Showing posts with label matt phillips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label matt phillips. Show all posts

Monday, October 8, 2018

Know Me From Smoke by Matt Phillips, reviewed by Bruce Harris

Know Me From Smoke
Matt Phillips
Fahrenheit 13  2018
193 pages
reviewed by Bruce Harris

Matt Phillips's Know Me From Smoke uses alternating chapters to bring two characters together, lounge singer Stella Radney and ex-con Royal “Junior” Atkins. Stella Radney is described as late middle-aged with a petite figure and nice lips, easy on the eyes, but internally beaten and bruised, from being on the receiving end of figurative hits for decades. Once married, Stella's husband Virgil is shot during a robbery of the bar he and Stella operate. During the murder, Stella takes a .45 caliber slug in the hip, a macabre souvenir she still carries. Virgil’s killer, our friend Junior, is never caught. Twenty years later, Stella’s love for Virgil has never waned. Stella’s identity is linked to Virgil. Despite his physical absence, he dictates Stella’s thoughts and behaviors from the grave. Stella perpetually lives the Day of the Dead, not so much in celebration, but in remembrance and acquiescence. At one point, she has a “conversation” with Virgil, asking him to release his hold over her so that she could fall guiltlessly in love with another man:  Royal.

Royal eludes capture for Virgil’s murder, but serves time for a different killing. He is released after 20 years due to a legal technicality. Although free from prison, Atkins remains mentally incarcerated, unable to escape his past or his self-inflicted death spiral. Immediately after his release, he befriends a pair of violent losers. It isn’t long before the threesome meet Stella Radney.

Atkins recognizes Stella. Although something about him is familiar, Stella has no idea that Royal is the one who shot and killed her husband and planted the slug in her hip. Despite half-assed attempts to avoid his new friends, Atkins gets more involved in their life of crime. First, Atkins becomes an accessory to armed robbery with the two career criminals. Their transgressions escalate quickly into additional robberies and murder.

Simultaneously, Atkins’s relationship with Stella Radney progresses toward intimacy.  Their relationship is the quintessential comedy / tragedy story and it plays effectively throughout the book in the shared giddiness and joy of falling in love, coupled with overriding feelings of fear and loss. In Stella’s case, the loss is Virgil, the love of her life. For Royal, it’s a wasted life, an ignominious past, a dark present, and an inevitable future. Ironically, Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy was initially Muse of Chorus. Radney, still living with an all-consuming tragic past finds life and vitality in music and song, defines this contradiction.

Stella is a sympathetic character who takes her livelihood seriously and learns to sing at an early age. Her mother sang while her father played the trumpet. Music  provides temporary solace as witnessed in this, one of Stella’s fatalistic thoughts:

Now forty years on, she understood that each song – for her mom and dad – was a small escape, a jail break. Stella knew, and saw how each life moment led to a place of no escape. It’s like each portion of life leads a person, somehow deeper into a maze. And the more you live, the longer you live, the more you understand the whole world’s a grift, all of life is one big sucker punch.

She doesn’t completely trust Atkins, knows he’s hiding something, but in addition to being a dedicated singer, Stella Radney is lonely. She’s a romantic and despite her doubts, falls in love with him. Atkins is the first man since Virgil’s murder with whom she could spend the rest of her life. Yet, she fights internal battles over her feelings for Atkins. The only time she is content, truly alive, is when she performs. For Stella, music is life. In the following passage Stella expresses herself beautifully, and with a rare tranquility for her about music’s magic:

You can’t live without hearing a soft purr from the throat of a lounge singer, that first subtle, imperfect note as it floats into a continuum of time and death and love - as it floats out over the whole wide world. You can’t live until you hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare in the early evening, until you’ve seen and heard a guitarist walk one hand up and down a neck, as if his fingers all have a tiny heart of their own. And you haven’t lived until you’ve been shaken from sleep by some enchanting melody, until you’ve burst awake in the middle of the night with a clever chorus bubbling on your lips. And love didn’t compare to music, because music is love – it’s love living in sound, and there’s no other place to find love but to find it in music. 

Early into Know Me From Smoke, The District Attorney's office reopens her husband's murder case, thanks to technological advances.This adds yet another force gripping Stella, dragging her back into the dark past. It’s only a matter of time before the world catches up with Royal Atkins. Few will have sympathy for this lowlife. The only question is will Stella’s love for Atkins overpower more rational thoughts? That’s the dichotomy. As Stella’s affections for Royal increase, so do her internal conflicts and justifications to continue the relationship.

Mystery publisher Otto Penzler stated, “Like art, love, and pornography, noir is hard to define, but you know it when you see it…noir stories are bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers--people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin.” This is Royal Atkins to a T. He personifies the “losers losing” meaning of noir. In contrast, Stella isn’t bad and has overcome tough breaks. Music provides meaning in her life, but love taunts her, a fool’s gold panacea to years of loneliness.

The characters, cops and cons and the supporting cast are realistic and the dialogue rings true. Humor is peppered throughout and strategically placed. I cared for and rooted for Stella Radney and hoped for the worst for Atkins. Noir succeeds when the atmosphere blends with the characters, defining and directing behaviors, becoming its own powerful driving force. In its darkness, gloom, and despair, Know Me From Smoke is reminiscent of noir master David Goodis. In fact, if Goodis were alive and writing today and had an apprentice, it might be Matt Phillips. 

Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: About Type. His story “Carried Away” won the 2017 September/October Mysterious Photograph contest in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Working Overtime, fiction by Matt Phillips

Know thyself.

That’s how Mantra’s daddy used to put it.

Know thyself, motherfucker.

His daddy, all seven feet two of him, humping ass down the baby food aisle at Kmart, looking for blueberry-banana puree to mix with his 25oz of Rolling Rock. Mantra couldn’t help thinking about the man, wondering what in the fuck happened to him. What he said in his head was, you can wonder all you want—it ain’t going to give you no answers, motherfucker. Then he thought about the phrase, no answers. No, he told himself, say it like this: Know answers.

Know answers, motherfucker.

That’s as far as he went with it because he got a hunger for nicotine and lit a cigarette, sat smoking in the driver’s seat of a broke-ass Jeep Cherokee he lifted at the outlet mall near Beaumont. One-eighty-thou on the motherfucker; the in-line six growled like a Slurpee machine the whole way back to Palm Springs. So bad that Mantra said fuck it. Started blasting Top 40 hits out of a local radio station, power one hundred and something.

He leaned back in the seat and squinted at the bungalow.

It was dark already—six in the evening—and there was one light on in the living room. Every now and then, Mantra caught a shadow passing through or partly blocking out the light. Sheila, maybe. Or the Dude.

That fucking piece-of-shit Dude.

Little downtown Palm Springs bungalow. This fucking dude. Mantra couldn’t believe Sheila fucked the man. He puffed out smoke and watched the street. Wide lanes with those rounded curbs, palm trees and eucalyptus swaying high above them. The Jeep’s driver’s side window was lowered slightly and Mantra could smell the flowering oleanders and a hedge of roses in the bungalow’s front yard.

All right, Dude. Nice place you got.

Little Palm Springs joint, huh?

A fuck pad, huh?

Mantra finished the cigarette, flicked it out the window. He lit another and kept watching. A shadow appeared in the window, shrank back into the bungalow’s mysterious throat. You like that bungalow dick, Sheila. Man, Mantra thought, I never figured you for bungalow dick. Never figured you for wanting to fuck a dude who took tennis lessons and played polo.

Never would have figured.

He was halfway through his second cigarette, watching for more shadows in the bungalow, when his cell phone rang. He picked it up without looking at the caller ID, blew smoke into the mouthpiece. “This is Mantra. What up?”

“Yo, Detective Mantra. This is Louie over in—”

“Louie Ants, that you?”

“Shit, yeah. Course it is, buddy.”

“I thought you had a retirement coming up?”

“I do,” Louie said. “Shit. I did. I’m doing some part time consulting for the County Sheriff’s Department.”

“No shit,” Mantra said. And then he thought: Know shit.

Know shit, motherfucker.

“Reason I’m calling: We got a body out in the hills. A gangbanger.”

“Another one bites the dust, huh?” Mantra watched as the bungalow’s light dimmed and a smaller light emerged in the window. Goddamn candle. Now they were lighting candles. “I known a few gangbangers in my time. Let’s have it.”

Louie gave Mantra the rundown: About five-seven, one-forty. Two tear drops tattooed under the left eye. A bulldog on the right shoulder. Your run-of-the-mill Mother Theresa shit across the abdomen. Some Jesus tats, too.

Mantra asked what kind of shoes. Why’s that matter? It just does, Louie. Nike. Okay, what kind of Nike? What do I mean, what kind? Oh, the crime scene techs say Air Force Ones. Is that important? Maybe. Yeah, maybe.

Louie said, “I’m just trying to get an ID on the motherfucker. You know how it is when they don’t got a wallet or an RIP tat, right?”

“I know how it is,” Mantra said. He watched the candle flicker in the window. How motherfucking romantic. This fucking Dude and Sheila.

“Any of this tug on your balls?”

Mantra said, “You got an eye color for me? What about hair style? They wear the same hair style, usually. Even when they get older.”

Louie cleared his throat. “Thing is, he got the top of his head shot off. Only thing I can make out clear is the two tear drops.”

“Well,” Mantra said, “it must have hurt if he was crying.”

That got a laugh and Louie said, “Yeah. It hurt so bad he died.”

Mantra didn’t laugh. He watched the candle flicker. “None of this is giving me a picture,” he said. “I can’t say I ever had the pleasure of meeting your dead man. Not that I can remember, at least.”

“You don’t know him, huh?”

“Nope. I don’t know him.”

They hung up and Mantra watched the window and the candle flickering inside it. Too bad, he thought. I didn’t know the man. And I couldn’t help the man. He flicked his cigarette out the window. Know thyself, he thought.

Know thyself, motherfucker.


Two days earlier Mantra met Sheila at a donut shop on Slauson, sat chewing a jelly donut while she poured powdered creamer into her Starbucks cup. They sat at a wobbly table and Mantra said, “Not even gonna buy a Bear Claw, huh? You come in here with your upper-middle-class coffee and use the man’s creamer. Can’t see it in your heart to kick some dough his way?”

Sheila sighed and looked sideways at the glass display with all the rows of donuts and pastries. “This fucker has enough dough, if you ask me.”

No fighting Sheila, Mantra decided.

He slurped red jam through his lips and asked her why the fuck she was taking him away from his perfect LA day chatting up suspected murderers and letting widows cry on his cold shoulder.

“Because I can, that’s why,” she said. “You’re my brother-in-law, right?”

“Only by marriage.” Mantra smiled, dabbed at his front teeth with a big purple tongue. “You know, I got a real job, Sheila. I can’t be taking time to eat donuts and talk about getting our nails done.”

“Like Randle doesn’t have a real job?”

“My brother—older brother, mind you—teaches second grade.”


“The man sits around doing basic arithmetic and taking attendance.”

Sheila sipped her coffee and shook her head. “You’re such a prick, Mantra. Just because you’re a cop, you think you’re so fucking important.”

“I got a gun and a badge.”

“And a pencil-slim dick to match.”

Mantra exhaled through his nose, got serious. It wasn’t like Sheila to talk that way, especially not with her husband’s little brother. He wiped his sticky fingers with a napkin. “What’s wrong, Sheila?”


“Sheila, what’s wrong?”

“I called you because. . .”

It sat there on her face. In her eyes. Something deep and unspoken and too dangerous to put into the hot air of a Slauson Avenue donut shop.

Mantra saw a few lies cross her mind, saw them emerge in the wrinkles at her mostly smooth temples, in the sharp points that formed the outside of her eyes, in the slightest twinge of an upper lip. You get so good—as a cop—that you can see a lie before it crosses a person’s lips. But Sheila didn’t lie. Mantra had to give her that. She didn’t lie to him. Instead, she trailed off and sat there scratching the top of one hand with a manicured fingernail—a blood-red fingernail. Mantra put a hand on top of hers and said, “If something’s wrong, Sheila—if something’s wrong, I’m here to help. We’re family.”

“Yeah. I mean, no—nothing’s wrong. I just. . ."


“I have to go. I-I forgot about something. I’m sorry, Mantra. Thanks for meeting me, okay? I just. . .I have to go.” And she did.

He watched her through the donut shop’s window as she hustled across the parking lot, climbed into her leased BMW. Black as night and sleek as an insect. She pulled onto Slauson and headed east.

Something’s wrong all right, Mantra thought. Wrong as fuck.

He started tailing her that evening.


And now, here ye sit, he thought. Watching your brother’s wife suck off some country club Dude with a Maserati and a Palm Springs bungalow.

Mantra started the Jeep and cruised past the bungalow, squinted at the flickering candle in the front window. He didn’t know what to do. His brother was at a teacher’s retreat in Ojai. Should he call and let Randle know his wife was fucking somebody else? Or just drive back to LA and let it ride? Was this any business of his? Mantra turned the Jeep onto Palm Canyon, the town’s main drag, and headed south through trinket shops and quaint Italian restaurants. After a few blocks, he parked on the street. He locked the Jeep and walked into a Tiki Bar—the sweat rolling off his face dried with the cool air conditioning inside the place.

The decor was pure Polynesian, warrior masks and palm fronds. The bar was already full this early in the evening; Mantra found a spot on the patio overlooking the street. It was hot on the patio—despite the hoses spraying cool mist—and he ordered a piña colada. The drink arrived and Mantra sipped it while he thought about his brother.

His only brother.

Yeah, they were close. Did everything together as kids. Mantra played quarterback in high school and he set a few records throwing to Randle, the all-city receiver. They went off to separate colleges—Mantra at LA City and Randle in the Midwest.

Randle became a teacher.

Mantra became a cop.

Know thyself, motherfucker.

Sheila and Randle got married fast. Too fast for Mantra’s comfort. But he saw the man happy—really happy, that is—for the first time since their dad got put away. Sent upstate to the joint. All seven feet two inches of him.

And Randle and Mantra never saw the man again.

Last Mantra checked, their dad was a ghost.

Let out of prison in 2010 and nowhere to be found.

For what? For killing their momma. Well, for getting her killed.

Drunk driving down—wouldn’t you know it?—Slauson Avenue on a Thursday night. You can bet the phrase is real: Cars do wrap themselves around telephone poles. Or people wrap cars around telephone poles.

And that was the heart of it—Sheila looked like momma. Talked like her. Hell, sometimes you looked at Sheila and thought: That must be momma’s reincarnation. But it wasn’t weird that Randle fell in love with Sheila.

She was different, too.

Had a little hustle in her.

Some kind of hot fire.

And it looked like she was burning Randle. No-goddamn-way. No way in hell. No-goddam-way. Nobody burns my brother. I’m a LA city homicide cop and nobody—no-fucking-body—burns my brother. Mantra took the final sip of his piña colada.

He had a bungalow to visit.


Another cigarette.

Mantra puffed and watched. The candle in the bungalow’s window was out, but another light was on deep inside the place. In another window. The bedroom, probably. He puffed and puffed. Sat there seething and thinking and breathing. At about nine that night, he got another call.

“This Mantra. What up?”

“Mantra? It’s me.”


“Yeah, man.”

“I thought you were up in Ojai?”

“I am,” Randle said. “Got about three more inclusivity modules to attend.”

“Watch you ma-call-it?”

Randle chuckled and said, “Man, if anybody needs sensitivity training, it’s you. I bet you drive around looking for people to shoot.”

“Somebody’s got to do it.”

“Right,” Randle said. “Hey, bro: You mind driving over to my place and checking on Sheila? She was supposed to go out for dinner with a friend, but she should be back by now. I can’t get a hold of her.”

Mantra stared bullets at the lighted window.

“It’s just, you know, I want to make sure she’s okay.”

“Yeah, I know.”


“You want to make sure she’s okay,” Mantra said. But he thought: She sure as shit ain’t okay. And you won’t be either, Randle.

“You can try to call, but she’s not answering.”

“I hear you,” Mantra said. “I’ll head over there now. I’m sure she’s fine.”

“Yeah, me too.” Randle clicked his teeth. “It’s just, you know. . .”

“Yeah, I know. Let me call you back.”

“Cool. Thanks, bro.”

Mantra pushed the end call button. As he did, the bungalow’s living room light flashed on. He saw two shadows cross through the light and then it went out again. The bungalow’s front door opened and two silhouettes moved into view on the stone walkway. Mantra watched Sheila and the Dude move down the driveway past the gleaming Maserati and stand waiting on the curb. The Dude looked Mantra’s way, punched a button on his phone. Sheila stood there in a white gown; the gown clung to her figure like stretch fabric. God, he thought, she does look a bit like momma. What Mantra wondered:

What are they doing?

And then he saw headlights flash in the Jeep’s rearview mirror.

Ride share. Here Sheila was with her Palm Springs Dude and they were going out for a night on the town. Maybe get a little drunk and cruise back to the bungalow, have a nice Palm Springs fuck. And with Randle pulling his pud up in Ojai.

God, Mantra thought. Damn.

He acted without thinking—he felt a surge of anger run through him and he twisted the Jeep’s ignition key, slammed his foot against the gas pedal. The vehicle shot forward, crossed through the gaze of headlights behind him. He saw the Dude’s face squirm into a frown and—for an instant—he saw Sheila’s eyes glaze in fear. He ran them down and knew they were both dead. Their bodies made thumping sounds—thump-thump-thump like a boxer hitting a bag—against the bumper and along the undercarriage. He stopped the Jeep and the tires squealed. The car behind him stopped too and Mantra sat there bathed in the headlights and his own uncontrollable rage. Nobody but nobody fucks with my brother, he told himself. Nobody but no-fucking-body.

He slammed the throttle again and steered the Jeep onto the main drag. He sped toward the freeway and, when he was headed west on Interstate 10 toward Los Angeles, he picked up his phone and called his brother.

“She okay?” Randle asked. He had a wheeze in his voice. Like he’d been running. Or like he’d been worried as hell. “You find out if she’s okay?” “Yeah,” Mantra said. “She’s all right. Trust me, brother. She’s just fine.”

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Day's Work by Matt Phillips


Get you a good haul of forever all-in-ones, thats Graco brand, you want the best. Talking like, say, twenty-thirty of the suckers. All boxed up now. Unopened—see, if they get used and sold secondhand, the value goes down.Roddie lifted a shot glass to his lips, drained brown liquid and hissed through chapped lips. He slammed the glass on the bar, lifted a hand at the burly bartender with the shaved head. Another shot of Beam and a tall Bud back.
Reflected in the mirror behind the bar, through dried liquor and beer stains, Roddie squinted at a tired stripper as she latched non-manicured fingers onto the pole, twisted around it like a drunk child.
Grace, he thought to himself, has many faces and forms.
He cleared his throat and said, Them models got everything you need. Got six-position adjustment, state of the art latch system, a steel frame you couldnt crush with a backhoe. Shit, they got a seat level indicator about as accurate as a laser on a sniper rifle. Plush fabric, too. I mean, real comfortable.
The bartender slid a full shot glass and beer bottle toward Roddie who dug into his shirt pocket, came out with a crushed, greasy twenty dollar bill. Thatll do her for these two and my first round?
The bartender nodded, swiped the twenty from the sticky bar top.
Roddie drained the second shot of bourbon, coughed hard into a greasy palm. He scratched the side of his face until red welts surfaced on his cheek. And dont you forget about style, okay? Thats one hell of a design team they got over there, wherever-in-the-hell-China they make the fuckers. Im talking little beady-eyed motherfuckers who went to some tai-chi art school or some kind of shit like that. I think its real funny when they get a new color scheme. Comes out every year all spanking new, like fucking colors make a difference in the things themselves. But Ill tell you what—and my prick of a daddy taught me this—you give the customer what they think they want. Thats the secret: Give em what they think they want. Now, write this down: Forever, all-in-one, I said. Thats Graco brand, and dont you go after nothing else.Roddie turned on his bar stool, shrugged off the awful mirrored image of the too-tired stripper.
Next to him, a middle-aged man with a missing front tooth plugged a pinch of chewing tobacco into his plump bottom lip. He smirked hard at the bent over stripper, turned to Roddie. Dude, I got no fucking idea what it is youre gabbing on and on about. I got no fucking idea in hell.
Roddie sighed, lifted his eyebrows in surprise. Car seats, man. Forever all-in-ones. Im talking the hottest model on the market. Im talking—for goddamned shit-in-the-hell sake—about stealing fucking car seats. Im talking about gettinrich, or dyinmotherfuckintryin’.” He grinned and rolled his head.
Roddies companion—if thats what he was—shook his head with slow contemplation. You mean to tell me…” He stopped for a moment, shoved a finger into his mouth and poked at the gob of tobacco. That you just got out of the joint, fresh out the clink, and the best you got—the dang schooling you got—is a plan to lift car seats?
Them seats go for three-four hundred, buddy. And thats on the open market, Amazon, eBay, Craigslist and the like. Not to mention word-of-mouth sales. Shit, place like this town—whats it here, some twenty thousand souls?—you could make a damn good business out of car seats. Its a gold mine.
Man, Roddie. You just got out the joint.
We sittinhere in a strip club goes by the name Hip-Diggity.
I know it.
And youre talking car seats—shit.”
Roddie shrugged, pinched a red welt on his cheek. You gonna throw in with me on this, make it like we used to do? I get the product and you—”
I’ll be fucked up the ass if Im gonna rob and sell car seats for a living. I mean, shit, I been low in my life, but even the lowest man got to have a fuckinlimit. You can count me out, Roddie.
Roddie lifted his beer, took a long, slow sip. Well, shit,he said and tasted the insides of his mouth, breathed deep like the DOC shrink taught him. I guess all that means isHell, all it means is more for me. Roddie Gets Rich,he said. Thats the real title of this motherfuckin’ story.”


Bern C. Smith worked retail from the day he got his work permit at sixteen years of age. He was skinny then; a whiny kid with shit-brown eyes and pimples on his chin. Now, at 38-years-old, Bern pretty much looked the same. His zits were gone, replaced by crows feet around his still-shit-brown eyes. Bern wasnt a virgin, but he was unmarried, couldnt do a pull-up, drove a cheap-ass Hyundai Accent (off-purple), and knew everything on Gods green Earth about the retail business. More specifically, Bern knew how to stock and sell baby products; that meant onesies, tiny shoes, strollers, cribs, diapers, bottles, and car seats. He was responsible for sales on everything you might see in ‘Lil’ Ones Place,the store where Bern worked—hell, the store Bern ran all by his damn self. There was a plaque out front that had his name on it: General Manager: Bern C. Smith.Sure, he had to paste his name on the plaque with Gorilla glue, but that was just because corporate had it made up with the previous GMs name. This was before Bern got the job, before his ex-boss fucked a stock girl in his office while those hacks at corporate watched on the closed circuit television.
One mans fall from grace is another mans rise.
Still, you get a promotion and you take it to the bank. When Bern arrived at seven each morning—today was Tuesday—he sat in his car and smoked a cigarette, watched for anybody tailing him or casing the store, a large blue building just off the main highway.
Bern never told anybody he did this; shit, he knew theyd call him crazy. But Bern knew—because he crunched the numbers—that ‘Lil’ Ones Placedid a solid million, million-five in sales each year. Thats not profit, mind you—thats total revenue. They did fourth best sales in the Southwest Region, and Bern was proud of that fact. Point was: Besides the money in the safe, the store had lots of high value product. And Bern C. Smith would be damned if hed let some wily crook catch him by surprise. No fucking way; Bern would make sure a lowlife robber got put on that worlds dumbest criminal show before his store lost one cute baby sock to theft—in this life or the next.
Bern pressed his cigarette into the Hyundais ashtray, reached over and unlatched the glove box. He pulled out a black cartridge, pressed a button and smiled; an arc of blue-white electricity shot from one of the cartridges fangs to the other. While on duty, Bern carried a taser on his person at all times. This was only for safety, mind you. In the event ofAs they are want to say. Or, whatever. He shoved the taser into his coat pocket, straightened the curled collar of his blue polo shirt, and stepped out of the car. Bern scanned the parking lot—it was empty. He could see the stores sliding glass doors and decided they hadnt been tampered with; it was all status quo this morning.
He locked his off-purple Hyundai Accent and strode like a soldier on patrol toward the plaque with his name pasted onto it. Bern C. Smith, general manager, was on duty. And it was going to be a theft-free Tuesday.
You could be damn sure of that.
At a gas station across the highway, in a rented Honda with tinted windows, Roddie sipped cheap coffee and watched the skinny dude who ran ‘Lil’ Ones Placeunlock the stores sliding glass doors, slide between them, and shove them closed. Looked like a pretty wimpy dude from what Roddie could see. For a week now, since he got out the joint, Roddie watched the skinny dude who drove the pink car open the place. Most he did when he got to work was scan the parking lot. Parked in the same spot each day. At the same time, too.
Right on the motherfuckin’ dot.
Today was no different. Roddie knew from prison: Its habit that makes a man weak. Why else they make you do what they say, and when they say it? Keep you weak, thats why. He finished his coffee, opened his door, and tossed the styrofoam cup into the breeze. It tumbled behind the rented Honda, caught in a pile of tumbleweeds beside the gas stations main building. There were seven other cups there, all Roddies. He slammed the door, scratched the fading welts on his left cheek. Too bad that old buddy of his wouldnt be in on this thing, but Roddie knew—or, hell, he thought—he could pull this one alone.
More for me, he thought. Roddie Gets Rich.
In the morning, he figured. That was the time. Wednesday morning. Bright and early. Like right now, you just roll up on the skinny dude, pop him one in the face, and have him open the loading bay out back. What youll do, Roddie told himself, is rent a U-haul truck this evening. Park it out back and walk around the side of the building. Skinny dude always comes to work from the west; see, he dont circle the building to make sure its all clear. He wont even see the U-haul backed in, ready and waiting for a full load of forever all-in-ones. Graco brand that is. Best fuckinmodel on the market.
Roddie reminded himself: You got to make sure not to pop the wimpy dude too hard.
You need him to help you load up those car seats. Split the job in half, make it easy on old Roddie. Thats the whole point of this thing here.
Isnt it? Make things easy on old Roddie?
Bern noticed the Conway girl—the high school chick—was late to work again. How many times did he have to tell her? If she wanted prom off, she had to show up on time during the spring break. Bern stood in the center of the sales floor, arms crossed, trying not to scream at her when she sauntered through the front doors. And her fucking polo shirt wasnt even tucked. He moved through the model crib displays (time to get ready for the summer models) and surprised before she could make it to the staff lounge and punch her time card. Conway, youre late again. I thought I told you that—”
The girl, short and blonde with soft features and blue eyes, jumped and shrieked. Mr. Bern, I’m so sorry. My mom didnt get home until three and my sister needed me to take her to a friends house.She ran her hands through her hair, pulled it back into a ponytail. Besides its not even busy in here.
Bern’s neck got red. So did his cheeks. It wasnt busy? No shit—that pissed him off more than anything. Used to be, people had lots of summer babies and that meant they came to ‘Lil’ Ones Placeand made a baby registry before May. Not anymore; between Amazon and Walmart and other retail behemoths, Bern had to practically beg the universe for weekday customers. Still, no fucking excuses. To Bern, you had to be on the floor to make a sale. I dont care how busy it is, Conway. You and I both know you cant sell car seats while youre listening to Kanye in your car.” Bern sniffed. Or calling your boyfriend.
The blond girl laughed. You know I dont have a boyfriend, Mr. Bern.
He felt his gut loosen. I’m surprised by that…”
Conway giggled, started to tuck in her polo shirt.
In the staff lounge, please.Bern said. “Dont do that on the sales floor. And Im letting it go today, but I expect you on time for the rest of the week.He grunted, tried not to watch her jog toward the back of the store. Fine, he had a soft spot for the blonde, but only because he saw a little of himself in her. He had a responsibility as Bern C. Smith, general-fucking-manager: Get his staff on the same page, dammit. Get them to take this shit seriously.
Bern dropped a hand to the taser in the front pocket of his too-large khakis. This retail shit is serious business, he thought. And look what we have hereBern moved toward the front of the store. Outside, through the glass windows, he saw a gray minivan pull into a parking spot.
Time to get selling.
Roddie spit on the ground beside the U-haul man. You telling me you only got the small truck, the ten-footer?They were in the rental lot, a dirt patch with a portable office trailer at its center. Above them, the blue sky was going gray with evening and Roddie wanted to get this shit settled. He needed a drink and a good nights sleep. But more than that, he needed (no, he wanted) a twenty-foot U-haul truck. He scratched his face, grunted hard at the guy with the clipboard.
We got ten-footers if you want it tonight. But I cant get you a twenty-footer until Saturday morning. Got one coming in from Santa Fe. Least, I will if they stay on schedule. No guarantees on the truck. Its too hard to make certain. People say theyre coming and dont, I make a promise, and it all goes bad.
Oh, I bet.
People make all kinds of plans,the U-haul guy said, but things go to hell faster than a stripper from the bible country.He choked on his own phlegm, coughed up a nice cigarette loogie and hit the bulls eye, dead-center in the wet spot Roddie made beside him. Best I can do is Saturday. Might be.
Saturday,Roddie repeated and searched the distant skyline. Ten-footers all the mans got. All the mans got is a ten-footer. Now, how am I supposed to get done what I got to get done if all the mans got is a ten-footer.His nose wrinkled and he spit again. Bulls eye in a damn bulls eye—how about that?
You always talk to yourself, mister?U-haul man tried like hell to clear his throat, gave up on it. My sister talks to herself. Down at the urgent care, they say she has a sike-o-poth-ee. Something like that. You know what that is? Shes always going on about this, that, or the goddamn other. Phantoms to frog legs. Shit, my goddamn sister. Cant say I dont love her. Now, mister, if you dont like the ten-footers, I can get you—”
Roddie punched the man dead in the face. The dudes reddish nose crumpled against Roddies knuckles. Took two years in prison for him to learn to punch, but once you get the hang of itGosh dang bulls eye, right there. And how the fuck about that, huh? He stood over the U-haul man with his hands on his hips, listened to him gargle blood and saliva. Roddie felt himself losing control, felt the familiar rage he knew of himself burning through his skin, goddamn running through his blood like a virus. He remembered the DOC shrink; breathe, the fucker said. Now, you just breathe real deep, Roddie. He cracked his knuckles, breathed as deep as his lungs allowed.
Whyd you? Goth-dang it. Why you punth me, mithter?
Roddie said, Ah, jeez. I’m sorry about that.He reached down, plucked U-haul man to his feet. Roddie brushed off the mans backside, handed him his clipboard. I got a little carried away is all. I just had it in my head to get a twenty-footer. You understand how a man gets a picture in his head?
The U-haul man gulped, wiped blood off his mouth and chin. A ten-fooder do you righth? Thath okay then? A ten-fooder?
Thatll do just fine,Roddie said. I appreciate you, buddy. Dont never think I don’t.”


Cold this morning. Bite a man like a pincher bug. Roddie chugged the last bit of black-tar coffee from his styrofoam cup and tossed it out the U-haul trucks window—yes, it was a damn ten-footer and it was backed in tight against the ‘Lil’ Ones Placeloading dock. My, oh my, Roddie thought, I backed this sucker up to where its snug as saran wrap on a ding-dong.
He watched light morning traffic pass on the highway, mostly beer delivery, UPS, or mail trucks whipping up for the hump-day frenzy.
Work—Roddie never did understand it.
How people could get up each day and put on the clean uniform, act like nothing bothered them; hell, thinking about it made Roddie clench his teeth. Thats what Roddie had done his whole life, try to avoid work. Sure, it put him in the joint a couple times, but what are you going to do? He shook his head, tasted the thin film of coffee on his tongue.
He spoke into the sideview mirror, talked to his own reflection saying, Forever all-in-ones Roddie. Graco brand, my motherfuckinman. Roddie gets rich. Oh, yes he does.
Or, Roddie thought, he dies motherfuckintryin. He checked his wristwatch—piece he ripped from Macys the week before—and saw it was about that time: Mr. Wimp in the pink car ought to be walking into the store, give it a minute or two.
Roddie hopped out of the truck, slammed the door. Around back, he flipped the lever on the sliding door and threw it open; the door clanged like hell. Roddie liked the look of that flat, empty loading area, smooth as a baby's butt. Still, he knew hed like it better when it was full of car seats. Top models, too. The kind that go for three-four hundred on the open market.
The kind that make a man rich.
On the side of the building now, Roddie pressing himself tight against the cold gray brick, his breath shooting out in front of him. A couple more steps and he'd peek at the parking lot, see if Mr. Wimpy was headed inside, and then he'd clock the man on back of the head, a real good blow to his dome. Roddie had a tire iron in his hand, one of the cheap chrome ones from Walmart, do a man just as good as those elitist-fuckin' Auto Zone tools. Snap-On my ass, Roddie thought. He gripped the chromed steel, liked the hard coldness in his palm.
He reached the corner of the building, tried hard to control his breathing, but couldn't. Like breaking out of the joint that one time, Roddie thought. I couldn't get my breath running from those dogs. My goodness. Jeez-fuckin'-Lou-eez. He patted himself on the chest, shrugged. Here goes... When Roddie peeked around the corner, he saw Mr. Wimpy slam his door, scan the parking lot. The man loped around the pink Hyundai--sorry fuckin' excuse for a car--and headed toward the building's entryway, framed by sliding glass doors.
And when Mr. Wimpy reached the doors, when he was fiddling with the lever there, trying to push the doors open, Roddie sprinted alongside the building--five or six steps, seemed like--and he was behind the man, the chrome tire iron high above his right shoulder.
As Mr. Wimpy shoved open the doors, he turned; Roddie swung down, clipped the man above his right eye. He fell hard against the cold cement. Snap that on, motherfucker.
Roddie slipped the tire iron into his waistband, dragged Mr. Wimpy into the store.
When Bern clawed from the fog of his own unconsciousness, the first thing he saw was a rat-nosed fucker with a snaggle tooth and two tear tattoos on his left cheek. A dull ache lurked behind Bern's eyes, but he managed to say, "Who the fuck are you?"
"My friends call me Roddie. But you," he tapped Bern on the forehead with the tire iron, "can call me Mr. Roddie-Sir, if you dare please."
"The fuck do you want?" Bern squinted, tried to pin the man into one form––he was seeing double. "Why'd you hit me?"
"What I want, Mr. Wimpy, is a goddamn full shipment of forever all-in-ones, Graco brand that is. You know what I'm talking about?"
"Car seats," Bern said through gritted teeth. "Best damn car seats on the market."
"You fuckin' A right, Mr. Wimpy. Look at that––you know your biz-nass!"
"Car and Driver called them the––"
"Cadillac of car seats!" Roddie laughed hard, all the way from his crotch to his widow's peak. "That's what I'm talking about, a man who know his biz-nass."
Bern said, "Like you know yours?"
"Right again, Mr. Wimpy. One hundred percent."
Bern nodded slowly, pulled himself up against the wall. "You need my help? To load them up, I mean? I bet you don't want to do it yourself."
"Might nice of you, Mr. Wimpy. Put her there, pal." Roddie held out a grease-stained palm, fingernails black as mold.
Bern C. Smith shook the man's hand.
It was clear as mud to Bern, once it was halfway loaded, the U-haul truck wouldn't fit the store's entire stock of forever all-in-ones. No sir. This son of a bitch was going to have to make two runs. "Might take two trips," Bern said as he slid another stack of car seats onto the truck, pulled the hand-truck from beneath the boxes. "We can go unload, come back and get the rest."
Roddie stood watching Bern; the man hadn't lifted a goddamn hand to help load the truck. He'd stood in the loading bay picking his teeth, watching Bern with flat brown eyes, shit-colored, matter of fact. And Bern knew what that meant––the man ripping him off was a lazy son of a bitch. Well, Bern thought, I can work with that.
Bern had experience with lazy sons of bitches. Plenty.
Roddie said, "Try to get as many in as you can."
"Hell, I'd hate for you to leave some back here. Now, look, if I can get you to take all of them, that's a help to me when it comes to insurance. You understand?"
Roddie nodded. "I didn't think of that."
"Well, that's what I'm here for." Bern pushed the hand-truck––heavy red steel––closer to Roddie, got within spitting distance.
Roddie turned to look at the remaining car seats.
They were stacked in one corner of the stock room, ten rows or more of the same models, stacked three high. Sold like goddamn hot cakes and 'Lil' One's Place' always had plenty––Bern made sure of that.
Roddie looked back to the truck, over Bern's shoulder, studied it for a second. "Okay," he said, "what you do is––" Turning back to the stock room now, the rows of stacked boxes, "get me those two rows there and we'll flip the others on their sides to––"
Bern lifted the hand-truck and brought it down against Roddie's thin shoulder blades. It was a hard blow, but it only brought Roddie to his knees. As the crook turned to face Bern, the taser came out of Bern's jacket pocket, burst lightning in his palm.
Roddie said, "What the fuck?"
"Should have searched me, smart-ass." He pressed the taser to Roddie's neck, grinned with satisfaction as the man collapsed, shook himself into a stupor. Roddie pissed his pants, shit himself like a baby. "Well, holy shit. You got a mess in your pants," Bern said. "You want I should go and get you some Pampers?"
"Fuck you, I––"
Bern pressed the taser to his neck; the crook's body shook and shook and shook.
Roddie vomited, tried to scurry away shouting, "Momma! Gawdammit, momma! Where you at! I miss you, momma!"
But Bern was on top of him again, pressing the taser into the man's crotch.
"Ah, God! God-in-hell-for-fuck's-sake!"
"You fucked with the wrong baby store, pal." Bern laughed. "Say, what's your full name? I want to make sure your obituary reads just right. Your tombstone too."
"Stop," Roddie said. "I give you whatever you want. Just, please. Please, stop it."
"I didn't get that." Bern tapped the taser against Roddie's crotch again. "What's your name?"
"Roddie Day. My name's Roddie Day. I grew up around Pahrump. Dropped out of high school. Got me a job running car parts in and out of Vegas for a––"
Bern hit the taser against Roddie's chest.
The man shook, gulped, stopped moving. After a moment, he spoke, "Ah, stop. Fuck. Please, just let it stop."
"Didn't ask for your résumé," Bern said. "All I wanted was the name." He slipped the taser back into his coat pocket, took a few steps away and retrieved the hand-truck. Its tiny wheels squeaked as he wheeled it back toward Roddie. "Thanks for your biz-nass, Roddie Day," Bern said. He lifted the hand-truck to his chest, the flat tongue of it pointed downward at Roddie's rat-nosed face.
"I swear, I won't––no!"
Bern brought the hand-truck down as hard as he could, salivated at the crunch of skull, watched blood dribble out from Roddie's ears. He'd have to clean this shit up later.
Roddie's legs shook, became still.
"Mr. Bern?"
Bern turned and saw Conway, the high school blonde, standing there watching. And wouldn't you know it, her fucking polo shirt was untucked. The hell had he told her about that? Bern bent over, flipped the dead man's left hand, studied the watch on his wrist. He stood up and placed his hands on his hips. "You're late again, Conway. What'd I tell you about that?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bern. I got caught––"
"Go on and unload this truck," Bern said, motioning toward the U-haul. He looked back to the dead body on the floor. "I got another bit of pressing business. You show up late again," Bern looked at the Conway girl, "and I'm going to write your ass up. You got that?"
Slowly, chin trembling with fear, the blonde girl nodded.

And kept nodding.