Monday, December 10, 2018

Blood Standard, by Laird Barron, reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Blood Standard
Laird Barron
G.P. Putnam's Sons
336 pages
reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Rumors of what would end up being Blood Standard, Laird Barron’s first mainstream crime novel, had been going around for years. As a devotee, I first heard whispers that Barron was writing a noir sometime in mid 2014; there were no other details to the gossip, no plot hints, character ideas, or even a sense of where the book would be set, but the rumors were more than enough to get anyone even slightly plugged into the gray area where crime fiction and horror fiction overlap very excited. Shortly afterward, when Barron confirmed in a Facebook post that he was in fact writing a noir novel, I don’t think anyone could have imagined a more perfect pairing.

Barron, the 21st century's undisputed king of cosmic horror has always had a soft spot for characters straight out of classic noir: whether it’s the Pinkerton or the private detective stumbling across unimaginable truths, the CIA spook or the grizzled military commander monkeying with things they do not truly understand, miners and geologists, comfortable only in solitude but forced to work together to stay alive, or the lavishly rich, surrounding themselves with potential victims. Barron’s collections were full of gruff men of action whose minds were destined to end up as broken as their bodies. The promise of those characters, and the language and atmosphere Barron used to wring every ounce of tension from their suffering, but set in a world in which Old Leech was not to reveal himself? It was almost too good to be true.

Enter Isaiah Coleridge, another of Barron’s signature hardscrabble heroes. A mob enforcer sent from the warm arms of The Outfit to the outer edges of the universe, in this case, Nome, Alaska, Coleridge witnesses a money-making slaughter scheme on the Chukchi Sea and, maybe for the first time in his life, does the right thing. Or the wrong.

Exiled for his sins against the Outfit to the quiet Hudson Valley of upstate New York and held in check by an awareness that the Outfit might come calling at any moment to collect their pound of flesh, Coleridge settles in to a quiet life on a farm. It’s only when Reba Walker, the farm owner’s granddaughter, goes missing, and Coleridge promises to find the girl, that he is pulled back into the world of greed and violence, and he jumps in with both feet.

The violence in Blood Standard isn’t meditative or philosophical as in the majority of Barron’s previous work. It simply is, an essential aspect of Coleridge’s life that is so commonplace it is barely worthy of note. Whether or not that is a good thing will be the cause of some debate among readers. The novel moves along at an almost impossible pace, most scenes action-packed and filled with growing mystery or tension or violence, but the language is clipped, especially in comparison to Barron’s horror work. In previous short story collections readers were treated to horrific imagery and the suggestion of the baroque and the grotesque awaiting behind even the most commonplace of items and incidents, elements which I think makes Barron one of the best prose stylists I’ve ever read. In Blood Standard, most of that is gone, excised instead for action and forward momentum, though Barron occasionally slows down the ass-kicking to deliver a knockout of a section, including the following plumbed from the depths of Isaiah’s fever dream:

I wandered through Elysian Fields and the Boar of the Wood hunted me, his tusks as sharp as spearheads. He felled the tall grass with each sideways swipe of his massive head. My grandfather, dressed in skins and a necklace of sharks’ teeth, floated always two places ahead his gaze serene as a storm cloud. He raised a flint ax and I woke, the blare of a conch horn trailing into the ether.

I’ll be honest and admit now that there were times when reading Blood Standard that I wished the Barron prose I’d fallen in love with would reappear, that I’d get more of the above, an exploration of the sense of cosmic doom that immediately follows a head cracking--an unconsciousness made of cold stars and the void behind them--but it’s also entirely possible that the only reason I wanted that is because that was the book I’d been imagining for four years, and it’s very likely that readers who haven’t read Barron's previous books won’t find anything amiss at all. Besides, Blood Standard is straightforward about the kind of book it is from the jump; if there’s ever been another book that greets the reader with a balled up knuckle sandwich right on the title page, I can’t think of it.

That’s not to say Blood Standard isn’t a recognizably Laird Barron novel, either, as it is absolutely packed with what some have come to call Barronisms, each circling one another, all of the converging and separating in Blood Standard s murky mystery. Lurking at the edge of the plot are unscrupulous FBI agents, a group of private military mercenaries working for an atrocity-prone organization known simply as Black Dog, mobsters (so many mobsters), a particularly bacchanalian Beltane fire celebration, and Isaiah’s father, a cold-hearted son of a bitch who, if he’d been copy-pasted into Barron’s first breakout story, “Old Virginia”, probably would have staved off all the miseries in that story and saved the day. Plus gallons of whiskey and racks and racks of guns.

It may seem amiss, at this point, that for book supposedly about the mystery of a missing girl, I haven’t discussed the mystery that much. That’s for two reasons. The first is that the mystery works perfectly well as a means to drive the plot forward, which is to be expected in a modern crime novel. Blood Standard performs admirably, each chapter deepening the mystery while also suggesting increasingly sinister explanations. But the more interesting reason to discuss everything but the mystery is that the resolution of what happened to Reba Walker may strike some readers as unsatisfying. At first, I might have agreed with those readers, but that’s only because it took me a while to understand that the potentially unsatisfying resolution of the mystery is exactly the point. Blood Standard is an action story wearing the skin of a mystery novel, but it’s also the story of Isaiah Coleridge and his attempt to find his place in a world where even the criminal rejects have rejected him.

A cross between Jack Reacher or Clyde Barr novels and some of Dennis Lehane’s more introspective and gothic work (Shutter Island and the displaced narrator of The Given Day seem like obvious touchpoints), Blood Standard is less about the mystery of what happened to Reba Walker and more about what Isaiah Coleridge--and men like him--have to do to survive the modern world. If Coleridge, with all his sins and his Barbarian nature, had been able to set the world right, it would ring false, like Barron were giving us a neat ending simply for its own sake, but as anyone who has read Barron before knows, he doesn’t believe in neat or happy endings: the universe is too complex for that, as even the section in which the resolution is revealed is titled “The Gordian Knot”.

A novel about an difficult man trying to resolve a hopeless mystery, while also trying to accomplish something else that may as well be impossible, starting a new life, Laird Barron’s first crime novel is as much a character study as a beat ‘em up, rich with all the signature themes longtime Barron readers know and love, while also being straightforward and action-focused enough to welcome a mainstream audience. Whatever comes next for Isaiah Coleridge will surely be haunting and difficult and expansive on the world created here, and if it’s half as much fun as Blood Standard, I can’t wait.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Tough News

Hi all--

Tough will return to regularly scheduled content in the new year. In the meantime, we'll still be posting occasional reviews and maybe even some interviews--I keep promising those, but they're back-burner for right now--as we work on print anthology 2 and catch up with a backlog of submissions. Speaking of which, we're still open for story submissions as well as reviews, and we've already got some dynamite stories lined up for 2019. In the meantime, be sure to keep up with things via Unlawful Acts and Do Some Damage, just two of the spots I visit regularly to keep up with subjects criminous.

Thanks for reading--


Monday, October 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2018

She Goes First, by Mary Thorson

New York, 1928

Lula couldn’t remember when Tom started discreetly coming to and leaving their bed, but there must have been a particular day when he decided to be quieter. It didn’t matter, she was such a light sleeper that it wasn’t the bird or the phone call that woke her, it was the absence of his weight. When she came into the kitchen, he was moving very fast, almost so her tired eyes couldn’t keep up with him, and he blurred as he paced from one spot to another. Lula pulled her hair behind her ears and watched him. It had been a long time since she had seen him like this, and she was nervous.
“Who was on the phone?”
“Work, they want me for something big up in New York,” he said over his shoulder.
“New York? Why?”
A few months ago, they had moved into their DC apartment from his studio in Chicago. Tom had said it was too cramped for him there, and there was an opening at the DC bureau of the Chicago Tribune. But Lula didn’t think it was any bigger, now. Just emptier. The only furniture being the bed, a couch in the living room, and a kitchen table set that came cheap because it had been scratched in the store.
“You know that big case where the woman killed her husband? The dumbbell murder?”
Lula shook her head, she didn’t pay attention to the news, which Tom had liked at the start. She knew it made him feel good to tell her about things.
“They’re executing them next week and they want me to come in and take pictures.” 
“Pictures of what?”
“The execution,” he said with a too big smile. “Just her, though. They’re going to run it on the front page.”
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “You mean, when she dies?”
“Why would anyone want to see that?” Lula asked while letting her vision blur as she stared out the window. The snow was coming down in big heavy flakes as a few men in dark jackets started to make their trek to work.
“People can’t not look,” he said.
He would be working for the New York Daily News, he explained, because no photographers were being let into Ruth Snyder’s execution, just reporters. The editors thought it would be clever to bring someone in that the guards had never seen before. They hired another man to make them a camera special for the job. The body of it would be strapped to Tom's ankle, the lens facing out and angled up, and the shutter release would be wired up through his pant leg to the arm of his jacket, so he could press it as if he were clicking a pen. It was single use.
She turned to look at Tom. His face was always astonishing. Hard set features, nothing soft there, not even his lips. A nose that had been broken more than once and eyes set deep. He cut into the space around him.
“That’s sinful,” she said.
If he could have left earlier, if the Daily News would have let him stay in one of their kept rooms at a hotel in the city, he would have been gone already, but they made him wait. Lula could sense him vibrating underneath his skin. He could see an exit.
“What about the bird?” Lula asked.
“What about him?”
“Do you expect me to take care of him?”
“Actually, yes. I do,” Tom said. “It’s not hard.”
He walked over to the cage and let the bird out onto his finger. The bird twisted its head around to stare at her. Its neck bent unnaturally, and it made her put a hand up to her throat. Tom stroked it and whispered something that Lula couldn’t hear.
The bird loved Tom. It was his bird. Well, not to start with. To start with it belonged to her. His wife’s bird. During the divorce Lula and Tom had gone on an adventure; that’s what he’d called it. They went to the house he had shared with her and broke in. He hadn’t planned on it being dramatic as all that, but Margaret had changed the locks like she said she would. A rock the size of his fist got them in. One small broken window above the basement and it became something else.
Lula remembered the way Tom looked at her as if heat burned through his eyes. He helped her down and slid his hands over the length of her, touching every part. When her feet were flat on the ground, he held her there in front of him, against him. And when Lula turned, he had her there – it was the last time it went like that.
They walked right out the front door with the bird still in its cage and that black sheet over it. An African Grey. He had bought it for Margaret in place of an engagement ring. This bird looked as though all the color had been drained from him, everything but the tail which fanned out in a stark red cape. Lula liked the idea of getting Margaret’s declaration of love as if it could be transferred over like money in a bank account.
Turned out Margaret couldn’t stand the thing either, because she never came after it. Never said a word about it, and she always had a lot to say. This, Lula knew, had gotten under Tom’s skin. He was excited the first few days, waiting to hear from Margaret once she came back to town. Said she would fight like a wet cat for that bird. Then the week rolled over to the next. He would ask if she called. Lula would ask why he cared, but she knew. Back in the beginning, when he and Lula had just started, he had told Margaret that the love bites on his neck were from the bird. But the bird never bit him.
She read whatever she could find on Ruth and her lover. She hoped she could somehow learn more about them than Tom. Have an intimate insight into their lives that Tom wouldn’t be able to capture and show. Ruth was 32. She was unemployed. She was a mother. Her daughter’s name was Lorraine. Her husband’s name was Albert. She and her lover, Judd, had killed him. Judd was a corset salesman and losing money. Ruth and Judd held chloroform soaked rags over Albert’s mouth and nose. Judd tied a wire around Albert’s neck. Judd convinced Ruth to do it so they could be together. Ruth convinced Judd to do it so they could be together. Ruth and Judd had been lovers for two years. Ruth and Judd turned on each other in two hours. All of it Lula memorized. She wanted Tom to quiz her. She wanted him to bring something up, or get something wrong, and if he did, she would gently correct him. “No, that’s not what happened; it went like this,” she would say. And he would thank her. But Tom didn’t talk about it. He just kept checking his backup camera and taking pictures of the bird. 
She had trouble sleeping when he was gone. Even though they had turned away from each other, his weight in the bed was enough. If not enough, something – a pull she could feel. A reminder in physics. After Tom left, Lula ticked through those facts at night. When she did sleep, she dreamt of Ruth and Judd – but then it wasn’t Judd, it was Tom. They stood in a room that had been torn apart, and he stood behind her, tying up her corset before he left. He kissed her in the space between her shoulder blades, grabbing her shoulder as if he wanted to take a part of her with him. Lula would wake up sweating. It reminded her of before. He would do this with Lula when her breathing got caught up and uneven. He would touch her with a kind of determined pressure. He had an agenda. He pawed at her while attempting to disguise it as comfort. He wanted.
But, over time, that pressure she needed had eased. He wouldn’t touch her with any of his strength. She braced herself, ready to push back harder against him, but there was nothing. Quickly his hand would be gone altogether, leaving no imprint of where it had been. She used to be able to feel him the next day. Her hips would ache, and she’d stretch until she could feel the soreness. He bruised her neck with his mouth, and she’d open her collar up to the mirror as she examined the marks.  Now he didn’t leave anything behind.
The day that Tom was due back, Lula woke up in the early afternoon, and the bird was squawking. She put the pillow over her head to try and block it out, but it didn’t work. She threw the covers off of her and walked to the kitchen to make some coffee. She would not address the bird until she was ready. She would make it wait. When the coffee was ready, she poured it into a little white cup with delicate pink and blue roses on it and a gold painted trim around the rim. Lula had not bought this, it was not her style. She liked plain things—sturdy things. The bird squawked again. It was hungry. On her way out of the kitchen she tripped on the leg of the table, dropping her coffee cup on the ground. The thing seemed to shatter in slow motion, and she didn’t move to stop it. The handle flew off like it had torn along a seam.
“Shit,” she whispered sharply.
“Shit! Shit!” came back at her from the living room.
The noise the cup made when it fell sounded like it came from inside her skull, and she put her hands over her ears. Lula stepped around the ceramic pieces and walked into the living room, balling up the folds of her robe in her fists. If she kept them free, she’d be liable to swing.
The bird heard her coming, and the cage started to shake. The black sheet with white embroidered vines covered it as it rocked back and forth. A heavy thing, made so the bird wouldn’t be able to knock it off on its own.
“Please,” Lula said, putting her mouth to the sheet. “Will you please, just, be quiet? I need you to do this for me. Can you? Please?” She breathed out, thinking maybe the hot air from her lungs would do something, like a car in a garage.
“Please! Please!” came from behind the sheet, like a ghost.
The bird’s voice came out differently, this time. It sounded more like her, or how she thought she might sound to someone else. Desperate. Something was wrong with it. She wanted to be away from the bird, away from that voice, so she quietly walked to the front door hoping that it wouldn’t hear her leave. When she stepped outside, the sun hit her as if interrogating her, and she sank down on the stairs. It was cold and she held her coat tightly to her chest. Her feet were bare but she was testing herself. It was a game; how long could she stand it. She would turn around to keep them moving, and was facing the navy blue door when she heard a car pull up in front of the house. She lifted her head and watched him. Tom paused for a moment, staring at her. He looked as if he’d gotten out at the wrong place. He kept his hand on top of the taxi, then he smiled and reached inside his coat. He pulled out a small bunch of crushed red roses and shook them her direction. He hit the roof and started towards her.
“What are you doing out here?” This was a thing he used to laugh at, but now it was a quick smile. She would have missed it if she had blinked. Thank God.
“I was hot, inside.”
“You shouldn’t be out here like this.”
He opened the door and herded her through it. Inside, the bird started up again. Tom walked over, pulled off the sheet like a magic trick and leaned in.
“Hiya, buddy!” he yelled.
Lula put her hands up to her ears, fearing that her voice would come back out of its beak, but it was silent.
“There’s a good man.” Tom opened up the wire door and stuck his finger in. The bird marched onto it from its little swing. It flapped its wings and jumped onto Tom’s shoulder, then stomped around a bit before settling down. Glad to be home.
“Seems a little stir crazy, must have gotten up early,” Tom said, looking from the bird to Lula. His stare was accusatory.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I need to wash up.”
In the bathroom, she sat on the lid of the toilet with her hands between her knees. She leaned her head against the frosted window, and appreciated its coolness. Lula put her hand to her mouth and started to pick at the dry pieces of skin on her lips. Then she thought about lipstick – if she still had that color he used to like, or if he had ever mentioned liking one in particular.
Lula walked back to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. She curled her toes to grip the floor. Tom had started another pot with the mess on the floor just inches away from his feet. He had the newspaper tucked into his waistband the way a cop carries a gun. She didn’t want to ask about it, but had nothing else to say.
“How did it go, then?”
He turned and smiled at her, the kind of smile she hadn’t seen in months. She almost returned it. He grabbed the newspaper and unrolled it. He held it up next to his face as if he were posing with some big game he had hunted.
“Take a look.”
Lula couldn’t understand at first. It wasn’t something she could easily make out. She squinted her eyes causing the pain in her forehead to spread up underneath her hair and across to both temples. She became dizzy. In the picture, Ruth Snyder grabbed both arms of the chair with a grip that she never could have managed before that moment. Her ankles were straining against the leather strap, her feet kicked out to either side. She was wearing black loafers; Lula had a similar pair. Something black covered Ruth’s face; it looked like a muzzle made for dogs. The photograph was blurry, and Lula couldn’t tell if that was because she could actually see the electricity moving through Ruth’s body or if it was the way the picture had been taken. Every sharp line in the photograph couldn’t hold its content, the blacks and grays of her were bleeding out. At the bottom of the picture, there was something hard and shiny. A shoe. Tom’s shoe. It looked so large and invasive. Right above the photo was a single big, bold word: DEAD!
“You ever seen anything like that?”
“Of course not.” Lula rocked a little, placing one cold hand on the wall for balance. She felt as if she had been attacked.
“Here, take a look.” Tom brought it close to her face, and she put her hands up.
“Look! Look!” the bird yelled out.
Lula sat down, and Tom grabbed the flowers he had set on the table.
“I’m sorry about these,” he said. “They looked more alive when I got them.” He started to poke through the petals, seemingly trying to find something in between them. Lula could feel the silk coming off on her fingertips.
“You shouldn’t touch them,” Lula said, louder than she had meant to.
A rigidness set in his shoulders at the sound of her voice, and she could see his jaw clench.
“What was it like?” she asked.
She saw him relax, and he turned back with a slight smile.
“Fast,” he said. He pulled out a chair and sat down hard.
“The guard checked us.” His hands were suddenly on her, moving up and down her sides. Lula took in a sharp breath. “Patted us down and let us in the room. I thought he would feel the wire, but you could tell they wanted to get that door closed. Press went to the back of the room, but I shoved up for a good spot where I could see her. Then they brought her in. You could tell she was scared; her lip quivered,” he said as he moved his lip with his finger. “And her eyes were wide as planets, but she wasn’t crying. They sat her down, strapped her in, then shaved the top of her head.”
“Why?” Lula put her hand on top of her own. She imagined a draft.
“They put a wet sponge there.” He tapped the top of her head, and she could almost feel her brain shake. “Makes the electrocution go faster, more humane.”
“Did she say anything?” she whispered.
“‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.’ Then they flipped it. She grabbed hold of the chair with everything she had, then she went limp. I almost didn’t get it in time, but everything lined up perfectly, thank God.”
“Thank God.” Lula repeated it back to him, slowly but reflexively. She couldn’t help herself.
Lula stared at him as he looked over the picture—he couldn’t stop smiling. He had caught something special, someone’s soul on the outside of their body. He had caught it for himself, and it ignited him. There was nothing in the room now, not even him. He was still there, with Ruth.
“I felt bad for Judd Gray. When they brought him in you could still smell something, like metal. He was weeping and tripping over his feet when they sat him down. She went better than him; that’s why they had her go first. They knew she would be better.”
“I don’t like it,” Lula said.
Tom looked at her as if she had hit him.
“She wasn’t a saint, you know.” He crossed his arms over himself and hardness set back in.
Lula thought Ruth might have been, at the very least, some sort of martyr for herself. Everything had been taken from her and burned up.
“She only had dignity in dying, and that’s what I got here.”
It was quiet for a moment and then the bird squawked, making Lula’s heart jump. 
“Can you please get rid of that damn bird?” she said, putting her hands over her ears.
Tom stroked the bird’s neck with his finger, then got up from his chair. 
“I’m tired,” he said with his eyes down. He didn’t say anything else right away. The way he had said it sounded almost like a question that she should answer, the way it hung there between them. When he finally did look at her, she stopped breathing, wanting to be as quiet as possible.
“I like the bird,” he said, before he turned and walked away.
Tom had left the bird on the table. Lula watched it and thought about how stuffy the room felt and how hot it had gotten with the sun coming in. She thought about opening a window while she scratched at her neck. The bird jumped down from the table to the ground so clumsily it surprised her. The bird couldn’t fly – its wings were regularly clipped – but she didn’t know if it even knew how. It walked over to the puddle of coffee on the linoleum and, with its beak to the floor, stuck its dry, gray tongue out, stabbing at the coffee in a way that made Lula feel sick again.
She had the newspaper in her hand. She didn’t know how it got there, really; she must have grabbed it. The paper was thick – special issue heavy. She felt weak and swimmy, but she moved fast. Maybe faster than she had ever moved in her life. She got him on the first swing, and it made a terrible noise. A sort of scream that tried to be human but failed and cracked back into something else. It went on like that until it was over. She wished to God it couldn’t talk, because even in the silence, with Tom looking at her in the doorway, wet and naked from the shower, she could still hear it ringing in her ears. Lula wondered if that’s why they muzzled her.