Thursday, October 29, 2020

Dolla Dolla Bill Wall. fiction by David James Keaton

 The first night I end up in The Hut, I try to get people to talk about the money pinned to the walls, but everybody acts like they’re over it. Only the bartender will engage on this subject.

“It’s the first dollar the students make, at their first job,” Chuck says. “They come back here to celebrate and pin up a buck.”

This dive bar with thousands of one-dollar bills on its walls and ceiling is within sight of Santa Clara University’s campus, and the location is part of the reason patrons would think rooms covered in cash was no big deal. And how privileged do the locals have to be to shrug it off, right?

“What’s with all the little notes stuck on all the dollars?” I ask.

“Those aren’t notes. Those are their first business cards.”

Ah, that’s how privileged. I try to imagine a world where kids are so spoiled their first job comes with a first business card. With a blue-collar upbringing and years of union strike food in my lunchboxes, this all sounds like science fiction to me, and it helps to say “imagine a world” with a deep announcer’s voice. Kind of like the bartender’s voice actually. And Chuck is lingering near me longer than his job requires, which usually means free beer, but I blow it with my next question.

“Don’t you guys worry about someone stealing them?”

“Who the hell would do that?” he says, walking away disgusted, without even taking my drink order, which is fine really, since I don’t know what I want yet. 

But I have some ideas.

The next morning, I drive up to San Francisco for the long Memorial Day weekend, avoiding the toll booths. I grew up in Northwest Ohio, where toll roads were a plague, and where spending every weekend feeding dollar after dollar into the greedy metal mouths of the machines between Toledo and Chicago with only a mile of highway between stops and starts was as depressing as feeding them to a stripper’s G-string, with exactly the same depressing lack of progress. 

When I get home, I tell my dad I’ve been kicked out of another school for plagiarism. He doesn’t care as much as he did the last time, but he sure doesn’t get the joke when I explain it was my critical-theory class on postmodernism so, actually, plagiarism should have been rewarded.

***

The second night I end up in The Hut is about a month later, and now I can’t take my eyes off all the cabbage on those walls. I stare at the money on the roof, too, until drunks peepin’ up my nostrils feels a little too intimate. But after 2:00 a.m., I finally get a chance to lay down on the pool table and calculate the money on the ceiling to add to the cash register in my head. Half the balls are missing, so no one cares.

Staring up at such a canopy of limp but leafy greens, I’m reminded of the novel Black Sunday, when the Secret Service stops by Tulane stadium for their security check before the President’s Super Bowl visit. But they’re so used to checking the doors and locks and windows that no one ever thinks to look up to the sky.

I lay on the filthy pool table for a long time, picking at a cigarette burn in the felt as I keep counting. Some guys circle the table to hit on me or to pretend like they want to play the game, and I’m good at letting people run their mouths while I nod, so I’m able to do a rough count through all this attention in just a couple hours. As I do this, I try to imagine that counting each dollar is the exact amount of time it would take to steal one.

I’m up to $5,000 when I finally sit up, and she grabs my face and spins it into a kiss.

***

The third night I head to The Hut is to meet Holly again. My lips are still chapped from our smooch, but this time she’s all talk. And at first, we’re talking about how she was a biology major at SCU until she pilfered someone’s chemistry project for her final exam. But now that I know she can’t be trusted, I figure it’s safe to confess my obsession with the dollars on the walls.

She’s well aware of them. Together we marvel at how no one else seems to think this is odd, and we talk about Santa Clara being made of money or something and how only losers like us think walls made of money is something we need to convince strangers to notice.

“It’s like the ‘Emperor Has No Clothes,’” Holly says.

“You mean ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’” I laugh. “And it’s kind of the opposite.”

“Right.”

“So, what do you think?” I ask some dude desperately elbowing us for attention. He’s been trying to get on our radar for an hour, and it reminded Holly of her ex’s favorite riddle:

“So, is it grosser to watch some dude position himself to see the girls or grosser to watch them position themselves to be seen?” 

“Either one?” I shrug.

“The money is a trick!” the drunk says, flicking the corner of a dollar bill like it’s not really there. Chuck shakes his head without looking up from a spill he’s swabbing.

“What do you mean, slapjack?” I ask the guy, thinking he overheard our dudebro-line-of-sight dilemma. He angles his head in to whisper, his swampy exhale making me switch to mouth breathing.

“It’s a psychological experiment,” he says, and more guys gather. Not for his lecture but because Holly and I are on stools blocking the lane of the Atomic Dunk bar-basketball game. Enjoying our roles as obstacles, we both spin our knees towards him and give him the universally understood signal to “go on.”

“Okay,” he says, excited. “You ever see that movie Witness? Where that cop is hiding out with the Amish, and he’s up there on the roof sweating and pounding in bizarre wooden nails with toy wooden hammers and wiping his brow while the womenfolk passed around lemonade?”

“Probably not.” It was on Netflix a couple months ago actually, but I turned it off when the hero wrecked a birdhouse. I knew I’d just keep thinking about the birds.

“Well, I saw that movie in the theater years back, and afterwards I started thinking, ‘I wanna help an Amish family build a barn, too!’ So I get a map, and it’s only a three-hour drive to the Amish stronghold of Shipshantucket or wherever, but it’s a total tourist trap, right? I find exactly one horse and carriage, but they pretend they can’t see me. Even though I’m yelling out the window plain as day, ‘Got a barn?! I’ll friggin’ build it, bro!’ So I eventually settle on eating a tuna sandwiches in an ‘Amish-owned diner.’” He gives us the air quotes. “According to the sign anyway…”

“Awesome story, my man,” Holly says, starting to spin away, and he speeds up.

“Wait, wait, so I go in the diner, and on the floor is a silver dollar. And I go to pick it up, but it’s one of those gags, right? It’s nailed to the floor. But is that to trick the tourists or the locals? I ask the suitably plain-looking waitress, who, it should be noted, is wearing a suspiciously colorful hair clip. And if Amish weren’t allowed to use nails and hammers and, say, electricity, how are they able to hammer silver dollars into the floor? Or even toast my sandwich?    But apparently, besides invisibility, another Amish superpower is refusing to answer sarcastic questions, and she just gives me my tuna without a peep. But before I leave, I ask her one more time, ‘Who’s that silver dollar for?’ And she sighs and says, ‘It was for you.’ So maybe I didn’t build a barn, but I passed their test, you know? But now you know what else I’m thinking? Maybe they did the same thing the kids do here. That was the first dollar that joint ever earned.”

“Cool story, bro.”

“I’m basically Amish now.”

“Well done.”

Chuck stifles a laugh from behind the bar, and we spin back toward the basketball hoop, new drinks in hand. We don’t even look to see who bought them for us because we’re already having fun planning the caper. 

We talk about how we need at least one more person, how Holly would prefer it if we had four, but Honorary Amish Guy is currently our only sad prospect. He lingers near the hoop game like he wants to feed it a dollar, but I freeze him out until he leaves. But apparently I’ve smiled at him too many times without realizing, and he returns, stuck to us like glue. First, he wants to shoot baskets, but then he’s back on his theory about the money being fake, and at one point suggests that Chuck has raised the temperature in the bar three degrees and that someone else has released exactly three bees.

“We appreciate the heads-up, buddy.”

Suddenly, Holly pulls Honorary Amish over by the collar and whispers her own something, and out he marches into the night, eyes blank as the Manchurian Candidate.

“What’d you say to him?” I ask.

“I said he was shunned,” she laughs. “Went fuckin’ Amish on his ass.”

Then we drag our stools out of the way and spend the rest of the night shooting hoops and kinda sorta pretending to plan our heist. But by the time we’re drunk and out of dollars for the basketball game, it’s turned serious.

***

We’re still looking around for recruits when Holly’s ex-girlfriend walks in, and now I’m hoping we have our third. Not at first though, because some terrible hair-metal music is playing when she swings open the door, but once someone puts on some boozy Tom Jones, it suddenly feels like this girl would be down for anything. Up for anything? Either way. And this is even before she starts telling us about her adventures in expulsion. So I’m thinking this makes the perfect squad with three women who’ve been bounced for “conduct unbecoming a Santa Clara University student.” But then she clarifies. 

She got kicked out of the Secret Service instead. 

Holy crap! Even better.

The Hut is dead, but we’re still getting our share of unwanted attention. Another day, another dollar, another shitty free drink. Something about three women makes young men bolder, though to them we’re indistinguishable. If we were in a movie, we’d be allowed one character trait each. I wish that we were one blonde, one brunette, and one bright red or some other color not found in nature, but this is California, not The Witches of Eastwick. We do have handy increasing levels of hair though, which means Holly, the bigger hair of our bunch, gets most of the propositions. I worry she’ll become our leader by default.

But besides the odd come-on, it’s a ghost town until a graduation party floods the place around midnight. When June hits, students go home every weekend to hang with friends who’ve already been on summer break for weeks. See, SCU is on quarters instead of semesters, which drives students bonkers near the end of Spring quarter. I could never get used to this system, myself, when everyone is posting beach pics and you have eight weeks of classes to go. We were convinced Santa Clara just liked the word “quarter” because it sounds like money. Money everywhere on this campus, too, not only on the walls of The Hut. And perfect, green grass-like golf courses, even though the surrounding neighborhoods are on all-year water restriction. They water everything in the dead of night, by the way, I’ve heard it hissing. And once I saw a gnarly palm frond pinwheel down from the sky and plop into the middle of all that glistening emerald, and it finally gave me something interesting to stare at. Then a Mexican man in a golf cart zipped over and gathered it up without even stopping like the poor bastard was one of those Flintstones dinosaurs they used for menial labor gags. Remember when some prehistoric critter would stop trimming hedges with its snout and shrug at the camera, “Hey, it’s a living!”

When the graduates get too noisy, we step outside so Rachel can smoke, and we talk about the lack of security at The Hut, how no one is even checking I.D.s at the door. Holly says she’d been bounced from a bar before for underage drinking, but never The Hut. The location has made this bar an anomaly, we decide. When we were enrolled at SCU, other students called this end of town “the dark side” of campus. They were probably being racist, but it could also be the lack of streetlights. This reputation would help us, regardless. 

I pick at the dog-eared corners of the flyer on the window, where the Santa Clara Health Department has posted The Hut’s grade. I’m excited to see it matches my grade-point average the quarter I was kicked out. We’re made for each other.

We keep drinking until close, and at 2:30, we’re outside the door again, under the street signs at the corner of Franklin and The Alameda, and Holly jokes that “Alameda Franklin” sounds like Aretha’s Spanish cousin. We watch Chuck the bartender cram red-and-white balloons into the dumpster until it’s overflowing. There had been a graduation party on the patio the whole night, and we didn’t even realize the place had a patio. But we knew there’d be no dollar bills out there, so we didn’t care.

Chuck struggles to pull the lid down on the dumpster, and the balloons are bulging out the sides, and Holly walks over to pop one with her pinky nail.

“You know, there is a way to make those all fit, dummy,” she says, and he goes back inside, ignoring her. She keeps on popping.

In so many ways, The Hut is ripe for the picking. Or the popping.

Pop!

Two dozen pops later, and we realize the balloons are just the siren song we needed because two drunk frat bros think they’re fireworks and stumble up to our street corner to sway back and forth, looking us over like we’re steaming chicken legs on a desert island. I tense my old rugby muscles getting ready for a scrum when they ask what we’re doing. But as usual, the question is directed at Holly and her big hair.

Holly smiles and pulls one kid close and makes all sorts of promises, lips an inch from his earlobe. They barely hesitate because she’s saying it’s just “one little thing,” and she’s hot enough to have the last word on what constitutes a little favor or a big favor. They’d have probably done it even if they weren’t hammered.

We’re only a block away from the bar and diving into some jade trees when we hear the glass shatter.

***

We go to the bar one final time, a last hoorah before the night we’ll be pulling the purloin. I’ve always loved that word, “purloin.” Sounds delicious. Second maybe to “pilfer,” but way better than “filch.” Ew.1

We talk it out. It will be an all-night job, this we know. Just the sheer amount of dollars we’ll be plucking means a labor-heavy piece of work. In the movies, stolen money is always bundled into little bricks, and the crooks bring the stacks up to their faces, to run their thumbs along the corners like they’re shuffling cards. 

“They’re making sure the money isn’t marked,” Holly explains.

“Really,” I say, swishing two shots in a row.

“Remember, I used to date a Secret Service agent,” Holly smiles, and the way Rachel is half-smiling back, I know I want to see where this story will go. One thing I learned from that term paper I stole for my post-modern class is that modern heist films are expected to have a relationship triangle, so the shakier Rachel seems and the more she resembles a fictional wildcard in the typical movie crew, the more excited I get that our job might actually be real.

“I dated her while she was being recruited? Isn’t that right, Rachel? But she didn’t make it past the probationary period though, did you?” 

“Do tell,” I say, and I give the straw in my drink an unnecessarily adorable suck.

“Okay,” Rachel says, cracking her thumbs. “Did you know that when you join the Secret Service they give you a lie detector test and ask about when in your life you've stolen things or lied to people and then keep asking questions until you cry?”

“No kidding?”

“Yup. And then when you finally cry? They say, ‘Don't worry, everybody cries.’”

“Fuckin’ assholes.”

  “However!” she says. “You can beat the polygraph with kegels every time.” 

“What?”

“This part is true,” Holly nods.

“Crazy. So, did she ever get to run alongside limos or whatever?” I ask them both.

“No, she got bounced when she screwed up a stakeout,” Holly laughs. “She was new, so they gave her the shit detail of marking all the bills. She was supposed to put a mark in the upper right-hand corner with a marker, and they said any mark would do, but she had to do this all night, with a huge stack of cash. But she had to get creative…”

“How so?” I ask Rachel. Reluctantly, she finishes her own story.

“Well, to pass the time, I did one of those flip cartoons instead.”

“Oh, my god,” I say, covering my mouth. “That’s amazing.”

“So when the bad guys did that move, running their thumb down the corner, and they always do that move. You know the move?”

“Oh, I know the move.”

“This time they got a little surprise. A cartoon showing a tiny burglar getting scruffed by the neck like a puppy and tossed into a cage.”

“You gotta love her,” Holly says, and I agree. “Even though she was a pain in the ass.”

“But we have to ask ourselves. Is this even worth the effort?” Holly says, smile dropping, and I nod without hesitation. Ironically, for me, it’s the unusual length of time that makes the job worth doing. That sort of work just feels right. Maybe it’s from growing up in a union household, but I feel certain that the eight hours it’ll take us to pluck those dollars off the walls would be worth exactly the amount of labor. Of pluck. And this satisfying sort of symmetry doesn’t happen in any other line of work, legitimate or otherwise.

We scooch our stools away from the basketball game to give other people a shot for once, but now we’re too close to the restrooms, which is a lot like being in the key on a basketball court actually. Every inch of The Hut has a toilet smell, though, stale air like an old casino, so hanging out around the restrooms is as good as anywhere, which makes sense considering their peculiar choice of wallpaper. Doesn’t science agree that 75% of paper money is speckled with microscopic amounts of blood, sweat, feces, and cocaine? Or maybe they just proved those five things secretly powered the world.

Money has gotta be stinky though.

All three of us abandon our circle of stools and walk toward the bar, and dudes fight over buying us more gross “girly” drinks. We take them, of course, and while we wait, I point out the huge, jagged hole in the mirror behind the bar. The bartender sighs as he slides me my Smurf-tinged Blue Hawaiian, Holly’s nuclear Fuzzy Navel, and Rachel’s toxic green Mixed Martian Arts.

“What happened there, Chuck?” Someone points.

“So, get this, two assholes came in here at closing yelling about losing their keys,” Chuck says. “Then they started fighting, and one of them whipped an ashtray at the other one and smashed my goddamn mirror.”

“Oh shit!” I say. “Did you get a description?”

“Description? Yeah, two assholes with bars over their faces, since I got ‘em arrested. Cops and campus security seasoned them with pepper spray, choked them out, then dragged them away. They’ll probably get expelled, for starters.”

“I thought it smelled better in here,” I giggle. “Spicy!” The three of us share a glance, all of us two-finger sucking our straws and trying to look innocent. But after sucking down a couple more Lemondrops, we don’t feel guilty anymore.

Someone tries to slide another Candyland drink in a glass full of toys and trinkets, and I complain to Chuck about his selections.

“Why the hell do you make all these goofy beverages?” I ask him. “An impossible amount of cosmopolitan refreshments in here. I thought you were a dive bar. Aren’t you embarrassed?”

“Well, you guys keep drinking them.”

“We’re not talking about us,” Rachel says. “We’re talking about you and your sorry-ass saloon.”

  “Now, that’s where you got it all wrong,” Chuck explains. “That old myth about cowboys just drinking straight whiskey? Don’t believe the movies. Did you know that the most popular drink in the 1800s was a ‘Stone Fence.’ That’s six ounces of whiskey and some apple cider on the rocks. Maybe real rocks, I don’t know. But that’s some sissy shit if ever heard.” 

“I’m sorry, but that’s still a shitload of alcohol.”

“Still, those cowboys were ‘girl drink’ drunks! So I’m just keeping shit real here. Real drunk. Now, do you want this with or without the umbrella?”

***

Eventually, Holly gives up trying to get the bartender to notice her song selections (Thin Lizzy? Come on, that’s played so much these days it’s invisible to the naked ear), and she finally says “fuck it” and slinks around the bar to straight-up nosh Chuck when he’s restocking down on his knees and out of sight. I could have told her the days of leaning against jukeboxes and locking eyes was over. Now that they were glued to the wall like payphones, nobody gave a shit.  But it’s small, unexpected hiccups like the jukebox that might sink us, so I’m worried. 

And going behind the bar without asking, or being asked, is a bold move. It’s not quite peeking behind the curtain in the Emerald City, but close. But it works. It works because she’s in the forbidden zone, and this puts the bartender into an entirely different state of mind, his voice a whole octave higher and much more susceptible to Holly flights of fancy than she is to his flights of sugar-coated cocktails. She keeps their lips locked, and she grabs his head to crank him around to face the ragged black hole in the mirror behind the bar. 

He’s none the wiser to our hasty firefighter bucket line, as she unhooks the keychain from his belt, passes it behind her back to me, then to Rachel, who heads outside for a smoke, but instead meets Magic Mark’s 24-hour Key Cutters van in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven across the street. Magic Mark grinds a copy right there in the back of his van for three bucks, which suddenly seems like a lot more money tonight, since that will be three more green flowers I’ll have to pluck from the walls. 

Holly stays behind the bar to chitchat and open beers, and with one more kiss and rotate for misdirection, his face is buried in her wheat field of hair, haloed by harsh lighting and the shattered void in the mirror… and his keys are back on his belt before he closes the bar. 

Now we’re ready. And after clocking traffic inside and outside The Hut for a week now, we decide next Saturday will be perfect.

His keychain is one of those stupid dreamcatchers, by the way, which was the bartender’s first mistake, but not his last. Coulda told him they don’t catch shit. Or us.

***

The night of the heist, we get there a half-hour before closing, and we already know we’re in trouble when Chuck the bartender vows he won’t lock up until he’s drained a Long Island Ice Tea with his penis. 

In retrospect, we should have expected this. Like they always told me in college, there are only three classic tales; man goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, idiot tries drinking with his dick.

The three of us stand there, trying to decipher what we’re seeing. It’s an unnatural sight that takes a good ten seconds to process. Chuck is squatting on top of the bar, genitals ugly as a hairless cat piling over the lemon spirals on the edge of a mug, eyes pinched tight while a line of patrons press in around him, whooping and hollering encouragement. I see the Honorary Amish guy in the crowd, and he turns toward us when the light from the swinging door shines a spotlight on the shenanigans. He gives us a wink, and I recoil, but Holly winks back.

The way I see it, we already had some pretty big obstacles, and now time has become another. The original plan only gave us from close until dawn to do the deed, less than five hours tops. Past that and people would see us through the windows, depluming those dollars and whispering five thousand “She loves me… she loves me nots.” 

“How long is this shit going to go on?” I ask Holly and Rachel, and Rachel bites her lip.

“Hopefully all night,” Holly grins.
 “Don’t we need him out of here?”

“No, we need him.”

“I don’t get it,” I say. “We have the key.”

“The key doesn’t matter now,” Holly says. “Because you missed something.” She cocks a finger at the wall behind her, but all I see are dollars. Rachel pulls the corner back on one of the bills, and a half dozen dollars peel back with it. Underneath is the keypad to an alarm.

“Shit!” I hiss. “When did you find that?”

“I stopped by this morning when he opened. Final recon.”

“And we don’t have the code,” Rachel adds.

“So it’s off?” I ask.

“No, it’s not off,” Holly says, positively giddy. “That just means we get to go with Plan B.”

“What does the morning-after pill have to do with anything?” I’m only half-joking. Nothing would surprise me now.

“I think she means Plan ‘D,’ as in that shit,” Rachel laughs, and I try not to make eye contact with Chuck’s peen. Then I see Holly wink at the Honorary Amish guy again, so I put a basketball under my arm and move in to listen. The ball’s squishier from the overuse, about as firm as a 60-year-old testicle. Reflexively, the Honorary Amish puts up two hands as if I’d pass the basketball to him, but I only choke it harder. He’s earnestly explaining to a handful of guys exactly what Chuck needs to do to win this seemingly impossible bar bet.

“…listen, I learned this back in India, in 1976,” he says. “And what Chuck isn’t understanding is that you can’t just start drinking like that. Not drinking drinking anyway. It takes some training. I should know! ’76 to ’77, I’m riding elephants and all that shit. Basically, I’m an honorary Yogi…”
 “How much is gone!” Chuck yells from the bar, eyes still closed. Some kid leans in as close as he dares and takes a quick measurement drink-to-rim ratio with his cigarette.

“None.”

“Damn it!” Chuck yells.
 “…see, first, you have to have non-ejaculatory sex for about a year,” the Honorary Yogi goes on. “Then you step it up. You practice urethra suction, first with water, then milk, then, sure, maybe a Long Island Ice Tea. But that’s expert level.”

The room erupts in laughter. Holly and Rachel are back to shooting hoops.

“You gotta understand. Most people think those muscles can’t be controlled. But a Yogi like me can submerge his ‘choda’ in a glass of milk and just suck it on up. Ever heard of ‘brahmacharya’? It’s a code of honor, guys...”

People start to wander away. 

“Listen! Dinabandhu Pramanick definitively proved to onlookers he could completely drain a glass of milk with his urethra, then eject the fluid right back out. Most people wrote it off as a ridiculously complicated way to masturbate in public, but the science is sound!” He locked eyes with me, the only one still paying attention. “You see, you must, in essence, ‘breathe’ inside your partner during copulation, fully absorbing her soul, over and over again. And if you reach the highest levels, one day you could even drink with your finger…”

Some distant laughter and some cries of “Shut up!” and Chuck suddenly stands up high on the bar, zips up his pants, and jumps down to his regular spot. Holly stops shooting hoops and comes over with her basketball under her arm, too, Rachel in tow.

“Anybody want a free Long Island Ice Tea!” Chuck offers. No one volunteers.

Now that the three of us are close enough to the bar for the girl drinks to start flying again, Holly announces to any college kid who’s paying attention that “Yes, she would like a Razzamatazz, please!”

“What the hell is in that?” he asks.

“What kind of bartender are you?” Holly feigns confusion.

“Yeah!” I shout. “I thought you were authentic, barkeep! Like the cowboys!”

For the record, once Holly lays out the instructions, a Razzamatazz is pretty simple, really. Three Olives, or any raspberry-flavored vodka, cranberry juice, and club soda, on the rocks. Holly drinks hers before the ice even shrinks, but the Honorary Yogi does something much more uncouth than that.

The crowd goes nuts when he squats, unbuttons his fly, and dunks his glans into the glass. He begins to hum, and even more people swarm him than Chuck. So many that they’re fighting to see and knocking him off his heels, until Holly somehow kicks his Razzamatazz over in the middle of the scrum and spills the crimson cocktail onto the floor.

“Foul!” someone yells, and the Honorary Yogi solemnly picks up the empty glass and waves them back, still clutching himself with his other hand.

“Don’t worry, men,” he says. “The deed has been done...”

Then he proceeds to piss into the glass until it’s up to the brim with red.

“Oh my,” I say, genuinely in awe, and the applause is deafening. Chuck runs around from the safety of his bar and snatches the glass from Yogi’s hand to study it. The crowd recoils in case it spills. Not sure how to investigate, Chuck gives it a sniff.

“No way.”

“Yes, the Yogi way,” he answers to even more cheers.

“Fuck it, drinks are on the house, boys!” Chuck yells. “As long as you leave your pants on!”

***

I didn’t believe what I’d just seen, but it was okay because I hadn’t really seen it. Here’s what really happened:

Days earlier, after our illusionist had told us his story about the Amish, I hadn’t heard what Holly had whispered in his ear. But what she’d given him were simple instructions to eat nothing but beets, berries, and rhubarb until the next time he saw her. 

It seems unlikely that she could relay all that information and convince someone to do her bidding in three to five seconds, but the other explanation, that she exploited the Honorary Yogi’s off-the-cuff story so effortlessly, wasn’t that equally insane? 

Later, Holly told me that she had first considered punching someone repeatedly in the kidneys so they’d piss blood on cue, maybe dare them to take as many of her “Houdini punches” as they could. But only if she had to. This must have been Plan P, I’m guessing, so the Yogi was pretty lucky she didn’t go that route. At least I don’t think she did. 

But here’s the thing. When I think about the Honorary Yogi and the kids that staged the fight to smash the mirror, I now understand something I didn’t realize in the moment. 

When Holly said she’d make do with three people if she had to? She was actually making do with six.

***

“Last quarter, I was writing this story for my creative-writing class about some people stealing something, and it got really complicated, and for three days I was stuck on the last third and couldn't figure out how to get them to complete their robbery in a believable way, so finally, on the day it was due, I just said fuck it and had them all get arrested.”

        I pull down another handful of dollar bills, a fast, fluid motion under the business cards and stick pins, like a magician careful not to dump the dinner on the floor. The dollars end up with a tiny rip about halfway through, but I’m careful not to tear them any more than that. I know there’s no establishment in the world who wouldn’t accept a one-dollar bill with a little mileage on it. Behind me, Rachel pins new dollar bills right back up under the cards where I’ve gently torn them down, in roughly the same spot on the wall.

This will all make sense at the end.

“Great,” Rachel says to me. “You can’t be trusted” 

“Yeah, the moral of that story is this is also the level of loyalty you can expect from me in real life,” I laugh as I keep ripping.

The Hut is empty. Except for the four of us. Rachel and I working the walls, and Holly up at the bar, sipping on something pink and sweet, and making sure a hopelessly plastered Chuck never turns around. 

I pull down another fifty ones in rapid succession. We move to the wall under the jukebox where rich white kids write rap lyrics on the walls and the money grows the thickest. Holly fills my void under the flashing New Castle sign, pinning crisp dollar bills right back up, stamping them like butterflies under all the business cards those smug golden boys and golden girls left behind. Huh?

***

Here’s how it works. 

A couple nights back, while we were first shooting arcade ball and whispering and being all sneaky and bonding over our nefarious plans, after a couple real sweet drinks got us dizzy, it came out that Rachel wasn’t kicked out of the Secret Service at all. No, she was kicked out of SCU, just like the rest of us, and kicked out for plagiarism, too.    Actually, she clarified this and said her plagiarism case was so bad, the Provost said she was “technically a counterfeiter.” But that’s where the Secret Service thing came in.

Her story about a Secret Service interview and all the crying was accurate, sure, except she was on the hot seat for photocopying fake twenties in the basement of the library. 

It was a big confession, and I think it was supposed to bring us closer, but when she started missing baskets, I guessed Holly already knew.

But after she came clean, and after the timer wound down on the basketball hoop and each of us was just cradling our ball, the buzzer went off and the red siren swirled, and it was just like light bulbs going off over our heads.

***

If you’re not trying to be good at it, counterfeiting is easy! Rachel spent about fifty bucks on green toner to make our fake dollar bills. And that expensive resume paper wasn’t cheap either. But she’ll get it all back. Like I said, it’s a labor-heavy job, more than one all-nighter, but when we’re all “sad and done,” we’ll have earned whatever we take. Earned as in deserved. No one could deny that.

Hands a blur, I seize more dollars, and Rachel puts her fake dollars back up, and Holly cheers on Chuck until he passes out from the strain, which is good for us because then Holly can help out, too. 

On the way out, garbage bags of dollars rustling in each fist like I’d just cleaned up an after-party, I kick Chuck’s glass with my open-toed sandal and flinch as I wait for the spill. 

But his glass is only half full, and I’m thinking, “Holy shit, he did it for real.” 

But he’s out cold and will never know what he achieved, which makes sense because he’s always been more of a half-empty kinda guy.

Before I can open it, the door swings wide in my face, letting in the first slivers of morning, and a man walks in. Sherry had called him the Honorary Amish, and Holly had called him the Honorary Yogi, but he was looking real different all of a sudden, probably something to do with the break of dawn. He glances at the useless bartender and sighs, then scans us up and down. With his white collar, his faces seems much darker, more ethnic, more Jesus than Amish? And when he talks, a Spanish accent I hadn’t noticed now peeks through.

"What are you girls up to?" he asks.

"Don't you worry about it," Holly says, most of the charm gone from her tone.

"I think you're taking down all my dollar bills," he says cheerfully, and I wrap the end of my black bag around my fist in case it’s a “fight or flee.” He looks at our piles of new and old bills.

"What do you mean, 'yours'?" Holly says, not sure what to do.

Honorary Jesus cracks his knuckles and strides to the center of the bar, boots clomping on the tiles.

"I mean, me and my kids have spent years decorating those walls as part of our lesson, and now you've decided to cut straight to the end of the sermon.”

“Riiight,” Holly says, sarcastic. “Teach us a lesson?”

"You gals sure like bar bets. But have you ever seen the one where you dip a twenty-dollar bill in alcohol and set it on fire?"

"Nope," I say, looking to my partners for ideas.

"Well,” he says. “It is quite remarkable. When the fire goes out, and the money stops burning, it is perfectly fine. The currency just stays the same."

"Fascinating," Holly says, motioning for us to pack up faster.

"It’s something to do with the fibers or thread count or something, but they make real money to last. So, if me and my kids wanted this place to burn easy one day, to, say, cash out? We'd have to line the walls with something else besides cash money. Because cash money ain’t gonna cut it!” He laughs and claps his hands, excited. “We’d need something that burns up real good, you see."

I’m not following completely, but I think Holly is getting the idea. She picks up a dollar and sniffed it.

"What do you mean ‘besides money?’"

"I mean, all that time you spent, all that preparation, it was a waste."

"Who are your children?” Sherry asks. “Is this some sort of a cult?"

"What are you talking about?" he laughs. "This is a fine, Jesuit university. An upstanding and faith-based community. Did you know Santa Clara University has the highest post-graduate employment rate in this Christian nation? The student population isn't as diverse as we'd like it, sure, but it's getting there."

"Uh huh."

“Eventually, we’ll all resemble Jesus. The real Jesus, I mean.”

“Good talking to you!” Holly says, heading for the door.

"What I mean is,” he says, arms wide to block her. “If you're stealing paper and replacing it with paper. Well, this is bad for you, but doesn't really change things for us."

“What do you mean?” Holly asks, but I think I get it.

“I mean, that wasn’t money.”

And at this, he unzips his fly, and a long, arcing stream covers the counterfeits on the nearby wall. Then, in a smooth action-hero motion, he produces a golden Zippo, flicks it, and waves it over his head like a concert encore.

Honorary Jesus doesn't quite turn his water into wine that morning, but it’s close enough. We can smell it, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that he was drinking gasoline along with those other colorful cocktails. More likely, it was Sterno.

The gasoline roars from between his legs to cover the fake dollar bills surrounding us, and when he reaches in front of him to break this piss stream with his lighter, the flames boil up like dragon's breath, and the wall of the bar goes up like a righteous bomb.

An actual miracle, Chuck snaps out of his trance and runs for a fire extinguisher, and he puts out the wall with an unceremonious gust of foam. Like it’s his job, which is sort of is. Then he shakes his head to try and understand what’s happening. Honorary Jesus is walking out the door. But he calls back over his shoulder.

"Good work, Chuck. Today wasn't the day. But I’ll be back for the next graduation party."

"Okay, see you at graduation!" Chuck yells, waving like the dumbass he is, then sits on the floor, cradling the extinguisher like a baby.

We gather up our money and leave. We don’t care that it’s fake. We did the work. We earned it.

When we walk out the door, a maintenance man in a red jumpsuit zips by in his golf cart, the back end full of palm fronds. Typical crazy Southern California weather, a storm had flooded our streets for a moment, and we didn’t even notice. Drainage rushes over my feet toward the gutters, and for some reason, I’m convinced I could tread water forever. 

Is this what church is like?

The maintenance man stops to idle and let us cross the street to our cars, head-turning to follow the dollars peeking from our bags and our belts. We hold our breath. Then he nods and drives away without a word. 

When I get home, I take off my shoe to wash off the tequila and find a dead honeybee in the tread. I don’t check under my other foot.

***

There isn’t a happy ending. We rake in $5,379, yes, split three ways, but only a month after counting it all on the floor between our wiggling toes, all three of us are in that proverbial hot seat, hooked directly to the legendary government earthquake detector. 

I fall back on what I know, and my kegels, unlike the mythical urethra drink-draining trick that the gurus apparently actually bullshit about, are a real, live muscle that women can strengthen to turn the tables on their incarcerators. Or at least turn a table over? Or, okay, maybe just cause a barely detectable but no-less insignificant seismic disturbance to that needle on the table and get away with a lie.

It turns out that students regularly steal the dollars off the walls, too, just a couple at a time, but they’re replaced by alumni and hundreds of weekly new-job celebrations so often that no one ever notices. So when some of my funny money ends up buying a freshman some rubbers at the 7-Eleven across the street, it doesn't take much legwork for the real Secret Service to backtrack those half-ass counterfeits to Rachel’s famous photocopy skills. As a bonus, the agents make sure to tell me mine was by far the least lucrative scam they have ever encountered, narrowly stealing the number-one slot from the halfwit who tore four corners off a twenty-dollar bill, just to glue them to a single. 

“Which means each counterfeit twenty he created cost him twenty-one dollars,” they explain. 

It’s not much consolation, however, but we don't go down easy, and when the questions start flying, nobody starts crying this time. But the needle jerks and traces our lies out on the paper like the Rocky Mountains, and we mostly just squeeze our fists instead of our pelvis… and get seventeen years. Divided by three. Yeah, you know why that math doesn’t work? Because the judge has a jar of candy next to his gavel, which betrays his sweet tooth, so he only gives Holly five years when she tries some of those mesmerizing hair flips of hers, and no doubt he ended up buying her a girly drink or two after court. Sugar and alcohol, and she could always get away with murder. But it’s a man’s world, and most of them are judges of some kind or another, and there was a lesson after all. 

We end up in the same place, and we always will.

David James Keaton's first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror, and his second collection, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. He’s also editor of Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz, Dirty Boulevard: Crime Fiction Inspired by Lou Reed, and Tales from the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror. He lives in California.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Killers and Samaritans, fiction by Marie S. Crosswell

November 2005

Athens, Texas


She’s waiting for him at the bar in the town’s only worthwhile dive, and he takes the empty stool on her right, the two of them fitting together like long-lost puzzle pieces. He signals to the bartender, who takes his time coming over, and gives his cousin a good look.

“Hey, you,” he says.

“Hey,” she replies, looking back at him. She throws him a smile that goes out as fast as a match flame in the wind.

    River orders a beer and waits for the bartender to leave him and Roz alone again before speaking. “Why the spontaneous visit?”

“Well, I don’t have a reason to be in Dallas, on account of I got my ass suspended for two weeks,” says Roz, before taking a drink from her glass.

“Damn. What’d you do?”

“Beat the shit out of a suspect. While he was in custody.”

“Did he deserve it?” River says.

“They always deserve it,” says Roz.

She’s a detective in the Dallas PD Criminal Investigation Department’s Assault Unit. Most of the cases the unit handles are physical or sexual assaults. Roz deliberately chose the unit when she made detective so she could go after rapists and woman-beaters.

“Is that suspension with or without pay?” River says, sipping on his beer.

“I’m gettin’ paid,” Roz replies. “Not that I care.”

“Well, if you don’t need the money, I’ll be more than happy to take it off your hands. I’m out of a job.”

Roz looks at her cousin. “Since when?”

“About a week ago. Company decided to lay some people off, I guess, and I was on the list.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. What are you going to do?”

River shakes his head. “I don’t know. There’s not exactly a whole lot of decent-paying work in town for a guy like me.”

He’s got a pronounced limp from his deployment in Afghanistan and no college degree. He may be smart and hard-working, but he’s also a gay black man in a predominantly white Texas town. He’s pretty good at hiding the gay part, but there’s no hiding his skin.

“I could try another oil and gas company,” he says. “I just don’t know if that’s what I want.”

Roz reaches into her back pocket and takes out her lighter, then digs a pack of Marlboro Lights out of her shirt pocket. She pulls two cigarettes from the pack, lights one in her mouth, and hands the other to River.

“Guess it is that kind of time,” he says and leans toward her, so she can light his cigarette for him.

Soon, the cousins are sitting in a haze, the glow of the neon lights behind the bar softened around the edges. They sit with their elbows on the bar top and their heads bobbing low between their shoulders. River tries to blow a smoke ring but only lets out a long plume toward the ceiling. Roz fiddles with her lighter, turning it over in her hands.

“Maybe it’s time to get out,” she says.

“Out of this place?” River replies.

“Out of Athens. I’ve never understood why you moved out here.”

River shrugs and takes the cigarette from his mouth, holding it between his fingers as he sips on his beer. “It’s not a bad place to live. Where would I move to if I left?”

Roz shoots him a look.

River gives her one of his own. “You know how I feel about big cities.”

“Dallas has suburbs,” says Roz. “Satellite towns. You could live in one of those.”

“Do you even like Dallas?”

“I don’t hate it any more than I do the rest of the world.”

River smirks.

Roz glances at the old TV set mounted above the bar, not far from where she and River sit, and the headline on the screen makes her straighten out of her slouch and pull the cigarette from her lips. “Hey, turn that up,” she says to the bartender.

The bartender raises the volume just enough for Roz and River to hear the broadcast. It’s the ten o’clock local news, covering the whole East Texas region. “The search continues for 15-year-old Jewel Gardner in Athens,” says the bleach blonde reporter. “Local police have not officially labeled the teen’s disappearance a case of foul play but also haven’t ruled it out. Jewel was last seen on Friday, November 9 around 10 o’clock at night. She was wearing blue jeans, a burgundy Athens High hoodie, and black sneakers.”

A photograph of a young black girl with her hair in braids appears on the TV screen next to identifying physical information. She’s 5’6, 140 pounds.

    “If you have any information on Jewel Gardner’s whereabouts, please call the anonymous police tip hotline at 903-675-5459,” the reporter says, concluding the segment with a grimace of a smile.

Roz turns to look at River. “Did you know about this?” she says.

“Heard about it, yeah,” he replies. “I sure hope that girl is okay.”

“She’s not.” Roz drains her glass in one quick drink. “I’m going to talk to the cops, find out what they know.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why? It’s been a week, and that girl is still missing. After the first forty-eight hours, the chances of a missing person getting found alive nosedives, and more time passing makes it worse. Who knows if the cops around here are even capable of dealing with something like this properly?”

“What if they won’t talk to you?” says River.

A muscle in Roz’s jaw ripples, as she stares into the mirror peeping through the liquor bottles and old photographs on the wall opposite of her. “Then I’ll get answers on my own.”

River lifts his eyebrows but knows better than to argue with his cousin when she’s in this kind of mood. “Guess you need a place to crash for the night.” All of the tension in Roz’s body dissolves, and she looks at him again with a soft expression. “If you don’t mind.”

River half-smiles at her. “I could use the company,” he says.

***


Athens PD gives Roz their thin file on the Jewel Gardner disappearance without more than a little prodding. She half-lies about working the Texas Killing Fields cases and suspecting a connection.

River waits for her in Roz’s ’67 Mercury Cougar parked outside the station, watching the vehicles pass on the road behind him in his side mirror. He catches a couple of uniformed cops eyeing him suspiciously as they go in and out of the building, but having Roz with him puts his mind mostly at ease. Roz isn’t just a Dallas detective. She’s also a white woman, though she shares a Native American grandmother with River.

After ten minutes, Roz returns and climbs back into the driver’s seat with the manila folder in hand. “They got nothing,” she says. “This girl is fucked if we don’t find her.”

“We?” says River.

“You have something better to do?”

“I’m not a cop.”

“You don’t need to be. We’re not going to do anything a civilian couldn’t do. We’re just going to go talk to her family and friends and see if we can pick up a trail out there at the lake.”

“Lake Athens?”

Roz nods. “That’s where she disappeared.”

He tries not to imagine the fifteen-year old’s corpse in that cold water, milky white eyes open.

Roz starts the car, the engine roaring to life, and shifts gears. “If you don’t want to get involved, I can always take you home. But I could use the help,” she says.

They trade looks.

“All right,” says River. “But I’m counting on you to keep me out of trouble.”

“I think the best I can do is keep you out of jail,” Roz replies. 

  “Good enough for me.”

***


They drive out to Lake Athens with Roz’s notes from interviewing Jewel’s mother and best friend tucked into the case file, Jewel’s school picture clipped to the front of the folder. They find the spot where Jewel’s friend claimed she was last seen, though it’s only a best guess. Crime scenes always look different in the dark.

Athens PD has already searched the area, a five mile radius according to their report. Roz and River don’t see any glaring sign of Jewel’s abduction or any indication she was ever here. They find public bathrooms along the paved walking trail not far from where Jewel and her friends were hanging out, and Roz checks out the women’s bathroom, while River stands outside and smokes a cigarette.

The bathroom is small and dingy, with only two stalls and a concrete floor. She catches her reflection in one of the dirty mirrors above the sinks: surly, brown eyes and a short, lesbian haircut. She shines her flashlight on the walls and the floor, looking for blood stains and objects either Jewel or the kidnapper might’ve dropped. She doesn’t see anything, but Roz can’t shake her gut feeling that something happened here.

This is where a man ambushed Jewel, far enough away from the other kids that they couldn’t hear her scream. Maybe she fought back, or maybe the man knocked her out before carrying her to his car. He could’ve hidden in one of the darkened corners or in the other stall, waiting for one of the high school girls to walk in alone. Did Jewel see him before he attacked her? Did she try to call for help?

When Roz comes out of the bathroom, River’s staring at a white, teenage girl on a bicycle who watches him with sullen blue eyes. She looks seventeen or eighteen, rode hard and put away wet. She blinks at the two cousins, then turns her bike around and starts pedaling away, slow enough for them to catch up with her.

They follow the girl off the trail and down a skinny dirt path, keeping their distance. She peers over her shoulder at them more than once as she rides ahead, making sure they’re still behind her.

Roz and River stop when they see where she’s leading them, but she keeps going until she slips off her bike and leaves it capsized on the ground.

Dozens of Polaroid photographs flap in the breeze from yards of fishing line that zigzag through the trees. The girl used wooden clothes pins to secure the pictures to the line. The cousins watch her as she makes her way past several rows of images, clearly knowing what she’s looking for.

There’s an old Volkswagen van parked not far from the lines, the vehicle’s paint faded and chipped. It looks like it might not even run anymore, tires sagging a little into the soft soil. No sign of anyone else besides the girl in the camp site. 

  She brings the cousins a single Polaroid and holds it out to them. Roz takes it, and she and River look at the image: a Texas license plate on an unidentifiable car. The photo was snapped at night.

“Find the man who drives that,” the girl says. “He’s the one you want.”

      “Did you see him?” Roz replies. “Did you see him take a black girl?”

The blonde takes a step back. “That’s all I can tell you.”

Roz and River walk to the car with the Polaroid, and Roz runs the plate number, on the phone with Dallas PD. The vehicle belongs to one Adam Burke of Acrid, Texas.

   
***


On the road westbound that night, Roz and River ride in silence, trying to keep their cool. They’re both aware they should leave this situation in the hands of the Athens Police Department, aware they have no legal right to do anything to Burke short of Roz’s ability to arrest him—and even that is questionable.

“How are you really?” she says, twenty minutes east of Acrid.

River looks at her, and she glances at him.

“I’m lonely enough, I’m in this car with you right now,” he says. “I don’t mean that I don’t want to help you or be with you. I just mean, I know how south this could go, but I’m here anyway. How are you?”

Roz squeezes the steering wheel and clenches her jaw, eyes fixed on the road. “You know I’ve never been a happy person,” she says.

“Yeah. But that doesn’t answer my question.”

She hesitates, then says, “I was waiting for that piece of shit I assaulted. Waiting for weeks, months. I wanted to get my hands on someone. I’ve been trying to work the Texas Killing Fields cold cases in my spare time—and I’m nowhere. I’m nowhere, and who knows how many of those evil pricks are still out there, still raping and killing women. It’s all I can think about, River. I want to destroy them. And maybe this guy, Burke, is one of them. Maybe he’s been putting women in those fields for years, and Jewel is just his latest victim. Maybe she’s already fucking out there. I don’t know. I just know I want him. I want him all to myself.”

River lets the confession hang in the air between them for a while, processing it. He knows, without fully understanding, that his cousin is in some dark and dangerous head space. But he can’t blame her. The world is full of people who deserve revenge, and he’s one of them. Maybe that’s why he’s following her.

“You’re lonely too,” River says. “Always have been.”

Roz swallows and keeps her eyes on the road. “That’s not why I care about this.”

“Never said it was.”

They’re quiet for a minute, alone on the two-lane highway, headlights the only thing cutting through the dark for miles. Whatever they’re going to now, they’re going together. They have no one else.

River reaches over and lays his hand on Roz’s shoulder, heavy and gentle. She loosens her grip on the steering wheel.

***


Acrid, Texas rises out of the darkness along State Route 45, just north of Corsicana—the kind of place you visit in nightmares, alien but familiar, like a traumatic memory your mind erased but your body can’t forget. Its neon and fluorescent white lights glower against a starless, black sky, calling travelers to the gas station, motel, liquor store, grocery, and the unnamed bar lying in wait at the northern edge of town. There’s not a warm body or moving vehicle in sight, the silence interrupted only by the bulbs buzzing in the gas station canopy when Roz and River get out of the car.

A bell jingles when they enter the small convenience store, the sound splitting the air like a glass dish shattering in an empty room. They almost expect to find the cash register unmanned, the store deserted, but an older man in a faded striped cowboy shirt is sitting behind the counter, smoking a cigarette and poring over a newspaper. He looks up and watches them approach but doesn’t smile into his gray mustache, wariness plain in his eyes. He’s not wearing a nametag.

He checks his watch, as if he was expecting them and they’re late. “Can I help you?” he says, thick East Texas accent laced with west Arkansas. Roz goes right up to the counter, slaps the Polaroid down and pins it under her forefinger, pushing it across the countertop. “You know where we can find the driver of that vehicle?” she says.

The man looks at the photo, his expression unchanged. “You got a name?”

“Adam Burke,” says River. “The vehicle’s registered to an Acrid address.”

The man draws on his cigarette, then holds it between his fingers, lowering his hand to the counter. He holds up the Polaroid in his other hand and looks at it again, like he has to divine Burke’s location out of the image somehow. He glances from Roz to River and back again. “What’s he done?” the man says. “Won a sweepstakes,” says Roz.

    The clerk doesn’t crack his somber expression. He knows exactly where Burke is. She can see it. For a moment, she wonders if he’s going to lie to protect the son of a bitch from a reckoning he can’t predict or imagine.

Instead, he prints out a scrap of blank receipt paper and writes something down on it, then gives it to Roz. She doesn’t even look at the note, maintaining eye contact with the clerk. “You want something for the road, cousin?” she says.

“Not from here,” River replies, standing close at her shoulder.

Outside again in the chilly night, they stop at their respective car doors, and Roz reads the note.

“Directions,” she says. “He gave us directions.”

They look at each other over the roof of the Cougar. One of the canopy bulbs flickers above them.

***


Adam Burke lives at the end of a long, winding, dirt road east of town, the house hidden behind a cluster of hackberry trees. No neighbors or outposts of civilization in sight. He doesn’t even have a street name or a sign. Roz and River follow the road as far as Roz thinks is safe, headlights switched off, tires rolling slowly over the gravel. They leave the car behind them in the road and walk the rest of the way, shrouded in darkness, watching the shadows move. It’s so quiet, their every footstep sounds like an announcement of their presence, and they can only hope that if Burke’s home, he’s not listening. They don’t need to comment aloud on what they’re both thinking: whatever happens out here, they’re on their own. Miles away from the nearest police station, the nearest hospital, and other human beings. No one can hear Jewel calling for help. No one can interrupt Roz and River punishing Adam Burke. No one can save them if Burke overpowers them.

When Roz and River finally arrive at the house, they find it completely darkened. It looks abandoned, except for the old sedan parked in the driveway. The license plate matches the homeless girl’s Polaroid. The house is a small two-story without a fence or a front yard or a garage. They head for the back, Roz leading River with her personal sidearm drawn and ready. They try to move as quietly as they can, and she keeps her eyes on the house, watching for movement inside.

The backyard doesn’t look much different than the front: overgrown grass peppered with weeds, the hackberry trees wrapping around the western side of the house, and the lot stretching into the obscure distance unbounded. There’s nothing in the yard except an old wooden shed with a metal roof.

      River points to the sign of Jewel’s presence, and Roz stares it down like it’s a wild animal ready to eat her alive, one she has no choice but to kill. A thick chain and a padlock on the shed door.

Pushed up against the back of the house is a workman’s table with ominous-looking tools hung up on the wall above it and piled on the shelf below the tabletop. Roz looks for a big set of pliers but doesn’t find any, resisting the urge to kick the table in frustration. She searches the yard with her eyes as if the pliers might appear out of thin air, then forgets them when she notices an ax on the wood pile stacked against the other half of the house wall.

She grabs it and brings it to River, who’s watching her with the kindling of fear in his eyes.

“He better keep it sharp,” she murmurs. “Don’t start swinging until the lights come on.”

She turns around and starts heading for the back door of the house.

“Roz!” River whispers. “What am I supposed to do?”

He looks lost now, and it occurs to her that even though he’s a war veteran, he hasn’t dealt with anything like this before.

“Take her back to the car,” Roz tells him. “Whatever happens, don’t let this motherfucker put his hands on her again. I left the keys on the driver’s seat.”

River looks even more bewildered at the idea of leaving Roz behind in this hell hole, but she means every word she says.

The screen door creaks as loud as a horn when she opens it. The proper door is unlocked, and she slips inside, leading with her gun. Everything outside the present moment and her immediate surroundings evaporates, her hearing suddenly sharper, her eyes quickly adjusting to the dark. She doesn’t even think about River and Jewel now. Her world shrinks to this matchbox of a house and Adam Burke—the thing she’s been hunting her entire career. 

  She stalks through the kitchen and the living room, ready for him to spring into her path at any moment, the safety switched off on her Colt. The shadows and shards of starlight filtering through the windows rustle around her, like spirits occupying the predator’s lair. Every step she takes is deliberate, careful, quiet.

Burke is not asleep on the living room sofa or in the recliner. He’s not in the small bathroom on the ground floor. She stops at the foot of the staircase and looks up to the landing at the top, knowing he must be up there, maybe dead asleep or maybe waiting for her.

Outside, River looks for the first light in the house windows. He hasn’t heard a sound from inside the shed. He’s so afraid, the back of his neck tingles. His breathing is shallow. Is he about to find Jewel’s dead body in that shed? Is his cousin about to get herself killed?

Roz climbs the stairs, taking her time, hearing and feeling the steps creak and shift beneath her. Her skin prickles, fine hairs ready to rise. She watches the shadows move against the wall of the staircase, eyes fixed on the second floor above her as she fears some sign of Burke waking.

When she reaches the landing, she stops and listens for any noise ahead of her. She can’t see much in this darkness, but she can make out at least three doors: what must be two bedrooms and a bathroom. She picks one of the doors to try, guessing it’s the master suite, and tries her best to slide her feet over the floor without picking them up much.

She closes her hand over the door knob, her gun in her other hand, and slowly twists the knob, pushing the door open just enough to slide her arm into the room and find the light switch on the wall.

River sees a light come on in the upstairs window, and his breath hitches. He turns toward the shed and says, “Jewel? If you’re in there and you can hear me, don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you. I have to break the chain on the door to get you out.” He grips the ax in both hands, palms sweating, and starts swinging. The ax blade colliding with the chain sends a loud, metallic clang and rattle through the night. He looks over his shoulder and up at the lit window, hoping like hell that Roz doesn’t need saving.

The shape of a man waits under the blanket on the bed, not stirring even in the room’s bright light. Roz draws closer, pointing her gun at him, and once she stands at the bedside, she can see him: Adam Burke, lying on his back in a drunken sleep. Empty bottles clutter the night table and the floor around it. She checks her watch: quarter to eleven.

Roz points her gun at Burke’s head. If she kills him in his sleep, she’ll never know whether he’s one of the men who put bodies in the Texas Killing Fields along I-45. If she wakes him up, things could get dangerous. She’s got a pair of handcuffs on her; she could force him downstairs into the kitchen, restrain him, and torture him all night for answers. For pleasure.

“Hey!” she barks, voice raised. “Wake up.”

Burke twitches.

Roz kicks the bed. “I said wake up! Now!”

His eyes wander behind the lids. She presses the gun right against his neck, and a cold shock runs through her body.

He rolls his head toward her, opens his eyes, and sees her.

He bolts up against the headboard, ignoring the gun, gaze fixed on Roz. “Who the fuck are you?” he says “What are you doing in my house?”

“If you want to live, you better do everything I fucking tell you,” says Roz.

River hits the chain with the ax again, but it still doesn’t show any sign of breaking. He looks up at the house’s lit window but can’t hear anything. Then he realizes he’s trying to break into the shed the hard way. He starts chopping up the door itself, the weathered wood falling apart like tender meat. He keeps going until there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the door, pulling the loose pieces of wood away and tossing them on the ground.

Once enough of the door has been cleared for him to enter the shed, he drops the ax and takes out the mini flashlight he brought with him, shining it into the shed’s pitch black interior before stepping inside.

Adam Burke grabs Roz’s gun with both hands and yanks it away. She fires as he seizes the weapon, the bullet blowing out the window with a loud BANG! SMASH! She refuses to let go of the gun, tumbling into the bed with Burke. They wrestle around like two cats in a fight, the gun goes off again, and he throws her off the bed and onto the floor. She loses the gun, landing on her belly.

“You came to the wrong fucking house, bitch,” Burke says, feet hitting the floor on the other side of the bed.

Roz is about to slide under the bed when she sees something there she never would’ve expected: a long, metal pipe. Maybe a piece of the bed frame Burke never bothered to install.

River finds Jewel Gardner in the shed, curled up in the back corner, staring at him in terrified silence. She’s dirty, dressed only in a bra and jeans,



barefoot with dried tear tracks down her face. She’s hugging her knees to her chest. “Hey,” he says, trying to use a gentle voice, lips flickering with a forced smile. “I’m River. I’m going to get you out of here.”

Roz reaches under the bed, hand closing around the pipe.

Burke comes around to her, pointing the gun at her, his bared teeth glistening.

She scoots under the bed, then back out again from the foot, springing up behind him.

Just as he turns toward her, she strikes his forearms with the pipe, and he drops the gun with a yelp. She swings the pipe at his head, his neck whipping around at the impact.

    River carries Jewel out of the backyard and down the dirt driveway, past Burke’s car, jerking on his good leg under Jewel’s weight. The girl keeps her arms looped around his neck. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t cry. She must be in shock. He’s too worried about the gunshots he heard to feel anger or relief for the girl. All he can do is focus on getting to the Cougar where it waits out of sight, a little ways down the road.

Burke lies on the floor, knocked out cold. A huge, red-purple welt starts to swell across the left side of his face and head, blood surfacing through the abraded skin. Roz’s heart races in her chest, adrenaline surging through her body, and she looks at him, feeling the heft of the pipe in her hand. She turns out the light and waits for her vision to adjust to the darkness again, to the starlight coming in through the broken window. She takes a few steps up to Burke’s side, grips the pipe in both hands, raises it above her head, and brings it down on him.

She hits him again and again, until the muscles in her shoulders and back and arms burn, his blood hot and viscous, splattered across her clothes and face and bare neck. She hears his bones break, his skull crack and cave in, his flesh splitting open in dozens of little places. She doesn’t stop until the roaring void inside of her goes quiet, until the hunger disappears.

She lowers the pipe to her side, chest heaving, and for a split second as she looks down at his formless silhouette, she feels the urge to get down on her hands and knees and drink from the puddles of blood that surround him. Put her mouth on the gaping wound where his face used to be and suck.

Marie S. Crosswell writes short and long fiction, usually in the crime genre. Her novellas Texas, Hold Your Queens; Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart; Alchemy; and Cold, Cold Water are available wherever ebooks are sold. Her novel The Silence of Lightning is forthcoming from NineStar Press. She's a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and lives in the American West.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Submission Status Update

Hi folks. I'm still kicking, albeit slowly, as evidenced by the flurry of Tough action this weekend. It's become clear that by myself, I can't sustain, with the proper editing, a one story per week pace. Others can, I can't, and that's simply the way it is. Say thanks for the yeoman's work, no, the incredible work of Tim Hennessy, who read everything that came in over the last couple months when I was out of commission, and Rider was out of commission because he was taking care of me first the way a good son should. I am still having difficulty concentrating on reading and editing; I've kept buying books at the same rate I usually read them, though, and the intimidating stack tells me I have a long way to go.

So we're going on a submissions hiatus. I have about a hundred stories left to go through and five to edit, not counting reviews, of which there are only a couple pending. Of those hundred, I'd guess we'll accept fewer than ten, which still puts us in a good place. Ideally I'd like to run three months ahead, but I'm just looking to get back into reading shape, so we're on submissions hiatus until further notice. 

In the comments, I wonder if you'd share your opinion on editorial taste-making. Is it better to have one person's editorial vision guiding things (Tough), a small team of three or four ( a la Shotgun Honey), or a more traditional litmag (let's say Ploughshares, to name one I've admired for years), which runs with an editorial board and a fairly large team of volunteers or interns? I helped run Night Train (now being squatted, thanks a lot, shell company X ) all three ways at one time or another and thought I had developed a preference for the single editorial voice, but in the wake of these last couple months, I'm no longer sure. Carry on, and check Twitter @Tough_Crime for further updates.

Sunday, August 30, 2020



Lockdown: Stories of Crime, Terror, and Hope During a Pandemic

$17.95/9.49

Polis Books

June 2020

reviewed by Paul J. Garth



When asked to review “LOCKDOWN: Stories of Crime, Terror and Hope During a Pandemic”, I was hesitant to say yes. I’d seen a couple of publications put out calls for pandemic themed issues, and in almost every instance, I’d grown instantly weary reading the calls, not just because I didn’t trust the editors of those particular magazines to be able to handle such a serious subject with the care needed, though that was a part of it, but also because the nature of the calls seemed too timely, too on the nose, too expectant to use a readers own anxiety about this particular moment in the world against them. Many of us have been homebound for months, watching updates on death counts and infection rates climb higher and higher as we try to make our way though some new kind of normal. How many stories would be able to both respect the place we’re in, and also tell a good story that could exist independent of this particular moment?

 

    The other reason I was hesitant to review “Lockdown” is much simpler; I’m friends with more than half of these writers, conversing with a majority of them at least once a week, if not more. How much could my review be worth if that detail wasn’t disclosed up front? How honest could I really be? If “Lockdown” was another average collection, how could I write a review that was both fair to people I’m friends with, and to anyone who reads the review?

 

    Thankfully, both issues ended up being moot, as “Lockdown” is a thoughtful, challenging, terrifying, humorous, and deeply sad anthology that comes close to greatness, though it is held back by just a couple stories that don’t quite connect. 

   

The book opens with Gabino Iglesias’s, “Everything is Going to be Okay,” which happens to be one of the single best crime fiction stories of the year. The story of Pablo, an uninsured fisherman whose wife is sick with COVID-19, and a fishing expedition from hell, Iglesias uses his personal and emotive prose to illustrate a life unseen by too many of us with extraordinary humanity and care. From the day to day struggles of getting through a pandemic in the face of a heartless system that doesn’t care, to what living without any kind of a safety net can make a man capable of, and what happens when a person truly has no choice but to do something they do not want to do, there isn’t a detail wasted or that feels anything other than richly lived and deeply earned. As deep and murky as the Gulf Pablo fishes, Iglesias sets the tone, and the bar for the rest of “Lockdown” incredibly high. More crime fiction should be like this. 


    Next up is Rob Hart with “No Honor Amongst Thieves” a home invasion story presented in a non-linear fashion. What at first appears to be a story working on a common fear, especially now that so many of us are home constantly, slowly turns into something else, an attack on the soulless machine that, arguably, has exasperated the situation we’re all living through and that has callously allowed so many to die. That some characters in Hart’s story die violently from something other than the pandemic does not muddle the point; dead is dead, and people are profiting off those deaths. There’s a sense of rage underneath this story, and while it is, in many ways, a flipside to Iglesias’s piece, together they posit a sad yet undeniable point that, in America, at least, money, not human decency or compassion, is all that can keep you safe.


    If you’re sensing a theme of class so far, it is absolutely there, and the use of this theme in several stories is a highpoint of “Lockdown”. Everyone who wrote a story for this acknowledges there are two worlds in a lockdown, the world of those who can stay home and protect their health because of economic stability, and the world where missing even a day of work could have a far more dire outcome than just illness. Steve Weddle and Angel Luis Colon offer stories speaking to these issues as well. In Weddle’s “At the End of the Neighborhood” an armed Homeowners Association from hell steps into the world of the fearful middleclass, examining how close some people are to becoming monsters based on fear and suspicion alone. Understated, and in some ways reminiscent of a plague-based retelling of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, Weddle captures suburban ennui and boredom while the world rages and burns outside a cozy commuter community, unable to look away from what must surely come next. Colon’s story, “Your List” explores similar fears, this time set in a high-rise apartment block, where the confines of lockdown help shape you (the story is masterfully told in a breathless, ever escalating, second person) into a peak physical specimen, paranoid of catching the ravaging disease, until a random knock at the door explodes into intimate violence. 


These stories, the stories where the pandemic is real, where characters are caught up in something that resembles what we see outside our own windows, make up many of the best stories in “Lockdown”, but not all. For an anthology featuring writers mostly known for their crime fiction, “Lockdown” doesn’t take long to start showing its interest in the speculative. Starting with Renee Asher Pickup’s “Desert Shit”, many of the stories imagine something much worse than what we’re living through, superbugs that have decimated society and left the survivors with a fearful half life that is quickly running out of time (for levity, it should be noted, in almost every superbug story, there’s a line about a certain orange skinned President dying, either offscreen, or by coughing out his lungs in the middle of a national address). In Pickup’s story, two criminals steal a pallet of bleach, then hide away, losing themselves in drugs and sex until, days later, they check their phones and see the world has gone to hell. Struggling to get across town, they travel the deadlands of a desert community where cops where full HAZMAT suits and have been ordered to shoot anyone outside of their homes.

 

Others, like Jen Conley’s “Fish Food”, examine what, exactly, an expectant mother would do in the face of a disease whose transmission almost always equals death. A slower, personal story, “Fish Food” stands out as amongst the best in the collection because of its impressive worldbuilding, its lived in pacing, and its willingness to look hard questions in the eye and give definitive answers. “Apocalypse Bronx” from Richie Narvaez similarly moves through a devastated world, this time through the eyes of a corrupt cop sent to kill a witness who has been offloaded from the hospital in order to allow staff to handle the spiking disease. A nighttime gauntlet through New York City, devastated by the second, mutated wave of COVID, Narvaez’s story is both entertaining and timely, and, with its well thought out descriptions of a second wave, one of the most unnerving to those of us reading in the present. 

 

Others go even further, positing a world in which Ghosts, because of the lockdown, become lonely, where monsters gain free roam of the earth due to the decimation of disease, and where the United States has fallen, leaving only Mexican and South American drug cartels in control of most of North America. “Misery Loves Company” by Ann D├ívila Cardinal tells a story of loneliness and betrayal, where a long-rumored ghost on a college campus becomes so upset with those who no longer fill the school’s halls, it starts haunting, and killing, faculty over Zoom calls. That sounds like an insane premise, a story that absolutely should not work. That it does, and that it works remarkably well, is a testimony to Cardinal’s talent. Similarly, S.A. Cosby’s “The Loyalty of Hungry Dogs” starts feeling like a scene from one of the great post-apocalyptic books in literature, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, including the overgrown rural home of survivors and a mysterious but obviously Not-Good-News shed behind the house, and armed marauders willing to kill over the contents of a small garden, before becoming something altogether different. Half a continent away, V. Castro’s “Asylum” tells the story of how the Cartels came to power, defeating a particularly horrifying disease and watching the United States fall, in part because of their inhumanity at the border. Told conversationally, the story packs a complete speculative history, moving from individual stakes to the full ramifications of the geo-political rebalancing without ever forgetting those who died because of US policy.

  

Other standouts in “Lockdown” include Eryk Pruitt’s “Herd Immunity”, another second person story in which a young man visits a cult compound, “The Seagull & the Hog” in which a frustrated man loses his mind to the sounds of his neighbor’s constant copulation and undertakes what might be a suicide mission for new material to masturbate to, Hector Acosta’s “Por Si Adoso” which examines a food delivery racket, and the trouble poor kids trying to make cash for themselves in a new world find themselves in when they come in contact with the upper class, and “Lockdown” editor Nick Kolakowski’s “A Kinder World Stands Before Us” in which a former Michelin starred chef finds himself cooking for the world’s most vapid and useless collection of Tech CEOs, moguls, and ultra-wealthy before their source runs out and the 1% rapidly devolve into procuring other means for their own survival. 


That an anthology edited by Steve Weddle and Nick Kolakowski has so many great stories shouldn’t be a surprise; Weddle edited Needle, one of the seminal crime fiction journals of recent years, and Kolakowski is fresh off a multi-year tenure helping shape young writers as an editor at the long running Shotgun Honey website. Unfortunately, however, not every story in “Lockdown” is excellent. A couple of stories seem out of place or rushed, or do not fit the broader theme of the anthology as a whole, including a couple of the later stories, one of which would be better described as post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which features almost no mention of a lockdown or viral outbreak at all, and certainly no thematic or plot relevance to the thematics of the wider anthology.

  

Though there are stumbles, none are so bad as to make “Lockdown: Stories of Crime, Terror, and Hope During a Pandemic” anything other than very, very, good. “Lockdown” is a varied, thoughtful, imaginative anthology that offers more than just crime or horror or sci-fi, but instead a mix of all of the above. Though not perfect, it is considerably better than most other anthologies and if it were not for being spread across so many genres, I would expect it to be nominated for several awards. Perfect not just for reading while in lockdown, but also, when this is all over, as a document of where we were at this moment, “Lockdown”, full of rage, sadness, and humor, excels at showing the humanity of everyone who may be or become infected, and casts a light on the systems that shrug indifferently at death. 



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.