Monday, June 8, 2020

Unsatisfied, fiction by William Boyle


Alley behind Forkrum’s. Temple sits in Mag’s Civic with the flip phone lit up in her lap; she’s been pressing buttons just to have something to do. Call Mag or don’t? She digs around in the cup holder and finds a quarter and flips it. Heads—what’s that mean? Call, she guesses. She dials the number and waits.

“Yeah?” Mag says, picking up after one ring.

“It’s me,” Temple says.

“You didn’t do it yet?”

“I didn’t do it.”

“You’re what, scared?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just put on the mask and go in. I’m telling you. It’s cake.”

“I mean, what if Forkrum—”

Mag cuts her off. “Forget it. Just go.”

Temple nods.

“You’re nodding, right?” Mag says. “I can’t see you.”

“I’m nodding.”

Temple reaches across and opens the glovebox. The ski mask is there. Traffic cone orange. Mag picked it for her at Dick’s Sporting Goods. She takes it out and bunches it up in her hand.

“You still there?” Mag says.

Temple nods again.

“You’re nodding, right?”

“I’m nodding.”

“It’s just fucking Forkrum.”

“What if he recognizes me?”

“We’ll be in Buffalo tonight.”

Temple says, “Okay, okay. Cool.” She closes the phone and puts it up on the dash. She pulls the mask on over her head and adjusts the eyeholes. Her heart is thumping. She’s always been told she’s tall but she feels little, so little that the steering wheel seems dumbly huge in front of her. Her hands are shaking like she’s chased eight coffees with caffeine pills. Last time she felt like this was driving back to New Paltz after her first night tossing some drunk in an alley with Mag in Kingston. Maybe the shaking’s more intense now. This, after all, is Forkrum. She’s known him since college. He opened up this record store on East Chester Street a couple of years back and she’d come in to browse pretty often around closing and find him counting out the register. She told Mag—mentioned it offhand—that he had at least a couple of grand in the drawer last time and it was crazy how easy it would be to hit him for that. She said she was surprised it hadn’t happened already, Kingston junkies on the loose the way they were. And then that big bright lightbulb had gone off over Mag’s head. She didn’t say anything straightaway, but Temple could sense what she was thinking. Mag had been talking about scoring more than some drunk’s pocket change for months. She’d been dreaming of getting back to Buffalo, where she’d gone to school the first time, and moving into her pal Sally’s guesthouse on the cheap. Dreams were one thing with Mag; action was another. After a while, though, Mag pitched the idea to hit the record store, saying it would have to be Temple since she knew the place inside out.

And so here she is. Seven years ago in a sociology class at New Paltz, Forkrum across the aisle from her, and now in this alley behind his store with a traffic cone orange ski mask on. Mag said the mask was enough, but what about her body and her voice? That’s why she’s wearing her grandfather’s old Army jacket, one thing her dumb mother held onto, so baggy that it’s swallowing her up. And she’s practiced deepening her voice and walking on the balls of her feet so Forkrum might tell the cops that the person who stuck up the store had a funny walk and sounded gruff.

Mag had wanted her to bring a gun, some piece of junk she’d gotten at Podsie’s in Poughkeepsie for a song, but Temple wasn’t having it. Instead, she’s brought along the stun gun her ex-girlfriend Alexa bought on Amazon for her birthday senior year of college when they were hanging out at Rolling Thunder a lot and kept getting hassled by some bikers in the parking lot. Temple’s idea was that just showing the thing to Forkrum would scare him shitless. But she’s used it and knows the current and zap can put fear in someone real quick. Worst case scenario: she has to hit him with it. That happens, he’ll be fine once the temporary paralysis wears off, even have a scary little story to tell his drinking buddies.

She gets out of the car. The stun gun is in her pocket. So are a pair of purple surgical gloves she’s rolled up and stuffed in there. She puts the gloves on and takes a deep breath and tries to calm down.

The alley is a blessing. Dead quiet. The building nearby used to be a bagel joint; it’s abandoned now, weeds grown up the walls and over the windows. She knows Forkrum leaves the side door open and brings boxes out to the dumpster as he gets deliveries. She also knows there are no deliveries today because it’s Sunday and almost closing time.

She stays close to the wall and hooks the door handle with her thumb. It squeaks a little as she opens it but that doesn’t matter because Forkrum has music blasting inside. 

She’s thinking, Mag should be doing this.

She’s thinking, Neither of us should be doing this. It’s Forkrum. 

She’s thinking, It’ll be over quick. Then back to Mag’s. Then Buffalo. Maybe things’ll be better there. Maybe I’ll be able to break away from all my bad habits. Maybe Mag will too. Really.     

Inside. She sees Forkrum before he sees her. He’s singing along to whatever’s on the stereo and punching his finger against an iPad, his glasses low on his nose, his cap off. She hasn’t seen him without a cap on since college. He’s almost all-the-way-bald.

She takes out the stun gun and turns it over in her hand. She holds it up and worries that it looks too much like an electric razor. 

There’s no one else in the store.

Forkrum notices her then—she’s only half-hidden behind the doorframe to the storage room—and starts making a noise that’s something like a fox’s scream, loud even pushing against the music.

Temple is startled and almost drops the stun gun.

Forkrum stops, catches his breath, and screams again.

“Hands up,” Temple says in her best guy voice. She knows there’s an alarm unit on the wall but this isn’t a bank—there’s no panic button under the counter.

Forkrum puts his hands up. “Yeah, sure. Don’t hurt me.”

“Just give me what’s in the register and I’ll be out of here in a minute,” Temple says.


“Turn down the music!”

He keeps his hands up and goes over to the stereo. He lowers one hand and nudges the knob until the music is a whisper.

“Give me what’s in the register and I’ll be gone,” Temple says.

Forkrum just looks at her.

Temple goes over to the counter—he’s still on the other side, both hands back up, and she’s totally fucking spaced on her funny walk—and flashes the stun gun at him. He looks confounded by it; maybe he’s never seen one. She decides to show it off. The sound and light are enough to get him screaming again. “Jesus, be quiet,” she says.

His scream slows to a whimper. “I have asthma,” he says.

“Okay,” she says. “Just get the money.” Her voice is wavering now. Deep and then less deep. She didn’t expect so much talk.

He shuffles to the register and keys open the drawer and starts pulling out wads of bills. Big stacks of twenties and tens Less on the fives and ones, but that’s okay. Gotta be at least two grand. Maybe more. He fumbles the money and drops some on the floor.

“Get it all,” she says.

He leans over and picks up what he’s dropped. “You want the change too?” he says.

“Sure, why not? Put it all in a bag.”

Shaking, he grabs a record-sized brown bag and drops the cash in and then he starts emptying the coins in slot by slot. Stupid to wait for the change but every penny counts. If she was really smart, she’d grab some rare records off the wall and sell them on eBay, but she doesn’t have time to be discerning and she’d have to go to the library to get online.

He hands the bag across to her, squinting, still whimpering. He looks dumpier than he’s ever looked. He’s wearing an XL T-shirt with the store logo on it: a sloth hanging from a tree branch. She feels bad for him. “I’m sorry,” she says. “And thanks.” As if this was just another transaction.

“Natalie?” he says.

No one calls her Natalie anymore. Not since college. Mag renamed her Temple. She’s stuck in place. She knows she should forget it and get out of the store. She knows it doesn’t matter. The chance was there. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe Forkrum will just figure she’s desperate and chalk the money up as a loss. As a donation. Keep the cops out of it. But she stays still.

Forkrum’s breath has slowed. He doesn’t seem scared anymore. “You could’ve just asked me,” he says. “I would’ve given you whatever you needed.” He pauses. “Mag put you up to this, right?”

Now it’s Temple who’s panting.

“It’s okay,” Forkrum says. “Just take off your mask. Let’s talk.”

Temple doesn’t think taking off her mask will help. She holds up the stun gun and shows Forkrum how it works again. Zap. “This thing is real. Like seventeen million volts or something,” she says in her regular voice.

Forkrum doesn’t scream this time. “Natalie,” he says. “Come on. Give it up. This is what you want? This isn’t you. It’s Mag.”

“Fuck you,” she says, biting her lip. Forkrum’s always been such a nice guy. He’s always been nice to her. He’d take her over to Village Pizza every Friday sophomore and junior year. He’d ask what growing up in Newburgh was like, even though he was from Monroe originally and knew what a hellhole Newburgh was. He was reading dumb shit in his English classes and wanted to talk about it. He wore a black trench coat and some weird glinty class ring. Sometimes he painted houses; two or three times, she’d accompanied him and he’d let her work on a window frame while they listened to mixes he’d made.

He reaches out for her. She knows what he’s doing—he’s going for the mask. He’s guessing he gets that off and they see each other face to face, she’ll let go of the charade and crumble to the floor in tears. But she knows she’s harder than that. She’s always been hard; Mag’s just taught her to be vicious. She snaps the stun gun at him and hits him in the neck with it. The sound seems bigger, worse. He goes down howling, holding his neck. He’s spinning, saying fuck fuck fuck, maybe crying.

“I’m sorry,” Temple says. She drops the stun gun in her gaping pocket and puts the bag of money under her arm. It feels like forever skittering though the store and back out the side door.

Soon she’s sitting in the Civic and pulling off her mask and breathing so hard her chest hurts. She feels like a sinking city. She keys the ignition and thinks of poor Forkrum on the floor, writhing around like some damaged animal. The bag of money is on her lap; she’s keeping it close. She’s about to shift into reverse, but she keeps imagining Forkrum like that and wants to go back. She’s thinking of all the times he brought her coffee in the computer lab on campus. She’s thinking of mixes he made for her. She should’ve done this to a stranger, not Forkrum.   

Fuck it.

She throws the car in reverse and backs out of the alley. Mag is waiting for her. Mag will be happy, that kind of big shivery happiness that only happens when they score. They’ll hit the road. Buffalo’s nobody’s dream, and she likes that. Everyone trying to get out of Buffalo and them holding onto it as some magical place to escape to.

The whole drive home on Route 32, she’s feels jolts in her legs. She’s worried about getting pulled over. She’s doing forty, a couple of cars tailing her close, and she keeps thinking she sees cops lurking on every side road.

She pulls into the gravelly parking lot of Muffs, a strip club where Alexa used to work. She catches her breath and stares at the sign, a woman in high heels and a bikini holding onto the stem of a giant cocktail glass. Alexa had bad times there.   

She picks up her phone—still, somehow, balanced perilously on the dash—and calls Mag.

“It’s done?” Mag says.

“It’s done,” Temple says.

“So why are you calling?”

“I don’t know. I’m nervous. You should’ve come with me—at least to drive.”

“You’re fine. Deep breaths. How far are you?”

“I’m in the parking lot of that strip club.”

“Not that much further. Keep cool.”

Mag’s place is on Church Street in New Paltz next to a rooming house. A dive. The front steps rotten, the ceiling in the bedroom caving in from a leak. Temple doesn’t have her own place anymore. For a while, between apartments, she crashed on couches. And then she spent a couple of weeks at the hostel in town. She stayed with Mag the first night they met at Snug’s and has been with her every night since.

She gets the car going again and continues on carefully, as if she’s taking a driving test.

Back in New Paltz, she turns onto Church and parks on the street outside Mag’s. She runs in with the bag under her arm, skipping over the rottenest step. Mag is sitting at the kitchen table with a pack of yellow American Spirits, cherry-ashing a cigarette in a lidless butter dish.

Temple smiles at her.

“How much?” Mag says.

“About what we guessed,” Temple says, emptying the contents of the bag on the table. The coins scatter everywhere.

Mag’s blue eyes go bright. And there’s that smile, the one that makes it worth it, the one that pushes poor Forkrum out of Temple’s head. “You did awesome,” Mag says.

“I’m happy now,” Temple says, sliding onto Mag’s lap.

They kiss. Mag’s hair is dirty and dread-clumped. She tastes like beer and cigarettes. Her forearms are bruised.

“Buffalo,” Mag says.

“Motherfucking Buffalo,” Temple says. “Now? Let’s just go.”

“Okay,” Mag says, that smile shifting into something else. She scooches Temple off of her and relights her cigarette. “Okay,” she says again.

Temple scans the room. It doesn’t look like Mag’s been packing. Not that there’s much to take. “Forkrum’s okay,” Temple says.

“What?” Mag says, dragging deep, bunching her forehead.

“Forkrum will be fine. I think.”

“Good. The Taser—or whatever—was a good call.”

“You didn’t pack?”

“I’m not bringing anything. We’ll stop at a Target and get some new clothes. And we’ll hit the beer distributor for smokes. The rest of this shit, we’ll leave for the landlord.” She pauses, thumbs through a stack of twenties in front of her. “I was thinking. We get to Buffalo, you should grow your hair out. I’ve never seen you with long hair.”

“I hate long hair on me.”

Mag stubs out her cigarette in the butter dish.

Temple has some things she doesn’t want to leave behind—jeans and shirts from the Salvation Army, a drawer full of bras and underwear she shoplifted from Ames when it was still around, a box of paperbacks from the library sale. She goes in and gets them together. Takes her maybe three minutes.

Mag says, “You’re bringing all that shit?”

Temple laughs. “It’s hardly anything.”

“Let’s start fresh.” Mag stuffs the cash back in the bag and pushes the coins into a pile. “Clean slate. Doesn’t appeal to you? Just us and the car.”

Temple half-nods.

“That’s a yes, right?” Mag says.

“Sure, I guess.” 

“Let’s go to Snug’s for a drink to celebrate.”

“Mag, no.”

Mag grew up rich. She doesn’t know Temple knows; it’s something that took time to piece together. Mag likes to play poor—and she is now, her family having disowned her—but she’s still got the recklessness of a rich kid. Which means lack of planning. Which means expecting things to pan out even when hope’s only a pinprick in the distance. What she does, she does for kicks. Everything’s kicks.

Temple didn’t grow up rich. She grew up hard. Alkie-whore mom. Her father a ghost. Newburgh schools like prisons. Drugs and booze took her early and then she righted the ship for college, worked herself through, and then she was done, no prospects, and there was Mag, all put-on desperation, so beautifully destitute. Temple’s desperation is more immediate. You live most of your life on the ropes and you start to grow hungry for the promise of anything good.

Temple always says it’s Mag who brought the bad out in her, pushing her into a world of small crimes, but for Mag it’s just like reality television. She doesn’t know about consequences. Her desires are manufactured. Taste real fear early, that’s what makes you hard. Rolling drunks and sticking up stores is nothing. Try watching your mother get dangled from a balcony by a john. Try waking up to strangers in your room. Try sleeping with a knife under your pillow at ten-years-old.   

Temple senses now that if they go to the bar, Buffalo won’t happen. They’ll blow all the money on whiskey and then the days will continue on, more wallets snatched, the ceiling in the bedroom collapsing worse, more cigarettes, back on junk in no time.

Bank on Buffalo? Sucker’s bet. In reality, Buffalo would just be more of this anyway. Might as well save on the gas money and just roll across to Snug’s. Difference between a dream and a lie only depends on how fucked up you are.

“Just a couple of rounds,” Mag says. “Maybe some pool. Izzo’s bartending.”

Temple looks out the window and starts thinking about Forkrum again. He’ll be okay, probably is already okay, but she feels somehow like she left him for dead. Her gut says call him, check in, but she won’t, she can’t. Another bridge blown to shit. Her mom in that home, dead to her. Her aunts, how they tried their best to help, and she can’t even send fucking birthday cards. All these people she keeps leaving for dead, even when they’re not dying. “Okay,” she says to Mag. “Drinks it is.”

AP Katie Farrell Boyle
William Boyle is the author of the novels Gravesend, Everything is Broken, The Lonely Witness, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, and City of Margins, and a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. “Unsatisfied” originally appeared in Waiting To Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by The Replacements. His website is

Monday, June 1, 2020

Scapegoat, Fiction by Nick Kolakowski

I call it my stunt torso: a silicone belly and pecs filled with something gelatinous, pinned to my real body with big velcro tabs. My brother, an actor, bought it used from a stuntman on a movie set. The stuntman told him it would absorb blows from fists or a baseball bat, but anything sharp would slide right through. For tonight’s gig I’ll wear it beneath a loose sweatshirt, to hide the seams, and hope that nobody feels me up.

The client is waiting for me in a white BMW parked down the street from my apartment building. She wears a sleek pinstripe pantsuit, signaling that she has a high-powered job, and her bloodless cheeks are streaked with what’s left of her mascara, signaling a crying jag on the way here. She flicks through a puzzle game on her phone while I count the crisp twenties in the envelope she handed me. “This is too much,” I say, peeling off the extra two hundred.

Without glancing from her game, the client says: “Think of it as covering your deductible. Just in case.”

I want to tell her that my health insurance sucks, that two hundred is maybe a quarter of what I’d need to pay before coverage kicks in. A hard blow to the head, one that puts me in the emergency room with a broken skull, will cost a few thousand out-of-pocket, everything included. A couple punches to the stomach, the kind that scramble organs, might total more. That’s why I use the stunt torso. It’s too bad I can’t wear a football helmet, but that would ruin the performance.

“Doesn’t work that way,” I say, and tuck the excess money into the dashboard cup-holder. “Rule one of this job: Never deviate from the price. Makes it easier for everyone.”

“Well, do you take tips?” The game shrieks a high score.

“No.” I fold the envelope once and stuff it into my rear pocket.

“Okay, suit yourself.” Shutting off her phone, she starts the engine. “My name is Delilah, but everybody calls me Dee.”

“Neal,” I say, which is a lie. “Everybody calls me Neal.”

“Hey, Neal. I know this is just a job to you, but thanks anyway. It means a lot.”

“Sure.” I settle back and work on my breathing as she leadfoots the gas, rocketing us down narrow streets of my crumbling neighborhood. I never ask where the clients live, but we’re heading east, beyond the areas of town where you get real familiar with your living-room carpet pattern on account of diving on it every time bullets whizz through the windows. Based on her all-options sedan, and the expensive cut of her suit, I bet our final destination is the Heights, where everybody is rich enough to pay someone else to shovel their shit.

I don’t know whether it’s nerves or the stunt torso, or some combination of both, but after a mile my forehead is slick with sweat, my underwear chafing my crack. “Can you turn the air conditioning on?” I ask.

Dee twists the dial like her worst enemy’s nipple, and arctic air blasts out the vents. “Good?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “By the way, you’re supposed to fill me in. I don’t need too many details, just enough to play the role.”

“So there’s this guy, Charles. We’re at the same company, but we don’t report to each other or anything. I didn’t mean to, but we hooked up at this work event, and at first I thought it was one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, you know how it goes.”
Dee takes a corner at high speed. “And lo and behold, I sort of fell for the guy. So now we’re in a relationship, which would be fantastic except for, well.”

Dee takes her left hand off the wheel and waggles it so the little diamond on her engagement ring catches the light. Stacked atop the ring is a plain gold wedding band. “Rick—that’s my husband—found out about it,” she says. “We have our thumbprints programmed into each other’s phones, and he snooped in my messages. Maybe I wanted to get caught. My marriage sucks.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I say. “He hasn’t seen a photo of Charles?”

“He hasn’t seen a photo of his face, if you get my meaning. And Charles is, like, the last person on Earth not on Facebook, so Rick can’t find him that way.”

I have also forsworn all social media. Possessing any kind of public profile would make it more difficult to do this job. “Tell me about Rick’s temper,” I say.

Dee puffs air into her cheeks, exhales loudly: “What’s to tell? He’s got a bad one. He’s never hit me, or I would have walked out a long time ago, but he throws shit, yells, all that stuff. One time, we were in this bar, and this guy bumped into him. Just an accident, but he spilled Rick’s beer. Guy offers to buy him a new one, and Rick up and hits him in the chest. Lucky nobody ended up in jail over that.”

“What are his triggers?”

She laughs. “He’s really sensitive about his weight.”

Maybe Rick’s fat, I think. If he’s out of shape, that’s great.

Still giggling, she says: “And you should definitely mention his hair. He’s afraid of losing it.”

“What else?”

“Tell him he’s boring in the sack. Like I said, he’s got a lot of anger issues. It doesn’t take much.”

With gigs like this, it’s all about finding the right balance. You want everyone emotional, but not so emotional that they beat you to death on the sidewalk. On cold nights, my left knee and right elbow twinge and throb, reminding me of what happens when I’ve gotten that rule wrong.

“Good to know,” I tell Dee. The road becomes smoother, the potholes disappearing as we enter the Heights, the enormous houses on either side perfect as wedding cakes, the lawns so manicured I imagine hordes of workers cutting every individual blade of grass with tiny scissors. The sight of those million-dollar homes makes my stomach clench in a hard knot, and I pat the stunt torso for reassurance.

Dee notices my discomfort. “You don’t like it here.”

I grew up a couple blocks away, I almost tell her. This place is in my blood. Like a virus, or something that poisons you slowly. But the clients never need to know anything like that, especially when it’s almost showtime. “It’s fine,” I say, wiping my forehead.

“Look, Rick needs to get really aggressive, you understand?” Dee’s lips tighten. “And I need to film it. His lawyer sees a video like that, it’ll make this whole process a lot smoother.”

“Yeah, you said that in your email.” I sigh. “You also said he doesn’t have a gun.”

“He doesn’t.”

“Just reconfirming.”

“Got it. I’m not lying to you.”

“Okay. And if I see him with a knife, any kind of blade, I run, got that?”

“He’s an angry jackass, but he’s not a killer. Anyway, we’re here.” We pull into the driveway of a two-story McMansion, white with beige trim, and park behind a gold-colored SUV with tinted windows. As we climb out, I glimpse something on the SUV’s trailer hitch that makes me pause: a giant pair of brass balls, realistically rendered down to the veins and textured skin.

Dee follows my gaze and rolls her eyes. “Rick’s idea of a joke. Can you blame me, about the divorce?”

I shut the BMW’s door, adjust my sweatshirt, and crack my neck. I did some preventative yoga before leaving my apartment, and I feel nice and limber, ready for whatever’s coming. The envelope is a comforting presence below my tailbone, and I think about what I’ll spend my payment on, besides painkillers and bandages. I’ll tally up my rent and student loans and fast-food orders and phone bill, and maybe I’ll have a few bucks left over for a decent bottle of whiskey. I run my tongue over my teeth and think: Why bother saving for retirement? I’ll never have enough.

Dee slings her purse, as shiny and white as her car, underneath her arm, her elbow pressing it tight against her body. It has a small exterior pocket, and I spy the edge of her smartphone peeking out the top, its camera a black eye.

We are halfway up the stone path to the front door when it bursts open, framing the infamous Rick in full Suburban Barbarian mode. His faded t-shirt strains against a meat market of oversized pecs and biceps, and his square head reddens to the color of undercooked steak when he sees us. “Well,” he hisses through clenched teeth. “Bitch brought her bitch, I see. This is Charles? This is who you’re leaving me for?”

So much for my dream of Rick being flabby and floppy. The dude looks like he bench-presses rhinos for fun. His blonde hair is thick as a newscaster’s, shaped by professional hands into a camera-ready cowlick, and the sight of it makes me feel a weird sympathy for him, despite his rage and heavy fists: I would fear losing a magnificent mane like that, too.

Dee gifts him a big smile. “Rick, let’s just behave like adults, okay? This is Charles. We just want to talk.”

That’s my cue. I step forward with my hands out, palms up. “I know you’re angry, buddy.” I try out a chuckle. “I’d be angry as hell, too. Don’t blame you a bit. But we can work this out.”

Beads of sweat drip down Rick’s forehead, shiny in the light. It reminds me of something my grandfather, one of the last of the old-school miners, once told me about dynamite: if you left it sitting too long in the case, it would start to sweat like a man, unstable, a jostle away from blowing everything to hell. (Actually, that’s my only memory of him, before the state and my foster parents took me away.)

“Thought you could fuck my wife,” Rick says, marching down the steps toward us. “Thought I wouldn’t find out, huh?”

“Things just happened, man,” I say. “The heart wants what it wants.”

Rick squeezes his fists so tight I can see the tendons straining in his forearms like bridge-cables about to snap. He’s fifteen feet away and closing fast, his sneakers squeaking on the stone path. “Show you what I want, motherfucker.”

I tense my abs and say: “Dunno, man, you’re pretty soft.”

He plants his left foot and swings his right fist at my head, really telegraphing it, and I raise my hands to protect my face, already knowing his next move: a left jab to my stomach. Rick does exactly that, and I feel the blow as a wobbly vibration through the stunt torso, almost knocking me off-balance. If Rick sensed the difference between flesh and silicone, he doesn’t show it: instead, he launches a flurry of punches at my chest, driving me back across the lawn.

The stunt torso blunting the blows means I can take a breath means I can mutter: “It started as one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, but I think it’s love…”

I expect Rick to keep punching, maybe take another swipe at my head. Instead he opts for a sweeping kick that he no doubt saw in some action movie. I try to duck and weave, but he’s a quarter-second too quick. His foot catches me in the side, at the edge of the stunt torso, and drives the air from my lungs. My knees wobble, and I fall, trying to tuck into a ball as I hit the grass.

Through my forearms crossed over my face, I spy Dee take a position at the end of the driveway, the better for a wide-angle shot of her husband delivering a beatdown to a stranger. “Oh God,” she yells. “Oh God, Rick, stop. Please.”

Rick does not listen. In fact, the tempo of his blows speeds up, his feet slamming into the stunt torso, which can only take so much damage before my stomach begins to feel it. I can hear him muttering in time with the blows: “Show you… show you… show you…”

At moments like this, I wonder if dropping out of college was a mistake.

I could have been anything: an engineer, a software designer, a film director.

But maybe I’m helping more people this way.

After what seems like an eternity, the kicks slow, then stop. I lower my forearms. Big mistake. Rick, grinning, slams his heel into the right side of my face, and the world pops white. My mouth salty, a front tooth loose under my tongue. I groan, and Rick bends down until his lips are almost in my ear.

“That’s what you get,” he says, sounding satisfied. Offering Dee a middle finger, he turns and walks back to the house—limping a little. Maybe the thirtieth kick to my stomach sprained his ankle. Who says I can’t give as good as I get? I try to rise and the world tilts and lurches, my chin warm with blood. Dee’s hands on my elbow, helping me upright.

“I can drive you to a clinic,” she says. “Or a hospital.”

I take a deep breath that fills my lungs with napalm, but nothing pops or shifts in my chest. “Take me home,” I whisper, and opening my mouth lights a pack of matches under my tongue. “I’m okay. Just need… a little ice…”

We make it to the BMW. Buckled into the passenger seat, I take care to keep the collar of my shirt pressed against my mouth, to soak up the blood before it can stain the leather upholstery. Every turn out of the Heights sends my stomach slapping against my ribs, sparking fresh agony. I’ll make it, though. I’m a connoisseur of beatdowns; I know the nuances of bruises, the true depths of damage.

“How often you do this?” Dee asks, real concern in her voice.

I shrug. “Not that often,” I say, working the pain in my mouth like a piece of gum. “Couple times a year. Pays good, though.”

She shakes her head. “Such a weird job. How’d you get into it?”

“Life,” I say, and turn my head to the window.

Dee, taking the hint, stays quiet until we pull to the curb where she picked me up. Then she almost ruins everything by plucking the overpayment from the cup-holder and trying to force it into my hand. I swat it away. “No,” I say, opening the door. 

“Wait,” Dee asks.

I pause, one foot on the curb, already fantasizing about the ice packs in my freezer, the half-full bottle of whiskey in my bedroom.

“I know you’ll never meet Charles, but he’s grateful.” Dee brushes her lips against my wounded cheek, sparking a web of fire that crackles down my neck to my collarbone. “You’ve been a huge help. Thank you.”

“No problem,” I mumble, and exit the vehicle. I wish Dee well as I lurch down the sidewalk, pausing to spit a red gob into a tree-box. Although the stunt torso held up reasonably well to Rick’s rage, the dents in the sternum and left side suggest it has maybe two more jilted-husband jobs before I need to ask my brother for a new one.

It takes so long to walk the block to my place, fumble my keys from my pocket, and let myself into my apartment. In the darkness of my kitchen, I touch my cheek where Dee kissed it, flaring that dulling ache back to a full-on firestorm. I touch it again.
And again. And again. 

Damn, it hurts.

It hurts so good.

"Nick Kolakowski is the author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday,' 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club' and the upcoming 'Rattlesnake Rodeo' (all from Down & Out Books). His short work has appeared in Tough, Shotgun Honey, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies."

Monday, May 11, 2020

Against the Grain, fiction by Rob McClure Smith

Turning off Route 41, I need to flick the visor down to block a big orange sun like a severed head. Sparse woods run down a slope from the road where washboard gravel slants. I unlock the metal gate and gaze across gray flat fields at a sea of white turbines. The great three-sail steel and fiberglass machines turn slow that indolent way they do, generators humming like beehives. I listen a while to the wind slice the metal till the scraping makes my teeth hurt. The wind is clean till it enters the blades, then it's dirty. I drive on up the ridge past a burnt-up wheel-less trailer, an upright piano filled with rainwater, a couple of boats sunk in a mud field moored against a dead oak. Beyond this desolation, two black horses are sniffing each another’s butts with grim intensity beside my very favorite grain bin. Parked catty-corner is an ancient green Duesenberg with a plank stuck through its windscreen. It’s been there forever. These people. The curved driveway up to the farmhouse is covered with that fine reddish-looking dust from the cob of the corn. Cracks in the tarmac are red lines to cross. It plays havoc with the allergies too. My ex had to move all her plants out our old place to create this unique eco-system for me. When she finally quit on the relationship, she said it had been like living with the boy in the bubble, if the boy in the bubble also had some serious alcohol issues. I can’t say I regret her cutting loose. Shelley was about as funny as diphtheria.

On the porch I blast these massive clouds of nasal spray up my nostrils. Mrs. G stands behind the screen door in her dressing gown, like she’s Hugh Hefner reincarnated, contemplating me squirt the sinus stuff. She looks mildly perturbed. The screen between us is layered with bugs look like ladybugs but aren't, fake ladybugs from China got where they shouldn't. You ask me, Trump should be putting tariffs on them.

“Hello there, Mrs. G,” I say to her, friendly like. “Can Frankie come out to play?”

The old woman says nothing, looking at me with a face like haunted Tupperware. After a while of the blank staring, she gets bored and goes inside to wake him. I believe she thinks I lead her son astray, but it’s not like that one needs much leading.

The porch steps flake long thin strips of blue paint, and I commence squashing bugs on them. Their little red and black oval bodies explode underfoot with a satisfying crack, but they don't half smell putrid. Frankie emerges like a badger from its set and flops down beside me. He’s barefoot in black shorts and a wife-beater and his face is drawn with sleep. It’s 2pm. He has taken to sporting a faux Mohawk makes him look like a moderately powerful Pokémon. The effect is achieved by means of globs of gel makes his hair shine like videotape and is his way of expressing his personality, such as it is. Frankie’s a bit challenged in the social arena since it looks as if he’s had half his face carved off by a diseased butcher. But it was an accident just. Back when he was still cooking, butterfingers fumbled a pack of lithium strips into the anhydrous ammonia and blew up a barn. After that misadventure it was the Nazi method all the way for him. In general, Frankie is thick as two short planks, and I can't say that setting his face on fire and having his ass somersaulted into their pigsty that time did wonders for his character.

“It smells,” Frankie says, being ever the observant type.

“It was fine till you got here,” I tell him. “But let's assume it's coincidental.”

Foghorn Leghorn regards me blankly while fondling his spike. “So, is he driving here today or what?”

“No,” I tell him. “He'll be sailing down the Mississippi in a raft made of turnips, for variety's sake. What you think, Frankie? Of course, he’s fucking driving.”

“I was just asking, is all,” he says, looking peeved.

I indulge in the stomping of a few more bugs. Now the porch stinks worse than a porta potty at the Knox county fair. “He’ll be over Lake Storey in an hour,” I explain. “For our rendezvous, s’il vous plait mon sewer.”

“What you going to say to him about it then?”

“It?” I decide to pretend to be baffled by the use of the indefinite article.

“You know.”

“That we might need to renegotiate a few details of our agreement.”

“Like what?”

“Like what about I take care of the business end, and you don't sweat it?”

Frankie shakes his head from side to side in the fashion of a horse. “Yeah, but.”
“I’ll make a real compelling case that he should be contributing more to your 401K, Frankie. How’s that suit you?”

“I don’t have a 401K,” Frankie announces, looking stupid as he is. Last summer, I had to disabuse him of the notion that hepatitis B was a vitamin.

“What do you have stuffed down your shorts there?” I ask, noticing the bulge.

“It ain’t nothing,” Frankie says, looking shifty as a cobra.

“By my reckoning that is either a gun or you have acquired a colossal hard on.” I nod at the jut. “And, honest to God, I’m not sure which I find most disturbing.”

Frankie lays the gun down on the steps in front of us, looking chagrined. I pick it up, despite knowing where it’s been. It’s a Bersa Thunder 380, and loaded.

“Who do you think you are? James Fucking Bond? You don’t think he’ll
search us? He finds this on you there’ll be hell to pay, double O.”

Frankie just shrugs. “Better safe than sorry,” he offers.

“In your case it’d be sorry. Seriously, with your track record you’re most liable to shoot your own balls off.”

“It was just a thought,” Frankie adds, turning purple as the creepy dinosaur used to be on the idiot box.

“And whom,” I ask, being grammatically correct, “did we agree would do the thinking here, knucklehead?”

It's a half hour drive to Galesburg and not scenic. I overtake a truck whose driver is reading a newspaper. No hills, few inclines, treeless stretches and a river the color of cold. I-74 cuts through miles of flatland, empty fields either side stretching to the edge of the sky. A scarecrow a red rag tied to a stick. When I see the sign for the last remaining Lincoln-Douglas debate site I cut out past houses the size of garages dwarfed by their swimming pools, a dead Maytag factory, Carl Sandburg College, the place I got my Associates. I could have gone on to Western after that and got a degree but what’s the use? These days we all dance to the algorithms. You can’t go against the grain. Face it: the robots are coming for your job too. In the gig economy, a person needs a gig.

“I was watching this documentary last night about how ships are put together,” I say, informatively. Frankie looks at me, vaguely curious. “It was riveting.”

“How come?” Frankie blinks at me like a broken machine. “Sounds like a
real boring show.”

“Never mind,” I say, realizing he’s a complete lost cause. “Never fucking mind.”

“You think you can get Crowell to give us a bigger cut then?”

Frankie's back on his hobbyhorse. There’s no getting him off it now, one track mind. He thinks our Dubuque friend shortchanges us, and he’s not altogether mistaken.

“The thing about him is, he underestimates people,” I explain, reasonably. “That’s good for us. A person underestimates his underlings is in for a rude awakening.”

“I already had a rude awakening,” Frankie says, offering a fake yawn. I’m wary of this attempt at humor and watch him out the corner of my eye, wondering if he’s secreted a knife. “We’re going to be early as fuck for this meeting,” he says, innocently.

As it happens, we're late. Crowell prowls the rinky-dink dock talking on his phone while contemplating the wave-less fake lake, like he's Moses arranging to have the waters parted. He’s being worn by a new outfit; this blue shirt and black slacks combo, yellow socks the color of vomit and little wire-rim specs shade in the sun. He’s shooting for the suburban dad look but it’s like someone shaved a monkey and kicked it through Banana Republic. Reclining against this hideous snot-green Chrysler minivan is a heavyset bald gorilla with a neck tattoo who looks like he could easily go three MMA rounds with Behemoth. Crowell travels with muscle these days, now he's making money hand over fist, now he’s getting Sackler big.

This sidekick finger-walks my pockets, tracks with his palms the inside seam of my jeans and socks. He’s not conversationally inclined. “I didn't realize we were this intimate,” I tell him. “If you're feeling frisky you should ask me out for a drink first.”

The knuckle-dragger doesn’t crack a smile, just starts right in patting down Frankie too, then nods at the boss, job well done.

“You're late,” Crowell observes, slipping the phone in his pocket. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that punctuality is the politeness of Kings?”

“Thing is, I'm not a King,” I tell him. “Not yet.”

This remark causes him to eye-fuck me some, not liking that sentiment at all, not appreciating ambition in a subordinate. He looks at Frankie and frowns. “And who's this fine specimen of humanity when he's at home?”

“This would be Frankie, and he's not at home right now.”

“And who might Frankie be?”
“He’s my employee of the month.”

Crowell saunters over to him. “Are you from the future?” he inquires.

“What?” Frankie says, slow on the uptake.

“I mean did you quantum leap here from an alternative universe? What's with the funky hairdo at all? Are you auditioning to be a toilet brush?”

Frankie looks at Crowell glassy-eyed and I’m relieved I took the gun from him. I decide it’s for the best to change the subject. “You were admiring our fine lake view?”

“There is no view, and this puddle is a sorry excuse for a lake.” Crowell spits a thick gob in the water. “I could never live in a podunk town in a thousand years.”

“It’s not so bad,” I tell him, not believing it.

  “If I had to stay in a place like this I'd go loco. Seriously, I’d just stick my face in a meatgrinder and go live in the woods.” Crowell nods towards Frankie. “Like what Mr. Stein here went and did.”

“What?” Frankie says.

“Where we going then?” Crowell asks, clapping his hands, suddenly all business. “I take it you’re not scooting around with money in the car. It’s not your mojo.”

“Frankie's farm,” I say. “It's not very far.”

“Oh boy. Can you even believe it?” Crowell starts up this ugly cackling noise. “They keep cash on hand in an actual farm.”

“My name isn’t Stein,” Frankie says.

  Crowell quits cackling. “Is it MacDonald?”

“No,” says Frankie, still humorless as the Pope. “Gustafsson.”

“This must be fucking trying,” Crowell says to me, exasperated.

“Yeah, but he does try though,” I point out. “Credit where it’s due.”

“Leave your car,” Crowell orders. “We’ll drop you back. We’re taking mine.”

“No offense,” I say to him, grimacing. “But your ride is a bit embarrassing to be seen in. Looks like something a suicidal soccer mom would drive.”

“Which would be the fucking point,” Crowell says, slowly, squinting at me with those fish-pale eyes of his. “I don’t know about you, dipshit, but when I’m moving a few thousand Oxycodone, Fentanyl, and Percocet, I prefer going the inconspicuous route.”

I suppose he has a point, but I can’t say I’m feeling the love today. “Do we still get our orange slices though?” I ask him.

The one good thing about a Chrysler minivan is there’s plenty legroom in the back. That’s where we’re put, which means Crowell has to turn around in his seat to insult us. Frankie doesn’t wear a seatbelt because he suffers from claustrophobia. He’d have a certificate of exemption on his license, if he still had a license. Crowell punches the address into his GPS. Now he can find the farm whenever he wants, which is not a good thing at all.

“You still seeing the one with the legs?” he asks me.

“No, she left the state.”

“With another guy?”

“No, with the circus.”

“Well, she was already used to hooking up with clowns right enough." Crowell locates a smirk. "Usual issue was it? See, doctors can treat impotence and handle cases of premature ejaculation, but when you have both conditions. . .” He’s grinning ear to ear now, mouth like a coin slot. “They have such a small
window to work with.”

“You're dead funny,” I tell him.

“But my pockets aren't full of money,” Crowell says. “Yet, at any rate.”

“We’ve been giving that some thought,” I announce, sounding nervous as I am.

“We?” Crowell frowns. “Who are you now? The Queen of England?”

“I’ve been thinking that there are elements of the recent surcharge on delivery expenses and overhead may be contractually negotiable as regards inventory.”

“Why can’t you talk properly?” Crowell asks me. “What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s just that . .”

“Are you serious? When does retail ever dictate terms to wholesale?” Crowell leans across to put his mouth beside the driver’s ear. “You think Jeff Bezos here is playing with a full deck, Ivan?”

“Ivan never has much to say,” I observe.

Crowell sighs. “Ivan doesn’t speak English,” he explains.

“Why do you keep talking to him then?”

“Well, he gets the gist.” Crowell rubs the driver's bald head with his palm, like it's a magic 8 ball. “It’s all contextual.”

“He’s Russian then, is he?”

“Something like that.” Crowell shrugs. “He’s from Idontgiveafuckastan.”

“And his name is really Ivan?”

“Christ, no. We call him Ivan because he’s a terrible person.” Crowell fixes me with a glare. “You bring money up again I’ll set Ivan on you, so I will.”

I decide in the circumstances to let the subject drop.

Crowell is staring Frankie down. “That goes for you too, Rooster-Prick.”

This most recent exchange proves somewhat chilling to the social affections and we drive in silence for a while. I contemplate clouds thick as beaten egg whites through a crooked black lace of trees. It’s like the photograph of a memory I used to have.

Crowell decides to pull the thread of our earlier conversation. “So, what was it went wrong between you and legs then?”

“Lots of things. Her parents didn’t appreciate me.”

“How was that?”

“Her father told Shelley he wanted me to hurry up and murder her so the family could get to grieve properly.”

“That's harsh.” Crowell nods thoughtfully. “That's toxic masculinity is what that is. Shelley was the name then, eh? Like the stupid-ass poet fell in the water that time?”

“Uh-huh. No relation but.”

“Still have her digits? Might give her a buzz next time I'm stuck in this wasteland.” Crowell turns to Ivan. “This girl had the longest legs.”

“They went all the way to the ground,” I add.

Crowell wrinkles his pug nose at me, disgusted, reeking of Old Spice Swagger. “And what she was doing with a loser like this I cannot for the life of me fathom.”

I used to bitch to Shelley all the time about Crowell's fuckery, and she would just laugh and say he sounded like me, except he said out loud what I was thinking. I was just more restrained, she noted, which was ironic given that restraining order she took out.

  Crowell is incredulous when he finds out where we store the inventory. I explain how even the police in Illinois are cautious about getting in a grain bin. “Morons keep falling in them,” I tell him. “They’re notoriously unsafe.”

“Once you go down in a grain bin,” Frankie observes, mordantly, “you die.”

“And you keep the money inside this thing as well? Holy fuck.”

“We don’t never use this one no more for nothing,” Frankie says. “It’s obsolated.”

“That’s not a word,” Crowell points out, examining the sheer sides of the silo.

“But the cops don’t know it’s no longer used, see?” I am sensing a possible opening. “We could store a lot more, a ton more. Profit margins could be tremendous. I’d say we’re utilizing at most 20% capacity right now. Scratching the surface. Macomb could be the new Medellin. We could be doing far more than Knox and Warren. Could service Peoria and Fulton too. In no time this place could practically be. . .  Iowa.”

“Talk to me,” Crowell says, sniffing filthy lucre.

While I do the hard pitch, Frankie heads on up the farmhouse to get the keys from his mom and comes back to conduct a tour of the facility. He shows Crowell the unloading building on its raised cement slab, the old conveyer system, storage bins, the grain dryer. Crowell sees the possibilities, his brain turning over like a slot machine. Now the two of them are getting along like a house on fire, all forgiven. After we unload the pills from the mini-van and slide the bags through the vents and under the grain, Frankie decides he also needs to show him where we hide the money, which is a terrible idea. We leave Ivan by the car and the three of us climb a 20-foot metal ladder and crawl on hands and knees into the silo. From the gantry, you can look down at the grain mound where the pills are tucked away. Across the gantry, Frankie has rigged planks to make a serviceable walkway. He points to where the cash bags are wedged behind the stanchions on the far side. Of course, Crowell steps out onto the planks for a better look. Above the walkway old corn is caked on the sides of the bin forming a solid crust overhead. Frankie starts jabbing at the loose corn kernels sticking there with this iron bar he’s found somewhere.

“Stop that,” I tell him. “It’s dangerous.”

“How?” he asks, and the mass of grain settled against the walls gives and all the mess caked on the sides collapses in this massive avalanche that right away sweeps Crowell ass over tits off the walkway. Down he goes, heaved with a dull thump against the corrugated silo on the descent, to land face down in three feet of corn, which is sort of amusing. Getting to his feet, he doesn’t look that amused though.

“Jesus,” I say. “You stupid fuck, Frankie.”

“Oopsie-doopsie,” Frankie says, suppressing a fit of the giggles.

“How do I get out of this thing?” Crowell yells up at us, feeling at his head with his fingers. He’s seething like a pit bull. “By the way, you two retards are dead.” He commences groping around in the grain searching for his specs.

“That’s a terrible attitude,” Frankie says to me.
“So, how do we him up from there, as a matter of interest?” I ask. “A rope?”

“We don’t,” Frankie says, looking at me like I’m stupid. He bawls down at Crowell, “We’re not the ones are dead here,” and bangs the iron bar hard three times on the metal and immediately this grinding vibration wells up around us.

Crowell is startled and wheels around, a bit panicky, wondering what the noise is. I know what the noise is. The electric motor on the north side that starts the v-belts has started up. The belts open the horizontal floor augur in the hopper that speeds the flow of grain. The sudden displacement sucks Crowell to the floor of the silo, engulfing him. Moving grain does not support the weight of a person. Once you get in, it’s like water. A body in grain takes seconds to sink, or so I’m learning. Crowell gives a choked scream as an air pocket pulls at him and yellow-brown kernels get forced up his nose, into his ears, down his throat. His fancy outfit is going to be ruined, and he worked so hard at it.

“We have to get him out,” I say, clawing at Frankie’s arm.

“Why?” Frankie asks.

And it’s only then I realize, being slow on the uptake.

Crowell slowly slides into the sinkhole frantic as a man caught in quicksand, scratching at the surface. “I’m going to die,” he screams up. “My God, I’m going to die.”

“That’s right,” Frankie yells back. “This here rooster-prick has to agree.”

The two of us watch as the kernels pour past his chest, up his chin and over his head. Then there’s just corn where once there was Crowell.

“He always was a bit corny.” Frankie looks at me and his eyes are slits. “That’s me being James Fucking Bond, knucklehead.”


Frankie clutches a Bud light bottle in his right hand as he walks over to the car. Ivan sees the beer and smiles and reaches his hand out and Frankie smashes the bottle over his head, which causes it to cave like a soft-boiled egg. The neck of the bottle is still between his fingers, the broken section ending in a jagged splinter, and he starts carving at Ivan’s face with it, whipping the sharp glass back and forth artistically, each slash opening new spurting channels of red. An ear is hanging in a way that ears do not. Ivan is still very professional about it though, backhanding Frankie in the solar plexus and knocking the wind out of him, then pivoting on his left foot to follow up with a right cross, in the same motion raising his knee and thudding it in Frankie’s belly so that he jack-knifes forward, sending spit showering out his mouth.

As Ivan begins to explore the possibility of choking Frankie to death, I consider an intervention. “Hip,” says Frankie, but I'm assuming he means help.

Ivan tosses Frankie to the ground like a rag doll and opens the passenger side door. That he is even semi-functional with his head like that constitutes a miracle of sorts. Ivan reaches in the glove compartment, for a gun I suppose, and what is left of his face explodes like a sledgehammered watermelon. This mélange of blood and bone fragments and brains showers across the dashboard and windscreen and then he topples with surreal slowness and falls onto the grass lengthwise like a concussed cartoon character.

A glittering dust of bees-wings is falling through the declining sun behind Mrs. G. I’m looking right at her. She is about sixty, today in jeans and work boots, with too long hair, gray streaking the black, and childish bangs. I’ve never seen her up close and fully clothed. Her face is grimly set and I notice that she is quite terrifying. It was her started the machinery. The AR-15 is aimed at my groin and she is most definitely considering her options. My bowels at once evacuate, which is embarrassing. Mrs. G only lowers the barrel very slowly. “Little Alec,” she says, nodding at me. Then she looks up at the sky and yawns. “The nights are fair drawing in.”

“You OK?” I ask Frankie, sprawled and wheezing like a busted concertina.

“Get up,” his mother barks. “There’s nothing the matter with you, shake it off.”

All the excitement has left the purple imprint of finger-bruises on his neck and caused his mohawk to deflate somewhat. “Thanks for nothing,” he says to me, spitting out a bloody tooth. “Don’t you ever call me a stupid fuck again or I'll do for you.”

The night has indeed drawn in, a moon like a shard of fingernail in the gloaming. A faint and steady rain of dead insects spirals down from the big bulb on the silo, little toasted corpses pankling against the metal side. Crowell’s cellphone has popped out one of the augur holes and is ringing. IPhones are sturdy, being made in China, like the ladybugs. Through a hole in the bin, I can make out the outline of a leg. I look at the phone screen and see someone called Rhiannon is calling. I don't know who that is, maybe his daughter? I know what it was her mother used to listen to.

“Well,” I say, silencing the cell. “This is a situation.”

“How's that?” asks Mrs. G.

I make the discovery that I can't seem to stop shaking and sniffing. “I was alluding to the current double homicide debacle?”

“Townie got all the big words,” Frankie says to his mother, sneering.

“Must be a real whizz at the Scrabble,” she says.

I can only stare at them, teeth still chattering like castanets.

“Francis and I have this,” Mrs. G. says, steelily. “What I need for you to do is wipe this car down and drive it back and leave it at the lake and get your own car and go home. Do you think you can manage that now? Do you want me to write it down?”

“There are bits of brains,” I observe. “The seatback's a bloody mess.”

“So?” she snarls at me. “What of it? The gunk is inside us is always wanting to get out. Bleach in the scullery. Give it a good scrub. Come back for further instructions tomorrow. There’s a lot to do now with my supplier gone, things to consider, arrangements to be made. Business can't wait. I can’t sleep on this.”

“There are cameras,” I tell her. “When they find his car, they’ll trace it to me.”

“College-boy must have seen that shit on CSI,” Frankie says.

Mother and son laugh at me together in the mothlight.

“You used a burner when you talked to him, right?”


“Get a clue, boy,” she says. “You think there are decent cameras on these roads? Where you think this is? This is nowhere Illinois. No one gives a shit about you.”

“What about the. . .?” I cannot seem to articulate the word bodies.

Mrs. G's laugh is the sound a metal garbage disposal makes under a sink. “Pigs got to eat,” she says.

I'm shaking like a lemon blancmange and my nose is running. “I need to change my pants,” I suggest.

“Yeah,” she says, wrinkling her nose at me. “You do that.”

At midnight the cold-green river is an ink sheet and the highway a darkened blue, that big white moon before me. Insects swirl in the lamp beams of the mini-van, splatter against the windscreen. The fields are filled with those tall, bone-white stalks whose tips emit red light blinks like giant lonesome smokers in the dark. They look like flocks of giant, three-winged seagulls until you get close and can see the long sharp-edged shadow swoop of blades longer than the Statue of Liberty’s arm. I want those great white wings to snatch me into the sky away from all of this. I’m in way over my head. I need them to scoop me up into a rope of trembling black stars. 

Rob McClure Smith is a writer living in Galesburg, Illinois. His short story collection The Violence was published by Queen's Ferry Press in 2015. He is currently working on a novel about a Scottish detective investigating a murder in Washington D.C.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Paper Boats, fiction by Paul J. Garth

reprinted from The Desperate and the Damned

They had only been gone a few hours, just long enough to see a movie and pick up some food for the kid, but somehow that’d been long enough for Taylor Olsen to die, the boy still strapped to the metal folding chair Neil had tied him to before they left, his face blue, his little clenched mouth filled with vomit.
Neil stood there, refusing to go any further into the small bedroom they’d kept the kid stored in, his back pushed against the doorframe, the circuits of his brain suddenly overloaded. Acid surged in his throat. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” he asked. “God, he’s dead, isn’t he?”

A dizziness had fallen over him, throwing the world out of tilt, and in that sudden vertigo he had felt something fall away inside of himself, something almost physical. His hands had gone clammy and he ran them down the curve of his belly, searching. It was as though there had been a great fundamental piece of himself that’d been suddenly sheared away, swallowed by an invisible abscess. Sweat burst across his brow and he became obsessed with the idea that if he could somehow make the kid alive again, the new and sucking abscess he felt inside himself would close.

He fought to breathe.

“Yeah,” Rex said. He stood stopped in front of the body, turned back, holding Neil’s eyes, watching Neil’s panic crest like a wave. His face was smooth, his voice calming, unflappable. “He’s dead, but Jesus, you’ve got to relax, man. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Nothing has changed. They don’t know. They’re still gonna drop the cash.”

“But they’re not going to get the kid back.” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement, as though there was still a possibility, a chance, that somehow Taylor’s parents would get the kid back. He swallowed, his words hanging in the air, his tongue thick in his mouth and swollen as though with salt, like a man gone overboard. He was on the verge of tears. Of tearing out his own hair. Of going to the back of the house and pulling out the shotgun he knew Rex kept on the top shelf of the closet and putting both barrels in his mouth. “I can’t believe I let you to talk me in to this.”
They’d been in the back of a darkened bar when they first worked the outline of the plan, drunk on cheap beer and resentment. “No one will get hurt,” Rex had promised. “And with the money, when we’re settled, you can send for Meredith if you want. You can try again. This kid can be your shot.”
Neil nodded along, the taste of bitter anger and aged yeast in the back of his throat. He was unsure of what Rex was saying, but even more unsure of the remaining paths his life had left to explore, and in his anger, the plan made a certain kind of sense. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get another job. It wasn’t even that they’d been laid off - it was winter, and work had slowed to a trickle anyway. It was the way he’d been treated that pissed Neil off. It was that Mr. Olsen, who’d known all about Neil’s troubles, who’d had a man to man discussion with Neil after he’d had to call in several times the year before, had still somehow not seen him as a person, but instead as a figure to be removed from a spreadsheet. It would be a victimless crime. Not even a crime, but an investment in his future, in a chance to rebuild his life. The fact that the funds would be provided by the man who had only pretended to care about Neil’s life, right before kicking the last leg of stability out from underneath him, was too perfect to ignore. “Yeah,” Neil had said, sloshing his pint glass towards the water damaged ceiling. “Let’s goddamn do it.”
Three weeks later, they grabbed Taylor from the lobby of a suburban megachurch while the boy waited for his mother to pick him up from Wednesday night youth group. They wore masks, just in case the boy had seen them before while visiting worksites with his dad.
Neil spent the entire drive back to Rex’s house promising Taylor that he would be okay, that they weren’t going to hurt him, that none of this was his fault. “We’re just going to have a talk with your dad,” Neil told the boy. “And then you’ll see him and your mom right after. It’ll be like a camping trip. Like a dream you had once, but won’t remember later.”
And now this. A dead child tied to a chair and a rotting emptiness swirling inside of him.
Neil moved to the body, snowpack flecking off his boots. With a hesitant finger, he reached out and poked the little knees strapped together underneath the chinos, half expecting them to still kick. When they didn’t fresh bile rose in his throat.
“Dude, would you fucking stop it?” Rex grabbed Neil by the shoulder and dragged him back towards the door. “Would you just stay fucking put?”
“But they’re not going to get him back,” Neil said again, his voice breaking. His vision tunneled. His hands clasped and unclasped mindlessly. The abscess spun deeper and darker inside of his gut and blood roared in his ears. He couldn’t understand how Rex wasn’t as close to coming undone as he was, why Rex didn’t seem able to grasp how fucked they were. A kid was dead. His parent’s weren’t going to get him back. That wasn’t the kind of thing you could walk away from. That wasn’t the kind of thing that could be undone. “There’s no way for us to give him back.”
“God damn it, they don’t know that, though. They won’t know until after. And by then, we’re going to be off, living another life far the fuck away from them and from here.” There was anger in Rex’s face, but his voice remained calm, sure of the situation. Rex let go of Neil’s shirt, then went back to Taylor. He reached down and pried the boy’s little mouth open. Vomit, dried and flaky, fell out over Taylor’s baby teeth and into the lap of his little chinos. “I just don’t get how it happened, that’s all,” he said.
Neil began to pace. The smell of the fish sticks and greasy tartar sauce hung in the room, mixing with the tangy scent of the dead kid’s vomit until Neil thought he was going to be sick himself. He remembered Meredith then, how when she'd been pregnant she’d vomited almost the entire time. How, eventually, he’d gotten used to the smell as he sat on the bathroom floor next to her, rubbing her back. Neil held the memory, allowed it to buoy him, until finally the hole he’d felt inside himself seemed further away. “They’re calling soon,” he said. “Like two hours. What the hell are we going to say if they want to speak to him?”
Rex went to a dresser that stood along the far wall of the room. “We tell them no deal. They talked to him yesterday. And if they drop the money, they’ll see him tonight. Make it threatening.” He pulled a blanket from the dresser, a child’s blanket, one with tattered, worn, edges and white Nebraska football helmets on it. “You know Olsen, he’s a pussy. Won’t risk anything. If they did call the cops, that oughta call them right the fuck off.”
The football helmets on the blanket reminded Neil of something he had half known and ignored those nights they’d spent drinking and planning the abduction of Taylor Olsen. “Shit.” His voice came out flat, monotone. “They brought back the death penalty here. If they find us, they’ll kill us.”
Rex laid the blanket on the bed, then moved behind the folding chair Taylor was strapped to. He untied the ropes holding the little arms and legs. “No one is going to find us, or put us in the fucking chair. We’ve got a plan and this doesn’t change it.” He tossed the ropes behind him, then stood and slid his hands under the boy’s shoulders. “Here, help me get him onto the bed. By the time they find him, we’ll be long gone, living in one of those little Mexican towns down by the sea.”
The thought of the sea focused Neil. The abscess was still inside, swirling somewhere deep and unreachable, but the cloud of panic that had fallen over him had begun to lift at the thought. The sea. It was where Rex had promised Neil they would go after the kidnapping. A new and far away place, free of the numbing pain of the past. When he’d imagined it, lying awake in the bed he’d shared with his wife before she left, the sea had been more than just a place without his memories of Meredith and the empty room he had painted baby blue and the job he had been laid off from; it’d been a place of peace, a place where the past didn’t matter, a place on the edge of something so powerful that history forgot to exist. It was there, at the sea, where Neil and his wife would be reunited, where, together again, they would bury their grief in the constant churning of the waves.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil moved over to the chair Taylor Olsen sat dead in, then bent to lift the body by the ankles. He hadn’t noticed before, but now he saw Taylor’s shoes were boat shoes, gray canvas with leather strap laces. The shoes alone probably cost more than the suit Neil had been married in. He took them gently, the insides of the shoes were light, as though filled with bird bones, something too fragile to be held between his own ugly hands, then lifted. Trying not to squeeze too tightly, Neil pretended he was carrying a sandbag, something necessary and vital that would be carefully lain to keep a sudden surge of brackish water at bay. Together, Neil and Rex placed the body on the bed, then wrapped it in the threadbare Huskers blanket.
They left the house several hours later in separate cars.
The call had gone exactly as Rex said it would, and though Neil had allowed himself to believe Rex when he said they’d make it through, that they wouldn’t be caught, he remembered how he’d felt in those first moments after seeing the body, how he had felt something open up inside himself, a hole too dark to see the bottom of, it’s edges muddy and crumbling. It didn’t help that he was the one with Taylor’s body in the trunk of his Camry. That while Rex was off collecting the cash, Neil was stuck with the physical reminder of everything that had already gone wrong.
Neil took the highway towards Omaha, then exited near South Bend. The radio off, he followed surface roads until he came to a narrow tree covered turn off leading to a small campground that sat on the bank of the Platte River. The abscess swirled in him as he turned down the lonely road. He tried to think of the money, to imagine a kind of hope in it, but he knew a hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough to erase the memory of a dead kid. It wasn’t enough to forget how cold the skin of Taylor’s ankles had felt against his hands or the strange inert weight of the child’s body.
He doubted a million would be enough to forget.
The road emptied into a small snow packed lot. Camping signs and cement trash containers and small standing charcoal pits lined the edges of the lot, the black shape of the river churning beyond. Dirty snow lay on top of gravel and frozen mud. Wind pushed through empty trees. Neil parked at the river's edge, the yellow headlights of his car shining out over the thin capped crests of the slow moving water.
An image came to his head then, startling him, something he’d seen on TV once, back when Meredith had been pregnant: a parade of slow-moving paper boats with little lanterns set softly inside, moving down the silver river of some far off European city. He remembered how moved Meredith had been by it, how her feet had felt in his hands, how warm and comforting their living room had been, and he remembered wondering what happened to the boats when the water finally broke the seal of the paper, if they continued floating without shape or if the weight of the lantern dragged them down to the bottom of the river. He’d meant to look it up, maybe try it with the kid once he was old enough.
The memory passed, leaving him uncomfortable in its wake. When he felt calmer, he reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. Rex would be at the mall now. He would be picking up the cash any minute.
Tell me when you got it he texted, then placed his phone in the cup holder by his side.
Neil waited for a response. Time stretched out, deep and unnavigable. He took long, drawing breaths, each an attempt at stilling the swirling emptiness inside. If things had gone according to plan, Rex would be headed back to the house with the cash. Or, because he’d insisted on going to the pick-up armed, he’d could be lying dead on the floor of the Oakview mall, his life and their money gone, just like the boy in Neil’s trunk.
Five minutes went by, then ten. No answer.
“Okay,” he said to the empty car. “Okay.” He picked up the phone again, hands shaking. The abscess inside settled as Neil dialed the number from memory.
“Neil? I can’t talk now. You don’t - ”
“Mr. Olsen, I’m so sorry.”
The phone was silent for a long time, and in that silence, Neil imagined he could hear the sound of waves and the pounding of blood in Mr. Olsen’s temples and the scream his wife would make when he gripped her by the arm and told her what Neil had said. “I don’t know how I got talked into it. And I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you how sorry.”
When Olsen spoke again, his voice was clear and surprisingly soft. ”It’s okay, Neil. Whatever you did. You did the right thing by calling me, you know that, right? I want to help you. I can help you make it okay.”
“I wish you could, but you can’t.”
“What are you saying, Neil?”
“It was Rex…”
“Rex? Neil, is that who picked up the money? Is that who it was, Rex Piccillo? He has the money, Neil. He has it. All of it. If you didn’t want to do it, it’s okay, just tell me where Taylor is and I’ll help.“
Tears crowded the corners of his eyes. Neil wiped them away, then went to the trunk, Olsen telling him all the ways he could help him as he moved. Neil opened the lid, then looked down at Taylor Olsen’s body.
“We can make this okay, Neil,” Olsen said. “We can make it like this never happened. It was Rex. I know it was Rex. I know you, Neil. I know you didn’t mean for this to happen. I know you wouldn’t have meant for things to go so far.“
In the dim light of the trunk the boy’s face was a peculiar shade of newborn pink. Neil reached down and touched it the way he imaged Mr. Olsen had done the first time he’d ever held his son. The child's father still in his ears, Neil wiped his fingers over Taylor's open eyes. He tried to close them, but the lids yawned up again, the clouded pupils staring up past Neil and the open lid of the trunk and into the overcast winter night. “I thought you’d want to say goodbye,” Neil said. “I know I would have liked that.”
A screaming sound grew from the phone, alien and wordless but something Neil recognized and knew intimately. It was the sound of overpowering pain, deep and ancient and made all the more wretched by its commonality. Crying again, Neil reached down and held the phone to the boy’s ear. He didn’t think Taylor could hear his father, but he wanted to believe that somehow some part of the boy could feel the vibrations of his father’s sound through the skin.
“That’s okay,” Neil said, unsure if he was talking to Taylor or Olsen or himself. “That’s okay for now.” He placed the phone in the back corner of the trunk, then picked up the dead boy, cradling him in his arms. He walked down the bank of the river, his feet sliding over the hardened mud. With every step he felt that strange hole in him grow deeper, the bottom a suctioning pool that spun and spun, pulled by some unseen underground current, widening the crevasse. He wondered how long it had been there. If there had always been an emptiness in him, or if there’d only been the potential for one, an area of soft ground just waiting for some horrible tide to wash everything away.
At the water’s edge he paused, the lights of the car shining over the small waves. A small sheet of ice moved past, broken off from one of the larger floes that gathered around the pillars of the bridge spanning the interstate just upriver. The cold biting at his face, Neil wondered if Rex really had gotten the money, or if Olsen had lied to him. He wondered if Rex had kept to their plan or run off on his own, and if he had kept to the plan, how much cash would be back at the house? But if he hadn’t run off, why hadn’t he texted Neil back?
As he stepped into the water, Neil decided he didn’t care.
The coldness of the river shocked the breath from his lungs. He felt his legs go numb up to the thighs, his jacket weighed down by the sudden soaking. Neil took another step, his boots sticking in the muddy bottom. He almost slipped, righted himself, then moved deeper into the river, Taylor’s body still held tight. He waded in until the water was up to his chin, until the boy had become loose in his arms, buoyantly tugging at his grip. Neil’s teeth smashed wildly against themselves and his clipped breaths fell out of him, fogging his vision until all he could see was the body of the child and the water and the night.
The river bottom had torn away his boot and sock, leaving his toes suddenly free. He flexed them, enjoying what little he could feel, then moved on. He was deep into the river now, almost halfway to the middle, the current pulling all around him. He was far enough out to let the body go and ensure it would be carried downstream, that it wouldn’t wash ashore against the dirty brackish bank of the campground, but the idea of letting the little body go here, where it was still shallow enough for Neil to stand, seemed disrespectful somehow.
He kicked off, pushing towards the heart of the river.
Neil moved with the body until his feet could no longer feel the river bottom and the water that splashed against his face slid down his throat. Kicking to stay atop the small, rushing waves, tears and river water frosting over his eyes, Neil finally let go of what was left of Taylor Olsen.
Water pulled at the creases of the boy’s pants and the joints of the boy’s knees and arms, and Neil watched as the current grabbed the facedown boy and carried it further and further away until the body was gone, as indistinguishable and dark to Neil as any other ice floe on the river’s surface.
When the body was gone, in that darkness and cold, Neil felt a strange calmness settle over him.
His arms had grown heavy and he found his whole body was now difficult to move. Small waves sloshed against his face and eyes. Water slipped down his throat and chilled his teeth. He turned and looked for the headlights of the Camry but could not see them. He’d moved downstream, away from the riverbank and the recreation area he’d parked in.
He kicked harder, trying to right himself against the current and the river bottom below, but his knees had gone stiff and his only movement was a kind of bobbing along the surface. There was no panic, only a dim awareness of himself and the water and the shape of the river stretched out before him. The banks of the river grew no closer, and he lost himself in his rhythm, his mind going foggy and then blank, his only thought of the pull of the water and the slow cycle of his up and down movement on the surface.
The river carried him further along, the current pulling at the seat of his pants and the spread of his jacket. Neil took a deep breath and felt his legs be pulled out from underneath him. He thought of the paper boats then, of how they had glided down the glass surface of the river in that far away stone city. He thought of how much he would have liked to take his own son there to watch. They would have stood on the cobblestone bank and watched the fleet of boats flowing by, his son’s hand in his own. He could not remember what he and Meredith had planned to name the boy, had he come, but now he knew the boy should have been named Taylor. The boats would go by, and after watching silently, the boy would have looked to him and asked what happened to the boats, and Neil would have answered that, while he didn’t know for sure, he imagined the weight of the lanterns eventually tore through the paper, opening a hole, and when it did the bodies of the boats filled with water, and as the water came in they would spin and spin and then be pulled under, where they would dissolve and break up beneath the waves.
Neil was on his back now, the current moving faster.
It had been cold, but he’d become used to it, just as he'd gotten used to the smell of Meredith’s constant sickness as she’d carried their doomed child. The hole inside, the abscess that had felt bottomless and churning was gone now. Instead, he felt at peace, as though he belonged there in the river. He could feel its waters filling him, making him whole.
His head slipped underneath the water, and when it broke the surface again, Neil realized he wasn’t sure how long he had been under. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore. He could not see the darkness of the sky. He barely felt the water washing over the edges of his face. It wasn’t so bad, floating like this, Neil decided. He could go on a while longer.
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil let the current carry him downstream.

Paul J. Garth has been published in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Tough, and several other anthologies and web magazines. He lives and writes in Nebraska, where he lives with his family. An editor at Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth on Twitter.