Monday, May 28, 2018

Ruby Behemoth, by Court Merrigan

an excerpt

Ruby Hix stood outside the gates of the Women’s Penitentiary in Chowchilla, California. Looked up and down the dusty highway for Ivy but Ivy was not there.

She waited an hour outside the gates, as long as the guards would let her, then walked down to the bus stop. Caught the 9303 bus down to Fresno. Fresno hadn’t changed much in these seven years and six months. Eleven city blocks to Gallo Union Pawn Shop, blinking back all the light and life and noise of the hot summer streets. A dull gnawing in her lower belly reminded her she needed tampons, pronto. She stepped into the sudden cool darkness of the shop and walked down an aisle of pawned leather jackets breathing in the scent of thwarted men. A couple other patrons noticed her two hundred and twenty ropy pounds of coiled energy and decided to look elsewhere.

“I help you?” the clerk asked, keeping his hands out of sight.

“That sap there,” Ruby said, throwing the grip bag up on the counter. “It work?”

The clerk slid open the glass, removed the squat extendable baton from the shelf, the kind cops keep strapped to their gun belts. “You tell me,” he said, and handed it across the counter.

Ruby hefted the sap in her hand. The balance felt right. Snapped her wrist and the baton snicked out to full length with a soft hiss, metal gleaming dull in the light. She took a few experimental swings, cutting the air with a stroke born of the mystery of speed. Another swing, another. She knew just what these cuts could do to soft flesh and brittle bone.

Then she tapped the tip against the heel of her palm. The shaft collapsed inside the handle. She rolled it over in her palm. Someone had scritched “PRATHER” in the leather cover on the handle.

“Who’s Prather?” she asked.

“You serious?”

“I could be.”

The clerk cocked his head. “You’re Ruby Hix, ain’t you?”

Ruby shrugged.

“Linda talks about you. Linda Patrecho. Said you helped her out with the Featherwoods.”

“I did what I said I would.”

“Yeah. She told me that, too.”

“How much for the sap?”

The clerk shook his head. “For you? Free. Linda Patrecho’s my cousin.”

The word “free” washed over Ruby like a benediction. Seven years and six months she worked every shitty trusty job they’d give her back in Chowchilla, swabbing toilets, washing dishes, pressing laundry. Came away with a grand total of $477.18.

“Thank you,” Ruby said.

De nada.” Linda Patrecho’s cousin leaned over the counter, voice gone conspiratorial. “Listen,” he said. “There’s work. If you want it.”

“No,” Ruby says. “No more work.”

“Linda said you wanted to go straight. Won’t last, you know.” The clerk straightened behind the counter, nudged the sap across the counter. “You sure as hell won’t get much done with this stick.”

“You might be surprised,” Ruby said.


Ruby walked five blocks down to the Ralph’s. She stood in the cereal aisle a long time. The last time she’d been here in this Ralph’s it was with Ivy, and the store manager had to call out security and a check-out boy with a broom to clean up their mess at the tail end of Ruby’s attempt to coax her big sister down off a two-week bender.

“They’re going to call the cops,” Ruby said desperately, picking herself up from a pile of Honey Nut Cheerios boxes.

“I hope they do!” Ivy screamed. “I hope they fucking cart you away!”

Ruby held out a hand. “Just come on,” she said. “I know you don’t mean that. Come with me. I’m going to help you.”

Ivy’s eyes were so dilated Ruby could see the back of her skull. She was shivering and her T-shirt was dirty. She skittered backward when Ruby grabbed for her wrist.

“You can’t help me,” Ivy said. “You can’t do shit for me.” Turned and galloped for the exit.

“Fuck you too, then!” Ruby shouted at her sister’s retreating back.

Then a sprinting security guard tackled Ruby and by the time she got untangled from his beefy grip and nacho breath Ivy was long gone.

Ruby searched for Ivy for three December days smack in the middle of Fresno’s most frigid cold snap in fifty years, living on Butterfingers and battery-acid gas-station coffee, sleeping in the puke-yellow ‘79 Datsun she hadn’t insured in over a year that featured four bald tires and one working heater vent, haunting Fresno’s back alleys with a sap in her hand.

She didn’t find Ivy. Instead she got harassed by some suit downtown. The suit got a few less teeth and a squashed nut sack, Ruby got arrested, the suit got a lawyer, and Ruby got seven-to-nine. The next time she saw Ivy it was through prison plexiglass, too late for tears.

Ache in her lower belly worsening, Ruby strode the fluorescent aisles of Ralph’s in a daze at the abundance. About seven hundred items to crave . A bag of marshmallows, a five-pound sack of hot dogs, toffee ice cream bars, a pair of leather work boots especially caught her eye. But all she put in her in basket was a pack of off-brand unscented tampons, a jar of dill pickles and a bottle of barbecue sauce. These last two she’d craved endlessly back in Chowchilla. At the check-out she menaced the cashier with a hard stare,. In prison they’d short you on taters and beans if you didn’t keep a careful watch. She’d once seen a trusty cook take a fork in the cheek over a scanty ladle of beans.

Ruby headed straight to the ladies room with her purchases and did her best to get comfortable on her first enclosed privy in seven years and six months. Grunted with pleasure at this first red-tinged piss in the free world, then fumbled around with the slick tampon. Surpassing strange to slip it inside herself. Been a long while. In prison they only issued pads, the thin kind with no adhesive wings, and then only half a dozen at a go. Ruby bled pretty heavily and rationing out those half dozen little pads out was an impossibility. So she’d have to buy extra at the commissary, cursing every dollar they ticked off her meager account. So she sat a moment longer on the toilet, looking at the little string dangling between her big thighs. Felt a whole lot like freedom.

Thirty-one years old and so far life had pinballed Ruby Hix from one institution to the next trailer park. She took her time.

On the way out, Ruby passed by the Play Center. A gaggle of kids surrounded a chubby boy cowering on a Garfield tea cup.

“Fatty McBlatty! Fatty McBlatty!” the kids chanted at the chubby boy, his lip atremble, near tears.

Ruby Hix remembered her own nickname. She shoved the bullies aside, sent them crying for their mommies.

“You all right?” she asked the chubby boy.

The boy looked up and down her bulk. Pulled a face. “Leave me alone, fatso,” he said. Slipped off the Garfield teacup and ran away.


In Chowchilla Ruby volunteered for every work detail they had, eventually working her way up to trusty status and the floor-waxing crew. To spend a dime felt like robbing the future so she went without everything she could. A pillow was seven bucks at the commissary (85 hours of labor). An extra blanket, eleven (157 hours). The ticket lady at the Greyhound station had to pry the eighty-three dollars (1185 hours) for a ticket to Barstow out of her palm.

In the waiting room Ruby ran a thick stream of barbecue sauce over a dill pickle, slippery in her fingers. More delicious than she could have believed, starbursts of flavor a supernova on her tongue. She ate half a dozen pickles, barely breathing, then licked her fingers clean. All the while hoping, somehow, that Ivy would show. Ivy did not show. On the TV Bruce Jenner was calling himself “Caitlyn” and the host kept asking why.

“Why the fuck not?” Ruby said out loud. Her fellow passengers looked away.

She went to the bathroom and locked the door and stood in front of the mirror, practicing with the sap. The trick was to get it out of your pocket and extended in one fluid motion, ready to strike. Fifty or so practice flicks in, she started to get the old feel back.

The bus departed Fresno at 10:10PM. Wedged into a seat two sizes too small for her frame, Ruby was plenty glad to pass the lion’s share of California in the dark. Fuck this state and the seven years and six months it’d stolen from her. She sat in the aisle seat, ignoring the window, dipping dill pickles in barbecue sauce. After a time the motion of the bus swayed her to sleep. She dreamed of Ivy and pickle juice swimming pools.

When she woke it was dawn in Barstow and her mouth tasted of salt. Someone had stolen her pickle jar. She filed out of the bus with the other passengers and in the terminal scanned the crowd with no actual hope and Ivy was not there.

She strapped her black sling bag over a shoulder and headed out of the station, ignoring the cabbies. Like she’d spend that kind of dough on a cab, for Chrissakes. All she bought was a bottle of Mountain Dew to wash the salt taste out of her mouth. It was just past nine AM but already sweltering here in the desert.

In the library at Chowchilla Ruby had memorized a map of Barstow. The return address on Ivy’s last letter read #32 at the Coach Lamp Trailer Court and Ruby knew just how to get there. She walked at an unhurried pace. In that last letter Ivy mentioned working steady. Middle of the day like this, maybe nobody would be home. Maybe Ivy occupied a position of some importance somewhere. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t been there at the prison gates, or up for a visit the whole last five years of Ruby’s spit.

Ruby’s feet soon ached on the uneven cement and in the oven of desert heat and she paused to rest in what meager shade the Barstow streets offered. That Shawshank Redemption bullshit was even more bullshit than she’d thought back in Chowchilla. The world hadn’t gone and gotten itself in a big damn hurry. To Ruby it seemed more like everything moved in a gel of slow motion, clear and bright and wondrous, a passing red-and-white Budweiser truck, a little girl on a pink-frilled bike, glazed donuts sweating in a bakery window.

Midday had come and gone by the time Ruby arrived at the Coach Lamp Trailer Court. One of those rural ghettos the news shows ignore, pay-by-the-week trailers, some with the siding ripped away in patches to expose rows of pink insulation, others with plywood nailed over windows, yet others with tires on the roof.. Ruby walked down the hot gravel lanes to #32. A brown-and-white striped singlewide, no car out front, no name on the mailbox, railroad ties reeking of creosote stacked up to the door to form a stairway. A half- collapsed knee-high white plastic fence shielded a patch of dead grass with a hose coiled up in it. She turned on a tap and let the hot water ran out of the hose before slaking her thirst with long gulps, splattering the dust on her boots. Then someone swung the door open. Ruby dropped the hose.

Not Ivy. A little boy.


The little boy had dark olive skin and straw-black hair and a snotty nose and a pair of iridescent violet eyes, blinking at her. Ruby had to look deep to believe those eyes were real. They were. Otherworldly, but real. The boy also had Ivy’s hooked nose and bangs that curled a notch above his eyebrows, just so. It required no imagination, none, to know whose child this was.

“Aunt Ruby?” he said, ending any more suspense on the point.

Ruby dropped to one knee to get down to the little boy’s level and also so she wouldn’t lose her balance. “I’m Ruby,” she said, not quite able to append the title of “aunt” to herself.

The boy responded by throwing his arms around her neck, snotty nose pressed against her cheek. The first human being to touch her in affection in seven years and six months and Ruby enveloped the child in her hefty arms and squeezed just as long as the boy would let her.

“You got a name, big guy?” Ruby asked, relinquishing her grip but hanging onto the boy’s shoulders.

“I’m Leo,” the boy said, voice cracking with tiny earnestness.

“Leo the lion, huh?”

Leo’s face brightened with pure pleasure. “Mama says the same thing.”

“I bet she does,” she said. When they were girls, Ivy had toted that stuffed lion doll across half the country. Yellow-maned and snaggle-toothed. Named Leo. Leo the lion. “So is your mama home?”

Before the boy could answer footsteps clattered from the back to answer for him. Ruby stood, runnels of sweat running down the small of her back. Ivy, all right, but shrunk down to an altogether different person. Once upon a time, schoolgirl days, Ivy had been full-figured. A little pudgy, even. Now she was a waif. Wrists like twigs. Hair so thin you could see her ears through the strands. Peachy arm hair blossomed on her forearms and her collarbones beneath a cheap T-shirt looked about to bust through her skin. Perched in the doorway like dandelion fuzz.

Look at the Hix girls. Come to bad ends, the both of them. Just like Mrs. Custer back at Little Lake Agnes School predicted.

But fuck Mrs. Custer. Ruby dropped her grip bag and wrapped her arms around her big sister’s neck.

“Heya, Banana Bean,” she said.

Ivy turned on Leo’s cartoons and while the boy sat on the floor clutching a stained pillow the two sisters stood in the kitchen and talked.

“Why didn’t you tell me about him?” Ruby asked.

“I don’t know!” Ivy said. “I don’t know. How you are, I guess. You worry. I didn’t want you to worry.”

“When did this happen? How old is he?”

“Seven. Well, six and a half.”

“So that’s why you didn’t come to see me the last half of my spit.”

“It was bad, Moon Pie. You don’t understand.”

Strange, so strange to hear that pet name again. “You don’t suppose I maybe would’ve like to see him?” Ruby said softly.

Ivy shook her head. “I know that. It ain’t about that.”

“What’s it about, then?”

“You know how it is when you go up there, all them forms you got to fill out. Background check and all. I was worried if I showed up there, they’d. . .take him.”

“As bad as that, huh?”

“It was. For a while.”

“Jesus. What have you been doing since I been gone? Is that why you’re living in fucking Barstow?”

Ivy shook her head. “It’s better than it was.”

“But you still couldn’t come up to see me?”

“By then Brett didn’t want me to. He says he won’t go within a hundred miles of a prison if he can help it and he sure wasn’t going to drive me to one.”

“Tell me this Brett is Leo’s father.”

Ivy looked away. “No. I can’t tell you that.”

“Then I don’t see what say he gets a say in where you go and don’t go.”

“This is his house, Moon Pie. His car. He took us in, me and Leo both. We had to have somewhere to go.”

Ruby looked around the shabby trailer. “Looks like he’s a real prince.”

“Oh, Ruby. You should’ve seen him up there. Singing.”


“He was a real rock n’ roll singer, Moon Pie. Had a band and toured and everything.”

“Made a real mint at it, I can see.”

“Not everything’s about money, you know.”

“Aren’t rock stars supposed to die young?”

“Ah, Christ, Moon Pie.” She giggled. “You haven’t changed a damn bit.”

“Were you expecting me to?”


“All right then. So what happened to you working steady? Like you said in your letter?”

Ivy shrugged. “I was. At the Family Dollar. Now I’m not.”

“This just gets better and better. Let me guess. Your rock star didn’t like you working?”

Ivy shook her head. “No.”

“I knew it. They’re all the same, these assholes. Everywhere you go, they’re all the same.”

“Brett says to in order to get a paycheck you got to let them track you. Social security number and address and all? Even computers and drones, Brett says.”

“So? It’s a job. They got to know something about you.”

“Brett don’t want no one tracking him. He worries about it all the time.” Ivy nibbled her fingers. “He don’t even like me leaving the house.”


“You should’ve seen the fit he pitched when I even wrote you the one letter telling you we were here in Barstow.”

“Who’s this asshole think he is? CIA?” She looked over at Leo at his cartoons. “So he’s not a rock star anymore?”

“Not really.”

“What’s he do then?”

“Oh, you know. This and that. For people he met on the road, you know.”

“On the road.”

“You know. When he was touring.”

“Right. Fucking drugs, isn’t it. Ivy? Jesus Christ. Don’t tell me he’s running fucking guns.”


“Then it’s drugs. He runs drugs.”

“He doesn’t sell them, Moon Pie. He’s just a courier. Back and forth. That’s why we live here. All the interstates. He keeps it to small-time stuff, you know? Keeps us in bread.”

“So what’s his plan? Keep you locked up forever so he can be a piss-ant in the middle of nowhere for the cartels?”

“Not the cartels.”

“Who then?”


“Boy, Ivy, this story just never stops getting better, does it?”

“I had to go somewhere, Moon Pie. So this is where I went. Anyway, he worries about us.”

“Yeah. I bet. I just bet he’s got you and little Leo’s best interests right at the tippy top of his mind.” Ruby looked out at Leo, sitting cross-legged about three feet from the TV. “So what happened to Leo’s real daddy?”


“For good?”

“I see him every now and again. I never know when.”

“So after Leo’s daddy took off you you took up with this asshole here.”

“Among others.” Ivy tugged a Red Apple out of the pack, blew a hard wreath of smoke around her face.

“You shouldn’t smoke around him, you know.” Ruby juts a chin toward Leo at the TV.

“You’re right, you’re right.” Ivy stabbed out the smoke after one long last drag. “What’d you want me to do, Ruby? Leave California?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what I mean. I couldn’t leave you behind.”

“Don’t throw that in my face! Don’t.”

“I’m not throwing it. I’m telling you what’s true. I’m telling you why I ended up here. In this shithole. With this asshole.”

Ruby put her hands on her hips. Felt it all flowing out of her.

“Ah, hell, Banana Bean,” she said. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It is so good to see you.”

“I’m just doing what I have to, Ruby.”

“I know.”

“You know how they are.”

“Yeah. I know exactly how they are. I also know you don’t have to do nothing. Not from now on. And I tell you what. I’m going to get you out of here. Away from this asshole. Out of this shithole.”

She hugged her waifish and cigarette-reeking sister, feeling every bone all down Ivy’s back. So delicate she looked built of fish bones.

“Hey,” Ruby said, “at least you stuck with him, huh? More than we can say for mama.”

They released each other. Ivy’s eyes were wet and she wiped at her cheeks. “Do you ever think about her, Moon Pie?” she asked.



Ruby snorted. “You think she ever thinks about us?”

“I like to think so.”

“Why? So you can slap her face if she ever showed it around here?”


“I mean it. She never gave a fuck about us, Banana Bean.”

“You don’t know that.”

“How do I not know that? She was out the door five minutes after they snipped my umbilical cord.”

“That’s just what Daddy used to say.”

“Yeah, well, Daddy was there, wasn’t he? Why are we talking about Mama, Banana Bean?”

Ivy smiled. “Maybe she really was a secret agent.”

Ivy used to make up stories to tell Ruby about Mama, back in that house in Wyoming. That she was a secret agent dueling with Chinese, or an adventurer hacking her way on a secret mission through a distant dark jungle, or a cowgirl riding a lonesome range. All the stories with the same origin and ending: Mama had no choice but to go, to save their lives, to keep them safe, to fulfill a grand destiny.

“I got to hit the head,” Ruby said, and pushed past Ivy.

In the bathroom Ruby inserted a fresh tampon, counted how many she had left. Not enough. Then she stuck her face in the crook of her elbow, to stifle the sobs at this squalid homecoming.


Ruby sat cross-legged on the floor watching Scooby-Doo with Leo curled up on her lap when the screen door slammed and Leo flinched and Ruby could feel his whole little body tense up.

“Ivy!” yelled the man who stumbled through the doorway. “Ivy!”

Brett stumbled in the door in a stained black leather jacket and floppy hair and a miasma of beer. He toted a sixer of Mickey’s looped around one finger and a battered guitar case. He set both on the counter and cracked himself a beer, narrowed eyes hard on Ruby. Ivy sidled up next to him, fawning-like. Made Ruby want to puke, the way her sister minced up to him like he was some kind of conquering hero when it looked to Ruby like he hadn’t conquered anything more than a few innocent cans of beer.

Same old story. Ivy drew herself to men such as this like a a bad habit. Daddy issues.

Ruby gently slid Leo off her lap and stood. She thought Leo would stay with Scooby-Doo but he followed her instead. Brett wrapped an arm around Ivy and ignored them.

“I’m about to hit it big-time, baby,” he said to Ivy.

“Oh?” Ivy said.

“That’s right.” He drummed his fingers on the old guitar case. “You got no idea, baby.”

“That’s good, honey. That’s real good.”

“You goddamn right it is.” He turned and gave Ruby the old once-over, not all that different from the one the toughs liked to put on back in the yard at Chowchilla. “This the jailbird little sister, huh?”

“This is Ruby,” Ivy said.

“Hi, Brett,” Ruby said, and stuck out a hand.

Brett considered her hand. Took a long pull of Mickey’s, set the can down, and then took Ruby’s hand.

“Be damned, girl,” he said. “You sure you been in lockup and not in the fitness protection program?”

“Brett!” Ivy said.

“What?” Brett said, and slugged more beer. “I’m just saying.”

Ruby didn’t say anything. Leo clung to her substantial leg.

“Leo, honey,” Ivy said. “Go back to your cartoons, huh?”

“But, moooom. . .”

“Just do it, sugar. Please.”

Leo reluctantly tore himself away from his aunt and back to the cartoons. Brett planted himself on a stool. Polished off the Mickey’s. Ivy unringed him another and he popped the tab. Pushed the remainders towards Ruby.

“Beer?” he asked.

“No thanks,” Ruby said.

“Why not? Better than that hooch they got up in the clink.”

“I didn’t drink there, either.”

“Suit yourself. I don’t trust a man who won’t have a drink with me but I guess in your case I’ll make an exception.”

“Jesus Christ, Brett,” Ivy said, pushing away from him.

“What? What? I’m just fucking with her. She’s used to that, ain’t you? Ruby? Ain’t you? Up where you came from they fuck with you all the time, don’t they?”


“Course, that ain’t all you fuck with, is it.”

“Brett, would you watch your mouth?” Ivy said. “Leo’s right there.”

“Don’t push me, woman,” Brett said. “I got a hundred places I could go.” But as he talked he kept a steady drunken eye on Ruby. “I heard,” he said, “that you all are a bunch of rug munchers up there. Bet it was one a hell of a scene, huh? All you rug munchers up there. Just going at it.” He stuck out his tongue and flicked the naked air to a sloppy flapping sound. “That true? Ruby? That true? You a rug muncher, Ruby?”

“No,” Ruby said.

“Well, you’ll have to pardon me. Ivy here’s never much talked about you. I guess that’s understandable enough.”

“Brett. . .” Ivy said again.

Brett ignored her. “How long were you upstate, little sister?”

“Seven years,” Ruby said. “Seven years and six months.”

“Long stretch. Out on parole?”

“No. I wouldn’t take none of that. I did my full spit. That way I owe 'em nothing.”

“I’d say that was smart except for the fact that you ended up there in the first place.” He tapped the briefcase on the counter with the flat of his hand. “Me, I ain’t been caught at nothing. Ain’t planning on it, neither.” He staggered a little on his stool, caught himself from falling over.

“Good for you.”

“Yeah. Good for me. Well, at least you ain’t one of them bull dykes. One less character defect you got. I suspect you got several you’re not telling me about, though. Hell, if I’d have known my sweet Ivy here had a jailbird for a sister, I might never have took up with her in the first place.” He wrapped an arm back around Ivy. “Man like me can’t afford to keep company with someone who’ll rat on anyone to keep from going back inside.”

“I ain’t a rat,” Ruby said.

“Not yet you’re not. But I know you ex-cons will do just about anything from having to pull another stretch. Wait until they pull you over for a busted headlight and start asking you hard questions and talking about sending you back to the cage with the rug munchers and you just think to yourself, what, what, what can I give them.” Brett swigged hard on his beer. “What or who.”

“I’m free. I ain’t got to beg to no one.”

“Sure you are. Bet you were telling yourself right up until they threw you in the back of the police cruiser last time, too, huh?” He squeezed Ivy tighter to his side. “Like I say, the way I see it, the trouble ain’t what you did. It’s that you got caught for it.”

“I got caught because the man I did it to couldn’t walk away from it,” Ruby said.

“Whatever, little sister.” Brett looked back at Ivy. “She can stay one night. That’s it. One night. Then jailbird here hits the fucking bricks. I ain’t having no ex-con hanging around this place.”

“All right, sugar,” Ivy said. “All right.”

“I want her to say longer!” came a squeaky and quavering voice.

No one had noticed how little Leo had sneaked away from Scooby-Doo and back into the adult conversation. But now there he stood, plaintive in his goldfish footie jammies.

“Shut up, shithead,” Brett said. “You’re lucky I don’t toss your ass out with her.”

“Don’t talk to that boy thataway,” Ruby said. She could feel the sap in her pocket hard against her thigh.

“Don’t say nothing, jailbird,” Brett said, tone amiable. “You ain’t got a goddamn word to say about anything I say. Not in my house. Not now or ever.” He swiveled on his stool. “Where were you planning on housing the jailbird, honey?”

“I was going to give her Leo’s room,” Ivy said.

“They can share. I don’t need shithead there crawling up in my bed again, kicking me in the nuts.”

“Fine by me,” Ruby said.

“Good. Now why don’t you get on back to the back before I start slapping some sense into people around here. Both of yous.”

Ruby started to say something but stopped when she saw Ivy’s pleading face. So instead she held Leo’s hand back to Leo’s room. In a singlewide trailer this was not a long walk but it still took all her effort not to squeeze Leo’s hand so hard she hurt the boy.

Leo’s room was close and dark, the more comforting for the fact. Seven years and six months she’d passed in close, dark places. A few more hours wouldn’t hurt. Creaky walls sadly hung with a poster of Ichiro Suzuki and a lion, the kind of creased posters that come out of cereal boxes. These covered most but not all of the holes. For Leo’s bed, a mattress on the floor and for his chest of drawers, a stack of laundry baskets. There were burns in the carpets and aluminum foil hung over on the window. Ruby remembered that trick well enough, the way to keep out the light when you didn’t want to face the day. She knew everything about this room. She’d done all her growing up in places just like it.

Little Leo sat cross-legged on the mattress on the floor and smiled up at her. Ruby set her sling bag down and sat beside him, mattress sagging badly with her weight. She put an arm around the boy who snuggled his tiny frame and mammal heat into her.

“Aunt Ruby,” he said, “do you know any songs?”

“Sure I do,” Ruby said.

“Will you sing them to me?”

From the front of the trailer Ruby could hear Brett and Ivy arguing. Leo seemed unfazed. Ruby supposed it wasn’t anything like his first time.

“You bet. That what your mama does at nights? Sing you songs?”


“Well, now. I’ll sing to you. Your Aunt Ruby will sing to you.”

Ruby sang the songs she knew, surprised that “Mama Tried” and “Rainy Day Woman” and “Pancho and Lefty” leapt up from her memory. She could smell Daddy’s whiskey breath with the rhymes, feel his scratchy whiskers on her cheek.

When Leo fell asleep, she laid down next to him on the narrow mattress. A lamp sat on the thin carpet beside the mattress and she flicked it on on and off, on and off. In Chowchilla there were no light switches. It went dark when they said so, light when they said so. Ruby kept on playing with the lamp till the bulb burned out with a soft sizzle.


Some time later crashing and screams jarred Ruby from sleep. At first she didn’t know she was in Leo’s room. She didn’t know she was in the trailer. She didn’t know she was in Barstow. She thought she was back in Chowchilla, some guard down the corridor welcoming a new fish to life in prison with some beating and raping. She didn’t move, she didn’t sit up. Number one rule in Chowchilla, never attract attention to yourself. Even when one of those guards came to visit your cell, you never moved. You never said a damn word.

Then she felt Leo’s warm breath on her cheek, his animal warmth against her ribs, Ichiro Suzuki with his bat looking down on them like a wise old god. It all came back to her. Down the hall echoed shattering glass and Ivy screaming. Leo went on slumbering. None of this bothered him a bit. She thought about that a minute, how a boy of his age could sleep through such a ruckus.

Then she cast aside the lingering prison paralysis, snicked out the Prather to full length and barreled down the hall. Sap in hand just like the old days.

The overhead light above the kitchen counter swung on a crazy arc, casting jumping shadows. Brett loomed over Ivy crumpled and covering her face like she knew what was coming. Brett’s fists were clenched and he looked like he sure did, too.

He never got the chance. No, not this time. Ruby swung that sap faster than the bouncing shadows. A crack against Brett’s temple and the man keeled over like a stack of wet lumber, head crunching against the countertop corner and flopping onto a spaghetti sauce stain on the linoleum. The guitar case toppled off the other side of the counter.

Ivy looked out from behind her elbows and up at her little sister, holding out a hand. While she let Ruby help her to her feet Brett quit flopping around, blood pooling over the spaghetti stain, eyes flipped open and rolled back to their whites. The two sisters stood over him till he finally went still.

“Did you. . . ?” Ivy said. “Is he. . . ?”

Ruby knelt by the man though she already knew. Felt for a pulse anyway.

“He’s gone,” she said.

“Ah Christ, Ruby!” Ivy said. “What have you done?”

“You a big goddamn favor, is what,” Ruby said.

Ivy laced her fingers at the back of her head and walked to the front window hung with a Minnesota Vikings blanket for a curtain. Ruby followed her. Noticed she was still gripping the Prather when she reached for her sister so she tried to slip it into her pocket and this was when she noticed that Brett’s guitar case had popped open. There was no guitar inside.

“I knew this was going to happen some day, I just knew it,” Ivy said, still circling the room, ignoring her sister. “This or something goddamn like it.”


“I just didn’t think it would be . . . Oh Christ.”


“Now what are we going to do?”


Ivy turned and the “What?!!?” died on her lips. Instead she said, “Is that?”

“Don’t touch it,” Ruby said.

A dozen identical white bundles wrapped in light blue plastic spilled out of the guitar case onto the floor.

“Oh my God,” Ivy said.

“You said he was small time,” Ruby said.

“He was!” Ivy said.

“This ain’t small-time. This is the kind of shit people come looking for.”

The two sisters stood over the scene, the dead man, the narcotics, the trailer.

“Russians, you said?” Ruby said.

Ivy nodded.

“We got to leave it. Leave it alone and get out of here. Hope to hell they won’t care about us.”

“Sure, sure. Moon Pie, what do you. . . what do you think this is all worth?”

“Don’t go getting any stupid ideas, Banana Bean. Because it’s worth enough for them to come after it. And whatever that number is, it ain’t worth your life. Leo’s life.”

“No,” Ivy said. “No, of course not.”

“We got to think this through. We got to do this right. And if you touch that stuff even once, they’ll never stop coming after us.”

As if on cue the phone in Brett’s pocket went off. The dial tone was “Bulls on Parade,” Rage Against The Machine.

“See what I mean?” Ruby said. “We ain’t got much time.”

“You think they’ll let us go?”

“Not if we’re here when they get here. So we best not be.”

“All right,” Ivy said softly. Looked over Brett again. “Funny, you know. I was just sort of getting to like it here.” She walked around the counter to the kitchen and kicked Brett’s unlaced black boot. “Dickhead,” she said. “I can’t believe you did it again, Moon Pie. Instead of me. Again.”

Ruby put an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “How about you make it so there’s no more ‘again’ for either of us. Ever.” She turned for the back room, cataloguing everywhere she’d been in the trailer. “You got any money?”

Ivy shook her head. “Fifty bucks, maybe. A hundred. You?”

“Three hundred and seventy-seven bucks and eighty cents. Which ain’t going to get us very far down the road.”

“I know where we can get some money.”


“You ain’t going to like it.”

“Where, Ivy?”

Ivy heaved a deep sigh. “The ’End.”


“Back in the ’End, Moon Pie.”

“Fucking Wyoming? Are you shitting me?”

“Shhh, shhh,” Ivy said, jutting a chin at the backroom. The sisters listened, but no sound came from Leo’s room. “I’m serious, Moon Pie. I got five grand stashed back there.”

“You’re going to have to explain that to me.”

“I went with Brett on one of his runs. Out to Chicago and back.”

“You went with that sack of shit one of his drug runs?”

Ivy shrugged. “We were smoking a lot of crank.”


“I quit now, Moon Pie. Anyway, that’s how I know he works for the Russians.”

“Worked. And all that means is that they know who you are, too.”

“Yeah. God, that’s right.”

“Go on. You were saying something about five grand.”

“Well, on that trip, I told Brett I wanted to stop back home. Haven’t been there in years, I said. He always did get a kick out of me being from Wyoming. What the hell, he said, and drove us there.” She looked at his twisted ankles there on the cheap linoleum. “I could talk him into most anything once he started toking up. He wasn’t all that bad a guy sometimes, you know.”

“Whatever. So you actually went back to the house?”

“Yes we did. Drove right up Burma Road. It’s abandoned now, Moon Pie. No one lives there. The way the place was falling apart, probably no one’s been living there for years. Brett went out back to piss and roll us up a joint, you know out back by the shed?”

“Uh-huh. This is a great story, Banana Bean, but would you come to the point?”

“I’m getting there! I always thought a day like this would come, you know. But what the hell was I supposed to do, try to hide money in this shithole? So I took a cashbox from the car, and hid it in the house.”


“It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it seems like one hell of a good one right now. I walked right in the house and upstairs and back in that crawl space off our old bedroom. The third rafter. You remember, the one I carved a heart in?”

“I remember.”

“I hid it back there. Insurance policy, I figured. Figured someday I might need it.” She put her arms on Ruby’s shoulders. “Today’s that day, Moon Pie.”

“Sure looks like it,” Ruby said. “And Brett never noticed.”

“Oh, he noticed. I convinced him later that someone had stole it out of the car at some gas station back in Iowa. Christ, he was pissed.”

“How much, again?”

“Five grand. Maybe more. Maybe seven.” She rubbed her nose. “Funny thing, you know. That cash box? Kind of reminded me of the one in Mrs. Custer’s office.”

“Ha. No shit.”

“Fuck em, right, little sister?”

“That’s right,” Ruby said. “Fuck em.”

Monday, May 21, 2018

Doubt Thou the Stars are Fire, by S.A. Cosby

“What you want to drink? A rum and Coke? Vodka and cranberry? Them mumblemouth motherfuckers down at the club be drinking that pink Ciroc but I know that ain’t your thing. Is it?” Amir asked. I shook my head.

“You got some Jack Daniels I’ll have some of that.” I said.

“Hey Shanda, get Chess a Jack and Coke.” He yelled into the kitchen.

“Just the Jack.” I said. Amir nodded.

“Hey just the Jack. Tell you what, just bring the whole fucking bottle.” He yelled. Shanda didn’t respond but I was sure she heard him. A few seconds later she came sauntering out of the kitchen and handed me a heavy cut-crystal glass filled to the brim with whiskey , two lonely ice cubes dropped in there for decoration. Then she sat a mostly full fifth of Jack Daniels and a red Solo cup on the glass coffee table between me and Amir. She didn’t look at me and I didn’t look at her. When she walked away I stared at my drink like it was my ninth-grade algebra homework. Amir poured himself a shot.

“Five years, Chess. Man, we lucked out on that shit didn’t we? “Amir said. He took his cup to the head.

“You really lucked out. You only got a year.” I said. Amir nodded slowly. He was almost able to pull off that look of solemnity he was going for.

“Hey man, you didn’t get the needle. Manslaughter ain’t bad. And now you out. It’s been what three weeks? It’s like you never left,” he said. I killed half my drink with one gulp. I had to keep my mouth occupied. I wonder if he noticed how tight I was gripping the glass? The whiskey burned like the devil was pissing down my throat.

“And now you the man.” I wheezed after the liquor hit my belly. Amir looked around his living room. He stared at the leather living room suite and the deep pile cafĂ© latte carpet. His eyes peered through the French doors that led to the patio. I watched him take in the BMW and the Mercedes sitting in his driveway. He tried to hide it, but I saw him glance toward the kitchen. Towards Shanda.

“I’m doing all right,” he said finally. I took a smaller sip of my drink.

“So Boonie said you wanted to talk to me. “

Amir sat forward, and I leaned back. Force of habit. If someone leans into you on the inside they either want to shank you or fuck you. Either way they looking to put something hard inside you.

“Hey man, I just wanted us to clear the air about the way things went down, “he said. I sipped my drink again.

“Nothing to clear up. Your lawyer was better than mine that’s all.” I lied. Amir tossed his head back. His long dreads spilled across the back of the couch.

“Why did that motherfucker fight back man? We’d done that Craigslist escort thing a hundred times and nobody ever even blinked. Then that big son of a bitch wants to try and crack our skulls open.”

“At the trial they said he was on meth and coke, “ I said.

“That nigga broke my jaw in three places. He was on some Incredible Hulk type shit.” Amir said. I didn’t respond. I had played that night over in my head enough when I was inside. It had been on a continuous loop the entire time I’d been in Mecklenburg State Prison. Me and Amir bursting out of the hotel room closet like thug life personified. The big naked white guy punching Shanda in the mouth. Amir getting tossed against the wall like a bag of trash. Me hitting the big guy on the back of the head with the lamp. The withering silence that fell over the room as we realized the guy was dead.

End Scene.

“It was some crazy shit,” I said.

“Look man I appreciate you not snitching.” Amir said. I took another big gulp of my drink. The empty glass mocked me.

“Better bite your tongue off next time he says something like that. I’m all out of ideas.” I imagined it saying. I rinsed the Jack around in my mouth. I didn’t snitch because in the week between beating that guy to death in the Relax Inn and the cops nabbing us we had come up with a pretty good plan. We’d just tell the cops we were partying with the dude and a fight broke out and things got out of hand. If we all stuck to the story we would have probably all gotten off with depraved indifference.

But we didn’t all stick to the story did we?

I finally swallowed the whiskey. My mouth was numb. The flesh on the insides of my cheeks felt loose and gelatinous. Gelatinous. It’s strange the words you pick up when you have time to read a dictionary from cover to cover.

“We were boys.” I said. I tried to keep my tone nice and even.

The few people who came to see me filled me in on Amir’s rise to the middle of the Richmond drug game. After he did his year he’d gotten up with Shanda. Her lawyer had kept her out of jail. She was right by his side as transitioned from being a stick-up kid to selling Special K to the club kids. Parlayed that into dealing designer drugs to hipster douchebags at the three local colleges. He’d built his shit solid enough to make some paper but fluid enough to escape the attention of Johnny Law.

“Chess you know me and Shanda that didn’t start till I got out. We was never doing nothing behind you back. It just happened.” he said.

“Hey, Amir, do me a favor. Don’t tell me that shit okay? Nothing just happens. You didn’t just look up one day and notice her fat ass all right? Don’t play me like that man. Y’all together now and that’s all it is. I get that. But don’t tell me it just happened.” I said.

Shanda came out the kitchen and went through the French doors. She had put on a leather jacket to go out into the cold February air. I watched her put a cigarette to her lips. The flame from the lighter gave her butter-pecan complexion an incandescent glow. She’d cut her hair short. When I’d gone in it had hung down to her ass. Cascading down her back like a waterfall made of shadows. That was the Shanda I knew. That was the Shanda I loved. That was the Shanda who wrote me twice a month for five years. The Shanda who dangled a carrot in front of me that kept me going in Mecklenburg.

“Maybe when you get out.”

She ended all her letters like that. All one hundred and twenty of them.

“I got a job for you.” Amir said. The jocularity in his voice had dried up like ditchwater in the middle of July.

“What kind of job?”

Amir stood up and went into his den. I heard him rifling through a drawer then shut it hard.

When he came back out he had one of those big brown envelopes in his hand. The kind you mail documents in.

“Got some fellas outta DC coming into town tonight. They bringing me a package. Some of that good shit them Beckys over at VCU like. I can’t go get it tonight, so I was gonna get you to pick it up for me.” He said. Amir tossed the envelope on the coffee table. I stared at the envelope. I glanced out the patio window. Shanda was finishing her smoke.

The last letter I had received from her had been written in code. Nonsensical words and phrases that only held meaning for us. You know, the way lovers speak. She’d told me Amir beat on her. That he treated her like property. That she’d taken out a five hundred-thousand-dollar insurance policy on him. That maybe when I got out we could be together if he was out of the picture.

I stood up. I took the envelope off the table.

“I guess I’m working for you now huh?” I said. Amir frowned.

“Man don’t say it like that. I owe you, Chess. You do this for me and I’ll take care of you. It’s the least I can do. You just pick up the package and bring it back here tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow?” A sheepish smile crawled across Amir’s face.

“Yeah man. We going out tonight.” He said.

It dawned on me what today was. I didn’t keep track of holidays inside. Not Christmas. Not Thanksgiving. Least of all Valentine’s Day.

Images flooded my mind that made me sick to my stomach. Amir and Shanda at some semi-fancy restaurant ordering what he thought was a good bottle of wine. Amir and Shanda riding the elevator to the top floor of the Marriott to fuck in the same two positions they did at home every three weeks. Amir laying on top of her sweating and grunting like a dying harbor seal.

That’s when I knew I was going to do it.

I held out my right hand while holding the envelope in my left.Amir grabbed it and pumped it up and down twice. His grip was almost comically delicate. He’d gotten soft.

I dropped the envelope and sucker-punched him. I planted my feet and threw my hips into it. I felt a shock thrum its way up my arm as my fist connected with his cheek bone. Amir dropped to one knee. He was blinking hard and a thin stream of blood and drool poured out his mouth. I grabbed him by his dreads and dragged him to his feet.

“Five years motherfucker! How many times you fuck her in five years? A hundred? A thousand? After you sold me out.” I screamed. I drove his head into the glass coffee table. It cracked but didn’t break. A series of fractures raced toward its edge. I slammed his head into the table again. This time it did shatter. Glass shards rained down on his lush pile carpet. I let go of him and he crumpled to the floor.

I grabbed the Jack Daniels bottle from the wreckage of the coffee table. I gripped it by the neck and raised it above my head.

“We was boys!” I howled. I slammed the bottle into the back of his skull. It made a dull thwack!

“We was ride or die!” I said. Thwack!

“She was my girl!” I said. Thwack Thwack Thwack! When I finally dropped the bottle, it was covered in blood and Amir didn’t have a face anymore. Shanda came in from the patio and closed the door behind her.

“You were supposed to wait until tonight. Come back and break in. that’s why I talked him into getting you to do the pick-up. So you could get the lay of the house.” She said. Her honey-coated voice melted over me. Even now with blood splattered across my face it made me shiver from the inside out.

“I…couldn’t… I couldn’t let him touch you one more night. It’s okay. We can make this work. Go get a blanket. We can take him out through the patio. Drop him off near the train tracks.” I said. Shanda didn’t speak. She headed down the hallway. I wiped my face. My hand came away red.

I heard Shanda come back into the living room. She wasn’t carrying a blanket. She had a small nickel-plated .32. For a brief moment I told myself I didn’t understand.

“Shanda…what are you doing?” I said even though I knew exactly what the fuck she was doing.

“You’re right. We can still make it work.” She said. The first shot got me in the shoulder. The hole it made in the sleeve of my t-shirt was the size of an aspirin. I stared at it, waiting for the blood to flow. I turned back to Shanda. We locked eyes.

I started for her and she shot me again. My legs disappeared from under me. I fell forward on to the remains of the coffee table.

It didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt except that millisecond between seeing the gun in Shanda’s hand and her pulling the trigger. I heard her talking on her cell to a 911 operator. She was explaining how her ex had broken in and beaten her husband to death and she the poor frightened waif that she was had been forced to shoot her ex. As the darkness began to overtake me I wondered how she would explain the letters in my back pocket. All 120 of them. I’d carried them with me everywhere since I’d gotten out. Some of them even had little hearts drawn in the margins.

Ain’t love grand?

Monday, May 14, 2018

Blood Daughter, by Matthew Lyons

Stan blows up his old life with a few Facebook messages and a few cellphone photos, and after the divorce is over and he's bled dry as corn husks, he packs up his few remaining belongings in his shitty little fifth-hand Kia (the only car on Craigslist he could afford) and moves to North Garth to start rebuilding. He gets an apartment (studio), and a job (washing dishes), a new(ish) pair of sneakers and a rat in a glass case he names Salzer, after the famous German poet. He spends his first few months looking back, crying in the dark, calling his old house from grocery store parking lot payphones and hoping that Melinda doesn't pick up because they both know she's not going to let him talk to Cassie. Stan misses his daughter more than he misses the rest of his stupid old life and he tells himself that maybe that's ordinary.

Whenever his little girl answers, he never tells her it's him calling, just whispers all his secrets to her in alphabetical order and hopes she understands. When he runs out of those, he starts telling her his memories. When he was six, his dad shot himself in the garage with the Browning he brought back from Vietnam and ever since then Stan's had nightmares about red paper fans pressed against cracked window-glass. He stomped crayfish to paste by the creekside when he was a teenager. He married too young and tried to fix a broken thing with a baby. He tells her that despite all his sins she's beautiful and she's perfect and she's all he ever wanted and that's when Melinda yanks the phone away from their daughter and screeches PERVERT!! down the line at him and then it clicks dead in his ear. The next time he tries to call, a mechanical woman tells him that number's been disconnected. He screams and smashes the receiver against the base until it comes apart in his hand and the grocery security guards have to come and drag him away off the store property.

Back home, broken and battered and hammered out of shape, he drags himself into the bathroom and scoops a handful of scummy hair from the shower drain with bloody fingers, cradles it in his palms, coos nursery rhymes to it. It's a good start. But he'll need more.

Eventually he notices there's a new waitress at the diner: her name is Alexandra and she has a green and black tattoo of a snake stretching from her right wrist all the way to the line of her jaw and she laughs at his lame dad jokes and smokes too many menthol cigarettes and carries around a five year AA token like some people carry around crucifixes. She asks him about his bandages and he makes some stupid quip, hoping she gets the message. They start to have sex a few times a week, always at her place and only ever when her boyfriend isn't home. She watches him get high sometimes and never asks why he never invites her over to his apartment.

Stan starts to plan. Stan invests in a full set of antique dental tools off eBay. Stan takes showers that last for hours, pulling out the thin hairs circling his chest and his belly and his ever-expanding bald spot and letting them collect in the drain until they just about stop up the tub before he pulls them out and adds them. Stan buys weed and sometimes coke from the other dishwasher at the diner, another down-on-his-luck case who looks like a Chad but insists everyone call him Pablo. Stan has wet dreams about his ex-wife sometimes and always calls Alexandra to apologize after. Stan starts to buy anesthetic from one of Pablo's other customers, some asshole veterinarian who can't handle his shit. Stan doesn't go in the kitchen anymore because that's her room and she needs her privacy.

Salzer's been dead under a pathetic pile of shredded paper bedding for weeks before Stan notices, and when he finally does, he just throws the whole terrarium out into the alley where it shatters and startles a homeless man so badly he never comes back around. This city is dying anyway. Stan doesn't see the poor bastard beat his retreat down and away and it's just as well because Stan wouldn't care if he did.

His apartment starts to smell like rot so he spends his whole paycheck at the Yankee Candle one Friday and congratulates himself for his ingenuity. He walls off the kitchen with broken-down boxes and cheap duct tape that doesn't tear right but gets the job done. He sings while he puts it up, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider and London Bridge and Mary Had A Little Lamb and more. He tells himself she likes it but there'll be no way to tell until he's finished and that's not going to be for a while because he has to go slowly and carefully otherwise everything's going to get fucked up and he can't let that happen.

This is too important. She's too important.

One night, laying in bed, he tells Alexandra a little bit about himself, and in return, she tells him she thinks he's the loneliest person she's ever met. She tells him about her son who lives with her parents in Spokane and then he leaves because he can't handle that shit, and the next day at work she acts like nothing's wrong but he can see by the puffy glow around her eyes that she's been crying. He doesn't ask about it and she doesn't share. She doesn't answer his calls for the rest of the week either, but he's okay with that. He's got plenty of work at home to keep him occupied without having to worry about her feelings on top of all of it. He's got to focus.

Things are moving faster, now.

The next Saturday, he waits up and does lines of blow until well after midnight and then breaks into a local funeral home because those shitty Labrador painkillers he has at home aren't doing the job. He stumbles through the dark, upending chairs and caskets on his way through to the prep room and uses a screwdriver to snap the padlock off the supply locker: inside are racks of tools and rows of brown bottles with labels he only understands a little. These'll probably work. With one arm, he sweeps a whole shelf into his duffel bag for later and when a voice behind him asks

Who the hell are you? What are you doing in here?

he grabs one of the many-angled implements from the cabinet and opens the man's face with it. The sound is like a claw hammer against a steak and Stan leaves him there, crumpled on the floor in a creeping pool of his own blood.

In the bathroom of his apartment, Stan loads a pair of syringes with a mixture from the bottles and sets them on the edge of the sink while he works up the nerve. The first time he really does it, he starts small. A needle prick in the tips of his first two fingers, then he goes out to his car for the pliers while the itchy numb takes hold. He lays out paper towels all around the sink, gets a good hold, grits his teeth and yanks out one fingernail, then another. They come out with a wet sucking thwick and even through the warm embalming drug haze, the pain is exquisite, a fuzzy screaming wave that turns his whole hand into a burning, open nerve. There's not as much blood as he expected, though. He runs a cold tap over his bare fingers until it feels okay again, then he takes his ripped-free nails out to the kitchen to add.

Over the course of the next week he does the other eight, and then all ten toes, and then uses the antique bag of tools from the internet to start in on his mouth. He brings it all to the kitchen, taking his time to make sure each piece fits just so. It's only when the gaps in his smile grow wide enough to pass the neck of a bottle through that the weird, awful people at the diner start to notice. Are you okay? they ask. Do you need to talk to someone, Stan? He shrugs them all off. He's doing just fine. Every day he comes to work missing bigger clumps of hair and one time he lets slip to Pablo that he's been spending a lot of time digging for materials at the city dump. Barbed wire and medical waste. When Pablo asks him to explain a little bit more, Stan slaps him in the crotch and pretends he doesn't speak English. Pablo never talks to him again, not even when Stan comes in the next week missing the last three fingers off his left hand.

The blood seeps through the cheap vinyl off-brand bandages and gets everywhere, pattering spots on bowls and countertops and fresh napkins, but Stan insists this isn't a problem. It's no problem. He'll clean it all again, he'll scrub twice as hard. The manager sends him home and says not to come back until he's doing better. Stan asks what that means just in time to get the door shut in his face. On the way back through the parking lot, he puts a fist through the driver's side window of the manager's crappy old Buick. He stands there bleeding from both hands for a while before the idea comes to him and he starts scooping up handfuls of sea-green pebbles.

She needs eyes to see, after all.

And she always liked green. It was her favorite color.

Or was it purple?

He fills his pockets with safety glass, sure he'll find the right two somewhere in there. He's so close, now.

Back at home, Stan does all the coke he has left and it makes his brain feel like a trashcan that's on fire but if he pays attention he might be able to finish her tonight and that would make it worth all the shit and the hurt and the pain and the misery so he decides to do that: okay let's focus so we can do this come on let's fucking go. He lets himself into the kitchen through the cardboard door and goes to work, spilling his pockets all over the Formica countertop so he can find the right ones.

She waits for him at the table, hideous and cruel and nearly perfect, wrought from clumps of mottled, sticky hair and fresh stripes of leg-skin and mangled lumps of cartilage and broken bone, lashed together with tape and tight loops of wire and twine, her shape ruined humanoid, the proportions all warped and wrong. She smiles at him with his own torn-out teeth—they sit in her misshapen head glistening pearl red, arranged in as neat a row as Stan could fix them. She nods at him and he goes to work sifting through the jagged pile. The edges bite and slice into the pads of his remaining fingers, rendering the shards slick and hard to keep a hold of, but he keeps at it until he finds two that he thinks will work. He leans in and whispers to her, telling her about their angles, and when her smile spreads, he knows he made the right choice.

Stan steps in close and uses one butterflied thumb to make two little divots in her head so he can put the eyes where they need to go, but before he can place them, there's a knock at the front door.

Stannie? Alexandra calls from the other side. Stannie, are you in there? I just want to talk, please. She must have followed him home. Stannie, I'm worried about you. Nosy. She's always been nosy.

Ignore her, the creation hisses.

But Stan hesitates, stuck between the only two people left in his pathetic excuse for a life.

Open the door, Alexandra pleads. Please, Stan. I just want to help.

Give me my fucking eyes, his new child snarls.

Tears pour down Stan's face and he jams the glass into his replacement girl's makeshift skull and she shivers with pleasure, rising from her seat to meet him where he stands. Outside on the welcome mat, Alexandra's stamping her feet in frustration and calling his name, her voice swollen with sobs, but he can't hear her, now. His wretched abomination wraps him in her damp, ghastly embrace and when she squeezes it's like being devoured by knives—she shreds him apart and absorbs him, uses his parts to fortify her own, a doll of hair and meat and blood and metal. She blooms and overlaps herself, feels her father pulped inside the limits of her heinous body. She turns and tears down the fake wall, lurching toward the front of her prison, then crashes through the cheap pressboard door and onto the weeping woman she finds there, consuming her whole, the hair and steel coiling and thrashing her to red ribbons. The world beyond smells like fear, and hate, and blood, and she will devour it all, in her brutal, malignant perfection.

She opens her stolen mouth and crows to the heavens above, born to unmake the world in her image, and the gods she mocks there watch and weep and turn away to hide in their barrows. Deep inside her, as he’s pulled apart and digested to slurry, Stan’s last thought is of the family that left him, the world that forsook him, and in the moments before he truly becomes another part of his girl’s terrible entirety, he weeps with joy.

The end has finally come.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Negro and an Ofay, By Danny Gardner, reviewed by Tim Hennessy

A Negro and an Ofay
Danny Gardner
Down & Out Books
261 pages
reviewed by Tim Hennessy

With the volume of detective fiction published today, emerging from a crowded pack has never been more difficult. Protagonists piecing together answers to convoluted mysteries is such a familiar path to head down, I swear off as much detective fiction as I pick up, always vowing I’m done, that I’ve read enough.Whether a seasoned, hard-boiled investigator or an amateur doing a favor for a friend, the PI novel is a genre weighed down by its history and popularity. With an overabundance of white male detectives running through the fictional mean streets and dark alleys, looking to right wrongs while busy self-consciously narrating, and maintaining their buzz, what has kept the detective novel appealing for over 150 years?

You can find one answer in the exciting narratives coming from the points of view of underrepresented authors and their protagonists, who are revitalizing the genre and making it more relevant. One of the bright spots in recent years, Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay, explores the complicated racial politics and code-switching necessary to navigating the 1952 Midwest.

When life had him by the short hairs, [Elliot] often fantasized about being a good student who graduated on the Dean’s list. Then he could have traded on his near-whiteness to land a job in the front office of some industrial farm in Illinois. Could’ve had a name tag. Maybe a desk. Dated some chippie from the secretarial pool. Perhaps that would have kept him from enlisting in Patton’s Third Army. He would have never followed every other discharged colored to the big city. He wouldn’t have taken the police academy test while drunk, just to show much smarter he was.

Elliot Caprice is the embodiment of otherness, abandoned by his white mother after his black father dies in a race riot. He is “a city boy trapped in farm country” raised by his father’s brother in Southland, a small rural Illinois community where as a young man, he collected vigs for Izzy, a Jewish loan maker and additional father figure. Elliot is also a war veteran who became a South Side Chicago police officer upon his return. Working amongst rampant corruption, Elliot was blackmailed into snitching on dirty cops once his past relationship with Izzy came to light. Elliot complicates matters for himself further when he involves himself with a former police lieutenant turned beat crime reporter William Drury, who investigated organized crime and its ties to the policing community.

Great characters have always been the engine that’s driven and sustained detective novels beyond any given books’ mystery. In the short span of his life, Elliot has done a lot of living, and Gardner’s loaded his first novel with an abundant supporting cast in which there’s hardly a character that comes in contact with Elliot that doesn’t have a complicated history with him or an uneasy rapport.

In the first third of the novel, Gardner layers Elliot’s conflicts with his past as well as his community on thick, with multiple subplots that would make any number of great novels. Much of the first act gives quick glimpses into Elliot’s past to establish the character. Elliot’s time serving in the war changed everything for him.

For the average Negro, the existence of concentration camps was an abstraction. Just another example of how ofays do each other when there were no niggers around. Once Patton took colored regiments deep within German territory, they witnessed atrocities that eclipsed the tortures of Jim Crow. …the next concentration camps to be liberated would hold colored bodies. This was his motivation for joining the Chicago Police Department. …He desired to legitimize himself. Perhaps legitimize colored folk overall.

One is still left wanting more of a sense of Elliot’s time as a younger man trying to navigate the dismaying effects of returning home from war. Also, further exploring the conflicts Elliot’s time collecting for Izzy presented as he began his career as a police officer would make an excellent time period we can hope Gardner explores later in the series.

So where does the detective story come in? That plot thread picks up much later when Elliot learns that his Uncle Buster lost his farm after taking out a bad loan to help pay labor for the planting season. Matters complicate quickly when Buster falls ill, and loses his workers to a competitor, failing to keep up with payments.

To help pay off his uncle’s debt, Elliot takes on work as a process server hoping he can figure out a way to save the farm. He’s dispatched to get a signature from a wealthy widow in the midst of an estate battle with her husband’s adult children. Their sudden marriage after his first wife died in a boating accident raised suspicions and when he later drowns in a bathtub after changing his will to benefit her, foul play was suspected. Seizing an opportunity to make some side cash, Elliot’s hired to examine the complexities of her legal situation so she can retain the assets her husband left her.

Following in the footsteps of his golden-aged predecessors, Gardner sends Elliot down a familiar path filled with duplicitous wealthy relations, and broader entanglements that involve organized crime, and familiar federal law enforcement officers that complicate his life yet again. Gardner’s novel is too action heavy to balance the elements of race and class that are also on its mind. The book has a lot of plot threads to connect and resolve, which it does with the aid of a massive shootout. While fun and well executed, the action sequence served as an opportunity to bring disparate plot threads together rather than build tension.

Even though not all of the story elements work in equal measure, Danny Gardner is laying the foundation for a fascinating and complex character. The more opportunities we have to view the detective genre through different experiences like those in the works of Attica Locke, Adi Tantimedh, Steph Cha, and Alex Segura the more it vital it will continue to be. Each of these writers’ like Gardner uses their sleuths to look at social issues intersecting cultural conflicts of the past and present all while bringing a fresh perspective to a familiar genre.