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

Monday, June 21, 2021

...signifying nothing, fiction by L. Jordan James

             The bus drove out of the Main Gate and made a series of lefts and rights until we merged into traffic on the highway. When the driver stepped on the gas and we roared forward, leaving Pawtuck behind, I let loose a pent-up sigh. I had a recurring nightmare of being pulled off the bus and thrown back into special housing, back into the dark.

            Pawtuck Penitentiary lay behind me in my rearview mirror, or so I thought until I reached the halfway house and saw many faces I recognized, the bars on the windows, and the rent-a-cops playing correction officers. I didn't want to look over my shoulder, afraid I might find the cell I lived in for the past year open and waiting for me. This halfway house felt like Pawtuck Penitentiary—A.K.A. the Devil's Oven — had followed me back into society.

                                                                        #

            I did what the system expected of me. I attended the court-mandated addiction courses and saw there were still many tense jaws and smoked cigarettes from other recent releasees. All present (all except me) filled coffee cup after coffee cup crammed to the halfway mark with sugar and milk, bursting with anything sweet that would tamp down on cravings. This was life for a jonesing, partially recovering addict who knew that heaven was a short cold February walk down the street. Let them find their version of paradise. I wasn't an addict. I attended, but I paid no attention. I damn near fell asleep, but I showed up, and that's what counts.

            I needed a job, though, or I'd wind up back at Pawtuck. That's the way it works. If I didn't get a job and demonstrate I could hold my own, back I'd go. I had been a cop until I went to prison. That line of work was out of the question now.

            After the Narcotics Anonymous meeting, I went to my room, sat on the edge of my bed. My bed, for the moment, would belong to someone else later on. I stared out of the window. In all of my time at Pawtuck, I never suffered from claustrophobia but looking out of the small window, past the bars, and to the brick wall beyond--my only sight--a deep, and negative emotional chatter started. The babble spoke to me about not needing much to tie the sheet around my neck, end everything and not think anymore. This thread of thought was a mistake. To stop the feelings, I avoided looking at the wall and peered around the dingy room. I thought of a line from Shakespeare. I changed it to suit my circumstances.

My life is a tale lived by an idiot

full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

            Yes, I am the idiot, and yes, the sound and fury were great. I went to sleep and dreamed nightmares.

                                                                        #

            One year ago...

            I arrived at work, coffee and bagel in hand; my boss and detectives waited for me at the door of the Evidence Room. They instructed me to turn to the wall. Faced with this situation, my mind and body could not come to terms with what was happening. I stared at the people around me. My boss took my breakfast from my hand. A detective placed his hand on my shoulder and moved me.

            I followed his motion and placed my hands against the cold brick because I didn't know what they wanted. Both my gun and badge were taken. I heard rustling. My boss opened my breakfast and began to eat. White matter populated the corner of his mouth as he chewed.

            "Mm, everything bagel with cream cheese," he said around the food in his mouth.

            I heard slurping. He drank my coffee. I didn't look his way because I knew he wanted to piss me off. "You wouldn't want this breakfast to go to waste, right?" he asked. He slurped again. I didn't say a word as one detective pulled one arm behind me and then the other.

            They walked me out of the precinct in handcuffs; cops poured out onto the street to watch. They placed me in the backseat of a patrol car. I observed two cops walk to my sedan.

            I had an old car. Nothing special. Nothing flashy. Rodriguez and Thompson, two patrolmen, used a slim jim to open it. They made a big deal of going through the backseat, the trunk, and then the driver's side seat. Rodriguez's back stiffened and he stood. In his hand was a red-bordered evidence bag. In the evidence bag was a kilo of tightly wrapped drugs. Some cops there clapped and laughed. Others hooted while they pointed their phones in my direction and back to Rodriguez holding the drugs, recording everything for the internet. I laid my head against the cool car door window. I didn't care what the drugs were. They weren't mine. I had never stolen anything from the evidence room. Never. Stolen. Anything.

            We pulled away, and not too long afterward, I arrived at the local jail.

                                                                        #

            When I stepped through the doors of the Devil's Oven, I thought I'd be safe. I hadn't been a street cop, arresting people or laying hands on criminals. I had worked in the Evidence Room, cataloging, tagging, and keeping track of all things legal and illegal that came my way. I was proud of my job. I did my job well. I wouldn't tell my business in prison, and I thought no one would know I used to be a cop. Hmphf...

            The next day I stood in line for breakfast at Pawtuck surrounded by other convicts in blue uniforms, the battleship gray walls, and battleship gray floors to match. The inmate working the serving line had thick glasses. I stared, wondering if he could see to the next state. I caught movement in their reflection. Someone ran toward me. I picked up the tray and met his oncoming fist with its hard plastic. A part of me wondered why someone would attack me. I didn't understand the nature of the beast, though, not at that moment.

            His fist hit the tray, and I heard a wail of pain. Hot oatmeal covered my hand. I didn't care. I approached him, convict versus convict. We locked eyes for a second. He understood. I hit him with the tray. He fell and I continued to hit over and over again. I didn't kill him, but I left him with scars he would have to explain for the rest of his life.

            I was taken to Special Housing, the politically correct term corrections uses for solitary confinement or the Hole.

            I sat on the hard bed, puzzled by what happened. As the hours ticked by, I understood that no matter what, if I understood or didn't, I had to be ready if I was scared or not. I began doing push-ups and sit-ups and anything else I could think of to get prepared.

            I didn't understand props; it's slang for respect; inmates get their props differently. One way is to knockout, stab, or, if you were a lifer who didn't expect to see freedom again, kill a cop. I was a target by default.

            Props could earn you entrance into a group while in prison. The group would provide protection, drugs, and a little bit of power. Perpetrating a violent act against an ex-cop would also give the inmate the enviable tag of someone who T.C.B.--takes care of business.

            I could have asked to remain in solitary, but I was mad. I didn't show it. I stayed outwardly calm, but inside I seethed. I boiled while I paced my dark, quiet cell. When they released me to my unit, I knew it wouldn't take long for someone to try me. It didn't.

            When they released me from solitary and back to the unit, I played basketball, and I had to admit that it felt good to get my heart rate up. My unit had an outside basketball section. Above the court was a dirty mesh grill sitting on bars reminding everyone of where they played.

            When I finished, I went to pick up my shirt when someone hit me. I saw my blood spray against the concrete wall of the court. I stumbled back. The world slowed and hazed over, but everything snapped back into focus. Two people came at me. The larger of the two swung with all of his might. If he connected, I would've woke up in the morgue. He didn't connect, though and his wild swing left him defenseless. I stepped to him and hit him as hard as I could in the nuts. Down he went.

            The second, smaller man came at me. I wanted to take my time, but I knew the officers would arrive at any minute. I moved to him and jabbed. He backed up. I jabbed, again and again, hitting my mark each time. He lost all fight and ran back into the unit.

            I turned back to guy number one. I wanted him the most. He was a big man. Most men are very primal. Masculinity 101: hurt the biggest man among them and the others will hesitate. I needed that man to send a signal to the rest of the unit.

            He rocked back and forth clutching his crotch. I walked past him and picked up my shirt. I went to him and wrapped my shirt around his neck, and dragged him from the basketball court to the unit. All movement inside stopped. Everyone watched. He fought, but he was on his back, and the shirt was long enough, so he couldn't touch me. I pulled him and kept him off balance.

            The officers stopped me when I arrived at the staircase leading to the upper tier. I wanted other inmates to think I was going to throw him over. I wasn't. When the officers ran to me, I complied. I didn't fight them. I didn't curse. I turned around and 'cuffed up.

            As they led me away, I had to admit to myself the fighting felt good. It was great not to be a leaf blown in any given direction the wind wanted. Other cops treated me like a leaf when they handcuffed me and took away my gun and badge. The justice system treated me like I was a leaf. No, I did not like being a leaf at all. I liked being an oak tree--something solid that stands the test of time.

            While I stayed in the Hole again, I exercised until bile rose and couldn't manage another push-up or sit-up. I cut a small thin strip of my bed sheet and used it the tie my mattress in a circle, like a sleeping bag. I put the mattress on my back and did squats. It wasn't very much weight, but it was better than nothing.

            That's how my life went. I'd go to a unit, get into a fight and find myself either in the hospital or the Hole. Fighting became my life. I welcomed it. I enjoyed it--on the surface. At night when sleep came, I paid the price.

            Then one day, it was over. A year into my bid, they called me into the office and told me that I would be released to a halfway house. I didn't understand, but neither did I question. I boarded the bus like a good little inmate and arrived at the halfway house as a parolee.

                                                                        #

            I debated about what to do next. There was the criminal route. I could get a gun and let loose on everyone who wronged me, but I'm not a murderer. I won't kill. I had scant outlines of a plan, but a key electronic piece was missing. I could order what I needed over the internet but who knows how long it would take to deliver. I also live in a halfway house with a bunch of crooks who were so good at their job they could surreptitiously steal the gold from your mouth while having a conversation with you. My nightmares sealed the deal, though. I took a bus downtown and accessed my bank account. Stores lined the block. I chose one and entered.

            Electronic devices lined the display cases; most I recognized, some I didn't. I had to choose something, though. I had to record a conversation with something small enough for everyone to overlook.

            Everything I wanted to accomplish--beyond the stereotypical clearing of my name, beyond punishing those who sent me into the Devil's Oven, I wanted to slit the throat of my dreams and watch the blood flow. Nothing would stop the knife from falling every night unless I grasped the hilt, pulled out the offending object, and used it on my nightmare. I had to fight in both the real and dream worlds.

            All of my hopes depended on people and their habits. Would those habits still apply? Did they still go there? I didn't know. After all, a year had passed.

            I walked around the block, trying to lose the tension running my body. I walked until I saw the bar I wanted to enter. I passed it, though uncertain about my next steps. Ralph's wasn't the typical cop bar like Lucille's over on the west side. Yes, cops were always present, but they didn't come to Ralph's to bust drug dealers or have a drink after work. Cops went to Ralph's to buy drugs—usually from other cops.

            I didn't believe it when an older, more experienced cop told me about Ralph's when I first joined the force. "Go hang out at Lucille's," Donovan said. "Avoid Ralph's. There's enough drugs at Ralph's to supply the whole city for a year." Donovan leaned to me and said in a quieter tone: "Don't get any ideas about taking it down, either. You're not Kojak. You work in the Evidence Room. And besides, it's protected."

            I nodded then just as I nodded in this time, my body acting on automatic as if agreeing and saying: Yes, it happened that way.

            Habits, I thought, still nodding. Would they still be there? I walked eying the place, hoping I would see someone familiar. I knew I had to make a decision. I reached down, grabbed my balls, and made a decision.

            I put my glasses on and walked into the bar. I noticed nothing changed. No music played. The quiet was broken by a small black and white T.V. droning on in the background. The ceiling was still the old-style tin, painted over on so many different occasions its original color lost to time. Two ceiling fans crusted with dust spun leisurely. A couple of tables and some booths sat directly across from the bar itself.

            Ralph's was big. The further back a person walked, the darker it became. The rest of the establishment stretched out into the dim recesses. What happens in the far reaches of the bar, in the pitch black, I could only imagine.

            Three people sat at the bar sipping their beers. I recognized them. I don't think they knew me. I had attended their retirement parties. They were former cops.

            Two or three years ago, I walked into this place out of curiosity. I ordered a beer, sat at a booth, and looked around. When I saw him walk in I knew the rumors were true. This operation was protected.

            In the short time I sat at the bar, I saw four more cops I recognized. They came in with baseball caps, sunglasses, and hoodies. They all walked past the bar and to the rear. All came back out seconds later, legs moving at an impatient, hurried clip.

            I finished my beer and left. At the time, my thoughts ran along the lines of I'm not Kojak. I work in the Evidence Room.

            Back in the now, I knew the person I searched for sat at the rear, out of sight--a master puppeteer no one ever suspected.

            His bodyguard--another plainclothes cop--stopped me and turned to Benson, his boss, to get the thumbs up or down.

            "Holy shit! As I live and breathe. Darren Wilkes. Hey, you lost weight. And you wear glasses now ."

            Muscle pushed me against the table. I bent over and grabbed the end of the sides a he ran his hands up my front and down my back looking for a weapon or a wire. He moved his hands down my legs and cupped my balls. In prison, this was nothing. Try squatting and coughing while naked.

            "He's clean."

            "Lift up his shirt!"

            Muscle pursed his lips reached around, and pulled up my shirt.

            "Pull down his pants!"

            Standing straight, I waved off his guy. I took off my jacket and handed it to Muscle. I took off my glasses, fully removed my shirt, and undid my pants, so they fell around my ankles. I did a slow turn. Some in the bar swiveled their heads our way but turned back to their drinks. Street Rules 101: If it doesn't concern you, don't look too hard and forget everything you did see.

            Benson and I held eye contact. I tilted my head as if to say: Satisfied?

            He nodded, and I began to dress. Muscle checked my jacket, he handed it back to me.

            "May I?" I asked. I pointed at the seat across from him.

            "You may."

            I sat there for several seconds, trying to decide how to approach the subject. Detective Benson got impatient. "What do you want?"

            Benson worked the same precinct as I and was as crooked as the Mississippi River. Nothing happened within the walls of the precinct he didn't know about or order. Benson was the man I saw on the previous occasion I sat in this bar. He had never talked to me, though. Never.

            "Why?" I asked

            "Why what?"

            "They sent me to the Devil's Oven!" My anger peeked out from behind my calm fa├žade. I swallowed hard and pushed it back down.

            "I know. I know." He smoked a cigarette below a "No Smoking" sign. "Darren, I'm a good judge of character. I knew you'd never do the things I needed you to do. I never had any problems from anyone else but you... I knew you'd be a problem. Would you have taken a bribe?"

            I bowed my head. "No."

            "Like I said, I'm a good judge of character. I needed you out of the Evidence Room."

            My stomach roiled. I wanted to fight.

            "Why was I released early?"

            "I'm not privy to that information, but I guess your urinalysis came up negative. They probably didn't find any Monopoly money in your bank account or flashy clothes. You didn't drive an expensive car. If anything, they saw the theft increase after you left. These facts probably left the D.A.'s office in a bind. They talked to some people and pulled some strings."

            "They didn't want you exonerated, nor did they want to charge any more cops with drug theft. That would've been a political shitstorm. I mean, how many D.A.'s put a cop in prison for something he didn't do?"

            I wanted to hit the piece of shit in front of me. But he was a cop. A dirty and crooked cop but a cop, nonetheless. I was an ex-con.

            "You put me in prison. You almost got me killed."

            "Okay, that's enough," Muscle said. He pulled out a snub nose and let it hang at his side. He faced me, but his eyes darted around the bar. I knew what thoughts flowed through his mind: Who will see if I put one in his brainpan?

            "I know what happened to you was wrong, but what's right in this world?" Benson said. He smiled a reptilian smile—a smile that didn't touch his eyes.

            I moved out of the booth to the exit. The bartender held his sawed-off shotgun; the barrel pointed to the ceiling. Other patrons pulled out their handguns, ready to use them. They all smiled like they shared the joke Benson told.

            As I walked out of the bar, I heard him laugh. I didn't know what he laughed about, but I guessed it was about me. I hadn't laughed in a year. My girlfriend left me. My mother died while I rotted behind bars -- denied permission to attend her funeral because they said I was too violent.

            I caught the bus back uptown to the halfway house. I sat down at my desk with an envelope and scribbled the New York Times address on the front. I took off my glasses and saw they were still on. I turned them off and folded them. In the folded position, the memory card was exposed.

            Donovan's voice chided me, stopping me. You're not Kojak. You work in the Evidence Room.

            You're right, I countered. I'm not Kojak. But I don't I work in the Evidence Room anymore nor am I a cop.

            I placed the memory card in the envelope, sealed it, walked over to the mail chute in the hallway, and threw it in.

            Every night I pay the price of living by dreaming nightmares. My dreams had gained weight and heft, a ball and chain pulling me down into a whirlpool I couldn't escape. Maybe, tonight the ball and chain wouldn't pull me in as deep, and I would sleep in peace.

            I walked outside into the February cold, pulling my jacket tighter, hunching over against the wind, passing the drug dealers and prostitutes peddling their fake version of momentary paradise.

            I went into McDonald's. The manager worked the cash register.

            "I need a job," I said.

            "Gotcha," she replied.

            She smiled and looked my way more than a heartbeat too long.

            I smiled back. I knew if she were free, I would be a potential suitor. But unbidden thoughts came to me of how long I could've stayed in prison, of all of the other ways my life could have ended, but I landed here--safe. And with a pretty woman looking my way. My smile gained momentum and became a chuckle.

            And damn, it felt good.

                               

L. Jordan James has held several jobs, but none gives him as much enjoyment as writing.  He is a veteran and has worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He grew up kicking around Brooklyn. Now he kicks around New Jersey.

 

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Lost Doreen, fiction by Leonore Wilson

        Warm California night at the end of July. I’m not sure what’s up, what’s troubling my father. He paces. Cigarette stuck to his lip. All we've consumed for days—corn chips, bean dip, peanuts, Slim Jims. He doesn’t want to spend money on anything nutritious. He stops pacing, twists my ear, tickles the hollow of my neck. His eyes, a bleached vacancy.


        “Come on, come on. I know somewhere we can go. The movies. Yea, we’ll see Cabaret. Ah, don’t fathers love their daughters in a special kind of way? Yea, I don’t betray my girl, not like your mother says. We might be divorced, but don’t have a blind spot.”


  Excitement looms large through the teasing. He keeps looking around as if afraid. His right-hand shoots up, fumbles over the top of the refrigerator. Loose change and keys fall with a hard plunk on the linoleum. He gropes as everything slides under the table. He bumps his head, curses. 

My father steers with his elbows west to the outskirts of town. The thief in the night, the thief in the night slipping away unnoticed.

        We plunge into a little valley, down into the sleeve of early evening. Moths stain the street lights. Weasel eyes glow, looking for roadkill. Ringed raccoons, stupid possums. Rank stench of urine, dumped garbage, old pools of diesel. Heavy combines move across dry fields bringing in wheat. Cars don’t race and roar here, don’t hunt us down like bloodhounds.

  The Passion Pit. My father won’t drive-in. Doesn’t want to pay the price of admission, instead grinds the gearshift, parks in a turnout near a pasture of corn and a tall water tower. He turns out the lights, pops a cigar in his mouth, pulls out the little tray, taps in the ash.

        The wide screen’s lit up in the semi-darkness. Oaks, pines raked by brambles flank the lane along with dumped old mattresses, gutted sofas, and chairs. A creek winds off in the distance. Several pastures over where the bushes recede, they had found Doreen. Little black pea coat splayed over her half-buried body. Her body strewn like a discarded doll under a new cloak of stars. At dusk they had found her, the deputy sheriff and his small army of green.

        Sky’s a smooth bruise. I squint at the large screen. Windows roll down. G.I. spits, chews his lip. Others park nearby. Men and boys in the bed of a truck. Eyes lit like Jack-o-lanterns. A figure of a girl in a Corvette leans over between the wheel and a boy’s chest. He laughs, looks ahead. Ever so often I see the girl’s head, how she raises it up and down rhythmically and glances outside. The boy puts his hand on her head to push it down. He leans back, then straightens himself, and walks out of the car. He shuts the door, zips up his pants, adjusts his jacket. 

        Footfalls, low talking, whispers. Breathing and coughing. Taut smell of hay, tobacco, wine. Distilled laughter ripples. Orion steadies his pack in the sky. My father clears his throat. Lopsided smile. A dog yowls. Poor-wills call two notes. Chirp of crickets. Burnt summer hills behind the screen once belonged to my grandparents. Almost were my black sheep jailbird father’s, almost were mine. A land of apples, dates, figs; of strawberries, pears, and plums. Spring field of lupines, scrub grass, clover. Little staircase of stream. Harvest air odor in the surfeit of silence. Here I would roll down to the breach in the trail where I could see the open pasture. Whole herd of wild-eyed shaggy ponies gathered hock-deep in mud. Necks, rumps, and withers begrimed with patches of dung near the slab of a barn where the search party had found Doreen. Men of authority with little girls of their own. Here it had happened. What most can’t imagine. Weeks she was missing. Winter, not spring. Doreen was six. Flesh gray-blue as winter mushrooms. Hair knotted. Little butterfly earrings pinned in her ears. One white sock pulled up to her knee. School lunch pail beside her, plaid thermos empty of milk, half-eaten sandwich, half-eaten apple. Someone had snatched her, some bogeyman.


  Did they think Doreen was a baby calf birthed and left where the morning glories were pushed aside? Where the earth reseeds? Indifferent earth by a creek of cottonwoods and young willows. Did he pull over to the side of the road when he noticed Doreen walking home from school in her blue checkered dress, a flag of black hair flying in the new autumn wind? Did he? No house for thirty yards in any direction. His voice calling out to her, his male voice breaking against the afternoon sky. “Hey little girl! Do you need a ride home?”

  The good shepherd lived on that farm and left his flock to look for the lost Doreen as if for a lost sheep even when others had bedded down for the night. He searched the thickets and gullies while his flock dozed in the dawn, his wool sweater heavy with brambles. 

  Bellow of my father’s breathing fills the car. He tilts his head to indicate he’s thinking of something, so don’t come too close. He might be friendly but so are most snakes. From his shirt pocket, he takes a box of Milk Duds and pours them into my palm. He fishes out a bottle of Bud from the glove compartment, taps the neck against his chest. Drool collects around his mouth, fingers flutter like dirty moths.

        There is no Presley, no Eastwood. No one to fight for, no one to rescue, only a young blonde fingering herself. Eyes black with kohl. I look away. Look. I feel like a gawker. The woman has springy hair-like barbed wire. Her bare legs are splayed, arched apart like a heron’s wings. She leans back on a sheeless mattress. 

        A shirtless man yanks down his jeans, studies her like a vulture over fresh meat. He removes a rag from his back pocket, swirls it like a cowboy riding a bronco. His forefinger traces circles inside her thighs, then stabs her sex, stabs again. I look away, can't help it, count backwards, look down. The sooner I get out of here, the better. But I am under pressure to be a good girl for my father, my incorrigible father who is easy to anger. Why has he taken me here? He is unemployed and taking on debt. He has told me I can't possibly understand. Thousands of dollars, with interest too. It has been terrifying to witness how quickly this happened, a man coming back from war, a shell of who he once was; terrifying to see that nothing I can say or do has the power to bring him back from the edge of his  wilderness. The wilderness, that savage wilderness. I can feel its dark perimeter too as if it’s moving in from the periphery of my being. It's like standing in a vast cornfield and watching a storm gathering strength, its furious clouds whipping themselves into even larger ones, their size and speed doubling suddenly in front of your eyes before they release a lashing rain that races across the field toward you. The darkness inside myself I try to push back, using my will to hold it at bay. This requires mental and emotional control. I'm not numb, but I don't want to cry or look at my father. I am doing my duty. We sit in silence. My spine rigid and straight. I look like a cellist or a soldier. Minutes pass. This feels like an endurance test. I am hanging on the edge of my being. Then my father stares at me, his chin slightly tilted. 

         “I killed the girl,” he says. “I killed Doreen. Our little secret,” he says. “I cracked, I did. But I won’t hurt you. You’re mine. I promise. How could any father hurt his own daughter.” 

         I shift in my seat, speechless. I am a rabbit in headlights, frozen.

 

        I imagine my father squatting on a cow trail with a pint of whiskey. He grips the forestock of a rifle in both hands. He rests his chin on his wrists and spits, looks up at the evening sky where the moon carves the dusk like a white kite. He starts back down the trail. His stomach is empty. He hasn’t eaten all day. He has carried the young girl on his shoulder for half a mile. She had thrashed her body from side to side, clawed him with her schoolgirl nails. Her small frame slammed against a boulder, again and again until her head veered backward, and she grew limp. Through the wild grass and wet weeds, he had taken her and thrown her in a muddy ditch and dug and dug again as a dog hides a bone. He covered her with soft lumps of earth. Did he feel something? Anything? Maybe what it was, he didn’t quite know. It surprised even him. It tasted of freedom; a numbing of pain, something grim, wicked, a thorn jabbed in his heart causing it to rot.

  My father drapes his arm around my shoulder, mutters something intelligible. Stank of sweat.  My scalp shivers. 

        He did it? My father killed Doreen. My own father! She was six when I was six. We were six-year-olds. Once. 

        He spins a 180, aims the Impala like a gunboat south.


        Thick eucalyptus and pines posted with warning signs: NO FISHING, NO HUNTING, NO CAMPING. Signs shot full of bullet holes. Wild doves whistle. Vermin scatter. Flashlights and lanterns. Men hunch like small-time conspirators around a make-shift arena. Some sit on overturned milk crates; others on hay bales. Coiled orange fire hose and several wire pens next to an old tin shed. Dusty brown Pinto up on blocks. Yellow flames painted on the hood.

        Night breathing, laughter scuffled from the sickle backs. Red ends of cigarettes spark, seem to move by themselves. Disembodied cough. The air’s hot, odorous. Gust of feathers float like spinnakers from a dandelion. Her name floats in the air. Doreen.

        My father rolls down the window, yells to one of the men, “Gallo azure.” The fellow looks over, picks up his lantern and a small rooster. He’s wearing a Giants baseball cap turned sideways. Beat up old sweatshirt with fading white letters, UCLA. He walks with Levis slung low. Face corded as jerky. My father hands him a wad of bills, asks for a swig of his Budweiser. The fellow’s lips curl back and he hacks next to the car. He winks at me and hands my father the liquor. His fingernails are rimmed with blood. His eyes shine like bright copper coins. He hooks his thumbs in his open fly.

        My father takes up the bottle, wipes the rim against his sleeve and guzzles.

        The fellow says, “Whoa whoa, Cheap Charlie, hold it there. La cerveza es cara.”

  My father tut-tuts, tells me to stay in the car and lock all the doors. He leans over, whispers: “Don’t tell me Daniel Boone don’t like his roosters. That’s something for your history, honey pie.”

        He leaps out of the car, nearly trips. Grin like a lizard’s quiver. He takes a leak near a digger pine, trudges through dried stalks. Roosters attack each other. Nervous bandits, they corkscrew away.

        An older man drags a big bird back to the far edge of the circle. A younger man pulls the slower one in. Jets of blood, geysers of fury. Blood flows like a flower blown open, skin splayed like petals in that brief moment. A frantic crowing mangles the air. Doreen, Doreen! One cock has been jabbed so hard its head is nearly severed. The head dangles there like a falling  wristwatch. Blood pools. Some blood stains the man's shoes purple. A metallic smell fills the air. The stunned animal runs in circles. I see myself like that bird. Stunned. Running in circles. Doreen, Doreen. She was the same age as me when he took her. We were six. Where was I? Walking home from school too?

        The men laugh, swig more liquor. I labor to breathe and my heart races. Doreen, Doreen! My stomach spins, but I hold my head straight, acting if I'm not afraid, even though I am. I can't show it because I don't want to seem vulnerable to anyone who might do me harm, especially my father. I have to show I am brave, but in truth, I am scared. I have to protect myself, Doreen, I have no one else to protect me. I am waiting for the next terrible thing to happen. 


Leonore Wilson has taught English and creative writing at many colleges and universities in the greater Bay Area. She has published in such magazines as Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Upstreet, Prairie Schooner, English Journal, etc. Recently her historical ranch and home were destroyed in the Hennessy Fire of Napa Valley. "The Lost Doreen" is part of her novel CHUTE.


Monday, June 7, 2021

An Indiana Grand, fiction by Craig Francis Coates

        It was dumb luck I was even at Clancy's that early, drinking my Sprite at the bar while the girls on first shift danced for the afternoon regulars. Those guys are a whole different breed. They never drink more than the minimum, they never buy a plate for the buffet, they never tip the girls anything. Clancy won't even let them in anymore unless they leave a credit card up at the bar, because these guys were coming in with just a driver's license and a twenty dollar bill to make sure they didn't spend more than what they intended. That's not the way Clancy does business.

But if they follow his rules, Clancy tolerates them, so everybody else follows suit. Down to a man they all want the same thing. They want a place they can go and be recognized, a place they'll be welcomed with open arms and smiles. Maybe that doesn't sound so bad, but it makes us all hate them. I hate them, the dancers hate them, the bartenders and bouncers and DJs hate them. The trouble is if you treat these guys with the warmth that they want, you'll discover it's never enough. These men are vampires. They will latch on to your polite smile and drain you dry of whatever kindness they can.

My girlfriend says it's a boundary issue. Ex-girlfriend. She says these guys don't know where they end and you begin, and they expect you to meet their emotional needs. I don't know about that. If that were the case, you'd think they'd move on because no one at Clancy's is nice to them. They come and they sit, they drink a beer and stare at the girls, then they scowl and complain about bullshit until the sun's gone down and they can leave without turning to dust.

I normally try to avoid them. Which isn't hard. As a driver, there's not really much call for my services at three in the afternoon. Clancy would rather have me around when the club closes eleven hours later to make sure his well-paying regulars get home nice and safe. But that afternoon, I was in need of somewhere to go. Michelle, my ex-girlfriend and still-roommate, was having her boyfriend over, and I didn't want to be around for it. So until I could scrape enough cash together to find a new place, Clancy's would have to suffice.

I was drinking Sprite and playing video poker at the bar when the club's phone rang. I was right in the middle of a winning streak, the kind where you get to put your initials in at the end. I couldn't decide whether to use my own, J-L-C, or go with a classic, like A-S-S. But first, I had to win this hand, and that was taking up all my concentration. That's why I didn't notice right away when the club's bouncer and my best friend, Big Mike, started snapping his fingers. Then he unplugged my machine.

“The fuck, dude?”

He made a scribbling motion in the air. To the phone, he said, “Okay. Where are you?”

“What makes you think I carry a pen?”

Mike widened his eyes, a look that conveyed it was in my immediate interest to stop fucking around. I opened a blank text and handed my cell phone to Mike.

“Yeah, I got it,” he said, thumbs tapping my screen. “We'll send somebody.”

Mike hung up one phone and gave me the other. I read the message he'd typed.

Gas station east washington state street

“Destiny's stranded,” he said, poking a finger at the screen. “That's where she is with her grandmother. You need to bring Destiny here, then take Grandma back home.”

“Her grandmother?”

“Grandma's car is the one that broke down,” Mike said. “Destiny's got repossessed.”

“Clancy should pay the dancers more money.”

“You still living with Michelle?”

“What's that got to do with anything?”

“Nothing,” Mike said. “Just sounded like you had some business advice. Thought maybe that meant you got your money straight.”

“Nice. Thanks, man. Thanks for taking the high road.” I slid off the stool and put on my jacket. Mike shrugged, smiling.

“You're very welcome, Jon.”


*


Destiny was waiting for me next to the payphone at Shell, smoking a cigarette and looking unhappy. She was dressed in baggy gray sweat pants and a Colts zip-up hoodie, but she'd done her makeup before she left the house. I pulled up beside her, and she climbed in the car.

“Hi, Destiny,” I said. “You look nice today.”

“Shut the fuck up,” she said. “What took you so long? Everybody out here's trying to pick me up.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Are we, um … missing your grandma?”

“We have to go get her,” she said, and she pointed up State Street. “I broke down a couple blocks up.”

I followed her directions until we found the gold Neon, Grandma still sitting patiently in the passenger seat. She watched me approach the car but made no motion to move, so I gently eased open the door.

“Hi, ma'am. I'm your driver. I've got your granddaughter with me. Can I help you out?”

Grandma shook her head and climbed up from the seat, using the door frame for support while clutching her purse. I held out my hand and she slapped it away.

Once we got settled back in my car, I pulled up my phone's GPS.

“What's her address?” I asked Destiny.

“She's not going home,” Destiny said. “I need you to take her to the Indiana Grand.”

“You want me to drive her to Shelbyville? That's an hour away.”

“I gave her money to play the machines, so Grandma's going to play the machines.” Destiny's tone made it clear this wasn't an ask. “That's what you want to do, right, Grandma?”

Her grandmother leaned forward and nodded, cloudy gray eyes both hopeful and sad. I was unmoved. I hadn't forgotten that Destiny's car got repossessed.

“Can you pay?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Upfront?”

“Fuck you,” Destiny said. “You don't think I can pay?”

“I didn't say that. I just like to get paid upfront, especially if I'm driving an hour outside of–”

She hit me in the head with a roll of quarters, then dug through her purse.

“How much? How much do you want?”

“Jesus, I'm just saying, I–” 

She threw a fifty at me, which didn't hurt nearly as much as the quarters. It fell into the crack between the seat and the door, and I had to dig down to retrieve it.

“Yeah, get that money, you little bitch.”

“Okay, we don't need to start with the names.”

“Aw, boo fuckin' hoo,” Destiny said.

Sometimes you just have to know when to shut the fuck up. And I did know—I should have stopped talking ten minutes ago. I found the bill, shoved it in my pocket, put the car into gear, and then drove.


*


By the time we reached Clancy's, Destiny's mood had improved. She helped her grandmother into the front seat, adjusted her safety belt, then kissed her forehead. To me, she said, “Can you bring her home around midnight?”

“It'll be another fifty to go down and get her.”

“Aren't you going to stay with her?”

I didn't really know how to answer. Obviously not? That's an eight-hour shift of babysitting? But I bit my tongue. How else was I going to spend that time? If I came back to Indy, I'd spend it trying to get A-S-S into the video poker leader board. If I went to the Indiana Grand, I'd probably find a lot of people who needed a ride. If I stopped moping around, I could start banking money.

“It's still another fifty to bring her back,” I said, and this time Destiny did not throw it. She got another bill from her purse and held it out past Grandma. As I took it, I asked, “How'd your car get repossessed?”

“Because I'm not paying for that piece of shit,” she shrugged. “And it's not my name on the loan, so fuck it.”

I glanced at Grandma, but she seemed unfazed. I guessed the loan wasn't in her name, either.

I headed out to Southeastern and took that until it became I-74. Now and then, I tried to make conversation, asking Grandma about her car and where she was from and whether she had any other grandkids, but she wouldn't bite. Still, I could see her coming alive as we got closer to the casino. She sat up straighter, tapped her hands on her knees, and once the place was in sight, she started to hum. I couldn't help but feel jealous. When was the last time I looked forward to anything half as much?

We got to the casino, and she opened her purse to produce a handicap placard for my rear-view mirror. I saw no reason not to accept. I figured I'd only be staying a minute until she got settled, then I'd open the rideshare apps on my phone to start looking for fares. Now that I'd got past my inertia, I was actually looking forward to making some money.

“Do you have a phone?” I asked once we were in. Grandma nodded. “What's your number?”

“I don't call myself.”

“Okay,” I said, “well, can you call me?”

“Why?”

“So you'll have my number in case that you need me.”

“I won't need you,” Grandma said. She must have seen I wasn't thrilled about this because she squeezed my forearm and explained, “I think you're bad luck.”

“Right. Of course.”

She smiled, pleased I understood. Then she let go of my arm and made her way across the ugly red carpet to find the nearest machine. Everywhere I looked, people were transfixed by the slots, and some of them even got paid. But the charm of this place was as thin as an eggshell. It was just like what I saw at the club. Turn off the music and turn up the lights and there's nothing sexy about the place; it's just four cinder block walls with a cheap stage in the middle. Likewise, I get no thrill at casinos. Places like this have about as much intrigue as a conference room at the Radisson.

I walked around until I found the bar, and I ordered a Sprite. The bartender let me know via facial expression that I was now his lowest priority. I drank my soda and pulled out my phone, and thumbed open my apps. I figured I'd done my part for Grandma, so I was off of her clock and back onto mine.


*


First fare. Walter. Heading to the casino from Kroger.

“Are you Walter?”

“That's me.”

“You sure you don't want to swing by home first? Drop off your groceries?”

“They'll keep — I do this all the time. The only exception's when I buy something perishable.”

“Milk isn't perishable?”

“Hey, man, trust me. I know what I'm doing.”

“I'm surprised they'll let you walk around with those bags.”

“They peek inside, but the main thing is they know I spend money. And trust me, this is the least of their worries. They've got much bigger problems from people sneaking in babies and dogs than a guy who comes in with his groceries. I seen one guy push around a mannequin in a wig like she was supposed to be his wife, asking what she wanted to play. The Grand attracts all types, man, all types for sure. Do you gamble?”

“I can't afford it.”

“Eh, anybody can afford it. Look at me. I go and spend whatever's left after groceries. It's a great budgeting tool. I take out a hundred dollars a week in cash, make it go as far as I can at the Kroger, then bring the rest here. Play responsibly, you know? And then if I win, I set that money aside and play it the week after. That's how you grow your nest egg. A quarter won is better luck than a quarter earned. You ever heard that before?”

“No, I don't think so.”

“It hasn't caught on. But it's true, Jon. I'm telling you.”

“Got any lucky quarters tonight?”

“Not tonight, brother. Tonight I'm on my own. Trying to win some money to take my wife on a trip. I think I've got her talked into Nashville. She's a little agoraphobic. Not diagnosed, but I think that's what it is. She got anxious after her mother died, started calling me five times a day. I'm trying to help her get through it. You married?”

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

“You paused.”

“I … live with my ex.”

“Ah, shit. Is she with somebody?”

“Yeah.”

“Ha-ha. Jesus, you've got to get out of there. Ha-ha-ha. Sorry, I don't mean to laugh, that's just the kind of mistake you make when you're young. Does she bring the other guy over?”

“He's over there now. Ha-ha.”

“I'm sorry, brother. Now I wish I did have some winners on me — I'd give you one. You should play the slots, maybe you'd win enough money to find a new place. I know this doesn't pay shit, does it?”

“Not much, no.”

“Gig economy, man. Can I tell you what I think about people your age?”

“Sure.”

“You guys are fucked.”


*


Second fare. Dana. Heading home from the casino.

“Are you …?”

“Yeah, that's me. Sorry, I need to update my picture—I shaved off the goatee. Here, see, I've got you on my phone too.”

“Okay. Yeah, cool, I see it now. Thanks.”

“How'd you do tonight?”

“Sorry?”

“On the slots? Do you gamble?”

“Oh. No. I'm on staff. I don't … I don't wear vests in real life.”

“...”

“...”

“Do you want the radio on or anything?”

“No, that's fine. Sorry, I'm … sorry, sending a text …”

“You're fine. I talk too much, that's why I'm rated three stars. My low reviews all say I'm too chatty.”

“Seems like you can't help yourself.”

“...”

“That came out wrong. Sorry, I'm having a fight …. Brave new world, right? Leave the house, take the fight with you. Really convenient.”

“Ha-ha. I really can shut up.”

“It's fine, I need the distraction. If I'm distracted enough maybe I won't murder my roommate tonight.”

“Give yourself credit, you seem like a very capable person.”

“Let me ask you a question. If you broke up with your … girlfriend?”

“Girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend, and then your roommate slept with her, would you really give a fuck if they told you right after?”

“In this context, if I'm giving a fuck, does that mean I'm mad? Or am I giving her credit for telling me?”

“You're mad.”

“Yeah, I'd be mad.”

“Fucking thank you! She's acting all aggrieved that I didn't just instantly forgive her. Now she says … do you care? You think this is stupid.”

“It's not stupid. What's she say?”

“She says I have no right to be mad in the first place because she and my ex are both consenting adults, and she only told me as a courtesy, not an apology. Is that not the most passive aggressive thing you've ever heard?”

“Maybe not the most. But it's bad.”

“I'm moving out. I have to move out. Wouldn't you?”

“...”

“What? Tell me. As an outside observer. Wouldn't you?”

“I think if you can, you know, find a way to live with it … It's complicated. You shouldn't have to uproot your life. Is that even what you really want?”

“...”

“I mean, I'm not taking her side. It's just, objectively, if you could set your feelings aside, would you really be happier if you left? And if you two were friends before, isn't it worth trying to salvage some part of that relationship?”

“...”

“Isn't it?”

“... You can let me out here.”


*


Fare three. Cliff. Leaving the casino behind.

“You showed up fast. Busy night?”

“Yeah. Well, no. I've been staked out here all day, and you're only my third rider.”

“I'm not surprised. Nobody in there understands limits. A guy drinks too much in a bar, he probably knows not to drive. Gamblers? Not on your life. God grant me the confidence of a drunk with a gambling problem.”

“Did you do well tonight?”

“Eh. I came out to watch the races, but my game is poker. You ever play?”

“A little.”

“You can't drink and play poker. Well, not if you want to win. That's why I'm still sober, a buddy of mine's hosting a game tonight. You said you play a little. You know Texas Hold'Em?”

“Yeah. Me and everybody else.”

“Hey, it's popular for a good reason. And tonight, I'll tell you, tonight's going to be fun. We've got some fresh meat there tonight. Easy money if you know how to play.”

“How easy?”

“You want in?”

“I shouldn't. I should really keep driving.”

“Workingman. I respect that. But to answer your question, very easy, if you're any good. The guy who runs the table always drums up some suckers, guys just dying to get out of the house and drink a few beers, smoke some nice cigars, and lose a whole lot of money. I know this sounds like bullshit, but it's like these guys want to lose. Proves they're the man of the house, I think. They'll be giving up a grand, and someone will ask, 'What's your wife going to say?' and the asshole will go, 'Who cares? It's my money.' And I'm just thinking, not anymore it isn't. Ha-ha.”

“Jesus. I wish I could piss money away.”

“Hey, don't we all. But listen, I can invite you in if you want. It's five hundred bucks.”

“...”

“Ha-ha. Take a deep breath, man, I'm not going to force you to come. But I tell you what. I'm not going to tip you. Instead I'm going to give you an address my cell number. If you decide to show up tonight, send me a text, I'll make sure you get in. Okay? Five hundred. That'll seem like chump change by the time you walk out.”

“If you say so.”

“Suit yourself, friend. More money for me.”


*


I had $373.89 in the bank. Not enough to buy in on the game, but I still couldn't stop thinking about it. Since Michelle and I broke up, I had one number in my head: fifteen hundred. That would be the first month's rent plus a security deposit on the cheapest place I could find, with a little left over to keep on the lights. If I could just bank that, I could leave.

Back inside the Indiana Grand I sat alone at the bar with my phone. Fares kept popping up, and I kept dismissing them one after the next. They were all small potatoes compared to the money flowing free at Cliff's table.

Just to see what would happen, I texted the number Cliff gave me. I didn't have the five hundred, I said, but I still wanted in. Maybe he could float me the rest?

Nobody's that broke, Cliff texted back.

Did he think I was trying to haggle? I looked around the room and weighed my options. I was in a casino, for god's sake, how hard could it be to win the money I needed? But the slots wouldn't do it and I don't know anything about horses.

I was starting to feel desperate. I pulled up my bank balance and took a screen-shot, then sent it to Cliff, throwing myself on his mercy.

Well goddamn. Guess you proved me wrong. There was a pause, then another message buzzed through. We'll figure it out. Bring what you have. But come soon

I was out of my seat in a second.

Maybe I should have checked in with Grandma, but I'd be lucky if she pulled herself away from the slots long enough to hear me explain where I was going. So long as I was back by midnight I figured she'd be none the wiser. I took out as much as I could at the casino's ATM, $360 in twenties. That figure didn't look like much on my phone, and in my hand it looked like even less. I shoved the cash in my pocket, went outside, got in the car, and drove.

Shelbyville's not somewhere you spend too much time unless you live there. With the casino built right off the highway, not even the gamblers have much reason to visit. The city was all new to me, but it didn't make much of an impression. Fast food, gas stations, open fields. I passed a few neighborhoods, a few drags of strip malls — all the standard sights of the American Midwest.

I don't like driving these areas because they don't make any sense. Indianapolis is laid out into orderly grids, its heart crossed with an X through the center. But small towns and suburbs have their own kind of logic, which is a nice way to say they have none. Even though my GPS told me which direction to go, I never once felt like I knew where I was.

Finally, after maybe five miles of driving, I reached the neighborhood I was looking for. The house hosting the game was at the end of a cul-de-sac, and it wasn't well lit, but it was far enough from its neighbors you couldn't make a mistake. That was one point in favor of living out here. A guy gets to enjoy some elbow room.

There were two men on the porch smoking cigarettes, and they watched as I pulled into the driveway. They were slim guys, but the way they held themselves reminded me of Mike, and I figured they served the same function. I put the car in reverse and sent Cliff a quick text.

I think I'm here. Two guys on the porch?

Can't be too careful, Cliff wrote back. Say you're with me.

I parked and got out of the car. Both men faced me with their hands to their backs, so I stuck mine straight in the air.

“I'm with Cliff! I'm here for the game!”

They exchanged a quick glance, then one waved me forward. What did this call for, exactly? I felt like an idiot holding my hands up, but I didn't want to make either one jumpy.

“You got the money to buy in?”

They were off the porch now, moving closer. I felt a few pinpricks of sweat.

“Yeah,” I said. My interrogator looked skeptical. “Tell Cliff, he'll know who I am.”

“Let's see it.”

“Ah,” I said. “Okay. I have some money, but let me explain.”

I reached into my pocket, wondering if they'd even believe me. If they would just go talk to Cliff ... The shock of a sucker punch doubled me over. Then came the boot, stomping on the side of my hip while I was gasping for air in the grass. After that, they took turns. You can't really think in situations like that. It's fetal position every damn time.

I didn't realize they had my money until they stopped all the kicking, and they only did that to complain.

“Man, what the fuck? You come here short?” one of them asked. 

And then the kicking resumed.


*


Cliff's profile was gone from the app by the time I crawled back to my car. I couldn't even leave him a one-star review, let alone scrape anything useful. The two guys from the porch had long since gone inside. I guess they figured I wasn't the Rambo type to go after them.

Well. They figured right. I turned on the radio and started the drive back to the casino. Somewhere along the way, I turned on the heater, but I wasn't shaking from the cold. The GPS kept on pinging, and I followed along with it mindlessly, feeling steadily worse the closer I got to the Grand.

Grandma was right where I left her, bucket between her knees while she fed quarters into her machine. She seemed okay. The bucket, at least, was half full.

“Hey, Grandma. It's time to go home.”

“No, it's not.”

“I've got to get back.”

        “No, you don't,” she said. “It isn't midnight.”

“Fuck's sake, Grandma, if you don't come with me, you can find another ride home.”

She turned to snap something back, but as soon as she got a look at me, she stopped. Then her lip curled up and she started shaking her head, like she was watching a dog take a shit on the carpet.

“Bad luck,” Grandma said. Then she stood up from her seat and picked a coin from her bucket. “Spin.”

“What?”

“Spin the reels.” She patted the stool's vinyl cushion. “Try to get the triple stars.”

I sat down, and Grandma leaned over my shoulder so that I was nearly suffocating in the fresh linen scent of her laundry detergent. She fed in the coin but made me pull the lever. Just that effort made me wince, pain radiating out through my body. The machine whistled and dinged, but we did not hit the triple stars. We didn't hit anything.

“Again,” Grandma said, and she gave me another coin.

“Listen, you might want to keep your money,” I said. “I don't think I'm a winner tonight.”

“But I am,” she said.

“Grandma ...”

“Again,” she barked. “If you're going to drive my granddaughter home, then we have to break your bad streak.”

Her eyes were more clear than I'd seen them before. We wouldn't be walking away. 

“Did you win all those?” I asked, looking at her bucket of quarters.

“Some of them,” Grandma said, and she gave it a hard shake so that I could hear the full jangling chorus. I wondered if the quarter in my hand was one that she'd brought or a coin that she'd won from the machine. Maybe it was lucky. I pressed it into the slot and pulled down the lever. This could be it; this could be where my luck finally turned. And as long as those reels kept on spinning around, who could be sure that it wasn't?

 

Craig Francis Coates lives and writes in the Midwest. Find him online at BleakFrancis.com