Dixie’s Dry Gulch was the last place in Pulaski County where a drinking man could wet his whistle before he stumbled into Faulkner County, where the same drink would land him in stir for the night. Arkansas was the driest state in the Union with nearly half of its counties dry, which on any other day tended to rub Scott Pearl and Fatboy Dave Grant, prodigious drinkers both, the wrong way. On the day they were putting their plan together, on the other hand, robbing a roadhouse in a wet town and hiding out with their take in a dry town half a mile down the road made a hell of a lot of sense. Fatboy Dave’s cousin Alvis worked the bar at the Dry Gulch, so their first order of business was to make sure Alvis didn’t make it to work that night. This was Fatboy Dave’s problem, so he went off to sort it out while Scott procured the masks and a pair of shotguns he happened to know were stowed in the back office where he worked.
And since Scott Pearl also worked at Dixie’s Dry Gulch, so he knew he would have to be careful. He couldn’t just pick them up and carry them out to his truck in the parking lot like he was taking out the trash or something. Probably nobody would say much of anything about it, him being so well known around there, but as soon as he and Fatboy Dave showed back up with the shotguns in their hands, somebody was bound to put it all together. No, something like this required finesse, which was why Scott cracked a plastic pitcher against the corner of the bar the day before. Hours later, he handed it to Flossie to fill up with Bloody Mary mix for the biker mamas behind the pool table. By the time Flossie was halfway across the rug that stretched from the front door to the back hallway, the weight of the liquid opened up that crack, and the entire pitcher all but exploded. Flossie was doused, but the rug took the worst of it. She went home to clean up. The rug was ruined.
Scott offered to haul it out to the dumpster as soon as he got around to it. He got around to it pretty damn quickly, too. The shotguns got rolled up in the rug, which he dumped into the cab of his truck, and he parked right behind the dumpster. Easy breezy.
The masks he snuck out of his mama’s attic. He knew exactly where they were, tucked away in a cardboard box upon which his mother wrote HALLOWEEN in her precise hand with a black magic marker. There was an array of choices within the box, but Scott already knew which of his and his brother’s childhood costumes he wanted: his old clown mask for himself and Geoff’s Lone Ranger mask for Fatboy Dave. Geoff was six and a half years dead and gone, so Scott didn’t figure he’d mind too much, even if he was up in heaven like mama always said.
He stayed long enough to have a cup of coffee and to share three Pall Malls with his mama before heading back to the rendezvous point, the EZ Mart between Dixie’s and the interstate motel where Fatboy Dave was staying. Scott draped his hunting jacket over the shotguns and went inside for a soda and some beef jerky while he waited. After he got back into his truck, slammed the soda and killed off the jerky, he was still waiting for Dave. He mindlessly ran a finger around the rim of one of the shotgun barrels and watched the clock gradually reach—and then pass—9:00.
Fatboy Dave was late. That was not good. That wasn’t good at all.
Dave pulled up in front of Alvis’s doublewide and sat in the car for a spell, letting the engine idle and listening to the rest of the George Jones song on the radio. Dave loved the Possum and he’d be damned if he was going to cut the engine before the song was over. While he listened, he cracked open one of the beers from the six-pack he picked up on the way over and downed half of it in one go. The Possum warbled and Fatboy Dave finished his beer, thinking about all that money he and Scott were about to get their hands on. More than enough to escape his life and go try being somebody else for a while. Someplace where nobody called him Fatboy anymore. Someplace where he didn’t have to work road crews for next to nothing, only for Sharise to take most of that just because he knocked her up in high school when he was still just plain old Dave. Someplace where he didn’t have to live in a cheap motel and listen to guys bang escorts in the rooms on either side of him all night, every night.
Someplace where Dave could just disappear.
The song came to an end, the DJ cut in for a station identification announcement, and as Dave swallowed the last warm dregs of his beer, he realized Alvis was standing on the cinderblocks that served as his front porch, smoking a Swisher Sweet cigar and staring Dave down. Dave grinned at his cousin and turned the key, killing the engine. Alvis didn’t smile back.
“Mornin’, cuz,” Dave called out as he hauled himself out of the car.
Alvis said, “It’s practically suppertime, Fatboy.”
“Sure, sure,” Dave said. “I know that.”
“Well,” the cousin drawled, “might as well come inside. Hotter than hell out here.”
Dave didn’t think it was half as hot as the last few days, but he followed Alvis into the trailer anyway. He was met by the familiar funk of low-grade cannabis that hung sticky in the air from all the ditch weed Alvis and his friends were always smoking. Some gameshow sounded a pathetic horn to signal a contestant had lost on the ancient black-and-white television Alvis had balanced precariously on moldering newspapers by his rumpled bed. On the bed, a woman with clown-red hair lay naked from the waist down, murmuring something to herself while she scratched at a cluster of scabs on her belly. She didn’t seem to notice Dave’s arrival, and Alvis didn’t appear to notice her. Dave just tried not to stare.
He had carried the remaining five beers from the car by the one empty ring and popped one free for Alvis. Alvis set it down on the kitchen counter without bothering to open it.
“Did you know there’s a dwarf in Norse mythology named Alvis?”
“What do you want, Dave?”
Dave chuckled nervously and freed another beer from the plastic rings for himself. He cracked it open, sipped, gulped, sipped some more. Finally, he said, “Why don’t you call out sick tonight and meet us up at Midtown?”
“In Little Rock? The hell for?”
“Just a good time and like that.”
“Johnny Lee Lincoln and them.”
“Them? Shit, Fatboy, they’re there every night. I ain’t got to call out to see Johnny and them.”
“Heard Johnny signed up for the Army.”
“So what? This his last night in town?”
“Might could be.”
“It’s just one night.”
“Anybody asks, I’ll tell ‘em I saw you puking your guts out my own self. What you say, cuz?”
Alvis swiped the can off the counter and opened it up with a satisfying hiss. It was as good as saying yes, as far as Dave was concerned. And by the time Alvis got tired of waiting around for Dave to show up at Jimmy’s Midtown Billiards, the whole damn thing would be over and done with. Everything was going much smoother than Dave anticipated it would. He had to fight to keep from laughing, he was so relieved.
He felt downright giddy.
With a wink and a pat on his cousin’s shoulder, Dave said, “See you later on, then,” and turned for the door. Alvis was considerably faster than Dave and got there first, putting himself between the only way out of the doublewide and the big-boned cousin who was attempting to leave.
“Hold on a minute,” Alvis said. He sounded reptilian, the way he said it. Dave’s giddiness washed away as quickly as it had come. “How come you love Johnny Lee Lincoln so damn much all a’sudden?”
“Aw, come on, Alvis. Johnny’s not a bad fella.”
“Johnny whupped your ass twice in junior high and once in tenth grade.”
“Well, I was in tenth. Johnny got held back.”
Alvis pulled a face. Dave thought it looked like the old boy just tasted something shitty, but he knew it was just that Alvis didn’t believe him.
Dave laughed a little, the way he always did when he wasn’t really paying attention to what somebody was saying but wanted to seem like maybe he was. Only this time, he was paying attention. Close attention. He began to sweat a little, small beads erupting from the pores along his mildly receding hairline. Alvis said, “It’s a little hot in here, too, ain’t it?”
“A little,” Dave admitted.
Alvis spread himself out over the door, getting comfortable, and lifted the bottom of his shirt just enough to expose the black grip of a Smith & Wesson tucked into his waistband.
He didn’t make for it; he just wanted Fatboy Dave to know it was there.
“Why don’t you tell me what the fuck is going on, Fatboy?”
Dave said, “Shit.”
At a quarter of ten, Scott decided the whole goddamn thing was off. He cranked up the A/C, tuned the radio dial until something he didn’t completely hate came on, and shifted into reverse just in time to see a pair of headlights appear in his rear-view mirror. The lights swept the cab of Scott’s truck, forcing him to squint and look away, and by the time he looked again, Fatboy Dave was pulling into the spot to Scott’s left. Only Dave wasn’t driving; he was sitting in the passenger seat, looking for all the world like a kid waiting to get scolded by the principal or some such shit.
Behind the wheel was Dave’s cousin, Alvis.
Dave looked through the window to Scott and shrugged. This was not the plan. This was about as far from the plan as it could possibly be. Dave widened his eyes and scrunched up his brow, giving his friend his best death glare. Dave sank into his seat. Alvis got out of the car and flashed the biggest shit-eating grin in the history of shit-eating grins at Scott.
Alvis said, “How do, Pearly?”
Scott rolled his window the rest of the way down as Alvis approached.
“Can’t say I expected seeing you tonight, Alvis.”
“See, there? I got surprised earlier my own self. Don’t recall the last time ol’ Fatboy dropped by my place like that, but there he was, tryin’ to talk me out of going to work tonight. Now, why do you reckon he would try something like that, Pearly?”
“I don’t know, man. He’s your cousin.”
“And he’s your partner,” Alvis said. “Ain’t that right?”
“Partner?” Scott said, aghast. “Jesus, Alvis, it’s not like we’re…”
“I told him,” Dave cut in. He pushed himself out of the passenger seat of his own car, struggling with how little space his cousin had left him to maneuver. “I told him what we’re gonna do.”
“We ain’t gonna do shit,” Scott said.
“That’s a fact,” Alvis agreed. “You two ain’t. We all are.”
“Sorry, Scott,” Dave said.
“Half for me and a quarter each for you two cocksuckers,” said Alvis. “Unless maybe you want I should go telling stories to certain folks?”
“He don’t want that,” Dave said.
“Shut the fuck up, Fatboy.”
Scott said, “I don’t want that.”
“Well, all righty, then,” Alvis beamed. “Let’s get us down to fuckin’ business, boys.”
Now the robbers were three, though only one of them was in any way happy about it. Still, they all crammed into the cab of Scott’s pickup, Dave in the middle, and headed south for Dixie’s Dry Gulch. There were shotguns for both Scott and Fatboy Dave, and Alvis had his compact Smith & Wesson. The only problem left to solve was the dearth of masks; Scott had only grabbed two from his mother’s attic. He’d had no reason to anticipate a need for backups.
Scott said as much. Alvis said, “Give me your shirt.”
“The hell not?”
“I got fuckin’ tattoos, man. That’s as good as showing my face.”
“Me, too,” Dave said.
“I don’t want your stinking shirt, Fatboy,” said Alvis. “Probably your stretch marks are identifying marks.” He really cracked himself up with that one, laughing himself hoarse. When he finished with that, Alvis lit a cigarette with the truck’s lighter, burned himself with it, yelped, and then tossed the lighter through Scott’s open window.
“What the fuck, man?”
“After tonight, you can afford a new one. Shit, you can afford a whole new truck.”
“Not on twenty-five percent,” Dave grumbled.
“Shut the fuck up, Fatboy,” said Alvis.
They pulled up at Dixie’s at half past ten. Scott pulled around to the back and parked it. To avoid further antagonizing Alvis, Scott pulled his t-shirt off and passed it over. He had a yellow safety vest from a short construction stint in the truck bed that probably smelled to high heaven, but it would cover up most of the tats he was worried about.
Alvis tied Scott’s t-shirt around the bottom half of his face like a neck gaiter while Scott pulled the hard plastic clown mask down over his face. Dave tried to do the same with the Lone Ranger mask he had been assigned, but the string broke almost as soon as he tried.
“The hell happened?” Scott said, his voice low but urgent.
“This goddamn thing is too small.”
Alvis said, “Your goddamn head is too big.”
“Come on, man,” Dave said. “It’s a kid’s mask.”
“Jesus Christ,” Alvis growled. He untied the shirt-gaiter and set to ripping the shirt in half.
Scott’s chagrin was written all over his face. “My shirt,” he said.
“Fuck your shirt,” Alvis said. He passed half of the shredded fabric to Dave, and the two of them affixed their impromptu gaiters. “Okay, ladies? We done crying, now?”
Dave heaved a sigh. Scott said, “Let’s get this done.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Alvis said, and he punctuated it with a loud, ill-advised hog call. “Soooooo-eeeee!”
“Kee-rist,” Scott said low. He thought about how badly this was going already, before any one of them so much as set foot inside the Dry Gulch.
Flossie Sims pushed a small pile of wet, broken brown glass with a broom toward a much larger pile of wet, broken glass of varied colors in front of the jukebox. The juke was playing the Hag, who was bemoaning hippiedom, and Flossie hummed along to the familiar tune while she swept.
On the opposite side of the bar, Huck Barber was shaking Squint, real name unknown, by the shoulders in an attempt to wake the old biker up. Squint had been the one to recruit Huck into the Boozefighters MC back in the day, so nobody at the Dry Gulch ever cut the old boy off. Most nights he ended up passed out behind the pool table, and most nights it fell to Huck to get Squint back on his feet long enough to guide him into the back office to sleep it off. Once in a while the old man would put up a fight, but with just the one leg and hardly any meat left on the bones he still had, it never was much of a fight.
Apart from Flossie, Huck, and Squint, the only other person left in Dixie’s Dry Gulch was Duke Franklin, another back-in-the-day Boozefighter who went blind after his ride spun out on a patch of gravel and he ended up wearing a concrete highway barrier wall for a hat with one of his ape hangers stuck in his side. He ought to have been wearing a brain bucket, but who did? Everybody told Duke he was lucky to be alive, but after twelve and a half years he was still waiting to feel like that was in any way true. Still, the man could put them back, as well, if not better than any BFMC member in good standing or bad. It was a rare night in Dixie’s when Duke wasn’t the last man sitting upright.
Flossie brushed the sticky glass shards into a pan and dumped them in a wastebasket before straightening up and saying, “You ‘bout done with that beer, Duke? Time to lock up.”
“You’re allowed to serve ‘til two,” Duke complained. It was the same song every night.
“Midtown serves ‘til five,” she reminded him.
“Dream on, big man. I gotta put my kids to bed.”
Duke chuckled softly and finished his Michelob, swallowing the lukewarm remains of it when the front door swung open and slammed against the wall.
Flossie’s head shot up. She saw the shotguns before she registered the men carrying them. From behind and between them, a third man erupted like pus from a boil, branding a compact pistol and hollering with black fabric wrapped over his mouth. She couldn’t understand a single word of it.
Alvis tried again, slowly this time.
“I said, put your hands up and don’t move.”
“How the fuck we gonna put our hands up if we can’t move,” Duke said.
Scott said, “I think he means first you put your hands up, but then you don’t move no more after that.”
“That’s how I understood it,” said Dave.
“Shut the fuck up, Fatboy!” roared Alvis.
Scott gasped. Flossie did, too.
She said, “Dave?”
Scott said, “Fuck.”
“Can’t have that,” Alvis said, and he pointed his little compact right at Flossie’s face.
Her steel gray eyes flicked from the handgun to Dave, and then back again.
She couldn’t think of anything else to say. Her wet eyes seemed to tremble in the low light.
Alvis said, “Sorry,” and he shrugged at Flossie.
His finger touched the trigger, at which point Dave’s shotgun barked fire and most of the back of his cousin’s head transformed into a sort of misty paste that spattered three tables.
Flossie squeezed her eyes shut and screamed. Alvis collapsed in a heap of arms and legs, which to Dave looked very much like a puppet with its strings just cut. There was a whiff of smoke in the air, but it was overwhelmed by the coppery stink of the dead man’s open crater of a skull.
Dave’s eyes welled up and spilled over. “I never did like you much, Alvis,” he told the corpse on the floor. Nobody could hear him say it over Flossie’s continued howling.
“Jesus jumped-up Christ, Dave,” Scott sputtered. “Jesus Christ, you blew his goddamn head off.”
“Yeah,” Dave agreed. “I reckon I did.”
“What in the blue fuck is going on in here?” Duke demanded to know.
“It’s—it’s all right, Duke,” Flossie told him. She took his arm gently. “It was Alvis Boggins come to rob us, but Dave—Dave here…”
Dave pulled the torn shirt down from his face. “I got him, Duke. Don’t worry. I got him.”
“Jesus,” Scott said, shaking his head. He quietly lay the shotgun he was carrying down on the bare floor where the rug used to be, said “Jesus” again, and then walked right back out of Dixie’s Dry Gulch, letting the door slam behind him.
He wasn’t the first to go; outside, Scott saw Huck Barber peeling out on his Cruiser. Squint was nowhere to be seen, so Scott reckoned he was likely still sawing logs in the back office. He slumped his shoulders, pulled his clown mask off, and went slowly, dejectedly, back to his truck. No money, no nothing, and all because Fatboy Dave’s crazy cousin had to go and fuck it all up for everybody. Especially his own dead self. Stupid son of a bitch.
Scott pulled out of the parking lot with a brief glance over his shoulder to see if Dave was coming out or not. He wasn’t. Scott left him there and pointed himself vaguely southwest, with ideas of kicking around Texas for a little while floating around his head.
“I expect I better call the Sheriff’s Department,” Flossie said inside, her voice wavering. She was still grasping her broom, her knuckles white from how tightly she held onto it.
Dave pried her fingers loose and took the broom, along with the shotgun he came in with, to the back. Squint was out cold on the ragged old brown-and-yellow davenport in the office. Dave stowed the gun and the broom in the cobwebby corner behind the filing cabinet. He then went back for the other gun and did the same.
After Flossie took the part of Scott’s shirt that Dave ended up with and tossed it out with all the broken glass she’d swept up, the three of them—Flossie, Dave, and Duke—had themselves three glasses of Pabst on the house while they waited for the Sheriff’s Department to roll up.
Dave savored the beer, figuring it was going to be his last for quite a long spell. Flossie patted him on the leg and said, “Don’t you worry, ain’t nobody gonna say you was with them.”
Her eyes flitted to the awful body of Alvis on the floor when she said them. She’d covered the head with an apron from behind the bar, but the blood seeped through almost immediately.
“Nah,” he deferred after a short but satisfying sip. “I’m tired, Flossie. Thanks, but I’m just so damn tired, by God.”
She nodded like she could understand that. Dave smiled at her. After another minute or two, they could both hear the sirens in the middle distance, growing louder all the time.
Dave closed his eyes and waited.
And he kept on smiling.
Ed Kurtz is the author of The Rib from Which I Remake the World, Bleed, and the Boon trilogy, among other novels. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and Best Gay Stories Originally hailing from Arkansas, Ed lives in New England.