Sunday, November 17, 2019

Two Good Hands, fiction by Steve Liskow

“Not even to have two good hands.” Julia gives Aura Lee a glare that I can feel from across the room.

“Let the dead lie,” Belle agrees. She’s Aura Lee’s grandmother—Julia’s mother—but her eyes say she can kick my butt if I give her half a reason.

“But it’s an awesome song.” Aura Lee sits on the couch with her bare legs curled under her. Glasses of iced tea sweat on the coffee table, an old door with the knob removed.

“’Awesome.’” Belle lights a cigarette and belches smoke from her nostrils. “We send you to college and that’s the best you can do? ‘Awesome?’”

“You know what I mean.” Aura Lee hunches forward and I can see her sinking into the family dynamic, her at the bottom of the tree. “It would be perfect on the CD. But I don’t know all the words and I can’t find it anywhere. Plus we want to get the writing credits right.”

“Not going to happen.” Julia shakes a cigarette onto the table and puts it between her lips. She wears jeans and an old Jackson Browne tee, both faded to the color of gravel, but she’s still seriously hot. She’s Aura Lee’s mother, but she might still be pushing forty from this side.

“Why not?” Aura Lee’s chin inches forward. The three women look so much alike I can see the DNA flowing down the family tree. Same triangular faces, same green eyes, same wine-red hair, except Belle’s has a little gray. Varicose veins turn her lower legs into a barber pole.

“That was Luther’s song.” She lights Julia’s cigarette and Julia draws until the end glows like a new penny. She blows smoke toward the window. The wallpaper has a yellowish tinge and the whole room smells like an ashtray.

“I barely remember him,” Aura Lee says. “I thought maybe it would be a way to, you know, connect with him again.”

“You were learning to walk when he died,” Belle says. “Cancer. Went like that.” She snaps her fingers, the click filling the room.

“Cancer,” Aura Lee says. “You should quick smoking, Gram.”

“Yeah, and you should forget the damn song and go back to your books.”

“Classes are over,” Aura Lee says. “We get everything set up, we can record it all in a few days before the fall semester starts.”

Julia draws again and puts her cigarette in the ashtray. “You know how long cutting an album takes? Months.”

“Not now, the technology’s so much better. We’re talking about a week, max. The guy who runs an open mic off-campus has a decent studio. He’s already penciled us in for late July.”

Belle and Julia look at each other like they’ve just been offered a handful of beans.

“Um, excuse me?” They turn to me with shotgun eyes. They have to know Aura Lee and I hooked up last fall. We still have separate housing in the dorms, ‘cause you can’t move off-campus until you’re a junior.”

“Ms. Holden, you said your husband sang the song? Do you know where he heard it first?”

“Nope.” Belle crushes out her cigarette.

“But you still play, don’t you?” Her fingers still have calluses and I wonder where her guitar is. Ours are in my car. Maybe we should bring them in, try to loosen things up.

“Some.”

“And you sing, don’t you, Ms. Holden?” It registers for the first time that they’ve got the same last name.

“A little. I couldn’t play…”

Julia’s voice fades and she holds up her right hand, the one not holding her cigarette. A thumb and pinkie. It’s all that keeps her from being perfect. Her daughter’s still working on it, but she’s getting there.

“Born this way. Lucky they were making shoes with Velcro by the time I was learning to dress myself. Buttons are still a bitch, though.”

“I’m sorry.” It sounds stupid, but I can’t think of anything better.

“Not your fault.”

Aura Lee clears her throat. “Listen, can we play you our other songs? You know the older stuff, but I’m starting to write too, a little. And I really like ‘Pear Tree.’ It’s a terrific story, sounds like some of the old Appalachian ballads.”

The older women drag on their Marlboro lights. Aura Lee rolls her eyes.

“OK, can I at least show Ash around?” She glances toward the stairs. The whole downstairs isn’t much bigger than a suite in the dorms, and I wonder how big the bedrooms are. There have to be three of them, and I’m not sure that leaves room for a bathroom.

“Keep your door open,” Belle says. Aura Lee rolls her eyes again.

I follow her upstairs, the women watching me pretend I’m not checking out her ass. The stairs are so narrow I wonder how they got furniture up there unless they built it in the rooms. Aura Lee leads me into a room with one large window overlooking a field. She opens it wide for what little breeze it offers.

“They’ll think about it.” She flops on the bed and her top rides up so I see her belly-button ring. I wonder if the women know about that. Or her tattoo. She took her eyebrow piercing out before we came.

“Is that good or bad?” I’m only five-ten and I have to stoop with the low ceiling.

“We play some of our other stuff, they’ll hear how that song would work for us and change their minds.”

Aura Lee doesn’t have a great voice, but you can hear the truth in it, like she’s lived every word she sings, like she’s been nineteen forever and it never gets any better. We met at an open mic last fall and figured out right away we should team up, and now we get a gig once in a while. Twenty-five bucks and a burger, but it beats a finger in your eye.

“You didn’t mention your grandfather sang it.” I sit next to her on the single bed, the only thing that can fit in here. The dresser looks slightly heavier than cardboard. I wonder how her clothes don’t crush it.

“I only remember Gram and Ma singing it, but Ma never sang out. She always told me Gram and Gramps were pretty good.”

She points at a picture on the wall. A cheap wooden frame contains Belle and a man with a heavy jaw and light hair. The girl in front of them can’t be more than seven or eight, but I recognize Julia hiding her right hand behind her back. The man holds a pear in his hand, and the tree behind them spills shade across their faces.

Aura Lee goes to the window and I join her. A few hundred yards away, a split rail fence seems to be slowly dying, a small brook and a patch of woods beyond it. Between us and that fence, a blasted stump sticks up like a finger.

“That’s the tree in the picture,” she says. “It got hit by lightning when I was seven. Scared the shit out of me.”

The stump stands a hundred yards away. If it had been closer, the falling tree might have slammed through this wall.

“You look like your mom,” I say. Nothing gets past me twice.

“Yeah.” She stands. “Let’s check the attic.”

“There’s an attic?”

“Yeah, it’s probably stuffy as hell, but maybe there are more pictures. Gram and Gramp playing out, something like that.”

“They didn’t record anything, did they? You would’ve mentioned it.”

“You needed money and an agent back then. And they were doing Americana before it had a name. Nobody could’ve cared less.”

Turns out there is a bathroom, not much bigger than a phone booth, and outside it is a swinging trap door with steps that fold down. The heat spills out so thick my eyes tear up while I follow Aura Lee’s cut-offs up that ladder. The attic ceiling’s only about five feet tall, just enough so old clothes can hang on racks. Dresses and shirts under plastic wrappers, winter coats and boots. An old trunk that belongs in a pirate movie. Yellowed newspapers and magazines. I walk around a sticky strip dotted with dead flies.

“Hot damn.” Aura Lee points to a stack of old LPs and 45s.

“Bob Dylan,” she says. She digs deeper. “Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Kingston Trio, Burl Ives, Josh White, Chad Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Peter, Paul and Mary...”

She pulls a Dylan LP from its sleeve. “Great condition. Shit, you could get a few bucks for these.”

She reads the label on a box with an old tape reel.

“Library of Congress. Jesus, this is old stuff they were probably learning from.” She spreads more boxes on the floor. “Let’s see if ‘Pear Tree’ is on one of these.”

A couple of boxes are old bluegrass and I check them first. The song has that high lonesome feel, minor key creepy. No luck.

“Not that I see a tape recorder up here,” she says. “If we find the tape, we can take it back to school, someone must have an old reel-to-reel.”

Sweat drips down my back and my throat scratches from the dust. I’m ready to bag it when Aura Lee opens the trunk. Old bed linens on top, framed pictures under them, some with Julia holding a baby that has to be Aura Lee.

“Whoa.” She digs into the pile and pulls out a framed eight by ten. Her grandparents huddle next to a microphone with their eyes closed. The man holds a banjo and the woman plays a Martin guitar. The tuning pegs of another guitar hide behind the man’s knee, maybe the old Guild Aura Lee plays now, and a neon Schlitz sign glares red behind them.

“I wonder where this was taken. It’s gotta be a bar somewhere around here.”

“Doesn’t have to be around here,” I say, but she shakes her head.

“They never made enough to travel much. Didn’t get farther east than Ann Arbor or west than Muskegon. Don’t think they ever left the state.”

“They always lived around here?”

“Gram’s family did. Gramps came up from Kentucky to work in the auto plants back when we made our own cars.”

“Kentucky,” I say. “Maybe that’s where he learned the song.”

“Maybe.”

She pulls out more pictures and finds a shoebox. When she opens it, a bunch of cassettes stare up at us, labels with smudged pencil. A beat-to-shit cassette player lies under the box.

“When did CDs take over?” she asks. “Before we were born, I know that.”

“Eighties?” I say. “My father has some old tapes and vinyl, but mostly CDs.”

“So this is probably thirty years old, give or take.”

We put the other stuff back. Aura Lee goes down the ladder first and I hand the player and tapes down to her. Back in her room, I think she’s even more surprised than I am when the cassette player works. Tinny music comes out of the speaker, drums, bass, electric guitars.

“Someone’s out of tune,” she says. The tape seems to speed up and slow down, and I can’t decide whether it’s the player or if all the years up in that heat stretched the tape. We listen to a few minutes, then she ejects it and tries another one. That’s more electric stuff, and even worse than the first one.

“I wish we could read the labels,” she says. She pulls out one of the old reels. “If it’s one of these, we’re screwed. The tape looks like it’s melted together. We probably won’t be able to play it even if we can find someone with a reel-to-reel.”

Julia appears in the doorway, her eyes narrowed to green slits.

“What are you doing?” Aura Lee puts in another cassette without looking at her. “We found these up in the attic. We’re checking to see if one of them has the song.”

“They’re probably all junk.” Julia’s eyes remind me of a cat, even more than her daughter. When she looks at me again, I feel like a mouse.

Aura Lee turns up the volume and we can hear that this tape is acoustic, so maybe we’re getting closer.

“Ash, why don’t you go get our guitars. We can try to figure out the chords.”

It’s ten degrees cooler out of that cramped room. I pop the trunk on my old Chevy and pull out our guitar cases, both covered with stickers from every open mic and coffee house we’ve played since last fall. Jackson, Ann Arbor, East Lansing…

When I step back in, Belle looks up from her cigarette.

“Is that Luther’s old Guild?” Her voice is softer than anything else she’s said.

“Well,” I say, “it’s what Aura Lee plays. If it was her grandfather’s first…”

Belle’s lips tighten. I maneuver the guitar cases up those tight stairs. Aura Lee’s still listening to the tapes and Julia’s still hovering over her.

“It’s Gram and Gramps,” Aura Lee says. “Crappy recording, probably live.”

Julia crosses her arms, her right hand underneath. “I think they wanted something live to send to the record companies. I don’t know if it’s one of these or not. Not that it matters, none of the record companies ever got back to them, I don’t think.”

“When was this tape made, Mom, do you remember?”

Julia shrugs. “Not exactly. Maybe 1990? Dad died in ninety-eight. You were only a little over a year old.”

The room goes silent except for the tinny version of “Long Black Veil” on the cassette player. Crowd noise drowns out the guitars. Aura Lee turns the cassette over and we hear more singing, but no crowd. Lots of stops and starts, with talking in between.

“Saw him pick her fruit.” That’s Belle. Julia’s eyes widen and Aura Lee turns up the volume.

A guitar plays a rhythm figure and a man sings the line.

“And only that ripe old pear tree

“Watched as he picked her fruit. Yeah, that’s better. I like that.”

Aura Lee looks at her mother, toward the stairs, and back at her mother.

“They wrote it? They wrote the song? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Julia hugs herself and shakes her head. Aura Lee turns off the tape and stands.

“Let’s take this downstairs.”

I lead the way because nobody can get by our guitar cases anyway. There’s a little more room in the living room, but Belle’s already lighting another cigarette. Her face shows she heard us upstairs.

“Gram.” Aura Lee puts the cassette player on the coffee table and looks for an outlet. “You and Gramps wrote the song, didn’t you?”

“How did you two decide you’re ready to do a record?” Belle doesn’t look at her.

Aura Lee glances at me. “We’ve been playing together since late last year, ten bucks here, twenty-five there, pass the hat a lot. Some guy asked us if we had CDs to sell, and we figured we could probably do that. We know a guy who has a studio, a couple of graphic artists from school…”

Julia appears at the foot of the stairs. Aura Lee looks at her, then back at her grandmother.

“Gram, why didn’t you tell me you and Gramps wrote the song?”

Belle shrugs. “We were just fooling around, stealing from lots of the old ballads we knew. We never meant to play it out, even if Luther lived. It’s not even finished.”

Aura Lee shakes her head. “Four or five verses, that’s pretty much a whole song.”

Julia sinks to the bottom step. All she needs is a flowing dress and long hair streaming behind her to look like a wronged maiden out of those same ballads.

I open my guitar case and find the pencil and paper I keep under the tuning pegs. Aura Lee takes her own guitar and sits on the couch next to the cassette player. When she strums a chord, both Julia and Belle seem to shrink.

“Standard tuning?” Aura Lee rewinds the tape a few seconds and turns up the volume. When the music comes up, I strum a few chords and find where it’s going.

“Yeah. And in ‘A’ minor.” We listen to the words and music, and I try to find the bass note as we go along. It’s not hard, especially since they keep stopping and starting to try different words.

“Under that ripe old pear tree,

“He swore he loved her true. “And only that ripe old pear tree

“Watched as he picked her fruit.”

Aura Lee looks at Belle. “The only verse I remembered, and I didn’t understand that line when I was little. Confused the hell out of me.”

Belle holds up the cigarette pack to Julia. When she nods, Belle lights a cigarette and walks it over to her.

“When she began to blossom,

“She told to me his name…She revealed to me, she let me know…what do you think?”

“Um…‘revealed’ sounds better. Maybe ‘man’ instead of name?”

“Gotta rhyme with ‘shame’ at the end.”

I put down my guitar and pick up my pencil. “Back it up and play it again.”

Belle puts her hand over Aura Lee’s.

“Don’t.”

“But Gram…”

“Please.” Julia’s voice barely carries across the room. The cigarette smoke wreathes her face.

We play through three verses, lots of stopping and starting again, which gives me plenty of time to write down the words. And the chords are baby simple, like hundreds of other old ballads. But now we know this one isn’t that old.

Julia stares at her partial hand and Belle’s eyes burn into the cassette player.

“Aura Lee,” she says. “Don’t do this. Please.”

“Gram…” Aura Lee plays the next verse.

“And give that ripe’ning child his name

“And share with them his wealth…his life…his pride…never mind, keep going…

“But he just sneered go ‘way old man

“I’m not your daughter’s first.”

“What a great line.” Even Aura Lee whispers. “But it’s so awful, too.”

Belle leans over and yanks the cord out of the outlet.

“Enough, God damn it, that’s enough.”

“Gram, what the hell…?” Aura Lee puts down her guitar and reaches over for the cord, but Belle jerks the other end out of the cassette player and throws it across the room.

“Enough, enough, enough.” She looks a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than a few minutes ago, and her eyes slash across us like a hawk’s talons.

“That song must never, never be sung. I thought we threw it away years ago when Luther… Give me that damn tape.”

“Not a chance.” Aura Lee pops the little door open and jams the cassette into her pocket.

Julia rolls into a ball on the bottom step, her knees drawn up to her chest, her hands covering her ears. Her shoulders twitch and her keening gives me goose bumps.

“Mom? What’s…” Aura Lee crosses the room and sinks next to her mother.

Belle steps between them and cradles Julia in her own arms with her back to her granddaughter.

That’s when I remember the pictures upstairs.

“Jesus.”

I go over and pull Aura Lee back onto the couch. “Wait a second,” I tell her. “Just be quiet for a few minutes.”

“But—”

“No,” I say. “Seriously. That stump in back of the house, the tree you said was hit by lightning, it was a pear tree, right?”

“Yeah, but…” I see her get it, too. “Oh, my God.”

We force ourselves to sit until Julia uncoils and looks at her daughter. For all she sees me, I might as well be on Mars.

“Mom.” All three women are about the same height, but when Aura Lee sways across the room in her cut-offs, she seems to be nine yards of legs. They tangle in a big hug, all arms and red hair and sniffling.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. They don’t hear me. I go over and pry Aura Lee loose long enough to find the cassette against her hip bone. The three of them sink to the bottom step in one big heap and I replace the cassette and plug the player in again even though I know what’s coming now. Aura Lee finally turns to her mother.

“This isn’t made up, is it?” Julia’s throat moves like she’s swallowing an earthquake. “Not all of it.” She wipes her nose on the back of her hand and lets out a sigh she seems to have been holding in for years.

“Son of a bitch wouldn’t marry a cripple. He didn’t want a child of his to inherit....”

Aura Lee’s eyes widen and I force myself to push “play” again. “Then rage filled up this father’s heart

“My child’s tears fed the flame…fueled the flame, do you think?” Luther’s voice, that same guitar figure.

“Go on, we’ll fix it later.” Belle’s voice.

“And now that wicked young man lies

“Where he laid my child’s good name.”

I write it down while one last chord hangs in the room. I hit “stop” and none of us look at each other.

I walk outside, around the house. The sun hammers my head and I wish I had a hat.

The stump is about three feet tall and a foot across, the outside jagged and blackened, and the center looks pulpy, like it’s rotting. I don’t know a pear tree from a flag pole, but judging from the diameter, this one must’ve been tall.

I walk around it in ever-widening circles. Nothing looks different, some tall grass, a few bare spots, a few rocks. It’s a field, for Christ’s sake, what else do you have in a field?

Aura Lee joins me, her mother’s eyes looking out of the younger face. I and pull her against my chest and feel her shaking.

Belle and Julia join us, leaning against each other like it’s all that keeps them upright.

“This side.” Belle’s shadow falls across the stump and reaches back toward the house, tiny in the distance. “Right here.”

Aura Lee’s fingers squeeze mine and I squeeze back in self-defense.

“Nobody ever found out?”

Belle looks at the stump, then at me holding her granddaughter.

“The whole family was mixed up in all sorts of…shenanigans. Nobody asked any questions because they wouldn’t want to know the answers. He might’ve just took off with money or…”

And now that wicked young man lies

Where he laid my child’s good name.


“Is he buried here, too?” Aura Lee’s voice breaks to little pieces in the breeze.

“Uh-huh.” Belle and Julia look so beautiful I know I’ll see them in my dreams for the rest of my life—and wake up screaming.

“Forget that song,” Julia says.

I’m still holding the paper with the words, now almost bruising my eyes.

“It’s a great song.”

And then I think about why it’s such a great song. It tells the truth, about how people love and care for each other and put themselves in danger doing it. I never knew Luther, but I see now that he was a hero. He’s not around to suffer, but Belle and Julia could go to jail, which won’t help anyone. All because of Aura Lee, and she wasn’t even born yet.

It really is a great song. But letting other people hear it…

I hold up the page so the women can see it, and tear it in half, then tear the halves again. Then again. One more time, the packet thick enough so I have to work at it. I open my fingers and let the wind carry the shreds away, ragged white moths floating across the field until I can’t see them anymore.

I kiss away the tears running down Aura Lee’s cheeks before I look at her mother again. “We’re all in this together now. Aren’t we?”

Aura Lee walks over and hugs her grandmother. Then her mother. Then she turns and holds out her hands to me, two good hands, the ones that play guitar, the ones that hold me tight.

Two good hands.


Steve Liskow’s stories have earned an Edgar nomination, Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award (3 times), and the Black Orchid Novella Award (twice). Those stories appear in Tough, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and several anthologies. Words of Love, his 15th novel, will appear late this year, and The Kids Are All Right was a finalist for the Shamus Award in 2015. He lives in Connecticut. Visit his website at www.steveliskow.com.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Boomer in the Sky with Toxics, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

Boomer in the Sky with Toxics by Jeff Esterholm The dog sat in the doorway watching Boomer work in the darkened bathroom. Rummaging in the medicine cabinet, penlight held between his teeth, searching out Andrew’s meds, he turned and glanced at the dog, ran the light over him, a Shih Tzu-dachsy mix with a pronounced underbite. A hairy meatloaf. They fed him too much, couldn’t help themselves. The light hit the dog’s eyes, the one good one, the other sheathed in a milky cataract, and his tail drummed the floor.

Boomer took the penlight from his mouth, whispered, “Go away,” then turned back to the cabinet with its regimented orange plastic containers. A pharmaceutical wonderland, the majority in his nephew Andrew’s name, the rest belonging to Don and Joan, his brother and sister-in-law, pills to treat their late middle age: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, menopause, peeing too often or not enough, and boner pills. “Little brother.” He popped one into his mouth.

But it was Andrew who really had the goods. Boomer couldn’t wipe out the stash, the kid was battling AIDS, just a taste from each prescription, shake a few samples out into the plastic sandwich bags stuffed into the pockets of his field jacket. He counted out the caplets, the tabs, the gel caps, and, taking some, wondered what the horse pills would do.

At the distant rumble of the garage door, the dog waddled off with its welcome home bark and, in a rush now, Boomer made a mess of his drug dispensing, tablets ricochet-ticking in the bathroom sink. It wasn’t a complete botch, he had time to pop a few more pills into his mouth, shove the baggies deeper into his jacket pockets, and glide off, agile for fifty-nine, the wet tracks he made coming in on the carpeted hallway encountered on the way out, down the stairs, past the Christmas tree and the presents that Don, Joan, and Andrew would be opening soon, now that they were home, and quietly, so quietly, Boomer slipped out the front door, the kitchen light popping on behind him, out into the cold and starry O Holy Night, willing himself to feel whatever he had ingested, Boomer in the sky with toxics.

Boomer, one hundred twenty pounds and dropping, had arrived in Port Nicollet just after midnight on the twenty-fifth of December. The bus beat its scheduled arrival time, so his son, Gary, wasn’t at the depot to pick him up as planned. Boomer didn’t see Saint Nick streaking across the sky either, although Keith Richards’ cover of “Run Rudolph Run” rocked through his aural memory. Gary had wired him the money for the bus trip up from Tennessee, where South Shore Grain, Boomer’s employer, had sent him for rehab. No one seemed to understand that he and rehab, although nodding acquaintances, had never shook hands and agreed on anything like the efficacy of treatment. He had stopped the smack, but that had been on his own. Shit was unheard of in Port Nick in the sixties. Things had changed.

Boomer drove Tom Dean’s ’41 Ford pickup truck along the snow-packed streets of Port Nick, away from Don and Joan’s house. He and Tommy D, passing a doobie back and forth over the engine, had overhauled the truck back in the eighties. They took it when they went fishing in the Hayward Lakes area. Good times. Now, his wife in mind, he had an erection—the damn boner pill. His wife. Were they still married? They wed twenty-eight years ago. Beautiful Mama was what he called Diana. She’d laugh and call him Wasted Daddy. The laughter ended, long gone, he understood that. He couldn’t show his face now, especially not with all the blood in his body concentrated in his groin. It would wear off like everything else.

He squatted at Tommy D’s place in the Lakeshore neighborhood of Port Nicollet, not that Tommy D knew he was staying there. Boomer knew the ins-and-outs of Port Nick. Tommy D and his second family were Christmassing in Florida, far away from the south shore of Lake Superior. He guessed his old partner in crime wouldn’t mind. Boomer had to land somewhere, temporarily, or at least feel like he could. He was hurtling toward the end of the year. There was that humming in his head over the past several days, an ache and a wave of sound building like the last chord of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” He couldn’t stand still, waiting out the crescendo, the peak and crash, so his plan was to keep on moving through the last week of December, either on foot or by using Dean’s collector-plated pickup. And, of course, sleep sparingly at the Lakeshore house. That was his plan.

He woke up in a guestroom, not cool to occupy the master bedroom. It took a few heart-racing minutes to register that he was in the guestroom of somebody’s home and not in a room at the treatment center. Tommy D’s. That’s right. Still, in bed, without moving a muscle, his body did wind sprints. He hyperventilated. Slow down. Slow down. There. He rolled his head in the direction of the bedside alarm clock and its red digits. Late afternoon of his first—second? third?—full day back in town. It was dark outside.

Boomer phoned Gary from Tommy D’s basement rec room. The green felt surface of the pool table, the sound system’s speakers pockmarking the ceiling, an eye-swallowing flat screen television, DVDs, compact discs, record albums. He called his son, who, with caller ID, immediately asked, “Tom?”

“No, this is Dad.”

Boomer noted the unspoken letdown.

“Where’d you take off to the other night? That morning? Greta and I went to pick you up. You know what we saw? We saw the bus leaving for Duluth. Taillights heading west and the other passengers standing around, waiting for their rides, but not you. Did Tom pick you up?”

“I—yeah.”

“Merry Christmas. That story’s BS. I know the Deans left town for the holidays. Tell me you didn’t break in.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too. No, I did not ‘break in.’ What the hell. Tom gave me a key.”

“Before you went to Tennessee for treatment? Dad?”

Boomer didn’t respond.

“I’m going to come over and pick you up. You can bunk here. Greta’s gone to her folks’ place in the Cities till New Year’s Eve.”

“No, you don’t have to do that. I was going to go over to my father’s.”

“Grandpa’s pretty bad now. Worse, I should say. Mom irritates the hell out of him every time she stops in. She’s just trying to help. Me he doesn’t even recognize anymore. I tell him I’m Michael’s son. He remembers Michael.” Michael. Boomer pre-1968.

“Well, that’s why I wanted to get back to Port Nicollet. Thanks for the scratch, by the way. He’s the reason I wanted to get back. Take care of my father.”

His son’s biting laugh. “Dad, you can’t even take care of yourself.”

***


Earlier in the year, the docs diagnosed the old man with senile dementia. Boomer couldn’t expect his kid brother and sister-in-law to be the caretakers, not with Andrew as sick as he was. Boomer drove over to his childhood home, the edge dulled by some weed of Tommy D’s that he came across in a tea tin, a tumbler of Jack, and a pastel collection of Andrew’s pills.

Someone had cleared the sidewalk, the shovel standing in a snow bank near the house. Boomer tried the front door. Locked. He could have predicted as much. The sky was clear and there was no wind, the temperature well below zero. His eyes watered, turning the Christmas lights of the neighborhood into a colorful scattering of bijouterie.

The old man shot off the tracks after Boomer’s mother stroked out and died. All within a year. A quiet death in their bed on a Sunday morning. Boomer had dropped by that weekend after Thanksgiving, expecting to help her put up the light-festooned reindeer in the front yard. An ambulance beat him to the house.

He was about to leave after pounding on the door one last time, thinking maybe the old man was over at Uncle Ray’s, but, glancing around the back, he saw the Pontiac. Boomer knocked again and jumped when he noticed the white-haired old man peering out through the sidelight.

How many days had he been in Tennessee? How many weeks? Looking at his father, he could have been in out-of-state treatment for years.

“Yes?”

“Hi, Dad.” His father studied his face. “Can I come in? It’s freezing out here.”

“Michael?”

“Yeah.”

Once inside, his father looked at him with a dreaming eye and said, “Well, my gosh. Michael. You’re Michael. You’re my son.”

Boomer excused himself to use the bathroom. He took a slow, stuttering whiz and then ran the tap while he went through the medicine cabinet. Pills for his father’s dementia? He had them, a lot of them, and he obviously wasn’t taking them. Boomer swept the pill bottles up and deposited them into his jacket pocket.

He buzzed. The old man maundered, confused grievances, some final sense that his mind was no longer what it had been. “I went to Old Town and, did you know, some ruthless bastards tore down my mother’s house. Tore it the hell down. It’s a vacant lot and the city has been using it to dump snow from its street cleaning operation. I stopped in at Solberg’s across the street and he had the balls to tell me the house came down years ago. I’m going to talk to a lawyer about it. This will not stand.”

Boomer was lightheaded. This will not stand. His apolitical father quoting the first George Bush?

His father told him to come and look, he had something to show him in the spare bedroom. Boomer blinked and he was in that bedroom’s open doorway. There were framed photographs laid out on the bed: his father with his brothers, Gus and Ray, kids of the Depression, posing in their Port Nicollet Old Town backyard, Uncle Gus’ high school graduation portrait, Uncle Gus receiving a ribbon or a medal from General Mark Clark, all the brothers and sisters in Uncle Ray’s living room for a group picture, must have been taken in the seventies. There were others, all with Uncle Gus as the focus. The folded flag in its presentation frame. An Ike jacket from the Korean War.

“It’s in honor of my twin. Gus. He died, you know.” Yes, Boomer knew. Uncle Gus had kicked it three years ago.

He left his father’s house and sat in the pickup, in some zone, shivering. The key was in the ignition, the heat was on full, the snow, white feathers really, had begun to fall. The payoff, sitting, waiting, was when the old man left the house. And Boomer followed as he drove off in the Pontiac.

His father drove slowly and Boomer got the impression, maybe mistaken, maybe not, that the old man was wary of the snow banked on either side of the Port Nicollet streets, mounded high at the corners, that the snow banks were encroaching on him. The thought made Boomer cautious.

North of downtown, his father pulled into the parking lot of the abandoned railroad depot and Boomer parked on the street, watching as the Pontiac slowly circled the low building. After the sixth or seventh circuit, Boomer pulled in and blocked the old man’s progress. He walked up to the driver’s side of the Pontiac, the car’s high beams flashing, the horn blaring.

“Dad,” he tapped on the window and his father rolled it down.

“Move your damn pickup!”

“Dad. It’s me. Michael. What are you doing? What are you looking for?” The cold, the stolen drugs, the thieved liquor in his veins, he just wanted to curl up, maybe on one of those high snow banks, curl up and fall asleep. But he couldn’t. He was hurtling, the chord had yet to peak, but when it did. A day in the life.

“There used to be a convenience store here.”

Boomer glanced over his shoulder at the Port Nicollet depot sign that remained at the roofline, the depot windows boarded up in the last five years, No Trespassing signs posted. “No more. They moved. What did you want to pick up?”

The old man didn’t have to think over his response. “One of those frozen beef-and-bean burritos I can throw in the microwave.”

I want to curl up, Dad. “I can pick that up for you. Why don’t you follow me back to the house and then I’ll run over to Junior’s Market and pick up a couple of those for you?”

His father thought this over, this old man who used to reach into the backseat for a blind swipe when young Boomer gave him lip. When he found the pot in Boomer’s bedroom, making him box, box as if they were Ali and Frazier, going a few rounds in the narrow kitchen. His mom’s yelling and crying. His father thought over Boomer’s offer, his eyes blinked. Boomer wondered, Who are you? Then his father, the stranger, said, “Okay.”

Okay. “Cool. Wait, say. See. I’ve already”—he dug in his jacket pocket—“I’ve already picked your prescription up for you, too. Let’s see. It says, take two with a meal.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. So take these with you. Follow me back to the house. I’ll get you your burrito. Beef and bean with green chili, right?”

“Yeah.”

***


A few days later, a nighttime drive in late December. Diana. Beautiful Mama. She’d kicked him to the curb, moved herself out to an apartment on Larch Avenue, close to downtown, closer to the main drag. Boomer drifted by the brick fourplex in the pickup. Drifted by like a love-wracked sixteen-year-old. How could it be that the love of a woman and a son were not enough? He had given Diana a number of excuses and once thought to add, but did not, “I guess I must not care.” That would have been a lie, used only to encourage her to give up on him, finally. Which, of course, she did.

He drifted by, a full moon in December, and with the last pass scraped the sides of twelve snow-covered cars parked along Larch Avenue.

***


It may have been New Year’s Eve when he came to, cramped and cold, on the floor of a camper trailer. Fingers and toes numb, he tried to place where he was and forced himself to his feet. Looking out the small window, he saw that it was Don’s backyard. He was in his kid brother’s winterized cracker box trailer.

And there was Don, Joan tagging along behind, charging out of the house, through the snow, headed for the trailer and Boomer.

The kid got in some good licks, the flailed Boomer pinballing around in the confined space, Don accusing him, in between the thrown punches and kicks, of trying to kill Andrew by stealing his medication. When she finally thought the beating had gone on long enough, Joan broke it up. “I’ll call Gary to come and pick him up.”

His son, seeing the results, turned red, turned to go into the house, but Boomer, sitting at the trailer’s small dinette table, balled scraps of toilet paper packed up his nose, ice cubes in a dish towel held to the back of his head, said no. And when Gary mentioned the Emergency Room, he shook his head to that, too.

Gary took him back to his apartment and bathed him, soaking away the crusted blood with a sponge, the bathwater a dirty pink by the time he finished and lifted his father from the tub. Boomer could feel it, Gary averting his eyes, avoiding the weightless, brittle wreck that he had become.

Dressed in sweats, more like swaddling clothes, Boomer found himself settled back on a sofa with pillows and blankets. Gary sat nearby on a rocking chair. A Pat Metheny CD was playing, but the hum inside Boomer’s head had accelerated and would not let up.

The CD ended. His son ejected the disc from the player and snapped it back into the jewel case. Gary handed it to his father. Boomer looked at the guitarist on the cover, the words on the back. Gary took his Ibanez from its case, spent a few minutes tuning the guitar, so relaxed, so attentive to detail, less like his father, more like his mother, and then he began to play “Blackbird,” a song that Boomer first heard as a sixteen-year-old, stoned for the first time at a party up the south shore in neighboring Superior, at the Broadway Apartments, winter of 1968. Now, forty-three years later, he recalled looking at that blank white album sleeve, comparing it to the vibrancy of Sergeant Pepper, and saying, in what he considered a Brit accent, “Bummer,” that came out Boomer, which ended up his lifelong nickname.

His son sang the song and played his guitar. Boomer shut his eyes.

“Have I made it to another year?” he asked, his eyes still closed, tired, the fevered hum building to the last chord.


Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, and Yellow Mama, as well as Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas, formerly Wisconsin Academy Review. The Council for Wisconsin Writers and Wisconsin People & Ideas have recognized his work in years past. He and his wife live in Superior, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Town Where Money Grew on Trees, fiction by Michael Bracken

Zipper Hardwick unlocked the door to her uncle’s antiques shop, a ramshackle corner store filled more with junk than actual antiques that shared a common wall with Lefty’s Leftover on a street filled with several similar stores. She remembered visiting Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs as a child but likely never would have visited again had she not inherited the business upon his death three weeks earlier.

Despite earning a B.A. in English, the best-paying position she had been able to find in the seventeen years since graduation was serving drinks at a biker bar in St. Louis, and she welcomed the opportunity to change her life’s direction. That’s why she packed what little she owned in her nine-year-old minivan and drove to southwest Texas to collect the keys to her uncle’s shop from a small-town attorney who appeared surprised that she bothered to make the trip for what he claimed were negligible assets.

He tried hard to talk her out of taking possession of her uncle’s business and to his residence above the store, offering to liquidate the dead man’s assets and cut her a check upon completion of the process. “I can’t see that there’s anything there for a young woman such as yourself.”

“After my father died,” Zipper explained before collecting the keys from the attorney’s desk, “my uncle supported my mother and me, and he put me through college. He must have left something of value.”

“Junk,” the attorney said. “Nothing but junk. You’d be better off—”

She walked out of the attorney’s office without looking back. Ten minutes later, she stood in the doorway of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs and stared at the dust-covered displays of unidentifiable miscellany, reconsidering her decision. Then, with suitcase in hand, she walked through the shop and up the back stairs to the living quarters on the second floor.

The apartment was only marginally cleaner than the shop downstairs, but more because it had not been attended to since her uncle’s demise than from the obvious neglect suffered by the shop. After acquainting herself with the apartment’s layout and finding both electricity and water service functioning, she spent the better part of the day making the apartment habitable.

She waited until evening to examine the framed photographs lining the hallway between the living room and the bedrooms. Though she had not seen them in years, she remembered many of the fading black-and-white photographs. Those of her father and her uncle, inseparable twins born in the late nineteen-thirties, occupied the end of the hall nearest the living room, and the photographs grew increasingly more recent and in color as she worked her way toward the opposite end of the hall. Halfway along, she found a photograph of her parents on their wedding day.

There were no more photographs of her father after that—he died before she was born—but her uncle had hung several photographs of her as a young girl, with and without her mother, and one in which he appeared with them when she was a toddler, standing in front of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs and leaning heavily on a cane that did not appear in any photographs taken prior to that. At the end of the hall nearest the bedroom door were her high school and college graduation photos, but nothing later than that because her mother’s passing ended the flow of photographs to her uncle.

She returned to her parents’ wedding photo and stared at it for a long time, wondering how her life might have been different if her father had not been taken from her, and wondering why neither her mother nor her uncle ever told her how he died.


After breakfast the following morning, Zipper dressed in running shoes, slim-fit jeans, and a T-shirt from her former employer, pulled her raven-black hair into a loose ponytail, and walked downstairs to the antiques shop.

She’d been working for several hours, making negligible sense of the sales records she found, and she had her back to the door when a thick-chested man with a nose angled unnaturally to the left slapped a black leather briefcase onto the counter, startling her. When she turned, he asked, “Where’s the gimp?”

“Who?”

“Hardwick. Luther Hardwick.”

“My uncle?” she said. “He passed away three weeks ago.”

“You took over his business?”

“Yes,” she said. “I did.”

“So you know what to do.” He spun the briefcase around, popped the locks, and pulled up the top, revealing a six-inch Subway sandwich and ten banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “It’s a hundred grand,” he said, “so give me a receipt and let me get on my way.”

“A receipt for what?”

He narrowed his eyes and then nodded his head at something over her left shoulder. “How about that armoire and the table and chairs next to it.”

“For a hundred thousand dollars?” She had no idea what the armoire, table, and chairs were worth, but she wasn’t about to haggle with the man. She reached for a receipt book she’d seen earlier. “I can do that.”

She asked for his name, thought nothing of it when he identified himself as John Smith, and a moment later handed him a handwritten receipt.

He took the receipt, reached in the briefcase for the sandwich, and headed for the door.

Zipper called to his receding back. “When shall I expect you to pick up your—”

Before she could finish her question, the door closed behind him and he was gone.

Zipper closed the briefcase, slid it under the counter next to the cut-down, pistol-grip shotgun she’d discovered that morning, and made out yellow Sold stickers to affix to all the furniture her first customer had purchased. As she did, though, she suspected the man’s purchases had less value than the stickers she used to identify them.

She locked the front door, returned to the briefcase, and removed one banded stack of hundred-dollar bills. She handled a great deal of cash while slinging drinks at the bar, though most denominations were smaller than those in the briefcase, so she had grown adept at identifying suspect currency. She broke the band, laid several of the bills on the counter, ensured that none of the serial numbers repeated, and then examined each of the first ten bills. She saw nothing suspicious about any of them.

A rap on the front door startled her. She quickly scooped the money off the counter and returned it to the briefcase before opening the door for the elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk outside. He wore black-framed eyeglasses, had half a dozen gray hairs combed over the top of his otherwise bald pate, and his right arm ended just above the elbow.

He took her right hand in his left. “Little Zippy?”

“Mr. Columbini?”

“No need to be so formal,” he said. “Just call me Lefty. Everyone does.”

“I haven’t seen you since—”

“Since the day I took your photograph before your mother took you up north,” Lefty said. “Your uncle always shared her letters and showed me your pictures. He was so proud when you graduated college, but after your mother passed there weren’t so many letters.”

“No need,” she said. “MySpace and then Facebook, Instagram, and—”

She saw the blank look on his face and didn’t continue listing the social media accounts she maintained. He was likely as clueless as her uncle.

“So, Mr.—” She stopped and corrected herself. “So, Lefty, what can I do for you?”

“I heard about the store’s new owner,” he said. “I never thought it would be you.”

“Why’s that?”

“We have a certain way of doing things around here, that’s all.” His gaze swept the interior of the store before his attention returned to her. “You ever need anything, you let me know. I owe Luther that much.”

“Sure,” Zipper said. “I will.”

He smiled, released his grip on her hand, and turned to leave.

“I do have one question for you,” she said, stopping him. “That armoire over there, with the table and chairs next to it, is it worth anything?”

He looked in the direction she pointed. “Little Zipper,” he said, “what you have in this store is worth a great deal more than you realize.”

Before she could question what Lefty meant, he was gone, and she was once again alone in Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs.


That afternoon Zipper took the morning’s windfall and went shopping, a round trip that put almost a hundred miles on the odometer of her minivan. Though Oroville had a small convenience store with two gas pumps out front, it lacked an actual grocery store. She drove all the way to Chicken Junction, the nearest town with a Walmart, and loaded her van with a month’s worth of staples, a week’s worth of perishables, and more cleaning supplies than she had owned in her entire life. She also purchased new sheets, towels, and washcloths, as well as several vanilla-scented candles she hoped would mask the overwhelming aroma of neglect in the antiques shop.

She made one additional stop before driving home and hauling everything upstairs. She restocked the kitchen, remade the bed, and sat at the kitchen table with an open bottle of Budweiser and her uncle’s handwritten ledgers spread out in front of her. Despite seeing no evidence that anything in the shop had moved in ages, the ledgers provided evidence of a brisk cash business, with large sums of money moving in and out on a regular basis.

Zipper could make no sense of it but felt certain she would soon comprehend her uncle’s bookkeeping process. Until then, she had almost one hundred thousand dollars she needed to keep safe. She put the briefcase under her bed and her uncle’s shotgun on the nightstand.


The briefcase and the shotgun were still there in the morning, so she started her day much like she had the previous day, but with better cleaning supplies. By noon she had finished the counter area. The glass display cases gleamed and the cheap jewelry inside sparkled. After a ham sandwich and a Budweiser, she attacked the grime coating the plate-glass windows fronting the store.

By dinnertime she had finished with the window displays, removing junk and replacing it with items she thought might attract passersby. By the time she called it a night, her hair straggly and her T-shirt soaked with sweat, she felt a strong sense of accomplishment. That evening, Budweiser in hand, she again examined all the photographs hung in the hallway of the apartment, and she again stopped to stare at her parents’ wedding photo and the one next to it of her as a toddler standing with her mother and uncle. The gap in her uncle’s photographic timeline bothered her, but she wasn’t certain why. She took both picture frames off the wall, examined the backs and found nothing tucked behind the photos but cardboard spacer, and reassembled everything with a small addition to her parents’ wedding photo before returning the frames to their places on the wall.

The next few days were much the same. Zipper cleaned and rearranged during the day and spent her evenings going through her uncle’s things. She discovered a box filled with letters from her mother to her uncle and, as she read through them, relived her late childhood. The letters started after they moved to St. Louis, and the most recent was dated two days before her mother’s passing. She was surprised by how much her mother told her uncle—the bicycle accident that left a scar on her left elbow, her winning second place in a high school essay contest, her first date, college acceptance, high school graduation, college graduation, and much more. Growing up, she had never seen any letters from her uncle, but he must have sent a few because her mother sometimes referenced them in her letters, commenting on his health and thanking him for money sent.

A week after her arrival, and for the first time since her arrival, the shop’s phone—a heavy black landline phone—rang. Zipper picked up the handset and practiced one of the slogans she had been contemplating. “Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs. Someone else’s trash could be your treasure.”

“Ms. Hardwick?” said a deep male voice. “This is Thomas LeCroix, president of the Oroville Bank & Trust.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. LeCroix?”

“I understand you had a rather large cash sale the other day,” he said, “and I’ve not seen a corresponding deposit into your account.”

“My account?”

“Your uncle banked with us, and I was expecting that financial relationship to continue.”

“And why is that?”

“There’s a substantial payment due at the end of the week, and if the money’s not in your account to cover it, there’s a hefty penalty.”

“What’s your fee for a bounced check?” Zipper asked. “Twenty-five dollars? Thirty-five dollars?”

“It isn’t the overdraft fee you most need to concern yourself with,” LeCroix said, “it’s what will happen when the collection agency comes for the money.”

Zipper had dealt with collection agents before, when she’d been between jobs and had relied on her credit cards to stay afloat. They talked tough, made a lot of threats, and ultimately had no recourse but to work with her when they learned she had no assets to attach and no wages to garnish.

“I think I can handle a couple of threatening phone calls, Mr. LeCroix,” she told the banker, “so I’ll just take my chances.”

“But—”

Zipper disconnected the call, and it wasn’t until she was nursing a beer with her dinner that evening that she wondered how the banker had known about her sale of the armoire, table, and chairs, and why they still hadn’t been picked up.


The next day, Zipper had another visitor. The sheriff sauntered into the shop, and his gaze swept the store’s interior as he approached the counter. Without introducing himself, he said, “I’m surprised you’re still here.”

She introduced herself. “Zipper Hardwick.”

He glanced at her outstretched hand, nails broken and skin rough from the punishment of cleaning. When he didn’t take it, she slowly lowered her hand.

“Looks like you wasted a lot of effort on this place.”

“Just trying to make it an inviting environment for customers.”

“You think your uncle earned a living selling this shit?” the sheriff said. “You are woefully mistaken little lady.”

Before Zipper could respond, they were interrupted by a young couple bursting through the door. The woman gushed when she exclaimed, “I drive through this town all the time, and I’ve never seen one of these stores open.”

Zipper stepped from behind counter, away from the sheriff, “Welcome to Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs, where today’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure. Can I help you find anything in particular?”

“No, no. We’re just looking, but—” The woman interrupted herself and turned to the man with her. “Trevor, do you see that lamp? Look at that lamp. It would look great in your office.”

The sheriff caught Zipper’s attention, touched a finger to the brim of his hat, and said, “We’ll continue this conversation another day, little lady, if you’re still here.”

After her customers left with the lamp, a set of matching cups, and two metal signs that once graced the walls of a service station, Zipper hung up a Be Back Soon sign, locked up her shop, and walked to Lefty’s Leftovers.

The door was bolted, and no hours were posted, so she pounded on the door until Lefty poked his head out from a back room and recognized her. She waited as he walked the length of his antiques shop and let her in.

“You need to tell me about my uncle.”

Lefty settled onto a stool behind his front counter. “What do you know?”

“Only that he ran Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs my entire life.”

“Your mother ever tell what he did before that?” Lefty asked. “Or what your father did?”

Zipper shook her head.

“They were trying to protect you,” he said. “The less you knew, the better off you were.”

“So tell me now, if you know so much.”

“You know how your uncle got that limp?”

“No.”

“He was shot robbing a bank.”

“Uncle Luther?”

“He wasn’t the only one shot,” Lefty said. “So was your father. Same bank job, only he didn’t make it.”

“No,” Zipper said. “That can’t be true.”

“Look it up on your Google thing,” Lefty said. He told her the name of the bank and the date of the heist. “The police never caught the robbers.”

Zipper paced back and forth in front of the counter. “So, why come here? Why run an antiques store?”

Lefty held up the stump of his right arm. “You ever pay attention to the other store owners when you were a kid visiting your uncle?”

“Not really.”

“You should have. They’re all like your uncle. Like me.” He waved his stump at her. “Armored car job. Barney down at Barney’s Bric-a-Brac, with the one eye? Jewelry store heist. And Marty of Marty’s Memories?”

“Deaf as a doorknob.”

“Lost his hearing blowing the door off a safe,” Lefty said. “Every one of these shops is run by some crook with a disability. It’s like a retirement community. Guys loyal to the organization who can’t do the muscle work get sent here or sent someplace like this.”

Zipper finally put the pieces together. “You’re laundering money. The whole town is laundering money.”

“The convenience store is legit,” Lefty explained. “Otherwise, yes.”

“Shit,” Zipper said. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Luther pulled a fast one,” Lefty said. “We’re supposed to leave everything to the organization when we pass on. He didn’t. He left his store to you. A few people in the organization thought he’d tipped you off, and that you would know what the arrangement was, but I knew better.”

“My uncle was a crook?”

“So was your father,” Lefty said, “but your uncle outlived the statute of limitations on all the crimes he may have committed.”

“Except money laundering.”

“And he was well rewarded for his loyalty. You, on the other hand—” Lefty paused. “They don’t owe you a thing, and they have no reason to believe they can work with you.”

She thought about the briefcase under her front counter next to the cut-down shotgun and decided she needed to return to her shop.

That night she stared hard at the photographs of her father and her uncle, imagining what might have driven them to a life of crime. She had no answers, but she had a laptop computer and she spent the next hour learning what little she could about the bank heist Lefty claimed her father and uncle had pulled off. The job had involved two inside men and a getaway driver and had culminated with a shootout between the robbers and bank guards before the robbers escaped. They were never found.


Zipper was alone in Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs the morning two men the size and shape of small dump trucks pushed through the front door. She stood behind the counter watching as they approached.

“Welcome to Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs, home of the dickering diva,” she said. “Help you gentlemen?”

“You Hardwick?” asked the bigger one.

“I am,” she said. “You must be here to pick up the armoire.” He glanced at the other man. “We’re here to pick up something, but it ain’t no wardrobe.”

The shotgun was under the counter between the briefcase and her purse, and Zipper wrapped her hand around the shotgun’s pistol grip.

“You had a payment due Friday. We ain’t received it.”

“And?”

“We come to collect.”

“And if I don’t pay you?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Why? You planning to drop my body down an abandoned oil well somewhere?”

He shrugged. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

The smaller man stepped to the side, stretching the distance between the two men so that she could not see them both without turning her head. She kept her attention on the man standing on the other side of the counter, tightened her grip on the shotgun, and rested her finger on the trigger. A slight squeeze would blow out the front of the counter and fill his crotch with birdshot and splinters.

Lefty stepped through the front door, a .9mm Beretta in his left hand pointed at the smaller man. “You don’t want to do that, Diesel.”

“Morning, Lefty,” said the bigger man. “I didn’t think you crawled out of bed this early.”

“Thought I should check on my new neighbor when I saw your truck out front, Ace.”

“Ms. Hardwick here seems to have a cash-flow problem,” Diesel said. “Money went in, but none came out. We came to—”

“I know what you came for,” Lefty said, “but let’s not do this today.”

“You don’t want to get sideways with the boss, Lefty.”

“I’m eighty-seven years old,” the old man said. “What the fuck do I care?”

“Another time, ma’am,” Ace said as he nodded to Zipper. Then he motioned to his partner. “Let’s go, Diesel.”

Lefty kept his weapon pointed at the two men as he stepped aside to let them exit. After their truck drove away, he turned to Zipper. “You have any idea what those two planned to do to you?”

She pulled the shotgun from under the counter. “I worked in a biker bar,” she said, “so it wouldn’t be the first time I shot a man.”

Lefty laughed. “You’re more like your uncle than I would have thought.”

“You want a beer?”

When Lefty said he would, Zipper locked the front door. She flipped the sign to Closed, grabbed the shotgun, the briefcase, and her purse, and led him up the back stairs. A few minutes later, they sat at her kitchen table nursing cold bottles of Budweiser. The briefcase leaned against her chair, but the shotgun remained on the counter where she’d placed it next to her purse and her laptop computer before reaching into the refrigerator for their beer.

Lefty told Zipper about her uncle. “There isn’t much a gimp and a one-armed man can do for fun, especially in a town like this,” Lefty said, “so we spent a lot of nights sitting at this table or at mine drinking, telling stories, and making plans for the future. Your uncle’s stories were mostly about you.”

“Me?”

“He wanted more for you than he ever had, than your mother ever had,” Lefty explained. His Beretta lay on the table next to his sweating beer bottle. “That’s why he paid for your college.” “I’m guessing he was none too proud of my career choice.”

“The biker bar? He knew all about it. He even reached out to a guy who knew a guy to make certain you were never bothered by any of the lowlifes hanging out there.”

Zipper thought back to the time she shot a biker trying to rob the bar. The night didn’t end with the arrival of police, as she expected, but with the man’s disappearance and a rather thorough cleaning of the floor where he’d bled out.

“Things are different now,” Lefty said. “Your uncle can’t protect you from the grave.”

“But you did.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” he said, “and I likely won’t have a chance to do it again. Those boys we ran off today will come back unless you deposit that money in the bank.”

“I can’t,” Zipper said. “I spent some of it fixing this place up.”

“How much do you have left?”

“Ninety-six and change.”

Lefty snatched his Beretta from the table top and leveled it at Zipper, making her wish she hadn’t left the shotgun on the counter. “Lefty, I—”

“Duck, Little Zippy,” he commanded, and she ducked. Lefty continued, “You can come in now, Sheriff Cathcart, but do it nice and slow and keep your hands where I can see them.”

From her position half-under the table, Zipper turned and saw the sheriff step carefully into her kitchen, his hands held up to shoulder level. He had climbed the back stairs without her hearing his ascent.

“Don’t cross between us, Little Zippy,” Lefty said, “but I think you’d best get your shotgun.”

Zipper did as instructed, and she leaned against the counter with the shotgun in her hands as the two men talked.

“You really don’t want to be in the middle of this,” the sheriff told Lefty.

“You come all the way up here to tell me that?”

“I came up here for the money.”

“And if you don’t get it?”

“Ace and Diesel will, and they’re none too happy with your interrupting them earlier.”

Lefty used one foot to push the briefcase from under the table. “It’s a little light,” he said, “but I can make up the difference.”

Sheriff Cathcart lowered his hands and bent to reach for the briefcase.

Zipper followed his movements with the barrel of the shotgun. “You sure you want to do that?”

“Let him take it,” Lefty said.

The sheriff lifted the briefcase from the floor, straightened, and touched the brim of his hat with his fingertip. “Ma’am.”

After Cathcart left, Zipper said, “The sheriff isn’t going to be happy when he opens the briefcase. It’s filled with nothing but crumpled paper.”

“The way you’ve been guarding it, I thought—”

“So did he. So did those two goons who stopped by earlier.”

“He’ll come back,” Lefty said, “and he’ll bring Ace and Diesel with him.”

Zipper patted the shotgun. “I’m ready.”

“Our beer’s getting warm,” Lefty said as he motioned toward them with the barrel of his Beretta. He laid the pistol on the tabletop and reached for his beer. “We should finish it.”

When Lefty lifted his beer to his lips, Zipper joined him at the table. She turned her chair so she could watch the staircase, laid the shotgun across her lap, and reached for her beer.

“So,” Lefty asked, “where is the money?”

“In a safe deposit box in Chicken Junction,” Zipper said. “I didn’t drive all that way just for cleaning supplies.”

“And the key?”

Zipper smiled and stared across the table at Lefty. “I’m not entirely certain whose side you’re on, Mr. Columbini. You might be helping me because of some obligation to my uncle, or you might be after the money yourself.”

“Ninety-six Gs isn’t enough to get myself sideways with my employer.”

“And yet, here you are.”

Lefty smiled. “That picture in the hall of you and your mom and your uncle,” he said. “I took it the day before your mother took you up north.”

Without realizing it, Zipper glanced down the hallway.

“I found an old Brownie and a tripod in the back of the shop,” he explained. “I took several photographs of the three of you that day, but that’s the only one in focus.”

Zipper said nothing as Lefty took a deep breath before continuing. “Perhaps there’s something else that needs to be in focus,” he said. “The day Luther was shot and your father killed, I was the getaway driver. I was young and it was my first job. I was a minute late, and your uncle and father were shooting it out with the bank guards when I arrived. Maybe things would have turned out different if I hadn’t been a greenhorn, but Luther never said a bad word about me, and he never told your mother I was the driver.”

Zipper felt the building reverberate when the front door of the shop was kicked open, but she said nothing.

“A couple of years later I was with a crew that blew open an armored car. A jagged piece of debris severed my arm and I was sent here to take over the shop right next to your uncle. I hadn’t known your mother was pregnant when your father died, and I couldn’t look her in the eye whenever we were together. I think that’s why most of the photos were out of focus. So, yeah, I owe something to your mother, if not to Luther.”

“They’re here,” Zipper said. “I can hear them downstairs.”

Lefty took a deep breath. “Then you’d best get out of here. Give me the shotgun and go.”

“But—”

“In the back of the bedroom closet is a hidden doorway. It opens into my bedroom closet. Go through it and close it behind you. In my nightstand drawer is a manila envelope with everything you need to access an offshore account Luther and I shared. There’s a million two in it that we set aside for our retirement. With the ninety-six Gs you’ve already glommed onto, you should be able to disappear.”

“I can’t leave you—”

“You don’t have a choice. Give me the shotgun and get out of here. I’ll keep these guys occupied long enough you should be able to get away.”

They heard footsteps on the back stairs.

“Now!”

Zipper shoved the shotgun across the table, grabbed her purse and laptop computer from the kitchen counter, and ran down the hall. There wasn’t time to collect all her things, but she paused long enough to grab two photos from the hall—her parents’ wedding photo and the one of her as a toddler standing with her mother and uncle in front of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs. She ducked into her closet, went through to Lefty’s closet, and closed the hidden door behind her. She found the manila envelope exactly where Lefty said it would be, and she was on her way down his back steps when she heard the roar of her shotgun and several additional gunshots. She didn’t stop to look back but ran out to her minivan and drove away from Oroville. An hour later, she retrieved the key hidden in the back of her parents’ wedding photo, collected the cash from her safe deposit box in Chicken Junction, and left her minivan in the Walmart parking lot. Half an hour after that, she paid cash for a motorcycle and a helmet and headed west. Lefty’s actions had led to her father’s death, but they had also given her the chance to live. Zipper had no idea how far or how long she could run from her family’s past, but she owed it to Lefty to find out.


Michael Bracken has written several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 1,300 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and in many other anthologies and periodicals. Additionally, he’s edited several anthologies, including The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

S.A. Cosby Wins Anthony Award for Best Short Story

Late breaking news from Dallas confirms that S.A. Cosby took out a talented field of nominees in winning the Anthony award for best short story for "The Grass Beneath My Feet" published here on August 20th of last year. Please join us in a hearty "Hell Yeah" for Shawn and while you're waiting for what will no doubt be his breakout novel Blacktop Wasteland later on this year, you can read reviews of My Darkest Prayer here and here and here, or purchase the thing for yourself here. Needless to say, we're fans here at Tough, and wish Shawn the best as he takes over the crime fiction field in the coming years.