Monday, June 29, 2020

Worse Angels, by Laird Barron, reviewed by Thomas Pluck

Print Length: 335 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0593084993
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons (May 26, 2020)
Publication Date: May 26, 2020

Here’s something real: Don’t buy the jive about violence as a last resort because I’m better than that. No. Violence is only a last resort when it’s a last resort. Realistically, it’s often a first, second, or middle resort. The Superflys of the world speak the language fluently. Besides, hitting a jerk feels good. It has to feel good, or else I wouldn’t be able to stomach it. That dopamine rush I’d gotten addicted to in the Outfit was difficult to kick, so I weaned myself slowly.

Crime and horror have been bedfellows since the beginning, when Edgar Allan Poe murdered a character in the Rue Morgue. Marketers split us apart for easier fleecing in the 20th century, but we had Charlie Huston, Elizabeth Hand, George C. Chesbro’s Mongo the Magnificent taking an abrupt dive into mad science with the infamous Beasts of Valhalla, and William Hjortsberg’s masterpiece of Faustian deviltry, Falling Angel (adapted into the film Angel Heart, but the book is even better).

A few years ago, cosmic horror maestro Laird Barron burst onto the crime scene with Blood Standard, the first Isaiah Coleridge novel, starring the half-Maori half-white hitman turned dirty-handed investigator in the blasted landscape of upstate New York. He followed that more traditional P.I. tale with the Pynchonesque government operator-serial killer story Black Mountain, and in the third and latest, Worse Angels, he takes us on a Lynchian dive into small-town corruption and modern blood cults that makes God is a Bullet seem like middle-class tourism in the underbelly.

The story is set plunk in the genre’s bailiwick. A young man working on a now-abandoned supercollider project run by two powerful local dynasties took a Peter Pan into the shaft four years ago, but his mother refuses to believe it was suicide. And her bad cop brother-in-law is off the force and wants to hurt the politician who betrayed him, so he hires Coleridge to dig into the covered-up death of his nephew, Sean Pruitt. As Coleridge explores the ruins of the project and the creepy town left in economic shambles with its closure, the bleak mountains and dark, enveloping forests of Horseheads, New York:

The town was named for the herd of sick and injured packhorses slaughtered upon General John Sullivan’s return from his triumphant campaign in the north against the Iroquois Nations in 1779. Natives lined the road with the skulls. Over two centuries later they referred to the area as the Valley of the Horses’ Heads.

A place where “Christianity and the old gods dance hip-to-hip during the witching season” will ring familiar to anyone who’s explored the towns of New England and come upon a pumpkin festival that locals pshaw-pshaw as old hat, but looks like the end of The Wicker Man to outsiders. But Coleridge runs into worse than ziggurats of jack-o’lanterns like glowing skulls on his investigation in Horseheads. The town is owned by the billionaire Redlick family, led by a Senator patriarch, with a creepy, marionette PR man named Tom Mandibole as its face and right hand. Our first encounter with Mandibole and his Lynchian street gang of meat-gnawing pancake-make-up thugs in cheerleader skirts and varsity jackets is chilling and strange:

The goons and the Mares were far less of a concern than the master of ceremonies himself. He impressed me as a spider, coiled and alert, poised to spring upon its prey. “What lurks in the darkness of interstellar space? The interstellar reaches of our souls? Terror.” Mandibole reclined, motionless, hands in plain view, yet his whisper emanated behind my left ear. Then, louder, “The emotion you’re experiencing. It’s terror. Terror ruled the indigenous tribes of the Valley. Terror motivated the white colonists. Of course, men fear the wilderness, the natural features of the land. That’s why men deface it at every opportunity—burn it, bulldoze it, hack it to stumps, and pound it to gravel. They desire clear lines of sight.”

I disliked how he said “they” in reference to humanity.

Coleridge is a hardcore skeptic, a Scully who cracks skulls. He’s experienced much that he can’t explain, but his sanity is kept in check by his ability to rationalize the world around him. Someone from a world of uncanny killers and powerful men who live by the fear they generate is the perfect investigator in a world where what matters is belief. If the boss isn’t pure evil, why not just whack him? If you have big enough ju-ju, you might survive. Barron played his cards very close to his chest in Black Mountain, which involved MKULTRA and CIA research into mind control and hallucinogens, and how such tools became lethal in the hands of a psychopath called The Croatoan. In this novel he is more confident that readers will accept occasional forays into the mythos he’s built over decades of award-winning short stories and the Pynchonesque thriller The Croning, even if his protagonist does not. And it works.

He doesn’t play games with our expectations or deny us satisfaction with smoke and mirrors:

The drive back to town blurred. My attention was repeatedly drawn to the rearview mirror. I experienced a “watched” feeling I’d sometimes picked up on in the Alaskan boonies. That very real sense the land itself wants you gone. Her immune system too reacts to perceived threats by sending agents after you— wolves, bears, blizzards, men deranged by cabin fever, anything handy. What kind of antibodies did this part of the country have at its disposal? Mate a genius locus with a partially constructed supercollider and gods only knew the result.

The supercollider, a quantum Ourobouros buried beneath the bedrock, its hypermagnetism twisting what lies above like the toxic fumes of a SuperFund site, is both symbol and actual as the altar and object of worship for which people will perform blood sacrifice, for both what it brings, and what it represents. When the Large Hadron collider was turned on, we held our collective breath that it wouldn’t create a micro-black hole and crush us and the planet like diamond in a titan’s fist. The architects behind this one have other things in mind, an apocalypse to save us from our own naïveté and curiosity as we cry out “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” into the great void and hope what hears us is friendly. This leads to an inevitable confrontation where our aging anti-hero may become the next sacrificial victim.

Coleridge is great company, a Warrior Poet who waxes violent when need be, and doesn’t try to baffle us with philosophical bullshit. He knows what he is, a killer, and he has turned his instincts into a living that those around him can tolerate. Laird Barron has given us my favorite new crime series, one that flirts with unanswerable questions best asked on dark nights under cold stars, but never loses sight that crime and violence are always matters of blood and the heart.

Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He is the author of the Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller Bad Boy Boogie, which was nominated for an Anthony award, and the story collection Life During Wartime, which includes "Deadbeat," chosen as a Distinguished Mystery Story of 2017 in The Best American Mystery Stories

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Cucuzza Curse, Fiction by Thomas Pluck

Reprinted from At Home In The Dark

The flames danced in Vito Ferro’s rheumy eyes as the intense heat blistered the skin black. The brick beehive of the Neapolitan pizza oven at full fire was as hot as a crematorium, and cooked a pie to perfection in under seven minutes. This gave the crust a crispness on the teeth but left chew in the dough, and melted the sliced rounds of bone-white mozzarella without boiling the bright acidity out of the tomato sauce, like a steel oven would.

“Looks about done, right Uncle Veet?” His grandnephew Peter worked runnels into his soft knuckles with his thumbs, kneading invisible worry beads.

Peter was smart, a college boy—unlike Vito’s stronzo sons—but he chattered when outside of his element.

Vito snapped callused fingers, and Peter slid the wooden paddle, the pizza peel, beneath the pie and brought it to the work counter, where he cut it into uneven eighths with jerky, hesitant thrusts of the roller.

Vito studied the pie solemnly.

His family proudly called themselves Catholics, but their true religion was food. Pizza, in particular. Vito had made a covenant with the god of the oven paid for in toil. In the oven he had built with his own hands, a transfiguration occurred, turning a little flour and water topped with tomato sauce and cheese into a meal that made customers line down the block for hours, and his family lived like barons had in the old country.

Vito slapped Peter on the shoulder. “Bene. Mangia.

The kid pulled off a slice and bit into it with pride. “It’s good!”

Vito remembered when he’d made his first pie back in Napoli, and felt a little twinge in his chest. He took a slice and noted the droop of the the triangle. The center was the hardest to get right. Too often they were soft and watery. He closed his eyes and chewed slow.

The burning began as a small pill of pain at the back of his throat, then blossomed into fiery agony, as if he’d eaten a spoonful of hot coals from the oven. He ran for the galvanized sink and drank from the faucet like a dog to quench the grease fire in his mouth. Sweat ran down his face and he collapsed to the floor.

He woke to Peter fanning him with an apron. When he could talk without agony, he dialed the phone. Hoping he would get no answer. Vito didn’t know what frightened him more—the curse or Aldo Quattrocchi, the mafiosi who’d lent him thirty thousand dollars to open the restaurant, even though he was of an age where he shouldn’t buy green bananas.

 “Calm down,” The voice chilled his ear like he’d opened the deep freeze. “I’ll send the Gagootza.

# # #

Stately, tanned Joey Cucuzza, resplendent in a tailored slate suit, pink shirt with its collar open to frame a red Italian horn pendant shaped like a dog dick, listened while the ancient pizza-man beseeched him.

Vito scratched his sunken, gray-haired chest through a sweat-soaked white undershirt.

“You burnt your tongue on a slice of pizza?” Joey fixed things for Aldo Quattrocchi, a captain in the broken family of northern Jersey crime. He had come directly from his no-work job at Port Newark, where he read the newspapers and day-traded when he wasn’t at the gym, out to lunch with the dock boss, or enjoying a nooner in the apartment he kept in Ironbound.

Or visiting Aldo’s Newark subjects, who expected protection for their payments of street tax.

“I explain.” Vito took a grayed rag from the pocket of his chinos and mopped his face.
Vito Ferro was a northern New Jersey institution, the first to make Neapolitan style pies, and had paid street tax on his first shop in Hoboken long before Joey and Aldo were born. Aldo could be sentimental when he wasn’t telling you to tack someone’s fingertips to a table with finishing nails.

He wouldn’t send Joey for that kind of job. They had apes for that. Joey was here because he knew people, and he knew people. Now touching forty, he had come up as a runner for an uncle who ran gay bars for the Jewish mob in Manhattan. He had a reputation as a reasonable if foppish good earner with an even temper, respected by men of violence and friendly enough to be a face with the citizens.

“Got any coffee?” Joey nodded toward the shiny pipeworks of the espresso machine.

“It’s not hooked up yet.” The nephew swallowed spit. College boy had locks of brown curls like a Greek shepherd, no ring, and a nice physique. Eyebrows tweezed, with intelligent eyes above a slack jaw. Hands too soft for labor.

Joey wondered how the kid wound up here.

“How exactly are you spending Mister Quattrocchi’s money?” They’d had the thirty grand for six weeks. You paid your first month on receipt, but they would be late for the next unless business picked up soon.

“I had the oven brought brick by brick from Napoli,” Peter said. “It’s the same one Uncle Veet used in his first pizzeria. It took me a week to find the place. They don’t speak the Italian I learned in school.”

Vito winced and sipped milk like he was nursing an ulcer.

Joey had visited Napoli to broker a deal with the Camorra for containers half-filled with fake Gucci handbags and half with young Slovenian women, and the mangled street Italian he’d learned growing up served him well. He’d also picked up a snobbery for classic Neapolitan pizza, and after Vito retired, no one else came close. His sons were clowns in comparison.

“They put up a wall around the oven, turned the place into some Irish pub.”

“My sons, they do this,” Vito sneered. “I retire, give them my business, and they do this to me. Disgraciata!” He drew into himself with shame, then curled back two fingers of his right hand and spat between the horns of pointer and pinky finger. “It is the mal occhio.

The evil eye.

Joey touched the cornuto, the Italian horn at his throat.

His family was only three generations from the old country, where people were still killed over such things.

“I tell Aldo that, and he’s gonna say ‘Old Vito is pazzo,’ and you know what they do to mad dogs, Mister Vito.”

Vito spread the dollop of saliva into the black and white tiles with the sole of his black loafer. “I bite into the pizza from that oven, it burns me. Tell him, Pietro.”

Peter shrugged helplessly. “He looked like he was dying, Mister Cucuzza.”

Joey buffed manicured nails on his slacks. “Why don’t you make me a pie while you tell me the history of the world part one.”

Vito took a risen ball of dough from a tray in the refrigerator. The short old man was bent and his skin was crepe paper, but his forearms flexed as he tossed the dough. He made quick work of it, then sat to tell the story in the seven minutes of baking.

He wringed his apron in his hands. Embarrassed and afraid, sure of his fate.

Joey listened to the story, even though he’d read it in the newspaper. One son had sued the other over use of the name Original Vito’s Neapolitan Pizza. A reality show was pitched. It became a joke. Vito had enough, coming out of retirement to save his good name.

Except he didn’t have any money.

Like many who came over, Vito had no papers, never applied for a social security number. Everything legit was in his wife’s name, and when she succumbed to cancer, it went to their sons, Sal and Nunzio. When he retired, his boys took everything but the house he lived in, left him squeaking by on his wife’s social security check. No more new Cadillacs every year for Vito.

Scumbari,” the old man said.

So he went to Aldo, who like most guys his age from Hoboken, loved Frank Sinatra, Fiore’s mozzarella, and Vito Ferro’s Neapolitan pizza.

Vito slid out the pie and cut it with quick swipes of the roller.

Joey folded a slice and took a bite. No fires of hell. Only fresh marinara, the tart milky taste of Fiore’s handmade mozzarella cheese, and Vito’s perfect crust. He grunted in appreciation.

“Have one, Mister Vito.”

Vito looked at the pie as if it were a rattlesnake coiled on the wooden pizza peel. “No, Giuseppe. I have the mal occhio on me. And it comes from my own sons.” He gripped his chest to remove the invisible knife from his heart.

Protection was protection. “We’ll help you, Mister Vito.”

# # #

In the air conditioned leather confines of his red Alfa Romeo sedan, Joey called his mother.

“Joseph.” Kitchen sounds and Animal Planet in the background. “To what do I owe the honor?”

He’d missed two Sundays in a row. She was probably getting ready to put a mal occhio on him. “Ma. I told you, the port’s open Sundays this month.”

It was, but Joey had been in Provincetown, eating littleneck clams and working on his tan.

“You could come Wednesdays. Your uncle comes over for pasta.”

They were both at the age where old stories played on repeat. Once a week more than enough. “Hey Ma, you remember the crier at great-grandpa Nick’s funeral? Witch Nose.”

His great-grandfather had raised goats. All Joey remembered besides the funeral was that he both looked and smelled like a billy goat, and from the family gossip, he was hornier than one.

“Angelina. She always liked you.”

“She still crying, or did she shuffle off to Buffalo?” Their family euphemism for death.

“No one uses criers any more.”

True. They’d hired them for her grandfather because he’d been a nasty old prick who gelded billy goats with knife and a pair of pliers, and beat his sons for growing bigger than him.

The criers had been unnecessary. All his mistresses showed up, a half dozen of the heftiest Italian widows of Nutley, crying like six operas going on at once. His mother had been mortified.

“She made the best pignoli until she got the arthritis. She’s still on the old street. Next to where Raffiola lived.” Old person directions. He knew the house.

“You got her number?”

“No, but where’s she gonna go? She’s all alone. Like how I’m gonna be when a crane falls on you.”

“Thanks, Ma. I’ll be there Sunday. Unless a crane falls on me.”

“Don’t talk like that.” She clucked her tongue. He could see her make the sign of the cross.

Joey’s old neighborhood of Avondale had been handed down by the Italians to the next generation of immigrants. The two-story, green or white siding homes were so close together that you could climb out one window into your neighbor’s for surreptitious infidelity. After his old man copped a croak, his mother sold the creaky hand-built house and bought a condo.

Instead of Bon Jovi blaring from the stereo of an IROC Camaro, “Despacito” warbled from an open window, but little else had changed. The men were away at work, the kids were in school, and the women worked side hustles in the kitchens, watched toddlers, ran a sewing machine. He parked on the sidewalk in front of a house with ancient grapevines strangling a trellis over the backyard.

The wooden front door was painted shut and dead-bolted. It had probably never been opened except to move in furniture generations ago. The skinny driveway held a lemon-colored K-car on four flat tires, cardboard boxes stuffed to the windows. Behind it, three cracked concrete steps with a railing made of lead plumbing pipe led to a storm door that left white powder on his knuckles when he rapped on it. He heard a voice, then steps.

He studied Angelina’s yard while he waited. A rotting wine press, a wooden barrel topped with greasy rainwater. Ivy covered the chainlink fence, and pale green baseball bats of Italian squash dangled nearly four feet to the ground.


His phallic namesake squash, which had led to the playground taunts that tempered his mettle. The early battles taught him into a peacemaker until a growth spurt turned him into a rangy bloodier of noses.

A hunched form opened the inside door, and a wizened face jabbed a pointy chin his way.

Buongiorn Guiseppe,” she said, and shuffled back into the kitchen. “Your mother say you come.”

So Ma had her number, but wanted him to visit the old broad.

With arthritic fingers like the tangled white roots of a pulled root, she stirred the heady contents of a pot with a wooden spoon. A translucent crescent of squash rose to the top.

Cucuzza. Of course.

His father had loved it cooked with potatoes, hot peppers, and tomato sauce in a peasant stew called giambotta. Joey would sop up the sauce with bread, ignoring the watery squash until he took a cuff to the ear.

“Sit, eat.”

He dusted a vinyl chair with his pocket square and sat while she poured black coffee from a glass percolator and set out a plate of pizzelle, delicate waffle-shaped cookies snow-dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

He went through the rituals of politeness, asked of family, listened to her aches and troubles. Her hand was cold when she touched his wrist, her eyes bright.

“Angelina, I need you to tell me how to free somebody from the evil eye.”

Her eyes turned steely serious. “I show you.”

He left with a Corning-ware dish of stewed cucuzza and half of a long Italian loaf from Vitiello’s bakery.

# # #

Back in the kitchen of Vito’s Original Classic Neapolitan Pizza Pies, Vito stared at a steel mixing bowl filled with water. The kid was up front working the sparse lunch crowd, stumbling occasionally but eager to prove himself. Joey set a green bottle of olive oil next to the bowl.

“Three drops in the water. One at a time.”

Angelina had told him that someone unburdened by the fascina, the hold of the evil eye, would create three separate drops. He tried it himself in her kitchen.

Vito scratched at his belly, then tilted the bottle over the water.

One drop. Then two, three golden pearls floated atop the water in a lazy spin.

They leaned in close.

Slowly, the drops found each other and made a single orb that resembled nothing less than the yellow eye of the devil himself.

They hadn’t waited for the water to settle, Joey thought. But it didn’t matter. Vito thought he was cursed, and the olive oil affirmed his belief.

And he’d believe in the cure.

Joey handed him a can of Morton’s salt.

“Shake some in, say an Our Father. Do that three times.”

Vito beseeched him with his pouchy eyes. Joey prayed with him in Italian, silently hoping that he wouldn’t burst into flames.

“Now we do the test again?”

“Don’t tempt fate, Vito.” He gripped the old man’s shoulder, still strong. “Angelina says you are free of the fascina.”

Vito winced at the word, then hugged him.

Joey wished such wards worked, but in his experience human nature was stronger than magic. He dropped his flour-speckled suit coat off at the dry cleaner, and brought Angelina’s dish to the office at the port, where the boys scarfed it down.

“It’s Cucuzza’s cucuzza!” one gavone bellowed around a mouthful.

Joey grabbed the crotch of his summer suit. “Eat this cucuzza.”

They laughed as he told them the story. One asked him to put the mal occhio on his mother in-law. He went to his office to finish reading the papers and trade stocks before closing.

# # #

Aldo called him the next morning, crabbier than usual. Joey talked him down. They hadn’t met this week, and Aldo had a sit-down that afternoon, which always gave him the agita.

“I feel like I got hit with the mal occhio. You wanna drizzle some olive oil and find out?”

“After the meet. You got this. You’re a golden god.”

“I don’t feel like one.”

“You will tonight.”

“Speaking of evil eyes, you gotta see Vito again. He’s busting my balls. Why’d I give that old fuck my number? He should be calling you.”

“You wanted the quick vig on thirty gees. Doing street work, when you’re the big capita cazzo.

“It’s easy money. That vig paid for your new coat.”

“When do I see this coat?”

“The apartment. Wear it today. Ciao.”

Joey wore the two-button pale blue silk Isaia sport coat over faded gray jeans and a matching snug shirt.

Peter stoked the oven, raking the coals with a shovel.

Vito stared into a bowl of oil-dotted water. “I can’t cook anymore. Tell Mister Quattrocchi to take my business. I die soon.”

“Talk to me.”

The old man flicked his eyes toward his grandnephew.

“Wait outside kid,” Joey said. “Go play on your phone.”

He flinched, but left under the withering stare.

Vito told him, in stuttering broken English. “Today, I see the face of the dead.”

Joey held back the look that said he was pazzo.

“My family is from Bari. My uncles, they were fisherman who go to America, but my mother and father run a little restaurant by the water.”

Joey prepared for more ancient history.

“We fed the soldiers. Italian, then English and American. Then the Germans raid the harbor with screaming bomber planes. One ship was full of mustard gas. The Americans say no, but the gas rolled in and kill my family.”

He looked down. “My mother put a wet towel over my face, but she breath in too much.”


“I am orphan. The Americans put me on a train to Napoli. I apprentice in a pizzeria, make good money. So I come here.”

That morning, he came to make dough and sauce, and was met with a blast of heat and a glow from the oven.

“The oven was flaming like the fires of hell. A young girl stirring the coals. She screams at me, tears gold chains from her neck and throws them in the fire.” His eyes went away, like he was talking about the past.

“She scoop up the coals in her hand and throws them at me.”

He held up his apron. It was scorched with a black mark, burned with a scatter of pinholes like a shotgun blast.

“I drive home, pray the rosary. Peter calls me, asks why I leave the door unlocked. I come back, everything is clean. The oven is empty.”

“Who was she?”

Vito pulled a gold chain from his shirt and kissed the large pendant of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. “The evil eye, showing me my family in hell. Lies, to hurt me.”

Joey looked into the bowl. The gleaming oil stared back as one big eye.

“Make your pies, Mister Vito. I’ll fix this.”

Outside, he found the kid leaning on the bricks, one knee bent like a flamingo as he thumbed his phone. He looked too much of a chooch to be pulling one over on anybody. And what motive? He was partners with the crazy old bastard. If they couldn’t pay the vig, one of Aldo’s apes would break his clean-shaven arms.

“You like slinging pizza dough for a living?”

Peter shrugged. “Uncle Veet put me through college after my father died from 9/11. He was a fireman. Took a ferry over to help dig for weeks. It got into his lungs.”

Joey nodded. They had watched the towers go down from Newark harbor, helpless.

“You see anything when you got here this morning?”

The kid shook his head, eyes rattling like dice. “The oven was empty.”

“Think maybe your uncle’s got oldtimer’s disease?” Joey switched gears to dockworker talk. He liked smart people thinking he was ignorant and easily fooled.

“You mean Alzheimer’s? He doesn’t forget a thing, Mister C. He’s as good with numbers as I am, and I have a degree in Finance. I took a little psych, too. He’s got a lot guilt. My uncles broke his heart.”

Family shit. The only think Joey hated more than eating cucuzza was dealing with other people’s family shit.

He thought about it in the privacy of the Alfa Romeo as the Beastie Boys rapped about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego on the stereo.

Guilt meant lies. He could lean on the old man, but vecchioni could be stubborn. What scared people of that age was more frightening than pain or death.

The sons would talk. They couldn’t want Vito’s competition. There were a thousand pizza joints in Jersey, but one more Original Vito’s Neapolitan Pizzas diluted the brand. And the old man had public sympathy.

Joey killed a few hours at the port listening to the dock boss complain, then drove over the black steel dinosaur skeleton of the Pulaski skyway into the lesser hell of late morning traffic. An hour later he emerged in the labyrinth of huddled four-story brick buildings that was Hoboken. The neighborhood had gentrified into a sixth borough of New York, a haven for frat boys and trust fund kids who skipped Williamsburg after draining it dry of cool.

He parked in front of a hydrant next to a beauty spa and walked the block. Four old men held court at a card table next to a stoop and watched the neighborhood. Ground down by life, sandpaper stubble chins defying their morning shaves. Two of them tightened up at his approach, another puffed a black cigar that smelled like feet.

“Joey C,” the last one said, with a respectful nod. A retired shipping man. “Good to see you.”

Buon dia, Skippy.”

“What brings you here? Can’t be the ah’pizz.”

“That bad?” Joey nodded toward Vito’s first pizzeria, rechristened Gavones.

The smoker laughed. “Fiore won’t even sell him mozzarella no more.”

“He sells this thing called a Garbage Pie,” Skippy said. “The kids line up for it. Puffing the marijuan right on the corner with those vape pens, clouds like someone oughtta be playing ‘Harlem Nocturne.’”

The men shook their heads.

“I’ll talk to him.”

The new sign depicted a spike-haired guido caricature straight out of Jersey Shore, gripping a slice in a pumped fist dripping grease onto a muscle shirt. Joey pushed open the door, and heard the smoker mutter finocchio before it closed behind him.
Inside, the place did a brisk early lunch business, mostly young people on phones yammering over pies smothered with everything from chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks to pineapple rings and bacon slices. The menu on the wall listed myriad combinations that made Joey’s head hurt.

Worse, Lou Monte sang “Dominic the Italian Christmas Donkey” on the speakers. In September.

 A spray-tanned guy with stretch marked shoulders worked the oven, a beehive of checkered ceramic tiles with the color baked out of them. Vito’s first.

Joey skipped the line. “Nunzio here?”

“In the back, bro.”

Past another kid working a deep fryer was an open door. Inside was a big refrigerator and a flour-scattered work table where the presumed Nunzio worked the dough. He flicked his eyes at Joey but kept rolling, setting softballs of pizza dough on wax paper-lined trays.

Joey watched for a minute. “How you doing, Nunzi?”

“You mind? Some of us gotta work for a living.” They were off Aldo’s turf, but the attitude took some balls. He admired it over the ass-kissing he usually got.

“You seem to be doing all right. But your father, something’s got him upset.”

Nunzio rolled his eyes. “When’s he not upset? He retired ten years ago. My mother, all she wanted was a vacation in the old country. She had to go alone on a Mario Perillo cruise. He wouldn’t leave the business alone for that long.”

He paused for a quick sign of the cross, dabbing himself with flour. “May she rest in peace, sixty years with that stubborn vecchione.”

Joey could smell the spite. A cheap, perfectionist father who hewed to tradition. He knew the sting well.

“So Vito’s cheap. He took care of you and your kids.”

“He’s tighter than a crab’s ass, and that’s waterproof.” He slapped a dough ball down.

“You gotta bust his balls with this stoner shit? Calling it a garbage pie? He thinks you put the evil eye on him.”

Nunzio laughed and started on a new bowl, mixing flour and water. “He’s always been superstitious. I heard he had the new place blessed by a priest. He  cries the blues, but he wants for nothing. His problem is he’s got to run everything, and it’s not like the old days. We tried staying traditional, and almost sank like the Titanic. The ‘merigons want gluten-free crust, vegan cheese. Crazy toppings.

“He wanted money to open his own place, but it isn’t there. It all went into my brother’s fancy-ass place in Millburn and the grandkids’ college. My daughter and her husband make good money, but they can’t make that nut alone. Vito got to retire. Me, I’m gonna keel over in front of that oven before my day comes.”

Once the steam settled, Joey went in. “He owes Aldo thirty large. One of you is either playing games with him or he’s losing his marbles. Either way, when he can’t pay, you know who we hit up.” You inherited street debt from your parents, your children. It was a curse you couldn’t dispel using salt and olive oil.

“My little cousin couldn’t lend it to him?” He punched down the dough. “That’s who you should hit up. His partner?”

“The kid can’t even afford to dress right.”

“That’s how they all dress these days, like bums. He’s got cush, believe me. How you think he’s got time to make pizzas with Cheapo Vito?” He wiped flour off his hands, and Joey stepped back to avoid getting the dust on his new coat.

“Kid thinks his shit don’t stink, just like my brother with his villa out in the ‘burbs.” Nunzio carried a tray of dough to the icebox. “My son saw him with a hot broad all over him at the club. Me, I’m working seven days a week, I haven’t had my ashes hauled in a month.”

Joey left Nunzio to his dough. If he was too busy to get laid, he wouldn’t have time to prank his father over old grudges.

On the walk back to the car, he let the past creep in.

Joey’s uncle on his mother’s side came for coffee every morning once his father left for work. Weary-eyed after the New York bars closed, he walked Joey to school before heading home to sleep. Taught him to laugh at life, introduced him to Mel Brooks movies, gave them a VCR when they cost a grand and weighed fifty pounds.

After a bottle of red at Sunday dinner, his father would jab young Joey in the chest.

You turn into a finocchio like your uncle, and I’ll put a bullet in your head.

Joey thought the word had something to do with Pinocchio. His uncle did walk like he was on strings. When Joey grew older and his disinterest in girls became obvious, he took a beating from the old man. His uncle gave him the couch at his flat and a job as a runner. By then he learned that finocchio was Italian for fennel. The root looked like a man’s genitals, so the word served double duty as a slur toward gay men.

At the card table, the smoker grinned at him around the stub of his cigar. Joey slapped it out of his mouth and sprayed him with embers. The other men cringed and shouted in surprise. “Next time the lit end goes up your ass.”

Joey wiped the ashes off his jacket and squealed the Alfa’s tires up the street. He felt like hitting a heavy bag, taking a cold shower and a nooner. He headed towards the highway to brace the other son.

What Nunzio said about Peter bothered him. If the kid was loaded, why did Vito go to the street for money? Maybe he spent the loan on tail, and this was his way out  of it.
The stereo played Boz Scaggs, and Joey smiled. His uncle called him Scuzz Baggs. He had a funny name for everybody. Barry Manilow was Barry Cantaloupe. He loved wordplay and old euphemisms, like getting your ashes hauled.

He called Aldo on the bluetooth. Before the sit-down, he would hit the sauna to steam himself of the poisons he drank to sleep. Alcoholism galloped Aldo’s family like a mudder at Monmouth racetrack.

Aldo picked up without a word. Just heavy breath.

“Babe. I’m sorry. I’m handling the Vito Ferro bullshit. Tell me who handles his trash?”

“Off the top of my head?”

“Save me a trip back.”

“Maybe you should be back at the apartment in an hour. Bring me a prosciutto and mozz from Fiore’s.”

“Love to, but I’m stuck on 280.” He wasn’t on the highway yet, but he was following a scent, however faint, and didn’t want to leave the trail.

Besides, he wanted Aldo hungry and sharp for the sit-down, not sated and logy.

“Tonight we’ll celebrate with a steak at Arthur’s on the water. I made reservations.”

Joey touched the cornuto at his throat. It was the anniversary of their trip to Capri, where Aldo bought him the pendant made from the local coral.

A low grumble as Aldo’s gears turned. He was no good with dates, but he’d know who hauled trash for the people who owed him money.

“Exo carting. Terry Peru’s thing.”

“Thanks babe. Pick you up at eight.”

He looked the number up on his phone, weaving a little on the road.

They had spent two weeks in Italy, including a trip to Sicily to find Aldo’s family village, where they learned Sicilian stiletto fighting from a ‘Ndrangheta knife master. Joey had bought them matching handmade stilettos as an anniversary present. Eleventh was steel. He fingered the abalone handle of the stiletto in the pocket of his new coat. Silk was twelfth. Aldo miscounted.

Joey smiled and tried to convince the gravelly-voiced receptionist of Exo Carting to put him through to her boss.

She said he’d call back.

# # #

Interstate 280 turned into a parking lot in the hills. He made his way to the shoulder and rode it a half a mile, ignoring the horns of cars in the right lane that he sprayed with kicked-up debris.

Angelina would be home. He wasn’t angry that her evil eye cure hadn’t worked, but he needed her to come up with a spell or something to keep Vito from giving himself a heart attack over globs of olive oil in a bowl.

He tailgated a bus in the afternoon idiot traffic, the road clogged with harried mothers in minivans and Q-tip-headed old fucks with boxes of tissues in their rear windows. He kneaded the wheel. His even temper took work.

His phone buzzed.

“Terry. Thank you for getting back so quickly.” His overly polite tone begged  for discourtesy, so that he could retort.

“Anything for Joey C. What you need?”

“What days you pick up on Mulberry, down by the Rock?”

“Uhh….” Paper flipping. “This morning.”

Fuck. It was his own fault for not checking the trash after Vito said the oven was empty.

“I need to look in whatever truck picked up Vito Ferro’s dumpster this morning. They still out?”

Terry huffed, a laugh cut short. “No, they get done by noon.”

“I need you to get them on the radio before they dump.” Newark had a trash incinerator. Not everything got burned, but once it was in the system to be sorted, he’d have no way of finding their trash.

“I could try, but…”

“You think I’m asking ‘cause I like rooting through other people’s shit?”

A pause while Terry swallowed the response in his mouth.

“I’ll radio them right now. What you want them to do?”

“Have them meet me in the Meadowlands where you dump your hazmat trash when you’re short on the vig.”

Terry didn’t chuckle at that one. He was into Aldo for six figures for fantasy sports bets. “Can they just dump and go?”

A Lexus truck stopped to double park. Joey stomped the brake and the Alfa Romeo shuddered. “Your sister’s ass!”

“I’m sorry Joey. They’re on the clock.”

“Not you. Some bucciacca cut me off.” He swerved into the oncoming lane and gunned past. “Tell your guys to wait. You think I’m sifting through that shit?”

In the silence, he saw Terry lick his fat lips.

“Make ‘em punch out. They’ll get paid.”

“Gimme an hour.”

“Make it two.”

# # #

Joey hit the gym and took a hot shower before he rapped on Angelina’s door. She didn’t come. He flicked open his stiletto and popped the storm door’s lock. He found her sprawled on an easy chair, mouth open, eyes closed. Chest not rising.

He leaned in to listen for breath. She smelled like sharp provolone. He squinted at the fine gold chain below the marbled wattle of her neck.

A Star of David dangled on it.

Joey didn’t know until high school that it was possible to be both Italian and Jewish. He thought his paísans were all Catholics until his English teacher, Ms. Stolfi, mentioned celebrating Passover. He had been incredulous, insisting she couldn’t be both. She made him read Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and give an oral report to the class. He’d been so nervous.

The snort of a warthog interrupted his reverie.

Joey jumped back from Angelina, knocking an African violet from the window sill. He caught the pot before it hit the floor.

She squinted at him. “Joey? I fall asleep. I make coffee.” She heaved herself out of the chair and shuffled to the kitchen.

Over fresh coffee, he told her about Vito and the olive oil.

“That one? He cursed himself.” She sneered, her face a white prune. “How you think he come here with money?”

Joey sipped espresso from a tiny cup and let her talk.

“No one has money. Mussolini, he suck the land dry, sfachim!” She raised a bony fist. “My family, they make Aliyah to the Holy land after the war. Who want to live with ratti who sell you out to fascisti? Nothing to eat, but Vito Ferro, he come to America, build a pizzeria.”

“Maybe the mala vita?” The bad life.

Angelina pursed her lips and poked him with a finger. “You ask me?”

Joey shrugged, sheepish. She was right. Vito paid his street tax, but never bought the olive oil the port boys jacked and sold by the truckload. He stayed clean.

“The mala vita make money from the war too,” she said. “Blood money. You no come to America with money. You come to make money. You have money, why you leave?” She pointed a gnarled finger and nodded over it, as if answering her own question.

# # #

Joey took the bridge over the dirty Passaic and weaved into the Meadowlands, a swamp so clogged with bodies and pollution that if zombies existed, they would have risen from its poisoned muck. He passed a tall radio tower with three blinking red lights, then cut down a rutted road hedged by reeds on both sides.

The Alfa bounced along, scraping on the grass, and stopped nose to nose with a Mack garbage truck. He stepped around the truck and found two men in sooty worksuits spreading the truck’s dumped load over the flattened reeds using long poles.

“We’re looking for ashes,” he said, and stood back to watch.

“That’s over here,” the squat bald one said, and jabbed at pile of trash bags that had melted and torn.

Between the reeds, he caught the afternoon sun sparkling on the water, and the SuperFund site looked beautiful if you ignored the fish and birdshit smell of the flats bared by low tide. The white underbelly of a dead crab raised its claws from the mud like a pair of praying hands.

His thoughts turned to his father.

After the beating ruined his Roman nose, Joey had learned to pass among straight men. They weren’t that different, but many would only freely express themselves through anger or desire. If you wanted something from them, you translated your needs into their pidgin.

He didn’t need to explain himself to the garbage men, they would dig because they feared him. But they would work harder if they imagined he was the devil-may-care, unfaithful piece of shit they wished they could be.

“We’re looking for my goomar’s chain,” Joey said. “Dumb broad threw it in the fireplace because I’m taking my wife to Punta Cana. Now she wants it back.” He rolled his eyes for the convincer.

They muttered about girlfriends and wives as they kicked through the ashes, and marsh birds cried and swooped overhead.

“I got something,” the tall one said, and bent to thrust his gloved hand into the ashes.
Joey walked closer. The worker brushed soot off the coil in his palm.

“Thought gold would melt into nothing.” He held up a blackened mess of burn spaghetti.

Joey took it in his handkerchief. “You think that bucciacca is worth gold?” He snickered.

The necklaces had melted. Any gold coating was long gone and the amulets were unrecognizable. Gimcrack for a parlor trick to scare an old man. He wrapped the mess into his pocket.

“Thank you fellas.” He gave them each a hundred.

# # #

He pulled into the radio station’s driveway and stared at the dead neon letters of the white WMCA hut and thought about who would want to torment Vito Ferro to death.
He had killed for business, and for personal reasons. Personal got messy. You wanted them to know why.

Do things like cut their hands off with bolt cutters and throw them, still zip-tied together, for the crabs to eat in the swamp. Hands that could never hit you again.
He called the pizza joint in Millburn that the other son had opened.

“Vito’s Neapolitan Pizza and Italian Specialties,” a young woman answered.

“Sal please. Tell him it’s Joey Cucuzza.”

He spent a minute listening to Mario Lanza. No corny Lou Monte for the rich ‘merigons.

“Sal here. Who is this?”

“Joe Cucuzza. I’m a business associate of your father’s. I need to find his partner, your nephew Peter. He still at home?”

“Why don’t you call him then?” Cocky.

“It would be a lot easier if you told me where he lives, Sal. I’m calling as a courtesy. If I drive out there, maybe those imports you sell get held up in customs until they rot.”

“Whoa, easy. I’m just protecting my family.”

“I understand, Sal. He’s not in trouble. He’s the finance wiz, right? He’s hooking me up with some hedge funds.”

“He’s got a condo in Jersey City,” Sal said. “With his fiancée.”

Joey committed the address to memory.

# # #

Vito’s Original Classic Neapolitan Pizza Pies was nearly abandoned by five o’clock, after the downtown Newark commuters fled and before the gentrifiers came out for dinner. Peter leaned on the counter, playing on his phone.

The scent of tomato sauce filled the restaurant like a siren song. Joey followed it, snapping his fingers for the kid to follow.

Vito stirred a huge pot of sauce, a bubbling blood red witch’s brew.

“Mister Vito,” Joey said, and spun a chair backwards to sit facing the old man. “I’ve found who’s giving you the evil eye. And they won’t be bothering you any more.”

Before Vito could talk, Joey said, “You have a ghost. And my strega says the only way to exorcise a ghost is to set them to rest. So tell me the real story of how you came to America.”

The kid put his phone down.

Vito frowned. “I tell you. I made money in Napoli, everyone know my pizza.”

“If you were flush, why’d you come here?”

“It is America. My family was dead.”

“The country was in ruins, but you were selling pies? Why don’t you tell me where you got the money.”

“I do not have to explain myself to mafiosi. You bleed us dry!” Vito stood and made a fist. The scarred skin of his forearms stretched over old muscle.

“Easy, Uncle Veet,” Peter said.

“I spoke to my strega, Vito. She’s Jewish, you know? We had a lot more Jewish Italians before the war than after it. Their neighbors ratted them out. Took everything they owned. And when the war was over and Mussolini was strung up by his balls, people took revenge on those no-good rat fucks. That ring any bells?”

Vito shuddered, fists at his sides. “They do not belong there!”

Peter gasped. “Uncle Vito.”

Joey shrugged. “Your uncle’s not the nice guy you thought. But you know that already, don’t you kid?”

Peter let his jaw go slack.

“Don’t play dumb. Make us a pie. Margherita. And no hot sauce this time.” Joey took a bottle from his pocket and set it on the table.

Peter stammered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Houshmand’s NastyVicious Hot Sauce. They make this at Rowan college.” Joey turned the bottle around. “You went to Rowan, didn’t you?”

“Pietro?” Vito stared.

“Uncle Veet, he wants to turn us against each other. Take over your business.”

“Aldo owns the building. It’s in his interest for you to make lots of money, so he can jack up your rent. Try again, kid.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“You two talk this out. That pie had better make me lie back and think of Napoli.” Joey walked to his car and returned holding a young lady by the nape of her neck. “Good of you not to run, bella donna.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

The pie was in the oven, Peter cowering as Uncle Vito jabbed his finger and swore. “Vaffanculo! You do this to me?”

Vito screamed and grabbed his chest when he saw the girl.

“Meet Peter’s wife-to-be,” Joey said. “I found her in the Jersey City condo she shares with your nephew.”

Vito scrunched his face. “Peter, you said you live at home, you have no money.”

“She’s a stage manager. She used Peter’s father’s fireman gloves to scoop the coals. They’re rated for twelve hundred degrees.” A fireman told Joey that once on a date. He nudged her forward. “Give him your best vengeful ghost act, honey.”

She grabbed a pizza slicer. “I don’t need to act, this Nazi motherfucker robbed my family and sent them to the camps! My nonna remembers you.”

Vito held up his hands in shock.

The girl was a ringer for her grandmother. She’d shown Joey the photo while she begged for her life at stiletto point.

Peter exchanged his dumbstruck act for a sneer of loathing. “Valeria’s grandmother told me everything. How could you do that?”

“You don’t know what it’s like to starve!” Vito snarled. “None of you.”

“My nonna does,” Valeria said. “You took her gold necklace. From a little girl! You made them hide in your oven from the secret police. Was that some sick joke? Then you turned them in. She saw a picture in the paper of you arguing with your sons, and she nearly had a heart attack.”

Joey rapped the hot sauce bottle on the counter. “My pizza is burning.”

Peter quickly scooped it onto the peel. The cheese bubbled, the edges of the crust were a little dark.

“It’s all right, I like it blistery,” Joey said, and turned to Peter and Valeria. “Now, what do I do with you? You tried to kill a man under our protection.”

Joey flicked open his stiletto. The seven inch blade gleamed with the oven’s fire. He waved the tip at Valeria, who set down the pizza slicer.

Peter held up his hands. “Technically, we’re the ones under your protection, Mister Cucuzza.”

“How so?”

“We’ve been paying the street tax,” Valeria said. “Our money. Not his. He’s broke as fuck.”

Joey slowly closed his stiletto. “This is between you, then.” He took the roller and cut the pizza, folding a slice, taking a bite. “Not bad, kid.”

Vito growled, “Kill them. He is not my blood, marrying a Jew. We are Italian, Guiseppe!”

“This is for my nonna!” Valeria snatched the pizza slicer and lunged at Vito.

He stumbled back. Valeria gave chase, with Peter trying hold her back in vain.
Joey ate his slice while the tree of them disappeared into the kitchen. A loud crash gonged and a scream gargled out.

More screams. Then the crying gave Angelina a run for her money.

His phone buzzed. Aldo.

“How’s my Apollo?” he answered.

“I hope you liked Napoli,” Aldo huffed. Excited. “You’re going back. They asked for you, said you’re ingamba….”

Ingambatissimo, probably. It meant he knew his shit. Which he did.

In Gabbadone!” Aldo laughed.

Hung like a horse. That was correct, too.

“Can’t wait. See you for dinner, babe.” Joey finished his slice to the crust and walked into the kitchen.

Sauce covered the floor, the stove, and Vito. He twitched and bubbled, mouth open and filled with his famous sauce, face unrecognizable with the skin boiled off.

“We should have stuffed him in the oven,” Valeria cried, hugged to her fiancé’s chest. Peter looked relieved and exhausted, now that the man he’d once idolized had paid for his crimes.

Joey felt a pang, recalling the feeling.

“Ciao for now,” he said, and boxed the pizza, took it to his car. The port boys would be grateful. On the drive back, he wondered if the kids could make it work with a death between them.

Joey patted the gift box with the matching stiletto, and thought of his man using it to cut into a juicy rare steak.

It took a strong love, but you could do it.

Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He is the author of the Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller Bad Boy Boogie, which was nominated for an Anthony award, and the story collection Life During Wartime, which includes "Deadbeat," chosen as a Distinguished Mystery Story of 2017 in The Best American Mystery Stories.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Unsatisfied, fiction by William Boyle


Alley behind Forkrum’s. Temple sits in Mag’s Civic with the flip phone lit up in her lap; she’s been pressing buttons just to have something to do. Call Mag or don’t? She digs around in the cup holder and finds a quarter and flips it. Heads—what’s that mean? Call, she guesses. She dials the number and waits.

“Yeah?” Mag says, picking up after one ring.

“It’s me,” Temple says.

“You didn’t do it yet?”

“I didn’t do it.”

“You’re what, scared?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just put on the mask and go in. I’m telling you. It’s cake.”

“I mean, what if Forkrum—”

Mag cuts her off. “Forget it. Just go.”

Temple nods.

“You’re nodding, right?” Mag says. “I can’t see you.”

“I’m nodding.”

Temple reaches across and opens the glovebox. The ski mask is there. Traffic cone orange. Mag picked it for her at Dick’s Sporting Goods. She takes it out and bunches it up in her hand.

“You still there?” Mag says.

Temple nods again.

“You’re nodding, right?”

“I’m nodding.”

“It’s just fucking Forkrum.”

“What if he recognizes me?”

“We’ll be in Buffalo tonight.”

Temple says, “Okay, okay. Cool.” She closes the phone and puts it up on the dash. She pulls the mask on over her head and adjusts the eyeholes. Her heart is thumping. She’s always been told she’s tall but she feels little, so little that the steering wheel seems dumbly huge in front of her. Her hands are shaking like she’s chased eight coffees with caffeine pills. Last time she felt like this was driving back to New Paltz after her first night tossing some drunk in an alley with Mag in Kingston. Maybe the shaking’s more intense now. This, after all, is Forkrum. She’s known him since college. He opened up this record store on East Chester Street a couple of years back and she’d come in to browse pretty often around closing and find him counting out the register. She told Mag—mentioned it offhand—that he had at least a couple of grand in the drawer last time and it was crazy how easy it would be to hit him for that. She said she was surprised it hadn’t happened already, Kingston junkies on the loose the way they were. And then that big bright lightbulb had gone off over Mag’s head. She didn’t say anything straightaway, but Temple could sense what she was thinking. Mag had been talking about scoring more than some drunk’s pocket change for months. She’d been dreaming of getting back to Buffalo, where she’d gone to school the first time, and moving into her pal Sally’s guesthouse on the cheap. Dreams were one thing with Mag; action was another. After a while, though, Mag pitched the idea to hit the record store, saying it would have to be Temple since she knew the place inside out.

And so here she is. Seven years ago in a sociology class at New Paltz, Forkrum across the aisle from her, and now in this alley behind his store with a traffic cone orange ski mask on. Mag said the mask was enough, but what about her body and her voice? That’s why she’s wearing her grandfather’s old Army jacket, one thing her dumb mother held onto, so baggy that it’s swallowing her up. And she’s practiced deepening her voice and walking on the balls of her feet so Forkrum might tell the cops that the person who stuck up the store had a funny walk and sounded gruff.

Mag had wanted her to bring a gun, some piece of junk she’d gotten at Podsie’s in Poughkeepsie for a song, but Temple wasn’t having it. Instead, she’s brought along the stun gun her ex-girlfriend Alexa bought on Amazon for her birthday senior year of college when they were hanging out at Rolling Thunder a lot and kept getting hassled by some bikers in the parking lot. Temple’s idea was that just showing the thing to Forkrum would scare him shitless. But she’s used it and knows the current and zap can put fear in someone real quick. Worst case scenario: she has to hit him with it. That happens, he’ll be fine once the temporary paralysis wears off, even have a scary little story to tell his drinking buddies.

She gets out of the car. The stun gun is in her pocket. So are a pair of purple surgical gloves she’s rolled up and stuffed in there. She puts the gloves on and takes a deep breath and tries to calm down.

The alley is a blessing. Dead quiet. The building nearby used to be a bagel joint; it’s abandoned now, weeds grown up the walls and over the windows. She knows Forkrum leaves the side door open and brings boxes out to the dumpster as he gets deliveries. She also knows there are no deliveries today because it’s Sunday and almost closing time.

She stays close to the wall and hooks the door handle with her thumb. It squeaks a little as she opens it but that doesn’t matter because Forkrum has music blasting inside. 

She’s thinking, Mag should be doing this.

She’s thinking, Neither of us should be doing this. It’s Forkrum. 

She’s thinking, It’ll be over quick. Then back to Mag’s. Then Buffalo. Maybe things’ll be better there. Maybe I’ll be able to break away from all my bad habits. Maybe Mag will too. Really.     

Inside. She sees Forkrum before he sees her. He’s singing along to whatever’s on the stereo and punching his finger against an iPad, his glasses low on his nose, his cap off. She hasn’t seen him without a cap on since college. He’s almost all-the-way-bald.

She takes out the stun gun and turns it over in her hand. She holds it up and worries that it looks too much like an electric razor. 

There’s no one else in the store.

Forkrum notices her then—she’s only half-hidden behind the doorframe to the storage room—and starts making a noise that’s something like a fox’s scream, loud even pushing against the music.

Temple is startled and almost drops the stun gun.

Forkrum stops, catches his breath, and screams again.

“Hands up,” Temple says in her best guy voice. She knows there’s an alarm unit on the wall but this isn’t a bank—there’s no panic button under the counter.

Forkrum puts his hands up. “Yeah, sure. Don’t hurt me.”

“Just give me what’s in the register and I’ll be out of here in a minute,” Temple says.


“Turn down the music!”

He keeps his hands up and goes over to the stereo. He lowers one hand and nudges the knob until the music is a whisper.

“Give me what’s in the register and I’ll be gone,” Temple says.

Forkrum just looks at her.

Temple goes over to the counter—he’s still on the other side, both hands back up, and she’s totally fucking spaced on her funny walk—and flashes the stun gun at him. He looks confounded by it; maybe he’s never seen one. She decides to show it off. The sound and light are enough to get him screaming again. “Jesus, be quiet,” she says.

His scream slows to a whimper. “I have asthma,” he says.

“Okay,” she says. “Just get the money.” Her voice is wavering now. Deep and then less deep. She didn’t expect so much talk.

He shuffles to the register and keys open the drawer and starts pulling out wads of bills. Big stacks of twenties and tens Less on the fives and ones, but that’s okay. Gotta be at least two grand. Maybe more. He fumbles the money and drops some on the floor.

“Get it all,” she says.

He leans over and picks up what he’s dropped. “You want the change too?” he says.

“Sure, why not? Put it all in a bag.”

Shaking, he grabs a record-sized brown bag and drops the cash in and then he starts emptying the coins in slot by slot. Stupid to wait for the change but every penny counts. If she was really smart, she’d grab some rare records off the wall and sell them on eBay, but she doesn’t have time to be discerning and she’d have to go to the library to get online.

He hands the bag across to her, squinting, still whimpering. He looks dumpier than he’s ever looked. He’s wearing an XL T-shirt with the store logo on it: a sloth hanging from a tree branch. She feels bad for him. “I’m sorry,” she says. “And thanks.” As if this was just another transaction.

“Natalie?” he says.

No one calls her Natalie anymore. Not since college. Mag renamed her Temple. She’s stuck in place. She knows she should forget it and get out of the store. She knows it doesn’t matter. The chance was there. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe Forkrum will just figure she’s desperate and chalk the money up as a loss. As a donation. Keep the cops out of it. But she stays still.

Forkrum’s breath has slowed. He doesn’t seem scared anymore. “You could’ve just asked me,” he says. “I would’ve given you whatever you needed.” He pauses. “Mag put you up to this, right?”

Now it’s Temple who’s panting.

“It’s okay,” Forkrum says. “Just take off your mask. Let’s talk.”

Temple doesn’t think taking off her mask will help. She holds up the stun gun and shows Forkrum how it works again. Zap. “This thing is real. Like seventeen million volts or something,” she says in her regular voice.

Forkrum doesn’t scream this time. “Natalie,” he says. “Come on. Give it up. This is what you want? This isn’t you. It’s Mag.”

“Fuck you,” she says, biting her lip. Forkrum’s always been such a nice guy. He’s always been nice to her. He’d take her over to Village Pizza every Friday sophomore and junior year. He’d ask what growing up in Newburgh was like, even though he was from Monroe originally and knew what a hellhole Newburgh was. He was reading dumb shit in his English classes and wanted to talk about it. He wore a black trench coat and some weird glinty class ring. Sometimes he painted houses; two or three times, she’d accompanied him and he’d let her work on a window frame while they listened to mixes he’d made.

He reaches out for her. She knows what he’s doing—he’s going for the mask. He’s guessing he gets that off and they see each other face to face, she’ll let go of the charade and crumble to the floor in tears. But she knows she’s harder than that. She’s always been hard; Mag’s just taught her to be vicious. She snaps the stun gun at him and hits him in the neck with it. The sound seems bigger, worse. He goes down howling, holding his neck. He’s spinning, saying fuck fuck fuck, maybe crying.

“I’m sorry,” Temple says. She drops the stun gun in her gaping pocket and puts the bag of money under her arm. It feels like forever skittering though the store and back out the side door.

Soon she’s sitting in the Civic and pulling off her mask and breathing so hard her chest hurts. She feels like a sinking city. She keys the ignition and thinks of poor Forkrum on the floor, writhing around like some damaged animal. The bag of money is on her lap; she’s keeping it close. She’s about to shift into reverse, but she keeps imagining Forkrum like that and wants to go back. She’s thinking of all the times he brought her coffee in the computer lab on campus. She’s thinking of mixes he made for her. She should’ve done this to a stranger, not Forkrum.   

Fuck it.

She throws the car in reverse and backs out of the alley. Mag is waiting for her. Mag will be happy, that kind of big shivery happiness that only happens when they score. They’ll hit the road. Buffalo’s nobody’s dream, and she likes that. Everyone trying to get out of Buffalo and them holding onto it as some magical place to escape to.

The whole drive home on Route 32, she’s feels jolts in her legs. She’s worried about getting pulled over. She’s doing forty, a couple of cars tailing her close, and she keeps thinking she sees cops lurking on every side road.

She pulls into the gravelly parking lot of Muffs, a strip club where Alexa used to work. She catches her breath and stares at the sign, a woman in high heels and a bikini holding onto the stem of a giant cocktail glass. Alexa had bad times there.   

She picks up her phone—still, somehow, balanced perilously on the dash—and calls Mag.

“It’s done?” Mag says.

“It’s done,” Temple says.

“So why are you calling?”

“I don’t know. I’m nervous. You should’ve come with me—at least to drive.”

“You’re fine. Deep breaths. How far are you?”

“I’m in the parking lot of that strip club.”

“Not that much further. Keep cool.”

Mag’s place is on Church Street in New Paltz next to a rooming house. A dive. The front steps rotten, the ceiling in the bedroom caving in from a leak. Temple doesn’t have her own place anymore. For a while, between apartments, she crashed on couches. And then she spent a couple of weeks at the hostel in town. She stayed with Mag the first night they met at Snug’s and has been with her every night since.

She gets the car going again and continues on carefully, as if she’s taking a driving test.

Back in New Paltz, she turns onto Church and parks on the street outside Mag’s. She runs in with the bag under her arm, skipping over the rottenest step. Mag is sitting at the kitchen table with a pack of yellow American Spirits, cherry-ashing a cigarette in a lidless butter dish.

Temple smiles at her.

“How much?” Mag says.

“About what we guessed,” Temple says, emptying the contents of the bag on the table. The coins scatter everywhere.

Mag’s blue eyes go bright. And there’s that smile, the one that makes it worth it, the one that pushes poor Forkrum out of Temple’s head. “You did awesome,” Mag says.

“I’m happy now,” Temple says, sliding onto Mag’s lap.

They kiss. Mag’s hair is dirty and dread-clumped. She tastes like beer and cigarettes. Her forearms are bruised.

“Buffalo,” Mag says.

“Motherfucking Buffalo,” Temple says. “Now? Let’s just go.”

“Okay,” Mag says, that smile shifting into something else. She scooches Temple off of her and relights her cigarette. “Okay,” she says again.

Temple scans the room. It doesn’t look like Mag’s been packing. Not that there’s much to take. “Forkrum’s okay,” Temple says.

“What?” Mag says, dragging deep, bunching her forehead.

“Forkrum will be fine. I think.”

“Good. The Taser—or whatever—was a good call.”

“You didn’t pack?”

“I’m not bringing anything. We’ll stop at a Target and get some new clothes. And we’ll hit the beer distributor for smokes. The rest of this shit, we’ll leave for the landlord.” She pauses, thumbs through a stack of twenties in front of her. “I was thinking. We get to Buffalo, you should grow your hair out. I’ve never seen you with long hair.”

“I hate long hair on me.”

Mag stubs out her cigarette in the butter dish.

Temple has some things she doesn’t want to leave behind—jeans and shirts from the Salvation Army, a drawer full of bras and underwear she shoplifted from Ames when it was still around, a box of paperbacks from the library sale. She goes in and gets them together. Takes her maybe three minutes.

Mag says, “You’re bringing all that shit?”

Temple laughs. “It’s hardly anything.”

“Let’s start fresh.” Mag stuffs the cash back in the bag and pushes the coins into a pile. “Clean slate. Doesn’t appeal to you? Just us and the car.”

Temple half-nods.

“That’s a yes, right?” Mag says.

“Sure, I guess.” 

“Let’s go to Snug’s for a drink to celebrate.”

“Mag, no.”

Mag grew up rich. She doesn’t know Temple knows; it’s something that took time to piece together. Mag likes to play poor—and she is now, her family having disowned her—but she’s still got the recklessness of a rich kid. Which means lack of planning. Which means expecting things to pan out even when hope’s only a pinprick in the distance. What she does, she does for kicks. Everything’s kicks.

Temple didn’t grow up rich. She grew up hard. Alkie-whore mom. Her father a ghost. Newburgh schools like prisons. Drugs and booze took her early and then she righted the ship for college, worked herself through, and then she was done, no prospects, and there was Mag, all put-on desperation, so beautifully destitute. Temple’s desperation is more immediate. You live most of your life on the ropes and you start to grow hungry for the promise of anything good.

Temple always says it’s Mag who brought the bad out in her, pushing her into a world of small crimes, but for Mag it’s just like reality television. She doesn’t know about consequences. Her desires are manufactured. Taste real fear early, that’s what makes you hard. Rolling drunks and sticking up stores is nothing. Try watching your mother get dangled from a balcony by a john. Try waking up to strangers in your room. Try sleeping with a knife under your pillow at ten-years-old.   

Temple senses now that if they go to the bar, Buffalo won’t happen. They’ll blow all the money on whiskey and then the days will continue on, more wallets snatched, the ceiling in the bedroom collapsing worse, more cigarettes, back on junk in no time.

Bank on Buffalo? Sucker’s bet. In reality, Buffalo would just be more of this anyway. Might as well save on the gas money and just roll across to Snug’s. Difference between a dream and a lie only depends on how fucked up you are.

“Just a couple of rounds,” Mag says. “Maybe some pool. Izzo’s bartending.”

Temple looks out the window and starts thinking about Forkrum again. He’ll be okay, probably is already okay, but she feels somehow like she left him for dead. Her gut says call him, check in, but she won’t, she can’t. Another bridge blown to shit. Her mom in that home, dead to her. Her aunts, how they tried their best to help, and she can’t even send fucking birthday cards. All these people she keeps leaving for dead, even when they’re not dying. “Okay,” she says to Mag. “Drinks it is.”

AP Katie Farrell Boyle
William Boyle is the author of the novels Gravesend, Everything is Broken, The Lonely Witness, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, and City of Margins, and a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. “Unsatisfied” originally appeared in Waiting To Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by The Replacements. His website is

Monday, June 1, 2020

Scapegoat, Fiction by Nick Kolakowski

I call it my stunt torso: a silicone belly and pecs filled with something gelatinous, pinned to my real body with big velcro tabs. My brother, an actor, bought it used from a stuntman on a movie set. The stuntman told him it would absorb blows from fists or a baseball bat, but anything sharp would slide right through. For tonight’s gig I’ll wear it beneath a loose sweatshirt, to hide the seams, and hope that nobody feels me up.

The client is waiting for me in a white BMW parked down the street from my apartment building. She wears a sleek pinstripe pantsuit, signaling that she has a high-powered job, and her bloodless cheeks are streaked with what’s left of her mascara, signaling a crying jag on the way here. She flicks through a puzzle game on her phone while I count the crisp twenties in the envelope she handed me. “This is too much,” I say, peeling off the extra two hundred.

Without glancing from her game, the client says: “Think of it as covering your deductible. Just in case.”

I want to tell her that my health insurance sucks, that two hundred is maybe a quarter of what I’d need to pay before coverage kicks in. A hard blow to the head, one that puts me in the emergency room with a broken skull, will cost a few thousand out-of-pocket, everything included. A couple punches to the stomach, the kind that scramble organs, might total more. That’s why I use the stunt torso. It’s too bad I can’t wear a football helmet, but that would ruin the performance.

“Doesn’t work that way,” I say, and tuck the excess money into the dashboard cup-holder. “Rule one of this job: Never deviate from the price. Makes it easier for everyone.”

“Well, do you take tips?” The game shrieks a high score.

“No.” I fold the envelope once and stuff it into my rear pocket.

“Okay, suit yourself.” Shutting off her phone, she starts the engine. “My name is Delilah, but everybody calls me Dee.”

“Neal,” I say, which is a lie. “Everybody calls me Neal.”

“Hey, Neal. I know this is just a job to you, but thanks anyway. It means a lot.”

“Sure.” I settle back and work on my breathing as she leadfoots the gas, rocketing us down narrow streets of my crumbling neighborhood. I never ask where the clients live, but we’re heading east, beyond the areas of town where you get real familiar with your living-room carpet pattern on account of diving on it every time bullets whizz through the windows. Based on her all-options sedan, and the expensive cut of her suit, I bet our final destination is the Heights, where everybody is rich enough to pay someone else to shovel their shit.

I don’t know whether it’s nerves or the stunt torso, or some combination of both, but after a mile my forehead is slick with sweat, my underwear chafing my crack. “Can you turn the air conditioning on?” I ask.

Dee twists the dial like her worst enemy’s nipple, and arctic air blasts out the vents. “Good?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “By the way, you’re supposed to fill me in. I don’t need too many details, just enough to play the role.”

“So there’s this guy, Charles. We’re at the same company, but we don’t report to each other or anything. I didn’t mean to, but we hooked up at this work event, and at first I thought it was one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, you know how it goes.”
Dee takes a corner at high speed. “And lo and behold, I sort of fell for the guy. So now we’re in a relationship, which would be fantastic except for, well.”

Dee takes her left hand off the wheel and waggles it so the little diamond on her engagement ring catches the light. Stacked atop the ring is a plain gold wedding band. “Rick—that’s my husband—found out about it,” she says. “We have our thumbprints programmed into each other’s phones, and he snooped in my messages. Maybe I wanted to get caught. My marriage sucks.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I say. “He hasn’t seen a photo of Charles?”

“He hasn’t seen a photo of his face, if you get my meaning. And Charles is, like, the last person on Earth not on Facebook, so Rick can’t find him that way.”

I have also forsworn all social media. Possessing any kind of public profile would make it more difficult to do this job. “Tell me about Rick’s temper,” I say.

Dee puffs air into her cheeks, exhales loudly: “What’s to tell? He’s got a bad one. He’s never hit me, or I would have walked out a long time ago, but he throws shit, yells, all that stuff. One time, we were in this bar, and this guy bumped into him. Just an accident, but he spilled Rick’s beer. Guy offers to buy him a new one, and Rick up and hits him in the chest. Lucky nobody ended up in jail over that.”

“What are his triggers?”

She laughs. “He’s really sensitive about his weight.”

Maybe Rick’s fat, I think. If he’s out of shape, that’s great.

Still giggling, she says: “And you should definitely mention his hair. He’s afraid of losing it.”

“What else?”

“Tell him he’s boring in the sack. Like I said, he’s got a lot of anger issues. It doesn’t take much.”

With gigs like this, it’s all about finding the right balance. You want everyone emotional, but not so emotional that they beat you to death on the sidewalk. On cold nights, my left knee and right elbow twinge and throb, reminding me of what happens when I’ve gotten that rule wrong.

“Good to know,” I tell Dee. The road becomes smoother, the potholes disappearing as we enter the Heights, the enormous houses on either side perfect as wedding cakes, the lawns so manicured I imagine hordes of workers cutting every individual blade of grass with tiny scissors. The sight of those million-dollar homes makes my stomach clench in a hard knot, and I pat the stunt torso for reassurance.

Dee notices my discomfort. “You don’t like it here.”

I grew up a couple blocks away, I almost tell her. This place is in my blood. Like a virus, or something that poisons you slowly. But the clients never need to know anything like that, especially when it’s almost showtime. “It’s fine,” I say, wiping my forehead.

“Look, Rick needs to get really aggressive, you understand?” Dee’s lips tighten. “And I need to film it. His lawyer sees a video like that, it’ll make this whole process a lot smoother.”

“Yeah, you said that in your email.” I sigh. “You also said he doesn’t have a gun.”

“He doesn’t.”

“Just reconfirming.”

“Got it. I’m not lying to you.”

“Okay. And if I see him with a knife, any kind of blade, I run, got that?”

“He’s an angry jackass, but he’s not a killer. Anyway, we’re here.” We pull into the driveway of a two-story McMansion, white with beige trim, and park behind a gold-colored SUV with tinted windows. As we climb out, I glimpse something on the SUV’s trailer hitch that makes me pause: a giant pair of brass balls, realistically rendered down to the veins and textured skin.

Dee follows my gaze and rolls her eyes. “Rick’s idea of a joke. Can you blame me, about the divorce?”

I shut the BMW’s door, adjust my sweatshirt, and crack my neck. I did some preventative yoga before leaving my apartment, and I feel nice and limber, ready for whatever’s coming. The envelope is a comforting presence below my tailbone, and I think about what I’ll spend my payment on, besides painkillers and bandages. I’ll tally up my rent and student loans and fast-food orders and phone bill, and maybe I’ll have a few bucks left over for a decent bottle of whiskey. I run my tongue over my teeth and think: Why bother saving for retirement? I’ll never have enough.

Dee slings her purse, as shiny and white as her car, underneath her arm, her elbow pressing it tight against her body. It has a small exterior pocket, and I spy the edge of her smartphone peeking out the top, its camera a black eye.

We are halfway up the stone path to the front door when it bursts open, framing the infamous Rick in full Suburban Barbarian mode. His faded t-shirt strains against a meat market of oversized pecs and biceps, and his square head reddens to the color of undercooked steak when he sees us. “Well,” he hisses through clenched teeth. “Bitch brought her bitch, I see. This is Charles? This is who you’re leaving me for?”

So much for my dream of Rick being flabby and floppy. The dude looks like he bench-presses rhinos for fun. His blonde hair is thick as a newscaster’s, shaped by professional hands into a camera-ready cowlick, and the sight of it makes me feel a weird sympathy for him, despite his rage and heavy fists: I would fear losing a magnificent mane like that, too.

Dee gifts him a big smile. “Rick, let’s just behave like adults, okay? This is Charles. We just want to talk.”

That’s my cue. I step forward with my hands out, palms up. “I know you’re angry, buddy.” I try out a chuckle. “I’d be angry as hell, too. Don’t blame you a bit. But we can work this out.”

Beads of sweat drip down Rick’s forehead, shiny in the light. It reminds me of something my grandfather, one of the last of the old-school miners, once told me about dynamite: if you left it sitting too long in the case, it would start to sweat like a man, unstable, a jostle away from blowing everything to hell. (Actually, that’s my only memory of him, before the state and my foster parents took me away.)

“Thought you could fuck my wife,” Rick says, marching down the steps toward us. “Thought I wouldn’t find out, huh?”

“Things just happened, man,” I say. “The heart wants what it wants.”

Rick squeezes his fists so tight I can see the tendons straining in his forearms like bridge-cables about to snap. He’s fifteen feet away and closing fast, his sneakers squeaking on the stone path. “Show you what I want, motherfucker.”

I tense my abs and say: “Dunno, man, you’re pretty soft.”

He plants his left foot and swings his right fist at my head, really telegraphing it, and I raise my hands to protect my face, already knowing his next move: a left jab to my stomach. Rick does exactly that, and I feel the blow as a wobbly vibration through the stunt torso, almost knocking me off-balance. If Rick sensed the difference between flesh and silicone, he doesn’t show it: instead, he launches a flurry of punches at my chest, driving me back across the lawn.

The stunt torso blunting the blows means I can take a breath means I can mutter: “It started as one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, but I think it’s love…”

I expect Rick to keep punching, maybe take another swipe at my head. Instead he opts for a sweeping kick that he no doubt saw in some action movie. I try to duck and weave, but he’s a quarter-second too quick. His foot catches me in the side, at the edge of the stunt torso, and drives the air from my lungs. My knees wobble, and I fall, trying to tuck into a ball as I hit the grass.

Through my forearms crossed over my face, I spy Dee take a position at the end of the driveway, the better for a wide-angle shot of her husband delivering a beatdown to a stranger. “Oh God,” she yells. “Oh God, Rick, stop. Please.”

Rick does not listen. In fact, the tempo of his blows speeds up, his feet slamming into the stunt torso, which can only take so much damage before my stomach begins to feel it. I can hear him muttering in time with the blows: “Show you… show you… show you…”

At moments like this, I wonder if dropping out of college was a mistake.

I could have been anything: an engineer, a software designer, a film director.

But maybe I’m helping more people this way.

After what seems like an eternity, the kicks slow, then stop. I lower my forearms. Big mistake. Rick, grinning, slams his heel into the right side of my face, and the world pops white. My mouth salty, a front tooth loose under my tongue. I groan, and Rick bends down until his lips are almost in my ear.

“That’s what you get,” he says, sounding satisfied. Offering Dee a middle finger, he turns and walks back to the house—limping a little. Maybe the thirtieth kick to my stomach sprained his ankle. Who says I can’t give as good as I get? I try to rise and the world tilts and lurches, my chin warm with blood. Dee’s hands on my elbow, helping me upright.

“I can drive you to a clinic,” she says. “Or a hospital.”

I take a deep breath that fills my lungs with napalm, but nothing pops or shifts in my chest. “Take me home,” I whisper, and opening my mouth lights a pack of matches under my tongue. “I’m okay. Just need… a little ice…”

We make it to the BMW. Buckled into the passenger seat, I take care to keep the collar of my shirt pressed against my mouth, to soak up the blood before it can stain the leather upholstery. Every turn out of the Heights sends my stomach slapping against my ribs, sparking fresh agony. I’ll make it, though. I’m a connoisseur of beatdowns; I know the nuances of bruises, the true depths of damage.

“How often you do this?” Dee asks, real concern in her voice.

I shrug. “Not that often,” I say, working the pain in my mouth like a piece of gum. “Couple times a year. Pays good, though.”

She shakes her head. “Such a weird job. How’d you get into it?”

“Life,” I say, and turn my head to the window.

Dee, taking the hint, stays quiet until we pull to the curb where she picked me up. Then she almost ruins everything by plucking the overpayment from the cup-holder and trying to force it into my hand. I swat it away. “No,” I say, opening the door. 

“Wait,” Dee asks.

I pause, one foot on the curb, already fantasizing about the ice packs in my freezer, the half-full bottle of whiskey in my bedroom.

“I know you’ll never meet Charles, but he’s grateful.” Dee brushes her lips against my wounded cheek, sparking a web of fire that crackles down my neck to my collarbone. “You’ve been a huge help. Thank you.”

“No problem,” I mumble, and exit the vehicle. I wish Dee well as I lurch down the sidewalk, pausing to spit a red gob into a tree-box. Although the stunt torso held up reasonably well to Rick’s rage, the dents in the sternum and left side suggest it has maybe two more jilted-husband jobs before I need to ask my brother for a new one.

It takes so long to walk the block to my place, fumble my keys from my pocket, and let myself into my apartment. In the darkness of my kitchen, I touch my cheek where Dee kissed it, flaring that dulling ache back to a full-on firestorm. I touch it again.
And again. And again. 

Damn, it hurts.

It hurts so good.

"Nick Kolakowski is the author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday,' 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club' and the upcoming 'Rattlesnake Rodeo' (all from Down & Out Books). His short work has appeared in Tough, Shotgun Honey, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies."