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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The problem with improvisation, fiction by Ed Brock

At 2:35 a.m., Morris Blackmon stared intently at the corrosion encrusting the gas line feeding the water heater in what had been his home. It was his former water heater, to be more accurate. He spun a hammer in his hand, then tapped it on his thigh while he stared at the pipe. After a few minutes, he bent down and began reading the instructions on the side of the tank, his lips moving just a little with each word. Finally, he turned the temperature knob to its lowest setting, and turned the gas cock knob to the “off” position.

He opened the panel to make sure the flames were out, then stood, took a deep breath, and brought the hammer down on the rusty gas pipe. Despite the green and white, coral-like corrosion, the pipe did not break completely, but gas immediately began hissing out, rippling like a heat wave as it streamed into the air. Morris’s eyes watered and he was feeling dizzy by the time he made it to the door that led back into the kitchen. He slammed the door shut behind him and promptly stuffed a towel, which he had prepared for this purpose, into the gap between door and floor.

In the kitchen, he gasped for air, surprised at how quickly the odor of gas was already beginning to leak through from the garage. Or, he thought, maybe it was just soaked into his clothes. He put the hammer back into the drawer where it lived and walked back into the living room, where he flopped down into what had been his favorite chair, an old school black faux leather recliner marbled with cracks in its upholstery.

Everything in the house had been “his,” even though most of it was crap that Christine had picked out at WalMart, Target and countless yard sales. Still, he was filled now with a strange sense of longing, a desire to stay here that he had not felt even in the two months since he had moved out, since Christine and he had separated.

It was, of course, too late now.

He wanted a cigarette. He had “quit” for the millionth time a week ago, but now he wanted a cigarette badly. He knew where he could get one, but wondered if his need for them was really that strong. They were upstairs, in the bedroom, on the nightstand. They were on the nightstand next to the bed, next to Christine. Next to Christine’s body, that is.
Morris exhaled, flapping his lips and rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. Goddamn that crazy bitch, any how, he thought. He was just glad they never had kids. Christ, what if this had happened one night with little Morris Jr. sleeping so innocently one room over. It would be hard to explain that Mommy died because she had asked Daddy to choke her during sex – again – and this time he had held on to the rope just a little too long.

It would be pretty hard to explain that to the cops, too.

“So, Mr. Blackmon,” they would say. “What you’re telling us is that you went over to your former residence at your ex-wife’s invitation …”

“She wasn’t my ex-wife yet,” he would point out.

“Very well, Mr. Blackmon, your estranged wife, then,” the cop would say in that testy little smartass way they have. “So you go over there at your estranged wife’s invitation, with the intent of … performing a sexual act with her? For old time’s sake?”


The imaginary officer nods, briefly covering his smirk with his hand.

“And then, the … encounter … just went a little too far, and you just happened to, accidentally, strangle the woman who had kicked you out of the house just two months prior, while performing this sex act. Well, I can certainly see how that could happen.

Oh, and I see here that you’re on probation. Well, I’m sure that’s just for parking tickets or something like that … oh, nope, it’s for assault and domestic violence. See, now, that last little part makes me think that the victim was the very same estranged wife who now lies choked to death upstairs. But, hey, I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.”

Indeed, the police were not strangers at the Blackmon household. They had been fairly regular visitors in the two years and three months of Morris and Christine Blackmon’s pathetic excuse for a union.

Not that it was pathetic in the beginning. No, in the beginning it was beautiful. They had met in a bar, where so many other failed love stories begin, but they were so sure it would be different for them. After all, they developed respect for each other as throwers on rival darts teams. His friends called him “Bullseye,” and Christine’s called her “Sharpshooter.”

She had him on the ropes, but it was honestly close enough that he totally bought it when she let him win at the last round. Of course, he bought her a pitcher of Long Island Tea to “make it up to her,” so she definitely came out ahead. And then she gave him head in the car. How could they not fall in love?

On the other hand, she certainly seemed to take great relish in telling him the truth about that night six months later when they had their first real fight. It was a minor cut, but the first of thousands. That little memory brought him back to his current situation: how to ignite the big gas bubble in the basement.

In those panicky moments after he realized his sexcapade had ended in death, when he first conceived the “blow the house up with gas” plan, he contemplated leaving something metal in the microwave. Set the timer, open the basement door and head for the hills. 

Looking back now, however, he had his doubts. The police would surely notice a metal object in the microwave.

He also wasn’t sure that would trigger an explosion. Seemed like he had seen some episode on “Mythbusters” about that, but he couldn’t remember if they busted the myth or confirmed it. Unfortunately for Morris, he only had one chance to make it work.

He had known an arsonist when he was inside at Autrey, but the guy had been more of a firebug than a pro. They had worked in the boot plant together, talking shit while cobbling footwear for their fellow prisoners. So this arsonist, his name was Bud, one time fell smack in love with one of the prison bitches and decided to mnake him some custom boots. It did not end well.

The bitch, named Diamond, was very much in demand, seeing as he was as pretty as they come inside, a regular transsexual super model. Bud was not the only prisoner wanting to polish Diamond, and he was certainly not the biggest. So he gave the bitch the boots, and sure enough, he got a blow job out of it, but Bud wanted more. He wanted exclusive rights, but the very next day Diamond went off with some big Aryan stud, probably wearing Bud’s boots while getting banged.

Bud did not take this well at all, and he spent the next week or two muttering to himself and pilfering various items and chemicals from the boot plant. He showed Morris the finished product, a compact flamethrower, basically, and confided his plan to torch his old flame when he had the chance. The chance came, and Bud confronted the former love of his life, and his/her love of the moment, while they were going at it in a storage room. He pointed the little torch at the couple, said something like “This is what you get, you cheating bitch,” and pulled the trigger.

The device blow up in his hand, burning over sixty percent of his body. Diamond and her man escaped unscathed. So, yeah, there was nothing from his friendship with Bud that could help Morris with his current situation.

Maybe he could knock over a lamp. Wouldn’t the broken socket spark? No, no, it wouldn’t, not long enough to ignite the gas. He would have to find some way to knock one over after the gas had already filled the house, and he had no idea how that would work. God, he needed a cigarette!

Then it occurred to him. Maybe he could leave a cigarette burning in Christine’s dead hand, make sure that started a fire, then leave the basement door open and run for it? The idea of going back into the room with his dead ex-wife, much less touching her body, made Morris’ stomach contents knock on his mouth’s back door, but he realized this was probably his best bet. OK, so be it, he decided.

Then Morris started pondering another problem: could he really avoid being placed here at the scene of the crime. He had left his car in the parking lot of the little park behind the house and then crept up, with nary a witness, over the fence and to the back door. That had been in case Amy had woken up to find him missing and taken it upon herself to go looking for him here.

Christ, Amy. Christine had been crazy, but at least she wasn’t monkey-brained stupid like Amy. Morris had never met a blonder brunette. When he had first met her at a friend’s party, she at one point insisted that chickens are reptiles “because they’re cold blooded.” 

Fortunately for her, Amy had an ass that made it easy to forget the stunning emptiness on the top end of her body.

Thinking about the chicken comment made Morris chuckle. And, just at that moment, sitting in his rough-worn former black recliner, he was filled with the confidence that he was going to be all right, that he would succeed in covering his tracks. He just had to go upstairs and light a cigarette in his dead wife’s hand. Nothing to it.

And it was at that moment that the doorbell rang.

It was nearly three in the morning, and somebody was ringing the doorbell. And they were pretty insistent about it. Of course, Morris knew damn well who it was, and he also knew he had to answer it. It would be unwise to have a screaming woman at the front door, and while the screaming hadn’t started yet, it was coming, that he also knew.

Just in case, he went to the window, first. Sure enough, there stood Amy on the front stoop, smoking angrily and smoldering at the door, no idea she was being watched. Morris sighed, then sniffed, detecting just a hint of sulfur in the air, wondering for a second if it came from the basement or the front door. That was the moment he had an idea, the kind of idea that, at first, you shake off as clearly bad. But then it started to work on him, and for five or ten seconds before he opened the door, he let the idea ooze its way through his besotted mind until it somehow converted to good. Well, maybe not good, but doable.

Morris took a deep breath and opened the door. He had about three seconds to study Amy’s curious smirk before the sun ignited behind her head and blinded him. Just as he began to wonder what the sun was doing up at this time of night, a voice spoke with righteous belligerence from behind the glare. “Mr. Blackmon, could you tell us what you’re doing here?!” the voice brayed.

“Rusty?” Morris managed to croak.

Joshua “Rusty” Painter was Amy’s cousin, and suddenly Morris realized what was happening. Rusty worked as a cameraman for the local WGTI TV news station, but he had delusions of eventually being in front of the camera. He was also an asshole with a YouTube channel that nobody watched.

“Mr. Blackmon, why don’t you …” Rusty started before Amy realized she was the jilted lover here.

“Morris, what the fuck?!” she shouted.

Morris saw a light come on across the street, a warning of impending anger from the neighborhood, and since that could lead to police involvement he realized he had to move this show inside. He held up his hands in surrender.

“Amy, Amy, baby, calm down, it’s not what you think,” he said, realizing how very bad that was. Amy’s face tightened around a serious and explosive retort, and he seemed to feel some smug satisfaction from Rusty as he adjusted his camera for a better shot of the impending bloodbath. “I shit you not …” the woman scorned began.

Morris decided action was needed, so he quickly stepped up to his lady and put his finger on her mouth. “You really have to let me explain, baby,” he said. “Just come inside.”

For a second, he actually thought she might bite off his the offending digit. Then she seemed to grow calm, and that’s when he really grew afraid.

“That bitch in there?” she finally mumbled, her lips tickling his finger.

“Yeah, yeah, but she’s asleep, and we need to keep her that way, believe me, I’m so done with her,” Morris said, removing his finger and moving the entire hand and arm around Amy’s shoulders. She stayed stiff, but he felt her begin to relent and take a step toward the door.

“Amy, don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” Rusty said, just a hint of whine in his voice. The money shot was clearly getting ruined.

Morris glared at him. Amy waved him off and walked inside with the injured pride of a princess who had stepped out of the royal carriage into a pile of horse manure. Morris hurried in behind her, but wasn’t quite fast enough to keep Rusty from following. Oh, well, Morris thought, that might be all for the best.

The plan, such as it was, was to quickly move the unwanted guests back to the kitchen. Not surprisingly, Amy was not feeling cooperative, and as soon as the door closed she announced loudly “So, where is that bitch?!” Rusty, who had let the camera drop to his side, quickly hoisted it back up to his eye, sensing that the show was back on. Morris did not oblige him.

“She’s upstairs passed out, the drunk cunt,” he said, taking Amy’s arm and guiding her toward the kitchen. “Just come in here and I’ll explain, OK?”

Morris led his reluctant guests into the other room where Rusty immediately stopped and started sniffing the air. “Holy shit, is that gas?”

Turning only halfway around, Morris gave the answer he had planned on just five minutes before. “Yeah, yeah, the stove’s been acting funny, I had to turn it off. Don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t worry about it? It smells pretty strong, dude,” Rusty said, still standing in the kitchen doorway.

Amy spun around.

“Screw the gas. Morris, start explaining,” she said, arms crossed, eyebrows scrunched together.

What about this towel?” Rusty suddenly said, and Morris almost smiled.

Jesus, Rusty, what, what the fuck, what towel?” Amy stuttered. Morris turned to face the other man. “There’s a draft,” he said simply.

From the basement?” Rusty said.

Yeah, that’s right, from the basement,” Morris said, barely preventing a sneer.

Amy plopped down at the kitchen table and began shifting through her purse, finally coming up with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Morris quickly laid a gentle hand over the lighter as she raised the cigarette to her well lacquered red lips. “Come on, baby, hold off on that, you know I quit,” he said softly.

Yeah, and there’s all that gas we aren’t supposed to worry about,” Rusty stage whispered.

Amy’s face hardened a second before easing into resignation as she put the cancer stick down. After all, his quitting was her idea. They had started together, but she weakened first. He smiled at the little pink lighter and Marlboro menthol on the table, happy to see it there, and then moved on. “So, this is what’s up,” he began.

What followed was one of Morris’ longer and better lies, despite the fact that he made most of it up on the fly. Christine had called despondent and drunk, he said, because her oven was broken and needed to be fixed, as did the rest of her life, it seemed. There had been talk of suicide, pills already taken, stuff like that. All this had taken place when Amy was supposedly asleep, so Morris had simply left quietly, not wanting to disturb her, to try to save his ex-wife’s life.

Well, I wasn’t asleep, you know,” Amy interrupted. “I wasn’t asleep because I already suspected you were seeing her, and Rusty and I were just setting a trap to catch your sorry cheating ass! Like I buy this bullshit!”

It’s no bullshit baby, I swear, I know it sounds like it but it really, really isn’t!” Morris stammered out, just totally winging it.

Oh, right, so you’re telling me you haven’t been coming over here before now,” Amy said. “And, you better be real careful how you answer that.” The last line was delivered with a cautioning wag of Amy’s finger, and Morris felt a strong urge to break that finger. There’s nothing worse than a stupid person who starts to think they’re doing something smart.

On the other hand, in this case she was completely correct. He had been to raid the old henhouse many times before tonight.

Meanwhile, Rusty was lingering over the basement door, sniffing, his camera hanging limply at his side. “You know, I swear the smell is stronger over here,” he said.

Morris nodded.

Well, maybe you should check that out in a bit, but why don’t you do me a favor and get ready to film, because I’m going to prove what I’m saying is true,” Morris said. “I’m going to wake up Christine and tell her to tell you nothing happened.”

This was a lie, of course, but Rusty excitedly began checking his camera and moving into position. Perfect, Morris thought. He couldn’t be exactly certain of what would happen next, but all the pieces were in place and it was time for him to exit stage fucking right.

Now, you two just wait here and give me a few minutes to rouse her,” he said, rising from his chair. “And Amy, honey, why don’t you go ahead and smoke a ciggy while you wait?”

He headed for the door as Amy picked up the lighter and cigarette. Rusty had let the camera drop to his side again and was turning back toward the basement door. “This is it,” he thought. “I just have to get out the door.”

He was at the passage into the dining room when he saw shadows moving ahead of him. The shadows stepped into the light and became Christine, looking seriously disheveled and rubbing her bruised neck, but most certainly alive.

Morris, baby, what the fuck did you do to me, you crazy fucker?” she whined, and then looked past him, her face hardening into solid bitchiness. “And what the fuck is she doing here.”

The shock of seeing the supposed dead come back to life passed surprisingly quickly for Morris, and he spun around, scrambling in his head for a way to stop what he had begun. He opened his mouth at the exact same moment that Rusty kicked aside the towel and swung the basement door wide open, and at precisely the second that Amy, smugly eying her competition, flicked her lighter into life. As the sulfur smelling cloud that had been caged in the basement rushed into the room, racing toward the flare in Amy’s hand, he had just enough time to say “Sh…”. The “it” was cut off by fire and sound and an end to all the things that used to belong to Morris Blackmon.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, by Nick Kolakowski, review by John Stickney

Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps
By Nick Kolakowski
Shotgun Honey, an imprint of Down & Out Books

"Listen. At some point, a poor sap will look at you and say, “This is the worst day of my life.” But as long as you have breath in your lungs to say those words, you’re not having your worst day. You haven’t even hit rock bottom, much less started to dig. You can still come back from a car wreck, or that terrifying shadow on your lung X-ray, or finding your wife in bed with the well-hung quarterback from the local high school. Sometimes all you need to solve your supposedly world-ending problems is time and care, or some cash, or a shovel and a couple of garbage bags. If you see me coming, on the other hand, I guarantee you’re having your worst day. Not to mention your last. Let me show you how bad it can get…"

So begins the novella  “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps."  Author Nick Kolakowski, veteran flash and short fiction writer, fully displays what makes his short fiction such a joy to read: an ability to seduce the reader, strong and intriguing openings, followed by an equally well told story. The man can spin a yarn. The above quote is the start of half the story.  Our gunman asks - You think you’re having a bad day?  Take a gander at the introduction of his target, our ‘hero’ Bill –

"Bill awoke, as one sometimes does, dangling upside-down over a pit, ankles wrapped in heavy chains, sweat stinging his eyes, head throbbing like a dying tooth. He heard a dog bark in the night, and the muted roar of what he guessed was the Interstate, but the only light came from a bare yellow bulb bolted to a corrugated-metal shed far below…""

Even if Bill can somehow Houdini his way out of the handcuffs, he still is suspended by chain-bound legs over an abrupt and too permanent ending.  Some escapes are unwanted.

The story is told by alternating point of view, a bouncing tennis ball between these two, pursuer and pursued. Bill and the gunman are both misfits in their organization, well Bill’s former organization, the Rockaway Mob, and both are in the midst of their own personal existential crises. Bill, a con-man running insurance and identity theft scams for the Mob thought he’d solve his crisis by stealing three million dollars from his employer, pick-pocketing an unlimited balance credit card from one of the Mob bosses, and then make a break for the border. Ultimately he planned to live out the rest of his natural life on an Island with a life so exclusively sweet HGTV would be envious but barred from filming.

"When Bill stole those millions from the Rockaway Mob, he thought it would buy him liberation so complete, it would eliminate every concern from his mind, forever. Instead he found himself gripped by a fear so pure, it soaked his shirt with a constant ooze of sweat.  The only thing standing between him and a gruesome death was his spectacularly anal-retentive escape plan. Any enforcer who kicked in the door of his apartment, ready to yank Bill’s tongue through a new hole in his neck, would find empty rooms… Not even his girlfriend had any idea he left."

Of course Bill ends up getting his money-laundering partner killed, losing all the dough but for his initial escape money of $50,000 secure in the car trunk, and with not one, not two but three different Rockaway pursuers on the hunt for him including his abandoned girl friend and our gunmen.  Oh yeah, his car begins bucking like an untamed horse in the middle of nowhere.  We see where his narration begins, suspended over a yawning pit.  The best laid plans and all….

Back to the existential crisis.  Our gunman?  His crisis is brought on, well, let him explain:
"I've always hated the word “killer.” And don't get me started on “hitman.” A few months before we divorced, my now ex-wife asked how I could live with myself. How I could fire a bullet, or press a button, or toss a radio into a bathtub, and end somebody's existence.  If not me, I told her, then something else would have terminated those people: a heart attack, or cancer, or maybe a nice fiery car crash. I’m just the vessel, a way for the natural order of things to express itself. “I don’t worry whether I’m a bad man,” I added, “any more than a hurricane worries about the damage it causes.” I would have added a little something about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, except I noticed she’d already fallen asleep. The story of our marriage, in one priceless interaction." Our gunman is trying to work through things on a personal level and is given to bouts of weeping and gluttony.

Not to give too much away, but in this story there’s weaponized drones, crooked cops, a bedridden mob boss who blinks out commands in Morse code, love, death and something resembling noir-ish redemption. Oh, and a gun-toting Elvis impersonator, all the ingredients of a read that’s surprising, compelling and just plain fun.  Shotgun Honey has existed for years as a purveyor of flash fiction. Under the umbrella of Down & Books, they issue short story collections and novellas as well.  Shotgun Honey and Nick Kolakowski are to be congratulated, ‘A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps’  is an excellent beginning to their new publication venture.

John Stickney splits his time between Cleveland, Ohio and Wilmington, NC.  His fiction has appeared in ThugLit, Needle, and others.  His story ‘The Oldest Old Country’ was selected to appear in the 2017 Bouchercon Anthology.