Sunday, November 24, 2019

Something I Can Never Have, fiction by Tom Andes

When Brady first realized his wife Amanda was making hay with his work buddy Patterson, Brady was with Patterson and their other friend Frank, and they sat talking over the jukebox in Molly’s at the Market, a dive they frequented on Decatur Street when they were in New Orleans on business for Bayer. The waitress looked tired, the same weariness Brady had seen in Amanda the morning he’d left Bossier City. She’d stood in the doorway with their daughter Katie, something in his wife’s face he couldn’t read. Now—with a tock like a Louisville Slugger slapping a Wilson baseball over the Green Monster, the leftfield wall at Fenway—when Brady caught a whiff of Patterson’s cologne, he knew. A few weeks ago she’d come home smelling of cheap Ax body spray: the same scent Patterson, next to him blowing smoke rings, wore tonight.

Brady twisted the thin gold wedding ring on his finger, staring at the other rings, cigarette burns that marred the varnished tabletop, that smooth façade. When the waitress set his Tin Roof Juke Joint IPA in front of him, he murmured his thanks. No doubt, she’d been propositioned by a hundred drunken guys from out of town, and she must hate tourists like them: the buttoned-down suburbanites who went to Bourbon Burlesque, yet, for all that, were hopeless squares, registered Republicans with boats in their yards.

She touched his wrist. “It’s Mary, if you need anything.”

Patterson started before she’d even walked away. “Looks like Brady sees something he likes.” He dropped his hand on Brady’s back, like they were still best buds. Frank laughed, a barking sound, and Brady felt sick at the prospect of ending up like that: a graying cuckold, trapped in middle management at 50. According to the rumor mill around the office, and Patterson had confessed as much to Brady one night, Patterson had nailed Frank’s ex-wife, too.

Rage burned through Brady like flame through a stack of old Sports Illustrated magazines, from his guts to the top of his head. He fought the reflex to elbow the traitor in the chin, imagined shattering his trachea, Patterson clutching his neck and wheezing while he fell across the room, knocking over tables like bowling pins. Brady forced a grin at his coworkers, the people he’d have called his two best friends. In town for a conference to learn the new accounting software, and he swore that by the time they went home on Sunday, he was going to confront Patterson. Would he have the balls?

“Don’t touch me,” he said, and Patterson laughed. Frank did, too. Probably glad Patterson wasn’t picking on him for a change. Blood rushed to Brady’s face. Only Patterson’s hand moored Brady to his stool. It was August, hot. Inside his collar, sweat stung the razor burn on his neck. Mary brought a second round. Bad skin, like she’d had acne when she was a kid. She covered it with too much base. Still, something about her made Brady feel safe, like he’d be a different person—happier, less boring, not the kind of guy whose wife would pork his best friend—if he could’ve gone home with her. Crooked glasses. Her cheeks dimpled, the neckline of her dress plunging down to the freckled tops of her breasts. Maybe 25—not that you could be sure in this light. She moved between tables, greeting the customers as if they were friends.

Brady took a pull from his Tin Roof, slurping foam from his lip. The jukebox played a Nine Inch Nails song he remembered from Milford High back in New Hampshire—that slow one with the piano from Pretty Hate Machine, “Something I Can Never Have,” which he’d listened to on repeat with his first girlfriend, Shelly Clevinger, hot and heavy with her in the back of the old man’s Chrysler Town and Country. You make it all go away went the song, but what would kill the pain of betrayal—Amanda’s, or Patterson’s?

“Faggot,” Frank said, but he wasn’t talking to anyone. “Limp-wristed fanny-lancer.”

Hadn’t smoked in 21 days, but Brady had a wicked craving, like always when he was getting his drink on, so he reached for one of Frank’s Marlboros and his Bic. Dizzy after the first few drags, and he smelled Patterson’s cologne, same as he had on Amanda, he was sure of it. Helping himself to one of Frank’s cigarettes, Patterson exhaled, holding the butt at a distance from himself, as if inspecting it—so in control, Brady wanted to cold cock him.

“I’ve always been able to put it down,” Patterson said—needling Brady, trying to get him riled, and succeeding at it. “I’ve never understood people who actually have to quit.”

The son of a bitch. Ten years Brady had known Patterson, since moving to Bossier City to take a position in accounts receivable at the North Louisiana plant, and most of that time, even if Brady should’ve known better, he’d trusted Patterson, despite the fact he skimmed from the petty cash at work, inflated his expense account, and had banged Frank’s wife, too. Easy to give him a pass on that stuff because he was a wild man, the kind of dude you wanted to hang with because he made everything in that hick town where they lived fun, the smartest guy in the room, and he’d never done Brady dirt because they were buddies—never, at least, until now.

“Maybe you should lay off.” Brady caught a buzz from the butt. His scalp tingled. His guts churned, like he had to shit.

“They say it’s a genetic thing, the addictive personality.” Patterson spoke in a deep voice, like he thought he was on the radio. “Guess it doesn’t run in my family.” His cheeks hollowed as he sucked in smoke—the hypocrite. Last time they came to New Orleans, he’d bought a bunch of coke from a guy he’d met in the john at Siberia, a heavy metal bar on St. Claude, and Brady had done it with him, sure—couldn’t take the high ground about that. “Might not have another one all year,” Patterson said.

Brady couldn’t stand being provoked anymore, and his stomach was clenching from the nicotine buzz, like he was going to have diarrhea, so he fled the table. Festooned with Saints paraphernalia, the hallway to the restroom was barely wide enough for two people to pass. He pushed open the door to the men’s, smelling the urinal cake. Tried the stall, but it was locked. He was going to crap himself, but the moment passed, and he pissed in the porcelain basin. Chilled, his face slick with sweat, he propped himself up against the wall and closed his eyes. That spring, Amanda had come home with a bruise on her thigh—the elliptical machine at the Anytime Fitness where she went on Stockwell Road, she’d told him. Over the last few months, when she did let him screw her, she smelled different, like her odor had changed. Now, he imagined he could smell Patterson had been inside her.

“The fuck took you so long?” Back at the table, Frank scrunched up his face, trying to give as good as he got, but the sight of him was like a vision of Brady’s doom, rushing at him like a freight train barreling down a long tunnel. Frank stood under a poster of James Booker playing the piano at Montreux. When they moved to Louisiana, Brady and Amanda had gone to the festivals—the Festivals Acadiens in Lafayette, Jazz Fest in New Orleans—but they’d had Katie, who was in the fourth grade with Patterson’s kid Eva at Southfield School, and Amanda had decided she hated it here. A year and a half of couples counseling, and she’d done this.

Holding a pint of beer as if he gripped a chalice, Patterson burped. He stood five-five, his head level with Brady’s chest. Why would Amanda have wanted to spread her legs for a guy she towered over in heels? Brady felt numb.

“What do we say, men?” Glancing at Frank, Patterson smirked, and Brady smiled back at him, the two of them ganging up—like always—on poor, pitiful Frank, who really was a loser, if he was still buddies with the guy who’d fucked his ex-wife. Sports Center played on the television, and one of the Tigers drove a Josh Beckett fastball into right centerfield. Brady had left New England years ago, but he still rooted for the Sox, loyalty being in short supply. Not that he felt any to Frank.

Outside the bar, Patterson said, “You should have asked for her number.”

“Like what,” Brady asked, “It would make you feel better if I got laid?”

He wanted to hear from Patterson’s mouth that he was slipping Brady’s wife the sausage.

They walked against traffic on Decatur, Frank stumbling down the sidewalk. Brady could’ve lived his whole life here, started over with Mary from the bar, never gone back to The Orchard, the subdivision where they lived in Bossier City, and maybe that would’ve showed Amanda. He’d given her everything: had 2400 square feet, a Bass Tracker on a trailer in the yard. But when he thought of coaching Katie’s Dixie League softball team, the sun filtering through the leaves of the trees in Walbrook Park, he couldn’t imagine letting go of his daughter.

“Might make you feel better,” Patterson said, “about whatever’s making you act like such a big, wet pussy.”

Should’ve known he wouldn’t feel bad. Guys like him got away with everything.

Upstairs at the Dragon’s Den—pressed tin walls and hipsters crowded around the bar—Brady sprang for the first round: three shots of Jack, Budweiser back. Frank gulped bourbon, dribbling it down his chin. Brady felt sick just looking at him, like that was what he’d be when Amanda took Katie and left: bitter, broken-down, and pathetic. Not that Patterson would bail on his wife Sue, who’d been putting up with his shit for years.

No, laying pipe to Brady’s wife was just fun for Patterson.

“How much cash do you have?” Patterson felt his pockets, and Brady knew what his friend wanted: sooner or later, Patterson would go looking for blow, and they’d be out till dawn.

“Enough.” Brady hesitated. Understood from long experience what was coming next, the night’s inevitable trajectory, the three of them rolling till the sun came up, like they did every time they were here: cutting loose, doing things they’d never do at home—cocaine, strip clubs like the Lily Pad in New Orleans East, Patterson the ringleader, egging them on. Brady hated himself every time, and even if he looked but didn’t touch, he knew it meant he had no leg to stand on with Amanda. But out of whatever loyalty he felt to Patterson, because it was easier to go along, and because Brady wanted to confront the dude tonight, he did it: he gave Patterson his wallet.

Patterson consolidated their bills into a single roll, which he tucked into his hip pocket. When he handed Brady’s wallet back, he’d left Brady a twenty. Felt like a slap in the face.

“Thanks,” Brady said, but the sarcasm was lost on Patterson.

“Played shortstop for Florida State.” Patterson gripped Brady’s shoulder—hard. He was still in good shape—strong upper arms, pecs showing under his white dress shirt—so despite the fact Brady had 20 pounds and a good few inches reach on Patterson, he’d probably wipe the floor with Brady in a fair fight. “Blew out my left knee, sliding home—big play, top of the ninth. Kept me from going pro, you want the truth. I was already talking to scouts from the Yankees.”

Half in the bag, washed up, and bragging—like Brady hadn’t heard it before. That bit about the Yankees a shot, since Brady was a Sox fan. Cheap, sure, but if it came to a fistfight, he was going for that knee.

“They sell cigarettes up here?” Katie would be disappointed, but he’d already slipped off the tobacco wagon. Been craving another butt since he’d finished the last one. The light glinting on Mary the waitress’s glasses—maybe he would walk back there and get her number. He’d never cheated, but Patterson was right: might make Brady feel better.

“Frank doesn’t mind if you have one of his, do you, old boy?” Patterson patted down Frank’s shirt.

“Give me a cigarette.” Brady had to ask twice before Frank handed him the crumpled pack of Marlboros. That silver band on Patterson’s ring finger—dude did whatever he wanted.

The lights above the bar glowed green in a drink. Brady knew well enough to trust his intuition when it came to certain things, such as the way Amanda had said goodbye to Patterson leaving a party at the district manager’s place that spring. Staying too long at the door, at the top of the steps in front of one of the sprawling brick houses on King’s Highway in Shreveport, she’d turned to Patterson. Wearing her black leather jacket, her blond hair cropped to shoulder length, she’d looked into his eyes, and it only struck Brady later, while she snored beside him in the Escalade on the way home, that he’d forgotten what she looked like when she flirted. Didn’t know what killed him more, her wanting his friend, or no longer wanting Brady himself.

Taking another drag of his cigarette, he wrapped his fist around his bottle of Budweiser. Over the last decade, the three of them had come to resemble a tribe. None of them from the South. Depending on the company, Patterson claimed Florida, but by his own admission, he’d grown up in the “Jewish” part of the state, “Manhattan with beaches.” They went to dinner parties across the bridge in Shreveport, and they tried all the ethnic places in town: the Pho Bowl, India’s Restaurant. Drove to New Orleans when they needed a cultural fix—music at Tipitina’s, the World War II Museum or a day at Audubon Zoo with the kids—while like the wolf in their midst, Patterson bedded their wives, knocking them off, Frank’s and Brady’s.

Yesterday, Brady would’ve said he was happy with his life. He’d have taken a mortal sin over this soap opera—something that mattered, a transgression worth suffering for.

“You long-dicking my wife?” Brady asked Patterson, who nearly choked on his Budweiser. Frank laughed.

“Jesus, dude.” Patterson wiped foam from his chin. “Who do you think I am?”

But at long last, Brady knew who Patterson was, and what he’d done. “She was gagging for it,” he’d said, mock contrite, the night he’d confessed to nailing Frank’s ex, who’d still been wearing her ring when Patterson had done her. “Tore that pussy up,” he’d said, and as horrified as Brady had been, he’d thought that could only happen because Frank was weak. Brady couldn’t believe he’d been so naïve about friendship, about love.

“You’re my best bud.” Brady slapped Patterson’s shoulder: hard knots of muscle.

Back in Patterson’s good graces, Frank pointed at Brady. “Fucking homo.”

br> Just to show them both he had the guts, Brady walked back to Molly’s. The crowd had thinned. Mary the waitress leaned against the bar. “Hey,” she said, like she’d been expecting him.

When he asked for her number, she looked like she hadn’t understood, and when he repeated himself, she laughed. To his surprise, as though she were in too much hurry to say no, she scrawled something on a pad, tearing the sheet off. The purple ink smeared, but the digits were legible. When she grinned, silver flashed in her mouth—a spike like a tiny barbell through her tongue.

“I have to get back to work.” She hoisted a tray, blinking behind smudged lenses. “But if you’re going to ask me out, you could tell me your name.” Brady realized on the way to the door that he hadn’t even taken his ring off. If she’d noticed, she didn’t seem to mind.

Waiting outside with Frank, Patterson nodded his approval. Their last visit to New Orleans, at dawn, he’d gone to a massage parlor, the Hollywood Spa, but Brady had sworn he’d never go with whores, not like Patterson did, though he had a way of making you break your resolutions. Always brought out the worst in a person, like when he made Brady gang up on Frank, like he wanted you to be as bad as he was, dragging you down to his level. That was Patterson’s particular genius.

“It’s not cheating if she doesn’t find out about it, old man.” Patterson knocked on Brady’s sternum. Brady felt exhilarated after getting the girl’s number. He’d made a good faith effort to save their marriage—that therapist, leading Katie’s Brownie Girl Scout troupe, for Christ’s sake—and apart from ogling the merchandise at a couple tittie bars, which didn’t count, anyway, he’d kept his vows. Maybe now he’d do whatever he wanted, just like Patterson did.

“You don’t have to lie to me about Amanda.” Couldn’t have forgiven Patterson, but Brady had to know if his best friend was screwing his wife. “Dude.” Patterson put his hand on Brady’s shoulder. Unsteady, he leaned against Brady. “There’s nothing going on with me and your old lady.” Next to him, Frank was propping himself up on an iron post. Brady caught another whiff of Patterson’s cologne, like sex and acne.

“Tell me the truth.” His voice cracked. As many times as he’d asked, Amanda said she didn’t want another kid. Said it would ruin her figure, but who she was trying to impress, if not her lawfully wedded husband? Brady told his wife he would’ve loved her if she’d put on three hundred pounds, and he didn’t care about any damn stretch marks, but that just pissed her off.

Patterson snorted, laughing. Close enough to kiss. “What would you do, anyway?”

An hour later, when it started raining, they went into Checkpoint Charlie’s, a biker bar on the edge of the Quarter. Patterson bought a round of Turbodog drafts in sweaty plastic cups. Frank drifted off, sputtering in the opposite corner of the booth. Place still had the AC cranked, so the temperature dropped. Frank held a beer in one hand, a cigarette between the fingers of the other. His chin fell, touching his collar, and he snored. Pathetic. Brady reached across the table and took the cigarette from between Frank’s fingers. Keep him from burning the damn place down. Patterson wasn’t having any luck trying to find someone to sell them coke. “No one’s holding,” he said, and Brady felt relieved. Better they called it a night and went back to the Sheraton. But he didn’t want to throw in the towel. Still hadn’t laid down the law for Patterson.

As if at a signal they’d agreed upon beforehand, Patterson stood, putting his finger to his lips, and Brady climbed out of the booth. Just to be a dick, he left a business card, propping it against the wooden buttons on the wrist of Frank’s jacket. In his rumpled tweed, Frank looked like a priest. With Patterson laughing beside him, Brady slid the plastic cup of beer back into Frank’s hand. Wouldn’t that be a joke when he woke up and didn’t know where his buddies were. Served him right for being weak.

At the bar door, a wet blast of warm air hit them. In less than 15 minutes, the clouds had spent themselves, and the sky seemed scoured clean.

On Rampart, the bars had closed—doors shuttered, neon signs dead in the windows. Through a brick archway and a wrought iron gate, folding chairs were arranged around a fountain in a garden that smelled of night-blooming jasmine, the view in half-obscured by the leaves of banana trees, like a glimpse of a life Brady would never have. “I can’t believe you dragged us here for this,” Amanda, depressed after Katie’s birth, had started telling him, two years after they’d moved to Bossier City—like the place was so terrible: good schools, no crime, but she wanted more for herself than cutting hair at Joseph Guin, the salon where she worked in Shreveport, and he couldn’t blame her for that. “Sooner or later, I’ll be promoted, and we can leave,” he kept saying, but it was like he knew he’d gone as far as he was going to in his life.

Across from Armstrong Park, Patterson stopped. The sign in front of the entrance lit up like a Ferris wheel. The gates were chained.

“We have two hundred and fifty bucks.” Patterson cleared his throat, tugging at his collar. “That’s enough for an eight ball, or maybe somebody can sell us some freebase.”

And though he had to be out of his mind to go wandering through downtown New Orleans on a Friday night in August looking for someone to sell him drugs, Brady saw his chance, and he said sure.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

Okay. He’d follow Patterson. And finally, they’d be alone. And Brady would get the answers he wanted.

They turned the corner by the police station and started up Basin.

“Where’re we going, man?” Brady asked, but Patterson told him to shut up.

Walking up Orleans, Brady worried that they’d be mugged, held up at gunpoint before he could act, before he could confront Patterson as Brady had sworn to himself he was going to do when he’d smelled his cologne earlier. But the streets were deserted. On the other side of an overpass, they emerged onto a row of tumbledown houses with boarded up storefronts, across from tall brick buildings: the projects, Christ, Patterson—but they were empty since the storm, Hurricane Katrina, five years ago, half-demolished, plywood nailed across doors and windows.

“Fuck.” Patterson held his side. Seemed pissed no one was around.

They followed the overpass, the I-10, on Claiborne. Above them, cars hurtled past, the early traffic sparse. Up the street, a blue sign was dark in front of the Circle Food Store, the place closed, the gates pulled down over the doors. A whiff of fried food from one of the late night places on St. Bernard nearly turned Brady’s stomach.

“Hey, what’s this?” Patterson dropped into a squat, picking up a shattered vial. On hands and knees, he sorted through the pebbles on the ground, picking one up and tasting it, spitting it out—the idiot, as if someone might’ve dropped a rock of crack. He didn’t seem human, and Brady imagined him giving it to Amanda, hips thrusting like a dog’s between her thighs.

Between the cement pillars that supported the overpass, a length of chain link fenced off a muddy enclosure where empty cans and bottles had been tossed. Rubble, as if from a construction site, too, and Brady thought of that Nine Inch Nails song from the bar, “Something I Can Never Have,” and the piano over the refrain: everything he’d wanted to be but wasn’t, mounting Shelly Clevinger in the back of his old man’s car. Until he’d smelled Patterson’s cologne earlier tonight, Brady thought he’d had the life he wanted: a family. Love.

From the pile of rubble under the overpass, Brady picked up a loose piece of rebar with cement crusted to the end of it. Looked like the stick after you eat a Tootsie Pop, except it was the size of a baseball bat and weighed 20 pounds. What if he hit Patterson once, just once, and got the drop on him, so he would have the upper hand? Couldn’t take him in a fair fight, so Brady deserved a handicap, didn’t he? He wanted to make Patterson answer a few questions. Brady wanted to know from Patterson’s mouth the truth, that he’d been giving it to Amanda.

Coming up behind Patterson, Brady lifted the piece of rebar in two hands. Off balance, or he probably would’ve killed Patterson, Brady hit Patterson on the back of the head. With an oomph, he fell forward, collapsing onto his stomach. Under the flickering streetlights, dark spattered the piece of metal in Brady’s hands. Blood. Had he done that? Didn’t seem possible.

Down the street houses were shuttered, windows darkened. A hand-lettered sign said Boot Repair. No one was around. Could he get away with beating Patterson up?

“Tell me you’re banging my wife,” he said. Just once, Brady wanted to have something on Patterson—to win.

“Hell you’re doing?” Patterson raised his hand, as if to ward off another blow. Blood stained his teeth.

“You get away with everything.” Brady’s voice echoed, like the announcer in the “Pigs in Space” bit from The Muppet Show when he was a kid. “Get.” Patterson crawled a few feet.

“Tell me you fucked her, and we can both walk away from this.” Brady took a couple steps closer. “I just want to hear you say it, dude.”

Patterson seemed baffled, like he didn’t know why Brady would be upset. “Thought you were joking.” Patterson spat.

Beyond the gray shape of the overpass, moonlight filled the cloudbanks. Even as Brady lifted the bloodied rebar, he felt uncertain what to do. If he knocked Patterson senseless, Brady could go back to the Sheraton, and it would be his word against Patterson’s, if it came to that. But no: Brady had come here to do this, had been preparing for it all night, even if he hadn’t known it, not completely, or hadn’t been able to admit it to himself until now.

His hands shook. But when he realized what he was doing—when he saw that he was going to kill Patterson—he felt calm, flushed with adrenaline, like Big Papi, David Ortiz must feel when the first baseman stepped up to the plate with runners on the corners, the Sox down two in the bottom of the ninth. Brady seemed very far away from Katie and Amanda and all those things that should have kept him from doing what he was about to do. After all, those things that should’ve kept him from doing this were the same things Patterson was taking away.

Patterson reached for Brady’s ankle, and Brady brought the rebar down, hitting Patterson’s wrist. Patterson yelped, clutching his hand to his chest. “What’re you doing?” Like he was starting to get it, like he understood Brady wasn’t kidding.

Looking at his best buddy’s face, Brady nearly gave up and walked away, and when he swung the rebar this time, he did it to make Patterson turn away, to blank out those questioning eyes. He struck Patterson a glancing blow across the forehead, and he flashed to a night in college at Keene State, Amanda tipsy, drinking by a keg in a basement: Brady an Alpha Sigma, Amanda a Delta Pi, a couple of average people destined to have normal lives. Later that night, he’d helped her to the dorms, his coat wrapped around her shoulders, like he wanted to protect her, like a man did. That was what he was doing now.

“Looking out for what’s mine,” he said.

As Patterson struggled to his feet, Brady did what he’d always known he would do if he ever had to fight Patterson, who outmatched him in strength and skills, and who would’ve kicked Brady’s ass halfway to next Sunday if Brady so much as let Patterson stand. Brady aimed a homerun swing at the knee Patterson had blown out in college, and even if Brady had never been much of a jock, no college baseball star like Patterson, even if Brady rode the bench the one year he played junior varsity hockey at Milford, that did the trick. Cartilage snapped, bone splintered—heard that even over the sound of traffic—and the lower half of Patterson’s leg flopped from the joint at an unnatural angle, like a GI Joe action figure bent wrong, so Patterson toppled.

“Jesus.” Patterson screamed, and the sound echoed under the overpass. Clutching his knee, he rolled onto his back, and he managed one well-placed kick to Brady’s solar plexus, but Brady hardly felt it. As Patterson crab-walked across the gravel, Brady raised the rebar. This time, he threw it at Patterson’s face. It struck Patterson on the mouth and bounced to the dirt.

Bitch, Brady thought.

Patterson shrieked, covering his face. When he turned onto his stomach, blood dripped between his fingers. If he was turning tail, Brady had won, and he might’ve stopped. But Patterson still hadn’t told Brady what he wanted to know. And if Brady did let Patterson get away—what then? Wait for Patterson to find him, to call the cops?

Brady picked up the rebar. As moonlight touched the yellow sign in front of the Circle H Meat Market down the street, he stood above Patterson. Thought of Katie in her Brownie uniform.

“Tell me,” he said.

“Didn’t touch.” Patterson crawled a few feet, and stopped, like he saw there was no point.

“The fuck you didn’t.”

Patterson wheezed. “Not fault.”

Brady told him the world rewarded assholes, and that was the truth. Everybody loved a winner. But Patterson didn’t look so good now, did he, brother?

“Can’t kill me.” His voice softened, and it was pathetic, the worst to hear him beg. Brady hated Patterson more than ever for showing his belly. “Please don’t hit. Who’s going to take Sue and Eva?”

Patterson might’ve been crying.

“Tell me you fucked my wife,” Brady said, “and I’ll let it go.” Leaning closer, he caught another whiff of Ax, like a men’s locker room, and felt the same certainty he had hours ago in the bar. He knew, and it gutted him, but it also filled him with righteousness and rage.

“Tore pussy up.” That was Patterson’s last hurrah, like he’d wanted to go down swinging, or at least talking tough. Brady felt a pang, like he hadn’t really known the truth. But it wasn’t satisfying, considering he’d had to beat it out of Patterson, who might have been lying. And though Brady wanted to walk away, he knew what he had to do. He’d left himself no choice.

After the next blow, Patterson stopped moving.

“Who’s the limp dick now?” Brady raised the rebar and swung it, like he was chopping wood. Dripping sweat, he held the metal above his head. “This is for Frank.” Like he was getting back at Patterson for all the times he’d made Brady gang up on Frank, or for screwing Frank’s wife. Like Brady was killing a piece of himself, that part of him that had looked up to Patterson, and always followed his lead. That had wanted to be Patterson, even. That had let Patterson ruin his marriage.

One last time, Brady swung the rebar, hitting Patterson’s head, and he backed away from Patterson, letting his club fall to the side. When Brady wiped his brow, there was blood spatter on his sleeve.

“Take that.” He yelped, whooping, a sound of triumph, but there was no one to hear it, no witnesses, no cheering crowds to see that he’d won, that he’d beaten Patterson.

He squatted beside the body, rifling Patterson’s pockets. Took the wad of bills and Patterson’s wallet, the keys to his Suburban, which they’d driven down from Bossier City, and which they were supposed to drive home. Took his hotel keycard, and his gold-plated Rolex. His Blackberry. Make it look like he’d been mugged. Brady was going to tell anyone who asked—the cops, Frank, Patterson’s wife, or Amanda—that Patterson had wandered into the projects looking for drugs, and that was the last Brady had seen his friend. Brady pressed Patterson’s wrist, feeling for a pulse.

Patterson’s head looked like a deflated volleyball, a mess of blood matted like the rebar with clumps of his dyed black hair.

Amanda. Brady wanted to run to her, to hold her, to tell her and Katie everything was going to be okay.

Hours later, in Molly’s at the Market, Lyle Lovett played on the jukebox. Brady tapped his foot on the rung of his stool while he waited for the girl—Mary, working behind the bar now—to bring his Abita. A couple uniformed FedEx guys sat at the other end of the place. Brady had been wandering the city for hours. When Mary delivered his beer, she seemed frightened.

“Rough night?” she asked, and Brady said she didn’t know the half of it.

He took the wad of bills from his pocket and peeled off a twenty. Took Patterson’s wedding ring out of his pocket, and he yanked off his ring and left the pair of them—one silver, one gold—side by side on the bar. Figured he’d taught Patterson a lesson.

When she brought his change, she faced the bills. She bobbed up and down, too much energy for eight o’clock in the morning, chomping gum while she examined his face, his hands, and the rings on the bar. He wanted to confess, to tell her everything, but he wasn’t that stupid.

“Thanks,” Brady said. He imagined her apartment—dirty floors, bare walls, and a futon mattress. He wanted to see his daughter, but he couldn’t imagine going home to Amanda and that queen-sized Serta she’d defiled.

Mary’s eyes narrowed. “Bathrooms are that way, if you need to get cleaned up.”

He reached across the bar and took her hand. She started, overbite more evident as her smile faded. Looking into her green eyes, he slid the gold band he’d worn a dozen years onto the ring finger of her left hand.

“If this is a proposal, I’ll have to think about it.” Her hands shook. The corner of her glasses was taped. “You’re hardly the first customer to pop the question.”

Not interested. He’d struck out looking. Brady let go of her. The FedEx men sipped their beers. Brady had to piss. He left Patterson’s ring next to his beer. As he walked down the bar, one of the FedEx guys opened a cell phone.

Brady fumbled zipping up, wetting his fingers. In the mirror, blood streaked his face. Blood stained his oxford, his khakis, and his loafers. “Holy shit.” He looked like he’d walked through a slaughterhouse. No wonder Mary and the FedEx guys had been eyeballing him. His heart pumped, yet even as he looked for a way out, he stayed calm. He bent over the sink, splashing his face. Everything in his life was over.

In the bar, the jukebox played a song he remembered from college: Beck, “Devil’s Haircut.” Outside, people passed, the sun rising over Decatur. Next to Brady’s change, Mary had left a shot of clear liquor in a plastic cup. Tequila—a ploy to keep him around long enough for the cops to get there, she would say in her deposition.

Brady gulped it. One of the FedEx men was standing. On the bar, Mary had left Brady’s wedding ring. A text from Frank on his and Patterson’s phones: Fuck you both, it said. Butt pirates.

He took Patterson’s ring and left his next to his change, like they’d traded places. Waving at Mary, he made for the door. Though he knew it was absurd, if he could get back to the Sheraton, he’d be safe. One of the FedEx men, the more burly of the two, watched him. The other talked into his phone. One swarthy, one blond, in their uniforms, they looked like Ponch and Jon, the cops from CHiPs, that TV show about California highway patrolmen Brady’d loved in reruns as a kid.

“Hey,” one said, “buddy.”

Outside, the FedEx guys tailed Brady by a block. In front of Molly’s, Mary stood in the middle of the sidewalk, holding a baseball bat. Brady started running.

Tom Andes' writing has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2012, Witness, Guernica, Great Jones Street, Atticus Review, Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, the Akashic Books Mondays Are Murder Flash Fiction Blog, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans, where he works as a freelance editor; teaches for the New Orleans Writers Workshop, which he cofounded; and moonlights as a country singer. His sporadically updated website is

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Two Good Hands, fiction by Steve Liskow

“Not even to have two good hands.” Julia gives Aura Lee a glare that I can feel from across the room.

“Let the dead lie,” Belle agrees. She’s Aura Lee’s grandmother—Julia’s mother—but her eyes say she can kick my butt if I give her half a reason.

“But it’s an awesome song.” Aura Lee sits on the couch with her bare legs curled under her. Glasses of iced tea sweat on the coffee table, an old door with the knob removed.

“’Awesome.’” Belle lights a cigarette and belches smoke from her nostrils. “We send you to college and that’s the best you can do? ‘Awesome?’”

“You know what I mean.” Aura Lee hunches forward and I can see her sinking into the family dynamic, her at the bottom of the tree. “It would be perfect on the CD. But I don’t know all the words and I can’t find it anywhere. Plus we want to get the writing credits right.”

“Not going to happen.” Julia shakes a cigarette onto the table and puts it between her lips. She wears jeans and an old Jackson Browne tee, both faded to the color of gravel, but she’s still seriously hot. She’s Aura Lee’s mother, but she might still be pushing forty from this side.

“Why not?” Aura Lee’s chin inches forward. The three women look so much alike I can see the DNA flowing down the family tree. Same triangular faces, same green eyes, same wine-red hair, except Belle’s has a little gray. Varicose veins turn her lower legs into a barber pole.

“That was Luther’s song.” She lights Julia’s cigarette and Julia draws until the end glows like a new penny. She blows smoke toward the window. The wallpaper has a yellowish tinge and the whole room smells like an ashtray.

“I barely remember him,” Aura Lee says. “I thought maybe it would be a way to, you know, connect with him again.”

“You were learning to walk when he died,” Belle says. “Cancer. Went like that.” She snaps her fingers, the click filling the room.

“Cancer,” Aura Lee says. “You should quick smoking, Gram.”

“Yeah, and you should forget the damn song and go back to your books.”

“Classes are over,” Aura Lee says. “We get everything set up, we can record it all in a few days before the fall semester starts.”

Julia draws again and puts her cigarette in the ashtray. “You know how long cutting an album takes? Months.”

“Not now, the technology’s so much better. We’re talking about a week, max. The guy who runs an open mic off-campus has a decent studio. He’s already penciled us in for late July.”

Belle and Julia look at each other like they’ve just been offered a handful of beans.

“Um, excuse me?” They turn to me with shotgun eyes. They have to know Aura Lee and I hooked up last fall. We still have separate housing in the dorms, ‘cause you can’t move off-campus until you’re a junior.”

“Ms. Holden, you said your husband sang the song? Do you know where he heard it first?”

“Nope.” Belle crushes out her cigarette.

“But you still play, don’t you?” Her fingers still have calluses and I wonder where her guitar is. Ours are in my car. Maybe we should bring them in, try to loosen things up.


“And you sing, don’t you, Ms. Holden?” It registers for the first time that they’ve got the same last name.

“A little. I couldn’t play…”

Julia’s voice fades and she holds up her right hand, the one not holding her cigarette. A thumb and pinkie. It’s all that keeps her from being perfect. Her daughter’s still working on it, but she’s getting there.

“Born this way. Lucky they were making shoes with Velcro by the time I was learning to dress myself. Buttons are still a bitch, though.”

“I’m sorry.” It sounds stupid, but I can’t think of anything better.

“Not your fault.”

Aura Lee clears her throat. “Listen, can we play you our other songs? You know the older stuff, but I’m starting to write too, a little. And I really like ‘Pear Tree.’ It’s a terrific story, sounds like some of the old Appalachian ballads.”

The older women drag on their Marlboro lights. Aura Lee rolls her eyes.

“OK, can I at least show Ash around?” She glances toward the stairs. The whole downstairs isn’t much bigger than a suite in the dorms, and I wonder how big the bedrooms are. There have to be three of them, and I’m not sure that leaves room for a bathroom.

“Keep your door open,” Belle says. Aura Lee rolls her eyes again.

I follow her upstairs, the women watching me pretend I’m not checking out her ass. The stairs are so narrow I wonder how they got furniture up there unless they built it in the rooms. Aura Lee leads me into a room with one large window overlooking a field. She opens it wide for what little breeze it offers.

“They’ll think about it.” She flops on the bed and her top rides up so I see her belly-button ring. I wonder if the women know about that. Or her tattoo. She took her eyebrow piercing out before we came.

“Is that good or bad?” I’m only five-ten and I have to stoop with the low ceiling.

“We play some of our other stuff, they’ll hear how that song would work for us and change their minds.”

Aura Lee doesn’t have a great voice, but you can hear the truth in it, like she’s lived every word she sings, like she’s been nineteen forever and it never gets any better. We met at an open mic last fall and figured out right away we should team up, and now we get a gig once in a while. Twenty-five bucks and a burger, but it beats a finger in your eye.

“You didn’t mention your grandfather sang it.” I sit next to her on the single bed, the only thing that can fit in here. The dresser looks slightly heavier than cardboard. I wonder how her clothes don’t crush it.

“I only remember Gram and Ma singing it, but Ma never sang out. She always told me Gram and Gramps were pretty good.”

She points at a picture on the wall. A cheap wooden frame contains Belle and a man with a heavy jaw and light hair. The girl in front of them can’t be more than seven or eight, but I recognize Julia hiding her right hand behind her back. The man holds a pear in his hand, and the tree behind them spills shade across their faces.

Aura Lee goes to the window and I join her. A few hundred yards away, a split rail fence seems to be slowly dying, a small brook and a patch of woods beyond it. Between us and that fence, a blasted stump sticks up like a finger.

“That’s the tree in the picture,” she says. “It got hit by lightning when I was seven. Scared the shit out of me.”

The stump stands a hundred yards away. If it had been closer, the falling tree might have slammed through this wall.

“You look like your mom,” I say. Nothing gets past me twice.

“Yeah.” She stands. “Let’s check the attic.”

“There’s an attic?”

“Yeah, it’s probably stuffy as hell, but maybe there are more pictures. Gram and Gramp playing out, something like that.”

“They didn’t record anything, did they? You would’ve mentioned it.”

“You needed money and an agent back then. And they were doing Americana before it had a name. Nobody could’ve cared less.”

Turns out there is a bathroom, not much bigger than a phone booth, and outside it is a swinging trap door with steps that fold down. The heat spills out so thick my eyes tear up while I follow Aura Lee’s cut-offs up that ladder. The attic ceiling’s only about five feet tall, just enough so old clothes can hang on racks. Dresses and shirts under plastic wrappers, winter coats and boots. An old trunk that belongs in a pirate movie. Yellowed newspapers and magazines. I walk around a sticky strip dotted with dead flies.

“Hot damn.” Aura Lee points to a stack of old LPs and 45s.

“Bob Dylan,” she says. She digs deeper. “Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Kingston Trio, Burl Ives, Josh White, Chad Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Peter, Paul and Mary...”

She pulls a Dylan LP from its sleeve. “Great condition. Shit, you could get a few bucks for these.”

She reads the label on a box with an old tape reel.

“Library of Congress. Jesus, this is old stuff they were probably learning from.” She spreads more boxes on the floor. “Let’s see if ‘Pear Tree’ is on one of these.”

A couple of boxes are old bluegrass and I check them first. The song has that high lonesome feel, minor key creepy. No luck.

“Not that I see a tape recorder up here,” she says. “If we find the tape, we can take it back to school, someone must have an old reel-to-reel.”

Sweat drips down my back and my throat scratches from the dust. I’m ready to bag it when Aura Lee opens the trunk. Old bed linens on top, framed pictures under them, some with Julia holding a baby that has to be Aura Lee.

“Whoa.” She digs into the pile and pulls out a framed eight by ten. Her grandparents huddle next to a microphone with their eyes closed. The man holds a banjo and the woman plays a Martin guitar. The tuning pegs of another guitar hide behind the man’s knee, maybe the old Guild Aura Lee plays now, and a neon Schlitz sign glares red behind them.

“I wonder where this was taken. It’s gotta be a bar somewhere around here.”

“Doesn’t have to be around here,” I say, but she shakes her head.

“They never made enough to travel much. Didn’t get farther east than Ann Arbor or west than Muskegon. Don’t think they ever left the state.”

“They always lived around here?”

“Gram’s family did. Gramps came up from Kentucky to work in the auto plants back when we made our own cars.”

“Kentucky,” I say. “Maybe that’s where he learned the song.”


She pulls out more pictures and finds a shoebox. When she opens it, a bunch of cassettes stare up at us, labels with smudged pencil. A beat-to-shit cassette player lies under the box.

“When did CDs take over?” she asks. “Before we were born, I know that.”

“Eighties?” I say. “My father has some old tapes and vinyl, but mostly CDs.”

“So this is probably thirty years old, give or take.”

We put the other stuff back. Aura Lee goes down the ladder first and I hand the player and tapes down to her. Back in her room, I think she’s even more surprised than I am when the cassette player works. Tinny music comes out of the speaker, drums, bass, electric guitars.

“Someone’s out of tune,” she says. The tape seems to speed up and slow down, and I can’t decide whether it’s the player or if all the years up in that heat stretched the tape. We listen to a few minutes, then she ejects it and tries another one. That’s more electric stuff, and even worse than the first one.

“I wish we could read the labels,” she says. She pulls out one of the old reels. “If it’s one of these, we’re screwed. The tape looks like it’s melted together. We probably won’t be able to play it even if we can find someone with a reel-to-reel.”

Julia appears in the doorway, her eyes narrowed to green slits.

“What are you doing?” Aura Lee puts in another cassette without looking at her. “We found these up in the attic. We’re checking to see if one of them has the song.”

“They’re probably all junk.” Julia’s eyes remind me of a cat, even more than her daughter. When she looks at me again, I feel like a mouse.

Aura Lee turns up the volume and we can hear that this tape is acoustic, so maybe we’re getting closer.

“Ash, why don’t you go get our guitars. We can try to figure out the chords.”

It’s ten degrees cooler out of that cramped room. I pop the trunk on my old Chevy and pull out our guitar cases, both covered with stickers from every open mic and coffee house we’ve played since last fall. Jackson, Ann Arbor, East Lansing…

When I step back in, Belle looks up from her cigarette.

“Is that Luther’s old Guild?” Her voice is softer than anything else she’s said.

“Well,” I say, “it’s what Aura Lee plays. If it was her grandfather’s first…”

Belle’s lips tighten. I maneuver the guitar cases up those tight stairs. Aura Lee’s still listening to the tapes and Julia’s still hovering over her.

“It’s Gram and Gramps,” Aura Lee says. “Crappy recording, probably live.”

Julia crosses her arms, her right hand underneath. “I think they wanted something live to send to the record companies. I don’t know if it’s one of these or not. Not that it matters, none of the record companies ever got back to them, I don’t think.”

“When was this tape made, Mom, do you remember?”

Julia shrugs. “Not exactly. Maybe 1990? Dad died in ninety-eight. You were only a little over a year old.”

The room goes silent except for the tinny version of “Long Black Veil” on the cassette player. Crowd noise drowns out the guitars. Aura Lee turns the cassette over and we hear more singing, but no crowd. Lots of stops and starts, with talking in between.

“Saw him pick her fruit.” That’s Belle. Julia’s eyes widen and Aura Lee turns up the volume.

A guitar plays a rhythm figure and a man sings the line.

“And only that ripe old pear tree

“Watched as he picked her fruit. Yeah, that’s better. I like that.”

Aura Lee looks at her mother, toward the stairs, and back at her mother.

“They wrote it? They wrote the song? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Julia hugs herself and shakes her head. Aura Lee turns off the tape and stands.

“Let’s take this downstairs.”

I lead the way because nobody can get by our guitar cases anyway. There’s a little more room in the living room, but Belle’s already lighting another cigarette. Her face shows she heard us upstairs.

“Gram.” Aura Lee puts the cassette player on the coffee table and looks for an outlet. “You and Gramps wrote the song, didn’t you?”

“How did you two decide you’re ready to do a record?” Belle doesn’t look at her.

Aura Lee glances at me. “We’ve been playing together since late last year, ten bucks here, twenty-five there, pass the hat a lot. Some guy asked us if we had CDs to sell, and we figured we could probably do that. We know a guy who has a studio, a couple of graphic artists from school…”

Julia appears at the foot of the stairs. Aura Lee looks at her, then back at her grandmother.

“Gram, why didn’t you tell me you and Gramps wrote the song?”

Belle shrugs. “We were just fooling around, stealing from lots of the old ballads we knew. We never meant to play it out, even if Luther lived. It’s not even finished.”

Aura Lee shakes her head. “Four or five verses, that’s pretty much a whole song.”

Julia sinks to the bottom step. All she needs is a flowing dress and long hair streaming behind her to look like a wronged maiden out of those same ballads.

I open my guitar case and find the pencil and paper I keep under the tuning pegs. Aura Lee takes her own guitar and sits on the couch next to the cassette player. When she strums a chord, both Julia and Belle seem to shrink.

“Standard tuning?” Aura Lee rewinds the tape a few seconds and turns up the volume. When the music comes up, I strum a few chords and find where it’s going.

“Yeah. And in ‘A’ minor.” We listen to the words and music, and I try to find the bass note as we go along. It’s not hard, especially since they keep stopping and starting to try different words.

“Under that ripe old pear tree,

“He swore he loved her true. “And only that ripe old pear tree

“Watched as he picked her fruit.”

Aura Lee looks at Belle. “The only verse I remembered, and I didn’t understand that line when I was little. Confused the hell out of me.”

Belle holds up the cigarette pack to Julia. When she nods, Belle lights a cigarette and walks it over to her.

“When she began to blossom,

“She told to me his name…She revealed to me, she let me know…what do you think?”

“Um…‘revealed’ sounds better. Maybe ‘man’ instead of name?”

“Gotta rhyme with ‘shame’ at the end.”

I put down my guitar and pick up my pencil. “Back it up and play it again.”

Belle puts her hand over Aura Lee’s.


“But Gram…”

“Please.” Julia’s voice barely carries across the room. The cigarette smoke wreathes her face.

We play through three verses, lots of stopping and starting again, which gives me plenty of time to write down the words. And the chords are baby simple, like hundreds of other old ballads. But now we know this one isn’t that old.

Julia stares at her partial hand and Belle’s eyes burn into the cassette player.

“Aura Lee,” she says. “Don’t do this. Please.”

“Gram…” Aura Lee plays the next verse.

“And give that ripe’ning child his name

“And share with them his wealth…his life…his pride…never mind, keep going…

“But he just sneered go ‘way old man

“I’m not your daughter’s first.”

“What a great line.” Even Aura Lee whispers. “But it’s so awful, too.”

Belle leans over and yanks the cord out of the outlet.

“Enough, God damn it, that’s enough.”

“Gram, what the hell…?” Aura Lee puts down her guitar and reaches over for the cord, but Belle jerks the other end out of the cassette player and throws it across the room.

“Enough, enough, enough.” She looks a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than a few minutes ago, and her eyes slash across us like a hawk’s talons.

“That song must never, never be sung. I thought we threw it away years ago when Luther… Give me that damn tape.”

“Not a chance.” Aura Lee pops the little door open and jams the cassette into her pocket.

Julia rolls into a ball on the bottom step, her knees drawn up to her chest, her hands covering her ears. Her shoulders twitch and her keening gives me goose bumps.

“Mom? What’s…” Aura Lee crosses the room and sinks next to her mother.

Belle steps between them and cradles Julia in her own arms with her back to her granddaughter.

That’s when I remember the pictures upstairs.


I go over and pull Aura Lee back onto the couch. “Wait a second,” I tell her. “Just be quiet for a few minutes.”


“No,” I say. “Seriously. That stump in back of the house, the tree you said was hit by lightning, it was a pear tree, right?”

“Yeah, but…” I see her get it, too. “Oh, my God.”

We force ourselves to sit until Julia uncoils and looks at her daughter. For all she sees me, I might as well be on Mars.

“Mom.” All three women are about the same height, but when Aura Lee sways across the room in her cut-offs, she seems to be nine yards of legs. They tangle in a big hug, all arms and red hair and sniffling.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. They don’t hear me. I go over and pry Aura Lee loose long enough to find the cassette against her hip bone. The three of them sink to the bottom step in one big heap and I replace the cassette and plug the player in again even though I know what’s coming now. Aura Lee finally turns to her mother.

“This isn’t made up, is it?” Julia’s throat moves like she’s swallowing an earthquake. “Not all of it.” She wipes her nose on the back of her hand and lets out a sigh she seems to have been holding in for years.

“Son of a bitch wouldn’t marry a cripple. He didn’t want a child of his to inherit....”

Aura Lee’s eyes widen and I force myself to push “play” again. “Then rage filled up this father’s heart

“My child’s tears fed the flame…fueled the flame, do you think?” Luther’s voice, that same guitar figure.

“Go on, we’ll fix it later.” Belle’s voice.

“And now that wicked young man lies

“Where he laid my child’s good name.”

I write it down while one last chord hangs in the room. I hit “stop” and none of us look at each other.

I walk outside, around the house. The sun hammers my head and I wish I had a hat.

The stump is about three feet tall and a foot across, the outside jagged and blackened, and the center looks pulpy, like it’s rotting. I don’t know a pear tree from a flag pole, but judging from the diameter, this one must’ve been tall.

I walk around it in ever-widening circles. Nothing looks different, some tall grass, a few bare spots, a few rocks. It’s a field, for Christ’s sake, what else do you have in a field?

Aura Lee joins me, her mother’s eyes looking out of the younger face. I and pull her against my chest and feel her shaking.

Belle and Julia join us, leaning against each other like it’s all that keeps them upright.

“This side.” Belle’s shadow falls across the stump and reaches back toward the house, tiny in the distance. “Right here.”

Aura Lee’s fingers squeeze mine and I squeeze back in self-defense.

“Nobody ever found out?”

Belle looks at the stump, then at me holding her granddaughter.

“The whole family was mixed up in all sorts of…shenanigans. Nobody asked any questions because they wouldn’t want to know the answers. He might’ve just took off with money or…”

And now that wicked young man lies

Where he laid my child’s good name.

“Is he buried here, too?” Aura Lee’s voice breaks to little pieces in the breeze.

“Uh-huh.” Belle and Julia look so beautiful I know I’ll see them in my dreams for the rest of my life—and wake up screaming.

“Forget that song,” Julia says.

I’m still holding the paper with the words, now almost bruising my eyes.

“It’s a great song.”

And then I think about why it’s such a great song. It tells the truth, about how people love and care for each other and put themselves in danger doing it. I never knew Luther, but I see now that he was a hero. He’s not around to suffer, but Belle and Julia could go to jail, which won’t help anyone. All because of Aura Lee, and she wasn’t even born yet.

It really is a great song. But letting other people hear it…

I hold up the page so the women can see it, and tear it in half, then tear the halves again. Then again. One more time, the packet thick enough so I have to work at it. I open my fingers and let the wind carry the shreds away, ragged white moths floating across the field until I can’t see them anymore.

I kiss away the tears running down Aura Lee’s cheeks before I look at her mother again. “We’re all in this together now. Aren’t we?”

Aura Lee walks over and hugs her grandmother. Then her mother. Then she turns and holds out her hands to me, two good hands, the ones that play guitar, the ones that hold me tight.

Two good hands.

Steve Liskow’s stories have earned an Edgar nomination, Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award (3 times), and the Black Orchid Novella Award (twice). Those stories appear in Tough, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and several anthologies. Words of Love, his 15th novel, will appear late this year, and The Kids Are All Right was a finalist for the Shamus Award in 2015. He lives in Connecticut. Visit his website at

Monday, November 11, 2019

Boomer in the Sky with Toxics, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

The dog sat in the doorway watching Boomer work in the darkened bathroom. Rummaging in the medicine cabinet, penlight held between his teeth, searching out Andrew’s meds, he turned and glanced at the dog, ran the light over him, a Shih Tzu-dachsy mix with a pronounced underbite. A hairy meatloaf. They fed him too much, couldn’t help themselves. The light hit the dog’s eyes, the one good one, the other sheathed in a milky cataract, and his tail drummed the floor.

Boomer took the penlight from his mouth, whispered, “Go away,” then turned back to the cabinet with its regimented orange plastic containers. A pharmaceutical wonderland, the majority in his nephew Andrew’s name, the rest belonging to Don and Joan, his brother and sister-in-law, pills to treat their late middle age: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, menopause, peeing too often or not enough, and boner pills. “Little brother.” He popped one into his mouth.

But it was Andrew who really had the goods. Boomer couldn’t wipe out the stash, the kid was battling AIDS, just a taste from each prescription, shake a few samples out into the plastic sandwich bags stuffed into the pockets of his field jacket. He counted out the caplets, the tabs, the gel caps, and, taking some, wondered what the horse pills would do.

At the distant rumble of the garage door, the dog waddled off with its welcome home bark and, in a rush now, Boomer made a mess of his drug dispensing, tablets ricochet-ticking in the bathroom sink. It wasn’t a complete botch, he had time to pop a few more pills into his mouth, shove the baggies deeper into his jacket pockets, and glide off, agile for fifty-nine, the wet tracks he made coming in on the carpeted hallway encountered on the way out, down the stairs, past the Christmas tree and the presents that Don, Joan, and Andrew would be opening soon, now that they were home, and quietly, so quietly, Boomer slipped out the front door, the kitchen light popping on behind him, out into the cold and starry O Holy Night, willing himself to feel whatever he had ingested, Boomer in the sky with toxics.

Boomer, one hundred twenty pounds and dropping, had arrived in Port Nicollet just after midnight on the twenty-fifth of December. The bus beat its scheduled arrival time, so his son, Gary, wasn’t at the depot to pick him up as planned. Boomer didn’t see Saint Nick streaking across the sky either, although Keith Richards’ cover of “Run Rudolph Run” rocked through his aural memory. Gary had wired him the money for the bus trip up from Tennessee, where South Shore Grain, Boomer’s employer, had sent him for rehab. No one seemed to understand that he and rehab, although nodding acquaintances, had never shook hands and agreed on anything like the efficacy of treatment. He had stopped the smack, but that had been on his own. Shit was unheard of in Port Nick in the sixties. Things had changed.

Boomer drove Tom Dean’s ’41 Ford pickup truck along the snow-packed streets of Port Nick, away from Don and Joan’s house. He and Tommy D, passing a doobie back and forth over the engine, had overhauled the truck back in the eighties. They took it when they went fishing in the Hayward Lakes area. Good times. Now, his wife in mind, he had an erection—the damn boner pill. His wife. Were they still married? They wed twenty-eight years ago. Beautiful Mama was what he called Diana. She’d laugh and call him Wasted Daddy. The laughter ended, long gone, he understood that. He couldn’t show his face now, especially not with all the blood in his body concentrated in his groin. It would wear off like everything else.

He squatted at Tommy D’s place in the Lakeshore neighborhood of Port Nicollet, not that Tommy D knew he was staying there. Boomer knew the ins-and-outs of Port Nick. Tommy D and his second family were Christmassing in Florida, far away from the south shore of Lake Superior. He guessed his old partner in crime wouldn’t mind. Boomer had to land somewhere, temporarily, or at least feel like he could. He was hurtling toward the end of the year. There was that humming in his head over the past several days, an ache and a wave of sound building like the last chord of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” He couldn’t stand still, waiting out the crescendo, the peak and crash, so his plan was to keep on moving through the last week of December, either on foot or by using Dean’s collector-plated pickup. And, of course, sleep sparingly at the Lakeshore house. That was his plan.

He woke up in a guestroom, not cool to occupy the master bedroom. It took a few heart-racing minutes to register that he was in the guestroom of somebody’s home and not in a room at the treatment center. Tommy D’s. That’s right. Still, in bed, without moving a muscle, his body did wind sprints. He hyperventilated. Slow down. Slow down. There. He rolled his head in the direction of the bedside alarm clock and its red digits. Late afternoon of his first—second? third?—full day back in town. It was dark outside.

Boomer phoned Gary from Tommy D’s basement rec room. The green felt surface of the pool table, the sound system’s speakers pockmarking the ceiling, an eye-swallowing flat screen television, DVDs, compact discs, record albums. He called his son, who, with caller ID, immediately asked, “Tom?”

“No, this is Dad.”

Boomer noted the unspoken letdown.

“Where’d you take off to the other night? That morning? Greta and I went to pick you up. You know what we saw? We saw the bus leaving for Duluth. Taillights heading west and the other passengers standing around, waiting for their rides, but not you. Did Tom pick you up?”


“Merry Christmas. That story’s BS. I know the Deans left town for the holidays. Tell me you didn’t break in.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too. No, I did not ‘break in.’ What the hell. Tom gave me a key.”

“Before you went to Tennessee for treatment? Dad?”

Boomer didn’t respond.

“I’m going to come over and pick you up. You can bunk here. Greta’s gone to her folks’ place in the Cities till New Year’s Eve.”

“No, you don’t have to do that. I was going to go over to my father’s.”

“Grandpa’s pretty bad now. Worse, I should say. Mom irritates the hell out of him every time she stops in. She’s just trying to help. Me he doesn’t even recognize anymore. I tell him I’m Michael’s son. He remembers Michael.” Michael. Boomer pre-1968.

“Well, that’s why I wanted to get back to Port Nicollet. Thanks for the scratch, by the way. He’s the reason I wanted to get back. Take care of my father.”

His son’s biting laugh. “Dad, you can’t even take care of yourself.”


Earlier in the year, the docs diagnosed the old man with senile dementia. Boomer couldn’t expect his kid brother and sister-in-law to be the caretakers, not with Andrew as sick as he was. Boomer drove over to his childhood home, the edge dulled by some weed of Tommy D’s that he came across in a tea tin, a tumbler of Jack, and a pastel collection of Andrew’s pills.

Someone had cleared the sidewalk, the shovel standing in a snow bank near the house. Boomer tried the front door. Locked. He could have predicted as much. The sky was clear and there was no wind, the temperature well below zero. His eyes watered, turning the Christmas lights of the neighborhood into a colorful scattering of bijouterie.

The old man shot off the tracks after Boomer’s mother stroked out and died. All within a year. A quiet death in their bed on a Sunday morning. Boomer had dropped by that weekend after Thanksgiving, expecting to help her put up the light-festooned reindeer in the front yard. An ambulance beat him to the house.

He was about to leave after pounding on the door one last time, thinking maybe the old man was over at Uncle Ray’s, but, glancing around the back, he saw the Pontiac. Boomer knocked again and jumped when he noticed the white-haired old man peering out through the sidelight.

How many days had he been in Tennessee? How many weeks? Looking at his father, he could have been in out-of-state treatment for years.


“Hi, Dad.” His father studied his face. “Can I come in? It’s freezing out here.”



Once inside, his father looked at him with a dreaming eye and said, “Well, my gosh. Michael. You’re Michael. You’re my son.”

Boomer excused himself to use the bathroom. He took a slow, stuttering whiz and then ran the tap while he went through the medicine cabinet. Pills for his father’s dementia? He had them, a lot of them, and he obviously wasn’t taking them. Boomer swept the pill bottles up and deposited them into his jacket pocket.

He buzzed. The old man maundered, confused grievances, some final sense that his mind was no longer what it had been. “I went to Old Town and, did you know, some ruthless bastards tore down my mother’s house. Tore it the hell down. It’s a vacant lot and the city has been using it to dump snow from its street cleaning operation. I stopped in at Solberg’s across the street and he had the balls to tell me the house came down years ago. I’m going to talk to a lawyer about it. This will not stand.”

Boomer was lightheaded. This will not stand. His apolitical father quoting the first George Bush?

His father told him to come and look, he had something to show him in the spare bedroom. Boomer blinked and he was in that bedroom’s open doorway. There were framed photographs laid out on the bed: his father with his brothers, Gus and Ray, kids of the Depression, posing in their Port Nicollet Old Town backyard, Uncle Gus’ high school graduation portrait, Uncle Gus receiving a ribbon or a medal from General Mark Clark, all the brothers and sisters in Uncle Ray’s living room for a group picture, must have been taken in the seventies. There were others, all with Uncle Gus as the focus. The folded flag in its presentation frame. An Ike jacket from the Korean War.

“It’s in honor of my twin. Gus. He died, you know.” Yes, Boomer knew. Uncle Gus had kicked it three years ago.

He left his father’s house and sat in the pickup, in some zone, shivering. The key was in the ignition, the heat was on full, the snow, white feathers really, had begun to fall. The payoff, sitting, waiting, was when the old man left the house. And Boomer followed as he drove off in the Pontiac.

His father drove slowly and Boomer got the impression, maybe mistaken, maybe not, that the old man was wary of the snow banked on either side of the Port Nicollet streets, mounded high at the corners, that the snow banks were encroaching on him. The thought made Boomer cautious.

North of downtown, his father pulled into the parking lot of the abandoned railroad depot and Boomer parked on the street, watching as the Pontiac slowly circled the low building. After the sixth or seventh circuit, Boomer pulled in and blocked the old man’s progress. He walked up to the driver’s side of the Pontiac, the car’s high beams flashing, the horn blaring.

“Dad,” he tapped on the window and his father rolled it down.

“Move your damn pickup!”

“Dad. It’s me. Michael. What are you doing? What are you looking for?” The cold, the stolen drugs, the thieved liquor in his veins, he just wanted to curl up, maybe on one of those high snow banks, curl up and fall asleep. But he couldn’t. He was hurtling, the chord had yet to peak, but when it did. A day in the life.

“There used to be a convenience store here.”

Boomer glanced over his shoulder at the Port Nicollet depot sign that remained at the roofline, the depot windows boarded up in the last five years, No Trespassing signs posted. “No more. They moved. What did you want to pick up?”

The old man didn’t have to think over his response. “One of those frozen beef-and-bean burritos I can throw in the microwave.”

I want to curl up, Dad. “I can pick that up for you. Why don’t you follow me back to the house and then I’ll run over to Junior’s Market and pick up a couple of those for you?”

His father thought this over, this old man who used to reach into the backseat for a blind swipe when young Boomer gave him lip. When he found the pot in Boomer’s bedroom, making him box, box as if they were Ali and Frazier, going a few rounds in the narrow kitchen. His mom’s yelling and crying. His father thought over Boomer’s offer, his eyes blinked. Boomer wondered, Who are you? Then his father, the stranger, said, “Okay.”

Okay. “Cool. Wait, say. See. I’ve already”—he dug in his jacket pocket—“I’ve already picked your prescription up for you, too. Let’s see. It says, take two with a meal.”


“Yeah. So take these with you. Follow me back to the house. I’ll get you your burrito. Beef and bean with green chili, right?”



A few days later, a nighttime drive in late December. Diana. Beautiful Mama. She’d kicked him to the curb, moved herself out to an apartment on Larch Avenue, close to downtown, closer to the main drag. Boomer drifted by the brick fourplex in the pickup. Drifted by like a love-wracked sixteen-year-old. How could it be that the love of a woman and a son were not enough? He had given Diana a number of excuses and once thought to add, but did not, “I guess I must not care.” That would have been a lie, used only to encourage her to give up on him, finally. Which, of course, she did.

He drifted by, a full moon in December, and with the last pass scraped the sides of twelve snow-covered cars parked along Larch Avenue.


It may have been New Year’s Eve when he came to, cramped and cold, on the floor of a camper trailer. Fingers and toes numb, he tried to place where he was and forced himself to his feet. Looking out the small window, he saw that it was Don’s backyard. He was in his kid brother’s winterized cracker box trailer.

And there was Don, Joan tagging along behind, charging out of the house, through the snow, headed for the trailer and Boomer.

The kid got in some good licks, the flailed Boomer pinballing around in the confined space, Don accusing him, in between the thrown punches and kicks, of trying to kill Andrew by stealing his medication. When she finally thought the beating had gone on long enough, Joan broke it up. “I’ll call Gary to come and pick him up.”

His son, seeing the results, turned red, turned to go into the house, but Boomer, sitting at the trailer’s small dinette table, balled scraps of toilet paper packed up his nose, ice cubes in a dish towel held to the back of his head, said no. And when Gary mentioned the Emergency Room, he shook his head to that, too.

Gary took him back to his apartment and bathed him, soaking away the crusted blood with a sponge, the bathwater a dirty pink by the time he finished and lifted his father from the tub. Boomer could feel it, Gary averting his eyes, avoiding the weightless, brittle wreck that he had become.

Dressed in sweats, more like swaddling clothes, Boomer found himself settled back on a sofa with pillows and blankets. Gary sat nearby on a rocking chair. A Pat Metheny CD was playing, but the hum inside Boomer’s head had accelerated and would not let up.

The CD ended. His son ejected the disc from the player and snapped it back into the jewel case. Gary handed it to his father. Boomer looked at the guitarist on the cover, the words on the back. Gary took his Ibanez from its case, spent a few minutes tuning the guitar, so relaxed, so attentive to detail, less like his father, more like his mother, and then he began to play “Blackbird,” a song that Boomer first heard as a sixteen-year-old, stoned for the first time at a party up the south shore in neighboring Superior, at the Broadway Apartments, winter of 1968. Now, forty-three years later, he recalled looking at that blank white album sleeve, comparing it to the vibrancy of Sergeant Pepper, and saying, in what he considered a Brit accent, “Bummer,” that came out Boomer, which ended up his lifelong nickname.

His son sang the song and played his guitar. Boomer shut his eyes.

“Have I made it to another year?” he asked, his eyes still closed, tired, the fevered hum building to the last chord.

Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, and Yellow Mama, as well as Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas, formerly Wisconsin Academy Review. The Council for Wisconsin Writers and Wisconsin People & Ideas have recognized his work in years past. He and his wife live in Superior, Wisconsin.