Monday, May 27, 2019

Burning Down My Father's House, fiction by MIchael Gills

I once thought to burn down my father’s house. It happens like this: I’ve flown into Little Rock though everyone thinks I’m floating the Green as I often do, four days rafting from Flaming Gorge to Swallow Canyon, slaying calf-length browns on golden rapalas. I don’t seem to notice that my flight is traceable to my name or even if I rent a car and drive my credit cards will light up my tracks. Truth is, it’s hard to burn down your father’s house without getting caught. However I get there, I get there, and I’ve rented a car, and brought one of those 2.5 gallon red plastic gas cans like the one at home that has MOWER written on it in permanent black marker. That’s me, Mr. Mower. I’ve filled it to the brim, the gas can, and you can smell where it spilled in the back floorboard, hear it slosh at the J-Ville exit where I hang a louie toward Foxgrove Country Club where Daddy’s house is built off the front nine, where leaning against the garage is the hot tub Mama drowned in, his trophy.

It’s always late afternoon, when I break in, the refrigerator contents showing he hadn’t changed a bit, same six-month old Styrofoam tray of brown hamburger meat, fetid pasta, light beer, some bacon and a slice of country club cake in plastic from Foxgrove just down the way.

That’s not fair–Mama’s the one who let the hamburger go bad.

I smell him.

The musk from when him and Mama shared the same closet, his shirts and underwear down by the shoes, the green road suitcase from whence Mama once pulled a condom and baked into the Sunday meatloaf, made sure he got the right piece. I’d watched him put it into his mouth and make the discovery, look at Mama across the table, blue eyes hard as pond ice.

He hadn’t come from country club people. His daddy drove for ETW and C, and was a local driver who masked the whiskey on his breath with Certs, which he always kept in the front pocket of the Pendleton shirt he wore in winter, a white t-shirt in summer. I’d stayed with him and Evelyn the August Mama had Jimmy, and I’d missed her, silly six-year-old me, and had picked a bouquet of red tulips from his front yard for her, and he’d spanked my ass with a belt—for picking flowers.

Evelyn, his mother, she was a crazy drunk who’d offer you a pickle to kiss her, then she’d go in the bedroom and try to kill herself, so Daddy’s brother Chester’d have to drive her to the ER, and they’d sew her up or pump her stomach and she’d be home again, there on Thayer, across the street from a paraplegic who’d lay in the deep grass of his front yard, face up, so you could see his teeth. Daddy and Uncle Chester’d played baseball with his son, they’d talk to him and he’d recognize their voices, call each by name, tell a dirty joke.

Some Black Panthers had moved in up the street so Grandfather kept a single barrel shotgun leaned in every corner. I stayed there some nights—where they mixed and drank their whiskey I have no idea, I never witnessed a single bottle, not ever, but it was always on their breath, always.

They never got fall-down drunk, either, nor passed out or blackout, even. I could just always sense a difference, a glint in their eyes, hot brown like Chester, who’d go on to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals–go ahead, run his name–my daughter and I have, his ERA and win/loss record. Daddy’d played with Brooks Robinson, got his autograph for me at the Central High 40th where he and Mama’d attended a get-together of the Tigers and Doughboys,. Dear Joe, it says, could your old man ever throw the ball. And I guess he could, all those afternoon pitchout sessions on the new cut grass that stained the white cleats he’d bought me for Pony League, American Legion, rock and fire, he’d say. Rock and fire.

I’ve never actually seen the house I’ve come to burn down. So I haven’t really processed key points like where to park or registered who’s home and might eyewitness me amongst these neighbors, country club snoots who lay out at the pool then practice their pitching wedges on the practice green, their Ping putters in one gloved hand, the wedge in the other. And I’m the sort of person that makes people suspicious, always have been. Cop sees me driving down the road, on come the lights. And even once, when I’d showed up at the Utah Supreme Court because the Chief Justice, Don Dierling, who was a friend of mine, who was giving me the pick of his personal library before retiring, his wife Nina was late to meet me at the courthouse door and I’d stood inside the rotunda and the security guard got a look at me, and stood their glaring for a siloed minute until I couldn’t take it any more and walked outside. There came NiNi walking up, so I told her–about the security guard who’d glared, how I’d never been one time to court for a good reason. “You’re such a strange man, Joe,” she’d said, and I guess it was true–regular folk could smell it on my breath, the strangeness.

It was, of course, imperative that O.W. not see me. He was a smart motherfucker and without surprise on my side, I didn’t stand a chance. I was toast if he saw me first, and he’d know exactly why I’d come, had been waiting for a long time for me to so, probably wondering where the hell I was, what was taking me so long–didn’t I have a hair? Once I had some girls over and yes we had some liquor–small potatoes, peppermint schnapps, maybe, or Wellers, And I’d called FrostLand to ask for his ETA, when would he be home? And he’d called the house straight away from the mobile in his long white International, said, “You’re not having a party in my house. Send the floozies home. And you’d best take your booze back where you got it from.” Just like that. I didn’t say a word, sent the girls home, poured out the schnapps or Wellers or whatever I had. He could read me, O.W., see through the layers of my heart.

Maybe we had that in common–seeing though each other's shit.

Trace’s wedding reception was at Foxgrove, about close as Mama ever got to her Dream Wedding, a catered white cake affair after the June ceremony at First Baptist, where those tiny dents up in front of the pulpit marked exactly where Jimmy’s casket had sat when I bent over him that linked my heart and blood and love, even, directly to O.W., how he’d bound us together till flying through the windshield at eighty miles an hour on Highway 319 outside Vilonia, the shortcut I’d taught him back from UCA where I’d been first of us to dare college, and then he was gone and O.W. wept the way he had when his daddy died, and it felt like a heartbreak there is no healing from, one of those moments in life that seals your direction for good and ever. Yes, that was it, Mama’s lupus erupting full throttle, and it was only the Clinton Campaign in ‘92 and the man whose face was so like Jimmy’s that stopped her fall, so she’d let her guard down and O.W. had sleuthed it out, so her finalé was set. She drowned of a heart attack he’d said in the midnight call, so we never said goodbye, me and Mama, and for a long time she tried to contact me from the grave until I told her to shut the hell up and die, and she did, and I have not heard her voice in a long time.

The hot tub leans on its side beside the garage in the back yard, just like I’d dreamed it a half-dozen times. Of all goddamn places, they’d had it installed in Jimmy’s bedroom some years after the car wreck, the clothes hanging in the closet just like he’d left them that day before Mother’s Day when he died. O.W.’d insisted Trace have it hauled to J’Ville when she disinstalled the monstrosity, and there it sits, the abject tool of my mother’s death. Risking all, I pee on it for long as I can, crouched in shadow behind its back, the heat from it enough to melt my hand. Back home, my wife and daughter live their lives, the first of May already, a big ass snow storm dumping flakes big as hands, a foot of fresh powder gleaming up on Gobbler’s Knob.

No such luck here. Arkansas, May, the heat factor brutal already, ninety-five with eighty percent humidity, you forget that in Utah, the heat and the ticks and the fleas. Daddy’s air conditioner kicks on, the fan whirring. The pad where he parks his golf cart has oil leaked on it, little circles on top of circles. Odd, in my dream he’s electric. The back door is unlocked, I walk right in.

There’s a recliner as ever, a brick fireplace and on the mantel the photograph they’d had made without me–the full smug look on his face, his family at last, Trace, Mama, O.W. and blue-eyed Jimmy, bad, bad luck if you think about it, letting that picture get taken. And what a twist, here in J’Ville, where Mama’d met my blood father at the Base, his tight-fitting uniform and white teeth–the very town where I’m standing, the family photograph where I’m missing.

Upstairs in his bedroom, the master bath with its scales and poofy toilet cover, Trace’s touch, before she moved out with her boy, Dougie, the two of them across town in a trailer, she’d hit me up over the phone for first and last month’s rent. “Mama’d want me to help you,” I’d said. “Please don’t cry, please.”

The way he’d worked it, Daddy, was to mortgage his and Mama’s house for all it was worth–it’d paid off when she died, an add-on they’d signed for when they made the down payment–then put the whole load on the 25 Club Road property he’d once tried to talk her into buying before she cut him off her bank account. Our house, Trace signed papers for the full amount, and when she got behind they took it back, she lost the house, and had to move in with O.W., just across from Foxgrove, where her now deceased husband and her had cut the wedding cake with a silver knife that shone up front on the cover of her wedding album she’s left on the mattress of the bed that must have been hers before he kicked her out, O.W. So the house is gone with Mama’s ghost in her dead son’s bedroom, a whole lot of skeletons in that closet.

A green chair I recognized sat in the corner of the dark room, an air vent purring in the floor beneath it, the light mute through the draped window–it had hurt her eyes, there at the end, light, Mama. I got down on my knees and crawled behind it, the green chair from home, with nickels and pennies missing from my pockets, Jimmy’s under the cushion, bits of dropped food, stray pills. In the house I’ve never seen but know–what kind of arsonist, me?

Uncle Chester used to call me up drunk and tell me how it happened. I’d be half buzzed myself, so we were on the same channel, me and Chester. I’d take the call in my home office, built on the back of the house‘s back bedroom, Lara’s, and if it was summer, I’d ease open the back door and sit on the steps so the night air would ooze in, listen to him slur how it hadn’t been a suicide, it hadn’t been like it was for his mother. The most ferocious fight Id ever witnessed between two men had happened in our driveway when Chester’d called his mother a suicidal bitch and Daddy’d hit him in the face, and then all hell broke lose, both of them heavyweights, over six feet, two forty or so, they beat the living shit out of each other when I was ten or so, so Mama’d had to call the police. She took me inside, but I could hear it through the window, the unearthly sound of fists on flesh, I’d never dreamed one man could hit another so hard, both of them bloody-faced, their fists dripping, the sound of, through the glass, bap, bap, bap, a sick sound that turned my stomach and never completely let me be again.

He’d helped, Uncle Chester. Taken over O.W.’s rig in Rocky Mount, made the delivery, played his brother to the T. Mama’d never seen it coming, or had she? He’d threatened it plenty. Trace had found her a full day later. Back to his truck, he’d called to say she wasn’t answering the phone, that he was worried, how he’d so feared the day she didn’t answer his call. I’d been down in Florida that day, June 14, and the call’d come after midnight–Mama’d drowned of a heart attack–how on earth to know that before the autopsy? We’d stolen our rental, made the two day drive to the funeral where he wore the fierce blue suit Mama’d bought him. The gravedigger’d called asking where the plot should be dug–in the goddamn ground, he’d answered. I’d said that if the gravedigger was a smart man, he wouldn’t be a gravedigger, and he’d looked me straight in the face, then turned to Chester: dumb truck driver, he’d said, and smiled just a little, which seemed strange to the lost and forsaken soul I was at that moment, me.

“That took a brave man,” Chester’d told me the last time we talked. He’d be dead himself inside six months, “Standing up there speaking for your mother. I could never do it.”

He was sorry about the whole thing, Chester. He wouldn’t do it again for anything. Then he died and daddy paid the same funeral home director who’d done Mama to do him. “Oh my,” she’d said the moment we met. “You have her skin.”

All week in Florida, I’d burned at the beach.

“I’ve got some cream that will help that.”

Hidden behind the green chair from our old living room, the whir of his golf cart, the opening of the back door grounded me in the here and now, cold vent air on the small of my back, dark enough now for the nightlights to be on outside. He pissed, long and hard in the first floor toilet. All those years he’d take me in with him to roadside honkytonks, where they’d set me out a Coke in a little icy bottle, a pickled egg or a Slim Jim, and the sawdust from the shuffleboard table shone in the smokey air, everything neon and aglow. Music would be playing, honkytonk blues bled into swing. I’d follow him to the john that reeked of PineSol and piss, the sugar-sweet aroma of hangover shit. Everybody, just about, loved or feared him. Is there any difference between the two?

Of course my heart beat hard–I’d always feared him, was only ever comfortable when he was on the road and Mama’d make spaghetti and garlic bread, then he’d walk in and she’d make him a platter and the diesel’d idle all night out on the drive.

The stairs gave beneath his weight, groaned and creaked. He’ll know–I know he’ll know–blood of Row Magnon in his veins, B-negative, rarest in Arkansas, used in ER transfusions for any type, remnant DNA from the ancient meat-eating hunter. He’d know and he’d kill me, I’ve come here to die, that’s what I thought, and he leaned his head through the doorjamb, sniffed, a little phlegm in his sinuses. He could be the stillest man, a snake gazing slit-eyed before the strike. The fear in my throat now, an inch from announcing myself: I’m here to burn your house down, O.W. Go ahead and kill me. Fucker. Do it.

Then he was gone, and after a while my heart settled some. In my father’s house are many reminders of who I am, who I’m not. How I got that way. How much time do I need to consider?

From the door opening into the master bedroom, it is five steps, fifteen feet, to the bed where he lay on his back, face up. I could hear his breath, how it rattled some in his chest. Until he got Jesus, he’d been a smoker, Pall Mall, the red package, he’d smoked in bed, maybe that’s how the first house went, him in bed smoking, thick-headed with beer, falling asleep, the butt on the floor, a tissue ignited, then the bed sheets, the whole two-story wood frame gone in an hour, he’d made it out in his underwear, found a hideout key to the Pontiac and driven to Uncle Earl’s down the road. We’d been in California then, and when we got back him and Mama sifted the ashes with window screens, looking for something to tether them to the lives they’d just lost.

He’d turn eighty on Friday, O.W. His birthday, Mother’s Day, and Jimmy’s death day all rolled up into a trifecta from hell. In a sweat lodge time and space disappear. Prisoners duck out of jail time when they enter inipi, a portal to the quiet place within. I found out after Mama died when I was sick and lost, and a man I’d only known peripherally had poured a healing lodge for me, channeled Mama’s last moments, her voice, even, it came out of his mouth. He’d beat me with eagle’s wings, spat in my face, sang the Lakota words to lay the dead to rest, to make them leave you be, a long way, this journey home.

“What did she love?” the medicine man asked.

“Ice water,” I said, “Mama loved ice water.”

A heavy sleeper, O.W. doesn’t budge when I tie his feet to the posts of the very bed where Mama was conceived, that distant time in Danville before the calamities began, not so far from where they’d followed the Trail of Tears down from Henry County, Tennessee, and homesteaded the Solgahatchia bottoms where Mama lay now behind the iron gate that squalls when opened in a field of brown-eyed Susan.

He does not complain when I tie his hands nor insert the washcloth in his mouth, the silver slice of duct tape across his shaven face, one blue eye opening, and then the other, so he knows, we both know.

There was a time after Jimmy died, when O.W. and I were close–you could say we loved one another–and, like everything else about my people, such manifested itself in ways that bend belief. We were living in Greensboro then and sometimes O.W.’d roll through in the middle of the night on his way to the drop in Rocky Mount, call us from the truck stop out off the freeway, so we’d drive out to meet him, have a cup of coffee, a piece of coconut creme pie the Flying J was known for. And this one time, we’d talked about Mama, how hard it had been for her–Jimmy’s car wreck and the funeral, the endless string of holidays to remind her of it all over again. Just then, that time daddy rolled in around midnight and rang us on the phone, she was off in Jamaica having the affair that would get her killed, and I believe Daddy’d figured it out, and that he was wondering if I knew, if he could learn anything from me. Hurricane Hugo would plow through that September, barrel right through the truck stop and blow it down. For a while the highway’d close and O.W.’d sleep on our couch and we’d generally get sick of each other for good and ever, but that hadn’t happened yet.

We loved each other.

I was his only son.

And of course I had no idea about what was going on with Mama–how could I? And by the time we’d finished with pie he must have been satisfied to know that. He picked up the check, said to follow him to the truck, he wanted to show us something.

Renee had work the next morning–her school, Southeast Guilford, had just started and there was a new principal, she had to toe the line.

We were tired. It was past bedtime. We followed him, zigzagging rigs idling in the ten-acre parking lot to his white International, with its hundred-fifty-foot refrigerated trailer.

He unlocked the padlock, unbarred the doors, climbed up into the trailer of turkey carcasses framed in harsh light. What’s he doing? Renee asked. I didn’t know. Then he spun on a bootheel, under the garish light of the frozen room, a twenty-five pound slaughter turkey hanging from either hand, that wry smile I’d come to know from the moments when you could tell he was proud of himself.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said, stepped out and gave each of us a dripping bird. “Early.”

Renee said, “He can’t do that.”

“Oh yes he can” I said.

He nodded--held my eyes with his own. We were on the same page, me and O.W. Those godawful brawls when Uncle Chester called Evelyn a suicidal bitch, when he’d do all in his power to kill his brother, this is what that was about, standing up for your mother. What was wrong with me? his eyes asked. What had taken me so long? Get with it, kiddo. Get her done.

In my rearview, the roof bursts into flame, engulfing the trees and the garage and the goddamned hot tub that leans beside it. The great conflagration roars through the country club and the dipshit driving range, takes aim on the Air Force Base with its endless barrage of cargo planes that rattled our light fixtures during Sunday prayers. Behind me back there the whole goddamn lot of it goes up, the highest flames up to Solgahatchia by now, a column of smoke and flames you could see from the moon. They consume the sorry gate’s final squall, and it is done.

But, of course, it can’t end that way, the movie my mind makes. Hadn’t Trace called to say that Daddy’d lost the house, that he was into the final stages of dementia and repeated the same phrase over and over, she didn’t know why? It was making her crazy. If I wanted to ever see him alive again, now was the time.

Caught in the eye of the fire of my making, I cried out help me, Jesus, help me, Renee shaking me to wake, it’s okay, everything was okay, wake up now.

“What does he say?” I asked her before we hung up that very last time, “that makes you crazy?”

“Rock and fire,” she said. “I have no clue.”

From that place where the paraplegic man lay on his back in deep grass, his teeth shining, recognizing our voices from afar, where were Black Panthers and suicides and the older you get, the smarter I’ll be. He would have me love him even now?

Rock and fire, O.W.? Rock and fire?

photo by Austen Diamond
Michael Gills is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel WEST (Raw Dog Screaming Press,March 2019) and the forthcoming visionary memoir, FINISTERRE.His short story collection The House Across From The Deaf School (Texas Review Press, 2016) was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction and won the 15 Bytes Utah Book Prize. Other work has won the Southern Humanities Review’s Theodore Hoefner Prize forFiction, the Southern Review’s Best Debut of the Year, recognition in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, inclusion in New Stories From The South: The Year’s Best, and numerous Utah Arts Book Prizes. His undergraduate novel writing workshop has been featured in USA Today, and several of his students have gone on to publish books of their own. Gills teaches for the Honors College at the University of Utah, where he lives in the foothills with his wife, Jill.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Submission Guidelines and Pay Rates Change

Please note that submission guidelines and pay rates have changed. As of  June 15th, 2019, we pay a $35 flat rate for stories and reviews, but we will only publish three times per month. We have experienced a significant uptick in submission numbers, so response times are no longer predictable or short, though we still aim to get responses back within a month of submission.

Also, though we qualify in other respects, as of May 2019, Tough is unable to pay on acceptance, so MWA eligibility is not possible and stories published in Tough will not be eligible for MWA honors. We're sorry about this, but see no viable alternative unless a relative shit-ton of money falls into our, meaning my, lap. Tough is funded from my pocket and from sales of the periodic anthologies, and that's not likely to change.

 Thanks for your interest, and for reading thus far, and for supporting the journal.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Nick Break, fiction by M. L. Joy

Larry counted out change from his Crown Royal bag and slid each coin across the sticky bar toward the bartender, Paige.

She read his dispirited expression. “It’s okay Larry. I don’t mind the change.”

He minded.

She brought him a draft in a plastic cup, just as a young girl plunked an empty pitcher on the bar next to him. “Can I have another pitcher, please?” She didn’t look old enough to drink. Pink plastic barrettes held long blond hair out of her face. She smelled of bubblegum and baby powder.

Paige swept up the pitcher and left to refill it.

The girl tilted her head sideways and looked at Larry. “Hi.” Her smile was so broad it should have hurt her face. Her pupils looked like brown M&Ms.

Larry nodded politely, said hey, and then went back to watching the news on the silent TV with text along the bottom he couldn’t keep up with.

She extended her hand. “I’m Chelsie.” A perky cheerleader introducing herself.

All the other bar stools were empty. Why plant herself next to a guy old enough to be her father? Grandfather even.

“Good for you,” Larry said, not looking at her. Why encourage her?

Before he had to endure any more chirping from Chelsie or pay the price for being rude, Paige was back with a full pitcher. The girl left with her beer and Larry turned to watch her skip, literally, back to her friends who were playing pool.

There was a time when Delaney’s was for an older crowd. Men mostly, who sat at the bar watching sports on TV and minding their own business. Back when a beer came in a real glass. Not anymore. Every time he came in Larry wondered why he didn’t find somewhere else to go. Change was hard.

“What the hell was that about?” Larry asked.

“She’s tripping on something,” Paige said, smirking.

Drugs made sense. “Where do they get the money for that shit?”

“They all have jobs, but they also live with mom and dad.”

Larry left home after high school. For better or worse, that’s what his generation did. Some went to college. He went into the service. That’s where he learned to weld and fix heavy equipment, which kept him in work until a couple of months ago. Construction was down.

“Their parents spoil them if you ask me,” Larry said.

Paige crossed her arms over her breasts. “I live with my mom, Larry.”

“Your mom needs you at home. Do you do drugs?”

She shook her head.

“No. I don’t think you’d disrespect your mom like that.”

Paige smiled and patted Larry’s arm. “I’ll get you another beer, Larry.”

Larry looked down at the inch of beer left in his cup. “I’m okay,” he said. He only had change for a couple more and didn’t want to go through it too quickly.

“I’ve got it, Larry.”

He didn’t like that either. His lack of cash was temporary. Tomorrow he would weld some Dumpsters over at the landfill and make enough for his weekly rent with some left over. After that, he’d make the rounds to the construction guys and heavy equipment rental places he’d done work for before. It would work out. He’d go look for work in Miami or as far north as Tampa if he had to. He’d be okay.

A chorus of “Mary” erupted behind Larry. He turned and watched a fireplug of a woman strut the length of the bar waving as if she were in a parade. Some might call her short, white-blonde hair butch, but even an old-timer like Larry knew a haircut was no way to judge a person these days.

She sat at the bar a respectable distance from him.

“What’s going on, Paige?” Mary already had her chainsaw wallet open, flipping through the bills.

“You tell me,” Paige said.

Paige’s frosty tone was usually reserved for guys she knew were going to be trouble.

“How about a whiskey sour?” Mary said.

Paige made the drink with little enthusiasm or comment, then placed it in front of Mary.

Mary slid a bill across the bar. “Keep the change.” She hopped off her stool and went over to the kids playing pool. They exchanged more greetings and hugs.

“You want to know where they get their drugs,” Paige said, leaning on the bar, “there you go.”

Larry grunted. Used to be drug dealers came in two versions: the dressed to impress dude who was doing you a favor, and the back-alley heroin-chic guy with one foot in the grave. Mary looked normal.

“I’m not a fan, but there isn’t much I can do about it,” Paige said.

“Call the cops,” Larry suggested.

“She and my boss are buddy-buddy. I think he trades her his extra pain pills for Viagra.”

Larry had OxyCodone from when he injured his back. He wondered what they would be worth. He took a swig of his beer.

“Larry?” Paige studied him. “Are you okay?”

Of course, he wasn’t okay. He was sick of living on the edge of being homeless day-in and day-out. When he was twenty, he could pretend it was an adventure, but now he was over fifty it was miserable.

“I’m fine. I didn’t thank you for the beer. Sorry,” Larry said.

“No big deal,” Paige said, but there was doubt in her voice. She didn’t believe he was fine, but that was okay with him.

Paige went to check on another customer while Larry snuck a look at the group by the pool table. The kids were not good pool players and seemed to be having too much fun. Mary was on her phone. She headed toward the bathrooms with her palm over her ear. Larry followed her.

Mary was still on the phone when Larry reached the bathrooms. He shuffled a little in hopes she’d end her call so he could talk to her.

She smiled and greeted him with a nod as he approached. Larry mustered a smile. Then she turned her back to him. He didn’t want to look like a creep and didn’t want Paige to see him waiting, so he veered into the men’s room.

He stood at the urinal and undid his belt. He didn’t have to go, but if he stood there long enough, he might. After a few minutes, he felt stupid. The entire idea was stupid. He tightened his belt, flushed and turned to the sink. The water was always cold. He looked past the band stickers covering the mirror. He needed a shave. His crewcut and the gray stubble on his sun-weathered face were almost the same length. He looked run down. Not a surprise. He felt rundown. He dried his hands and opened the bathroom door. Paige hovered outside.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“I need someone to watch the bar while I pee,” she said.

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Don’t go behind the bar.” She punched open the ladies’ room door behind her and disappeared inside.

“No problem.”

Larry checked the rest of the place for Mary, maybe she was still in the bathroom. He could ask the overly friendly girl, but he couldn’t remember her name, and he wasn’t sure he had the energy to deal with her enthusiasm. Eventually, he just sat in front of his beer and decided her disappearance was a sign he shouldn’t be dealing with her.

Paige came back, and they watched the silent TV while he finished his last beer. He left her five dimes and gave her a wave as he pushed away from the bar and headed to his truck. The parking lot was dark, and the air was still warm and sticky. Winter temperatures had not hit South Florida yet, but the heat would break any day. As he pulled his keys out of his pocket, he noticed the glow of a cigarette near his truck. He didn’t have anything worth stealing, but a frustrated thief could be more dangerous than a happy one.

Mary stepped out from the darkness, exhaling white smoke. “You wanted to talk to me?”

Larry’s answer stuck in his throat. Did he still want to talk to her? Was this a path he wanted to take? He should wait. He had a job welding Dumpsters, and that would hold him over. He felt the weight of his Crown Royal bag, or more specifically, the lack of weight.

“I was just wondering. . .” he said.

“About what?” She flicked her cigarette ten feet across the parking lot. The lit end wobbled through the air like a firecracker.

Larry’s chest ached. He gripped his keys in his fist. “Oxy,” was all he could manage.

“You want some?”

“I have some.”

Mary stepped closer. He could smell the cigarette on her. “How many?”

“Fifty. Maybe more.”

She whistled.

“I didn’t like them.” He didn’t know why that mattered. He swallowed. His mouth was so dry.

“You a cop?” She squinted up at his face.

“No.” Larry gave her a nervous smile.

“What you’re proposing is illegal. You know that?”

Larry nodded. He knew very well the trouble he was getting into.

“Times are tough. I know. You just need the cash.” She looked him over. “Got’em with you?”

Larry shook his head. Why would he carry medicine around he didn’t take?

“Okay. Can you meet me here tomorrow night?” Mary pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket in her cargo shorts.

Larry thought of Paige. “Not here.”

“No problem.” She lit a cigarette. “Ever go to The Beach House?”

Larry knew it. Tiki-themed with live reggae music. Touristy. He would never go there. “Sounds good.”

“Ten o’clock. Around the back. Okay?” She started to walk past him toward the bar.

“How much?” Larry asked.

“A couple bucks a pill.” She waited as if he might want to negotiate. What did he know about what the price should be? That was a hundred dollars he could use. “See you tomorrow night,” he said.


The Beach House, as its name suggested, was down on the beach, and it was a longer drive than Larry remembered. The small parking lot was filled with sedans, rental cars based on the barcode stickers in the side windows, and a few pickups and Jeeps with big tires, obviously locals. Most of the bar traffic came from the hotels within walking distance. He parked at a bank a block away and walked back. It was almost 10 p.m. according to the clock on the bank sign, so he didn’t have time for a beer, even if he could afford one here. Reggae music thrummed from inside and gained volume every time the door opened. He felt for the bottle of Oxy in his pants pocket, then stepped to the side of The Beach House, and trudged in sand to get to the back.

Like most buildings built near the beach, The Beach House stood on eight-foot stilts. The front used lattice to hide the ugly space under the bar, but the back had no such façade. The telephone-pole-sized beams, with their black pitch and graffiti scars, stood sentinel over the trash and recycling bins. Beyond that rolled a dune of tall seagrass and the dark expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. Mary wasn’t there yet. He still had time to get back in his truck and leave. Forget the whole deal. With his luck, he would run out of fuel on the way home. He waited. A breeze crept lazily from the ocean. It did nothing to cool the air, but it made it smell more of sea salt than beer-bottle swill.

Mary came from the opposite side of the building, the tip of her cigarette visible before she was. She lifted a hand to acknowledge him. Larry nodded before realizing she probably couldn’t see him in the dark.

“Hey, Bud. You by yourself?” Mary asked.

“Just me.” As if Larry had backup.

“Did you bring me anything?” She dropped her cigarette in the sand, stepped on it and moved into the light.

Larry pulled out the amber-colored pill bottle. “Fifty-six,” he said.

“That’s fine.” She pulled a stack of folded bills from her pocket. Larry could not see the exact bills in the dark, but they couldn’t have been organized by denomination. She shuffled through the wad like a bad typist.

“What have we got here?” The voice made them both freeze. A bald man’s face appeared in the dark as he lit a cigarette.

Larry lowered his hand to hide the pill bottle. He didn’t know why he just had a feeling. The one you got when things get more complicated and not in a good way.

“Hey, Boss,” Mary said. She stuffed her cash back into her pocket and turned to face him.

“I was in the neighborhood.” The closer the man got, the bigger he became. He wore a biker vest, with a white tank top underneath and jeans.

“I was just making a deal,” Mary said.

In most cases coming face to face with the Boss made you stand a little straighter, but Mary’s reaction went beyond that. Her voice shook, and she rocked on the balls of her feet as if she were ready to run.

“Is that what you were doing?” As the man got closer, Larry could see the tattoos covering his arms.

“What else would I be doing? He’s too old for me to be doing anything else,” Mary said laughing unconvincingly.

This was none of Larry’s business. He should leave this for them to work out, but he hesitated. Was he now responsible for her just because he had a few pills to sell? What could he do to this guy, besides being a witness or a victim?

“I saw the pill bottle, Mary.” He studied Larry as he said this. Larry looked past him, trying to remember if there were something nearby he could use as a weapon.

“It was nothing, Darrell. It’s just a few pills he wants to get rid of.” Mary’s voice was softer. Purring. Pleading.

“I thought we agreed all buys went through me.”

Larry took a step back.

Darrell’s fist came from nowhere. Larry’s head twisted to the right from the impact, and he dropped to one knee. It didn’t hurt as much as he expected, but it took him a minute to get his eyes to line up again.

“Where are you going, old man?” Darrell asked.

“What the fuck, Darrell?” Mary stepped forward, but Darrell gave her a shove and knocked her to the ground.

Larry wanted to tell him to leave her alone, but before he could say anything a biker boot struck him in the ribs and sand sprayed his face.

“Give me the pills,” Darrell said.

Larry looked down at the pill bottle. They represented a month of groceries to him. It was nothing to this ass-hole. Why fuck with him over this? Larry reached for the pull bottle. He could toss it and run. Darrell had made his point. He would let Larry go. Larry wasn’t sure what it was, him getting dumped at work or his constant struggle to survive since, but he grabbed a fist full of sand instead. As he got to his feet, he threw it and charged the larger man. He gripped Darrell’s leather vest while the man’s hands were still protecting his face and drove him backward until his back slammed into a stilt. Darrell’s breath came out in a grunt.

Darrell grabbed the neck of a clear liquor bottle from an overflowing bin of recycling and swung it. It struck the side of Larry’s head. The thunk was hollow and out of tune. Larry dropped to one knee, the left side of his face on fire with pain. Darrell’s arm swung down for another blow. Larry tried to lift his arm up to block it, but a shooting pain in his chest made him pull it back down. Then everything went black.

Larry reached up to weld a stubborn rear door hinge on a 40-yard roll-off. The shooting pain down his side reminded him of the events the night before. He had woken under The Beach House, music still thumping above him, no sign of Darrell or Mary. He then skulked back to his truck and had driven home thankful he was alive. This was a lesson to him not to get involved in crap like that. But his lapse in judgment wasn’t what gnawed at him. Why did Darrell need to rough him up? For what? Make an example of him? Who was Larry going to tell? He couldn’t go to the police because he would incriminate himself. Darrell had to know that. Larry had gone over it all day. The only conclusion he could come up with was Darrell did it because he could. Thinking about it distracted Larry from the pain, but every time he worked through the scenario it made him angrier. When he finished his welding, he collected his money and headed to Delaney’s.

He sat outside the bar for a long time, drinking beer he bought at the Circle-K by his apartment and eating a McDonald’s burger a pinched piece at a time. His jaw hurt like hell. He wanted to cross paths with Mary and find out what he could about her boss Darrell, but she never showed. Around ten, a young kid shuffled up to the front of the bar and waited. His pants hung off his ass, wallet chain down to his knee, his arms as thin and pail as the straps of his wife-beater. A guy in a landscaping shirt and pants came out of the bar to meet him. They did an exchange, cash for a plastic baggie. They didn’t even pretend to hide the drug exchange. Was this dealer Mary’s replacement? Had Darrell taken her off the street because of Larry? Or had he taken her out permanently? Suddenly the burger wasn’t sitting well in Larry’s stomach, and his beer had gone warm. He needed to take a piss.

Larry pulled at the latch on his door just as a black Escalade drove up in front of the young drug dealer. He yanked the door shut, luckily his dome light hadn’t worked in years, and waited to see who the driver was. The dealer rounded the front of the SUV, holding his pants up by the crotch. The tinted window of the Escalade slid down as he approached. A tattooed arm reached out and grabbed the back of the kid's neck in greeting. The knuckles had fresh cuts on them. Larry’s intestines started to wriggle. It was Darrell.

Larry inhaled and forced himself to exhale slowly. This was what he had wanted, to find Darrell? What now? He felt like he was going to shit his pants. Which made him want to stick with it even more. He could follow Darrell, but then what? It wouldn’t accomplish anything if he got his ass beat again.

Darrell drove off, leaving the kid standing in the middle of the parking lot. Larry turned the key in the ignition, but the old truck did nothing but complain. He turned and watched Darrell stop at the exit, then turned the key again. He stomped on the accelerator, swearing under his breath. The truck thought about denying him again, but then it came to life. Larry checked if Darrell’s drug dealer had noticed the roar, found him talking to a customer, and pulled out to go the opposite direction. He didn’t want the kid to get suspicious or too good a look at him. He got onto the main drag using another exit and end up behind Darrell’s SUV, with two cars between them. Larry let out a sigh of relief. He could do this.

Darrell’s process was efficient and eventually predictable. He would pull into the parking lot of a bar, one of his people would come to his driver’s side window, they would exchange pleasantries and sometimes a knapsack or envelope. Luckily most of the parking lots were full and Larry pulling in wasn’t out of place. A couple of times Larry drove past and waited on a side street a block or two away to keep from being too obvious.

Around two in the morning Darrell drove inland on a county road for thirty minutes, away from the coastal bars and plazas. It seemed he was done with his collections. Larry’s gas gauge needle rode on empty, and he spent half the time second-guessing if he should give up and stop at a gas station. He hadn’t prepared to follow the guy all over hells creation. Finally, he decided to look for a road or driveway to turn around in. He would have to try again another night. Then Darrell’s brake lights came on.

Larry pulled his foot off the gas. His stomach pressed on his bladder. Did he notice someone was following him? Did he live out here?

Darrell took a right off the main road, and his Escalade disappeared behind some trees lining the road. Larry coasted slowly past the spot. One hundred feet off the road was the entrance to a Zip Storage. The automated gate was already opening. Larry watched as Darrell drove through the gate, turned left down a row of gray corrugated storage units, and stopped at the end of a row. Larry turned off his lights and coasted to a stop. Darrell got out of his SUV, unlocked the orange garage door, and rolled it up. He disappeared into the darkness of the unit for a moment, then headlights came on, and a silver luxury 4-door sedan pulled out and past the SUV.

When Darrell went back to the SUV. Larry pondered why Darrell had changed into a suit and tie as he watched him back the big black vehicle into the storage unit, then shut and relock the door. When Darrell reentered the sedan and drove toward the facility exit, Larry decided this was as far as he wanted to follow the drug dealer. Larry pulled back onto the road, moving away from the storage facility entrance, watching his rear-view. In a short time, Darrell sped away in the opposite direction. Larry kept his headlights off. There was enough moonlight he had no trouble seeing the road. Once Darrell’s tail lights were gone, Larry executed a 5-point turn in the middle of the narrow road and headed back toward the Zip Storage.

He should call the cops and have them raid Darrell’s storage unit. Could they get permission to do a raid on his word alone? He didn’t think so. Besides, he’d have to tell them why he was following Darrell in the first place and that wouldn’t make him look good. He supposed the best he could do was make some trouble for Darrell himself.

Just before Larry reached the Zip Storage entrance, he found an access road that ran along the back fence of the facility and backed into it. He wasn’t sure what he was about to do, but it was probably better if his license plate wasn’t facing the road. He stepped out of his truck into the muggy night air, grabbed his portable tanks and tool belt out of the bed and slung them over his shoulder. The aluminum tube gate blocking the access road was padlocked, but like most gates out in the county, it was meant to keep vehicles out not people. The fence post by the gate was so loose he barely had to move it to squeeze it and the fence.

The grounds of the storage facility were brightly lit, but the lighting didn’t spill past the security fence. It looked like a prison yard. The house where the caretaker lived was at the other end by the gate. Larry approached the chain-link fence behind Darrell’s unit. If there were cameras, he didn’t see any. There was a small strip of pavement between the eight-foot fence and back of the storage building. Larry used his bolt cutters to cut an opening in the chain-link and stepped through. He dropped his gear at the base of the wall of the storage building and knocked lightly on the corrugated siding. What a beautiful sound. He couldn’t remember the last time he was this excited. He slid on his gloves and welder’s goggles, turned the knobs on his acetylene, and lit the end with his striker. Flame shot from the end as the acetylene ignited. He squeezed the blast trigger and adjusted the oxygen until he had a perfect blue feather.

The torch cut through the metal siding like a snake through water and about as straight, but Larry wasn’t looking to make it pretty. He made a small oblong notch the size of a mail slot, extinguished his torch, and lit the inside of the garage with his flashlight. Nothing was in the way, so he relit his torch and started cutting a larger opening, using the slot as a handhold. While he was cutting along the bottom, he heard voices. He quickly extinguished the torch and listened. The voices came from the front of the building.

“I’m going to need coffee if we’re going to drive all night,” a male voice said.

Larry heard a garage door roll open. He held his breath. It was the unit next to Darrell’s.

“Freakin whaaa. It’s gonna be worth it,” a second man said. “I talked to Bobster today, and he says the Snook are big and hungry.”

“They better be, or I’ll fall asleep on the boat.”

There was the clank of trailer connecting with a hitch.

“Why did I invite you again?”

“Because your wife wouldn’t let you drive alone.”

“Just hook the chains and connect the taillights.”

Larry waited for the sound of the garage door closing and then listened as a truck drove away. Once he was sure his visitors were gone, he went back to cutting the opening in the back of the storage unit. After the top, bottom, and right side were cut he pushed the metal siding to the left like a screen door. He shined his light inside. The back of Darrell’s black Escalade dominated his view. Along the back wall was a workbench piled with pill bottles of all sizes and colors, cell phones, and computer equipment. Underneath the bench was a generator and several black trash bags stuffed to capacity.

Larry squeezed between the back of the truck and the workbench and shined his light on the pill bottles. If he could find his pills, he could take them and go, but there were so many. He picked up a bottle that looked like his and read the label. It wasn’t his, but more importantly, it was empty. He picked up another and shook it. Empty. Another. Empty. He swore under his breath. He grabbed a flowered backpack just behind them and emptied the contents. Plastic bags of pills fell out along with several rolls of cash. He stuffed the cash into his front pockets. If he couldn’t find his drugs, he would take the money he was owed.

Farther down the workbench was a bill counter like in a bank. He was disappointed to find it empty, but next to it was a black gym bag. It was unzipped. He peeked inside and found it full of banded bills. Orange for ones, red for fives, yellow for tens, and violet for twenties. It was impossible to count how much there was. There were more orange and red bands than yellow and violet, but it would be enough for him to get out of town and start over. He zipped the bag and headed toward the back-exit he had created.

Larry stopped with one foot out of the storage unit. He wanted to do more. He wanted to make Darrell pay more. Then he noticed a half-dozen black garbage bags hanging from the rafters. He tossed the duffle out with his tools and stepped back into the storage unit. He shined his light up. The rectangular shapes pressed into the black plastic were unmissably bundles of money. It was much more than Larry could carry, but he bet Darrell would miss it if it were gone.

He went back to the workbench and shinned his light underneath. Now those black trash bags made more sense. Showing up at a bank with trash bags of cash would certainly draw unwanted attention, so Darrell was forced to hide it in storage. Larry looked around the generator and found a red plastic 5-gallon gas can. It wobbled in his grip when he picked it up. It had plenty of gas for what he wanted to do. His adrenalin ran high again.

He tore open the money bags under the workbench. This money was not banded and he poured gas inside. Then he doused the length of the workbench as he moved over to the hanging money bags. He untied the nylon rope for each and lowered them to the ground. He tore one open. Lots of banded cash just like he thought. He pulled his T-shirt over his mouth. The gas fumes were getting thick. He poured gas in five of the bags, then dragged the sixth out with him. Heck with starting over, this much cash would set him up for life.

Once outside he took a couple of breaths to clear his head. This was going to be a fireball. He couldn’t move all his gear in one trip, so he left the garbage bag of cash and moved everything else past the fence to the edge of the woods. He came back with his striker. The fumes coming out through the back door he had cut were fierce. He covered his mouth and nose with his shirt and moved quickly to the bags next to the SUV and lit the farthest one with his striker. The second and third bag ignited on their own and Larry rushed outside for safety. Black smoke billowed out the rear opening. He reached in over the workbench and squeezed his striker. The gasoline ignited and traveled along the workbench to the bill counter with a satisfying whoosh. The light of the flames reflected off the back of Darrell’s SUV. That’s when Larry noticed the bound hands pressed against the glass of the rear door.

He didn’t hesitate. He ducked in beneath the flames eating away at the workbench. His gloves protected his hand as he reached for the rear door latch on the SUV, but he could feel the hair on his arm curling as it singed. He was thinking “please, don’t be locked”, as he yanked on the door latch. The rear door swung up but hit the edge of the workbench and stopped. A pair of pale hands fell out of the small gap, bound with a black tie-wrap. The left side of his face and ear felt like they might start to bubble at any moment. He dropped onto his belly. From there he could see how little space he really had to squeeze the body through. It made him think of cats and the small spaces they could get through.

He grabbed the hands and pulled. The arms came easy, and Mary’s white-blonde head appeared, but then her shoulders became jammed between the bumper and door molding. He wasn’t sure if she was already dead or just unconscious, but she wasn’t in a position to help him. Wood cracked and popped above him. The bags of money under the workbench ignited, blowing charred paper and plastic in his direction. His eyes burned. He turned his back against the heat and positioned his hands to push and pull at Mary’s torso. He might dislocate something, but at least she’d be alive.

She dropped out of the SUV like a newborn calf. Her hips landing on his chest and her shoulder into his groin. That knocked more than just the wind out of him. The inhale of burning air sent him into a coughing fit. He watched through tear-filled eyes as Mary looked around, realized the situation, and looked back at him, her eyes wide. Larry yanked his strait-blade from his belt and cut the tie-wraps binding her hands and feet. Then he used it to point toward the opening in the back wall. They both crawled to the exit and out into the clean night air.

They both lay on their backs gasping.

“What the fuck, old man?” Were her first words.

He didn’t answer.

Mary watched as flames and smoke poured from the opening Larry had cut in the back wall of the storage unit. “Darrell is going to kill you,” she rasped.

Larry suspected that was true. “We should move back before the SUVs fuel tank blows,” he said.

“Sure,” she agreed.

Larry got up and when he turned Mary was already on the other side of the chain-link fence, and she had his black garbage bag of money. She wasn’t the same woman who strode through Delaney’s. Her confidence replaced by a rabbit-like posture as if she might bolt into the woods at any moment.

“That’s mine, Mary,” Larry said stepping to the opening in the fence.

She took a few steps back. “Darrell’s actually.” She seemed younger somehow.

“You gonna give it back to him? Get back in his good graces?”

She shook her head and gave him a look like that was a stupid idea. “Fuck him.”

“I saved your life,” Larry added inching toward her.

“And I appreciate that.” She moved back maintaining the distance between them. “I really do. Now I’m going to save yours. If Darrell finds out you did this, he’ll hunt you down. This way I can make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“With all that cash I could--"

The force of the blow hit Larry from behind and lifted him off his feet. He reconnected with the ground a few feet away and skidded on his chest another yard. Large sheets of corrugated metal dug into the grass around him, and smoldering pieces of paper drifted in the air like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. He scrambled for cover in the woods. His gear was still there. Even the black canvas bag of money. He searched for Mary’s body in the grassy strip between the woods and the fence. The light and smoke of the flames made it impossible to see more than a few yards. Maybe the blast didn’t hit her as hard. Maybe she got away.

He listened for sirens, they had to be on their way, but the roar and crackle of the fire consuming his surroundings drown out any other sounds. The groundcover to his right caught fire. The nearest tree erupted like a neglected Christmas evergreen. Flames jumped up to block his view of Zip Storage and spread quickly to each side of him. He snatched his tanks and tool belt away from the encroaching flames. In moments he would be surrounded. He looked down. Flames danced on the black canvas bag. The money inside was his chance at a new beginning. He grabbed the handles with his gloved hand and headed toward his truck. The handles snapped after two steps and dropped to the ground. The bag still burned on one end. Larry stomped the flames out, grabbed the body of the bag and started running through the woods as best he could.

He placed the tanks and tools into the bed of the truck. As he tossed the canvas bag onto the front seat, he realized how light it was. In fact, it was empty. The burned end was completely open and had allowed the money to fall out as he ran. He looked back into the woods. The fire had claimed the path he had taken out. There were several of his bills hanging onto the brush next to the gate. As he thought about going back for them, they burst into flames and disappeared. A sign he should be satisfied with getting out alive.

Larry hopped into his truck and dug into his pocket for his keys. His fingers hit the wad of bills he had stuffed there. He had forgotten about it. He pulled out the second money roll from the opposite pocket. Not a windfall, but between the two he could get by. He stuffed the cash into his Crown Royal bag on the passenger’s seat. His truck started on the first try. He pulled onto the pavement, passed the Zip Storage entrance and headed back toward town. He knew there was a gas station at the intersection a mile ahead, along with a sign for Interstate 75. With any luck, he would be halfway to the state line by sunup. He had heard construction was on the rise in Atlanta.

M.L. Joy is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Creative Writing program and a board member of the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, where he is the co-chair of their annual mystery writing conference, SleuthFest ( He is a professor of English at Florida SouthWestern State College and equally at home behind a drum kit as he is a teaching podium.