Monday, May 21, 2018

Doubt Thou the Stars are Fire, by S.A. Cosby

“What you want to drink? A rum and Coke? Vodka and cranberry? Them mumblemouth motherfuckers down at the club be drinking that pink Ciroc but I know that ain’t your thing. Is it?” Amir asked. I shook my head.

“You got some Jack Daniels I’ll have some of that.” I said.

“Hey Shanda, get Chess a Jack and Coke.” He yelled into the kitchen.

“Just the Jack.” I said. Amir nodded.

“Hey just the Jack. Tell you what, just bring the whole fucking bottle.” He yelled. Shanda didn’t respond but I was sure she heard him. A few seconds later she came sauntering out of the kitchen and handed me a heavy cut-crystal glass filled to the brim with whiskey , two lonely ice cubes dropped in there for decoration. Then she sat a mostly full fifth of Jack Daniels and a red Solo cup on the glass coffee table between me and Amir. She didn’t look at me and I didn’t look at her. When she walked away I stared at my drink like it was my ninth-grade algebra homework. Amir poured himself a shot.

“Five years, Chess. Man, we lucked out on that shit didn’t we? “Amir said. He took his cup to the head.

“You really lucked out. You only got a year.” I said. Amir nodded slowly. He was almost able to pull off that look of solemnity he was going for.

“Hey man, you didn’t get the needle. Manslaughter ain’t bad. And now you out. It’s been what three weeks? It’s like you never left,” he said. I killed half my drink with one gulp. I had to keep my mouth occupied. I wonder if he noticed how tight I was gripping the glass? The whiskey burned like the devil was pissing down my throat.

“And now you the man.” I wheezed after the liquor hit my belly. Amir looked around his living room. He stared at the leather living room suite and the deep pile cafĂ© latte carpet. His eyes peered through the French doors that led to the patio. I watched him take in the BMW and the Mercedes sitting in his driveway. He tried to hide it, but I saw him glance toward the kitchen. Towards Shanda.

“I’m doing all right,” he said finally. I took a smaller sip of my drink.

“So Boonie said you wanted to talk to me. “

Amir sat forward, and I leaned back. Force of habit. If someone leans into you on the inside they either want to shank you or fuck you. Either way they looking to put something hard inside you.

“Hey man, I just wanted us to clear the air about the way things went down, “he said. I sipped my drink again.

“Nothing to clear up. Your lawyer was better than mine that’s all.” I lied. Amir tossed his head back. His long dreads spilled across the back of the couch.

“Why did that motherfucker fight back man? We’d done that Craigslist escort thing a hundred times and nobody ever even blinked. Then that big son of a bitch wants to try and crack our skulls open.”

“At the trial they said he was on meth and coke, “ I said.

“That nigga broke my jaw in three places. He was on some Incredible Hulk type shit.” Amir said. I didn’t respond. I had played that night over in my head enough when I was inside. It had been on a continuous loop the entire time I’d been in Mecklenburg State Prison. Me and Amir bursting out of the hotel room closet like thug life personified. The big naked white guy punching Shanda in the mouth. Amir getting tossed against the wall like a bag of trash. Me hitting the big guy on the back of the head with the lamp. The withering silence that fell over the room as we realized the guy was dead.

End Scene.

“It was some crazy shit,” I said.

“Look man I appreciate you not snitching.” Amir said. I took another big gulp of my drink. The empty glass mocked me.

“Better bite your tongue off next time he says something like that. I’m all out of ideas.” I imagined it saying. I rinsed the Jack around in my mouth. I didn’t snitch because in the week between beating that guy to death in the Relax Inn and the cops nabbing us we had come up with a pretty good plan. We’d just tell the cops we were partying with the dude and a fight broke out and things got out of hand. If we all stuck to the story we would have probably all gotten off with depraved indifference.

But we didn’t all stick to the story did we?

I finally swallowed the whiskey. My mouth was numb. The flesh on the insides of my cheeks felt loose and gelatinous. Gelatinous. It’s strange the words you pick up when you have time to read a dictionary from cover to cover.

“We were boys.” I said. I tried to keep my tone nice and even.

The few people who came to see me filled me in on Amir’s rise to the middle of the Richmond drug game. After he did his year he’d gotten up with Shanda. Her lawyer had kept her out of jail. She was right by his side as transitioned from being a stick-up kid to selling Special K to the club kids. Parlayed that into dealing designer drugs to hipster douchebags at the three local colleges. He’d built his shit solid enough to make some paper but fluid enough to escape the attention of Johnny Law.

“Chess you know me and Shanda that didn’t start till I got out. We was never doing nothing behind you back. It just happened.” he said.

“Hey, Amir, do me a favor. Don’t tell me that shit okay? Nothing just happens. You didn’t just look up one day and notice her fat ass all right? Don’t play me like that man. Y’all together now and that’s all it is. I get that. But don’t tell me it just happened.” I said.

Shanda came out the kitchen and went through the French doors. She had put on a leather jacket to go out into the cold February air. I watched her put a cigarette to her lips. The flame from the lighter gave her butter-pecan complexion an incandescent glow. She’d cut her hair short. When I’d gone in it had hung down to her ass. Cascading down her back like a waterfall made of shadows. That was the Shanda I knew. That was the Shanda I loved. That was the Shanda who wrote me twice a month for five years. The Shanda who dangled a carrot in front of me that kept me going in Mecklenburg.

“Maybe when you get out.”

She ended all her letters like that. All one hundred and twenty of them.

“I got a job for you.” Amir said. The jocularity in his voice had dried up like ditchwater in the middle of July.

“What kind of job?”

Amir stood up and went into his den. I heard him rifling through a drawer then shut it hard.

When he came back out he had one of those big brown envelopes in his hand. The kind you mail documents in.

“Got some fellas outta DC coming into town tonight. They bringing me a package. Some of that good shit them Beckys over at VCU like. I can’t go get it tonight, so I was gonna get you to pick it up for me.” He said. Amir tossed the envelope on the coffee table. I stared at the envelope. I glanced out the patio window. Shanda was finishing her smoke.

The last letter I had received from her had been written in code. Nonsensical words and phrases that only held meaning for us. You know, the way lovers speak. She’d told me Amir beat on her. That he treated her like property. That she’d taken out a five hundred-thousand-dollar insurance policy on him. That maybe when I got out we could be together if he was out of the picture.

I stood up. I took the envelope off the table.

“I guess I’m working for you now huh?” I said. Amir frowned.

“Man don’t say it like that. I owe you, Chess. You do this for me and I’ll take care of you. It’s the least I can do. You just pick up the package and bring it back here tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow?” A sheepish smile crawled across Amir’s face.

“Yeah man. We going out tonight.” He said.

It dawned on me what today was. I didn’t keep track of holidays inside. Not Christmas. Not Thanksgiving. Least of all Valentine’s Day.

Images flooded my mind that made me sick to my stomach. Amir and Shanda at some semi-fancy restaurant ordering what he thought was a good bottle of wine. Amir and Shanda riding the elevator to the top floor of the Marriott to fuck in the same two positions they did at home every three weeks. Amir laying on top of her sweating and grunting like a dying harbor seal.

That’s when I knew I was going to do it.

I held out my right hand while holding the envelope in my left.Amir grabbed it and pumped it up and down twice. His grip was almost comically delicate. He’d gotten soft.

I dropped the envelope and sucker-punched him. I planted my feet and threw my hips into it. I felt a shock thrum its way up my arm as my fist connected with his cheek bone. Amir dropped to one knee. He was blinking hard and a thin stream of blood and drool poured out his mouth. I grabbed him by his dreads and dragged him to his feet.

“Five years motherfucker! How many times you fuck her in five years? A hundred? A thousand? After you sold me out.” I screamed. I drove his head into the glass coffee table. It cracked but didn’t break. A series of fractures raced toward its edge. I slammed his head into the table again. This time it did shatter. Glass shards rained down on his lush pile carpet. I let go of him and he crumpled to the floor.

I grabbed the Jack Daniels bottle from the wreckage of the coffee table. I gripped it by the neck and raised it above my head.

“We was boys!” I howled. I slammed the bottle into the back of his skull. It made a dull thwack!

“We was ride or die!” I said. Thwack!

“She was my girl!” I said. Thwack Thwack Thwack! When I finally dropped the bottle, it was covered in blood and Amir didn’t have a face anymore. Shanda came in from the patio and closed the door behind her.

“You were supposed to wait until tonight. Come back and break in. that’s why I talked him into getting you to do the pick-up. So you could get the lay of the house.” She said. Her honey-coated voice melted over me. Even now with blood splattered across my face it made me shiver from the inside out.

“I…couldn’t… I couldn’t let him touch you one more night. It’s okay. We can make this work. Go get a blanket. We can take him out through the patio. Drop him off near the train tracks.” I said. Shanda didn’t speak. She headed down the hallway. I wiped my face. My hand came away red.

I heard Shanda come back into the living room. She wasn’t carrying a blanket. She had a small nickel-plated .32. For a brief moment I told myself I didn’t understand.

“Shanda…what are you doing?” I said even though I knew exactly what the fuck she was doing.

“You’re right. We can still make it work.” She said. The first shot got me in the shoulder. The hole it made in the sleeve of my t-shirt was the size of an aspirin. I stared at it, waiting for the blood to flow. I turned back to Shanda. We locked eyes.

I started for her and she shot me again. My legs disappeared from under me. I fell forward on to the remains of the coffee table.

It didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt except that millisecond between seeing the gun in Shanda’s hand and her pulling the trigger. I heard her talking on her cell to a 911 operator. She was explaining how her ex had broken in and beaten her husband to death and she the poor frightened waif that she was had been forced to shoot her ex. As the darkness began to overtake me I wondered how she would explain the letters in my back pocket. All 120 of them. I’d carried them with me everywhere since I’d gotten out. Some of them even had little hearts drawn in the margins.

Ain’t love grand?

Monday, May 14, 2018

Blood Daughter, by Matthew Lyons

Stan blows up his old life with a few Facebook messages and a few cellphone photos, and after the divorce is over and he's bled dry as corn husks, he packs up his few remaining belongings in his shitty little fifth-hand Kia (the only car on Craigslist he could afford) and moves to North Garth to start rebuilding. He gets an apartment (studio), and a job (washing dishes), a new(ish) pair of sneakers and a rat in a glass case he names Salzer, after the famous German poet. He spends his first few months looking back, crying in the dark, calling his old house from grocery store parking lot payphones and hoping that Melinda doesn't pick up because they both know she's not going to let him talk to Cassie. Stan misses his daughter more than he misses the rest of his stupid old life and he tells himself that maybe that's ordinary.

Whenever his little girl answers, he never tells her it's him calling, just whispers all his secrets to her in alphabetical order and hopes she understands. When he runs out of those, he starts telling her his memories. When he was six, his dad shot himself in the garage with the Browning he brought back from Vietnam and ever since then Stan's had nightmares about red paper fans pressed against cracked window-glass. He stomped crayfish to paste by the creekside when he was a teenager. He married too young and tried to fix a broken thing with a baby. He tells her that despite all his sins she's beautiful and she's perfect and she's all he ever wanted and that's when Melinda yanks the phone away from their daughter and screeches PERVERT!! down the line at him and then it clicks dead in his ear. The next time he tries to call, a mechanical woman tells him that number's been disconnected. He screams and smashes the receiver against the base until it comes apart in his hand and the grocery security guards have to come and drag him away off the store property.

Back home, broken and battered and hammered out of shape, he drags himself into the bathroom and scoops a handful of scummy hair from the shower drain with bloody fingers, cradles it in his palms, coos nursery rhymes to it. It's a good start. But he'll need more.

Eventually he notices there's a new waitress at the diner: her name is Alexandra and she has a green and black tattoo of a snake stretching from her right wrist all the way to the line of her jaw and she laughs at his lame dad jokes and smokes too many menthol cigarettes and carries around a five year AA token like some people carry around crucifixes. She asks him about his bandages and he makes some stupid quip, hoping she gets the message. They start to have sex a few times a week, always at her place and only ever when her boyfriend isn't home. She watches him get high sometimes and never asks why he never invites her over to his apartment.

Stan starts to plan. Stan invests in a full set of antique dental tools off eBay. Stan takes showers that last for hours, pulling out the thin hairs circling his chest and his belly and his ever-expanding bald spot and letting them collect in the drain until they just about stop up the tub before he pulls them out and adds them. Stan buys weed and sometimes coke from the other dishwasher at the diner, another down-on-his-luck case who looks like a Chad but insists everyone call him Pablo. Stan has wet dreams about his ex-wife sometimes and always calls Alexandra to apologize after. Stan starts to buy anesthetic from one of Pablo's other customers, some asshole veterinarian who can't handle his shit. Stan doesn't go in the kitchen anymore because that's her room and she needs her privacy.

Salzer's been dead under a pathetic pile of shredded paper bedding for weeks before Stan notices, and when he finally does, he just throws the whole terrarium out into the alley where it shatters and startles a homeless man so badly he never comes back around. This city is dying anyway. Stan doesn't see the poor bastard beat his retreat down and away and it's just as well because Stan wouldn't care if he did.

His apartment starts to smell like rot so he spends his whole paycheck at the Yankee Candle one Friday and congratulates himself for his ingenuity. He walls off the kitchen with broken-down boxes and cheap duct tape that doesn't tear right but gets the job done. He sings while he puts it up, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider and London Bridge and Mary Had A Little Lamb and more. He tells himself she likes it but there'll be no way to tell until he's finished and that's not going to be for a while because he has to go slowly and carefully otherwise everything's going to get fucked up and he can't let that happen.

This is too important. She's too important.

One night, laying in bed, he tells Alexandra a little bit about himself, and in return, she tells him she thinks he's the loneliest person she's ever met. She tells him about her son who lives with her parents in Spokane and then he leaves because he can't handle that shit, and the next day at work she acts like nothing's wrong but he can see by the puffy glow around her eyes that she's been crying. He doesn't ask about it and she doesn't share. She doesn't answer his calls for the rest of the week either, but he's okay with that. He's got plenty of work at home to keep him occupied without having to worry about her feelings on top of all of it. He's got to focus.

Things are moving faster, now.

The next Saturday, he waits up and does lines of blow until well after midnight and then breaks into a local funeral home because those shitty Labrador painkillers he has at home aren't doing the job. He stumbles through the dark, upending chairs and caskets on his way through to the prep room and uses a screwdriver to snap the padlock off the supply locker: inside are racks of tools and rows of brown bottles with labels he only understands a little. These'll probably work. With one arm, he sweeps a whole shelf into his duffel bag for later and when a voice behind him asks

Who the hell are you? What are you doing in here?

he grabs one of the many-angled implements from the cabinet and opens the man's face with it. The sound is like a claw hammer against a steak and Stan leaves him there, crumpled on the floor in a creeping pool of his own blood.

In the bathroom of his apartment, Stan loads a pair of syringes with a mixture from the bottles and sets them on the edge of the sink while he works up the nerve. The first time he really does it, he starts small. A needle prick in the tips of his first two fingers, then he goes out to his car for the pliers while the itchy numb takes hold. He lays out paper towels all around the sink, gets a good hold, grits his teeth and yanks out one fingernail, then another. They come out with a wet sucking thwick and even through the warm embalming drug haze, the pain is exquisite, a fuzzy screaming wave that turns his whole hand into a burning, open nerve. There's not as much blood as he expected, though. He runs a cold tap over his bare fingers until it feels okay again, then he takes his ripped-free nails out to the kitchen to add.

Over the course of the next week he does the other eight, and then all ten toes, and then uses the antique bag of tools from the internet to start in on his mouth. He brings it all to the kitchen, taking his time to make sure each piece fits just so. It's only when the gaps in his smile grow wide enough to pass the neck of a bottle through that the weird, awful people at the diner start to notice. Are you okay? they ask. Do you need to talk to someone, Stan? He shrugs them all off. He's doing just fine. Every day he comes to work missing bigger clumps of hair and one time he lets slip to Pablo that he's been spending a lot of time digging for materials at the city dump. Barbed wire and medical waste. When Pablo asks him to explain a little bit more, Stan slaps him in the crotch and pretends he doesn't speak English. Pablo never talks to him again, not even when Stan comes in the next week missing the last three fingers off his left hand.

The blood seeps through the cheap vinyl off-brand bandages and gets everywhere, pattering spots on bowls and countertops and fresh napkins, but Stan insists this isn't a problem. It's no problem. He'll clean it all again, he'll scrub twice as hard. The manager sends him home and says not to come back until he's doing better. Stan asks what that means just in time to get the door shut in his face. On the way back through the parking lot, he puts a fist through the driver's side window of the manager's crappy old Buick. He stands there bleeding from both hands for a while before the idea comes to him and he starts scooping up handfuls of sea-green pebbles.

She needs eyes to see, after all.

And she always liked green. It was her favorite color.

Or was it purple?

He fills his pockets with safety glass, sure he'll find the right two somewhere in there. He's so close, now.

Back at home, Stan does all the coke he has left and it makes his brain feel like a trashcan that's on fire but if he pays attention he might be able to finish her tonight and that would make it worth all the shit and the hurt and the pain and the misery so he decides to do that: okay let's focus so we can do this come on let's fucking go. He lets himself into the kitchen through the cardboard door and goes to work, spilling his pockets all over the Formica countertop so he can find the right ones.

She waits for him at the table, hideous and cruel and nearly perfect, wrought from clumps of mottled, sticky hair and fresh stripes of leg-skin and mangled lumps of cartilage and broken bone, lashed together with tape and tight loops of wire and twine, her shape ruined humanoid, the proportions all warped and wrong. She smiles at him with his own torn-out teeth—they sit in her misshapen head glistening pearl red, arranged in as neat a row as Stan could fix them. She nods at him and he goes to work sifting through the jagged pile. The edges bite and slice into the pads of his remaining fingers, rendering the shards slick and hard to keep a hold of, but he keeps at it until he finds two that he thinks will work. He leans in and whispers to her, telling her about their angles, and when her smile spreads, he knows he made the right choice.

Stan steps in close and uses one butterflied thumb to make two little divots in her head so he can put the eyes where they need to go, but before he can place them, there's a knock at the front door.

Stannie? Alexandra calls from the other side. Stannie, are you in there? I just want to talk, please. She must have followed him home. Stannie, I'm worried about you. Nosy. She's always been nosy.

Ignore her, the creation hisses.

But Stan hesitates, stuck between the only two people left in his pathetic excuse for a life.

Open the door, Alexandra pleads. Please, Stan. I just want to help.

Give me my fucking eyes, his new child snarls.

Tears pour down Stan's face and he jams the glass into his replacement girl's makeshift skull and she shivers with pleasure, rising from her seat to meet him where he stands. Outside on the welcome mat, Alexandra's stamping her feet in frustration and calling his name, her voice swollen with sobs, but he can't hear her, now. His wretched abomination wraps him in her damp, ghastly embrace and when she squeezes it's like being devoured by knives—she shreds him apart and absorbs him, uses his parts to fortify her own, a doll of hair and meat and blood and metal. She blooms and overlaps herself, feels her father pulped inside the limits of her heinous body. She turns and tears down the fake wall, lurching toward the front of her prison, then crashes through the cheap pressboard door and onto the weeping woman she finds there, consuming her whole, the hair and steel coiling and thrashing her to red ribbons. The world beyond smells like fear, and hate, and blood, and she will devour it all, in her brutal, malignant perfection.

She opens her stolen mouth and crows to the heavens above, born to unmake the world in her image, and the gods she mocks there watch and weep and turn away to hide in their barrows. Deep inside her, as he’s pulled apart and digested to slurry, Stan’s last thought is of the family that left him, the world that forsook him, and in the moments before he truly becomes another part of his girl’s terrible entirety, he weeps with joy.

The end has finally come.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Negro and an Ofay, By Danny Gardner, reviewed by Tim Hennessy

A Negro and an Ofay
Danny Gardner
Down & Out Books
261 pages
reviewed by Tim Hennessy

With the volume of detective fiction published today, emerging from a crowded pack has never been more difficult. Protagonists piecing together answers to convoluted mysteries is such a familiar path to head down, I swear off as much detective fiction as I pick up, always vowing I’m done, that I’ve read enough.Whether a seasoned, hard-boiled investigator or an amateur doing a favor for a friend, the PI novel is a genre weighed down by its history and popularity. With an overabundance of white male detectives running through the fictional mean streets and dark alleys, looking to right wrongs while busy self-consciously narrating, and maintaining their buzz, what has kept the detective novel appealing for over 150 years?

You can find one answer in the exciting narratives coming from the points of view of underrepresented authors and their protagonists, who are revitalizing the genre and making it more relevant. One of the bright spots in recent years, Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay, explores the complicated racial politics and code-switching necessary to navigating the 1952 Midwest.

When life had him by the short hairs, [Elliot] often fantasized about being a good student who graduated on the Dean’s list. Then he could have traded on his near-whiteness to land a job in the front office of some industrial farm in Illinois. Could’ve had a name tag. Maybe a desk. Dated some chippie from the secretarial pool. Perhaps that would have kept him from enlisting in Patton’s Third Army. He would have never followed every other discharged colored to the big city. He wouldn’t have taken the police academy test while drunk, just to show much smarter he was.

Elliot Caprice is the embodiment of otherness, abandoned by his white mother after his black father dies in a race riot. He is “a city boy trapped in farm country” raised by his father’s brother in Southland, a small rural Illinois community where as a young man, he collected vigs for Izzy, a Jewish loan maker and additional father figure. Elliot is also a war veteran who became a South Side Chicago police officer upon his return. Working amongst rampant corruption, Elliot was blackmailed into snitching on dirty cops once his past relationship with Izzy came to light. Elliot complicates matters for himself further when he involves himself with a former police lieutenant turned beat crime reporter William Drury, who investigated organized crime and its ties to the policing community.

Great characters have always been the engine that’s driven and sustained detective novels beyond any given books’ mystery. In the short span of his life, Elliot has done a lot of living, and Gardner’s loaded his first novel with an abundant supporting cast in which there’s hardly a character that comes in contact with Elliot that doesn’t have a complicated history with him or an uneasy rapport.

In the first third of the novel, Gardner layers Elliot’s conflicts with his past as well as his community on thick, with multiple subplots that would make any number of great novels. Much of the first act gives quick glimpses into Elliot’s past to establish the character. Elliot’s time serving in the war changed everything for him.

For the average Negro, the existence of concentration camps was an abstraction. Just another example of how ofays do each other when there were no niggers around. Once Patton took colored regiments deep within German territory, they witnessed atrocities that eclipsed the tortures of Jim Crow. …the next concentration camps to be liberated would hold colored bodies. This was his motivation for joining the Chicago Police Department. …He desired to legitimize himself. Perhaps legitimize colored folk overall.

One is still left wanting more of a sense of Elliot’s time as a younger man trying to navigate the dismaying effects of returning home from war. Also, further exploring the conflicts Elliot’s time collecting for Izzy presented as he began his career as a police officer would make an excellent time period we can hope Gardner explores later in the series.

So where does the detective story come in? That plot thread picks up much later when Elliot learns that his Uncle Buster lost his farm after taking out a bad loan to help pay labor for the planting season. Matters complicate quickly when Buster falls ill, and loses his workers to a competitor, failing to keep up with payments.

To help pay off his uncle’s debt, Elliot takes on work as a process server hoping he can figure out a way to save the farm. He’s dispatched to get a signature from a wealthy widow in the midst of an estate battle with her husband’s adult children. Their sudden marriage after his first wife died in a boating accident raised suspicions and when he later drowns in a bathtub after changing his will to benefit her, foul play was suspected. Seizing an opportunity to make some side cash, Elliot’s hired to examine the complexities of her legal situation so she can retain the assets her husband left her.

Following in the footsteps of his golden-aged predecessors, Gardner sends Elliot down a familiar path filled with duplicitous wealthy relations, and broader entanglements that involve organized crime, and familiar federal law enforcement officers that complicate his life yet again. Gardner’s novel is too action heavy to balance the elements of race and class that are also on its mind. The book has a lot of plot threads to connect and resolve, which it does with the aid of a massive shootout. While fun and well executed, the action sequence served as an opportunity to bring disparate plot threads together rather than build tension.

Even though not all of the story elements work in equal measure, Danny Gardner is laying the foundation for a fascinating and complex character. The more opportunities we have to view the detective genre through different experiences like those in the works of Attica Locke, Adi Tantimedh, Steph Cha, and Alex Segura the more it vital it will continue to be. Each of these writers’ like Gardner uses their sleuths to look at social issues intersecting cultural conflicts of the past and present all while bringing a fresh perspective to a familiar genre.