Sunday, October 6, 2019

Bar Bet, fiction by JM Taylor

That early in the day, not many drinkers slunk into the dark of the Drinking Hole. In the far corner, cheap-ass Larry Stover nursed his beer so fiercely it was more likely to evaporate than get drunk. At the far end of the bar, Ced surrounded his beer like a fortress. Brown as the walnut bar top, he had a brilliant white scar splashed across his face like he was the missing member of KISS. Molly Finnegan leaned spread-legged with her elbows on the bar, so she’d be the first thing anyone saw coming in. Not that the pose enticed any paying customers for her or for me. It wasn’t worth my while to fill the peanut bowls yet.

I dropped a cricket from the jar into the terrarium and turned to slicing limes, not that many of my patrons got so fancy. I stopped buying maraschino cherries a decade ago.

By lunch time, the place had started to fill up. The only food I sold was bags of chips and pickled eggs, but it wasn’t the cuisine folks came in for. With a television that showed only sports with no audio and a juke last updated when John and June visited Folsom, the Hole is a place for quiet contemplation. Couple years ago, I had to put up a sign in the window, saying “no colors.” At first, it was for the different bikers who come in. Club members got too loud for the rest of the drinkers to stew in peace. But really it turned out to be the young punks in town, the ones who buy into that crap on cable and on-line “news” who think “free speech” means you can say what you want without repercussion.

After the second one got bounced off the floor, I put that sign up. But no sign is going to stop a rising tide. Try it yourself.

So the place was getting busy, but Molly had left for greener pastures and no one noticed when the door opened, shining a spotlight on nothing in particular. I looked up and saw two kids come in. With the light behind them, all I saw was the high and tight hair cuts and squared shoulders like they owned the place. When the door closed behind them, the darkness revealed that one had dark hair and a face covered with acne he should have grown out of five years ago. The other, slightly taller, wore a smirk that begged you to punch it. They both wore white shirts with some triangle logo I’d never seen. But after carding them, I had no real reason to deny them the cheap beers they ordered. But I never lost track of them.

Ced lifted his finger at the same time the kids called for another round. Some say you should prioritize the new faces, try to build your customer base, but I believe in loyalty first. Ced, Larry, even Molly the whore, would always get served before a line of newcomers. I walked past them to deliver Ced’s beer. I should’ve known something would come of it, and maybe I did.

The pimply one spoke up first. He was almost polite, just saying, “Hey, we were first!”

I ignored him. The complaint made me want to ask Ced how his day was. “Not as bad as yesterday,” he said. “Probably better than tomorrow, though.”

Then the other got more forceful. “I thought your sign said no coloreds.”

I locked eyes with Ced, but he didn’t give me any other indication of how he felt about that. I gritted my teeth, took the three steps to their spot deliberately. Along the way, I decided not to discuss spelling with them.

“You’re cut off,” I said. “First round’s on me, so hoof it.”

It’s never that easy to scrape shit from your shoe, though.

“I get it’s not the fifties anymore, we can’t have segregated counters no more, but damned if I’m going to let you serve him before me. I’m an American, for God’s sake.”

“And he’s a veteran, for country’s sake. I don’t deal with your bullshit in my bar. Beat it, fashy.”

I glanced at Ced, who hadn’t moved, except to sip his beer. But he had the beginnings of his own smirk, and I wondered why. The rest of the place was watching me, and I didn’t like it.

Pock-face said, “I just want to know why you think that one’s better than me. I love my country, that’s why we need to keep the undesirables out. We built this country, we fought and died for it, and we don’t need outsiders and illegals sucking off America’s tit.”

“That’s a sick image,” Ced mumbled. I felt the weight of everyone’s eyes shift off me onto him, like at a tennis match. Still, he didn’t move, his elbows gripped by the varnish of the wood.

The boys pushed away from the bar and sauntered over to Ced, one at each shoulder. If he was worried about a two-on-one match, he didn’t show it.

“We didn’t ask for your literary analysis,” the tall one said. “Like he said, we want to know why you think you’re better than us.”

“You serve? All that building and fighting and dying? What branch?”

The pimply one balled his fists. “I’ll show—”

But his friend cut him off. It was only from this angle that he saw Ced’s scars. “What’d you do? Try to bleach yourself like Michael Jackson?”

The two of them laughed like a pair of rabid hyenas, but the air went out the room. I said my customers like quiet contemplation, but I didn’t say they don’t know and respect each other.

“IED,” Ced told him. “Fallujah. Bet you can’t even spell it.” Then he looked at me and grinned. “I can see that you won’t back off, and I don’t want to fight, so maybe we should leave this to Oliver!.”

“Who’s Oliver?” the tall one said.

“No, it’s ‘Oliver!’,” I said. “With the exclamation point.” I showed him the terrarium. The heat lamp burned beneath the liquor bottles, giving them a hellish glow.

“Why’s he called that?” zit-face asked. As if he knew who “he” was.

I checked with Ced, to make sure he was serious. Ced nodded, so I shrugged, unclipped the lamp and moved the glass case to the bar. Except for the sand-colored rocks, a bowl of water, and the grinning human skull, it looked empty. The glass was warm in my hands.

The two punks leaned in close, and a few others looked over their shoulders, but Oliver! was nowhere to be seen. I knew he was hiding in the skull, working on the cricket I’d given him for lunch. I unlocked the lid and folded it back. Then I lifted the skull.

Oliver!’s tail curled up over his head. “Lookit this,” I said, and reached under the bar for the blacklight I kept for checking IDs. I shined it on Oliver! and he changed from black to blue. He held the cricket in his pincers the way Larry held his evaporating beer.

“What the fuck is that?” the tall one said.

“That is Androctonus bicolor,” I said, putting the black light away. “Fat-tailed scorpion. Also known as Oliver!. You want to get technical, he’s an illegal, smuggled over in Ced’s gear. As his name implies, a mixture of colors. He also has a hell of a sting.”

The two boys stepped back. “You’re out of your mind,” the tall one breathed.

“Watch,” Ced told them. He pushed away his beer and reached his right hand into the tank. He hovered over Oliver!, then, in one quick movement nabbed him by the end of his tail. The cricket dropped to the gravel and he arched and snapped in anger.

The circle around Ced and Oliver grew by three feet.

Oliver! writhed beneath Ced’s hand. The arachnid wasn’t pleased at all, and reached in vain towards the fingers that imprisoned him from above.

“What were you saying about who’s better? Ced asked, smooth as silk. “Let’s make a bet. We’ll let Oliver! vent his anger on each of us. Whoever gives up first has to admit the other is the best.”

The smirk came back to the face of the one with the triangle logo. “If that…” I glared at him. “One can take it, so can I.”

“Fuck no,” said pimple boy. “That’ll kill us.”

I shook my head. “Oliver! don’t kill, at least not if you’re as healthy as you look.” I put a rubber-topped glass vial on the bar. “And this is antivenin if either of you passes out. It’ll keep your heart pumping, more or less. This is my place, so I make the rules: if you win, I’ll declare you’re the master race and banish Ced from my establishment. If he wins, you hand over that piece of shit shirt you’re wearing so I can wipe the john with it.”

“Not me,” the first one said.

“No one’s getting this shirt,” smirky said. But he took a seat next to Ced. I gotta give it to him, even as Oliver! dangled near his face, he held his ground.

Ced was whispering something to the scorpion, like he was putting some kind of spell on him. I thought of snake charmers and horse whisperers. He locked eyes with his opponent. Then, without breaking the stare, he tucked Oliver!’s pincers beneath his left hand, held them there tight, and let his tail go. Oliver! nailed him on the thumb.

Ced blinked, as if he’d gotten a mild shock. “Your turn,” he said.

He daintily nabbed the scorpion’s tail and held it out for the other to take. The son of a bitch had turned whiter than even he might have wanted the country to be, and sweat covered his forehead.

“Go ahead,” Ced urged him, with the same conjuring tone he’d used on Oliver!. “He can’t hurt you if you hold him by the tail.”

“Don’t do it, Mitch. Let’s just leave.”

But that seemed only to egg him on. “Lemme have that,” he said. To be honest, he seemed more worried about touching Ced than he did the scorpion.

Once he had the tail, he put the body under his hand, just like Ced had done.

“Don’t hurt him,” I said.

He glowered at me. “Shut up. I won’t kill your pet.”

I shook my head and stepped back. “I was talking to Oliver!”

He held that pose another few seconds. Deciding, I guess, whether he was really going to go through with it. Finally, he let loose.

It looked like he’d been shocked with a live wire. His whole body went rigid and I swear he levitated off the stool. Ced’s hand flashed out and caught Oliver! before he could scuttle away. Mitch’s red-faced friend was crying, the twerp. Within seconds, a bruise the size and color of a football had spread across Mitch’s wrist and arm. Snot poured out of his nose.

“That’s round one,” I said.

“How many rounds?” the friend gasped.

“Until one of them gives in,” I said.

Ced mumbled another spell.

“What’s he shaying?” Mitch said with a husky voice.

“‘Please sir, I want some more,’” Ced told him more loudly. Then he lodged Oliver! under his right hand, took another stab. This time, his nose twitched, but nothing else. Gingerly, he took Oliver by the tail and offered him to Mitch.

He didn’t look too good. The tendons stood out on his neck, and drool streamed out of the corners of his mouth. “I get ish,” he said. “You got shtung so often you’re immune.”

Ced nodded. “Something like that. Let’s see what you got, white boy.”

It took Mitch two or three tries to take Oliver! by the tail, and he grimaced as he put the pincers beneath his swollen hand. But he didn’t hesitate and this time kept his seat, though he howled loud and long enough to drown out half of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” I did the honors and caught up Oliver! once he’d done his thing.

“Another round?” I asked, as if I were offering beer.

“Hit me,” Ced told me, and he let Oliver! zap him.

Mitch was slumped in his chair. I think his partner was keeping him from hitting the floor. But he managed to say, “Pleashe zhur,” with something approaching humor. But it was the humor of the defeated. He swiped at Oliver! twice, three times, then collapsed on the bar.

Ced dropped Oliver! back in his terrarium. The scorpion darted back under the skull to eat his cricket in peace. I replaced the tank on its shelf and reattached the heat lamp.

By the time I turned around, Mitch was half awake again, scrabbling at his shirt. He was honest enough about that. But he needed help just to get his arms over his head. Larry took it and disappeared into the closet we called the men’s room. Meanwhile, I loaded a syringe with the antivenin. I can’t lie, it felt good to stab him with the needle, though less good to hit the plunger.

“Is he gonna die?” the other kid said. He’d lost his shirt, too. I could now cite the “No shirt, no service” rule if I needed to.

“We all do, eventually,” I replied. “So make the best of it.”

Larry came out zipping up his pants. “I left ’em in the urinal,” he said.

Suddenly, there was a line, and not just men: Molly had come back and charmed her way to the front.

Mitch fought to keep his feet. “Thash a lot to shtink abou’,” he said. “You got shum balls.”

“I’d give my right arm to know how you did that,” his friend said as they limped out the door.

Ced shrugged and drank his beer. He took a napkin to the dripping venom on the smooth area along his plastic wrist and thumb, careful not to let it touch his skin.

“I did,” he said, in his snake charmer’s voice.


JM Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. His work has appeared in such mags and zines as Thuglit, Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Out of the Gutter. His novel *Night of the Furies*, was listed in Spinetingler's Best of 2013. He's currently working on a young adult spy thriller. When he's not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Whiskey Made Us Brave, ficton by S.A. Cosby

The sign above the bar said “Billy Boy’s Blues Shack” in bright neon indigo letters that had been crafted in an exaggerated 80’s font. Bricks came back with two more Jack’s on the rocks. He sat one squat little glass in front of me and kept one for himself. I craned my head around taking in everything Billy Boy’s had to offer. That list was short.

I thought we might have to sneak in but the white guy with the sleepy eyes sitting on a weathered old wooden stool at the door just waved us on when we paused at the bottom step. I’d never been in a bar before let alone a ramshackle juke joint in the hills just outside of Charlotte. I’d come in here with big ideas and wild dreams. I imagined myself striding through the door, coolly tossing back a shot of liquor before making out with some trailer park beauty queen looking for some chocolate as the band played some Marvin Sease or some Willie Clayton, the type of shit my daddy used to play while he sat on the back porch getting drunk.

In reality the bar smelled like piss and vomit. The women had faces like hatchets that had been used to chop down a redwood. My first sip of Jack made me gag and cough like I was having an asthma attack. But I kept drinking it sip by miserable sip. I snuck a glance at Bricks. He had finished his drink in one big gulp. I choked mine down too.

We had a man to kill tonight and I didn’t think I could do it sober.

“How we gonna know who he is?” I leaned over and shouted into Brick’s ear. Instead of a band the music in the bar was supplied by an old jukebox with two speakers mounted in the ceiling. The speakers were attached by some raggedy ass looking wires that hung down in a series of undulating loops.

“We’ll know.” Bricks said. He shook the ice cubes from his glass into his mouth and crunched them into bits. Bricks was only a year older than me but he was twice as big. All rough angles and backyard muscles. Beads of sweat were popping up on his midnight colored skin like new houses on the waterfront. We’d done four years in the same juvie center. He’d gotten out six months before I did. When I’d landed back in Red Hill county my mom wouldn’t let me move back in so I hooked up with Bricks in Richmond. Bricks ran with a crew from the southside that pushed for Luther Walsh and the River City Boys.

“Yeah but how gonna know? You got a picture or something?” I asked. Bricks stared at me. I sipped my drink and studied the table.

“Why the fuck would I have a picture on me? Stop talking stupid man. We’ll know who it is when we see him cuz we know him.” Bricks said. My stomach roiled and not from the sour mash I was drinking. My throat went bone dry.

“Oh, now you ain’t got no questions? “Bricks asked.

“Didn’t know it was gonna be somebody we knew.” I said.

“That’s why he ain’t gonna see it coming.” Bricks said

I guzzled my drink and scanned the room again, this time with new eyes. There were some women standing next to bar wearing Daisy Dukes two sizes too small. Pink and red shirts emblazoned with words like JUICY and SEXY spelled out with glitter. The feeble fluorescent lights in the ceiling gave their outfits an otherworldly glow. Magically trashy with oiled up brown thighs and full breasts that made the J and the Y jut out like a 3D image. My brain searched for a familiar face in the crowd. The known tilt of a head or a recognizable lazy gait. A dead man who thought we were his homies. I made the mistake of letting one of the women at the bar catch my eyes. I looked away but not quickly enough. She sauntered over to our table on wobbly legs. Silky Brazilian hair weaved into her own coarser grade flowed down her back and ran away from her edges. Her outfit said 21 but her face said 45 the hard way.

“Timmy you ain’t gonna speak to me?” She said. Her words slipped out crooked and slurred. Her nipples were hard as bullets under her tight t-shirt. Against my wishes my dick started to get harder than Sudoku with fractions. She slipped one meaty arm around my neck while one of her heavy breasts pressed against my head. She was trying to sit on my lap but I wasn’t giving her much room. She smelled like sweat and bad decisions. A lifetime of them. I couldn’t believe she was making my dick hard. What was wrong with me? She was old enough to be my mama.

“My name ain’t Timmy. It’s Desean.” I said. Bricks kicked under the table hard enough to fracture my tibia. The woman hadn’t heard me or was pretending she hadn’t which amounted to about the same thing.

“What you say Timmy?” She sputtered.

“He said he ain’t Timmy. His name is Slim Red.” A voice said. I turned and saw a tall lean man standing near our table. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt with a white Punisher emblem on it. He had thick ropey dreads that fell to his broad shoulders.

“He ain’t Timmy? Shit he got a fat dick like Timmy.” The woman tittered. She reached under the table and gripped my shit like it was the throttle on a Ducati.

“Lawanda go on now. I got to talk to my boys for a minute,” the man in the Punisher shirt said.

“Don’t’ leave without saying goodbye Not Timmy.” Lawanda said. She bent over and gave me a sloppy wet kiss on the cheek. Her greasy lipstick left a stain that felt like she’d spilled glue on my face.

“Bricks, Slim Red what y’all motherfuckers doing in North Cackalacky? You still running with Luther?”

“What up Ennis. Ain’t seen you since juvie. Nah man I ain’t with L anymore. Doing my own thing. Had to drop some shit off and decided to get a drink while we was in town. “Bricks said. He slipped his left hand under the table. His right played with his empty glass. Ennis grabbed a chair spun it around and sat with his arms folded over the back rest. Ennis was a few years older than either of us. He’d graduated from Gatewood to Coldwater State Prison to finish out his sentence. He’d led the cops on a five county high speed chase after robbing a pawn shop with an axe.

“Shit it been what five years? I heard you was moving that big weight for the River City boys. Now you and Slim Red independent operators huh?” “Ennis asked. He grinned and the neon sign above the bar made his gold fronts glow blue like sapphires. The music had been turned up to eleven. It was like a living thing, a monster’s heartbeat. A monster that lived off liquor and lust. Both of those were flowing freely at Billy’s tonight.

“I’m just along for the ride tonight.” I said. Ennis grinned again.

“Man, I remember when you hit the floor at Gatewood. You was scared of every damn thing. You jumped if the hand dryer came on too loud.”

“Yeah. I had to get over that quick. If it won’t for you and Bricks I don’t what would have happened.” As soon as the words entered the air between us I felt a wave of nausea roll over me like combine.

“I know what would’ve happened. Case Mitchells would have fucked you in the ass til your turds rolled out like ball bearings down a funnel.” Ennis said.

He laughed loud and hard. I felt heat working its way up my neck to my face. He was right of course. There was no denying that. Case was a devil in a cage full of demons. Bricks and Ennis and Mofo and the rest of their set took me in and hipped me to the game inside Gatewood. They taught me the ins and outs. Do’s and don’ts. They even gave me the shank I used to slice Case from his neck to his navel. I think it was equal parts pity, piety and a general dislike for Case. I didn’t kill him just gave him a nasty jagged scar and an involuntary hitch in his step whenever he saw me.

Back then I couldn’t kill anybody. Throw knuckles, slice’em up, crack’em in the head with a poker from the wood stove like I did my daddy. Yeah I could do that all day long. The me from back then didn’t have it in him to kill anybody. Now here I was sitting across from a brother who had kept me from being Case Mitchell’s bitch planning to put two in his head.

I joined Ennis in his laughter and soon so did Bricks. We sounded like a bunch of donkeys braying. Bricks kept his hand under the table near the gun in his front pocket. A small .38 with a rubber grip. My gun was in the car. Bricks had passed it to me once we’d gotten on the road. I had stuck it in the glove box. It had a clip and one in the chamber but I couldn’t tell you the name of it if my life depended on it.

A fat brother in a green tank top approached our table but stopped two feet shy of my chair. His eyes darted side to side and his upper lip was slathered in sweat but I didn’t think it was from the heat.

“Hey E- Money can I talk at you at you for a minute,” the man said.

“Hey let me get at you later Hype I’m talking to some of my boys from back home,” Ennis said.

“Aw man I’m sorry I’m just trying to see if you got something,” the fat man said. “Yo Hype I said I’d holla at you in a minute all right? “Ennis said. I felt the menace in those words. Violence radiated from them like the heat from a wood stove. Hype dropped his head and melted back into the crowd.

“Damn you the man like that round here?” Bricks asked. Ennis smiled. Just like that the ferocity around him evaporated.

“I do a little something something. Yo let’s get some shots. For old times’ sake. Y’all want some Jose?”

“Yeah that’s cool.” Bricks said answering for the both of us.

“That’s what’s up! My boys down in the NC! I be right back.” He held out his fists to Bricks then me. We bumped knuckles then watched as Ennis headed for the bar. As soon as I thought he was out of ear shot I whirled on Bricks.

“When was you gonna tell me it was Ennis? “I said.

“I figured you’d find out when he showed up. Luther said this was his spot," Bricks said. His voice was as smooth as a pane of glass.

“Bricks it’s Ennis man. Ennis. We done come all the way down 95 to put somebody in the ground and it’s one of our best friends from Gatewood. Ennis saved me from Case. He took a nightstick to the face when them guards was trying to drown you in that toilet. You knew the whole time it was him and you didn’t say shit." Bricks played with his empty glass. He ran his finger around the rim like it was a dulcimer.

“Here’s the thing cuz. What I knew or didn’t know don’t’ matter. You came to me remember? You said you wanted to run with Luther Walsh and the River City Boys. You the one that wanted to be down. Well this is how the fuck we get down. You trying to run with them big dogs cuz? Then you gotta get your ass off the porch.” Bricks said. My chest felt like I had gargled with barbwire. Tremors ran up and down my esophagus like I was being tickled from the inside out.

“I… I don’t if I can do this. It’s Ennis man.” I said his name again like it was my new mantra. Bricks flat dirty brown eyes lit on me like a fly.

“Nah cuz. It’s you or Ennis. That’s how this rolls. Luther know for a fact he done hit four of his stash house down here. Done took the product and the money. Put three of ours to sleep. So, you ain’t riding? That’s cool. I’ll just go back to the Cap City alone. You feeling me?” He asked.

I didn’t hesitate. I told him of course I was feeling him. Anything less than that was guaranteeing me a bullet to the face. I didn’t really know what I was feeling. The people I’d hurt in the past had hurt me first. That included my daddy and his quick hands. This was different. Could I kill Ennis because he’d ripped off Luther Walsh? People say pulling the trigger is the easiest thing in the world. Right then it felt like climbing a mountain barefoot. Possible but painful as hell.

“Here drink this shit man. It’ll put hair on your chest and your balls.” Ennis said. He slid a couple shot glasses across the table. He held his aloft.

“To getting out of Gatewood!” He yelled. We clinked our glasses together. The tequila was worse than the Jack. It tasted the way gasoline smelled. Ennis gasped, closed his eyes tight then slammed the glass down on the table.

“Hey man since y’all my boys and you in my town I feel like I gotta take you to the real spot man. Like where the dime pieces at not these nickels and pennies here.” Ennis said.

“Where’s that?” Bricks asked.

“Place out on 234. Homemade strip club man. Girls out there so thick they got USDA stamped on their ass.” Ennis said. He smiled and I felt myself smiling back. I couldn’t help it.

“They gonna be cool with us coming out there?” Bricks said.

“Y’all got some ones on you?”

“If I can get some change I’ll have a hundred in ones.” Bricks said. Ennis smiled again.

“Well damn negro they gonna be really cool with you coming out there.” Ennis said. Bricks thought it over for a second.

“All right let’s go.”

***


A light fog came rolling in as we sailed down the narrow roads that took us out of Raleigh proper and into the countryside. The moonless black sky seemed to meet the dark horizon as we sliced through the night. Ennis was in the back seat while I sat up front with Bricks.

“Hey man you remember that white dude from Red Hill? The one who tried doing a Columbine at his school?” Ennis said.

“The one they called Toddler because his teeth was so big it looked like he had a mouthful of baby shoes?” Bricks said. Ennis tittered.

“Yeah. Man, you know that motherfucker is running for town councilman now? “

“Bullshit.” Bricks said.

“Nope no bullshit. I saw his ass on the news trying to keep them Confederate statues up in Red Hill.”

“So that motherfucker still an asshole.” Bricks said. Ennis guffawed.

“Yeah. Hey man can you pull over for a second. I gotta piss bad as a racehorse.” Ennis said.

“You gonna pee on the side the road?” I asked.

“Yep. How many cars you seen since we got on this road? I could take a shit out here if I had to.” Ennis said. Bricks eased his foot onto the brake and the car coasted to the shoulder. He put it in park and let the engine idle.

“Hey man how much further to this place?” Bricks asked as Ennis climbed out the backseat.

“Like ten minutes man but I can’t hold it bruh. When you gotta go you gotta go.” Ennis said. He climbed out, closed the door and disappeared into the night.

“Get your piece and get in the back seat.” Bricks said. I did as I was told. The gun felt like it weighed five hundred pounds. I almost asked him why I had to get in the back seat. I almost asked him how we would explain the blood if we got stopped. But like they say almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Instead I took the coward's way out and said nothing.

“You ready?” Bricks asked.

“Not really.” I mumbled.

“What the fuck you say?” Bricks said. He turned around in the driver’s seat to glare at me. Before I could drop my eyes and whisper an apology his window exploded in a shower of glass. The top of Bricks’ head disintegrated as the inside of the car was painted in a violent shade of crimson. Bricks slumped to his right leaking vital fluids all over his leather interior. The rear passenger window shattered and I felt something hot slam into my cheek. As I fell back against the seat my mouth began to fill with a warm and coppery liquid. Sharp bits of bone sluiced down my throat. I realized almost absentmindedly that they were pieces of my teeth. My tongue squirmed in my mouth like a scalded dog.

The rear driver side door opened and Ennis leaned inside. He was holding a big ass chrome plated pistol. He wasn’t smiling or laughing.

“I knew y’all was down here for me soon as I laid eyes on y’all. For what it’s worth I wish they hadn’t sent you man. Bricks was always a shady motherfucker but you was always cool. “Ennis said. He put the barrel of his pistol against my temple.

I still had the gun in my left hand. I turned it towards Ennis and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gunshot was everything. It made my ears pop and my remaining teeth ache. Ennis fell backwards and landed on his ass. Blood flowed from his gut and spilled across his lap. It looked oily against his jeans. I fell over on my belly and aimed the gun at him. He tried to raise his pistol but before he could I shot him again. The bullet caught him in the throat and he collapsed onto his side on the cracked asphalt.

***


From the moment I had seen Ennis walk up to our table in that shitty ass bar I had asked myself a thousand times how hard would it be to pull the trigger? What would it take for me to kill someone I’d once considered a brother? As I lay there bleeding out I realized it wasn’t really hard at all.

All it took was enough whiskey to make you brave and a gun to your fucking head.

S.A. Cosby is a writer from southeastern Virginia. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. His story THE GRASS BENEATH MY FEET( originally published in TOUGH) was recently nominated for an Anthony award. His first novel MY DARKEST PRAYER was published earlier this year by Intrigue Publishing. His next novel BLACKTOP WASTELAND was recently acquired by Flatiron Books.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Tough: NOT on Hiatus

Just to clear up some lingering confusion, Tough is closed to submissions until December, in an effort to catch up on editing, and NOT on hiatus. We will be back next week with new content and will continue going forward.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Grand, fiction by Preston Lang

The stranger asked if he could do a little work in the field for something to eat and a place to stay. Dinner wasn’t much—thin soup and the last of the bread. But the stranger ate hungrily, and when Ida showed him a clean blanket and his spot near the stove, he closed his eyes and said a quiet prayer.

Ed and Ida woke up before dawn, but the stranger was already gone. The blanket was rolled up neatly, and there was a little something sticking out of the end.

“Ida, this is a thousand-dollar bill.”

“What do we do with it?”

Ed knew what they weren’t going to do. Everyone had heard about that farmer in Indiana. The bank robber, Honeyman James, had pulled the same routine on him. That poor sap took the 1000 to town and tried to deposit it in the very bank that held the lien on his land. They confiscated the stolen bill and had him arrested. While he was inside, they took his farm. Then they let him go with a fine and time served. Not long after, he hung himself from a bridge.

Ed’s farm was just as bad off, but he was a little smarter than that fool from Indiana.

“I’ll take it to Liza in New York,” he said.

“You’ll lose it before you get there.”

“I won’t.”

“Then you’ll lose it in New York.”

“Liza will know what to do.”

“Then she’ll take it from you.”

“She’s my sister.”

“What do I do if the men from the bank come while you’re east?”

“Tell them they have to carry you off the land.”

“If they come, I’m asking them to drive me to my mama’s. I hear they do that if you promise to leave quiet.”

“I’m not going to fail.”

“If you get the farm back, you know where I’ll be.”

The bill was crisp and new. President Cleveland looked heroically to his right—For All Debts Public And Private. Ed walked seventeen miles, away from town, past the dry stubble of winter cornfields to the bend before the Mosopawn Bridge. As the freight train approached, he ran alongside a boxcar that was cracked open just a bit. As it came close enough to touch, it flew open wider so Ed could jump in. Two small, dirty men sat in the car. One of them held a knife.

“Thanks for the help,” Ed said.

“That costs.”

“I’m busted. Why do you think I’m riding this way?”

“I don’t think you understand. Whatever you got hidden away, it needs to come out.”

Ed wouldn’t have any problem with these two in a fair fight, but he knew a quick man with a blade could be trouble.

“There’s nothing hidden away.”

“Give us the coat.”

Ed’s coat was long and tattered. Neither of these men could wear it, but they could probably sleep in it.

“I thank you again for the help, but I’m keeping everything that’s mine.”

The men looked at each other for a second before the one with the knife spoke.

“Watch yourself when it gets dark, big man.”

“He means it.”

Ed believed them.

“All right, look,” he said. “I got a nickel.”

He jangled the change in his pocket—seventeen cents—as he closed the distance quickly between himself and the unarmed man. Ed grabbed the little guy and pitched him off the train. The other man didn’t move. The train hadn’t hit the bridge yet. It was still at a trotting pace.

“You want me to help you off, too?”

The man tucked away his knife and jumped.

It was just after 10 PM the next day when Ed got to New York. He’d been there one time, before he’d been married or owned a farm. The city hadn’t lost any of its blaze or its pace. In fact, it seemed faster but angrier. He had Liza’s address on the back of an envelope. She always wrote at Christmas and said she was doing well, giving violin lessons, playing small concerts and private functions, but her block in the west 20s was dark and smoky. It smelled even more poisonous than the main avenues, and two of the upstairs windows in her building were broken. He knocked on the door. It didn’t open, but a sharp woman’s voice came right away.

“Who are you?”

“I’m here to see Liza Brown. I’m her brother.”

“No visitors after ten. Not even brothers.”

“Please. Does she live here?”

“Go away.”

“Ma’am, it’s important family business.”

“We get too much important family business. Too many brothers in here.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“You want me to call the cops?”

“Ma’am, just tell her I’m here.”

“Listen, Mac.” The woman opened the door wide enough to get a look at Ed. “Oh, you’re Liza’s brother.”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you.”

“All right, come in. I’ll see if she’s up there.”

He stood in the main room. There was a small kitchen with no stove and a scratched-up table that could probably seat eight if they crowded in. A minute later, Liza came down the stairs.

“Say, you really are my brother.”

She was only a few inches shorter than Ed but not nearly as thick. Two years younger, she had the same sharp features and deep blue eyes. But his were still and cautious, hers were quick, amused, unflappable. She hugged him and they went up to her tiny room. They could hear Crosby singing Dinah from down the hall.

“What brings you to town?”

He told her everything—Honeyboy and the cash, the lien on his land, and the farmer from Indiana. Then he showed her the bill. She smoothed it out on a small crate by her bed.

“Hiya, Grover,” she said. “What have you been up to, sugar pie?”

“Can we deposit it somewhere?”

“You really trust me.”

“You’re blood.”

“Not going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Look where I live. Look what I own. I’m not going to do much better than that hayseed out in Indiana.”

“So what do we do?”

“I’ve got a few ideas. Let’s go see a man I know.”

“Right now?”

She threw on an old coat, and they walked downtown.

“Say, how’s Ida?”

“Ida is fine.”

“Uh oh.”

“I said she was fine.”

“All right. She’s fine.”

“She’s had to put up with a lot,” Ed said. “We’ll see.”

“If you go home with money, you think everything will be all right?”

He didn’t have an answer for that, but they kept walking down Seventh Avenue. Building after building, people walking straight at them then darting past at the last second, men who seemed to be standing heedless out in the middle of the street, just barely avoiding the cabs and streetcars.

Soon they came to a five-story building on a curved street.

“Who are we going to see?”

“Just some artistics.”

The front door was open, and they walked to the top floor where about forty people were packed inside two small rooms, mostly laughing and drinking clear liquid out of blue tea cups. Two men near the window were arguing—one pounded furiously on the cover of a book. On the phonograph, some foreign man was singing in English about his Mimi.

“Liza, Liza.” A woman ran over to them. “You brought your brother. Liza says that you own half the hogs in Illinois. You’re very rich but too stingy. Why so stingy, Edward?”

“I made all that up,” Liza said. “Where’s Weaver?”

“Who?”

“The man who lives here?”

“Oh, we told him to leave because he was such a gloomy pill. I think he went out to eat. You want a cup?”

Liza took a drink, but Ed couldn’t imagine having a belt in a place like this. One of the men by the window threw a book across the room.

“You should have been here earlier,” the woman said. “Buddy put a whole pigeon in his trousers.”

“Buddy is a dangerous intellectual.”

Liza had one more drink then they left and checked the open restaurants until Liza spotted their man through the window of a coffee shop about five blocks away. A little guy with glasses and wild hair.

“I have to talk to him alone,” she said. “Let me have the bill.”

“No.”

“But I’m blood. You trust me.”

“I don’t trust him.”

“Okay, you go in first, sit near him but don’t look at him. Then I’ll come in.”

“With the money?”

“Yeah.”

Ed went into the coffee shop and took a seat two tables from the man with the wild hair. People were drinking tea and reading, marking up their books as they went, and Ed was worried that he’d have to buy something. He’d been at the table almost a minute before the woman at the front called to him.

“You need something, honey?”

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t think of what to say.

“This place isn’t just for sitting. Are you waiting for someone?”

“Yes,” he managed.

“You want a cup of coffee in the meantime?”

What was a cup of coffee? A nickel, a dime? The idea of spending that much on something he didn’t even want was terrifying. The man with the wild hair looked up from his book.

“Maybe he doesn’t speak English,” he said. “Du Pratar Svenska?”

“I am waiting for someone,” Ed said finally.

“All right, then. But you need to order when your friend shows up,” the lady said.

Finally Liza walked in.

“Weaver, dear. Got something to ask you.”

She motioned him to the back of the shop. Ed couldn’t see them anymore, but he could still hear. She told him how she’d come into some money and needed him to change it.

“You have it with you?” he asked.

“Can you change it?”

“Of course I can. I have a lot of cash back at my uptown place.”

“Let’s go.”

“Let me see the thousand.”

Ed heard the sound of money changing hands.

“You are the answer to my prayers,” Weaver said.

“Why is that?”

“You know I had to give up the place uptown? And the car. I sold my class ring to some Jew.”

“I’m sorry, dear.”

“So I’m going to take this money.”

“Right. And you’re going to give me smaller bills. Tens, twenties, even hundreds are all right.”

“No. I’m going to take it and keep it and give you nothing.”

“Don’t play around.”

“You can go to the police. See how that works for you. Or you can go back to my place and tell your friends who sit around drinking my booze that I’m a crook. Maybe they’ll worry their free ride is coming to an end, but they won’t lift a finger to help you.”

He stood and walked out of the shop. Ed was too shocked to move. Liza tapped him on her way by and pulled him out to the street, but it was too busy for fighting. Weaver was moving quickly uptown.

“I’ll stay on his back.” She pointed down a connecting street. “You run around that way. Past one intersection, then the next. You turn left on Charles. Go straight until you see Weaver’s building. He’ll show up, you sock him one.”

Ed took off down the cobbled streets, past one intersection, up to another. He didn’t see the word Charles anywhere. Should he turn back? Continue? He kept going, and at the next intersection—there it was. Charles Street. He turned left. A minute later he saw Weaver’s building. It was dark and empty out in front of it. Just as Ed caught his breath again, Weaver came around the corner from the opposite direction. He stopped when he saw a huge and stupid man in the middle of the sidewalk. But then Liza came up from behind and kicked him hard in the back of his legs. He fell to his knees.

“Get his arms, Ed.”

Ed rushed forward and pinned Weaver’s chest and shoulders to the ground. He struggled, but he wasn’t a strong man.

“Help! Help me!”

Liza went through his pockets until she found his wallet. She checked to make sure the 1000 was in there. She also dumped a few coins into her hand then threw the wallet on top of the man.

“You throw a good party, Weaver.”

Ed followed his sister as she ran around the corner. When they slowed to a quick walk, he saw the river to the west.

“Sorry about that rat. At least we made eleven cents on the deal.”

She put the change in her handbag.

“Let me have the money, my money.”

“Hey, all right. You don’t have to snarl.”

She handed him the thousand back.

“You know, one time President Cleveland got a woman in trouble. So he put her in the nut house and gave the baby to this really nice couple in Buffalo.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“I’ve got another idea.”

“What time is it?”

“Why, you have to be up early?”

“No.”

“I do. Violin lesson. I give Bess Flynn 45 minutes before school.”

“How much do they pay you?”

“I can eat there whenever I want. That’s something.”

They walked back uptown. In the 30s, they passed a row of shacks, some built with loose boards and ripped pieces of tar paper. Others were neater and looked almost professionally constructed. Ed could see candlelight inside some of the houses, but it was quiet out in front. Then they turned east toward the brightest, busiest part of the city, past all the neon and streetcars and men in expensive suits, right to a restaurant and nightclub called The Tuxedo—but they were stopped at the door.

“We have to talk to Lottie at coat check,” Liza said. “Then we’ll be on our way.”

“I’m sorry, Miss, but Lottie will have to conduct her personal business on her own time. Now you need to move on.”

“You’re Ken, right? Lottie’s told me all about you.”

“Would you please move along.”

“I’ll bet your wife in Bay Ridge would be awfully interested in what you get up to after work.”

“You can’t threaten me. I am a decent man.”

“Maybe, you are, but you wouldn’t believe the things I’d be willing to say. I’ve read some of those French novels.”

“Miss, I’m going to ask you—"

“Give me two minutes with my friend. Is it really any skin off your nose?”

Lottie was a tiny woman with a husky voice. She stood behind a counter in front of furs, hats, and canes. She was happy to see Liza.

“Your brother is plenty rugged,” she said.

“Yeah, we run tall in our family.”

“You’re not eating here, are you?”

“No, I had a question for you. Can I come back there?”

Lottie opened up the half door and let Liza in the room. Liza whispered something in her ear. Lottie hugged her, and Liza turned her just a bit while they embraced and found pen and paper. While Lottie was writing, Liza quickly unhooked a nice dark coat and tossed it to Ed. He wrapped it in his own coarse one. He looked around, but no one was paying them the least attention.

When Lottie was done writing, she folded the paper and handed it to Liza. By then, a fashionable couple was approaching coat check.

Lottie looked at Ed.

“If you catch him, you give him one for me.”

Liza pulled Ed away from coat check, past Ken, and out into the streets.

“What’d you tell her?”

“She once needed a special kind of doctor. I got you a hat, too. Try on your new rags.”

The coat was a little small, but it looked good. He thought the top hat was ridiculous, but Liza shook her head.

“It’s great: you’re a butter and egg man. No sharp room would turn away your business. Now we’re going down to Bedford. There’s a spot where we can roll dice.”

“What? No, we don’t need to gamble.”

“We’ll swap Grover for chips, play an hour, then cash out—probably a little lighter.”

“We’re going to lose some of the money?”

“Or maybe we’ll win a little. You came 8000 miles on roller skates, you might have to drop a little lettuce.”

She filled him in on what to expect as they walked. It felt like they’d been on their feet all night, past shops and elevated train lines that were all starting to look the same. Bedford was mostly a residential street, not too far from the party at Weaver’s.

For the first time, Ed noticed his sister’s ratty old jacket.

“Don’t you need a better coat?”

“Nope.” She took off the jacket and folded it over a metal railing that ran horizontally in front of a building. “If I lose it, you’ll buy me a new one, right?”

She had on a simple black dress. It didn’t look formal, but on a girl as tall and striking as Liza, it didn’t look cheap. She nudged him ahead then down a set of stairs.

“Yeah?”

A deep man’s voice came through the door even before they knocked.

“Just in from Chicago. Looking for something to do,” Ed said.

“No. Not here.”

“Come on, Rudy. You know me,” Liza said.

“There’s no Rudy here. Get off my stairs. I mean it.”

Liza tried some more of the cute stuff, but it didn’t work. When they got back up to street level, Ed smelled something odd—like alfalfa but sweeter. Liza was already walking toward it. Up on the steps in front of a very slender building, a young man was smoking.

“Jerry?”

“Who’s that?” The man put out the cigarette and held it behind his back.

“Relax. It’s me, Liza.”

“Liza, Liza? You’re gambling tonight?”

“My brother would like to. They won’t let us in.”

“Yeah, they’ve tightened up. There was word of reckless individuals. I’ll get you in.”

“Finish your tea.”

“No, I got a set to start. Hey, bring your fiddle some time. We’ll get downright classical.”

Liza laughed and Jerry led them back down the stairs. Ed was frisked thoroughly, but they got inside. The whole place was one open room filled with tables. It was about ninety percent male, but there were a few women bouncing around near the roulette wheels. Jerry left them at the change counter.

“Friends of mine, Sal,” he said. “Bigshot hog farmer from out west.”

“How many hogs do you have?” Sal asked.

“Nine thousand five hundred,” Ed said.

“How do you get them to fuck so much?”

“Sir, you can’t talk that way around a lady.”

“My mistake,” Sal said. “How much you need?”

Ed put the 1000 on the counter.

“A thousand?”

“You don’t have that many chips?” Liza asked.

“You got to be careful with the big paper.”

“You can let us play on credit if you like.”

“Let me get the sourdough man.”

Sal waved to someone across the room, and they all stood around for a minute and listened to Jerry play Fats Waller note-for-note on the piano. Finally, an older man with ink stains on the front of his shirt came by to look at the money. He flipped it over once then held it up to the light.

“It’s good. Give them chips.”

They walked over to the roulette table. Liza patted Ed once on the shoulder.

“Nine thousand five hundred hogs. That was perfect.”

Ed wasn’t sure why it was perfect. He only knew that would be a lot of animals to care for.

“Let me have a few chips.” Liza held out one hand when he didn’t cough up right away. “Come on, we’re here to play.”

He gave her five 20-dollar chips, and she threw one right on red. He wanted to snatch it off the table or stop that ball spinning before it landed somewhere black. It came up on 17.

“Hard times,” Liza said.

The croupier took their chip, and Ed felt it like a slug to the stomach. How much bacon was that? How much feed? How much of his land could he buy back for twenty dollars? He grabbed Liza by the shoulder, a little harder than he’d intended.

“Let’s wait a little.”

“We have to bet. We can’t just cash out. Put a hundred down somewhere.”

“No.”

Liza put 40 on red. Again it came up black. But then she went on a streak. When she was 200 dollars up, she traded him five 20s for one of his 100s. She put it on a four-corner and hit it. Maybe this was a good way to make money. Ed put one of his 100-dollar chips on odd and won. He kept playing. As a young man, he’d rolled dice behind a few barns, and once played cards at Dutch Feller’s. None of that was anything like what was happening now. This was like flying. Twenty minutes later, Liza pulled him to the bar. When they were served, Ed threw his shot straight down and asked for another. He knew it was gin, but he could barely taste the alcohol.

“You want to cash out soon?” she asked.

“How much do you have?”

“1600.”

“I’ve got two thousand dollars.” His laugh was a rapid panting sound that he didn’t recognize. “But it seems to me like we could play a little longer and make even more.”

“Ed, we haven’t been winning because we’re smart.”

“Why have we been winning?”

“Luck. We’ve been lucky.”

Lucky. Ed had forgotten what that meant. As a kid he could remember the times their dad made a big sale. One night he came home with a baseball glove for Ed and a violin for Liza. That was luck. But farming just seemed to be a rigged game that got worse each year.

Could it really be true they could walk out with 3600 dollars? It was just as easy to believe they could walk out with a lion on a leash. But if it was real, he was set, wasn’t he? Not only could he get out of debt, he could buy back all his land outright. And a car. And a decent plow. He knew Baker was as bad off as he was. He could buy Baker’s farm, double his acreage. Maybe hire him to work it and split the income.

Ed was the last one in the room to notice the two men with sawed-off shotguns.

“Everybody’s a loser tonight,” one of the gunman said.

Ed could see two more men at the counter getting the money. He turned to Liza.

“They can’t take our money.”

“Hey, Big Corn. Shut up,” the second gunman said.

“You don’t understand,” Ed said.

But, of course, he did understand. He knew how much money was worth. The hopes and dreams. The simple survival. The man took a step toward Ed.

“Another word, I break your nose.”

He was so close now that the rifle was useless, and Ed wrenched the thing out of his hands and threw him to the ground. The other gunman spun and shot, hitting his own man. When he stopped firing, Ed charged him, too. The last thing he saw was a little white ball sitting on number 32, still running around and around.

***


With bodies on the floor, the Bedford Avenue club was finished. But they popped up again in a new location soon after, and over the next few months, some gamblers managed to cash in some of their chips. But Liza never could. They did pay for the coffin and train fare to send Ed back home so he could be buried under his own soil. But when he arrived, no one was there to meet the box. And the bank owned his land.


Preston Lang is a writer from New York. His work has appeared in Thuglit, Betty Fedora, and WebMD. He has published four crime novels with Down and Out Books to date. For more, check out PrestonLangBooks.com.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Tavern Brawler, by Robb T. White

First Dallas, then at the canning plant in Bryan. Now here . . . Fuck me and fuck a duck.

Beaumont was hotter than Dallas and muggier than Houston. Ten in the morning, Shane Laurie’s shirt was plastered to his back. He hadn’t planned to work his way down to southeastern Texas, the asshole of the state. It just happened that way. You go to a bar, a guy says they’re hiring here or there. You go.

He didn’t find work here, it was off to Louisiana again for another goddamned bayou job on a shrimp boat or mucking around with crab traps, and he’d had enough of that. He didn’t know what it was about shellfish. He didn’t eat them—they looked like big bugs to him. He’d worked in Baltimore shucking oysters, fished for blue crab in Louisiana swamps and worked as a deckhand on a shrimp boat in Galveston Bay. Yet that cunt of a receptionist made him check the box “Unskilled Labor” on his application.

Fuck her. He had half a mind to head that her off tonight on her way home, her and her ugly face, homelier than a slit-faced bat, and see just how she likes his unskilled labor after she gargles his jizz. He’d make her check the “unskilled” box she didn’t do it right. Write an F on her fat ass with a Magic Marker.

Shane took a city cab to a roadhouse tavern off the highway near the Neches River. The dumbass driver turned around to look at him, waiting for a tip. Shane told him to get a real job and that was the best tip he’d get today.

Lordy, another redneck dump—his kind of place.

His eyes boxed the room on the lookout for three things: women, women with men (he’d separated his share of them from the girls in bar fights), and three, men who had “that look.”

The look was important. Size didn’t mean shit. Everybody carried down here. A bowie in the boot was as common as a hooker with a grudge. A pipsqueak with a gun was more dangerous than a man his size because a man his size expected Shane to fight fair. Shane didn’t fight fair. A man only had to tangle assholes with him one time to learn that. He’d use his boots as well as his fists, kick balls, gouge eyes, bite anything his teeth could get close to if it came to a ground-and-pound contest. He didn’t believe in stopping once you had your opponent down, neither, and punching the guy after he was out cold or done quit was enough to make him hard. Shane had grown up in a raucous household in Baton Rouge but he didn’t blame his upbringing for his love of violence. Some men like him, it just stuck to. You knew it when you threw that first punch. It wasn’t enough to beat a man half to death, he wanted to make him suffer. He wanted that man to carry scars and think of Shane Laurie from Louisiana for the rest of his sorry-assed life.

This place looked OK so far. The men looked like nobodies, drugstore cowboys, all hat and no cattle, and a couple women looked like they could use a ride on Jumbo. First, he had to find some guy drinking alone at the bar, make friends with him, be a good ol’ boy for a while, so he could get the sucker to buy the drinks. Shane believed his stories of sleeping rough, traveling all over and “doing dirt,” as he liked to call it, made up for his alligator arms when it came to buying rounds. Then he’d eye one of the babes and make a move. Get laid, get a place to sleep. Shane could write a book on hustling by now—that is, if he could write anything longer than a sentence with more than six words in it. Writing was for homos anyway, so fuck that shit.

The bartender was tall, lanky dude in a black leather vest, arms all inked up in a scattershot of tattoos blending into each other, a sure sign of a man who’d done time in a big house somewhere. Shane knew some of that kind, too. Mostly crazies looking for a reason to go back. He’d joined up with a few in his thirty-six years, made some money with some, and figured he knew the difference between the psychos and the hard boys. He couldn’t read the patch from where he sat at the bar and some ex-bikers were pussies, but still, best to be a little careful until he knew for sure. A few minutes of small talk and Shane was being called “brother” by this loser, so he knew he had all the time he needed to plan his next move.

And there she was, hot damn . . . a tricked-out blonde, yee-haw!

Walking past on her way to the can. Big, sassy-looking dyed blonde with a big rack. A little long in the tooth—past 40, he reckoned—but he couldn’t be choosy tonight. On her way back, she cut her eyes to him and she got that teensy smile in return. An hour later, he separated her from her skank girlfriends and the two of them were rubbing thighs and feeling each other out from a back table. His “buddy” at the bar was still sending over drinks, too, so things were working out well for later.

Later was after the bar closed at two-thirty. She drove him in her pickup to a lover’s lane. Somewhere close to the river, he guessed, because the smell of swamp muck was thick in the humid air. His idea of foreplay was to push her head into his lap. He had to give this one credit, though. She knew how to play a decent tune on a man’s flute, did her best not to gag when he made her take it all the way in so her cheeks bulged. He liked that look on a woman’s face.

Back in her double-wide—a “present” from a dead husband who got hisself blown up in a factory explosion—he gave the old girl her money’s worth in bed. He slapped her hands away from her bouncing tits when he plowed into her. He liked to watch them jiggle. She was shaved down there and a natural squirter. Shane finished up, rolled over, and silently complimented himself on a job well done. This old gal should be good for a couple days, maybe a week. Who could say? She played her cards right, Shane would consider letting her keep him around while he looked for work.

Shane snored like a buzz saw out of kilter. He never dreamed, or told all the women he slept with that. He figured that meant he would never get ass cancer or heart attacks like men who tossed and turned all night, worrying about shit.

In the morning, he thought about giving her another ride with some morning wood. But he couldn’t get out of bed.

Maybe I’m still asleep and this is one of them dreams. What the fuck—

When he shook off the booze fog, he saw it was no dream at all. He was roped hands and feet to the bed railing. He was about to bellow something, figured the crazy old bitch was into kinky sex when she came out of the bathroom. Her heavy funbags swayed from side to side. She avoided looking at him. When she did, the look on her face, however, was not one he expected to see. He expected to see gratitude. . . what was all this shit?

“George was hopin’ he’d live long enough to see this,” she said.

“Who the fuck is George, why you got me tied up?”

“George was my husband, remember? I told you about him last night at the bar.”

“Got kilt in a factory explosion, you said.”

“I lied,” she said. “He got pancreatic cancer.”

She stretched out the word, as if she was proud of herself for saying it right.

“So fuckin’ what? Untie me right now, God damn it!”

She sat at the end of the bed and stroked his leg.

“Honey, you got a big whang on you but George, he was much better in the sack than you.”

“Take these ropes offen me, and I’ll change your mind about that.”

Shane began to worry. She was too calm—way too calm.

She lit up, inhaled deep, and blew out the smoke. She stretched over him her cigarette extended to give him a puff, her fat titties rolling over his chest.

“Naw, he didn’t work in no factory,” she resumed, as if they were having a normal conversation. “He worked at the alligator processing farm yonder by the river over to Benson Road—you know, skins for fashion, the meat for agricultural animals, that sort of thing.”

“So fuckin’ what? What’s that got to do with me?”

“Nothing—to me, but that’s how I met him. He come lookin’ around the bar before you showed up, askin’ questions, spreadin’ his money around.”

Shane’s heartbeat rose a notch. Woman’s plumb fuckin’ crazy . . .

He squirmed but the ropes bit into his wrists and ankles. He twisted his head. She had him tied off with an anchor hitch or a bowline, some kind of good knot he wouldn’t pull out of.

“Bitch, you best untie me right now and I’ll forget all about this—this whatever the fuck it is.”

“Oh no,” she said, testing the knots securing his legs, “”can’t do that, sweetie pie. My instructions was simple. First, I’m gonna get me some clothes on and make a phone call.”

Instructions? What instructions? What was this goofy old broad talking about?

“You behave yourself now.” She gave his thigh a gentle pat.

Shane’s heart thumped in his chest now. He stopped twisting; it wasted strength and moving against the ropes burned as well as cut off circulation. His hands and legs were going numb. He had to plan his own attack . . . rip this bitch’s head off just as soon as he could get free . . .

The buzzer rang. He heard her greet someone at the door. He heard talking in low voices. Hers wasn’t like the night before, all flirty. Maybe she spiked his beer when he went off to piss. He recalled feeling a little dizzy when they left the bar. Trouble was, he was thinking with his dick and didn’t pay it no mind—just the miserable heat, he thought. Besides, his sights were set on pussy. The man’s voice sounded younger. Someone his age.

Then, whoever the guy was, he was standing right above him looking down at Shane. His face blank, no expression. Just a man, a nobody. Average size—Shane could bust him up in a minute. Thinning brown hair parted on one side, brown eyes, a face you wouldn’t remember in a crowd.

“Do you remember me?” the man asked him.

“No., motherfucker,” Shane said. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’ve been following you all over Southeastern Texas,” he said. “I’m surprised you never saw me. I remember once time you were coming out of a bar in Crockett—no, hold up a sec. It was Lovelady. I remember you looked right across the street at me standing there.”

The man smiled down at him but it wasn’t a friendly smile.

“I don’t remember you,” Shane replied.

“I’ll take it from here,” the man said, suddenly turning to face the woman, who stood at the foot of the bed watching them both.

“Where’s my money?”

The man reached inside his jeans pocket and handed her an envelope.

“It’s all there,” he told her.

“I’m gonna count it anyway,” she said and left the room. “I don’t want this comin’ back on me. Y’all promised that.”

The man was looking at Shane again. His brown eyes stared into Shane’s eyes, unblinking, as if he saw something remarkable in Shane’s irises.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “It’s all taken care of.”

“Who the fuck are you people!” Spittle flecked Shane’s chest from the outburst. His voice cracked.

The man said, “Shane Laurie, bar brawler. . . . Shane, you by any chance recall a man you fought outside a tavern in Dallas about eight, nine weeks ago?”

Shane remembered a couple bar fights up that way. He was doing a lot of meth at the time, ornery as a wasp.

“No, I fuckin’ don’t, motherfucker.”

“Well,” the man said, “it was you up in Dallas. You beat up a man in a parking lot outside a bar called Shenanigan’s. That man later died from a brain hemorrhage two days later. You started the fight with another man, but the man who came outside to protect his friend, he was the one you beat up.”

“I don’t remember no fuckin’ bar in Dallas nor no fight, neither, motherfucker,” Shane said.

He did, though. It wasn’t much of a fight. Dim images of his triumph behind that bar filtered back, like water seeking its equilibrium, tickling the memory cells.

“That was a fair fight—”

“No, it wasn’t,” the man interjected. “No . . . no, it wasn’t a fair fight. You stomped his head when he went down.”

“I tole you, I don’t remember no fight up in Dallas,” Shane said. “I wasn’t even in Dallas eight weeks ago. What the hell is this?”

“This is Texas justice,” the man said and brought the fish billy down on Shane’s head with a loud crack that Shane never heard but it sent him plummeting into a black void.

***


Shane woke to the sound of crickets chirping, the smell of swamp muck deep in his nostrils. He lay on his back. He was still nude, his ass itched from chigger bites or something, his head weighed a ton. He sat up and almost vomited.

Nothing to see swamp, cypress trees, and lily pads.

Better’n being shot, he thought, but Gawd damn, my head hurts. I’ll find that motherfucker and kill him, Shane thought.

Shane started to get up and fell over at once. What the fuck now, for Christ’s sweet sake?

Shane’s leg was attached to a thick nylon rope that was attached to a limb hanging out over the waterline. It was tied with a fancy knot he did recognize because he’d tied it on the decks of bayou trawlers often enough: a rat-tail stopper.

He shouted. Nothing. His voice echoed across the murky water. His throat was parched but the water looked too putrid to drink. Swamp birds cried out, insects made a variety of buzzing, whirring sounds all around.

If this don’t beat fuckin’ all, he thought. The whole episode from trailer to swamp was so bizarre he almost laughed. A good story to tell the next sucker in a bar to spring for drinks. But, first, he was gonna find that rat-fucking , no-good, brown-eyed son of a whore and choke the life out of him—after he stomped every drop of yellow shit out of him.

Then a thought crept in. Maybe he was dragged out here so far no one ever came by, not even swamp people or fishermen.

Then he spied something behind him. A damned wooden sign. Maybe a jogger’s trail sign or a park sign. It was just a few feet beyond the limit of his rope. His anxiety subsided. That sign meant civilization. He wasn’t going to die out here in some shithole swamp.

Worth a look to read what it said, he thought, since I ain’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon.

Shane found a crooked stick near the waterline and used it to hook the sign post. He jerked and pulled until the letters started to reflect the light. He could make out a few letters. B-E-A-U.

Well, hell’s bells, I know I’m in Beaumont.

He was never much for reading in school before he dropped out of tenth grade but the rest of the sign’s message eluded him.

“Fuck it,” he said.

Shane sat down and slapped the stick at the ground in frustration: sandy soil, not overgrown but graded, someone had cleared this patch of ground into a rough semicircle stretching thirty yards across and sanded it down with a grader. Shane let his mind drift, listening to the insect and bird calls. Eight caws of a crow somewhere above in the branches. Eight, a warning to the other crows, four would be a call to dinner.

He got up stretched, scratched his belly. He was being feasted upon by bugs and flying insects while he sat. He slapped at a tiny red spider crawling up his forearm. “Lucky I don’t get bugs in my asshole,” he muttered. Somebody’s got to find me soon . . .

He grabbed his stick and made another effort to twist the sign around to read it. The light had shifted, dappled the leaves of the cypress and probed the tufts of hanging moss, giving the entire swamp a lime-green phosphorescence.

There, by God, got you.

The sign reflected the afternoon light, filled out the missing letters after BEAUMONT and each one etched itself into Shane’s brain as comprehension completed the neocortex’s circuit.

BEAUMONT ALLIGATOR FARM.

Oh fuck, no—

Beneath it, in smaller letters:

Danger !!! Do NOT Feed the Alligators!!

Oh my fucking God Almighty—

When he turned back around to look out over the water, he saw them gathering in the dusky light: hundreds of pairs of eyes like cat’s-eye marbles spread out just beneath the surface. Eyes as far as he could see.

Then the massive snouts, the ancient dragon spikes breaking the surface here and there. They moved en masse toward the shoreline. Ripples fanned outward from their massive tails moving side to side like a metronome set to larghissimo. Some bulls weighed a thousand pounds. Like dragons from mythology, they rolled in, ever closer, no hurry, but steadfast on the mark. Each moved in a motion like one pack. They were crueler than any man, indifferent to all pain or remorse, underwater brawlers, oblivious to everything in the universe but mating and eating.

‘Texas justice’, the brown-eyed man had said, the words tolling like a bell of doom in Shane Laurie’s head.

Robb White lives in Ashtabula, Ohio. He writes, noir, crime, and hardboiled stories and novels featuring series character Thomas Haftmann. A recent collection of crime stories is Dangerous Women: Stories of Crime, Mystery, and Mayhem. Crowood Press published White’s Perfect Killer in 2018. Fahrenheit Press, another U.K. publisher, released Northtown Eclipse that year. “Inside Man” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019. His website is http://tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite.

Monday, August 19, 2019

One Spent Shell, fiction by Dan J. Fiore

A knot in Skid’s chest. Blood on the floor. One spent shell falls from his gun and Vaughn, Skid’s cousin, his best damned friend, stares up at him. One eye a pulpy exit wound. The other frozen in surprise.

A teller’s phone rings.

“What’s going on in there, Henry?”

A boy cowers in the corner. Just a kid. He stares at the woman he walked in with. Dead now like the rest. All but the two of them.

“I want a truck,” Skid murmurs.

“What were the shots we just heard, Henry?” The voice reminds Skid of his Uncle Simon. “Everyone okay?”

“Stop calling me that,” Skid says. “Nobody calls me that. Just get me a truck. Or a van. A fucking way out of here.”

The voice asks for a hostage. An exchange.

“Transportation might take a while,” it says. “Anyone in there need anything else in the meantime?”

Skid looks around at all the bodies.

“More hostages.”

***


Heartbeat racing, but downshifting. Flak jacket heavy.

Lights flicker and cattle stampede across the roof. Just a chopper passing low overhead.

That cocktail Vaughn cooked up. . . those two thick sky-blue lines. That’s why he went all ate up. Why they’re here now, half dead and trapped. But what Skid would give for just one more bump.

Drive on, he tells himself. Go through with it. Set up all those card decks of C4 along the deposit boxes and at least nab what they’d came for. Just in case he makes it out. Somehow.

The weight aching him settles in his eyelids. He wonders about things Vaughn missed. About unknown doors. Tunnels and secret passages. Like bookshelves that spin. Places to hide. A flashlight through the flesh of his fingers. Dark closets. The dark. Heavy hands on his chest, and the way his uncle would—

The phones ring. Skid sniffs alert again.

Simon says.

He rips the phone cords from the wall.

The boy still sits in the corner, chin between his knees. Shallow, sharp breaths. Eyes wide. Panicked and afraid.

Then, a muffled rattle. Somewhere not far outside. So out of place. It shakes something loose in Skid. Before the burst even ends, he recognizes it:

An AK-47.

***


Two exits. One leading west to the parking lot. The other downstairs, spilling eastward onto Main Street. Skid follows the gunshots to the west. A long, wood-paneled hallway. Double panels of shatterproof glass.

Knots unravel in his back. The one in his gut doesn’t.

All the armored cars, gone. The cops littering the sidewalks, gone. The lot past the entryway, now vacant. Just a hot slab of concrete stretching toward a scattered hillside of rundown houses.

A scream.

Not from outside, but within.

The kid.

***


An empty corner. The lobby, quiet. Air still thick with copper and gunpowder. The kid isn’t there.

And neither is Vaughn’s body.

***


Skid finds the kid in a back office. Balled up under a desk. A black burn mark on his forearm, the shape of a hand.

“What happened?” he asks.

A long moment of silence. The kid won’t talk. The rattle of the AC. Then, nothing. The lights die along with the electric hum.

“Shit,” Skid mutters. He waves a hand under the desk. “It’s all right,” he says. “I won’t hurt ya. I promise.”

Too quick for Skid to avoid, the kid snatches Skid’s wrist.

Skid whimpers and wrestles free. “Don’t,” he says, stumbling back. He can’t breathe right. “Don’t touch me.”

Shame melts the kid’s pale face. Like he did something wrong.

Skid tries to explain. “I don’t like being—” But a voice cuts him off. It comes from the other entrance downstairs.

“Henry,” it booms. “Henry, come to the door, sweetie.”

It’s familiar. Unmistakable. But it can’t be.

“It’s Momma.”

***


Skid can’t believe it. Won’t. Vaughn’s cocktail. That’s all this is. But he can tell from the look in the kid’s eyes beside him that he sees her too.

She stands in the middle of the street. Tight, ripped jeans. A low-cut top. Clothes too young for her age. The age she seems. A bullhorn in her hand held to her bright red lips. “Henry?” she says, and she smiles.

He pulls a trophy case away from the hallway wall.

His head’s fucking with him. He could’ve sworn there were more buildings beyond the street before. Now it’s mostly empty land. Just a handful of structures. Barely noon, but getting darker.

“Let us in, sweetie,” the woman outside says. “Let them have a hostage and they’ll let you go.”

Filled with banking awards and old photos, the case topples. All the items inside fall through the glass, shattering and scattering across the linoleum. He shoves the wooden structure toward the entrance.

An eruption. A crunching boom. He looks up, and his mother is just beyond the doorway. The glass is splintered where the palm of her hand bloodies against it. Red trickles along the cracks. Track marks oozing pink pepper the bruises in the nook of her elbow. “Listen to your Momma, you little shithead.”

One last push. The trophy case blocks out the daylight. The hall goes dark.

Red in the exit sign’s light, the kid stands at the foot of the stairs.

Next to him, a door. A sign.

Do Not Enter.

***


It’s a room of pipes. One looks about the width of Skid’s shoulders.

Blow through, Skid thinks. He could follow it through the drainage system.

The creek was only a half-mile away.

Home free.

He could get stuck. Trapped. He could suffocate.

But maybe he’d rather die in a sewer than live in a cell.

***


Upstairs. Vaughn’s body is still gone.

Skid slings the bag of C4 onto his back and heads toward the steps.

A phone rings.

Skid finds it under a stack of paperwork along the teller counter.

“Your bus is here, Henry,” the voice says. The voice that sounds like Uncle Simon.

“Bus?”

“Best we could do. Just give us the kid and it’s all yours.”

“How do—who says I ain’t giving you some other hostage in here?”

“All we want’s the kid, Henry.”

Skid’s eyes trace the wire coming out of the phone down to the frayed end at his feet. “I—I say who goes.”

“The kid, Henry.” That voice. So clear, so close. Skid can feel on his neck its beer-sticky breath. “Simon says.”

***


A few strides from the western entrance is a yellow bus.

Beyond it: only rough, rolling hills.

A desert at dusk.

Skid shakes his head. Where did the buildings go? The town? Confusion makes him want to collapse. Give up before even taking a single step. Quit being such a pussy, Henry.

He takes out his .40 and shows the kid the empty holes inside. “No bullets,” he says. “Yeah?”

The kid says nothing as the barrel meets his temple.

They push outside.

Quiet settles over Skid like a wet, wool blanket.

In the time it takes to reach blacktop, the sunlight dies until beyond the lot’s nothing but night. Just a vague line of the horizon splitting two warring depths of black.

They near the bus. A murmur rises. Tinny and distant.

Skid enters first, walking the kid backward until they’re both inside. That strange sound detonates. It comes alive in complete clarity. Dozens of children. Maybe hundreds. Laughing. Screaming. Speaking in a language Skid doesn’t want to recognize, but does.

Farsi.

***


Three small, staggering steps up into the bus.

The horde of children turn toward Skid with blank, cloudy eyes that seem impossibly white against their black, charred skin.

A choked sob. It reminds Skid he isn’t breathing.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know. I didn’t fucking know.”

The patter of footfalls behind him makes him turn. He catches the last glimpse of the kid before he disappears back into the building.

Something tugs at his flak jacket.

A hip-high girl, barely more than a skeleton. From wrinkled, crisp lips, her hesitant voice speaks. “M—mikham beram…khoo—khooneh.”

Through the windows: shifts in the darkness. A deep shadow buries the edge of the lot. Like black sand pushed by the wind one gust at a time. Swallowing the world. All of it except the street leading out of town. Skid notices a key in the bus ignition.

Someone says, “A hostage for a way out.”

Skid glances over his shoulder. Where the charred girl just was sits Vaughn. Thirteen years old now. A bloody crater in his face. “I saved you, Skid.”

“I didn’t make no deal with you.”

“You know that’s not what I mean. Why shoot me after all I done for you?”

“You ain’t that kid no more, Vaughn.”

“Neither are you.” He nods to Skid’s forearm. Where the kid grabbed him earlier. A black hand mark taints the skin.

Skid looks back at the lot exit. Narrow eyes. Cupped hands at his temples. He leans toward the windshield, and his breath leaves frost on the glass. He can’t tell where the road might end. He asks Vaughn, “What’s the first thing you remember?”

“From?”

“From ever.”

Vaughn seems to think as the wind outside picks up. Black sand pelts the driver-side of the bus.

“Smoke,” he finally answers. “Way it looks against a clear sky.”

Skid nods.

Vaughn asks, “That prove I’m real?”

“Proves you know what I already know about you.”

“Never told you that.”

“You did.” Skid takes a step down toward the bus door. “Was probably just too fucked up to remember.”

“Yeah,” Vaughn says. “Sounds about right.”

Skid risks one last look back toward the bus. He expects to find Vaugn’s smug, grinning face behind him. But only the little burnt girl is there.

“Mikham beram khooneh.”

***


Skid guides the kid into the vault. Back with all the locked deposit boxes. Out at the lot and at the bottom entrance, heavy blows bash against the doorways.

“Stay in here,” he tells the kid.

The dead phones keep ringing.

Eyes growing wet, the kid shakes his head hard.

“Nobody can get to you in here,” Skid says, and his voice cracks. “Nobody.”

The metal door closes with a gut-quaking thud.

Above, skylights break. Glass falls to the tile and on top of the bodies. Faint light from the front hallway flickers with approaching shadows. Skid clutches his .40 tighter. With it, he smashes the keypad on the wall beside the vault.

“Missed your bus, Henry.”

A warped chill stabs Skid between his shoulder blades. He turns to find him standing there over the smear of his son’s blood. Shoulders back. The big gut he always hauled around like a loaded wheelbarrow now spills intestines from a shotgun wound.

It’s weird, Skid realizes, being as tall as him.

“I ain’t going nowhere,” Skid says.

Behind Uncle Simon, black sand takes over the walls, floors, and ceilings. Like blood through a glass of light beer. “Why you being such a pussy, Henry?” Uncle Simon says. “We just want the kid.”

“All this shit today,” Skid says, “made me remember something.”

The dark spreads thick. So deep and carried so easily by the whirlwind around them, it leaves just Skid, Uncle Simon, and the vault. Its speed rises to a solid blur. Like helicopter blades. Its noise implodes under its own weight.

Suddenly: No sound. No movement.

Just them.

“Know what my first memory is?” Skid asks.

Uncle Simon steps toward Skid. “Don’t know that I care.”

“It ain’t an image. Nothing I saw. It ain’t some. . . like, some scene, ya know?”

“Henry,” Uncle Simon says, and keeps moving forward, “you really think that’ll stop me?” He lifts an eyebrow at Skid’s gun.

“It’s a feeling,” Skid says. So close now. The smell of stale cigar smoke in the man’s clothes. Skid almost gags. “A feeling. Like being scared. Or being loved, I guess. But sharper. Deeper.” He drops the gun. “Harder to let go of.”

He stares into that face—a face he realizes now looks a lot like his own. He doesn’t let himself look away. Instead, he wraps his arms tight around those broad shoulders.

He triggers the detonator on the C4 strapped to his back, and that feeling returns. He’s felt it many times before, but never so strong or heavy or rooted in his core. Like a hand tugging at a ball of string in his chest, unraveling it into a loose mess at his feet.

He isn’t sure if he could’ve put words to it that first time he felt it. Maybe the words came later to describe something so overwhelming. But the words come now. Like always he hasn’t a clue what they really mean. What bond the words have to the real, waking world he’s known and survived in for so long.

He tries to say them. Tries to push them from his throat with breath he isn’t even sure he’s still got. He can’t. But they’re there. In his mind they’re loud. So loud they blot out everything like all that night sand.

Until they’re the only thing left in the bottomless, lonely dark.

I want to go home.

Dan J. Fiore has been published by Thuglit, Mystery Tribune, and Hot Metal Bridge, among others. His fiction won grand prize in both the 82nd annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition and LitReactor’s Arrest Us Crime Writing Challenge, and his screenwriting was awarded a First Works Grant by Pittsburgh Filmmakers. He currently works as a creative strategist in Pittsburgh and teaches at Seton Hill University, where he also earned his MFA. For more, visit www.danjfiore.com.

Monday, August 12, 2019

HELLBENDERS: Jordan Farmer's The Pallbearer

art by Patrick Weck
Welcome to the first installment of an ongoing series of reviews, written by Gonzalo Baeza: HELLBENDERS. Hellbenders are the unloved stepchildren of the salamander world, native to Pennsylvania and West Virginia and other places, squat-faced and dirty-looking and ugly-beautiful. If you've ever had the chance to see one up close, chances are you haven't forgotten it. They are rare. So too, are the books on which Tough was predicated: rural noir and crime, often ugly, often beautiful, in such settings as various as Maine and New Hampshire, Appalachia and many parts of the rural South and West.

While hellbenders in the wild are much more difficult to find than a quality rural noir--though still a rare beast--we aim to help out the cause. HELLBENDERS will review books new and old, stories that got missed by the major book review venues or were otherwise overlooked as untimely and/or unappreciated. We'll take a look at the past, watch out for the future, and poke through the rocks and silt in search of the good stuff, the rare stuff, the HELLBENDERS.



The Pallbearer
Jordan Farmer 
268pgs
978-1-5107-3651-1
$24.99/$16.99
Reviewed by Gonzalo Baeza

Given the number of new titles released each week and the little to no promotion most new books get these days, especially when they are not issued by a big publisher, it is no wonder that a remarkable novel like Jordan Farmer’s The Pallbearer has not gotten the attention it deserves. A darkly poetic rural noir set in the dying coal town of Lynch, West Virginia, this first novel may appear to tread familiar territory explored by writers like Breece D’J Pancake and Ron Rash, but it does so with its own mix of lyrical and propulsive prose and an unorthodox cast of compelling characters. 

The pallbearer in question is Jason Felts, who used to work in his family’s mortuary in downtown Lynch. He still lives in an apartment above the old family business but it’s not just physical proximity to the funeral home that cements his ties to death and tragedy: Felts is a counsellor at the violent Shelby Youth Correctional Facility –known as “The Shell”– where many of Lynch’s and the region’s young men end up as coal prospects dwindle, businesses close, and opioids abound. 

As seen through Felts’ eyes, “There was no opportunity left in the hills. With the mines shutting down there wouldn’t be much left of Lynch in ten years anyway. Just empty storefronts and the few families left behind without jobs, becoming more isolated as the economy collapsed. Jason guessed everyone would pull up stakes eventually or be forced into the regression of a frontier barter system and poaching.” 

Counsellors have a hard time getting through to the troubled inmates, including one minor called Malcolm, whose constant outbursts of rage maintain the staff on edge, ready to restrain him as they wait for the boy to be transferred to a more adequate psychiatric facility in Ohio. Work is even more difficult for Felts considering he is a dwarf and his appearance is derided by both inmates and prison guards. 

Two new arrivals to The Shell upend Felts’ life and unleash a series of ever more gruesome events. One is Huddles, the younger brother of local crime boss Ferris Gilbert. Huddles is incarcerated after a nocturnal drug run goes wrong and a state trooper confiscates Ziploc bags of pills and guns from his vehicle. The local sheriff, who is trying to get to Ferris, makes it clear to Huddles that he can either inform on his brother or he’ll make sure that the younger Gilbert remains detained until trial. He should then expect to be transferred to an even more violent jail where his family name carries no weight and he’ll be easy prey for the older inmates. 

Huddles spends the days either meditating to mentally escape his surroundings or reading a novel he finds in The Shell’s library, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. A recurring theme in West’s novel from the 1930s is the disappointment of those who live in the fringes of Hollywood, unable to accomplish their dreams, “the people who come to California to die” and whose eyes are “filled with hatred.” Huddles’ fascination with the book is likely explained by the despair he sees in his surroundings but also by the unfulfilled potential of his own life.    

The other arrival is Terry Blankenship, a strung-out teenager who is arrested for breaking into one of Lynch’s many dilapidated houses to steal pills. He lives in a rundown hunting cabin with his boyfriend after being kicked out of his home by his homophobic father. Blankenship also owes money to Ferris Gilbert who, seizing upon the young man’s despair, offered him an out: kill the sheriff and all debts will be forgiven. 

Both Terry and Huddles look at Ferris with suspicion. Huddles cannot imagine a relationship that is not transactional and in his particularly laconic and defensive way he questions the counsellor’s offer of help: “You know, everyone I’ve talked to, they want to carve their slice.” 

Terry is even more mistrustful, being marginalized in Lynch both because of his addiction and his sexuality: “Terry didn’t confide in anyone, (…) but as much as he wanted free of these secrets, he understood burdens were a way of life and no venting, whether to holy idols or equally broken men could lift them from your back. Why this universal need for communion anyway? Seeking solace in another only created a false hope that you’d be understood. People pretended because it was too hard to admit we’re each trapped in our own shell, using imprecise words to try to express something unsayable.” 

A counsellor whose appearance has made him an outcast, an addict who hides too many secrets, a reluctant member of a crime family who feels the need to prove his toughness both to the inmates and to his brother. Their respective baggage enhances their outsider nature but never in a truculent manner. Farmer is a skilled writer who carefully builds each character so that their struggles –and their pain– feel real and more than a collection of misfortunes and arbitrary psychological traits. All three of them fight to survive under the shadow of the looming, almost feral presence of Ferris Gilbert, but also amid a ravaged landscape with its striated mountains stripped of their last ounce of coal. 

The Pallbearer is an accomplished and emotive first novel that reads like the work of an experienced author, its well-worn characters, evocative prose, and sustained tension creating a pungent mix of pure West Virginia rawness.




Gonzalo Baeza is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His books have been published in the U.S., Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, Estados Hispanos de América, Tintas, and The Texas Review, among others.