Monday, December 14, 2020

The Ballad of John Rider, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

The flight was under four minutes, a trick of levitation at eleven at night, up Market Street and then Portola Drive to Diamond Heights. Jefferson Airplane’s “Have You Seen the Saucers.” With the opening notes, the cabdriver reached over to the dashboard and turned up the FM station’s volume. When the song concluded on its sci-fi buzz and fade, he glanced at me in the rearview mirror and said, “Welcome to San Francisco.”

It was 1974 and I was eighteen. I’d arrived in the city via a Greyhound Ameripass, and while that cross-country trip had its own disparate misadventures—a collection of stories connected by only, I admit now, a naïve young man from Wisconsin set loose on the modern American West—it was San Francisco that I aimed for all along, and my aim was true. I thought I might even remain in the city, blow off my freshman year of college that fall. I would get a job and stay.

“Pete?” My Uncle Eric expected me at his apartment. But not that night. His eyes were bloodshot and fractured, and I knew that familiar funk of weed, recognized the artist who created the music chiming from his living room. “Pete”—stepping aside, welcoming me in—“ Jethro, I didn’t think you’d arrive until, what, next week.”

I walked in, shrugged the rucksack from my shoulder Jack Kerouac style, and ignored the “Jethro” nickname Eric tagged me with years before because whining would have been pointless. Bullheaded. He was a Strom and I was a Strom. If he was going to call me by The Beverly Hillbillies’ nephew’s name, so be it.

We stepped down into the hexagonal living room, lights turned low, sticks of sandalwood incense smoldering on the fireplace mantle. A jeans and chambray shirt-clad young man with unruly hair and beard reclined on one of the two Victorian sofas, a Hindenburg-size joint in his hand, the zeppelin’s tip smoking.

“This is Duncan,” Eric said. “Duncan, this is Jethro.”

“Pete,” I corrected, and Duncan nodded, offering me the burning airship.

“He’s my nephew, Duncan. Verstehen sie?” Eric spent the Korean War in Germany and phrases he had picked up remained over twenty years later. “He’s just out of high school.”

Duncan said, “Sorry, man,” diverting the joint midflight to Eric. I recalled the disaster newsreel’s sobbing reporter: Oh, the humanity.

I did manage to suck in a deep breath of the quality smoke that floated across the room. In my small hometown, low-quality pot was the expectation. Whatever Eric and Duncan were indulging in was a treat. And the music. That was too. The reel-to-reel tape rolled on playback. “Is this who I think it is?”

Duncan’s face lit up, bowled over at the possibility a kid from a little Midwestern town might know, but before he could say anything, Eric forestalled him, a lift of his hand. “Who do you think it is?”

“John Rider.” No confirmation necessary. It was John Rider, I knew it. I’d been buying his albums for five years at that point, my older brother even longer. Rider released his debut LP, the psychedelic Colors in My Garden, in sixty-seven, after Lennon and McCartney, Brian Jones, and Syd Barrett applied their wash of aural color. “John Rider,” I repeated, adding, “Recluse Rider,” because that’s what the music rags had dubbed him.

Eric winced at “Recluse,” shook his head, while Duncan’s weed-enhanced titter budded through the room.

“Anyway, that’s what Lester Bangs calls him in Creem. But this is great, Eric. I’ve never heard it before.”

My uncle said, “That’s because, I shit you not, it’s John Rider’s latest.” He glanced at Duncan, then back at me. “Keep it under your hat.”

I never thought to ask that night if I could see the tape reel’s box, the artwork and photography, the lyric sheet, the list of musicians playing on each song. Music is magic, and this was musical mesmerization: ringing twelve-string guitars, Baroque noodling with harpsichord, hill country dulcimer, juke joint piano, rumbling electric bass, spare drum work, and spacey synthesizer.

“Sonic harmonics.” That’s what Duncan called the mix. Leaving at sunrise, he shook my hand. “You’ve heard John’s new nickname, right?”


“Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay?”

I nodded as Eric took Duncan by the shoulders and pointed him out the door.


The Ameripass was a great deal for an eighteen-year-old off on his own, although stuck at the Sioux Falls YMCA my first night out—the depot closed, no departures till morning—I wanted to turn back, be homeward bound. But I continued on the next morning. The pass was a wide-open, ninety-nine-day ticket to ride anywhere Greyhound rolled in the lower forty-eight. You could disappear in America. The company’s TV spokesman was Fred MacMurray in the guise of the My Three Sons dad, a gosh-by-golly barker encouraging people to see America from a relaxing seat on the bus. The price was low. How could I say no?

After that first night in San Francisco, listening to John Rider’s new music and cracking Eric and Duncan up with stories of my antics on the road, I was ready to ball up the paper ticket and chuck it and my freshman year at Barron County out the window. But I didn’t. Instead, I sat on the guest room davenport and considered the Ameripass. I ended up tucking the flimsy ticket away, between the pages of my paperback copy of On the Road.


Eric, two nights later: “I have to run over to my boss’s place. Want to come along?”

I jumped at the offer. It would have to beat the previous night. I’d wandered into the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood looking for the studio where the Airplane, the Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had recorded. I’d stopped to gawk in the window of a closed leather goods shop, and a reflection in the window materialized beside me, a young woman in a flowing cape. She passed me a handbill for Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple— But that’s a different story.

When I first met him, Eric’s employer consisted of instruments: a Blüthner grand piano—McCartney played one on Let It Be; two Martin guitars, six- and twelve-string; and an Epiphone bass, all these in a room overlooking a silent, rolling Pacific.

“Don’t touch anything—especially the instruments. In fact, just stand where you are,” Eric directed, then he left. I couldn’t hear him though he worked his way through other parts of the house. Moonlight flooding in through a curved window wall lit the music room. The ocean’s breakers rolled in silence.

Tell me not to do something. I glanced back. Stepping to the grand piano, I lifted the keyboard lid and played the first nine notes of “Imagine.”

“Stop. Just stop.” Eric came from behind and moved me away from the Blüthner. He wiped down the keyboard and then, after closing it, the lid.

“Peter”—no Jethro—“It’s important that if you want to come with me when I have to work here, that you listen. When I tell you not to do something, not touch something, a book, an instrument, a gimcrack, follow my instruction. Verstehen sie? I’m not trying to be an asshole. It’s just—it’s just, this is his home. Not hermetically sealed, but damn close. So, please. Touch nothing.”

“Who is he?” The family back in Wisconsin didn’t know what Eric did for a living in San Francisco. Yes, they knew what he did when he lived in the Midwest. After serving in the U.S. Army, he’d worked for a while as a steward on a Great Lakes freighter, drove a delivery truck with a Teamster card tucked in his wallet, and at one point, he was a laborer, assembling industrial bakery equipment. When he moved to the Bay Area in the early sixties, it was, for the family, out of sight, out of mind. “Who is your mystery employer? Howard Hughes?”

Eric crossed his arms and stared at me, then said, “John Rider.”

“What? No, wait. What?”

“John Rider is my, as you have said, mystery employer. I’m his— I don’t know: righthand man, gofer. I make things run smoothly for him and his organization.”

I grinned, color me dumbfounded. All I could think to ask? “Can you turn on a light in here?” I wanted to see the music room’s instruments under the bright lights.

“No.” He sized up the room. “So, now I’ve gotten the place ready for his return. We should get going.”

Backpedaling to Eric’s Fiat, I took in John Rider’s home, call it a mansion, snapping it for my mental photo album, like I would Abbey Road Studios, Wally Heider Studios in the Tenderloin, or the Jefferson Airplane House on Fulton Street.

As he drove us back to Diamond Heights, I apologized for touching the piano. Some might say it was over the top, but the apology led to another question. “How about Duncan? Does he do what you do?”

I caught the swell of a laugh on Eric’s face, but he didn’t let it break. “Oh, not Duncan. No.”

“You’re his boss? I mean, you kind of marched him out of your apartment the other night.”

Eric let that slide. “Let’s listen to that new Rider tape when we get back to my place. I’ll probably give you what’s left of my weed too. It’s been playing hell with my allergies. Just”—zipping his lips—“no word to your mom and dad.”


The next day I pretty much obliterated by smoking a grass zeppelin on my own, then letting a wild hair spring me out of my vegetative sofa state and out the apartment door. I trekked, no, floated up and down the hills of San Francisco in that stoned condition. By midafternoon, I was on Mount Sutro and I couldn’t find my way back to the apartment.

A man in a red Jaguar convertible picked me up on Crestmont, I think it was Crestmont. He offered me a beer from the cooler stash tucked between the Jag’s bucket seats. I whined like a twelve-year-old: “Thanks, but I just need a ride to my uncle’s place.” There was the sudden braking action at the curb, and he reached over and popped open my door.

I was still on Mount Sutro, thinking I could see the Diamond Heights neighborhood, its curving rows of fifties shoebox duplexes, from whatever street I was walking on. A Karmann Ghia painted British racing green pulled up. I didn’t have high hopes.

“Give you a lift?” It was Duncan, looking over the lenses of his mirrored aviators. “Peter? Not Jethro, right?” he asked as he pulled out into traffic.

“What the hell are you doing up here? Getting a better view of Sutro Tower? It’s not even up here.” He laughed, took us on a few hairpin turns. “I heard you were with Eric at the house the other night.”

All my coiled astonishment sprang out. “Holy crap, man! Yes. Like, was I stoked, absolutely—”

Duncan nodded, signaled with the cigarette in his hand that we could move on from the initial blown away perspective. “Did Eric mention me?”

I thought back. “No. Yes. I’d asked him if you did what he did. What your role was.”


“He ignored me.”

Duncan laughed joylessly. “Nothing—oh, why should I ask you— Okay, nothing about me, about what I do? What I’ve done?”


He pulled into a Safeway parking lot, a spot tight against the public sidewalk. We weren’t going grocery shopping.

“I came back from L.A. that night with John Rider. Later. The same night you were there with Eric. He didn’t mention we were coming in?”


“Reckless, man. He’s a mess.”

Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay? “Yeah?”

Duncan glanced over at me, then back at the grocery store and the people walking in, walking out, going about their everyday lives. “Yes. Reckless John Rider’s burned to a crisp. That cereal? Crispy Critters? He’s a bowlful.”

My mouth hung open. Duncan smiled, chucked me under the chin to close it. “Okay. But with all the music, the albums— How long?”

He blew a Marlboro stream. “I don’t really know, Pete. I was late to the Reckless Rider party. His mind, it’s pretty much like I said, man, crunchy cereal. He still has those terrific vocal chops. The cat truly does. But that’s it.”

A swipe at the dust on the dashboard allowed Duncan time to consider his next words. “The last tape, the one you heard, the new LP? Reckless sang lead, and damn well. Session players played the music, and they did amazing work. Me? I wrote the music and lyrics.”

I looked at him and sputtered, “No way.”

“Ah, yes.”


He didn’t have much money, but Duncan bought us dinner at a Doggie Diner, even treated me to a T-shirt featuring the restaurant’s iconic dog, the smiling, bow-tied, red-hot dachshund wearing a chef’s hat. He was a worried man, he didn’t have to say so and didn’t, I could tell that much at eighteen. How long Rider had been the way he was, that was an open question.

Duncan was hired over a year before via a nondescript ad in the back of Rolling Stone and a lengthy, puzzling audition: Do some John Rider for us. Do something John Rider could have composed. He’d blown away the interview panel that included my uncle. Now, here he was. The record company was releasing the new LP, it could be any day, but Duncan felt at loose ends.

“I haven’t been told the release date. Reckless doesn’t know. He doesn’t really know me, though we’ve been traveling buddies up and down the coast a number of times. But here’s what really puzzles the hell out of me, man: Who wrote and recorded the earlier albums? Where are these talented cats now? Rider’s the cash cow, but where have all the old hired hands gone, man? I’d like to know that.”


The next day, Eric left for L.A. He told me he’d be gone for at least three days for meetings with record company execs, working out the logistics for Rider’s upcoming release.

I felt him out. “Will there be a tour?” I already knew from Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Creem, and Duncan that a tour was not in the cards. Reckless Rider hadn’t performed live, anywhere, in over three years. The rock magazines, Rider was their cash cow as well, wiped the sweat from their collective brow: At least John Rider continues to produce music that we can review.

“Enjoy the city while I’m gone,” Eric said. “And stay out of trouble. Verstehen sie?”

The first time I’d gone to John Rider’s ocean view home, I checked the house number and cross street when my uncle and I left. The second time I went there, I was able to give the cab driver the approximate address.

At Rider’s front door, I wondered if I was the reckless one. What did I expect to gain by showing up and ringing the doorbell that played the first seven notes of Groucho Marx’s “Hello, I Must Be Going”? The next steps were easy since no one answered the musical chimes. I could have walked away. Instead, I tried the door. It was unlocked.

It seemed every San Francisco abode I stepped into that summer of seventy-four was socked in with the fog of pot and incense. On this second visit to John Rider’s home, I just followed my nose.

The piano bench had been knocked over, a junk drawer’s worth of material tumbled from its storage compartment and scattered on the floor. An antique wing chair replaced the bench in front of the piano’s keyboard. I recognized John Rider. He sat in the chair, staring at the black and white keys as if they were a curiosity. His elbow rested on an arm of the chair, his hand cradling the side of his head, mouth gaping, his now doughy face frozen in wonder.

“Mr. Rider?”

After a few minutes, his head swiveled to take me in, the dazed look of his face unchanged. “John,” he said. “Mr. Rider is my father. And my grandad.” He took a deep breath from the effort. “John.”

“John,” I was bummed by his burned-out aspect.

He managed to point a bent finger at me, the fingers of his other hand caught in the long, ratted tangle of his prematurely gray hair. He pointed, tapped in my direction, and finally, with effort, yanked his other hand out of his hair, three fingers encircled with the gray matting, pulled from his scalp, apparently, with no pain. He continued to point at me.

“I’m Peter Strom, Eric’s nephew.”

He took a breath, a clotted gurgling through his sinuses. “You? In L.A. with me? Last time?”

“No. That must’ve been Duncan. You know? Duncan?”

He touched his chin. “Beard? Right, man?” He smiled when I nodded. “At least you won’t have to worry about that.” Rider laughed and, as Uncle Eric would say, I shit you not, I got goosebumps from the musicality of the man’s laughter. He did. He still had something.

But still: “What won’t I have to worry about?”

He waved me off in slow motion. “The big change out, man. The cosmic disappearance.” His hands orchestrated a poof, and whatever may have been there was gone.

“Duncan will—you’re saying Duncan will disappear.”

Rider’s hands repeated the poof, slowly, very slowly.


Rider was fascinated by the movements of his hands.

“How will Duncan disappear, John?”

“Just gone, baby. Gone, gone, gone”—his knees were crossed and his hands landed there, one atop the other—“like the coda of the song.”


Duncan and I got high listening to the Rider LP on Eric’s reel-to-reel. I should say we tried getting high, smoking one of his outsized joints. It didn’t work. I’d told him about my visit with John Rider.

The tape ran out, the tail flapping round and round until Duncan flipped the lever, turning off the machine. As he put the tape in its box, he sang the old Animals’ hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

“You’re right, man.”

He looked at me. “I’ve got no bread, Pete. I’m stuck inside of San Francisco with those Reckless John Rider you don’t work for me no more blues again. I’m stuck, brother. Stuck. And I’ve got no idea who I should be on the lookout for—you know? Is it Eric? Reckless Rider? Some hit man”—hit man, the musical kind, made him chuckle—“I’m, I don’t know. I’m in trouble, and I can’t get away from it.”

That’s when I told him about The Cosmic Disappearance. The Poof.


When Eric returned to San Francisco, he brought back intensity in spades, a hip ferocity, a skull session with Duncan was in order. He phoned the few numbers he could normally reach him at. Nothing.

“Did Duncan stop by at all when I was in L.A.?” His cool a thin layer masking something like anxiety.

I shook my head, playing at youthful dumbass which Eric had no trouble buying.

“Idiot kid,” my uncle muttered, walking away. From down the hall, he called out, “Aw, sorry. Not you. Duncan.”


The police located the green Karmann Ghia within a week. He’d abandoned the car, a note on the driver’s seat, in the parking lot of an observation area on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The suicide, the note Duncan had written to his family, none of it directed attention to my uncle and Reckless John Rider’s use-them-and-lose-them operation. With the suicide, Eric’s mood lightened, an item off his Rider plate.

Eric did think it was well past time for me to return home. One problem with that? “I tossed my Ameripass my first night in the city,” I said sheepishly. “My plan was to stay here.”

That didn’t fit Eric’s plans. He bought me an airline ticket. I flew out of San Francisco International, arriving home for school with time to spare.

Flying over America, back to the Midwest, I looked down through the breaks in the clouds at the interstates, the traffic, when I could make it out, rolling predominantly to the west. Yet some, no, many rolled to all points east. And that made me think of Duncan. I wondered where he was, rolling away on a Greyhound bus.

I shit you not.

Verstehen sie?

Jeff Esterholm is delighted to let everyone know that this is his second appearance in Tough. His short stories have also appeared in the Akashic Books online flash fiction series Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, and Yellow Mama, as well as in Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas. He and his wife live at the head of the Great Lakes.

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Debutante, fiction by Rosemary McLean

 Your daddy weren’t a good man,” her uncle had said, “Weren’t much a man at all.” Her daddy, as she’d heard so many times, was a long-tongued ne’er-do-well who had followed the blasting gangs down from the north about 20 years ago when blasting gangs still came down to carve roads into mountains. Before she died, he’d brought her mama corner-store flowers every week, even if she didn’t want them. S. Herman was his name. 

“‘S’ weren’t short for nothing either. Just ‘S.’” Her uncle shook his head. “Never trust a man with a damn letter for a name.” 

He had tossed his cigarette, like he always did, out to the long wet grass before rising from the rocking chair on the back porch of the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant. 

“After tonight, things are gonna change. You'll be a woman now, and you know what that means. Things’ll be worse for you than they were for your mama when the men start coming around, ‘course,” he had said, his gaze lingering on her crooked, brace-set legs before blinking away, eyes watery, like looking at the sun. “Most girls can run away.

“That’s why you’ve got to stay home. Those books you read don’t tell you what happens when a girl goes out too far without a man,” he had paused, resting his thumbs on the seam of his jeans and belt. “Ain’t fair, but it’s a man’s world. Girl, especially a girl like you, just ain’t safe anymore.” 

Ever since she could read Jesup had wanted to travel, to go out on her own and explore the world beyond the Wayne County Public Library. Nowadays she didn’t feel much else besides the yearn, the desire to get out, to go somewhere else. It was all she'd ever wanted, no matter how much her ill-grown body felt sometimes like a cartoon ball and chain anchoring her to this damn old stretch of road where adventure and excitement came to retire after a string of bad investments in the big city. 

Still, her uncle's words hung over her like a blade over a Frenchman or a bird around a sailor’s neck. After a bit of consideration, she decided to ignore his advice. The biggest factor in this decision was the simple fact that her uncle was shot dead in front of her, and it was a woman who pulled the trigger. 

It had all happened before she turned around. Three pops from the front of the bar, quick, like firecrackers. Then two more, wall shaking ones, like church organ notes. Her uncle had spun around, then another note, then the long wet grass was all red and her uncle stumbled back drunk and fell over. His nose looks like a candle, she thought, and the racket blew it all out.

The last sound was damn loud, and Jesup’s hands clung to her ears as the woman in the thick brown Carhartt coat walked out of the bar. The woman studied Jesup’s uncle with the look one has when driving past a car crash or looking at a disabled girl’s legs, and hiked one of her boots up onto his chest. She cocked open her gun— a small thing, frail and silver, not like her uncle’s hunk of wood rifle hanging unloaded over his bed back home— and emptied out a bunch of little bronze beetles that sang together as they fell. Then, like a watchmaker, she started loading in new ones one after another, clicking the little cylinder one notch to the left between each shell.

A boom echoed out from inside and Jesup’s ears rang again, and glass sprayed out from the restaurant window and the woman stumbled a half step back like something punched her in the side as she spun and she pointed her thin little silver gun and another boom sounded and Jesup’s head was splitting now but she heard a thud inside and the woman grimaced and put the gun in a little leather holster on her side. Jesup looked into the shattered cobweb window of the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant and saw three big bodies laying around the place, all poked full of holes. Uncle’s friends. One of them was knocked back onto the billiard’s table. A big club of a gun lay beside him, with a thin little trail of smoke crawling up out of its barrel. 

“Damn,” the woman grunted, gravelly, as she fingered the little burned hole in the front of her red flannel shirt, “I’m getting sloppy.” 

“Are you gonna die now?” Jesup asked, the bass drum pounding in her head dying down to a lighter, snare drum type of sound. The woman’s gaze snapped to Jesup as though she’d only just noticed her, and for a moment the little thin frail silver gun was pointing at Jesup face-wise, but the woman loosened up and slid it slowly back in its little leather suit. The woman’s eyes were umbrellaed by a trucker’s cap, but Jesup could tell she was looking up and down the thick metal wires criss crossing her legs. Half a second later the womans’ shadow-eyes had looked up— quicker than most folks’ do— and fixed on Jesup’s chubby face. 

“Nah,” the woman thumbed a bit of blood from her cheek, smearing it into accidental warpaint like the Indians wear on TV. “I don’t do that anymore.”

“You don’t die?”

The woman grunted out a sigh before looking at her gun and counting out a 7 on her fingers. She half-turned, facing towards the tall grass behind the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant. 

“Wait!” Jesup called out to the woman, “what am I supposed to do now?” The woman looked back, frowning. Some kind of sun ray peaked out from over the Turtle Lake then because, for the first time, Jesup could see the woman’s face. Her cheeks were worn with two long lines, like tear-troughs, and her eyes looked like a junkyard dog’s. 

“What do I know? Go to your mama.” 

“My mama’s dead.” 

“Your granny, then.” 

“She died too. Brain problems. All I got’s my uncle.” Jesup paused, looking down to the noseless body by the woman’s feet. “Well, all I had.” The woman’s eyes flicked towards the body, then back to the girl. She sighed again, louder. Jesup’s face lit up with a sinister little memory. “Wait, I heard about you. You’re that man-killer. Mildred.” 

The woman’s dog-eyes kept staring, but there was something different behind them, like if you made one mistake she’d jump on you and kill you with her own teeth. Jesup didn’t care much.

“They say you kill every man you meet. You’ve been killing men all across Franklin. Must’ve been,” Jesup paused, kneading her bottom lip between her teeth as she ran through the television broadcasts and radio commentary in her mind, “thirty men, plus three or so was in the bar just now.” 

“Dunno,” the woman replied, adjusting her hat to sit between her and the sunlight. “Only counted the bullets.”

Jesup frowned, gripping the rough edges of her eggshell Sunday dress. The woman took a little leather book from her jacket and flipped it open, scanned it for a moment, and then shoved it back deep in her low-hanging pockets. 

“You scared of me, girl?”

“You ain’t kill girls. Everybody knows that.”

“I ain’t kill women. Just cause I ain’t killed a girl don’t mean I wouldn’t.” The woman smiled a little, prodding. Jesup crossed her arms over her chest, holding onto her sides. Her eyebrows furrowed defiant, and her mouth curled up too.

“I’m gonna be. A woman, I mean. Tonight. I’m gonna be sixteen.” The woman stopped, her ghost of a smile disappeared. This time she looked Jesup over was different. Wistful. 

“What’d you kill those men for?” Jesup asked, feeling a little emboldened. The woman clicked her tongue like chewing tobacco and ran her hand along the brim of her cap. 

“Ain’t they deserve it?” She paused on that for a second, bringing her hand up to touch a rough line of scar across her neck. Without looking back, the woman turned and headed into the long grass. 

“Hey, wait!” Jesup called after the woman before she knew what she was doing, and— upon realizing— grabbed her mouth with embarrassment. The woman kept on. Jesup watched the woman leave with a strange sort of anxiety, til’ finally the woman was gone and her eyes drifted down to the body before her. He looked so peaceful now that he couldn’t stare or yell or touch her when she didn’t want him to. Without that knobby long nose of his, you almost couldn’t tell he was a Kinney, like her. Her head tilted sideways, then her long Kinney nose scrunched up and she looked back towards the lifeless bar. The colic sirens of seven or so police cars screamed towards Turtle Lake from the highway, echoing out through the forest branches of the valley. As the screams grew, so did the weight of the thoughts dancing between Jesup's ears. The police find me, then what? She swallowed deep. Her own kin ain't wanted her, what'll the tax payers of Wayne County do with her? No France, no pirate ships. I'll be here...

 Lit up like an electric chair, she stirred to life. Her arms pushed hard on the wheels by her sides, rocking herself down the rickety old ramp by the back porch. She rolled off the lip, pressing trenches into the soft dirt behind her until the roots of the long grass filled her axles and clung to her like skeleton hands. She pulled again, once, twice, but the wheels wouldn’t budge in the Appalachian muck. Singing little curses under her breath, Jesup fumbled out her long metal crutches from their fixture on the back of the wheelchair and straightened her brace-legs best she could, lunging forward a couple of times until the weight shifted and she stood on her two feet. Sweat climbed down her brow, but she started forward into the dark. 

"Hey! Wait up, hey!" 

It was a long dark way through the woods of Wayne County. The logs and branches twisted to reclaim Mildred’s thin trail, snagging Jesup’s crutches, tugging at her dress, and pulling her shoelaces. She tore her way through faster than the sirens could follow her, and before long their wails had faded into the gossip of the birds and bugs. It would've been a hard way through for any girl of fifteen, much more for a girl more iron than flesh. But sure as the day was long, some kinda fever drove her forward, some unknowable phantom worker shoveled coal into the engine of her spiderbit heart. The story told by broken sticks and parted grass was true, and Jesup had the strength and wits to read it. 

After an hour or more following Mildred’s rat-road, a thick oak crossed the path. Its branches bowed in reverence to the sun, but the long grass whose trodden part had guided Jesup all this way withered between the tree’s thick roots. Jesup turned a few times, but no trace of the woman with the gun could be found. Her chest tightened breathlessly, and she quickly carried herself over to rest against the sturdy old bark beneath the shade. Her muscles throbbed with numb pain, but her head rang worse. Leaning her brandy hair against the tree, she thought back to the noseless body and began to cry harder than she ever had before. It was strange, she thought, how long it took for her to care that he was gone. She hadn’t loved her uncle, hadn’t even cared for him at all, but he was gone. She would never hear him chop wood for their stove, or turn the game on his radio and play it through the trailer, or tell her about her mother. I’ll never hear about my mama again. Her uncle was gone and she was all alone. 

She sniffled and wiped her face with the back of her arm. She straightened her posture and adjusted her legs in their braces; they were pink, knobby and bent, turning before the knee and slowly corkscrewing to her little white socks and black shoes. In some ways, they were like trees that had grown up crooked— bent by some old storm or turning sideways to look for better sunlight. Just as twisted and, peculiarly, just as strong. 

By now her head had quieted enough so she could hear the woods around her, and her eyes lit up when she recognized the rushing of water close by. She steadied herself on her crutches and hobbled around the base of the wide old tree. Its thick roots crawled up and out of the black earth, eventually overtaking the soil and forming a rough floor of gnarled wood. Jesup carefully followed the roots past the tree, picking her way down its web. They—the roots, that is—flowed down a little crater of a hill, swirling at the bottom into a vast whirlwind of mossy bark. In the center of the whirlwind was a sparkling little spring, bubbling to the surface from some well deep, deep down. Long-toothed willows curtained the spring, protecting it from the rest of the wide, thick forest. 

Jesup picked her way to the center with a sudden vigor, lowering herself by the water and washing her face and arms. She pulled the heavy white dress from her body and tossed it into a pile by the water. Dirt and twigs and loose threads covered it, but you could still see under all that it was a nice dress, lightly patterned with a baby blue embroidery of Easter flowers. A present from the neighbors, made special for her ‘debut’ tomorrow night. Uncle had made her wear it a little early, on account of showing it off to everyone at church. Told them he’d bought it.

This was her first time ever bathing herself in fifteen—er, sixteen—years. In fact, this was the first time she had been by herself, unwatched. She laughed a little, cherubic, at the way the cool water kissed her tired limbs. Birds sang above her, little water-skippers ballet danced along the surface of the clear spring. She ran the cool water over herself until her underclothes were soaked to the skin, a gentle relief from the sticky summer heat. 

Still smiling, Jesup’s eyes wandered over to the dress in its heap among the roots and paused. Something about that dress, its liar folds and deadbeat stitches, some kind of black anger filled up inside of her. She wanted to crawl over to it and tear it apart, to feel the fabric rip under her hands. More than that, she wished she could tear its atoms apart, render it an amorphous unrecognizable gas of molecules among the forest green. She settled for tearing off the sleeves and dying it in the earth-black mud between the roots. After she pulled the rough dress back on, she shivered from the cold and excitement. She labored up to her feet and fixed her arms back into the crutches. A gunshot called through the trees from far away, kicking up a wave of frightened feathers. Jesup exhaled. She’d found her path. 

It was long dark by the time she caught up to Mildred. The woods were quieter than she'd ever known them to be, and the way was harder without a rat-road to follow. When she reached the woods’ end, she saw the lights first, sparkling blue through the box-shadows of two buildings. The police car was empty but the driver was nearby, two holes in the back and a gun just out of reach. The car siren'd burned itself out, but the click—click—clicking of the rotating lights was loud next to the night's hush. By the time Jesup had finally muscled her way out of the tangling brush, Mildred had looked up from her little leather book. Behind the big cigarette burn of a hole on her shirt, there was no sign of the gunshot wound from earlier. Just pink-white skin. Like magic.

"You again?" the woman's voice was low, lower than before. "Thought those woods'd've swallowed you up by now." The lightning trace of a smile crossed her chapped lips, and she slapped her book closed. This time, she stood up straight, and looked Jesup head on. Despite her age, Jesup's pale blue eyes looked fierce. Almost, Mildred thought, like mine. 

"I've been chasing you all over creation," Jesup began, half-panting between words, "so you're gonna listen to me and you're going to listen well. My mama's dead, my daddy's gone, and you done killed the last family I had." Tears boiled up from Jesup's eyes from somewhere deep, red-hot. They surprised her more than the shooting had. 

"Decide on revenge after all, then?" White teeth flashed between Mildred's lips. Jesup pulled her arm from one of her crutches and wiped her speckled cheek. Without a wasted breath, those eyes flashed back to Mildred. “You here to finish me off the way I finished that uncle of yours?” 

“That ain’t it—” Jesup began only to choke on her own words. Her mind swirled with possibilities, thoughts, outcomes. She had driven herself all this way, but now her options— her whole future loomed over her bigger than the idea of her debut tomorrow night had before everything changed. 

“To turn me in, then? I hear there’s quite a bounty for me nowadays. You’d be set for life.” 

“That ain’t it either!” She didn’t know what had dragged her all of this way. She should have stayed at the Turtle Lake Bar and Restaurant and went with the policemen and lived the life she’s supposed to live. She was pretty enough, at least to find some man who’d pity her and she could be his wife and spend her days reading and fantasizing, not doing whatever she’s doing here. Turn back, her mind screamed, it’s not too late. She stared forward. Why had she come all this way? She should have stayed, gone to the funeral. They would have felt sorry for her, at least for a bit. No. I know why I came. The answer was right there, if only she could just say it. 

“Then what is it, girl? Why’d you come all this way, if it ain’t for your little noseless uncle?” 

"Fuck my uncle. Fuck him and fuck those bastards and their billiards games and that damn ass librarian who charged me ten cents every day my bird watching book was overdue and fuck Wayne County!" She was screaming now, into that empty stretch of buildings, and the tears had bubbled back. Under the brim of her hat, Mildred watched. 

"So you listen up, you… Mildred. I know you been all over Franklin and I know you ain't slowing down. But you're not taking one more step unless I'm coming with you." Mildred bristled. 

The sudden iron ringing of the town hall bell crawled over the stretch, and the two stood silent until the twelfth note droned into oblivion. Jesup, counting along in her mind, let out a breath. 

Mildred's work boots drove forward over the weed-mingled gravel until she stood over the policeman's body. She stooped down, lifting his chunky black pistol between two fingers like a mortician. She looked it over, inspecting the chamber, before pointing the gun firmly at Jesup's face. 

"Remind me what says I won't just kill you?" Mildred's lip curled. 

Jesup straightened her back, balling her fists by her sides. "That ain't true. You heard those bells. I'm a woman now. And you don't kill women." 

Mildred's finger lingered beside the trigger. She took two steps forward, her shadowed eyes locked on the girl. With one motion, she loosened her fingers, allowing the gun to slip around until the grip faced Jesup. For the first time this night, Jesup's eyes blinked into confusion. 

"Go on then," Mildred began, turning her head away, "take it. Lord knows you'll need it."

Jesup extended her hands timidly, and the gun plopped into her grasp. It was heavy, heavier than she expected. 

"Tell me if you need to slow down. Otherwise, we're riding to Wampler tonight." Mildred rolled the officer onto his chest with her boot before starting down the road. Jesup studied the hunk of metal and leather in her hands— how different it felt than around her legs— before shuffling along after. 

Rosemary McLean is a 21 year old author and comic writer from East Tennessee. Her writing centers on themes of crime, resistance, dark humor, gender/sexuality, and the inexplicable. She can be found @filmatra on twitter and elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

New Tough Associates!

Please welcome them with open arms. You can see their bios on the Masthead page.

For those curious, we'll be working over the next month to train and practice protocols with the new staff. The sooner I'm comfortable, the sooner we'll reopen for submissions, but certainly no later than 1/1/21. I think that answers the burrning question on everyone's mind, but if you have another question feel free to ask it here or if you have to, on Twitter.



Thursday, November 19, 2020

Felon, fiction by Gabriel Heller

The manager conducting the interview folded his hands on his desk and said, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony, son?" He could look down at the application in front of him and see I'd already answered that question, but of course, he had to ask me.

"Yes, I have," I said.

"I appreciate that. Honesty's always the best policy." He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. He had small, grayish-blue eyes.

On the top of a gray filing cabinet were four dusty surveillance monitors; indistinct black and gray figures were coming and going into the frames.

"Why don't you tell me about it?"

"About what, sir?"

He looked at me.

His eyes were pressed into that shapeless doughy face like raisins. "The crime, Mr. Benzilov. What kind of name is that anyway?"

I shook my head. I'd let myself believe that today I'd be hired. He'd sounded enthusiastic on the phone. I told myself it wouldn't be so terrible working in a grocery store, not terrible at all. Now I felt a sinking feeling. Why was I even wasting my breath?

But then I heard myself answering the question, telling him the truth. "It happened fifteen years ago when I was nineteen years old. I was drunk with two friends. We'd ended up inside a stranger's house in the middle of the night."

"What were you thinking?" he asked.

"I don't think we were thinking much of anything. We were just stupid kids."

"Did you steal anything?"


He paused, angling his head to the side. "Nothing?"

"If we were going to, we didn't get a chance to."

"How much time did you get?"

"Sixteen months."

"What was it like?"

"Excuse me?"

His face betrayed no warmth or kindness for me. "How was the time in prison?"

I could close my eyes and still see the light coming down through the bars, the smoke hanging in the dayroom, the colored plastic chairs all cracked and wobbly around the television. I could hear the echo of voices on the tier, the television showing Wheel of Fortune or Jerry Springer, always the same shows, the crackle of the cheap, transparent radios they let you have.

I could smell the fear and frustration and rage that hung in the air and made your head hurt all the time, the smell of ammonia from the old man's mop, the smell of food. You want white milk or brown milk with your food, the server would ask, with your baked chicken food, your beef stew food, your white bread food, your white rice food, your Jell-O food, your macaroni salad food, your fish sticks food, your bologna sandwich food, whatever we were having that day. Say the word food a hundred times real slow, and what we eat is what the word comes to mean.

In a dispute over the telephone, three other prisoners beat me till I blacked out. I was in the infirmary for three weeks. After they took my stitches out, they transferred me to the bing, "for your own protection," they had said. The man in the bed next to me, who'd been cut with a razor blade, on both sides of his face from temple to chin, more than two hundred stitches in his face, told me,You can't even get no pussy books in the bing. You gonna have to beat your dick to memories. And that had made me laugh.

I remembered the bing very clearly, never having to leave your cell, never having to see anybody, except for an hour a day if you felt like walking laps or doing pull-ups.

Time went funny in the bing. The light in my cell never went out until it burned out, and then for many days, it never went on. I was in complete darkness, save the line of light under the door where they pushed my food in, and there were no windows except for the one on the door, which was covered by a steel flap, so the C.O. could open it and look in and watch me whenever he felt like it. The cell was six feet by eight feet. There was a bed and a toilet and a sink.

People talked about going crazy in the bing, but I didn't mind being alone. I healed up in there, and then I was back on a different tier with different people around, and the sound of the old man, who mopped the floor, crying in his cell at night in the darkness when we were all just human and full of loneliness and just afraid.

"It was a lot of fun," I said. "Best year and a half of my life."

"You're being facetious now."

I cracked my knuckles, one finger at a time, realizing that for him it was just a game. He scribbled a note on a piece of paper and looked at his watch.

Although my father had a bad temper and wouldn't hesitate to show me the belt or the back of his hand, I had never thought of myself as an angry person. I had always been easy-going and mellow—even-tempered. I was the guy in the corner at the party, cracking stupid jokes, making people laugh.

On the security televisions behind his head, flickering people came into the frame and then drifted away forever. They were hardly even human from this vantage point. I watched a woman pause with a baby in a stroller, pick a box off the shelf and begin to read the ingredients.

"Nothing but chemicals," I said. "Don't buy it, ma'am."


"I'm talking to the woman behind your head," I said, pointing at the screen.

I could make it a game too. I could make a joke out of it. The silence was long and awkward, but really I didn't care. He continued to stare at me. I didn't look away.

"Anything else you want me to know?" he asked finally.

"I'm a good worker. I work hard and I'm motivated. I'm good with people," I said, surprised by the sound of my own voice, ashamed of the pleading note I heard in it.

"And you like to joke around."


He pushed his chair back, stood up, and extended his hand. "Thanks for coming in, Frank. We'll give you a call."


As I pushed through the black, swinging doors into the brightness of the store, I felt the ashy taste of failure in my mouth. What was I doing wrong? I had spent a while on my resume. My wife had helped me make it better. Maybe my desperation was starting to show through.

Maybe I should have worn a tie. But for an interview in a grocery store, a tie might have looked stupid. It was hard to know exactly.

As a carpenter and house painter, I had made a decent living for almost ten years. But now we were living on credit, on borrowed money.Every day I'd get in my truck with a stack of resumes on the passenger seat, and I'd drive around from town to town, looking for some place that might hire me. But nothing had panned out so far.

One thing was clear, they all wanted to talk about my felony. I messed up, I wanted to say. Haven't you ever? It was like a certain disease I had caught, that I carried around with me wherever I went.It stuck to me like a stain. I'd check the NO box on the application only to have them run a background check and call me a liar. I wasn't a liar.


Cleve, a contractor I'd worked for in the old days, was at the bar when I came in. He was in a worse boat than me. He was more than twenty years older and in poor health—diabetes, obesity, heart problems.He'd died twice, once back in the nineties, and another time in 2005 or 2006. Both times they'd brought him back—the paramedics.

He put down his newspaper and greeted me with a fist bump.

"Haven't seen you here in a while," I said.

"I'm celebrating," he said. "It's my daughter's birthday today."


"You want to see her?"

He took a photograph out of the breast pocket of his shirt. It was of a young girl, six or seven years old, perched on a rock, clasping her arms around her knees, smiling very brightly.

Everything about her was brightness. Behind her was a waterfall and three pine trees, through which the sun filtered.

"That was fourteen-fifteen years ago. She hates me now." He put the picture back in his pocket. "That's life," he said. "They love you one day, hate you the next."

I ordered us each a scotch on the rocks.

A drunk in a blue hard hat got off his stool and came over and stood beside me. "You got a problem with me?" the drunk asked.

I realized he must have been drawn to my crisp white shirt, my interview shirt, which I was still wearing. I must have reminded him of the man who had given him the axe.

"Go sit down," I said.

"Coward," he hissed.

I imagined the hard hat rolling on the floor, the crunch of his skull, like a box of crackers, under my foot. His sunken cheeks and loose, flabby neck were covered in gray stubble, and his lips were wine-stained.

Cleve got up and stepped between us.

"Eh, coot?" Cleve said

"What, fucker?" the old drunk said.

"Hey now, what's your trip, coot?"

"Don't fucking call me that."

"Why all the aggression? We're all in the same situation here." Cleve raised his glass.

The old drunk stared at me and drew his finger slowly across his throat, and for a moment, I felt a chill spreading through my body, moving up and down along my spine, and then he turned and went back to his stool. We laughed. It was either laugh or scream or break something. I watched him put his head down on the bar. He was a sad, old drunk, wearing a hard hat in a bar. I had no desire to fight him. Cleve lit a cigarette, which looked very small between his fingers.

"Things'll get better for us," he said after some time.

"How do you know?"

"It takes some time to find a job," he explained. "You've got to let the dust settle."

"I'm getting to that place where I'm starting not to imagine another way.

Like the memory of actually having a job is fading."

Cleve laughed. "You got Alzheimer's or something? It hasn't been that long."

"It feels like a long time."

I hadn't worked in any steady way since the New Year. It was already June.

"Have some faith," he said.

"That's what's so hard," I said.

"You got faith you're sitting here having a conversation. You got faith you're talking to me. You're not dreaming. You're not in Japan. You don't know these things in any particular way, but you have faith they're so.

Faith is faith. Just extend it some. Stretch it out. It expands."

He held his thumb and forefinger together in front of my face and then slowly brought them apart.


"Just stretch it out," I repeated to myself, over and over, as I walked out of there, back up under the highway, past the boarded up stores, the abandoned houses. But what was happening here? This didn't feel like America. We were getting a taste of the third world; I couldn't even get a job stocking shelves at a grocery store.

I walked for a long time. On the edge of town, I stopped next to a field, in which some cows were grazing, chewing on the long grass, swishing their tails, looking up every now and then, blinking their glassy eyes.

"It expands," I said.

"Just stretch it out."

But I couldn't.

I walked back to my car and sat in the front seat with the keys in my hand, smoking a cigarette, thinking, I'll just drive home now, but knowing I wouldn't. I believed in fidelity and honor, I really did, but everything in me was twisted up. I was letting myself go.


In the middle of the room was a stage bathed in neon light, on which three women were dancing and taking off their clothes. One of them was Ani, and she winked at me when she saw me come in. The bartender came over and asked me what I'd drink. I said I'd think about it. I had four dollars in my pocket. There I was in the mirror behind the liquor bottles, not looking so good. Big bags under my eyes, my beard untrimmed, in need of a haircut. Ani was behind me on the stage, dark red in the light. She looked very alone while she danced. She covered her breasts with her arms, hugging herself. A man with a well-trimmed beard put bill after bill between her feet, moving his head up and down as she danced. Immediately, of course, I despised him.

When the song was finished, she put on her dress, went around the stage, and said a few words to the man who'd tipped her so well. Then she came over and sat down on the stool next to me.

"What's going on?" Ani asked. "You look like shit."

"I had an interview."

"That doesn't quite explain it."

She took one of my cigarettes and lit it, and exhaled the smoke through her nose and mouth.She had dyed red hair now and very light brown eyes.

"I hate dancing when I have my period," she said.

"Thanks for sharing," I said.

She smiled. On the other side of the small stage, the man with the well-trimmed beard was watching us.

"Who's the guy?" I asked.

"Just a customer."

"A big fan."

"What's wrong with that?"

"I'm just saying. He keeps looking over here."

"Don't worry about him," she said.

"I'm not worried."

"You know what happened to me earlier?" she asked. "Come on, don't look over there. Look over here. Look at me.So, you wanna hear the story of what happened to me?"

"Go ahead," I said.

"This cripple came in earlier, and he liked me a lot. I'd seen him before, and he always tips me a lot. But this time, he was tippinga lota lot. He wanted a lap dance, so I'm like fine. I gave it to him at his table. Then he wanted to go into the backroom, so I'm like fine, so I took him and wheeled him back in his wheelchair. When we were alone, he said he'd give me four hundred dollars to suck his dick. Now I sucked a lot a dick, but I never sucked no dick at the club, and I never sucked no cripple's dick before period, but I was like fine four hundred bucks what the fuck.So then he unzips his pants and takes it out, and the shit's like the size of my forearm."

I laughed.

"It's not funny," she said.

"It is funny."

"It's traumatic."

"What did you do?"

"I didn't do shit. He was just sitting there with this fucking humongous dick, and it was like one of those moments when your whole life like flashes in front of your eyes, and you see everything real clear for a second."

I could see her biggest fan, in the mirror, rubbing his beard.

"Are you listening to me?" said Ani. "Quit looking at him. Just ignore him. He won't do nothing."

"So, what happened with the cripple?"

"I told him to put his dick away. We had to wait awhile before he could fit the fucking thing back in his pants.Then I wheeled him back. He called me a cold bitch. That's what he said. He said, 'you cold bitch,' as I was wheeling him. He said that I was prejudiced against cripples. That bothered me a lot. I don't think I'm prejudiced against cripples or cold or a bitch for that matter."

"No, you're real warm," I said.

"Fuck you. I am."

Just then, the song that had been playing ended, and the DJ came on the microphone and announced that Ani was the next dancer.

"Fuck, I can't believe this shit," she said. "A bitch can't even get a break around here."

She crushed out her cigarette. "I'll be back."

As I watched her dance, I felt myself leave my body, and for a moment, there was only pain—without form, without end. Then her biggest fan stood up and came around the stage, and I came back into myself with a vengeance.

My heart was pounding.

He sat down on the stool that Ani had been sitting in. He took a cigarette from behind his ear and put it between his teeth. He had big, perfect teeth.

"What happened, brother? You look like you got a problem," he said. His Zippo lighter made a pleasing, three-part sound when he opened it, lit the cigarette, then closed it. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," I said.

His tongue ran back and forth across his lower lip. "You keep looking over and staring at me? Do you know who I am?"

I didn't say anything.

"What happened, brother? Can't you talk? I asked you a question."

I turned and looked at him directly.

"Back up, or I'm going to kill you," I said.

He crushed out his cigarette and laughed. He put his hands up and wiggled his fingers. "Back up, or I'm going to kill you," he repeated in a high-pitched, mocking voice.

"Okay, fine," I said, closing my eyes and shaking my head. "That's fine."I felt almost giddy as I stood up and reached over the bar, and grabbed the nearest bottle. I swung it, and he tried to duck away, but I caught him on the side of his head. He staggered and brought both hands up to the place where I'd hit him. I hit him again in the middle of the forehead, and the bottle broke. He was covered in gin. The music stopped, and I heard some screaming. I thrust the bottleneck hard, like a dagger, and got him once in the cheek and once in the eye, and he doubled over, holding his face, and I picked up the stool I'd been sitting on and hit him as hard as I could on the back of his head, and he went down, and I kicked him a few times in the ribs and rolled him over with my boot. He was half-conscious and bleeding badly. There were shards of glass glinting in the blood. I heard Ani yelling, "Get the fuck off him! Get the fuck off him!" Poor Ani. I bent down and stabbed him twice in the neck, and blood shot out in a thick hot jet.

Some hands grabbed at me, and I broke free of the hands and ran out through the front door.

I ran and ran and then when I saw nobody was following me I slowed and walked real fast. The rust-colored light was exploding in the windows above my head. Pigeons perched on rooftop edges, watching. The crisp sudden shadows of them as they moved over the street and across the bright red brick of the abandoned buildings. My own shadow falling on the sidewalk and bending up and falling on the brick. The violent, roaring shadows of trucks tearing over me as I went along next to the elevated highway. Everything seemed brilliantly alive.

When I reached my car, I realized I still had the bloody bottleneck in my hand, and I dropped it in the gutter. I was bleeding from a big mouth-like cut on my palm. I took off my interview shirt, wrapped it around the wound, found my keys, and drove off.


The front of our house was dark and empty, but the kitchen light was on. I parked at the end of the block. I let myself in as quietly as I could. I heard water running. My wife's white jacket was hanging on the back of a chair. There were a few long red hairs stuck to the collar. I went to the edge of the living room and peeked around the corner into the kitchen. I saw her hand holding a yellow sponge and washing the dishes.

"Is that you, Frank?" she said.

I moved back into the shadows and stood very still.


"Yeah, it's me."

She turned the water off.

"Where have you been? I was getting worried."

"You know where I was."

"At your interview?"

"Of course."

"And then you went out to celebrate."

"Don't mock me, Annie. I can't do it."

"What are you talking about?" She came out and put her arms around me. "Mr. Berry called this evening."

"Mr. Berry?"

"He said he interviewed you today."

"Yeah, of course."

"He told me to tell you that he wants to hire you."


She hugged me again, tighter. "I know it's not much, not the kind of work you really want, but it's something, it's a start. I'm just so happy," she said. And then she noticed my hand. "Jesus, what happened to you?"

"I cut my hand.Let me just go wash up. I'll come back down, and we'll celebrate."

"Jesus, you've got blood on you, Frank."

I tried to laugh.

"That's what happens when you cut your hand."

"But it's all over you."

"I'll tell you about it just as soon as I come down."

"Frank, what happened?"

"Let me just get this blood off me. Let me just put something on my hand. I cut it on some glass. I'll be down in a second."

I went upstairs and washed the man's blood off my face and arms, and I washed my hand as well as I could and got all the bits of glass out. I dried off and went in the bathroom and wrapped one of Annie's handkerchiefs around my hand.

Then I went into my son's room, quietly so as not to wake him. He was asleep in his crib. Whale sounds were coming from the sound machine.

I stood there looking down at him, watching him breathe. His tiny hand lay next to his face, which was turned to one side, illuminated by the blue light from the sound machine. Next month he would be one year old. I closed my eyes.

I wanted another chance to live.

Then—how much later? a minute? ten minutes?—there was a loud knock on the door. I kissed my hand and touched it to his wispy head. I couldn't believe it was happening like this and so fast. I tiptoed out of his room, shut the door behind me, and ran to our bedroom. The knock came again. "Police!" I heard. I opened the window, climbed out onto the ledge, and jumped into the tree that grew right outside it, banging my hurt hand, gritting my teeth against the pain.

I climbed down, hopped a fence, ran through our neighbor's yard, hopped another fence, and another, a terrible strength surging up inside me. I came out on the street adjacent to ours and went around the corner to where I parked the car.

I sat in the driver's seat, getting my breath. I could see the lights silently turning red and blue against the trees and houses down at the other end of the block. There were four or five police cars in front of our house.

With the headlights off and my motor running, I watched from the end of the block.

"You morons," I said. "I'm right here."

I lit a cigarette. Two policemen came out of my house, and one of them shook his head. Then my wife came out. She was bathed in the police lights, alone in the middle of our yellow lawn.Such a beautiful, tired woman, who had always tried real hard to see the good in me and always claimed she could.

Don't think for a second that I didn't understand what I was losing. I crushed my cigarette out in the ashtray, backed the car around the corner, and drove towards the highway.

Gabriel Heller's work has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Crazyhorse, Electric Literature, The Gettysburg Review, Witness, and War, Literature & the Arts, among other venues. He teaches writing at New York University.