t know if that was inappropriate.

Then she asked with a glint in her eye, “Really?”

We settled on a butterfly near her navel. Classic. As my needle approached she got this look in her eye. It was excitement and pleasure wrapped into one like the countless yin-yang tattoos I’ve inked on a lot of stranger’s bodies.

When I finished, she came out of a sort of trance and sat up.

The first thing she said, was “My boyfriend is such a cocksucker.”

Surprised, I tried to listen to all the pains this cocksucker had put her through--and they were many--but I was also more interested in dressing her tattoo. Before I knew it, I said, “What kind of cocksucker wouldn’t love you?”

She laughed. It was a fake laugh. “You don’t know him.”

Then she started to cry. She was distant and a mess, so of course she found me. I hugged her because I thought that was what she wanted. She didn’t hug back. She asked me to take her somewhere safe, so I made the mistake of bringing her home, and we didn’t do anything. She slept two days straight.

Back on my step, focusing on my neighbor’s television late at night with Megan still asleep, I thought of her past, and I thought of her as someone’s kid. She wasn’t too much older than the university kids, and I’m much older than that. Inappropriate, most likely. I went back in and topped off my 49ers cup to show them how big of a fan I am and went to bed and lay next to Megan. Her eyes were shut and drool was crusting on her smooth cheek.

“I think I need another tattoo, babe,” she mumbled. “Could we go soon?”


It was another week and it was full of Chinese kanji, barbed-wire armbands, and wiggly things that people drew themselves. People get tattoos with no meaning attached to them. Tattoos should mean something, it is a brand, and it is personal, and you sure as shit better want it on you for the rest of your life. These kids don’t imagine what their tattoo will look like when their skin goes soft and saggy, when the ink will fade and lines will blur. They don’t know their armband will look like a blue smudge years from now, and what did it mean? Still, I tell every customer that it looks great. They all leave happy.

A girl with a black eye came in with her bulldog-looking boyfriend, and he paid for her to get a tattoo high up on her inner thigh that said Chacho. I noticed she already had another name on her other inner thigh that said Nathaniel. I wondered who gave her the black eye, and then I told them to have a nice day as she walked out bow-legged.

The arty kid came back, and he had his bar napkin with the bone cross, but he didn’t want to talk about the tattoo. He wanted to talk art, so he reached into his backpack and handed me a book about an artist whose name I couldn’t pronounce. He told me to really look at pages 56 through 79 because they were his later works, and they reminded him of my work. He even told me some titles. Real dark shit. The kid was right. I did appreciate it. Then we talked more about art, inspiration, all that shit I hated, but with the kid it was all right. I let the kid roll himself a joint as he spoke endlessly about his professors and what they would tell him and how they’re all posers and dumbfucks. He offered me a drag. I told him I stayed away from the stuff.

“You do anything else?” he asked, like I’d be interested.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, other shit man. You know what I mean.”

“I do whisky.”

He looked at me--condescending. Disappointed that I no longer did other shit, whatever he meant by that. I called him on it.

“What do you got?”

“What do you want?”

“It’s not rocket science to get a prescription out here.”

“I’m not talking about weed. I can get everything else.” He chuckled, and he looked quick to my arms to tell me that he knew I knew he saw the few dimes of shiny scar tissue on my arms.

“Ah, I see,” I said. “You want a better look,” and I put my arm under the light so we could see a history I had intended to forget. “The skin is dead there from abscesses. Pretty cool, huh?” I said because the kid wanted me to impress him.

He was delighted. “That is what I’m talking about. Things are different now, though. Smoother kick--no needle. No spoon. No--” he waved his hand to dismiss my scars like they were nothing but pinpricks. “Whatever you junkies did in your day,” he said.

I took my arm from the light and we sat in that silence as if we were waiting for something to break. Maybe it did.

“Pills, man,” he finally said. “We’re flooded. If you want pills, I got pills for you. All I’m saying.”

I leaned back in my chair and thought about the many ways I would like to dismember the kid. I thought about my shovel and the raccoon and its shallow grave in my garden.

“Sounds a little weak for me,” I said to further delight this kid and see how far he wanted to take the mystery I was creating for myself--for him.

He reached into his backpack and pulled out a prescription bottle. He shook it seductively as if he were jerking it or me off.

“People like it,” the dumb braggart said.

“I’m sure they do,” I said and he understood what I was saying and he graciously didn’t push it any further. He put the bottle in his pack and changed the subject back to art and the meaning of the squiggly mess upon his forearm. It took me a moment to realize it was supposed to be the bone cross on the bar napkin.

“I told you to wait on that,” I said.

“I was drunk.”

“They’re not supposed to ink when the client’s drunk. Illegal.”

“She was drunk, too,” he chuckled and wanted me to laugh with him. I didn’t.

“Think you can clean this up?” he asked.

“I can,” I said.


The first day Megan had off, we went to the shop. She wanted another tattoo and she had this idea. She always just tells me her ideas, and then I do them with as much care as I can. She has me do a tattoo when she’s not feeling right, when things are down, when she’s itchy. I know she needs one when she starts scratching her scars. She scratches until they bleed, and I ask her why, and she says because it’s easier to do it than to not do it. I try to understand it and tell myself that I do. I don’t.

She gets in her zone. She’s on my bench, and I am touching her, and I am inking her, but she’s not there. She’s not in the room. I hear her breaths, and slight wince of pain. I read somewhere that there’s a chemical that’s released in the blood stream when consistent pain is administered; it has a numbing effect like opium. Her toes are now the heads of her favorite birds, and her left foot is a wooded path up a mountain, while her right is a radiant sun either rising or setting over the sea. Both legs are full of mythical creatures, and dying things. Things are decaying, birthing, and some are being reborn. There’s a phoenix on her hip and an elephant trunk down her forearm that covers many of her scars. Her ears have tattooed earrings, and on the back of her neck there are four dots that are symbolic of something in another country. Her back is becoming my masterpiece. When things get bad, we work on her back. I finish, and she comes back to me. “Did you hear the rain?”

“That was the faucet,” I said.


“I was washing my hands.”


A couple weeks later the kid was back in the shop with another sketch. He wanted it on his arm, up on the shoulder, where a lot of men get their most important tattoos. His was of a Christ-like figure being crucified on a swastika. Another cross. Kind of. He said it says something about society. When I finished it, I told him it was great and that I really dug the vivid imagery, like I really saw what he was going for. He explained a lot about what the piece did for him and what it said about everything and it all sounded like bullshit.

“So you’re the artist. You do all the tattoos, do you have any?” he said as he lingered with his backpack. If he opened it again, I planned to deck him in the mouth.

I only had one, and I never show anyone. It’s on the top of my pelvic bone. It’s a little butterfly with a flower near it. There’s a looping dotted line following the butterfly, symbolizing its flutter. The butterfly is headed toward the flower to drink its nectar. I thought it was really pretty. It’s hard to see with all the gray hair that has started to grow around it. I’ve begun to call them weeds in my flower garden.

He laughed hysterically.

“The master of tattoos has that? You must’ve been high when you got it. Tell me you were high.” This coming from a kid with a swastika tattooed to his arm.

“I wasn’t.”

“Why don’t you just remove it?”

“Right,” I started to put my equipment away. “Never thought of that.”

“Just get rid of it. I’ll help you with a new one, you know, something that says something, not that blah.” Then he stuck a finger in his mouth, fake retching.

“I’m fine with it,” I said.

Then Megan walked in with our lunch. She was always good at reminding me that I needed to eat. She didn’t come straight over to see me, which was odd. The kid quit being so gabby, and everyone stared at each other like they do when the air gets thick and tense. I turned to the kid, and I said, “I’d like you to meet Megan. She’s one of my best customers.” Sometimes she gets uncomfortable when I tell people we’re seeing each other because of our age difference.

The kid quickly got up, pulled his sleeve down and said, “Good to see you, Megan.”

“Yeah. Nice to see you, too, Chris,” she said.

I never knew the kid’s name was Chris.

I looked at them confused and thought the old man thought of how kids these days just somehow know each other from the internet and their Snapchat.

Kids. Just fucking kids.


Megan gave me some story about meeting the kid at a party somewhere after her shift at the restaurant. I decided to believe her and I also decided to close early. Canceling my appointments relieved both of us. Forgiveness was something I learned and it was easiest to get there if you didn’t ask too many questions.

We went to the Presidio and we had one of those picnics that people in love have where they sit in the sun, look at how blue the sky is, and say nice things to one another. We were both awkward. We weren’t used to going out in public together in the daylight.

Megan kept asking if something was wrong because when she’d talk to me I didn’t have much to say.

“Hey, how’d the day go, any really terrible tattoos that people wanted?--I mean beside that awful swastika Jesus crap Chris got.” I didn’t like her saying the kid’s name again.

“Nah, nothing beside the Nazi shit. But they’re all pretty awful.”

And then we didn’t say anything beyond what we saw right in front of us and I tried to find comfort in our discomfort as we watched Frisbee players run around on the grass. She was sitting cross-legged and I had my head in her lap. She looked down at my face. She looked sad. She pinched my right ear lobe and asked sincerely what was wrong.

“Nothing. Is there anything wrong with you?”

I got up and started walking toward the top of the bluff that overlooked the Bay. I looked at the Golden Gate Bridge and sun on the water and wished I were back home in the woods, far from the coast. Megan stood next to me. She got hold of my hand, and when my forearm rubbed against hers, I could feel her raised and bumpy scars. I noticed the wind.

“You ain’t cold?” I said.

There was a silence, and then a pause. “Not really. They should’ve called this the windy city, right?”

“Chicago must’ve had it first.”

“What’s Chicago like?”

“Big, populated, windy, kind of like this, but shittier.”

“Why don’t you tell me stories like you used to? You’re being quiet. What’s wrong with you, old man?”

“You know I was married before?”

Megan said, “No shit. You’ve told me about a dozen times.”

I knew I had told her before, but I had to make sure, so I said, “So you know how it ended and everything.”

She didn’t say anything I just felt her head nuzzle into my neck.

“I showed that kid my tattoo. He laughed.”

“Oh, babe,” she said and she stretched her arms around my body and laid her head into the pit of my arm. “Chris is a fucking asshole.”


My back hurt from leaning over this large drag queen all afternoon who wanted a tattoo the length of her spine. Painful for the both of us, and worse in the heat. An impossible wave of humid stink settled over the city and the Bay wasn’t taking any of it out to sea. People were all trying to stay cool and that meant business was slow. I closed the shop early and headed home.

When I got home, heat lines rose out of the tar in my driveway. I went into the house and opened all of the windows. I never realized how much of a mess my house was. I determined right then and there I would clean it and get things organized. It was time for a change. I didn’t expect Megan home till her shift was done around two, so I thought it’d be a nice surprise her if there weren’t dirty dishes in the sink and our bedroom had clothes that were folded.

For extra motivation, I first went to the kitchen and filled a souvenir cup to the brim with tea and whisky and organized my thoughts in the heat on my step. I decided maybe it was time Megan and I hit the road. San Francisco wasn’t good for her. Our future was north in Seattle, or maybe even further into Canada. I didn’t know for sure. The sky was yellowy dust. It looked like it so painfully wanted to be a nice clear day that it was stressing itself out. My feet ached. I looked at my truck. It had gone 200,000 miles too far. I started doing economics in my head. It was going to work out, I was sure of that.

When I went back into the house, I decided the bedroom was where I’d start. Megan spent most of her time in there, so I’d spend most of my time making it look good. The hallway had a peculiar cool dry feel to it and it felt dirty, because it was dirty, but dirtier than usual. It was in the air. Another thing I determined I’d somehow fix. I came to the door. It was only open a crack.

A morning light flooded the room even though it was five o’clock. Her foot with the bird tattoos hung off the bed. Megan lay there like a child. She looked nice, a young sort of nice, sleeping so peacefully in the mistaken dawn. I walked over to the bed and kissed her cold cheek. Her face was always cold, a circulation thing she’d say. She was sure to get shit from her boss at the restaurant for missing work like this. Like it mattered. We were leaving and she’d be happy to leave with me. I leaned down to kiss her again on her forehead. She was unmoved, oblivious. The bedspread was tangled a bit, so I adjusted it to tuck her in. When I pulled back the spread there it was: a pill bottle. Possibly Chris’s pill bottle. It looked like a trinket that should be atop an old woman’s piano. It was terrifying in its normality. I could’ve dragged her to the garden and buried her with the raccoon. But she breathed like a child. Slept like a child. She was a child. I was, too.

I checked her pulse, her temperature--as I had done for others--and then tucked her in. I pocketed the bottle to talk about it later and kissed her again.

I ended up outside on my step for I don’t know how long. The sky was closer. Trees that I’ve seen thousands of times were misshapen. Houses that once stood straight and tall now looked parabolic. It was dark by the time I left.


I spent the night in the shop. Not sleeping. Waiting mostly. I waited for dawn, pacing and watching for real living people to pass in front of my parlor. I kept all of the lights on and stared out the window. I could see my whole shop in the reflection: the barber shop chair that I liked to use for arm tattoos, the massage bench I liked to use for back tattoos, the same bench where I met Megan. There was my counter, my dentist table with needles and dyes on it, my crumpled handkerchief, and the overhead light. I could see some of my paintings shoved in the corner. I hoped the sun would come up soon.

I stayed up as long as there were fingers left in the bottom of my bottle. I was expecting a call from Megan, but I really had no idea how long she’d be out. I started to get anxious, like I did something wrong. I was paranoid, weak, sullen and drunk. I couldn’t stop fidgeting, so I called her, multiple times, but there was no answer. Near dawn I passed out.

I woke up to fists hitting my store window and a silhouette of a person at my door. For a moment, I thought Megan, but then I came to my senses. This person’s hands were big and ham-fisted and there were others with him. He started to pound again.

I struggled out of my chair and I felt my age course down my legs. I was no longer drunk. At the door, my stomach dropped. Cops. I didn’t want to know, but I already knew because the past is the real cocksucker.

After I did my best to convince them I had nothing to do with it; after I said I thought she was recovering and that I didn’t supply her the pills; after I said I had checked on her--really checked on her; after I said she seemed not OK, but OK for what she’d done; after I told them that I didn’t have any family in the city and she didn’t either; after I told them for tenth time I didn’t know why I said she was my wife because I meant girlfriend; after I told them I didn’t run and I wasn’t fucking hiding; after I said of course I knew my neighbor and it was not unusual he stopped by in the middle of the night; after I told them to leave and assured them I wouldn’t run because I was of course going to fucking go to the coroner’s--

After all this and other things I cannot remember, I went back to my stool. I sat like a statue in my shop that felt narrower, with a ceiling that was lower, and surrounded by needles that were larger than I remembered.

I prepared my kit, swabbed my arm and waited for that gentle whir when the needle would track my flesh.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Night Drive, by JM Taylor

It was the first time Charlie had driven alone at night, and of course he got lost. In high school, he’d never needed to drive—he had a bus or his mom or dad had driven him to practice. Now, he had to get to the college pool on his own. It was the same one he’d swum in for years, following the same coach from one level to another. But he’d never paid attention to when they turned onto which streets. In the dark, he missed first one turn, then tried to make up for it by making another one at random. Within minutes, he was in a canyon of looming triple-deckers. Cars clogged both sides of the street, and every time he slowed to see about making another turn, the line of drivers behind him honked their horns and flashed their lights.

Charlie’s eyes darted frantically from the windshield to the rear-view to the side mirror. His hands were frozen at 10 and 2, and he couldn’t even pull over to look at his phone. He had no choice but to barrel on blindly, dodging double-parked cars and glaring pedestrians. He prayed for a traffic light, or a parking lot, anywhere he could stop, but it was like he’d been dumped into a bobsled track, and he couldn’t stop until he reached the end.

Finally, he came to an intersection he vaguely remembered. A voice—his mother’s, his conscience, Jiminy Cricket—told him that turning left was the right answer, so he flicked on the blinker and banged around the corner. He hoped none of the cars behind him was a police officer, ready to nab him for signaling at least 100 feet before his maneuver.

He found himself on a wide road, brightly lit, but no less crowded. He wove with the traffic, realizing this wasn’t the road he thought it was. So much for the smart college freshman. The buildings grew seedier and seedier. The blue lights of a cop car appeared in his rear-view, and he had just enough time to clear out of the lane before it flew by him. A pair of creepy looking thugs stared at him from the dark recessed doorway of an apartment building. He locked the doors. He waited like an idiot while three cars took advantage of his getting sidelined before he got back on the road.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. That would be his mom, whose book club was meeting tonight. The clock on the dash said it was 9:30, and he was over an hour late getting home.

Finally, he approached an intersection he knew, where one corner of the zoo intruded into the wasteland. Back in familiar territory, he was fifteen minutes from home. He still had to contend with the crazy drivers—didn’t anyone in this neighborhood take driving lessons?—and with the panhandler stalking the lines of stopped cars, but at last he was safe.

He idled ten cars back from the light, his blinker flashing dutifully. The panhandler made his way from car to car, shaking a large Dunkin’ Donuts cup. Once he leaned into a window and took a bill. No, Charlie realized, it wasn’t a guy, but a girl covered with a long ratty coat too heavy for this time of year. It flashed through his mind that begging at cars was safe enough for winos and homeless men, but a girl could get into so much more trouble.

Her hair fell from under a filthy Yankees cap that covered most of her face, except for the hardened frown and an incongruously delicate chin. His horror grew when she got closer to his car and his headlights illuminated her face. Along with the pretty chin, a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose gave her something of a cute raccoon’s face. Despite the rags and dirt, she was beautiful.

And familiar. It took him a second, but then he realized that she’d once been in his English class. Last year, or eleventh grade? She’d been there only a short time, and the teacher hadn’t even commented when she’d disappeared, as if she’d never been there. But her seat had been left vacant, and his eyes had often traveled to it, like a tongue poking into the socket of a lost tooth.

The sad-eyed girl got to his window. Charlie wondered what to do. Give her something? Shake his head the way his father did, and pretend otherwise not to see her? That voice was giving him nothing. Before he could decide, she’d spotted him. Worse, she remembered his name.

“Charlie!” she called. The light changed, and he had a brief window to take off. But then she was standing in front of him, and he was immobilized. Drivers behind him started honking, and he panicked. His foot slipped off the brake, and he almost hit her. “Wait!” the girl screamed, and she dashed to the passenger door, trying to climb in. Charlie bit his lip, realized he couldn’t ignore her, and unlocked the door. In a second, she was in, and he was pulling away before she shut the door. He saw too late that he’d run a red light.

“Wow, am I glad you happened by. It isn’t really your neighborhood, is it?”

“It’s your lucky night,” he giggled nervously. He wondered how he could ask her what her name was without offending. “What were you doing there anyhow?”

“Just getting some spare change,” she said. “I’m saving up.” He couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. After a second she said, “I can tell you don’t remember me. No worries. I’m Leah.”

“Right! Did you switch schools?”

“Something like that.”

They were almost at Charlie’s house, the journey through the ghetto fading like a bad dream. “What were you really doing in that neighborhood?” he asked. “My dad says when he was a kid, you couldn’t walk a block without getting jumped. Gangs and shit.”

“Visiting a friend. Listen, Charlie, can you do me a favor? I have something I need to take care of. Could you give me a ride home?”

“Well, it’s late. I need to get the car to my mom.”

“It’s on the way. We’re almost there. Please?”

“Yeah, sure. Of course.”

She smiled and settled back in her seat. “I knew I could depend on you, Charlie.”

She guided him through a section of town he’d never been in. Unlike his own spacious neighborhood, here the houses were tiny cardboard boxes shoved up against each other, or long blocks of old apartment buildings. She led him deeper into the warren of crowded blocks until she said, “Stop here.”

“That’s your house?” he looked at a grim little cottage with a rusted chain link fence and a car older than either of them in the driveway.

“No, I’m over there.” She pointed down the block to a house that might have been the first one’s twin. “Just don’t want anyone to know I’m here. Wait for me.”

“I really need to go. . .”

“Two minutes. I’ll be right back.”

She got out, and Charlie watched her skulk through the shadows. She scanned the block to make sure no one was watching. Satisfied, she edged up the driveway to a darkened window. She stood on a water spigot for a boost, slid the window up, and swung her leg into the opening. She did it so smoothly, Charlie imagined she must have had a lot of practice.

But then it occurred to him, this might not be her house at all. Was she a burglar, hiring him as her getaway driver? He flushed, and it seemed as though all his pores opened at once, soaking through his shirt. Would anybody be able to identify his car? He turned on the radio to drown out the noise in his head.

Five minutes later, she was sliding into the seat next to him. “Thanks,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“That really your house?” he said, starting the car.

“You think I’d break into someone else’s?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“I didn’t even really break in, anyhow. My little sister leaves the window in her room unlocked. This time of night, my father’s plastered in the living room, but he keeps a Glock on the table right next to his glass. If I went in the front door, I’d be dead.”

“Seriously?” But when she didn’t answer, he said more calmly. “So why’d you make me wait?”

She looked down guiltily. Charlie thought she was lovely, despite the grime. “I need you to take me one more place.”

“Leah, I can’t.”

“OK, then just let me ride with you a little way. For company.”

He pulled away from the curb and started home. It was already after ten. They passed through a wooded area, where the road slalomed and Charlie could imagine he was driving in Le Mans. If only he could go faster. “I’m going to have to let you out soon. How are you going to get home from here?” he asked.

“Oh, my God! Pull over!” Leah shouted. In a panic, Charlie heaved to the side of the road, forgetting entirely to signal. The front wheel dipped into a drainage ditch.

Panting, he looked at her. “What? What is it?”

“It’s really important,” she said, leaning close. Her breath tickled his ear. “Do you have a rubber?”


“Never mind,” she smirked. She pulled a glove from an inside pocket of her coat and snapped it on. Still breathing in his ear, she reached down and popped the button on his jeans and wriggled her fingers into his Y-front. “I always liked you,” she cooed. Terrified and excited, he was instantly hard, but it took only a few seconds for him to come. He flushed with shame, but her giggle was encouraging, and she lightly kissed his cheek. “You taste like chlorine,” she whispered. “Fresh and clean.”

She rolled the glove off, catching most of the come, and tied it up. He stuffed himself back inside, horrified to think what would happen when his mother climbed into the car tomorrow. Would she see the stain he’d surely left?

“Now about that other stop” Leah said, dropping the glove out the window.

“Uh, sure. Of course.” His throat was dry and he was afraid he’d hyperventilate. He hit the gas a little too hard, and they bounced out of the gully. Finally, he eased off and was able to keep a steady speed.

Before she could tell him where they were headed, his phone was ringing again. “You gonna answer that?” Leah asked.

Charlie gripped the wheel with one hand and put the other in his pocket. Just the thought that her hand had been there only a minute ago made him stiffen again. He slid the phone out and answered it. “Hi, mom.”

“Charlie! Where the hell are you? I’ve been trying to call you for an hour. Are you OK? What happened? Why aren’t you home yet?”

In the seat next to him, Leah giggled again, and he glared at her to shut up.

“I, uh, got a little lost. I had to give a ride to one of my friends, and he didn’t know how to direct me. I should be home in…” He looked at Leah for a number.

“An hour,” she mouthed, finishing it with a silent kiss.

“Uh, just a few minutes. I think I know where I am right now.”

“Do you see any landmarks?”

“Ma, I have to go. I shouldn’t talk and drive. I’ll be home soon.” He dropped the phone, and Leah helpfully hung it up for him.

“Didn’t realize I was corrupting you,” she said.

“Listen, it’s really late, and she’s never going to let me use the car again. Where are we going? Where’s this errand?”

“Turn here,” she said. Her voice sounded choked, so he complied, and they left the woods for one of the main roads. They drove past darkened stores and empty lots. After a few blocks, he said, “What did you get at your house, anyway?”

“Nothing much. Some of my mother’s jewelry.”

“So you were stealing?”

“Just keep driving.” She gave him directions to an address in the next town. When they got there, Charlie wasn’t too surprised to find an abandoned strip mall. One window had a sign that promised “Coming Soon!”, but it had faded and half fallen. Charlie pulled into a space, still careful to stay inside the lines.

“OK, wait here,” Leah said.

“Now what? Where are you going?”

“Around back. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” She opened her coat, and he saw the hilt of a hunting knife in her belt.

“What the fuck!” he cried.

“I said don’t worry. Just don’t leave without me. Be right back.” And again, she was gone, disappearing behind a dumpster.

He spent an anxious five minutes ignoring the ringing of his phone. How long ago had he told his mother “a few minutes”? It was nearly midnight. Then he heard shouting, and a short scream. He hesitated, then jumped out of the car.

Two snarling voices echoed in the dark. He rushed towards the shadows behind the dumpster, just as he heard the thump of a fist hitting bone. He rounded the corner, and saw Leah dazed, slumping against the wall. The orange glow of a useless security light illuminated a nasty cut oozing on her cheek. Her eyes flew open and flicked to one side, trying to get him to leave, but it was too late.

Across from her, a guy in a worn leather coat bent half over, guttural moans of pain, or anger, cascading from his maw. Leah must have kicked him in the balls, Charlie thought. But that wasn’t going to hold him at bay long. He stood up, ready to attack again. Charlie shouted clumsily, “Get the fuck away from her!” It wasn’t much of a threat, but it distracted the guy long enough to turn him away from Leah and face Charlie. A drug-ravaged skeleton stared back at him. Hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, missing half an ear: every nightmare Charlie’s mother had planted in his brain since he learned the phrase “stranger danger.” Charlie wished he hadn’t said anything at all. The monster turned heavily, clearly still hurting from the blow Leah had landed. But when he saw Charlie, the weight seemed to vanish, and he lunged. Charlie had just enough time to deflect the blow, but the second followed faster than he thought, and connected with his eye. A light burst in his head, but somehow he managed to keep his feet, even blocked the third blow, and pushed forward into the onslaught, swinging blindly, scraping his knuckles on flesh and bone and rock.

Somewhere, he heard Leah shouting for someone to stop. Him? The other guy? He couldn’t tell. Then she was joining the fight, wrapping her arm around the guy’s throat while Charlie beat his face and gut. Grunting, but refusing to drop, he twisted and turned, trying to fling the girl off his back. Somehow, Charlie ended up side to side with Leah, and he felt the bulge of the knife in her belt. Why hadn’t she used it?

He reached inside her coat and grabbed the knife. It slid out faster than he expected, and he almost cut her. But she knew what was happening, and let go. She dodged out of the way while Charlie drove the blade into the attacker’s side. It slid smoothly, catching once on something that popped and gave way. Charlie couldn’t tell how deep it went, but pushed harder just in case. He felt warm spurts of blood coating his hand, drenching his shirt. He heaved one more time, and the guy staggered away from them, dumbfounded, and slumped to the ground. He stared into the darkness, and Charlie stared back. There was no mistaking the eternity in his eyes. Charlie held the knife like a live thing, barely aware of what he’d done.

Finally, Leah slapped his face and grabbed him by the shoulder, “Let’s go, she said. “Now!” She took the knife and they scrambled back into the car. Charlie was putting it into gear before their doors were shut, and he bounced over the curb into the street.

After they’d gone two or three blocks, she told him, “Slow down. We don’t want to be stopped for speeding.”

“He could be after us. He knows who you are.”

“He doesn’t know anything anymore, Charlie.”

“What happened?” He let his foot up off the gas, but he still felt they were flying at a thousand miles an hour.

“The son of a whore got greedy,” she said. “Pull up over there.” She pointed at an apartment complex. Behind it, they found a dumpster, and she buried her coat in the garbage. Then she dropped the knife down a sewer grate. Back on the road, Charlie felt a little safer, but his hands were still sticky with blood.

“What’ll your mother say about the jewelry?”

“Nothing. She’s gone.”

“Like. . . dead?”

Leah laughed. “Yeah, like dead. Except she’s alive and well and ignoring the three of us. That’s why my father sits there with the gun. I think he’ll kill her if she ever decides to come back.”

“So you use the money to. . .”

“Not to get high. I figure she left me a nest egg. By the way, you’re speeding again. Turn into those woods there.”

Automatically, Charlie followed her instructions. He drove as far as the trees would let him and killed the engine. The sudden darkness was complete.

“Open the trunk. Let’s see what we got,” Leah said.

He popped the trunk and they rummaged through it until Leah found a plastic tool case and a length of hose.

“This will have to do.” She dumped the tool kit and left it open on the ground. Then she lifted the fuel tank door and unscrewed the cap. Charlie watched uncomprehending until she stuck the hose in and started sucking. When the flow started, she let the gas pour into the tool case until it was full, and then crimped the hose. “Splash it inside. Leave your phone, too.”

The voice spoke up to tell him no, don’t listen to that crazy girl, but then it fell into irrelevant silence. He sloshed the gas along the back seat and came back for more. After two more trips, Leah took a lighter from her pocket. “Your shirt, too,” she told him.

He pulled it over his head, glad he still wore a ratty T under it. Shivering, he threw the bloody shirt inside. The smell of gas hovered like a toxic fog everywhere, while the last of it dripped to the ground from the hose in the tank.

“Stand back.” She clicked the lighter, and threw it flaming into the front seat. It landed on the shirt, and instantly the interior was blazing with sooty heat. The last thing Charlie saw was his swim bag melting into a pool of nylon gunk.

The heat pushed them back, but they stood watching the inferno. His mind briefly registered her hand in his.

“It’s long walk home,” Charlie said finally. “We better get started.”

The flames threw their shadows toward the road ahead of them, flickering and alive.