Monday, February 18, 2019

Red Rocks, fiction by Morgan Boyd

I rented a little house in midtown. Instead of a lawn, the yard had those shitty red rocks out front, which suited me just fine because the rental fronted as a meth lab, so I didn’t want the hassle of lawn maintenance. My crew worked nights and early mornings concocting crystal in the rental’s bathroom. Ferral was my chemist. He was a timid man, balding with long strips of thin blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Donny and Rachael made runs for me at the various drug stores, buying the required common household supplies. Donny was twenty years old, and from Sacramento. His cheeks were covered in freckles and acne. Rachael was twenty-two and from somewhere in Southern California. At a distance she looked pretty, but upon closer inspection, too much makeup failed to conceal red blotches on her face.

I grabbed my car keys for a McDonald’s run. I kept my crew well fed, and not because I was a nice guy. If somebody wasn’t eating, they were getting high, and that was a no-no. As I left the house, I noticed a toppled gray statue of a cherub holding a birdbath in the front yard. I crunched through the red rocks, and helped the angel back to its feet before unlocking the door of my pickup truck.

Everybody wants the American dream. A big house, a fast car, a blonde wife with big tits and a couple future Olympians for kids, and I’m no different only I’m on the fast track to prosperity. What all these hardworking schlubs, toiling nine to five, don’t comprehend is they’ll never climb that mountain. Hard work is the path to debt and nowhere town, enslavement. The only people reaching the promise land are the ones pulling the rug out from under the suckers. And that’s me, yanking like hell.

Upon returning home from McDonald’s, I noticed a commercial van parked in front of the house. Walking through the red rocks with greasy fast food bags, a bad premonition enveloped me. I envisioned half a dozen feds crammed in the back, tapping my phone line.

A beautiful woman stepped down from the stoop of my rental. She looked fortyish with long silky blonde hair. The pale yellow power suit she wore struggled against her vivacious curves. She smiled as we passed, her high heels clacking along the path, her hips swaying to and fro.

“Who was that?” I asked, coming through the door as Ferral and Rachael swarmed the McDonald’s bags.

“Said her name’s Sally. Sells vacuum cleaners,” Donny said, lighting a cigarette. “She’s giving us a free demonstration.”

“With the vacuum?” I asked, looking at the rancid floor.

Soda spills and cigarette ash blackened the mauve colored carpet. Dollar store dishes and plates dominated the sink and kitchen counters. Refuse from supplies littered the bedroom. Streamlining prosperity was by no means cleanly. The only immaculate area in the house was Ferral’s bathroom laboratory.

“She’ll be back in twenty minutes to demonstrate the cleaning power of the … what did she call it?” Donny asked, flicking cigarette ash onto the carpet. “The Hydro-Vac.”

“It’s one of those water jobs,” Rachael said.

“I don’t care if it runs on vaporized plutonium,” I said.

“That would be a serious fire hazard,” Ferral interjected, licking his fingers.

“I don’t give a shit,” I said, smashing an unwrapped Egg McMuffin with my fist. “Why didn’t you follow procedural protocol, and tell her thank you, but we aren’t interested?”

“Procedural protocol? You sound like my old manager at Wal-Mart,” Donny said.

“Donny thought she was cute,” Rachael said between slurps of orange juice.

“Look at this disgusting carpet,” Donny said. “Why not have a beautiful mature woman clean it for us?”

“Because she might not really sell vacuums, dumbass,” I said, stuffing a sausage biscuit into my mouth, and washing the dryness down with carton milk.

“No way,” Donny said, lighting a cigarette. “A babe that smoking. No way she’s a pig.”

“Did you see the van out front?” I asked. “Classic stakeout wagon.”

“You’re paranoid,” Donny said, flicking his cigarette ash on the carpet.

“Eat something,” I said. “Ain't you hungry?”

“Maybe if you hadn’t smashed my dinner,” Donny said unwrapping the flattened Egg McMuffin.

“You better be right about her,” I said.

“Find out in twenty minutes.”

“Getting low on supplies,” Ferral said. “Time for a run.”

“You heard the man,” I said to Donny and Rachael. “Get to work, and be smart about it. Change up the stores you hit. Don’t draw suspicion.”

“What about our meal?” Rachael asked, rubbing her stomach.

“It’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” I said.

“Cold McDonald’s,” Rachael said. “Brutal.”

Donny lingered in the living room while Rachael exited the backdoor, and pedaled away on her bicycle.

“Get going,” I said.

“What about Sally?” Donny asked.

“What about her?”

“I want to see her vacuum the floor.”

“She ain't getting through the front door, Donny,” I said. “I’m sending her ass packing the moment she returns. Now get on your bike, and do your job.”

“But what about the vacuum? I bet it’s heavy, and she’ll have carried it up the porch.”

I lit a cigarette, and stared at the floor. Reluctantly, Donny slung his pack over his shoulder, and slammed the back door. That kid was standing frontline for an ass whooping. One more fuck up like that and he was toast. I’d gone through countless dumb shits in this operation, and Donny was no different. I couldn’t understand why people like him struggled with the simplest of tasks? If he didn’t pull his head out of his rear, I’d kick him to the curb, and find another stooge.

To calm myself, I sat in a cracked and plastic off-white lawn chair, and strummed several songs by The Beatles on my Martin Rosewood Grand while smoking. The guitar was an heirloom handed down from my grandfather. Besides money, it was the only thing I cared about in this world. Twenty minutes passed, and my mind shifted to cashing in my chips. The first thing I’d do is fix my teeth. Chicks dig straight teeth. Thinking about ladies reminded me of the vacuum broad. Maybe she wasn’t a cop. Maybe she was a nymphomaniac. Maybe she went door to door fucking men. Hell, if Donny returned and found me bedding down with the vacuum lady, it’d teach him a lesson far more powerful than any beating.

“Did Sally come back?” Donny asked when he returned from his errand.

“If you ever invite a stranger inside again, or draw attention to us by slamming another door in this house, I will trounce the living piss out of you, and throw your ass to the curb. Got it?”

Donny didn’t like what I was saying, but I wasn’t running a feel-good resort. He stormed into the bedroom, and I returned to the lawn chair, my grandfather’s guitar, and the cigarettes. I was working my way through ‘Black Bird’ when somebody knocked on the front door.

“Who’s that?” Donny asked, reappearing in the living room.

“How the hell should I know?” I said, setting down my guitar, and tucking my gun into my waistband.

I opened the door, expecting a gorgeous blonde, but instead a tall, barrel chested man, wearing boots, blue jeans, a white collared shirt and a cowboy hat, loomed in the doorjamb, holding a massive vacuum. Before I could speak, he stepped passed me into the living room.

“Whooee,” the cowboy said with a whistle. “Damn if this ain’t the dirtiest rug west of the Mississippi. Like its been drowned in motor oil or something. Howdy partner, name’s Carl. I’m sure glad you signed up for our free carpet cleaning demonstration this evening because this floor will test the limits of a vacuum, but I tell you what. When you see the Hydro-Vac’s results, you ain’t gonna be able to refuse my offer, no way, no how. You’ll be so impressed, you’ll buy another one for your mama.”

“We don’t need a demonstration,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t have to use my gun. “Thank you. Be on your way.”

“Hold on there a minute partner,” Carl said, plugging the chord into the wall socket. “You know I’ll do you square. Won’t take but a few minutes, and I’ll have these badlands looking like the pastures of heaven in no time. They say you can’t polish a turd, but boy, I tell you what.”

“Where’s Sally?” Donny asked as Carl turned on the vacuum.

The Hydro-Vac sounded like a Boing 747 coming in for a landing. A torrent of hot air burst forth from an exhaust valve like jet propulsion, knocking Carl’s cowboy hat off the back of his head. His head was bald and lumpy with bright red patches on his scalp like cracks in a dry riverbed.

Ferral and Rachael came into the living room upon hearing the vacuum’s sonic boom. We gathered around the carpet’s perimeter, watching the cowboy work. Sweat dripped from his brow as he wrangled the mechanical beast. I figured he’d only plow a small patch of the toxic waste, but Carl pushed that cleaner up and down the entire width and length of the living room.

We pitched in, moving lawn chairs, so he wouldn’t miss any spots. The vacuum’s first attempt morphed the carpet from tar black to ash gray, but on the second flyby, the floor regained its original mauve luster. The cowboy arched his back, and stepped on the cleaner’s off switch. The growling motor slowed until silent. Carl wiped the sweat from his forehead, and searched for his cowboy hat. Donny handed it to him.

“Thanks boy,” Carl said, unplugging the vacuum. “What do you think? That was some clean job. I didn’t know the carpet was purple before the Hydro-Vac washed out all that crud, did you? Now it sparkles like new, and it’s all thanks to the magic of this incredible marvel of the modern world.”

“Carpet looks nice,” I admitted.

“Glad to hear it,” Carl said, reaching out to shake my hand, and exposing a massive sweat stain under his armpit. “This machine can be yours for eight easy payments of one hundred dollars, and you’ll never have to go back to living atop a tar pit again. Don’t that sound nice? I know you ain't got no vacuum in here. Take a hold of this beast.”

I didn’t want to touch the vacuum, but the slick-talking cowboy thrust the hose into my grip.

“Now you got the eighth wonder of the world in the palm of your hand.”

“I’m not buying this vacuum,” I said, handing him back the nozzle.

“That’s cold mister,” he said, tipping his hat back. “I bust my butt floating your floor, and you do me like that? How you missing out on this spectacular deal? Tell you what. Act now, I’ll knock fifty bucks off the price, and throw in a Hydro-Handheld for free.”

“I’ll pass,” I said. “Now if you’ll be on your way, I’d appreciate it.”

“Well shiit,” Carl said, looking around the room. “You play guitar?”

“A little.”

“Know any country?”

“Hank Williams,” I said.

“That’s my bread and butter.”

I strummed the chords to ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues,’ and Carl yodeled the lyrics.

“You sing in a band?” I asked when the song ended.

“Nah, just karaoke every chance I get,” Carl said. “You sure you wont buy this here vacuum?”

“Positive,” I said.

“Shiit,” Carl said with a sigh. “Just another no good, worthless, cheap ass, son of a bitch.”

“Pardon?” I asked, reaching for my pistol.

Before I drew, a shotgun appeared in my face.

“Fucking move,” Rachael said. “And I’ll blow off your goddamn head.”

“Nice work, baby girl,” Carl said. “Your mama raised you right.”

“This prick’s your dad?” I asked.

“I’m warning you. Don’t move,” she said. “You’re a real piece of shit. And I’d have no problem offing you.”

Carl slugged me in the gut, knocking me to the floor. It felt damp and smelled scented. He disarmed me, and kicked me in the ribs.

“Do exactly what we say. Be a shame to dirty this freshly cleaned carpet,” Carl said. “Not sure how well the Hydro works on brains.”

Rachael made Donny and Ferral stand in the corner with their hands up, facing the wall.

“Don’t kill me,” Donny said. “I don’t want to die.”

“Then cooperation is imperative,” Carl said.

“Yes, sir,” Donny said, peeing his pants.

The front door opened, and the vacuum saleswoman entered with rope.

“Hi mama,” Rachael said, and helped Carl hogtied me like a calf at the rodeo.

“Hi baby girl,” the vacuum saleslady said.

“Parents?” I asked Rachel.

“Yep, and Rachael ain’t my real name, neither,” she said in a southern drawl.

“And you’re not from Southern California.”

“I’m not from California, but I’m from the South.”

“You done good, baby girl,” the vacuum saleslady said. “Mama’s real proud.”

“So’s pa,” Carl said. “Be a sweetheart and gather up the goodies.”

Rachael or whatever her name really was ran into the bedroom, and came back with two large clear Ziploc bags filled with crystal meth.

“Well shiit,” Carl said. “You boys been busy. Now where’s the cash?”

“He knows,” Rachael said, pointing at me.

Carl kicked me in the chest, and smashed me in the face with the butt of my own gun.

“Start talking.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I said, dripping blood onto the carpet.

“What if I kill him?” Carl said putting the gun to the back of Donny’s head.

“Please don’t,” Donny pleaded.

“I don’t give a shit about the kid,” I said. “He’s the one let you in.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Carl said, pointing the gun at Ferral. “Where’s the money, or Dr. Weird gets a hole in his noodle.”

“I can find another chemist,” I said.

“Then what about this here guitar?” Carl asked. “Be a shame to break it on your head.”

“There’s an air vent on the floor in the bedroom. Unscrew the grate, and feel around,” I said, and Rachael disappeared into the bedroom.

Several moments passed, and Rachael returned with several large wads of cash.

“That it?” Carl asked, and kicked me in the ribs again.

“Yeah, now put down my guitar.”

“I said it’d be a shame to break your head with it. I didn’t say I’d put it down. Now don’t take it too personal. You got a hell of a clean carpet out the deal, and that’s something you can be proud of.”

“Come on little bro,” Rachael said, and Donny turned around.

“She’s your sister?” I asked.

“The boy’s good ain’t he,” Carl said.

“Thanks pa,” Donny said, shedding his California accent, and kicking me in the ribs. “Who’s ass whooping who, huh?”

“Least I didn’t piss my pants,” I said when the kicking stopped.

“I didn’t neither,” Donny said. “I used a bottle of water to make it look real.”

“Like I said, the boy’s good.”

“How about you Ferral?” I asked. “You related to these assholes?”

“No, but they got a real laboratory. No more working out the toilet for me.”

“Don’t get any wild hairs, and come looking for us,” Carl said as Donny stretched out a long piece of duct tape.

Sally removed the floor attachment to the vacuum. Rachael thrust the nozzle into my mouth, and Donny taped it to my head. Carl picked up my guitar, and put his cowboy boot on the vacuum’s on switch.

“Damn, this sure is a nice picker,” Carl said. “I power up the Hydro-Vac, and your lungs, stomach, intestines and soul become the property of this here vacuum. Last chance to buy this beaut. Got a hell of a suction.”

“Okay,” I said as best I could with a metal hose jammed into my mouth.

“Well shiit,” Carl said. “Looks to me like we got ourselves another satisfied customer.”

Carl raised his boot to stomp the vacuum’s on switch. I winced at the thought of my organs leaving my body in such a violent manner, but instead Carl stepped back, and strummed my grandfather’s guitar.

“She’s long gone, and I’m lonesome and blue,” he yodeled. “Awful fine picker.”

The cowboy and his family, my guitar, my meth, my money, and my chemist exited the house. Donny slammed the door. For a moment there was silence, but then the grinding sound of boots, walking across red rocks, crushed the skeletal remains of my American dream into an immaculate carpet.

Morgan Boyd used to live in Santa Cruz, California. Now he lives somewhere else with his wife, daughter, cat, and carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Tough, Pulp Metal Magazine, Spelk and in print at Switchblade Magazine. He also has stories forthcoming at Yellow Mama and Story and Grit.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

News You Can Use

Hi all--

Just a couple quick notes. Issue 2 2018 contributors, we're making final headway on the print version. The learning curve proved to be a bit steep, and there's going to be a slight drop-off in print quality. Issue 1 was slam-bang amazing and I am still learning the ins and outs of Kindle Direct Publishing and the Creative Suite software I used to design the thing. Have patience, please. This will be followed closely by Issue 3, as it turns out, one issue right after the other in an attempt to catch up.

 In other news, I have hired an editorial intern, my son Rider, who I homeschool, and who will make initial screenings of manuscripts and help me prioritize. Rest assured, when I say I'm working with him, we're talking laptops  open at the same time and conversation happening as he learns the ins and outs of Submittable and editorial work in general in preparation for his future. I am still reading and rejecting or accepting every story that comes in. As submissions increase and he gets more experienced, I expect he'll move into more of an associate editor role, during which time I'll probably take on another associate editor with related experience so we have a committee of folks working on reading submissions so that I can concentrate on editing, which is why I do this, after all.

We have stories and reviews scheduled weekly through mid-June, and the story queue is empty except for two stories we just now got, so feel free to send more for us to read. I feel perpetually behind, but that's a healthy development as the journal gets more submissions and more notoriety. We still aim to respond in fewer than 30 days, so feel free to query us if your story has not been read in that time period. It likely got lost somewhere in the shuffle.

Some statistics for you. I estimate we accept about in 1 in 7 stories, so your chances are good with us. We publish a lot of material. We respond personally, maybe 30% of the time. I wish we could do more of that, but sometimes it's not possible and sometimes it feels as if we're pouring salt into the rejection wound, so we err on the side of saying nothing at all.

We are always looking for reviewers and books, so if you have something you want to pitch to me, please do. I'd like to stay small-press-focused, but the fact is there are only so many small presses and many of them seem unwilling to part with mobi copies--our preferred review format--of their newish books so we end up reviewing the people who've appeared in the journal (as we should) and not much else. So hit me up, especially if you have a reconsideration of a genre favorite or genre neglectee deserving of more attention (aren't we all?). And in the meantime, we'll try to stay on top of the indie scene, keep our ear to the ground and bring you more reviews than ever.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Man Whom Prosperity Harmed, fiction by S. Craig Renfroe Jr.

It was a miracle. God sent His angels down to align the flipped Honda just so that the fence post pierced it in the driver’s side door but punctured through right at my lap, making a kind of safety restraint for the next two flips instead of skewering me as it should have. The days spoilt in Sunday school credited me this. Russell, thrown from the car, must have bounced softly against the angels rescuing me because he bent over to gaze scratch-less at me hanging upside down.

“Well, damn,” I said.

Russell rent the door open, and a shuddering went through me as the fence post slid over my thighs, the tip grazing my belly as it curved out its retreating arc.

“So you ain’t even hurt?” I asked Russell.

“Not my first one of these.”

“I didn’t know car wrecks was one of those things you get better at with practice.”

“Everything gets better with practice.”

I hopped a little with my feet too newly used to the feel of the ground. I thought maybe the old truck over on the road had stopped to help us until I realized it crackled and leaked and remembered that it was the truck I had hit right before we flipped. We’d decided to drive windows down through some of the backwoods counties on the border of North and South Carolina—I might’ve been speeding. The truck’s driver’s side was busted up pretty good. The window had shattered in on the man who struggled with the crushed door and steering wheel that were all up in him.

“Call 911,” the man said. “I’m hurt bad.”

“We did already,” Russell said. I was sure we hadn’t. Russell had a poison in him, so did I, but only the kind I put into myself, where his was there all the time, a poison he produced.

“You came out of nowhere,” the man said.

“We came out of Sumerville,” I said.

“You were flying. You drive like mad sons of bitches. If not, I would’ve had plenty of time to pull out.”

“What is that road?” Russell asked.

“My driveway.”

“Long ass driveway. How much land you got there?”

“Over a hundred acres. I need help, boys.”

“What’s your name?” Russell asked. “So we can tell the police.”

“Melvin. Shit, you boys are on something, aren’t you?”

“A few things,” I said.

“No, nothing, no,” said Russell.

“Goddamn it,” Melvin said. “I’m hurt.” He had stopped trying to get loose.

We all went quiet then out of respect or forgetting our lines. Or maybe I sat down. Or I went back over to the car to pee so it wouldn’t bother Melvin. I do remember that the radio was still on in the car to a talk show and the man kept using the word “irradiation.”

When I got back or I stood up or I started paying attention again, Melvin was saying, “My parents, they died in a wreck.”

“That shit’s ironic,” Russell said.

“Their boy dying that way.” Melvin coughed up wet. “Their boy.”

“He’s talking about himself when he says ‘boy,’ ain’t he?” I said.

“Their only boy?” Russell asked.

“Their only boy,” Melvin confirmed. “Where is that ambulance?”

“It’ll be along directly.”

“I hope I make it. But I miss them.”

“You live over there all alone?”

He nodded a cough.

“Want us to call your other family?”

“Got none. Their only boy. I haven’t made them any grandkids.”

“That’s all for the better,” Russell said. “Jesus told us to leave off with family. You didn’t see him making any more of us. It’s God’s desire that we just stop.”

“Is that a siren?” Melvin asked. There was no siren.

I had the thought that we would leave or should leave, but Russell said we should stick around like Samaritans. And I ain’t proud, but I got a bit bored.

“Why you didn’t have any kid?” I asked him to pass the time.

He stared up as if my voice had come from on high instead of right next to him. “I had it too easy. If that makes sense.” He coughed some then but went on and recovered. “Too easy to do what I wanted to do. So I did that.”

“Know exactly what you mean,” Russell said, though I wouldn’t have called his life easy.

“I should have made them grandkids.”

“Did you have room for them?” Russell asked. “Big house back there? Well off the road?”

“This road don’t get much traffic, does it?” I asked.

Melvin didn’t offer any answers.

“Pretty isolated still,” Russell said.


“That’s rare these days.”

“Hell, they got condos in Sumerville now.”

“Boys. I’m hurting.”

Melvin kept talking and begging and questioning and doubting and generally living till Russell pinched his nose and sealed his mouth with the palm of his hand. Melvin struggled some but gave in pretty quickly. At least I think so.

Russell had me help him push the pickup back up the driveway. It was hard too, with one of the tires rubbing against something, no matter how we bent the metal bunched there. Took us most of the day, but we had it well up the drive and away from the road. It felt good to work like that, the pressure in the muscles, the exertion. And where we stopped was a hill from which you could see Melvin’s acres, pastures left to grow and woods bounding the abandoned fields.

We walked all over that land. Explorers. There was a pond brown and near empty that squirmed with the fish that were doomed there. There was a shitload of trees, big ones with bunches of mistletoe and gnarled lumps like cancers on their limbs and trunks. There was a creek dried from the tearless sky. It was there that we found a huge rock that had been worked on, chiseled with compartments and troughs and spouts.

“Who you think done this?” I asked.


“Yeah. Indians. Or prehistoric people.”

“Prehistoric peoples,” Russell said, but it sounded better when he said it. “That’s what we are.” He took his clothes off, which wasn’t that unusual. He was a surprisingly small man but without shame. “No. We’re posthistoric people. They were the first, and we will be the last.”

I always thought Russell should have been a preacher, but he said it didn’t matter because he didn’t pay tax no ways.

I know you probably want to know what we did with the truck, with the man who had it too easy, with our own car crashed. But all honesty, I can’t recall. It must have resolved itself all alright. Memory’s a real nightmare that way, the things you do and the things you don’t. I have to hold a line sometimes, else I’ll tumble making assumptions about them things I don’t remember based on the things that I do.

Russell just took over Melvin’s land. He squatted in an outbuilding for months. At some point he moved on into the house, and the structure went feral like its inhabitant. The gutters drooped and some of the ends fell to the ground with other end still attached, as if the house were trying to use them to hold itself up. The mail that continued to come, like a meaningless promise, clogged the front hall where Russell discarded it once shucked seeking checks. The electricity went off, and the water followed suit.

I went out there regularly to help. I had watched my uncles build houses, so how hard could it be? Saws and thick red and black pencils and nails held in the mouth like chew and the dusted knees of men who knell. But no matter our intentions, the place grew dilapidated, and its disrepair deepened like the blackening spots on apples.

And inevitably when I’d visit, we would lose days. Russell could talk, and he could talk me into all manner of wickedness, but I can’t claim unwilling. These were the days I was waging a war on myself, my body the battlefield for some stupid skirmish between my vanity and the world that wouldn’t submit. I would ruin myself out spite before they could say I had tried and had not been enough. Russell gave me enough. But eventually, I would fight my way through a line of giants shining in the light of a flaming sword to find myself in a gas station eating Moon Pies one after another letting the wrappers fall on the floor. No one ever made me feel like myself like he did until I met you.

When I tell you this, I am three years sober. I am holding your hand because you have just told me that our baby still baking is a boy. I can’t stop confessing all my happy sins those nights and days when everything, even the pain, especially the pain, caused me a kind of religious joy. I keep confessing long since you have stopped returning the pressure of my grip, the fingers of your other hand pulled tight with the palm covering your bellybutton. Let’s consider the name “Melvin” is all I ask.

S. Craig Renfroe Jr. is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At (Main Street Rag Publishing Company). Currently, he is an associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte. Also, his work has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Puerto del Sol, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PANK, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @SCraigRenfroeJr.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, reviewed by E.F. Sweetman

Bad Boy Boogie
Thomas Pluck
Down & Out Books
352 pages
Reviewed for TOUGH by E.F. Sweetman

If dark crime thrillers of persecution, personal justice, and payback are your thing, Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie has them all, and more in this wild story of an ex-con’s return to his small hometown. When Jay Desmarteax comes back to Nutley, New Jersey to restart his life after serving 25 years for killing ruthless high school bully, Joey Bello, he finds that his folks have disappeared, his old friends want him gone, and his enemies want him dead.

Nutley is a small town outside of Newark, and is also, in Jay’s words,“a place to grow up, rich or poor. Parks to roam, ponds and streams to fish in, a pizzeria in every neighborhood…but a little too proud, a little unfriendly to outsiders….”

It is a narrow-minded place with close-minded people; full of secrets, and layers of corruption simmering just beneath the calm and ordered surface. The cruel aspect of being an outsider carries a lifetime sentence from which you can never really recover. What is more unjust, his best friends who remained in Nutley, end up with the same small-town mentality. They see Jay as a reminder of a past they want to forget.

The town and its people did not want him when he was a kid, and is not happy to see him back from his stint in Rahway State prison. His taxi home is intercepted by the Chief of Police with this message. “You never belonged here. We’d like to go back to living like you never existed. You’re a stain we scrubbed out of the mattress.”

Although Jay knows he should drive south, start a new life, and pick up the trail of his adoptive parents, Mama Angeline and Papa Andre, the chief’s warning is anything but a deterrent. Jay has served his time, he is back, and he does not care what anyone thinks. “I just want to find my folks, but now I’m curious why everyone wants me gone so bad. Feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know the punch line.”

In the true spirit of crime thrillers, when Jay Desmarteaux finds he is dealing with shady small-town politics, and a legal system that has become as corrupt as crime itself, he is unable to follow the advice of his old mentor, Okie Kinkaid: “the best revenge [is] living well”.

In returning to Nutley, Jay is rendered cynical by an unending cycle of violence and deceit. The rejection releases Jay’s tremendous grudge against the people and the town who left him to carry the entire blame for a crime he did not commit alone. Instead of retreat, Jay’s fight back begins with returning to his childhood home. Ultimately he is going to find his parents, but he wants answers first.

“Walking through his old house now inhabited by strangers felt like the impossible reality of a dream. The carpets replaced with polished hardwood, paneling torn out for bright pastel paint. Here and there the house he knew shined through...He padded upstairs to the master bedroom. (Papa) Andre had built a platform bed with a sunburst maple headboard, and the new owners either appreciated its massive beauty, or couldn’t be bothered dismantling it. Jay pressed the panel by the headboard. The wood eased in, then popped open to reveal a hideaway. Jay blinked at what lay inside the cubby. Two of the few things Jay had been forbidden to touch. The tomahawk Andre had taken home from Vietnam, and the combat knife with the finger grooves cut in the handle... Jay hefted the Lagana war hatchet’s worn hickory handle with reverence, his reflection warped in the hand-hammered blade, the edge scratched from field sharpening. A worm turned in his stomach, as if he could smell his parents’ fear. They had left everything…. He gripped its smooth wooden handle like he was squeezing Papa Andre’s hand.”

What Jay is really seeking is revenge. An antihero with a rough and jaded attitude, he has been used, terribly abused, abandoned, scapegoated, and cast aside. He was handed a life sentence for murder, and lost 25 years because his friends remained silent at his trial, all for “Joey Bello, a no-good rapist son of a bitch who needed killing.”

Pluck’s smooth writing style cuts to the bone, and he has created in Jay Desmarteaux a larger than life, a saw-toothed, scored-earth, sometimes humorous, sometimes lewd defender of street justice accountability. When a friend tries to talk him of taking revenge with reminding Jay that “you can’t fight those kind of people. It’s like banging your head against the wall. Only feels good when you stop.” Jay’s response is, ‘I got a pretty hard head’… and rapped his knuckles on his skull.”

Bad Boy Boogie deals with dark and disturbing matters, but it carries an equally satisfying amount of justice, because stories of revenge are fulfilling. The impulse to strike back against corruption and cruelty is wired deep-we can’t help but glorify an avenger who answers brutality with Jay’s level of ferocity, especially on issues of child abuse. His retribution is swift and thorough, and feels valid. Pluck’s tough-guy action is balanced with unexpected humor.

“‘They fixin’ to kill me Chrissie?’ The tremble in his eyes said enough. Jay threw his body into a liver punch, follow it by two more. Chris dry-heaved, face bent to the steering wheel. Jay stomped the accelerator and jerked the wheel toward the Benz. Oscar and Paul snapped their heads up as the truck veered their way. Paul waddled like Costello…Oscar did a funny little dance, stuck in place until the truck crumpled the Benz like tinfoil and punched it and him into the waves.”

Jay’s non-linear back story provides glimpses of his childhood that give disturbing insights into what has driven Jay to this high-octane level of retribution.“The taut clothesline ran from his swollen purple ankle to the leg of the sofa. The boy huddled under the sofa’s stained yellow arm. There he didn’t have to look at her. He dug at the knot with the carrot peeler. Crusted with blood. He had to get free before the Gator man came. Water dripped in the sink and tortured his dry throat. There was a warm glass of flat Coke on the other side of the sofa but he couldn’t reach. Not without crawling on top of the Witch.”

Bad Boy Boogie’s title is a tribute to the band AC/DC. “Back in Black”, “Problem Child”, “Live Wire”, “TNT”, and “Highway to Hell” title each section. In a guest post for Pulp Curry, Pluck wrote, “My favorite AC/DC songs work like noir tales.” And like the band’s lyrics, Bad Boy Boogie is on point; humorous, rowdy, loaded with working-class antagonism and pride. Pluck employs the same raw ideology in his story as AC/DC applies to their music.

This is not the last we will see of Jay Desmarteaux. Jay gets around. Pluck calls him “the walking Cajun shitstorm” who has appeared in several short stories, and will return in a follow-up novel where he will search rural Louisiana for his parents.

E.F. Sweetman is a writer living in Beverly, Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in MicrochondriaFunDead's horror anthology, and Switchblade Magazine, as well as upcoming issues of Broadswords and Blasters, and Econo Clash Review. She reviews noir, crime and thriller novels for both TOUGH and SPINE. Follow her on Twitter @EFSweetman.