Monday, June 17, 2019

Bad Luck Opal, fiction by Joelle Lambert

The trooper’s lights flickered behind our van. That was it. Curtains. Just like that, all in one instant the operation was over. All of our time, money, and effort went out the window. It was out of my control. I couldn’t breathe.

“Dava, this whole time I’ve been nothing but a getaway driver to you.” Allie said, pulling onto the shoulder of the highway. Had she been speeding? She was nervous, too. Her hands trembled where she gripped the steering wheel. We were only ten miles from the destination.

“You know that’s not true,” I put a sweaty palm on her thigh, “Play stupid. You aren’t going down with me.” My attempts to breathe felt like knives in my stomach as I watched the trooper approach the window.

“License and registration,” he demanded, taking the documents back to run the info. I looked at Allie but her gaze was elsewhere.

“How could I be so stupid?” she said, “I’ve been blinded by my feelings for you, how much fun we have, how high we always are.” Allie pushed my hand away and got out of the car.

The trooper, seeing her, demanded on his speaker, “Stop what you’re doing and put your hands up!”

“Allie, what are you doing?” She pulled open the backdoor and rummaged through our belongings. I watched the opal ring on her finger glimmer in the harsh light of the sun. She just had to have it.

Turbo had warned me about a lot but he hadn’t prepared me for this. What do you do when your partner in crime completely snaps? This wasn’t in the script. I hadn’t known Allie that long, after all.

I met Allie when she started bartending where my buddy Turbo bounces. Although I think Turbo wanted to shoot his shot, I had taken a liking to Allie and found her completely irresistible. She had pouty lips, a stern gaze and thick thighs. All of her attitude and curves were wrapped in an eclectic style of thrift-store cable-knits and harem pants. She was sassy and audacious and soon she was hanging out with me and Turbo all the time.

We liked Allie a lot. She was good company; liked to drink, smoke, and play euchre. It wasn’t a surprise that she fit in with our circle of friends.


It wasn’t long before Turbo and I trusted Allie enough to show her the scorpion lab. It was originally Turbo’s little hobby that I had later become part of. Turbo bred a new species of scorpion and was extracting its venom to sell on the black market.

“Scorpion venom is the most expensive liquid known to man.” Turbo said, revealing his operation to Allie for the first time. Our collection was up to 87 scorpions. Turbo had been extracting and collecting venom for years. Allie closely inspected the glass tanks, tools, beakers, and piles of paperwork.

“This is the freakiest shit I’ve ever seen.” Allie looked closely at the scorpions and back at us in disbelief.

“Want to hear something even freakier?” I said, “These little monsters are going to make us rich.” I walked her around the lab. “This machine milks the venom. It’s a very delicate process.”

She scanned the entirety of the lab in silence. Her eyes were wide like a surprised child tasting sugar for the first time. She watched the crawling scorpions in their individual tanks.

“A gallon of this stuff is going for 40 mil. Liquid gold.” Turbo said.

“I never would’ve expected this out of you two,” she said.

“I am a firm believer in throwing people off my trail.” Turbo said.

“But, poison? You’re going to sell the venom? To kill people?” Allie said. Turbo and I chuckled.

“This venom is going to Michigan to a lab where it will be used to make medicine.” I said, walking closer to Allie and offering her my hand. I looked at her and worried that this was a mistake. I hoped she wouldn’t rat us out.

“Dava and I want to know if you’re willing to help.” Turbo said.

“This is all unauthorized, unregulated?” she asked, gripping my hand. “There’s five million dollars cash in it for you if you can drive me and the venom from Albuquerque to Michigan.” I said. She held my hand but her eyes were off dreaming, calculating in the distance.


Turbo taught me everything I know. From selling pot and pills in high school to growing mushrooms in college, Turbo was a very thorough mentor. The name of the game was covering all your bases, preventing anything that could possibly go wrong. Have plans. Have lies. Have backup. Turbo was neck-deep in investments and these scorpions were his cash cow.

“People trust female drug dealers way more. They’re not intimidating and usually pretty reliable. There’s one downfall,” he said, “their emotions run stronger than their greed.”

Allie was resistant to get on board. She asked a lot of questions. We almost lost her participation entirely when she got mad at Turbo for ordering supplies to her house.

Before leaving, I went to Allie’s to beg for forgiveness.

“I told you, I’m out. Drive the venom yourself.” she said.

“You know I can’t do it alone. It’s a 24-hour drive with no stops.”

“Make Turbo go.”

“Turbo has done enough leg work and now if you want a cut, you have to help, too.” I said. I looked at her and wondered how it had come to this. Allie looked broken. She had lost the glow that attracted me to her in the first place.

“What is something you want? Anything you want? A vacation? A house? A car? Whatever you want just name it and I can make it happen.” I said.

She sat and thought for a while without saying anything.

“I’ll give you equal parts of my cut.” I offered. Still, she was quiet.

“A ring,” she said, finally.

“A ring?”

“An opal ring. With rose gold accents.”

“Okay. Yes, great! An opal ring. Rose gold accents. Whatever you want, just please, drive me to Michigan.”

“Fine.” And we shook on it.


Allie and Turbo packed the van together. I counted my savings to buy Allie a ring from one of Turbo’s friends. I knew after tomorrow I could buy anything I wanted.

That’s how after 24 hours of driving, we ended up in a shoddy shack on the outskirts of Flushing, Michigan. We were there to buy an opal ring from an eccentric, old man who made us put our cell phones in his turned-off oven. Booger, he called himself. Figures, Turbo only dealt with the best in the business.

“Ya just never know who ya can trust,” Booger said, scratching his patchy cheek-fuzz, “wire taps get smaller and smaller. Come on in, meet the old lady, this is Pendle.” Booger gestured to an equally scruffy looking lady-hippie sitting on the couch. She was watching Harry Potter on a tiny TV.

“Have a seat, I’ll fetch your ring.” Booger disappeared while Allie and I sat down on the opposite side of the room as the one called Pendle. I sat on a plastic lawn chair and Allie took the flattened beanbag.

“Have ya’ll ever heard of the Anunnaki?” she asked. We shook our heads, no. “Ya’ll don’t wanna know,” she whispered, clearly disturbed yet she didn’t take her attention off of the movie.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” she said, “The Anunnaki are coming.”

Allie looked frightened and I felt guilty for putting her through all of this. She deserved this piece of jewelry, a treasure of my affection. I put my hand on her thigh for reassurance.

“Here it is.” Booger said, presenting the ring to Allie. She leapt up to retrieve it.

“Oh my gosh, it is absolutely gorgeous,” she said, easing it onto her finger.

“Rose-gold ring, Australian opal. $500. That’s a family discount right there since yer a friend of Turbos.” I handed Booger the money knowing that in just a few hours, a couple hundred would seem like chump change.

“We appreciate it more than you know.” I said, standing to leave.

“Hold up, ya’ll wanna smoke some opium?” Booger asked. Pendle snapped to attention, her eyes finally left the TV with the offer of drugs.

“No, thanks, we’ve gotta get going.” Allie said, looking terrified still.

“DMT?” His eyes widened, and I suddenly thought of my grandpa. My grandpa used to offer me Doritos and Mountain Dew. I never imagined hearing someone offer me things like opium or DMT. It seemed exotic somehow.

“No, thanks, really. Just our phones out of the oven would be great.” I said.

“The ring is really lovely. You do amazing work.” Allie said.


We scurried excitedly out of Booger’s house and I wanted to run, laughing, straight to the van. I looked at Allie and her face looked as if she had just gotten off a rollercoaster. I grabbed her hand and kissed it.

“Hey, watch the ring,” she said, and I shoved her playfully. We weren’t done yet. It was ten miles to the address Turbo coordinated. We fired up the van and headed to the destination once again.

My emotions swirled through my stomach and shot from my lips to fingertips. It felt like a windmill in my stomach was sending electricity to my appendages. I looked at my girl. Her fingers danced on the steering wheel. Her ring glimmered in the sunlight. Allie was happy. It all felt like a success far too soon.

“Dava,” the urgency in her voice pulled me from my daydream, “That car is following us.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“110. They’ve been behind us since Booger’s place.”

“Find the nearest highway.” I said, “Drive around a little before heading to the address.”

The onramp was right down the road. I watched the car that was following and urged Allie to focus on the road. We merged on and the car didn’t follow. They kept driving. Allie picked up to the speed of the highway and I could almost catch my breath in relief.

“Don’t speed. Just drive normal until we make it there.”

When I saw the trooper pull out and catch up to us, I knew it was all too good to be true. My hands started to drip sweat. My tongue went numb.

“Dava, there’s a cop.”

“I know, I see it. Just chill.” It all happened so fast, I couldn’t think clearly. It could’ve been a routine stop. Allie snapped. She wouldn’t listen to me.


“Allie, get back in the car.” I said. The trooper ran toward her. Allie started throwing all of our belongings out of the car and onto the highway. Boxes, clothes, magazines, snack wrappers, make-up. “What are you DOING?” I got out of the car and tried to pull her away. She had completely lost her mind. “Allie, stop!” I charged toward her.

The trooper restrained me and called for backup while Allie kept ripping through the van. She spilled a container of hair gel, tore open a box of cereal and then she got to it, the gallon jug of venom. We had it in a milk jug, no disguise, just the groceries it was packaged with. We were just two innocent girls on a road trip.

“You don’t care about me, Dava! You’re stupid and selfish. It’s always all about you!” Allie screamed at me as she poured the jug out at our feet.

I cried as forty million dollars seeped onto the highway. The trooper restrained Allie just as backup arrived. Turbo would never let me live this down.

“Some domestic drama and littering.” he said to his partner. “We’re gonna have to take one of them in.”

“It’s my fault.” I said, “I upset her. It’s all my fault.” The troopers looked at me, Allie, and the mess on the highway. “Allie, I’m sorry I’ve been a crappy girlfriend. I don’t want to upset you ever again. This should be a lesson learned.” Allie started crying, but I couldn’t console her. They cuffed me, mumbled about paperwork, and shoved me into the car.


I only served seven weeks of my eighteen-month sentence for conspiracy.

Someone had posted my twenty-five-thousand-dollar bail. A plane ticket was waiting to take me from Michigan back to Albuquerque.

I looked for Turbo, who I’d assumed would be picking me up. He was nowhere to be found. Outside, Allie was there.

“Dava!” She embraced me, “I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry for everything. I never should’ve gotten you into this mess.”

“Relax,” she said, “C’mon I’ll give you a ride--

“No, wait.” I said. Taking her hand, my fingers touched the metal of the opal ring, “I never meant to make you feel like I was using you as a getaway.” I smiled. “You still wear it?”

“Of course. I’ll take you wherever you wanna go,” She said. “Milkshakes?”

“Maybe after we go see Turbo. Is he mad?” I asked. We got into her car and sped away, down the desert road.

“He’s not mad.” She said, turning on the radio. “Actually, he has a surprise for you. Check out what’s in the back.” On the floor of the backseat was a very plump duffle bag. I slowly opened it to reveal stacks of green money.

“How? Where did you get this?” I asked.

“You really don’t know?” Allie laughed.

“I watched you dump the venom.” I said.

“They never found the real jug of venom. I dumped a decoy I planted. Well, Turbo planted.” Allie’s valiant smile relieved me of the guilt I had felt.

“A decoy you planted? It was all an act?” I asked.

“Your bail money is coming out of your share. I’m just kidding, we split it into equal parts. About 12 million each, after taxes.” She winked.

“Rookie. I’m impressed. I’m speechless.” I put my hand on her thigh and watched her fearlessly drive us into the desert evening.

“I am a firm believer in throwing people off my trail,” Allie said.

“Sounds familiar.” I said, thinking of my friend who taught us everything we know. Allie was happy and we were prosperous. We sped into the Albuquerque sunset together, toward Turbo’s house. After all of this, I was relieved and excited to see my best friend.

Rainbow rays glimmered from Allie’s ring finger.

“Want to hear something funny?” she asked. “My mother never let me have opal jewelry growing up. She told me it was bad luck to wear if it’s not your birthstone. It’s intoxicatingly gorgeous, isn’t it?”

“That’s what you picked to wear on our biggest adventure yet? Something presumed bad luck?” I asked her.

“Even though people do crazy things for beauty, I think it’s all superstition. Meeting you was the best luck I ever had.” She smiled at me with glowing radiance, more beautiful than all the opals in the world.

Joelle Lambert is a certified, holistic practitioner and the founder of Dirty Girls Magazine. She is an undergraduate student at Youngstown State University where she was awarded 2018 Outstanding Creative Writing Student of the Year. Her work can be found in Volney Road Review.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Laird Barron's Black Mountain, reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Black Mountain
Laird Barron
G.P Putnam's Sons
Reviewed by Paul J. Garth

There are several scenes in Black Mountain, Laird Barron’s second crime novel, that see the protagonist of Barron’s series, Isaiah Coleridge, reflecting on a life lived in the shadow of inescapable death. The Shade has always been waiting, Coleridge recollects deathsheads and cosmic gloom as constant parts of his life.Through the course of these recollections, peppered throughout this gloriously plotted, violent, and fascinating novel,  Isaiah reveals he’s done what most men cannot: instead of attempting to escape the shadow of death, he’s felt himself drawn to it. In Alaska, Coleridge’s former home before a mob-enforced exile, the two were joined as seamlessly as night falling over a distant, darkened peak.
When we first met Coleridge, in last year’s Blood Standard, this past before exile from the Outfit was only hinted at, shown in asides tossed between mobsters and mentors, quips made to button men, white supremacists, and mercs who had made the mistake of trying to intimidate Isaiah while his feet were still wet in a new setting, but the genuine weight of Coleridge’s past experience was mostly mentioned in asides or as window dressing to let you know how dangerous Coleridge could be. Blood Standard is a good book, a haymaker introduction to a wonderfully complex, caring, yet hostile new character operating in a non-traditional location, written by one of the last decade’s most exciting writers. Like Isaiah, however, there were times when it felt as though there was a component missing, some piece of the puzzle that had not yet been formed and placed. In short, it was very close to the book readers had imagined when they heard Laird Barron was trying his hand at writing noir novels, but not quite the whole.
Black Mountain changes that. In Black Mountain, all the pieces cohere, and Barron places each one meticulously, including some new ones, revealing something exciting, elemental, dark, and formidable. Black Mountain, in a just world, would put the rest of the crime fiction world on notice.
Set close to real time, Black Mountain sees Coleridge, still off his game by a step or two after working through the investigation in Blood Standard, hanging out a shingle as a PI. When his former associatescome to Coleridge looking for help tracking down who might be responsible for a made man ending up headless in a local lake, Coleridge takes the case.  Through his investigation, Coleridge is thrown into a shadowy world of almost mythological hit-men, sinister corporations (including one that longtime Barron fans will relish seeing again), mob politics, femme fatales, bloodthirsty mercenaries, and dysfunctional families.
In lesser hands, Black Mountain could read like something overly familiar, a mix between Red Dragon and a Quarry novel, perhaps, but Barron eschews cheap plot twists and the know structures of the genre, preferring to take the story to new, stranger territory. That Coleridge’s ensuing search for answers is expertly plotted and ultimately leads to dark truths will not be a surprise for anyone who has previously read Barron, but what may be surprising is how organic and natural the investigation is. Isaiah Coleridge is not a trained detective, and he is certainly not a detective with enough experience to find someone even the FBI has spent years looking for, but he is tenacious, and he knows how to make people talk. Add in a deep personal insight into others and a doomed sense of self, and you’re left with a fantastically unique, even more deeply fleshed out protagonist in his second outing, one more comfortable with animal cunning than any kind of traditional investigative logic to lead him to the next inevitable step. Again, in less skilled hands, this would feel like a cheat, a series character being right because the plot demands it, but Barron is better than that. On occasion, he lets Coleridge fail or be wrong (this seems to be a theme with Barron and Coleridge--the fallibility of the investigator--that some may find off putting but others will think lends a level of authenticity to the proceedings). By working the clues and relying on his confidants, including an FBI agent who passes along critical but confounding information, Coleridge soon finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy both larger than most presented in noir fiction, and also one that is much more deadly: The Croatoan, Coleridge’s quarry, is ruthless, brilliant, and, the wiseguys whisper, potentially supernatural. A serial killer created by private corporations and the alphabet soup of nameless government agencies, the Croatoan is literally pulled from the innards of the earth, and just as Coleridge is hunting him, the Croatoan hunts Coleridge.
     The plot of Black Mountain is fast-moving, intricate, expansive, and mysterious, but the major achievement of the novel is the atmosphere Barron creates, infecting the reader with some of Coleridge’s own sense of predetermined cosmic doom. The prose in Blood Standard was good, but it sometimes felt as though it had been muted or toned down, focusing more on birthing Coleridge’s voice than the prose style Barron was previously known for, but in Black Mountain, the two elements have been joined beautifully,  establishing both a mood for the novel, an outlook for Coleridge, a sense of dangerous psychogeography with the setting, and a cold and brutal sense of impending death for everyone involved. Take, for example, the following scene, in which Coleridge investigates a warehouse in which the Croatoan might have worked decades before:
Hush prevailed as I moved inward and reached a set of doors marked RECEIVING. Old, old metal doors with metal handles. The left door was painted crimson, the right black, and, to either side, brick walls pallid as a dirty eggshell. The doors had been frequently repainted; a detail that inexplicably heightened my disquiet. Whatever had transpired in this area in the ‘60s and ‘70s lingered as a dim, psychic taint.  
All the above paints a picture of Black Mountain as a grim, death-obsessed book, but though the novel is made up of those elements, and though they are thematically necessary, such a picture would not fully capture Black Mountain as it is, as, amongst all the darkness, there are moments of light, as well. The supporting cast of the Isaiah Coleridge novels was perfect from the beginning, but they take on new life here, including shading Coleridge’s sidekick, Lionel, who, though he is almost as dangerous as Coleridge frequently behaves like a funny lovelorn teen; Devlin, a precocious kid who lights up the proceedings;  Meg, Coleridge’s girlfriend, who delights in Coleridge and whose affection for him is contagious, yet she still relishes giving him a hard time;  and an ever-evolving set of mobsters and wiseguys,  all of whom seem to be as interested in throwing zingers as they are making money, committing crimes, and figuring out who killed their compatriots. In addition, there are scenes with Coleridge that move from blackly humorous to just flat out hilarious, including an encounter between Coleridge and a would be intimidation squad that somehow manages to be laugh out loud funny between all the gunshots and broken ribs.
Laird Barron has been writing professionally for almost two decades now, and his body of work is deep and full of incredible stories, but the move to crime fiction has given him a second life, stretching his skills and unique understanding of our world onto a genre that seems ready made for him. Asked a year ago what stories best showcased Barron’s talent, I may have replied with a long list of personal favorites: “Bulldozer”, “Hallucigenia”, “The Imago Sequence,” “The Broadsword”, “Occultation”, “--30--”, The Croning, “The Men from Porlock”, “The Redfield Girls”, “Hand of Glory”, “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees”, or “Frontier Death Song”.
     Now, the answer is simple: Black Mountain. In Isaiah Coleridge, Barron has perfected a series protagonist who, though their survival is (mostly) assured, still plumbs the depths of genuine noir. This is the book crime fiction, a genre sometimes known for treading water, needs right now. This is, so far anyway, the best series crime novel of the year.

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 finalĂ© 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.