Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Monday, December 21, 2020

Leadbetter's Last Letter, fiction by Lincoln Jaques

Jono Leadbetter and Shane ‘Warmonger’ Stevenson were two crooks who had just finished a big job. It was Christmas Eve. They were having a glass of mulled wine poured from a flask that Jono’s wife, Sue, had packed for them in a hold-all. Inside the hold-all was also a Christmas cracker. Wrapped in gold paper, decorated with a red ribbon. Expensive looking, like the kind you find in Harrod’s. 

‘You want to do the honours?’ Jono said, picking it out. He held it up in the thin light from the low-wattage bulb hanging from the ceiling of the warehouse they hid in while the air cleared.

Warmonger smirked. ‘Your missus is gonna make you soft in the nugget, one of these days.’ But he grabbed the tapered end, and for a moment, they eyed each other like the frontmen from two opposing tug o’ war teams before they each yanked at the cracker. 

The cracker exploded, and a rolled-up sheet of paper dropped out. At first Warmonger thought it was one of those crappy jokes they always put in crackers. He picked it up and unrolled it. Read the writing. His smile left his face and he looked at Jono, a hint of fear and uncertainty entering his eyes.

‘What’s up, Warmonger?’ Jono said, sculling the remainder of his mulled wine.

‘I’m not sure you should see this,’ Warmonger replied. His voice cracked a little, which startled Jono. Jono thought Warmonger was about to cry.

‘Give that here!’ Jono snatched it out of Warmonger’s shaking hands. He glanced over the scrawl, Warmonger knowing all too well Jono couldn’t decipher the strange lettering. Jono had never attended much school. He dropped out at 14 and went to work at the Ford Motor Company with his father, sweeping floors, working his way up to screwing bolts into engine mounts. 

That’s before he decked the foreman. Before his first stint in Strangeways.

‘Read it to me,’ he snapped at Warmonger.

Now Warmonger was a tough nut. His name says it all. But Warmonger suddenly felt sick. For what was written there was something he really didn’t want to share with Jono. For Jono was the tougher opponent. Jono was his mentor. His best mate all these years. Warmonger was also Jono’s best man at his wedding. 

‘Nah, listen, Jono,’ Warmonger stalled for time. ‘It’s a crap joke. Nothing to even get your laughing gear excited about.’

Jono looked at Warmonger. Jono didn’t so much as crack a smile. 

‘You screwing with me, Warmonger? You know I can’t read, and now you comin’ all high and mighty? What you fucking take me for? There’s a shit load of words on that page. They never put long gags like that in them Christmas crackers. Read it.’

Warmonger swallowed hard. He had to think fast. But Warmonger’s problem was that he wasn’t a thinker. Thinking wasn’t something he was expected to do, much. He was a trigger man, a back up to Jono, a getaway driver. 

‘Well?’ Jono said, getting angrier by the minute. ‘Go on then. Tell me what’s in it. I can tell by your face it ain’t a fairy tale.’

Warmonger unrolled the paper. It was a letter. Not a good letter, either. It wasn’t full of goodwill to any man, especially not to Warmonger and especially not to Jono. The poor bastard, Warmonger thought at that moment. The poor, poor bastard, finding out like this. But that sympathy didn’t last for long, for then he thought of himself, and what would happen if he read out the contents of that letter. He wouldn’t get out of here alive, he was sure of it. Jono had a temper on him, one that even Warmonger couldn’t beat. Warmonger cursed God under his breath. Started cursing his own existence. Started cursing, more quietly, in fact silently so Jono wouldn’t hear, Sue, Jono’s wife. Did she want him to die? Did she want to ruin everything? Then he thought back to several nights before, when he’d left Sue at the pub. They’d all got rather drunk, and Jono had let it out about doing over the jewellery store on Christmas Eve, when the cash float was floating so much it became a river of the Queen’s Head, those fad wads of sterling, those bristling bundles of pound notes sitting in the safe in the back, ready to go to the bank the day after boxing day. Sue got angry. She pulled Warmonger aside and said that if he wanted to be with her, then he needed to get out of the game. But Sue didn’t understand. Noone, not even Warmonger, once they crossed him, walked away from Jono. She said he promised her he wasn’t going to do the jewellery shop job and if he did then she’d tell Jono about them. But Warmonger brushed her off; he guessed, wrongly it seems, that she was bluffing, that she would never do anything so stupid.

But here they were. Jono and Warmonger; a hold-all bulging with notes; a Christmas cracker laying in tatters on the floor; a Dear John(o) letter clutched in his hands. 

‘It’s easy for you,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Being able to read those scraggly lines. I mean, how the hell is anyone supposed to decipher that shit? Nah, gimme the football on Sundays and me fags and Magners, and I’m happy.’ He picked up the hold-all and hugged it as if he hugged Sue. Warmonger felt a wave of relief, thinking he’d gotten away with it.

‘But still,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Be a pal, and read me the joke. I need cheering up.’ 

‘Why don’t we have some more of that wine?’ Warmonger said.

‘Fine. You pour.’

Jono and Warmonger sat down on some crates. Warmonger poured the wine into the cap and a plastic cup. ‘Cheers, pal!’ Jono said, and he chinked Jono’s cup with his. When they had taken a mouthful, Jono became serious again.

‘You know why we’re here, Warmonger?’

‘For the money.’

Jono nodded. ‘That, and a lot more. I’m here because I stood for 14 hours a day, double shifts, screwing bolts into engine mounts. Like my old man did. Like his did before him, except he worked at the foundry. I suppose we had a better life, and he always reminded me of that, every bloody day. But I never saw it like that. I wanted more. I wanted one of those new Fords we rolled off the lines. Remember, right at the end, they’d roll those brand spanking new machines off the rails and send it out to the world. To some lucky bastard who lived in a nice two up two down conversion somewhere. I always imagined being someone like that. A wife, couple of kids, packing them up on a Sunday and heading down to Dymchurch, getting the kids some ice-creams, a cool pint for myself with a good froth, then driving back again through the B roads, taking in all the scenery.’

They were silent for a while before Warmonger said, ‘Why you never have kids, Jono?’

‘Ah, never happened. Something wrong with the pipes. Or Sue’s pipes.’

‘What, you never had it checked out?’

‘Nah, all them fancy doctors prodding your gear. No way. Give me some dignity.’

A siren wailed in the distance. The two men stiffened. Jono cocked his head. The siren veered away into the night. 

‘You think we’re safe?’ Warmonger said.

‘We’re never safe, lad. Ever.’ Then, after a pause: ‘You gonna read me that letter?’

‘What makes you think it’s a letter?’

‘It’s from Sue, innit?’


‘It’s from Sue. Don’t lie. You’re gonna read me that letter, then one of us is walking out of here with the bag. Just one of us, mind you.’

Warmonger didn’t often experience the sensation, but now he felt a cold worm crawl through his stomach. He thought for a moment he would throw up. He felt suddenly afraid to die, and he had to stop himself from bursting into a nervous laugh.

Jono grabbed the sawed-off shotgun they’d used to rob the jewellery shop. Now Warmonger realised why Jono insisted they only bring the one gun and he carry it and do the holding up while Warmonger filled the bag. They hadn’t needed to use it, yet. It was still loaded. 

Now Jono pointed the gun at him. 

‘I told you, son. Read the letter.’

‘You don’t want to know what’s in the letter.’

‘I won’t know until you read it to me, will I? Besides, maybe it’s nothing. Then we can go and have a pint. But if it’s something…’

‘What if it’s something?’

‘If it’s something I’m not gonna like, then we have a problem. Still, either way, I want you to read that letter aloud to me.’

‘Christ, Jono.’

‘And no using the Lord’s name in vain. My mother hated that.’

‘You’re going to push this?’

‘Right to the edge. And over.’

Warmonger, who’d been leaning slightly, shuffled his feet and straightened up on the crate. ‘Let me ask you one question, Jono, and then I’ll read the letter.’

‘Fire away.’ Jono laughed then. ‘Probably not the best phrase to use, eh?’

‘Put the gun down first.’

‘I ain’t putting the gun down.’

‘Alright then. Alright.’ Warmonger had started to sweat. Every now and again, his heart threw itself into a spasm. But he kept his head.

‘You and Sue.’

‘Oh you mentioning Sue again? You seem to be talking about her a lot, tonight.’

‘You and Sue. I mean, are you happy?’

‘Christ!’ Jono spat out, ignoring his own profanity law. ‘This gonna turn into a shrink session or sommin? What the fuck do you care?’

‘You’re a mate.’

‘Oh, now he’s bringing in the we’re best mates bullshit. You should’ve thought of that before.’

‘Before what? You don’t know what I’m getting at?’

‘I know what you’re getting at, boy.’

Warmonger’s eyes narrowed. His own temper was surfacing, like the incoming tide filling a deep rock pool. ‘You never called me boy before. We always respected each other.’

‘Coz that’s what you are. Just a boy, a kid, a snot-nosed little arsehole. Now you cut the crap and read me the letter. Or I’ll blow a hole through your chest and rip out that fake heart of yours.’ 

Warmonger raised his arms up, like a cowboy in an old western. Jono looked at the damp patches under his arms. He felt satisfied that he’d cornered Warmonger and got him scared. He had him where he wanted him. He did love the lad once, like his own son, like the son he never got from Sue. But he trusted him too much, put his faith in something despite all his gut feelings that he should never put his faith in God or another person. He remembered, now, how his mother slapped him across the head each time he cussed as if each blow was a fresh nail driven into the palms of Christ. Sue, also, was a little religious. But look where that got her.

‘I’m going to have a cigarette,’ Jono said. ‘You want a cigarette?’ Warmonger nodded. ‘And put your arms down, you look like a stupid prick.’

Jono lay the shotgun across his lap. He took out a pack of Player’s, took two cigarettes out of the box, put both between his lips, struck a match and drew the flame across both, passed one over to Warmonger. All the time, his eyes never left Warmonger’s. Each sucked in a good lungful of tobacco, blew it out in the space between them. The thick smoke lingered. It seemed comforting, calming, and the nicotine put them in a better mood.

That only lasted a moment. Jono lifted the gun and pointed it back at Warmonger.

‘For the last time, Warmonger, read me the letter.’

Warmonger let out a sigh, put his cigarette between his teeth, picked up the now crumpled letter. The paper shook slightly in his hands. He was almost resigned to his fate, now. He cared no longer what Jono thought or did. He always knew things would end something like this, although he imagined a more glorious outtake, a shootout with the coppers like those jokers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or The Wild Bunch. He’d grown up on a diet of westerns, and it was the only time he remembered spending with his old man. Sunday afternoon westerns. Now he was Billy The Kid and Jono was Pat Garrett. Jono had led him straight into a trap.

He started reading. ‘Dear Jonathan.’

‘Ah, she always likes to use my full name,’ Jono said. ‘The only one that does, these days. Go on.’

‘We’ve been together a long time.’

‘Don’t I know it, son, don’t I bloody know it!’

‘We’ve had some good years together.’

‘Indeed we have. Indeed.’

‘But lately‑ ‘

‘Stop it there.’


‘Stop reading. There’s no point.’

‘You don’t want me to read the letter after all?’

‘Nope. Because I’ve read it.’

Warmonger sat staring at Jono. Jono sat back a little, as if he was in a recliner. He took another pull on his fag. To Warmonger, he suddenly looked way beyond his years. He didn’t look at Warmonger any longer but stared up at the ceiling.

‘I’m going to tell you a funny little story. About a year ago, I’m shopping down at the Co-Op. The one at the end of the High Street, owned by that lovely Middle Eastern couple. The one I put the word out on that if anyone tries to so much as think about doing them over, I’ll break both their legs. While I was at the counter, I stared at the notice board. Of course, I couldn’t read any of the notices, but I asked the man at the counter if there was anything of interest. I made an excuse that I’d left my glasses at home. Sometimes I do that, just to pass the time, to make sure I’m not missing out on anything. He told me of some geezers plying for work, some window washers, lawnmower rounds, that kind of carry on. But then he told me about a notice posted by a woman who was teaching the Queen’s to new immigrants. So I figure, if she teaches them to speak English, she can teach me to read it. So he gives me the number, and I memorise it – I became good at that in my life, you have to when you don’t have much schooling behind you – and so I rings her up, and she says come down and see me and let’s talk. So I goes to see her, and she lives in one of those housing estates south of the river, in a tower block, on the fourteenth floor, and the lift was out of order and the climb nearly did me in, I had to stop for a fag half-way, and when I reach her flat she opens the door, I get a shock. She ain’t even English but turns out she’s from the Sudan and has three kids and her hubby is looking for work and they need to pay the rent and buy food. Now when she sees me, she’s a little unsure. I’m a brute, these tats don’t help me and the scars on my face tell her all sorts of stories about me before I’ve even opened me gob. But she’s gracious enough to invite me in, and we get talking and she says she can teach me to read in no time, she says something about language and words being in all of us and we just have to unlock it and let it all out.

‘So I tell her about Sue and that it’s our silver wedding anniversary in a year and I want to write and read her some new vows. And she starts showing me the alphabet, what all those letters mean, and putting them in some sort of order, and then pinning that order onto objects, things. She’s patient. Her husband goes out and hunts for work each day. She looks after the kids, gets a few students, not many, and I go twice a week. I tell Sue I’m at the pub, that’s easy. Meanwhile, Akifa – that’s her name, Akifa, and I add it took me a while to get my head around it – patiently taught an old crim like me to read. Something no one else has ever been able to do or tried much. 

‘Anyway, Akifa helps me put together my vow renewals, and I’m ready to go home and surprise Sue with tickets to Majorca where I’ll propose to her all over again. I come home, and she’s at the kitchen table, writing something. She ain’t that pleased to see me. I sense something’s wrong. I see her tuck the letter away and I don’t say anything. I keep the peace. But I don’t forget the letter, either, and later when she’s having a bath I take the letter out from her mother’s bureau, and I read the letter. It takes me a while to get through it, and I don’t get all the words, but I get the gist.’

Jono paused, and he ran his hand along the gun like a fascinated kid who runs their finger down a wet window. 

‘I don’t blame Sue, really. I was never a good husband to her. No kids, three stretches in The Big House, never owned our own place. All those jobs, and look at us. Flat bleeding broke. So I had an idea. For once, I’m going to do some good. I want to leave a legacy for someone. Was going to be Sue, but buggar that now for a game of soldiers. So I set up the jewellery number. Dragged you into it, of course. But the money’s not going to you, and not Sue, and not me either. It’s going to Akifa. It’s going to put a deposit on a house for them and maybe buy them a little run-around. Nothing much, let’s admit it we didn’t get a great haul.’

Warmonger flinched as if to grab something. Jono fingered at the trigger.

‘You dirty bastard,’ Warmonger spat out. ‘You strung me along. You knew about me and Sue. That’s the lowest a man can go with a mate.’

‘Don’t worry, Warmonger. You went lower. To the bottom of the stinking Thames. Maybe that’s where you belong.’ Jono stood up then, grabbed the hold-all, backed away a little. ‘It’s time for me to leave.’

But Warmonger was in a sea of red mist. He lunged at Jono. Jono was expecting this, and he swung the shotgun around and thumped Warmonger in the cheek with the butt. An almighty crack sounded out into the empty warehouse, and Warmonger kissed the concrete. 

‘Stay down!’ Jono shouted. ‘Stay down! I don’t want to kill you, but I will!’ and he was shouting so loud the steel walls seemed to vibrate as if a lorry with a blown exhaust had driven by. He pointed the gun at Warmonger; Warmonger clutched his bloodied cheek, and he felt as if everything had broken inside his head.

Jono ran to the door. Suddenly the area filled with light. A torch blazed in through a skylight in the ceiling. A thunder rolled out across the warehouse.  A helicopter hovered above them. Red and blue and white lights flashed in through the windows. Someone shouted something through a tannoy, but Jono wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Akifa, how she first taught him C-A-T and all those three-lettered words, and between teaching him how she told him that her brother and father had been taken from their village one night and she had never seen them again. And he thought how sad, how terribly sad that was, and that he’d never heard anything sadder in his entire life. Then he remembered how all those many small words she taught him grew into longer words and made sense, and he could write them out and finally how he wrote the new vows for Sue and how Sue betrayed him. And Warmonger. Now he was desperate to get the bag of money to Akifa and her kids and her husband, who couldn’t find work but who always offered him a meal when he came for lessons. 

He looked back to see if Warmonger was still there, but Warmonger had gone. He was alone as he’d always been alone. He dropped the hold-all and he dropped the gun. He looked up into the light and thought how very lovely the light was, and wondered if this was the sort of light they always talked about. He willed himself into the light and wished more than anything the light would lift him up. He turned his body upwards, stretched out his arms to see how far he could reach. 

Lincoln Jaques holds a Master of Creative Writing, where his exegesis centred on the noir fiction of Jean Patrick Manchette, Ted Lewis, David Goodis and James N. Cain. His poetry and fiction has appeared in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and the US, most recently in Noir Nation 10 (forthcoming), Mother Mary Comes to Me: A Pop Culture Poetry Anthology, The Blue Nib, Mayhem, Shot Glass Journal, and Flash Frontiers. He lives in Auckland.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Ballad of John Rider, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

The flight was under four minutes, a trick of levitation at eleven at night, up Market Street and then Portola Drive to Diamond Heights. Jefferson Airplane’s “Have You Seen the Saucers.” With the opening notes, the cabdriver reached over to the dashboard and turned up the FM station’s volume. When the song concluded on its sci-fi buzz and fade, he glanced at me in the rearview mirror and said, “Welcome to San Francisco.”

It was 1974 and I was eighteen. I’d arrived in the city via a Greyhound Ameripass, and while that cross-country trip had its own disparate misadventures—a collection of stories connected by only, I admit now, a naïve young man from Wisconsin set loose on the modern American West—it was San Francisco that I aimed for all along, and my aim was true. I thought I might even remain in the city, blow off my freshman year of college that fall. I would get a job and stay.

“Pete?” My Uncle Eric expected me at his apartment. But not that night. His eyes were bloodshot and fractured, and I knew that familiar funk of weed, recognized the artist who created the music chiming from his living room. “Pete”—stepping aside, welcoming me in—“ Jethro, I didn’t think you’d arrive until, what, next week.”

I walked in, shrugged the rucksack from my shoulder Jack Kerouac style, and ignored the “Jethro” nickname Eric tagged me with years before because whining would have been pointless. Bullheaded. He was a Strom and I was a Strom. If he was going to call me by The Beverly Hillbillies’ nephew’s name, so be it.

We stepped down into the hexagonal living room, lights turned low, sticks of sandalwood incense smoldering on the fireplace mantle. A jeans and chambray shirt-clad young man with unruly hair and beard reclined on one of the two Victorian sofas, a Hindenburg-size joint in his hand, the zeppelin’s tip smoking.

“This is Duncan,” Eric said. “Duncan, this is Jethro.”

“Pete,” I corrected, and Duncan nodded, offering me the burning airship.

“He’s my nephew, Duncan. Verstehen sie?” Eric spent the Korean War in Germany and phrases he had picked up remained over twenty years later. “He’s just out of high school.”

Duncan said, “Sorry, man,” diverting the joint midflight to Eric. I recalled the disaster newsreel’s sobbing reporter: Oh, the humanity.

I did manage to suck in a deep breath of the quality smoke that floated across the room. In my small hometown, low-quality pot was the expectation. Whatever Eric and Duncan were indulging in was a treat. And the music. That was too. The reel-to-reel tape rolled on playback. “Is this who I think it is?”

Duncan’s face lit up, bowled over at the possibility a kid from a little Midwestern town might know, but before he could say anything, Eric forestalled him, a lift of his hand. “Who do you think it is?”

“John Rider.” No confirmation necessary. It was John Rider, I knew it. I’d been buying his albums for five years at that point, my older brother even longer. Rider released his debut LP, the psychedelic Colors in My Garden, in sixty-seven, after Lennon and McCartney, Brian Jones, and Syd Barrett applied their wash of aural color. “John Rider,” I repeated, adding, “Recluse Rider,” because that’s what the music rags had dubbed him.

Eric winced at “Recluse,” shook his head, while Duncan’s weed-enhanced titter budded through the room.

“Anyway, that’s what Lester Bangs calls him in Creem. But this is great, Eric. I’ve never heard it before.”

My uncle said, “That’s because, I shit you not, it’s John Rider’s latest.” He glanced at Duncan, then back at me. “Keep it under your hat.”

I never thought to ask that night if I could see the tape reel’s box, the artwork and photography, the lyric sheet, the list of musicians playing on each song. Music is magic, and this was musical mesmerization: ringing twelve-string guitars, Baroque noodling with harpsichord, hill country dulcimer, juke joint piano, rumbling electric bass, spare drum work, and spacey synthesizer.

“Sonic harmonics.” That’s what Duncan called the mix. Leaving at sunrise, he shook my hand. “You’ve heard John’s new nickname, right?”


“Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay?”

I nodded as Eric took Duncan by the shoulders and pointed him out the door.


The Ameripass was a great deal for an eighteen-year-old off on his own, although stuck at the Sioux Falls YMCA my first night out—the depot closed, no departures till morning—I wanted to turn back, be homeward bound. But I continued on the next morning. The pass was a wide-open, ninety-nine-day ticket to ride anywhere Greyhound rolled in the lower forty-eight. You could disappear in America. The company’s TV spokesman was Fred MacMurray in the guise of the My Three Sons dad, a gosh-by-golly barker encouraging people to see America from a relaxing seat on the bus. The price was low. How could I say no?

After that first night in San Francisco, listening to John Rider’s new music and cracking Eric and Duncan up with stories of my antics on the road, I was ready to ball up the paper ticket and chuck it and my freshman year at Barron County out the window. But I didn’t. Instead, I sat on the guest room davenport and considered the Ameripass. I ended up tucking the flimsy ticket away, between the pages of my paperback copy of On the Road.


Eric, two nights later: “I have to run over to my boss’s place. Want to come along?”

I jumped at the offer. It would have to beat the previous night. I’d wandered into the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood looking for the studio where the Airplane, the Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had recorded. I’d stopped to gawk in the window of a closed leather goods shop, and a reflection in the window materialized beside me, a young woman in a flowing cape. She passed me a handbill for Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple— But that’s a different story.

When I first met him, Eric’s employer consisted of instruments: a Blüthner grand piano—McCartney played one on Let It Be; two Martin guitars, six- and twelve-string; and an Epiphone bass, all these in a room overlooking a silent, rolling Pacific.

“Don’t touch anything—especially the instruments. In fact, just stand where you are,” Eric directed, then he left. I couldn’t hear him though he worked his way through other parts of the house. Moonlight flooding in through a curved window wall lit the music room. The ocean’s breakers rolled in silence.

Tell me not to do something. I glanced back. Stepping to the grand piano, I lifted the keyboard lid and played the first nine notes of “Imagine.”

“Stop. Just stop.” Eric came from behind and moved me away from the Blüthner. He wiped down the keyboard and then, after closing it, the lid.

“Peter”—no Jethro—“It’s important that if you want to come with me when I have to work here, that you listen. When I tell you not to do something, not touch something, a book, an instrument, a gimcrack, follow my instruction. Verstehen sie? I’m not trying to be an asshole. It’s just—it’s just, this is his home. Not hermetically sealed, but damn close. So, please. Touch nothing.”

“Who is he?” The family back in Wisconsin didn’t know what Eric did for a living in San Francisco. Yes, they knew what he did when he lived in the Midwest. After serving in the U.S. Army, he’d worked for a while as a steward on a Great Lakes freighter, drove a delivery truck with a Teamster card tucked in his wallet, and at one point, he was a laborer, assembling industrial bakery equipment. When he moved to the Bay Area in the early sixties, it was, for the family, out of sight, out of mind. “Who is your mystery employer? Howard Hughes?”

Eric crossed his arms and stared at me, then said, “John Rider.”

“What? No, wait. What?”

“John Rider is my, as you have said, mystery employer. I’m his— I don’t know: righthand man, gofer. I make things run smoothly for him and his organization.”

I grinned, color me dumbfounded. All I could think to ask? “Can you turn on a light in here?” I wanted to see the music room’s instruments under the bright lights.

“No.” He sized up the room. “So, now I’ve gotten the place ready for his return. We should get going.”

Backpedaling to Eric’s Fiat, I took in John Rider’s home, call it a mansion, snapping it for my mental photo album, like I would Abbey Road Studios, Wally Heider Studios in the Tenderloin, or the Jefferson Airplane House on Fulton Street.

As he drove us back to Diamond Heights, I apologized for touching the piano. Some might say it was over the top, but the apology led to another question. “How about Duncan? Does he do what you do?”

I caught the swell of a laugh on Eric’s face, but he didn’t let it break. “Oh, not Duncan. No.”

“You’re his boss? I mean, you kind of marched him out of your apartment the other night.”

Eric let that slide. “Let’s listen to that new Rider tape when we get back to my place. I’ll probably give you what’s left of my weed too. It’s been playing hell with my allergies. Just”—zipping his lips—“no word to your mom and dad.”


The next day I pretty much obliterated by smoking a grass zeppelin on my own, then letting a wild hair spring me out of my vegetative sofa state and out the apartment door. I trekked, no, floated up and down the hills of San Francisco in that stoned condition. By midafternoon, I was on Mount Sutro and I couldn’t find my way back to the apartment.

A man in a red Jaguar convertible picked me up on Crestmont, I think it was Crestmont. He offered me a beer from the cooler stash tucked between the Jag’s bucket seats. I whined like a twelve-year-old: “Thanks, but I just need a ride to my uncle’s place.” There was the sudden braking action at the curb, and he reached over and popped open my door.

I was still on Mount Sutro, thinking I could see the Diamond Heights neighborhood, its curving rows of fifties shoebox duplexes, from whatever street I was walking on. A Karmann Ghia painted British racing green pulled up. I didn’t have high hopes.

“Give you a lift?” It was Duncan, looking over the lenses of his mirrored aviators. “Peter? Not Jethro, right?” he asked as he pulled out into traffic.

“What the hell are you doing up here? Getting a better view of Sutro Tower? It’s not even up here.” He laughed, took us on a few hairpin turns. “I heard you were with Eric at the house the other night.”

All my coiled astonishment sprang out. “Holy crap, man! Yes. Like, was I stoked, absolutely—”

Duncan nodded, signaled with the cigarette in his hand that we could move on from the initial blown away perspective. “Did Eric mention me?”

I thought back. “No. Yes. I’d asked him if you did what he did. What your role was.”


“He ignored me.”

Duncan laughed joylessly. “Nothing—oh, why should I ask you— Okay, nothing about me, about what I do? What I’ve done?”


He pulled into a Safeway parking lot, a spot tight against the public sidewalk. We weren’t going grocery shopping.

“I came back from L.A. that night with John Rider. Later. The same night you were there with Eric. He didn’t mention we were coming in?”


“Reckless, man. He’s a mess.”

Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay? “Yeah?”

Duncan glanced over at me, then back at the grocery store and the people walking in, walking out, going about their everyday lives. “Yes. Reckless John Rider’s burned to a crisp. That cereal? Crispy Critters? He’s a bowlful.”

My mouth hung open. Duncan smiled, chucked me under the chin to close it. “Okay. But with all the music, the albums— How long?”

He blew a Marlboro stream. “I don’t really know, Pete. I was late to the Reckless Rider party. His mind, it’s pretty much like I said, man, crunchy cereal. He still has those terrific vocal chops. The cat truly does. But that’s it.”

A swipe at the dust on the dashboard allowed Duncan time to consider his next words. “The last tape, the one you heard, the new LP? Reckless sang lead, and damn well. Session players played the music, and they did amazing work. Me? I wrote the music and lyrics.”

I looked at him and sputtered, “No way.”

“Ah, yes.”


He didn’t have much money, but Duncan bought us dinner at a Doggie Diner, even treated me to a T-shirt featuring the restaurant’s iconic dog, the smiling, bow-tied, red-hot dachshund wearing a chef’s hat. He was a worried man, he didn’t have to say so and didn’t, I could tell that much at eighteen. How long Rider had been the way he was, that was an open question.

Duncan was hired over a year before via a nondescript ad in the back of Rolling Stone and a lengthy, puzzling audition: Do some John Rider for us. Do something John Rider could have composed. He’d blown away the interview panel that included my uncle. Now, here he was. The record company was releasing the new LP, it could be any day, but Duncan felt at loose ends.

“I haven’t been told the release date. Reckless doesn’t know. He doesn’t really know me, though we’ve been traveling buddies up and down the coast a number of times. But here’s what really puzzles the hell out of me, man: Who wrote and recorded the earlier albums? Where are these talented cats now? Rider’s the cash cow, but where have all the old hired hands gone, man? I’d like to know that.”


The next day, Eric left for L.A. He told me he’d be gone for at least three days for meetings with record company execs, working out the logistics for Rider’s upcoming release.

I felt him out. “Will there be a tour?” I already knew from Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Creem, and Duncan that a tour was not in the cards. Reckless Rider hadn’t performed live, anywhere, in over three years. The rock magazines, Rider was their cash cow as well, wiped the sweat from their collective brow: At least John Rider continues to produce music that we can review.

“Enjoy the city while I’m gone,” Eric said. “And stay out of trouble. Verstehen sie?”

The first time I’d gone to John Rider’s ocean view home, I checked the house number and cross street when my uncle and I left. The second time I went there, I was able to give the cab driver the approximate address.

At Rider’s front door, I wondered if I was the reckless one. What did I expect to gain by showing up and ringing the doorbell that played the first seven notes of Groucho Marx’s “Hello, I Must Be Going”? The next steps were easy since no one answered the musical chimes. I could have walked away. Instead, I tried the door. It was unlocked.

It seemed every San Francisco abode I stepped into that summer of seventy-four was socked in with the fog of pot and incense. On this second visit to John Rider’s home, I just followed my nose.

The piano bench had been knocked over, a junk drawer’s worth of material tumbled from its storage compartment and scattered on the floor. An antique wing chair replaced the bench in front of the piano’s keyboard. I recognized John Rider. He sat in the chair, staring at the black and white keys as if they were a curiosity. His elbow rested on an arm of the chair, his hand cradling the side of his head, mouth gaping, his now doughy face frozen in wonder.

“Mr. Rider?”

After a few minutes, his head swiveled to take me in, the dazed look of his face unchanged. “John,” he said. “Mr. Rider is my father. And my grandad.” He took a deep breath from the effort. “John.”

“John,” I was bummed by his burned-out aspect.

He managed to point a bent finger at me, the fingers of his other hand caught in the long, ratted tangle of his prematurely gray hair. He pointed, tapped in my direction, and finally, with effort, yanked his other hand out of his hair, three fingers encircled with the gray matting, pulled from his scalp, apparently, with no pain. He continued to point at me.

“I’m Peter Strom, Eric’s nephew.”

He took a breath, a clotted gurgling through his sinuses. “You? In L.A. with me? Last time?”

“No. That must’ve been Duncan. You know? Duncan?”

He touched his chin. “Beard? Right, man?” He smiled when I nodded. “At least you won’t have to worry about that.” Rider laughed and, as Uncle Eric would say, I shit you not, I got goosebumps from the musicality of the man’s laughter. He did. He still had something.

But still: “What won’t I have to worry about?”

He waved me off in slow motion. “The big change out, man. The cosmic disappearance.” His hands orchestrated a poof, and whatever may have been there was gone.

“Duncan will—you’re saying Duncan will disappear.”

Rider’s hands repeated the poof, slowly, very slowly.


Rider was fascinated by the movements of his hands.

“How will Duncan disappear, John?”

“Just gone, baby. Gone, gone, gone”—his knees were crossed and his hands landed there, one atop the other—“like the coda of the song.”


Duncan and I got high listening to the Rider LP on Eric’s reel-to-reel. I should say we tried getting high, smoking one of his outsized joints. It didn’t work. I’d told him about my visit with John Rider.

The tape ran out, the tail flapping round and round until Duncan flipped the lever, turning off the machine. As he put the tape in its box, he sang the old Animals’ hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

“You’re right, man.”

He looked at me. “I’ve got no bread, Pete. I’m stuck inside of San Francisco with those Reckless John Rider you don’t work for me no more blues again. I’m stuck, brother. Stuck. And I’ve got no idea who I should be on the lookout for—you know? Is it Eric? Reckless Rider? Some hit man”—hit man, the musical kind, made him chuckle—“I’m, I don’t know. I’m in trouble, and I can’t get away from it.”

That’s when I told him about The Cosmic Disappearance. The Poof.


When Eric returned to San Francisco, he brought back intensity in spades, a hip ferocity, a skull session with Duncan was in order. He phoned the few numbers he could normally reach him at. Nothing.

“Did Duncan stop by at all when I was in L.A.?” His cool a thin layer masking something like anxiety.

I shook my head, playing at youthful dumbass which Eric had no trouble buying.

“Idiot kid,” my uncle muttered, walking away. From down the hall, he called out, “Aw, sorry. Not you. Duncan.”


The police located the green Karmann Ghia within a week. He’d abandoned the car, a note on the driver’s seat, in the parking lot of an observation area on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The suicide, the note Duncan had written to his family, none of it directed attention to my uncle and Reckless John Rider’s use-them-and-lose-them operation. With the suicide, Eric’s mood lightened, an item off his Rider plate.

Eric did think it was well past time for me to return home. One problem with that? “I tossed my Ameripass my first night in the city,” I said sheepishly. “My plan was to stay here.”

That didn’t fit Eric’s plans. He bought me an airline ticket. I flew out of San Francisco International, arriving home for school with time to spare.

Flying over America, back to the Midwest, I looked down through the breaks in the clouds at the interstates, the traffic, when I could make it out, rolling predominantly to the west. Yet some, no, many rolled to all points east. And that made me think of Duncan. I wondered where he was, rolling away on a Greyhound bus.

I shit you not.

Verstehen sie?

Jeff Esterholm is delighted to let everyone know that this is his second appearance in Tough. His short stories have also appeared in the Akashic Books online flash fiction series Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, and Yellow Mama, as well as in Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas. He and his wife live at the head of the Great Lakes.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Felon, fiction by Gabriel Heller

The manager conducting the interview folded his hands on his desk and said, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony, son?" He could look down at the application in front of him and see I'd already answered that question, but of course, he had to ask me.

"Yes, I have," I said.

"I appreciate that. Honesty's always the best policy." He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. He had small, grayish-blue eyes.

On the top of a gray filing cabinet were four dusty surveillance monitors; indistinct black and gray figures were coming and going into the frames.

"Why don't you tell me about it?"

"About what, sir?"

He looked at me.

His eyes were pressed into that shapeless doughy face like raisins. "The crime, Mr. Benzilov. What kind of name is that anyway?"

I shook my head. I'd let myself believe that today I'd be hired. He'd sounded enthusiastic on the phone. I told myself it wouldn't be so terrible working in a grocery store, not terrible at all. Now I felt a sinking feeling. Why was I even wasting my breath?

But then I heard myself answering the question, telling him the truth. "It happened fifteen years ago when I was nineteen years old. I was drunk with two friends. We'd ended up inside a stranger's house in the middle of the night."

"What were you thinking?" he asked.

"I don't think we were thinking much of anything. We were just stupid kids."

"Did you steal anything?"


He paused, angling his head to the side. "Nothing?"

"If we were going to, we didn't get a chance to."

"How much time did you get?"

"Sixteen months."

"What was it like?"

"Excuse me?"

His face betrayed no warmth or kindness for me. "How was the time in prison?"

I could close my eyes and still see the light coming down through the bars, the smoke hanging in the dayroom, the colored plastic chairs all cracked and wobbly around the television. I could hear the echo of voices on the tier, the television showing Wheel of Fortune or Jerry Springer, always the same shows, the crackle of the cheap, transparent radios they let you have.

I could smell the fear and frustration and rage that hung in the air and made your head hurt all the time, the smell of ammonia from the old man's mop, the smell of food. You want white milk or brown milk with your food, the server would ask, with your baked chicken food, your beef stew food, your white bread food, your white rice food, your Jell-O food, your macaroni salad food, your fish sticks food, your bologna sandwich food, whatever we were having that day. Say the word food a hundred times real slow, and what we eat is what the word comes to mean.

In a dispute over the telephone, three other prisoners beat me till I blacked out. I was in the infirmary for three weeks. After they took my stitches out, they transferred me to the bing, "for your own protection," they had said. The man in the bed next to me, who'd been cut with a razor blade, on both sides of his face from temple to chin, more than two hundred stitches in his face, told me,You can't even get no pussy books in the bing. You gonna have to beat your dick to memories. And that had made me laugh.

I remembered the bing very clearly, never having to leave your cell, never having to see anybody, except for an hour a day if you felt like walking laps or doing pull-ups.

Time went funny in the bing. The light in my cell never went out until it burned out, and then for many days, it never went on. I was in complete darkness, save the line of light under the door where they pushed my food in, and there were no windows except for the one on the door, which was covered by a steel flap, so the C.O. could open it and look in and watch me whenever he felt like it. The cell was six feet by eight feet. There was a bed and a toilet and a sink.

People talked about going crazy in the bing, but I didn't mind being alone. I healed up in there, and then I was back on a different tier with different people around, and the sound of the old man, who mopped the floor, crying in his cell at night in the darkness when we were all just human and full of loneliness and just afraid.

"It was a lot of fun," I said. "Best year and a half of my life."

"You're being facetious now."

I cracked my knuckles, one finger at a time, realizing that for him it was just a game. He scribbled a note on a piece of paper and looked at his watch.

Although my father had a bad temper and wouldn't hesitate to show me the belt or the back of his hand, I had never thought of myself as an angry person. I had always been easy-going and mellow—even-tempered. I was the guy in the corner at the party, cracking stupid jokes, making people laugh.

On the security televisions behind his head, flickering people came into the frame and then drifted away forever. They were hardly even human from this vantage point. I watched a woman pause with a baby in a stroller, pick a box off the shelf and begin to read the ingredients.

"Nothing but chemicals," I said. "Don't buy it, ma'am."


"I'm talking to the woman behind your head," I said, pointing at the screen.

I could make it a game too. I could make a joke out of it. The silence was long and awkward, but really I didn't care. He continued to stare at me. I didn't look away.

"Anything else you want me to know?" he asked finally.

"I'm a good worker. I work hard and I'm motivated. I'm good with people," I said, surprised by the sound of my own voice, ashamed of the pleading note I heard in it.

"And you like to joke around."


He pushed his chair back, stood up, and extended his hand. "Thanks for coming in, Frank. We'll give you a call."


As I pushed through the black, swinging doors into the brightness of the store, I felt the ashy taste of failure in my mouth. What was I doing wrong? I had spent a while on my resume. My wife had helped me make it better. Maybe my desperation was starting to show through.

Maybe I should have worn a tie. But for an interview in a grocery store, a tie might have looked stupid. It was hard to know exactly.

As a carpenter and house painter, I had made a decent living for almost ten years. But now we were living on credit, on borrowed money.Every day I'd get in my truck with a stack of resumes on the passenger seat, and I'd drive around from town to town, looking for some place that might hire me. But nothing had panned out so far.

One thing was clear, they all wanted to talk about my felony. I messed up, I wanted to say. Haven't you ever? It was like a certain disease I had caught, that I carried around with me wherever I went.It stuck to me like a stain. I'd check the NO box on the application only to have them run a background check and call me a liar. I wasn't a liar.


Cleve, a contractor I'd worked for in the old days, was at the bar when I came in. He was in a worse boat than me. He was more than twenty years older and in poor health—diabetes, obesity, heart problems.He'd died twice, once back in the nineties, and another time in 2005 or 2006. Both times they'd brought him back—the paramedics.

He put down his newspaper and greeted me with a fist bump.

"Haven't seen you here in a while," I said.

"I'm celebrating," he said. "It's my daughter's birthday today."


"You want to see her?"

He took a photograph out of the breast pocket of his shirt. It was of a young girl, six or seven years old, perched on a rock, clasping her arms around her knees, smiling very brightly.

Everything about her was brightness. Behind her was a waterfall and three pine trees, through which the sun filtered.

"That was fourteen-fifteen years ago. She hates me now." He put the picture back in his pocket. "That's life," he said. "They love you one day, hate you the next."

I ordered us each a scotch on the rocks.

A drunk in a blue hard hat got off his stool and came over and stood beside me. "You got a problem with me?" the drunk asked.

I realized he must have been drawn to my crisp white shirt, my interview shirt, which I was still wearing. I must have reminded him of the man who had given him the axe.

"Go sit down," I said.

"Coward," he hissed.

I imagined the hard hat rolling on the floor, the crunch of his skull, like a box of crackers, under my foot. His sunken cheeks and loose, flabby neck were covered in gray stubble, and his lips were wine-stained.

Cleve got up and stepped between us.

"Eh, coot?" Cleve said

"What, fucker?" the old drunk said.

"Hey now, what's your trip, coot?"

"Don't fucking call me that."

"Why all the aggression? We're all in the same situation here." Cleve raised his glass.

The old drunk stared at me and drew his finger slowly across his throat, and for a moment, I felt a chill spreading through my body, moving up and down along my spine, and then he turned and went back to his stool. We laughed. It was either laugh or scream or break something. I watched him put his head down on the bar. He was a sad, old drunk, wearing a hard hat in a bar. I had no desire to fight him. Cleve lit a cigarette, which looked very small between his fingers.

"Things'll get better for us," he said after some time.

"How do you know?"

"It takes some time to find a job," he explained. "You've got to let the dust settle."

"I'm getting to that place where I'm starting not to imagine another way.

Like the memory of actually having a job is fading."

Cleve laughed. "You got Alzheimer's or something? It hasn't been that long."

"It feels like a long time."

I hadn't worked in any steady way since the New Year. It was already June.

"Have some faith," he said.

"That's what's so hard," I said.

"You got faith you're sitting here having a conversation. You got faith you're talking to me. You're not dreaming. You're not in Japan. You don't know these things in any particular way, but you have faith they're so.

Faith is faith. Just extend it some. Stretch it out. It expands."

He held his thumb and forefinger together in front of my face and then slowly brought them apart.


"Just stretch it out," I repeated to myself, over and over, as I walked out of there, back up under the highway, past the boarded up stores, the abandoned houses. But what was happening here? This didn't feel like America. We were getting a taste of the third world; I couldn't even get a job stocking shelves at a grocery store.

I walked for a long time. On the edge of town, I stopped next to a field, in which some cows were grazing, chewing on the long grass, swishing their tails, looking up every now and then, blinking their glassy eyes.

"It expands," I said.

"Just stretch it out."

But I couldn't.

I walked back to my car and sat in the front seat with the keys in my hand, smoking a cigarette, thinking, I'll just drive home now, but knowing I wouldn't. I believed in fidelity and honor, I really did, but everything in me was twisted up. I was letting myself go.


In the middle of the room was a stage bathed in neon light, on which three women were dancing and taking off their clothes. One of them was Ani, and she winked at me when she saw me come in. The bartender came over and asked me what I'd drink. I said I'd think about it. I had four dollars in my pocket. There I was in the mirror behind the liquor bottles, not looking so good. Big bags under my eyes, my beard untrimmed, in need of a haircut. Ani was behind me on the stage, dark red in the light. She looked very alone while she danced. She covered her breasts with her arms, hugging herself. A man with a well-trimmed beard put bill after bill between her feet, moving his head up and down as she danced. Immediately, of course, I despised him.

When the song was finished, she put on her dress, went around the stage, and said a few words to the man who'd tipped her so well. Then she came over and sat down on the stool next to me.

"What's going on?" Ani asked. "You look like shit."

"I had an interview."

"That doesn't quite explain it."

She took one of my cigarettes and lit it, and exhaled the smoke through her nose and mouth.She had dyed red hair now and very light brown eyes.

"I hate dancing when I have my period," she said.

"Thanks for sharing," I said.

She smiled. On the other side of the small stage, the man with the well-trimmed beard was watching us.

"Who's the guy?" I asked.

"Just a customer."

"A big fan."

"What's wrong with that?"

"I'm just saying. He keeps looking over here."

"Don't worry about him," she said.

"I'm not worried."

"You know what happened to me earlier?" she asked. "Come on, don't look over there. Look over here. Look at me.So, you wanna hear the story of what happened to me?"

"Go ahead," I said.

"This cripple came in earlier, and he liked me a lot. I'd seen him before, and he always tips me a lot. But this time, he was tippinga lota lot. He wanted a lap dance, so I'm like fine. I gave it to him at his table. Then he wanted to go into the backroom, so I'm like fine, so I took him and wheeled him back in his wheelchair. When we were alone, he said he'd give me four hundred dollars to suck his dick. Now I sucked a lot a dick, but I never sucked no dick at the club, and I never sucked no cripple's dick before period, but I was like fine four hundred bucks what the fuck.So then he unzips his pants and takes it out, and the shit's like the size of my forearm."

I laughed.

"It's not funny," she said.

"It is funny."

"It's traumatic."

"What did you do?"

"I didn't do shit. He was just sitting there with this fucking humongous dick, and it was like one of those moments when your whole life like flashes in front of your eyes, and you see everything real clear for a second."

I could see her biggest fan, in the mirror, rubbing his beard.

"Are you listening to me?" said Ani. "Quit looking at him. Just ignore him. He won't do nothing."

"So, what happened with the cripple?"

"I told him to put his dick away. We had to wait awhile before he could fit the fucking thing back in his pants.Then I wheeled him back. He called me a cold bitch. That's what he said. He said, 'you cold bitch,' as I was wheeling him. He said that I was prejudiced against cripples. That bothered me a lot. I don't think I'm prejudiced against cripples or cold or a bitch for that matter."

"No, you're real warm," I said.

"Fuck you. I am."

Just then, the song that had been playing ended, and the DJ came on the microphone and announced that Ani was the next dancer.

"Fuck, I can't believe this shit," she said. "A bitch can't even get a break around here."

She crushed out her cigarette. "I'll be back."

As I watched her dance, I felt myself leave my body, and for a moment, there was only pain—without form, without end. Then her biggest fan stood up and came around the stage, and I came back into myself with a vengeance.

My heart was pounding.

He sat down on the stool that Ani had been sitting in. He took a cigarette from behind his ear and put it between his teeth. He had big, perfect teeth.

"What happened, brother? You look like you got a problem," he said. His Zippo lighter made a pleasing, three-part sound when he opened it, lit the cigarette, then closed it. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," I said.

His tongue ran back and forth across his lower lip. "You keep looking over and staring at me? Do you know who I am?"

I didn't say anything.

"What happened, brother? Can't you talk? I asked you a question."

I turned and looked at him directly.

"Back up, or I'm going to kill you," I said.

He crushed out his cigarette and laughed. He put his hands up and wiggled his fingers. "Back up, or I'm going to kill you," he repeated in a high-pitched, mocking voice.

"Okay, fine," I said, closing my eyes and shaking my head. "That's fine."I felt almost giddy as I stood up and reached over the bar, and grabbed the nearest bottle. I swung it, and he tried to duck away, but I caught him on the side of his head. He staggered and brought both hands up to the place where I'd hit him. I hit him again in the middle of the forehead, and the bottle broke. He was covered in gin. The music stopped, and I heard some screaming. I thrust the bottleneck hard, like a dagger, and got him once in the cheek and once in the eye, and he doubled over, holding his face, and I picked up the stool I'd been sitting on and hit him as hard as I could on the back of his head, and he went down, and I kicked him a few times in the ribs and rolled him over with my boot. He was half-conscious and bleeding badly. There were shards of glass glinting in the blood. I heard Ani yelling, "Get the fuck off him! Get the fuck off him!" Poor Ani. I bent down and stabbed him twice in the neck, and blood shot out in a thick hot jet.

Some hands grabbed at me, and I broke free of the hands and ran out through the front door.

I ran and ran and then when I saw nobody was following me I slowed and walked real fast. The rust-colored light was exploding in the windows above my head. Pigeons perched on rooftop edges, watching. The crisp sudden shadows of them as they moved over the street and across the bright red brick of the abandoned buildings. My own shadow falling on the sidewalk and bending up and falling on the brick. The violent, roaring shadows of trucks tearing over me as I went along next to the elevated highway. Everything seemed brilliantly alive.

When I reached my car, I realized I still had the bloody bottleneck in my hand, and I dropped it in the gutter. I was bleeding from a big mouth-like cut on my palm. I took off my interview shirt, wrapped it around the wound, found my keys, and drove off.


The front of our house was dark and empty, but the kitchen light was on. I parked at the end of the block. I let myself in as quietly as I could. I heard water running. My wife's white jacket was hanging on the back of a chair. There were a few long red hairs stuck to the collar. I went to the edge of the living room and peeked around the corner into the kitchen. I saw her hand holding a yellow sponge and washing the dishes.

"Is that you, Frank?" she said.

I moved back into the shadows and stood very still.


"Yeah, it's me."

She turned the water off.

"Where have you been? I was getting worried."

"You know where I was."

"At your interview?"

"Of course."

"And then you went out to celebrate."

"Don't mock me, Annie. I can't do it."

"What are you talking about?" She came out and put her arms around me. "Mr. Berry called this evening."

"Mr. Berry?"

"He said he interviewed you today."

"Yeah, of course."

"He told me to tell you that he wants to hire you."


She hugged me again, tighter. "I know it's not much, not the kind of work you really want, but it's something, it's a start. I'm just so happy," she said. And then she noticed my hand. "Jesus, what happened to you?"

"I cut my hand.Let me just go wash up. I'll come back down, and we'll celebrate."

"Jesus, you've got blood on you, Frank."

I tried to laugh.

"That's what happens when you cut your hand."

"But it's all over you."

"I'll tell you about it just as soon as I come down."

"Frank, what happened?"

"Let me just get this blood off me. Let me just put something on my hand. I cut it on some glass. I'll be down in a second."

I went upstairs and washed the man's blood off my face and arms, and I washed my hand as well as I could and got all the bits of glass out. I dried off and went in the bathroom and wrapped one of Annie's handkerchiefs around my hand.

Then I went into my son's room, quietly so as not to wake him. He was asleep in his crib. Whale sounds were coming from the sound machine.

I stood there looking down at him, watching him breathe. His tiny hand lay next to his face, which was turned to one side, illuminated by the blue light from the sound machine. Next month he would be one year old. I closed my eyes.

I wanted another chance to live.

Then—how much later? a minute? ten minutes?—there was a loud knock on the door. I kissed my hand and touched it to his wispy head. I couldn't believe it was happening like this and so fast. I tiptoed out of his room, shut the door behind me, and ran to our bedroom. The knock came again. "Police!" I heard. I opened the window, climbed out onto the ledge, and jumped into the tree that grew right outside it, banging my hurt hand, gritting my teeth against the pain.

I climbed down, hopped a fence, ran through our neighbor's yard, hopped another fence, and another, a terrible strength surging up inside me. I came out on the street adjacent to ours and went around the corner to where I parked the car.

I sat in the driver's seat, getting my breath. I could see the lights silently turning red and blue against the trees and houses down at the other end of the block. There were four or five police cars in front of our house.

With the headlights off and my motor running, I watched from the end of the block.

"You morons," I said. "I'm right here."

I lit a cigarette. Two policemen came out of my house, and one of them shook his head. Then my wife came out. She was bathed in the police lights, alone in the middle of our yellow lawn.Such a beautiful, tired woman, who had always tried real hard to see the good in me and always claimed she could.

Don't think for a second that I didn't understand what I was losing. I crushed my cigarette out in the ashtray, backed the car around the corner, and drove towards the highway.

Gabriel Heller's work has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Crazyhorse, Electric Literature, The Gettysburg Review, Witness, and War, Literature & the Arts, among other venues. He teaches writing at New York University.