Showing posts with label Rob mcclure smith. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rob mcclure smith. Show all posts

Monday, May 11, 2020

Against the Grain, fiction by Rob McClure Smith

Turning off Route 41, I need to flick the visor down to block a big orange sun like a severed head. Sparse woods run down a slope from the road where washboard gravel slants. I unlock the metal gate and gaze across gray flat fields at a sea of white turbines. The great three-sail steel and fiberglass machines turn slow that indolent way they do, generators humming like beehives. I listen a while to the wind slice the metal till the scraping makes my teeth hurt. The wind is clean till it enters the blades, then it's dirty. I drive on up the ridge past a burnt-up wheel-less trailer, an upright piano filled with rainwater, a couple of boats sunk in a mud field moored against a dead oak. Beyond this desolation, two black horses are sniffing each another’s butts with grim intensity beside my very favorite grain bin. Parked catty-corner is an ancient green Duesenberg with a plank stuck through its windscreen. It’s been there forever. These people. The curved driveway up to the farmhouse is covered with that fine reddish-looking dust from the cob of the corn. Cracks in the tarmac are red lines to cross. It plays havoc with the allergies too. My ex had to move all her plants out our old place to create this unique eco-system for me. When she finally quit on the relationship, she said it had been like living with the boy in the bubble, if the boy in the bubble also had some serious alcohol issues. I can’t say I regret her cutting loose. Shelley was about as funny as diphtheria.

On the porch I blast these massive clouds of nasal spray up my nostrils. Mrs. G stands behind the screen door in her dressing gown, like she’s Hugh Hefner reincarnated, contemplating me squirt the sinus stuff. She looks mildly perturbed. The screen between us is layered with bugs look like ladybugs but aren't, fake ladybugs from China got where they shouldn't. You ask me, Trump should be putting tariffs on them.

“Hello there, Mrs. G,” I say to her, friendly like. “Can Frankie come out to play?”

The old woman says nothing, looking at me with a face like haunted Tupperware. After a while of the blank staring, she gets bored and goes inside to wake him. I believe she thinks I lead her son astray, but it’s not like that one needs much leading.

The porch steps flake long thin strips of blue paint, and I commence squashing bugs on them. Their little red and black oval bodies explode underfoot with a satisfying crack, but they don't half smell putrid. Frankie emerges like a badger from its set and flops down beside me. He’s barefoot in black shorts and a wife-beater and his face is drawn with sleep. It’s 2pm. He has taken to sporting a faux Mohawk makes him look like a moderately powerful Pokémon. The effect is achieved by means of globs of gel makes his hair shine like videotape and is his way of expressing his personality, such as it is. Frankie’s a bit challenged in the social arena since it looks as if he’s had half his face carved off by a diseased butcher. But it was an accident just. Back when he was still cooking, butterfingers fumbled a pack of lithium strips into the anhydrous ammonia and blew up a barn. After that misadventure it was the Nazi method all the way for him. In general, Frankie is thick as two short planks, and I can't say that setting his face on fire and having his ass somersaulted into their pigsty that time did wonders for his character.

“It smells,” Frankie says, being ever the observant type.

“It was fine till you got here,” I tell him. “But let's assume it's coincidental.”

Foghorn Leghorn regards me blankly while fondling his spike. “So, is he driving here today or what?”

“No,” I tell him. “He'll be sailing down the Mississippi in a raft made of turnips, for variety's sake. What you think, Frankie? Of course, he’s fucking driving.”

“I was just asking, is all,” he says, looking peeved.

I indulge in the stomping of a few more bugs. Now the porch stinks worse than a porta potty at the Knox county fair. “He’ll be over Lake Storey in an hour,” I explain. “For our rendezvous, s’il vous plait mon sewer.”

“What you going to say to him about it then?”

“It?” I decide to pretend to be baffled by the use of the indefinite article.

“You know.”

“That we might need to renegotiate a few details of our agreement.”

“Like what?”

“Like what about I take care of the business end, and you don't sweat it?”

Frankie shakes his head from side to side in the fashion of a horse. “Yeah, but.”
“I’ll make a real compelling case that he should be contributing more to your 401K, Frankie. How’s that suit you?”

“I don’t have a 401K,” Frankie announces, looking stupid as he is. Last summer, I had to disabuse him of the notion that hepatitis B was a vitamin.

“What do you have stuffed down your shorts there?” I ask, noticing the bulge.

“It ain’t nothing,” Frankie says, looking shifty as a cobra.

“By my reckoning that is either a gun or you have acquired a colossal hard on.” I nod at the jut. “And, honest to God, I’m not sure which I find most disturbing.”

Frankie lays the gun down on the steps in front of us, looking chagrined. I pick it up, despite knowing where it’s been. It’s a Bersa Thunder 380, and loaded.

“Who do you think you are? James Fucking Bond? You don’t think he’ll
search us? He finds this on you there’ll be hell to pay, double O.”

Frankie just shrugs. “Better safe than sorry,” he offers.

“In your case it’d be sorry. Seriously, with your track record you’re most liable to shoot your own balls off.”

“It was just a thought,” Frankie adds, turning purple as the creepy dinosaur used to be on the idiot box.

“And whom,” I ask, being grammatically correct, “did we agree would do the thinking here, knucklehead?”

It's a half hour drive to Galesburg and not scenic. I overtake a truck whose driver is reading a newspaper. No hills, few inclines, treeless stretches and a river the color of cold. I-74 cuts through miles of flatland, empty fields either side stretching to the edge of the sky. A scarecrow a red rag tied to a stick. When I see the sign for the last remaining Lincoln-Douglas debate site I cut out past houses the size of garages dwarfed by their swimming pools, a dead Maytag factory, Carl Sandburg College, the place I got my Associates. I could have gone on to Western after that and got a degree but what’s the use? These days we all dance to the algorithms. You can’t go against the grain. Face it: the robots are coming for your job too. In the gig economy, a person needs a gig.

“I was watching this documentary last night about how ships are put together,” I say, informatively. Frankie looks at me, vaguely curious. “It was riveting.”

“How come?” Frankie blinks at me like a broken machine. “Sounds like a
real boring show.”

“Never mind,” I say, realizing he’s a complete lost cause. “Never fucking mind.”

“You think you can get Crowell to give us a bigger cut then?”

Frankie's back on his hobbyhorse. There’s no getting him off it now, one track mind. He thinks our Dubuque friend shortchanges us, and he’s not altogether mistaken.

“The thing about him is, he underestimates people,” I explain, reasonably. “That’s good for us. A person underestimates his underlings is in for a rude awakening.”

“I already had a rude awakening,” Frankie says, offering a fake yawn. I’m wary of this attempt at humor and watch him out the corner of my eye, wondering if he’s secreted a knife. “We’re going to be early as fuck for this meeting,” he says, innocently.

As it happens, we're late. Crowell prowls the rinky-dink dock talking on his phone while contemplating the wave-less fake lake, like he's Moses arranging to have the waters parted. He’s being worn by a new outfit; this blue shirt and black slacks combo, yellow socks the color of vomit and little wire-rim specs shade in the sun. He’s shooting for the suburban dad look but it’s like someone shaved a monkey and kicked it through Banana Republic. Reclining against this hideous snot-green Chrysler minivan is a heavyset bald gorilla with a neck tattoo who looks like he could easily go three MMA rounds with Behemoth. Crowell travels with muscle these days, now he's making money hand over fist, now he’s getting Sackler big.

This sidekick finger-walks my pockets, tracks with his palms the inside seam of my jeans and socks. He’s not conversationally inclined. “I didn't realize we were this intimate,” I tell him. “If you're feeling frisky you should ask me out for a drink first.”

The knuckle-dragger doesn’t crack a smile, just starts right in patting down Frankie too, then nods at the boss, job well done.

“You're late,” Crowell observes, slipping the phone in his pocket. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that punctuality is the politeness of Kings?”

“Thing is, I'm not a King,” I tell him. “Not yet.”

This remark causes him to eye-fuck me some, not liking that sentiment at all, not appreciating ambition in a subordinate. He looks at Frankie and frowns. “And who's this fine specimen of humanity when he's at home?”

“This would be Frankie, and he's not at home right now.”

“And who might Frankie be?”
“He’s my employee of the month.”

Crowell saunters over to him. “Are you from the future?” he inquires.

“What?” Frankie says, slow on the uptake.

“I mean did you quantum leap here from an alternative universe? What's with the funky hairdo at all? Are you auditioning to be a toilet brush?”

Frankie looks at Crowell glassy-eyed and I’m relieved I took the gun from him. I decide it’s for the best to change the subject. “You were admiring our fine lake view?”

“There is no view, and this puddle is a sorry excuse for a lake.” Crowell spits a thick gob in the water. “I could never live in a podunk town in a thousand years.”

“It’s not so bad,” I tell him, not believing it.

  “If I had to stay in a place like this I'd go loco. Seriously, I’d just stick my face in a meatgrinder and go live in the woods.” Crowell nods towards Frankie. “Like what Mr. Stein here went and did.”

“What?” Frankie says.

“Where we going then?” Crowell asks, clapping his hands, suddenly all business. “I take it you’re not scooting around with money in the car. It’s not your mojo.”

“Frankie's farm,” I say. “It's not very far.”

“Oh boy. Can you even believe it?” Crowell starts up this ugly cackling noise. “They keep cash on hand in an actual farm.”

“My name isn’t Stein,” Frankie says.

  Crowell quits cackling. “Is it MacDonald?”

“No,” says Frankie, still humorless as the Pope. “Gustafsson.”

“This must be fucking trying,” Crowell says to me, exasperated.

“Yeah, but he does try though,” I point out. “Credit where it’s due.”

“Leave your car,” Crowell orders. “We’ll drop you back. We’re taking mine.”

“No offense,” I say to him, grimacing. “But your ride is a bit embarrassing to be seen in. Looks like something a suicidal soccer mom would drive.”

“Which would be the fucking point,” Crowell says, slowly, squinting at me with those fish-pale eyes of his. “I don’t know about you, dipshit, but when I’m moving a few thousand Oxycodone, Fentanyl, and Percocet, I prefer going the inconspicuous route.”

I suppose he has a point, but I can’t say I’m feeling the love today. “Do we still get our orange slices though?” I ask him.

The one good thing about a Chrysler minivan is there’s plenty legroom in the back. That’s where we’re put, which means Crowell has to turn around in his seat to insult us. Frankie doesn’t wear a seatbelt because he suffers from claustrophobia. He’d have a certificate of exemption on his license, if he still had a license. Crowell punches the address into his GPS. Now he can find the farm whenever he wants, which is not a good thing at all.

“You still seeing the one with the legs?” he asks me.

“No, she left the state.”

“With another guy?”

“No, with the circus.”

“Well, she was already used to hooking up with clowns right enough." Crowell locates a smirk. "Usual issue was it? See, doctors can treat impotence and handle cases of premature ejaculation, but when you have both conditions. . .” He’s grinning ear to ear now, mouth like a coin slot. “They have such a small
window to work with.”

“You're dead funny,” I tell him.

“But my pockets aren't full of money,” Crowell says. “Yet, at any rate.”

“We’ve been giving that some thought,” I announce, sounding nervous as I am.

“We?” Crowell frowns. “Who are you now? The Queen of England?”

“I’ve been thinking that there are elements of the recent surcharge on delivery expenses and overhead may be contractually negotiable as regards inventory.”

“Why can’t you talk properly?” Crowell asks me. “What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s just that . .”

“Are you serious? When does retail ever dictate terms to wholesale?” Crowell leans across to put his mouth beside the driver’s ear. “You think Jeff Bezos here is playing with a full deck, Ivan?”

“Ivan never has much to say,” I observe.

Crowell sighs. “Ivan doesn’t speak English,” he explains.

“Why do you keep talking to him then?”

“Well, he gets the gist.” Crowell rubs the driver's bald head with his palm, like it's a magic 8 ball. “It’s all contextual.”

“He’s Russian then, is he?”

“Something like that.” Crowell shrugs. “He’s from Idontgiveafuckastan.”

“And his name is really Ivan?”

“Christ, no. We call him Ivan because he’s a terrible person.” Crowell fixes me with a glare. “You bring money up again I’ll set Ivan on you, so I will.”

I decide in the circumstances to let the subject drop.

Crowell is staring Frankie down. “That goes for you too, Rooster-Prick.”

This most recent exchange proves somewhat chilling to the social affections and we drive in silence for a while. I contemplate clouds thick as beaten egg whites through a crooked black lace of trees. It’s like the photograph of a memory I used to have.

Crowell decides to pull the thread of our earlier conversation. “So, what was it went wrong between you and legs then?”

“Lots of things. Her parents didn’t appreciate me.”

“How was that?”

“Her father told Shelley he wanted me to hurry up and murder her so the family could get to grieve properly.”

“That's harsh.” Crowell nods thoughtfully. “That's toxic masculinity is what that is. Shelley was the name then, eh? Like the stupid-ass poet fell in the water that time?”

“Uh-huh. No relation but.”

“Still have her digits? Might give her a buzz next time I'm stuck in this wasteland.” Crowell turns to Ivan. “This girl had the longest legs.”

“They went all the way to the ground,” I add.

Crowell wrinkles his pug nose at me, disgusted, reeking of Old Spice Swagger. “And what she was doing with a loser like this I cannot for the life of me fathom.”

I used to bitch to Shelley all the time about Crowell's fuckery, and she would just laugh and say he sounded like me, except he said out loud what I was thinking. I was just more restrained, she noted, which was ironic given that restraining order she took out.

  Crowell is incredulous when he finds out where we store the inventory. I explain how even the police in Illinois are cautious about getting in a grain bin. “Morons keep falling in them,” I tell him. “They’re notoriously unsafe.”

“Once you go down in a grain bin,” Frankie observes, mordantly, “you die.”

“And you keep the money inside this thing as well? Holy fuck.”

“We don’t never use this one no more for nothing,” Frankie says. “It’s obsolated.”

“That’s not a word,” Crowell points out, examining the sheer sides of the silo.

“But the cops don’t know it’s no longer used, see?” I am sensing a possible opening. “We could store a lot more, a ton more. Profit margins could be tremendous. I’d say we’re utilizing at most 20% capacity right now. Scratching the surface. Macomb could be the new Medellin. We could be doing far more than Knox and Warren. Could service Peoria and Fulton too. In no time this place could practically be. . .  Iowa.”

“Talk to me,” Crowell says, sniffing filthy lucre.

While I do the hard pitch, Frankie heads on up the farmhouse to get the keys from his mom and comes back to conduct a tour of the facility. He shows Crowell the unloading building on its raised cement slab, the old conveyer system, storage bins, the grain dryer. Crowell sees the possibilities, his brain turning over like a slot machine. Now the two of them are getting along like a house on fire, all forgiven. After we unload the pills from the mini-van and slide the bags through the vents and under the grain, Frankie decides he also needs to show him where we hide the money, which is a terrible idea. We leave Ivan by the car and the three of us climb a 20-foot metal ladder and crawl on hands and knees into the silo. From the gantry, you can look down at the grain mound where the pills are tucked away. Across the gantry, Frankie has rigged planks to make a serviceable walkway. He points to where the cash bags are wedged behind the stanchions on the far side. Of course, Crowell steps out onto the planks for a better look. Above the walkway old corn is caked on the sides of the bin forming a solid crust overhead. Frankie starts jabbing at the loose corn kernels sticking there with this iron bar he’s found somewhere.

“Stop that,” I tell him. “It’s dangerous.”

“How?” he asks, and the mass of grain settled against the walls gives and all the mess caked on the sides collapses in this massive avalanche that right away sweeps Crowell ass over tits off the walkway. Down he goes, heaved with a dull thump against the corrugated silo on the descent, to land face down in three feet of corn, which is sort of amusing. Getting to his feet, he doesn’t look that amused though.

“Jesus,” I say. “You stupid fuck, Frankie.”

“Oopsie-doopsie,” Frankie says, suppressing a fit of the giggles.

“How do I get out of this thing?” Crowell yells up at us, feeling at his head with his fingers. He’s seething like a pit bull. “By the way, you two retards are dead.” He commences groping around in the grain searching for his specs.

“That’s a terrible attitude,” Frankie says to me.
“So, how do we him up from there, as a matter of interest?” I ask. “A rope?”

“We don’t,” Frankie says, looking at me like I’m stupid. He bawls down at Crowell, “We’re not the ones are dead here,” and bangs the iron bar hard three times on the metal and immediately this grinding vibration wells up around us.

Crowell is startled and wheels around, a bit panicky, wondering what the noise is. I know what the noise is. The electric motor on the north side that starts the v-belts has started up. The belts open the horizontal floor augur in the hopper that speeds the flow of grain. The sudden displacement sucks Crowell to the floor of the silo, engulfing him. Moving grain does not support the weight of a person. Once you get in, it’s like water. A body in grain takes seconds to sink, or so I’m learning. Crowell gives a choked scream as an air pocket pulls at him and yellow-brown kernels get forced up his nose, into his ears, down his throat. His fancy outfit is going to be ruined, and he worked so hard at it.

“We have to get him out,” I say, clawing at Frankie’s arm.

“Why?” Frankie asks.

And it’s only then I realize, being slow on the uptake.

Crowell slowly slides into the sinkhole frantic as a man caught in quicksand, scratching at the surface. “I’m going to die,” he screams up. “My God, I’m going to die.”

“That’s right,” Frankie yells back. “This here rooster-prick has to agree.”

The two of us watch as the kernels pour past his chest, up his chin and over his head. Then there’s just corn where once there was Crowell.

“He always was a bit corny.” Frankie looks at me and his eyes are slits. “That’s me being James Fucking Bond, knucklehead.”


Frankie clutches a Bud light bottle in his right hand as he walks over to the car. Ivan sees the beer and smiles and reaches his hand out and Frankie smashes the bottle over his head, which causes it to cave like a soft-boiled egg. The neck of the bottle is still between his fingers, the broken section ending in a jagged splinter, and he starts carving at Ivan’s face with it, whipping the sharp glass back and forth artistically, each slash opening new spurting channels of red. An ear is hanging in a way that ears do not. Ivan is still very professional about it though, backhanding Frankie in the solar plexus and knocking the wind out of him, then pivoting on his left foot to follow up with a right cross, in the same motion raising his knee and thudding it in Frankie’s belly so that he jack-knifes forward, sending spit showering out his mouth.

As Ivan begins to explore the possibility of choking Frankie to death, I consider an intervention. “Hip,” says Frankie, but I'm assuming he means help.

Ivan tosses Frankie to the ground like a rag doll and opens the passenger side door. That he is even semi-functional with his head like that constitutes a miracle of sorts. Ivan reaches in the glove compartment, for a gun I suppose, and what is left of his face explodes like a sledgehammered watermelon. This mélange of blood and bone fragments and brains showers across the dashboard and windscreen and then he topples with surreal slowness and falls onto the grass lengthwise like a concussed cartoon character.

A glittering dust of bees-wings is falling through the declining sun behind Mrs. G. I’m looking right at her. She is about sixty, today in jeans and work boots, with too long hair, gray streaking the black, and childish bangs. I’ve never seen her up close and fully clothed. Her face is grimly set and I notice that she is quite terrifying. It was her started the machinery. The AR-15 is aimed at my groin and she is most definitely considering her options. My bowels at once evacuate, which is embarrassing. Mrs. G only lowers the barrel very slowly. “Little Alec,” she says, nodding at me. Then she looks up at the sky and yawns. “The nights are fair drawing in.”

“You OK?” I ask Frankie, sprawled and wheezing like a busted concertina.

“Get up,” his mother barks. “There’s nothing the matter with you, shake it off.”

All the excitement has left the purple imprint of finger-bruises on his neck and caused his mohawk to deflate somewhat. “Thanks for nothing,” he says to me, spitting out a bloody tooth. “Don’t you ever call me a stupid fuck again or I'll do for you.”

The night has indeed drawn in, a moon like a shard of fingernail in the gloaming. A faint and steady rain of dead insects spirals down from the big bulb on the silo, little toasted corpses pankling against the metal side. Crowell’s cellphone has popped out one of the augur holes and is ringing. IPhones are sturdy, being made in China, like the ladybugs. Through a hole in the bin, I can make out the outline of a leg. I look at the phone screen and see someone called Rhiannon is calling. I don't know who that is, maybe his daughter? I know what it was her mother used to listen to.

“Well,” I say, silencing the cell. “This is a situation.”

“How's that?” asks Mrs. G.

I make the discovery that I can't seem to stop shaking and sniffing. “I was alluding to the current double homicide debacle?”

“Townie got all the big words,” Frankie says to his mother, sneering.

“Must be a real whizz at the Scrabble,” she says.

I can only stare at them, teeth still chattering like castanets.

“Francis and I have this,” Mrs. G. says, steelily. “What I need for you to do is wipe this car down and drive it back and leave it at the lake and get your own car and go home. Do you think you can manage that now? Do you want me to write it down?”

“There are bits of brains,” I observe. “The seatback's a bloody mess.”

“So?” she snarls at me. “What of it? The gunk is inside us is always wanting to get out. Bleach in the scullery. Give it a good scrub. Come back for further instructions tomorrow. There’s a lot to do now with my supplier gone, things to consider, arrangements to be made. Business can't wait. I can’t sleep on this.”

“There are cameras,” I tell her. “When they find his car, they’ll trace it to me.”

“College-boy must have seen that shit on CSI,” Frankie says.

Mother and son laugh at me together in the mothlight.

“You used a burner when you talked to him, right?”


“Get a clue, boy,” she says. “You think there are decent cameras on these roads? Where you think this is? This is nowhere Illinois. No one gives a shit about you.”

“What about the. . .?” I cannot seem to articulate the word bodies.

Mrs. G's laugh is the sound a metal garbage disposal makes under a sink. “Pigs got to eat,” she says.

I'm shaking like a lemon blancmange and my nose is running. “I need to change my pants,” I suggest.

“Yeah,” she says, wrinkling her nose at me. “You do that.”

At midnight the cold-green river is an ink sheet and the highway a darkened blue, that big white moon before me. Insects swirl in the lamp beams of the mini-van, splatter against the windscreen. The fields are filled with those tall, bone-white stalks whose tips emit red light blinks like giant lonesome smokers in the dark. They look like flocks of giant, three-winged seagulls until you get close and can see the long sharp-edged shadow swoop of blades longer than the Statue of Liberty’s arm. I want those great white wings to snatch me into the sky away from all of this. I’m in way over my head. I need them to scoop me up into a rope of trembling black stars. 

Rob McClure Smith is a writer living in Galesburg, Illinois. His short story collection The Violence was published by Queen's Ferry Press in 2015. He is currently working on a novel about a Scottish detective investigating a murder in Washington D.C.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Masonry, by Rob McClure Smith

The late afternoon sky was that blue  called sky-blue. A sky so clear and true you could  put your fist through it. A plane cut a diagonal swath across it. Cowan wanted to be up there, oblivious to harm.

It was 2.30.

Near the turnstiles at King Street slouched a young man. His hair cut in a fade and topped with a purple do-rag knotted in front, wide-legged Rocawears bunched on a pair of reverse-laced red K-Swiss. He had the look, right down to the old RG3 sweatshirt over  a snow-white tee, and he was trying way too hard not to check out the arrivals. A blue knapsack nestled between his feet. It was the knapsack was off.

Cowan took the other exit. He crossed by the Amtrak depot and climbed Shooter's Hill to the Masonic Memorial. Crossing Callahan, he looked back to see a blue bag slung over a shoulder and a phone clamped to an ear.

The Memorial was fashioned after the Lighthouse of Alexandria. But no Egyptian would have concocted nine floors of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian into this stone tier cake monstrosity. The information board was a dark solemn black. Open daily. No dogs. No filming. Proper attire required. This fucking donkey jacket would be the death of him. On top of the board a golden crest, sun at the top, moon at the bottom, columns at upper left and right surmounted with globes, sheaves of wheat, tools and pomegranates. In the center a "G" surrounded by a square and a compass and '1910.'  In crimson three stars and two horizontal stripes. In Memoriam Perpetuam.

He chose the curving path on the left, scaling another step tier, then another. Up and up. The embankments framing the steps stippled brown. Landscaping minimal, sparse bushes ranged symmetrically. No cover, a blank and deserted place. One tier from the top, a glass case with reproduction of Brady's 1864 panoramic view. The city of Robert E. Lee was gray and smoky, a military tent village erected where the train station now was, a row of arches, like on a rich man'ss croquet lawn. Cowan read about the Ellsworth Avengers on a sepia daguerreotype, located landmarks then and now, contemplated the hidden meanings of architecture. Sloping downhill, another stone G in the square and compass. To his right the young man from the Metro. He had followed him and it wasn't for his autograph.

"Aight." The kid tapped a finger on his do-rag, blue-black tat of a spider-web like a bruise on the side of his neck.

They stared at a distant horizon, low rooftops, distant snaking blue, a far away Ferris wheel, unturned. A flag flapped on a flagpole causing it to creak. Cowan saw the butt of a pistol protruding from the waistband of the kid's boxers. He was supposed to.

"What you suppose the big G stands for?" he asked.

The kid stared at Cowan like his question was mined.

"Big G on the stone there?"


"You think?"

"Uh-huh. George Washington, man, founding father freed the slaves and shit."

"Not God?"

The kid considered this. "Nah."

"Geometry then?"

"Don't give a shit, cuz. Whatev."

"You should," Cowan said, angrily. "Big difference between God and George.  God doesn't have a name, so the theologians say. But if he did it wouldn't be George.  Who'd take a God called George seriously?  'Come out the burning bush, George, you're scaring the kids!' George doesn't have the right ring to it. Doesn't that bother you any?"

The kid gave Cowan the heavy-lidded look he likely reserved for homeless D.C. crazies. "I ain't got to bother about nuthin' but be black and die, slim."

"What you think his name would be then?"


"Besides that."

"Fuck is with you man?"

"Seriously.  If God had a name what'd it be?"

"Sumthin like. . . " The kid pondered his knuckles. "Fuck I know."

"You're not even trying." The silence lasted about seven years.

"Sumthin like Mahabone maybe," the kid spat, finally.


"Mahabone. I made it up. Got some serious ji voodoo vibe to it. See, I was God I'd want a serious motherfuckin name scare the shit out folks got me bent." He tilted his chin at the declining sun, content. "Mahabone, hell. I'm a liking that. They be shittin' their pants old Mahabone come round."

"You got a name?"

"You hear me ask yours?" He held Cowan's gaze. Finally, "Yeah. I got a name."

"That's good," Cowan said. "A name's useful. That's how come my cat is called Susan."

The kid unzipped the knapsack. Cowan watched. Instead was extracted a two-thirds full 40-ounce of Country Club. A cap unscrewed. Amber fluid sloshed.

"I see you brought your own urine sample."

"You ever shut the fuck up, man?  I'm here appreciatin’the nature and shit."

The kid took a deep swig of the malt and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He had to hold the bottle with both hands to tip it, like he was playing a brass instrument.

"Did you know beer is made from barley?" Cowan asked. "That gut rot is derived from corn."

The kid screwed the cap back on and adjusted the bottle on the parapet. "Do I look like I give a fuck?"

"That's the only Country Club you'll ever see the inside of." Cowan gestured at the Memorial. "Ever gone inside?"

"I ain't ever been in that joint." The kid grimaced. "Fuck is these creepy pillars and shit?"

A couple, in prosperous middle age, climbed the steps. The kid observed their approach, eyes flitting, evaluating terrain. They passed, on to the entrance, where they paused in an attitude of worship.

"I do like them boxers," Cowan said. "Very pretty. I knew a girl had panties the exact same shade of blue and red and white. I think her name was Wonder Woman. Is that the new concealed-carry underwear I've read about? What you plan to do with the gun? Shoot your balls off?"

The kid tilted his chin at him. "Kill your ass. Do the world a favor."

"Not here though." Cowan said. "All these sightseers. Look, here's Tiger Woods."
Prince Hall came down the steps backward, snapping a photograph on his phone.  He wore a green jacket.

"Tourists don't give no shit. You know how they do. They from Minnesota and such." The young man waxed philosophical. "See no evil, know what I'm sayin'?"

"You all getting acquainted?" Hall joined them. He wore a pair of too-large Locs sunglasses, a Redskins snapback high on his brow. "What's good cuz?" He offered his fist to the kid for a pound and they performed an elaborate ritual handshake.

"Man, I'mma keep it a hunnit, don't like this shit. Naw. Way in the open, know what I'm sayin'? Like the Kennedy Center. Should be in the cut for a deal like this."

"What you got there?" said Hall, gesturing at the bottle. "You can't be doing that here. What the matter with you, Jalil? Get a grip."

"Listen to this motherfucker talk for five and you be drinkin too."
Prince walked behind Cowan to fingerwalk his jacket pockets, hunkering to track with his palms the inside seam of his jeans, socks. He removed his wallet.

"I appreciate you hooking up with us, Mr. Cowan."

"If you're feeling frisky shouldn't you ask me out for a drink first?"
Prince palmed his chest pocket for a cigarette. "Smoke?"

"I'm looking after my health." Cowan grinned. "I'm figuring to live a long time."

Hall laughed, tossing the wallet to Jalil who rifled it.

"Next you'll be asking if I want a blindfold."

Hall lit with the flick of a Bic, inhaled deeply.  "I'm not with you."

"Before the execution. Like the last cigarette."

Hall blew a streamer of smoke. "That's a morbid thought. I'm going to finish this jack," he said. "Then we're going to stroll back around there admire the fine architecture."

"I'm not going anywhere," Cowan said, reasonably. "Sorry. I like it here. I can appreciate the nature and shit, that right?"

Jalil sniffed. "I think we got a crazy. Talkin' to me about the name of God and some shit." He finished with the wallet, finding nothing of interest, stuffing two twenty dollar bills in his pocket. "We bout done here?"

"This one says the G in the block there is for George," Cowan said. "I say God. Want to be the casting vote, Prince?" Cowan blinked a few times at him. "Prince. What a silly name."

"Giblum." Hall examined the tip of his cigarette like it was a Rorschach, flicked dead ash. "It means stone squarer."

"I'm surprised."

"You get a free education when you serve. You be all you can be, no one tell you that?" He looked in Cowan's eyes. "You'd have been better never come to this city."

The tourists returned and the men exchanged a glance. Hall made a delicate gesture with his hands, an oblique sign.

Cowan looked at the sprawl of city. "You get a good view up here. Where was it you served? Afghanistan? Iraq?"

"You don't want to know where I've been or the things I done."

"Prince," said Cowan, thoughtfully. "Say, you weren't named after the midget in the purple suit? The one sang Darling Nikki?"

Hall narrowed his eyes slightly. "Great song that," was all he said.

The tourists stopped by the emblem. Hall drummed his fingers on the railing.

The sun hung lower in the sky, an invitation to night. They moved away.

"I'm not coming with you," Cowan said, quietly.

"I think it's in your best interest."

"I'm finished either way." Cowan shrugged. "I'm just not up for making it convenient. You'll have to do for me here, like this."

Hall flinched. "It's a hard world. You know that."

Cowan needed to think carefully and act quickly. For now, jabbering like an idiot would have to do.

"Must be hard for you being a professional and here you have to work with amateurs like Lil' Wayne here."

Hall ashed his cigarette on the railing and a slow rain of orange flecks descended.  "You have to use what's at hand when you're building," he said, turning a complete 360, seeing no one for miles. "Different tools for different purposes." He flicked his butt on the grass, reached into his jacket pocket, made more significant eye contact with Jalil.

They wouldn't shoot him. They had something else in mind. Something quieter.

"What about this tool?" Cowan asked, edging closer to Jalil.  "When this is done, you going to do for him too?"

"What the fuck this crazy rambling ‘bout?" Jalil asked.

"Forget to tell you about that?" Cowan tut-tutted. "You didn't tell him how royalty cleans up after itself. That's a sin of omission."

"I hate to be rude, but you're starting to bore me."  Hall nodded at Jamil, who didn't move. Just stared blankly.

Cowan toe-shuffled closer, within arm's length of the bottle now.

"You need to kill here, cuz," Prince said, discomfited. "This one just trying to syce the situation."

"I been thinking about how that shit went down my own self."

"We talk about this later, aight?"

"Hold up, but way Carlton was buggin’. . ."

Jalil didn't finish because Cowan scooped up the liquor bottle with both hands and brought it down hard as he could on the purple do-rag. There was a dull hollow glassy thud and the cap popped. Blood and liquor sprayed on the stonework. Jalil staggered sideways like a stunned cow and Cowan smacked him on the cheekbone with the bottle so hard it shattered. He was left holding the wide jagged neck. Jalil's knees buckled and his eyes rolled back white, like a man far gone in drink. He toppled onto the embankment, thrashing, his legs kicking as though pedaling an invisible bicycle.

The gun spun between the railings and onto the emblem, clattering on the stone.  Cowan was trying to gauge where it went when Prince's body flew into his, a linebacker's hit. The momentum sent them off the parapet and onto the carved square. It was a four foot drop, but they landed hard and awkward on the stone G. Cowan's back spat rapid sparks of pain. Only a tsunami of adrenalin and terror got him upright.

Hall was hurt too, his right shoulder dislocated. His arm hung limp by his side and he had the look of a man who had failed to accomplish a basic task, targeting fury like a laser at his own ineptitude. He eyed Cowan through a mist of hurt and rage.

Cowan scrambled across the stone searching for the missing gun.

With the subtlest flick of his wrist a small ivory knife appeared between Hall's fingers. Cowan backed up across the G as Hall  advanced, dabbing the knife at his chest.  He felt the indent of the stone letter under his feet. The man was trained to kill hand-to-hand. But he was injured, switching the blade to his left hand. His semi-crippled status evened things up. The third time Hall thrust, wincing as he did so, Cowan skewered his wrist with the bottleneck.

"I'm going to kill you," Hall bared his teeth. He looked at the glass embedded in his wrist, blood spurting around it. He took a step, his face crumpled with pain. "I'm going to kill your ass. Kill your ass," he chanted. But the knife hung limp.

They circled one another on the emblem,in the attitude of dancers. Hall on the compass:  Cowan on the square. He expected to be numbed by panic, but this close to death he felt untroubled. How few thousand years ago it was other dancers had stood here, plodding slowly in a darkness of fetid caves, befouling themselves in ceremonies of fear with gestures bloody and offerings bloody given up with knives bloody to some impassive stone idols.He tasted swamp history in his mouth and scented in the wind an ancient, reeking odor and wanted very much to live and was no longer afraid.

When Hall made another lunge, Cowan  tugged on the elastic in his sleeve and the plywood with the razor blade embedded in it snapped into his fingers. He jinked and stroked the blade across the exposed cheek. It slit Hall temple to chin. The skin tore like paper. Hall gave a cry and fell to one knee. Cowan kicked him in the jaw.

The spurting made a red tributary across the indentation of the square and compass. Cowan crept to where Hall lay splayed on the stone. He wasn't moving.

"Prince,"he said, holding the razor's edge in front of him.

More red pooled now and the handle protruding from Hall's neck quivered each time a jet squirted under it.

"Isn't nobody killed me yet,"Cowan whispered.

The slab was veined with blood.

Cowan found the gun in a bush. He knew fuck-all about guns. He didn't even know how to take the safety off.

Jalil sat up, feeling at his face with his hands. One cheek was badly swollen and an eye closing fast. Cowan jammed the gun in his ear. "I told you drinking was bad for you," he said.

"What the fuck you do?" moaned Jalil, blood seeping between his fingers.

"You've heard the expression 'hitting the bottle'? This time the bottle hit you. I think you might be concussed. That'd be hard to tell with you, son.” Cowan tracked the cut on the kid's head with his palm. “You're going to need a doctor but--"

"I don't believe in them," Jalil groaned. "Fucks stick you with needles and shit."

"You need stitches. It won't hurt."

"'It won't hurt' always does," Jalil said, despondent.

Cowan hauled him to his feet and, shoving the gun in his back, forced him to look at the body on the emblem, arms forming a 90 degree angle, like a final signal of distress.

"Head hurts like a motherfucker," Jalil observed.

"That could be you," Cowan said. "Lying there. Just saying."

"Could be. But ain't." Jalil shrugged. "I didn't like him anyways. He had a bad attitude."

The blood made the stone slippery. Cowan had never once considered the slipperiness of blood. 

"Take off your jacket," he ordered.


"Give us the fucking jacket."

Jalil handed it to him. Cowan took off his own. "Here," he said, handing it over. "Wipe that stone off with this."

"You serious?"

"Do I look serious?"

"I dunno what you look like."

Jalil scrubbed. The declining sun freakishly seemed to dart its rays to the center.  Both of them looked up, disturbed. Then returned to the task at hand.

"Move the body off first," Cowan said. "And be careful you don't slip and fall.  That would be embarrassing." He pulled on the sweatshirt. "It's important not to embarrass yourself." He flipped the hood and sat hunched like a monk with the gun still leveled at Jalil. The hoodie made him self-conscious. His back hurt and his legs were shaking again. He wondered if he was going into shock. "Now how's about you drag it under that bush, see it?"

"You goin to shoot me or what?"


Jalil kicked the body into concealment, wiped his hands clean on the grass.

"You know how to make this all go away?" Cowan asked.

"How you mean?"

"I mean can you make a call to your people and make this go away? Like it never happened. You connected? Or is that what Prince did before he abdicated?"


"Do it. Then go get some stitches."

"I think I got a number some place. You not goin’to shoot me?"

"I want to, but I need the bullets where I'm going."

"The safety is on."

"Yeah, I figured."

"Can't shoot nobody with the safety on. You retarded?"

"You going to make that call or not?"

"What I say?"

"Tell them you fucked up. Tell them the guy you meant to waste got away. Say he ran towards the Metro. Tell them you need a body disposed of."

Jalil's eyes never left the gun as he spoke. Cowan took his phone and threw it against the stone.

"The fuck?"

"The cell phone is destroying the art of conversation."

"That a new iPhone!"

Cowan took off the safety. "Go find my wallet."

Jalil came back with it. "You take bad photos, man. They do the license over you ask. Don't nobody have to go through life looking that ugly-ass."

"Keep the 40 and put it toward a new coat." Cowan stuffed the wallet in his pocket. "Then get yourself a new line of work. You're not cut out for this. Be an exotic male dancer or a postman or something."

"You not goin to shoot me?"

"You keep bringing it up I'm liable to."

Cowan lowered the gun and took off down the steps.

"You really goin to the Metro?" Jalil called after him.

Cowan turned and aimed the gun. "It matter?"

"I ain't say shit."  Jalil's lip was in a full pout. "You sure you need to be keeping that jacket?"


He walked along King, glancing nervously at traffic headed east. The street whirled like the blades of a fan. He went into the Austin Grill, famished. Maybe that's what killing someone did. Gave you an appetite. He asked to be sat at a window table, one overlooking the main drag.

4:03, night fast falling, headlights on. He settled back, looked at the rack of glasses by the bar, the longhorns above the kitchen, the array of weird masks on the brick walls. Even that scary-ass Frida Kahlo looked seductive tonight.

The waitress was checking him out. She was young, a leggy sloe-eyed blonde in too-tight jeans and a low-cut blouse. He didn't attract that kind of attention from this young a woman anymore. In his early thirties, a cloak of invisibility had descended on him. Perhaps he had the look of a stone-cold killer tonight:  maybe the danger he exuded made him more attractive. Something evolutionary.

She returned with his Pepsi, big-eyeing him. She was staring so blatantly that he felt obligated to stare back. She was pretty as all get-out. When she brought his order, she put on the tray a glass of water without ice and a pile of napkins. She leaned her breasts across him and he deep-whiffed her perfume as she whispered in his ear. "Sir, there's blood. It's on your face." He looked at her. "It's, like, all over your cheeks."

He dipped the napkin and wiped the blood away. There was a lot of it, and it wasn't even his. He depleted the pile.

"I think I must have cut myself," he said.

Her look of concern was tinctured, Cowan realized, with horror.

"There's blood on your hands too," she said.

There was.