Monday, October 11, 2021

The Family Reunion, fiction by Tom Barlow

reprinted from Odds of Survival

Dave Bradley hadn't been this close to losing his sobriety since his last high school reunion three months earlier, where he was drawn to the small cadre of drunks with whom he had first discovered his thirst. But, predictably, his father Johnny had made no move to declutter his house before he passed, leaving Dave to clean out his crap, including a liquor cabinet full of top-end alcohol. His sponsor had volunteered to help him pour it all down the drain, but Dave had laughed him off, confident of his ability to withstand temptation. Now he wished he hadn't. Retirement and the loneliness that accompanied it created a vacuum that pulled him toward his old torment.

Putting off dealing with the liquor, he was working his way down the drawers of an old dresser now in the basement, one that served Johnny as a catch-all. In the bottom drawer he found a rubber-banded set of photos, all of Johnny in his military garb in Korea, hands on the shoulders of two other soldiers, squatting for a card game on the ground, standing on the runway in front of an F-80 Shooting Star. He wished, not for the first time since his father passed, that he'd asked him more about his war experience. Perhaps he'd missed an opportunity to see the son of a bitch as a hero.

To his surprise, there was also an aged envelope with "David" written on it. Inside, he found two more photos. But they were not war scenes.

One of the old black and white snapshots showed his father in front of an apartment building Dave had never seen before, holding hands with a woman and a small child. The woman appeared Latino, short with a dark complexion, a cascade of black hair, deep-set dark eyes, bold chin, and prominent breasts. She looked much younger than his father. 

The child, who appeared to be no more than four, was a thin girl with a star-shaped strawberry birthmark on the side of her throat. The broad grin she wore suggested she was having a marvelous time posing for the photographer.

In the other photo, a large, gnarly oak formed the background for a country graveyard, in which a freshly disturbed patch of earth lay before a new headstone for a Harold Reimer. A shovel stood upright in the dirt. There was no person in the shot, and it must have been taken shortly after dawn as dew hovered above the cornfield in the distance.  

Unable to account for the photos, Dave called his Aunt Grace, his last remaining relative. She told him to bring the photos over, and they'd talk. 


His aunt had an apartment in a retirement village on the outskirts of Topeka. The place always gave Dave the creeps, never knowing what terminal illness might be on display that day. Since he had witnessed Johnny fight the Alzheimer's that ran in his family, he had come to dread his visits as glimpses of his future. However, a steady drizzle meant there were no wheelchair-bound elderly smoking in the flower garden around which the units were arranged. 

He was struck again by the odor that permeated his aunt's rooms, something medicinal tinged with bleach and lilac. His aunt's skin had taken on the same smell, which he inhaled as she kissed her on the cheek.

She had made iced tea, which she knew he drank by the gallon when he was on the wagon. When they were settled on the couch, she said, "Now, let's see those pictures."  

He took the pair out of his shirt pocket and handed them over. "I have no idea who these people are."

She slid her glasses down her nose before peering closely at the one on top. "Oh, my." She placed it on the arm of her chair and looked at the second, which he too had puzzled over. "Who is Harold Reimer?"

"I have no idea." 

She went back to the first shot, her lips a grim line. "Your mother asked me to never tell you about these people. Do you still want to know?"

"I'm 61," Dave said. "I think I can handle about anything."

"Except the booze, right? Anyway, here goes. Your father was working for the railroad back then."

"I thought the pictures were older."

"No, it would have to have been around 1957 or so. He always worked the same trains, from here to Columbus over in Ohio and back. He had layovers on both ends, with time to kill, so he started messing around with this Mexican girl on the Columbus end. She was the housekeeper at the section house where the railroad workers slept. When she got pregnant, he went ahead and married her, although he already had a family back here. Your father was a fool in so many ways."

Dave took a large gulp of his tea, shocked. His father had always been the strictest parent, tolerating no misbehavior, and had nothing but disdain for people of color. "Did Mom know?"

Grace took his hand in hers. "She's the one told me. He used another name, but she found out anyway; the railroad guys had no secrets from one another, and eventually, one of the other wives whose husband had confided in her squealed on him."

"What happened then?"

"Your mom threatened to divorce him and tell the authorities about his bigamy. What convinced him to leave this woman, though, was when Maggie told him she was going to tell his friends he had married a Mexican. There weren't many at the VFW hall that would let him live that down back in those days."

"So he divorced the Mexican?"

"I think he just abandoned her. He bid on a new route and never went back to Columbus. And the woman would have known about his temper, so I'm guessing she never pursued him. Maybe she even went back to Mexico. At least, your mom and dad never heard from her."

"So I have a sister out there somewhere?" As an only child, Dave had longed for a sibling right up to the day his mother told him she'd have another child when hell froze over.

"Half-sister. Maybe. Johnny never acknowledged the kid, so she might have a different father. Now don't go looking for her on the off-chance you're related. I know you, and I know how lonely you've been since your dad passed. Having no family is a burden, for sure, but that doesn't mean you have to embrace Johnny's catting about."


But Dave was too excited to follow his aunt's advice. He had to rein in his imaginings of what having a sister might mean, the camaraderie, the love, mostly based on what he'd seen in television shows. He could even have nieces and nephews by her. And Johnny must have wanted him to make the connection after his death. Why else leave the photos with his name on it?

That was the central question. Johnny had been a complex character, mercurial when he was drinking, and imperious when sober, so Dave was never quite clear how he felt about his father. When Johnny passed there was relief in his grief, nothing like the despair he'd felt when his mother Maggie died. Was it repentance that caused Johnny to leave the photos for him to find, or simply the tidying up of unfinished business?

Still of two minds, he went back to work sorting through his father's things, but now with a purpose. In an old army locker among the lapsed insurance policies, diplomas from grade school, high school and catechism, and appraisals for his mother's jewelry that Johnny sold shortly after her death, Dave found an Ohio driver's license issued to a John Green. The license was from 1955, before any states started adding photos, but the height and weight were the same as his father's, and Green had not needed glasses to drive. Neither had Johnny.

The license listed an address on Bryden Road in Columbus. He pulled up Google Earth and checked out the address. It was now a vacant lot.


Since his retirement a year earlier, Dave, an introvert with unlimited free time, had spent many a drunken hour poking around on the internet until he was proficient. He used it to check the marriage license issues in the archives of the Columbus Dispatch. After pouring through month after month, he found a John Green marrying Paula Garciaparra on April 2nd, 1955. 

Dave was born only 10 days later. 

Further investigation revealed that a daughter, Carole Green, was born to the couple six months later. He spent a couple of bucks on a personal-search internet site which told him there were no Carole Greens in Columbus but delivered the addresses and phone numbers of three C. Greens. As he sat there staring at the phone, trying to screw up the courage to cold-call each to ask the question, he felt that tickle in the back of his throat that, from experience, he knew only vodka would quench. However, the thought of finding new family helped fight off the urge. 

He took a deep breath and picked up the phone. The first two were duds; one Carl Green, one Celeste Green. Neither ever heard of a John or Carole Green or Carole Garciaparra, nor was interested in discussing it further. The third landline had been disconnected, which didn't surprise him; many people were going cellular. Having nothing better to do, Dave decided to drive the twelve hours from Topeka to Columbus and knock on the door of the last Green. 

Knowing that a change in routine presented new temptations to his sobriety, though, he copied down the phone number of the local AA group in case he needed to find a meeting.


 Columbus was a bigger town than he expected; he had thought it was mostly Ohio State University surrounded by supporting housing. The address for the last C. Green was in the suburb of Westerville. He waited until early evening, when most people would be home from work, before driving there. The November weather was chilly, but he had brought only a jean jacket and shivered as he walked up the driveway of the bungalow. The house was in need of paint, with sagging gutters and the original leaky aluminum windows. There was little landscaping to disguise its shortcomings. 

 He cleared his throat a couple of times and wiped his damp palms against his jeans before he rang the doorbell. When no one came to the door, he was about to knock when the porch light came on, although it was not yet dark. A beat later, the door opened to the extent allowed by the chain, and a pair of lips appeared in the crack. 

"What do you want?" The voice was raspy.

"My name is Dave Bradley. I'm looking for a lady who was born Carole Garciaparra, might have grown up as Carole Green. Would you know her?"

"What do you want with her? You a bill collector?"

Dave saw his mistake. "No, nothing like that. I think Carole might be my sister."

A pause. "What makes you think she would be interested in meeting you?"

He took some hope from her reply. "Her father died a month ago. I thought she might want to know." 

"That's the best news I've heard all day." When she shut the door Dave thought he'd been dismissed, but she was merely pulling the chain. The door opened, revealing a woman he guessed to be about his age, thin but sinewy, with rampant hair the color of a dirty mop. There was a hint of Johnny in her face, thin with a wedge-shaped nose and a narrow cleft chin, but her complexion was definitely not Irish. She was wearing a mock turtleneck, above which he could see the last bit of her birthmark. 

She appraised him with a scowl. "Yeah, you look a little like the bastard." She nodded for him to come in. He followed her into the living room, which looked much like his in that no one had spent much time cleaning recently. The smell of cigarettes reminded him all too strongly of the bar where he had spent many an unhappy hour. 

She nodded toward a chair and he took a seat. She sat on the couch, crossed her arms. "So you're the asshole's boy?"

"You mean Johnny? You knew him as John Green."

"I barely knew him at all. All I know is he and my mom ran away when I was four. Is she still alive? Not that I care."

"Your mom? Paula Garciaparra?"

"Yeah. You look a little like her too, you know." She circled her face with a pointed finger.

"I'm afraid there's a misunderstanding. Paula wasn't my mother. I never met the woman."

A look of confusion came over her face. "I don't understand."

"My mom was Maggie Boyd."

Carole slipped down onto the couch. "Let me get this straight. Your dad is Johnny Green, but you had a different mother? When were you born?"


"I was born in 1955. So the asshole was seeing your mom on the side?"

"They'd been married for six years by the time I was born. In Topeka. And stayed married until she died three years ago."

"Holy shit. So what happened to my mother?" Carole cupped her hands and ran them down her face. "They both disappeared on the same day, July 5th, 1959, about a week after my fourth birthday. I always assumed they ran away because of me. I was a pain in the ass as a child, and slow, and too dark to pass as Anglo. I figured my dad was embarrassed by me."

"I suppose you've looked for her."

"Children's Services looked for a while after they abandoned me but never found them. The first Army check I got, I hired a skip tracer, but he never even got a hint of a lead about where she went."

Dave's mind went immediately to the last photo in his pocket. 

"Jesus," she said. "I need a beer. You want one?"

He needed six but didn't want one. But Dave had spent decades convinced that a man who wouldn't drink with him was not to be trusted. And he so wanted her trust.

She noted his hesitancy and said, "What? You too good to drink with me?" 

He could always start over on his sobriety again tomorrow. "Not at all. I'll join you."

Carole returned from the kitchen with a pair of cold Coors, his favorite. He forced himself to sip and could have cried as the cold liquid coursed down his throat. So good. 

"So you were in the army?" he said, looking to distract himself from his shame.

Carole polished off half her bottle in one long pull, then belched. "I did my twenty years training marksmen. You?"

She was wearing an oversize flannel shirt, and he wondered if it concealed a pistol. "Never served."

"Lucky you. Still, I got to retire young, so that's something."

"Marksmen, that's surprising. You must have been one of the first women in that job." His bottle was half empty already.

"I was driven. Once I got away from the houses I grew up in, I couldn't face the idea of going back."

"So you were adopted? After your parents left?"

She laughed bitterly. "I wish. It was all foster homes. No one wanted a beaner kid. So I ended up as a toy for foster parents’ real sons. You?" 

Dave sipped his beer, angry that he was treasuring each swallow. "I can't complain. I was an only child, and my mom believed in education. I got a degree in history and taught at the local high school." Until he was encouraged to take a buyout and ended up sorting packages at UPS.

"Are you married? Kids?"

"No. Almost got married once." If only he hadn't shown up for the ceremony crocked.

She reached into her back pocket and produced a pack of Lucky Strikes and a lighter, tapped one out of the pack, and lit it. "I could have married a soldier, but we would have ended up killing one another."

"Tell me about your mother." He held out two fingers, held apart, and she handed him the pack and her lighter. He pulled out a cigarette, remembering the last time he'd smoked one in 2001. Johnny had smoked right up to the day he forgot that he did. 

He lit it, took a drag, and it was as if he'd never quit that too. He was going to have quite the tale to tell at his next meeting. 

"Mom? Not much to say," Carole said. "I barely remember her, except that she tried to protect me from your father, who was always smacking me if I didn't behave."

"That was Johnny." He was slightly light-headed from the beer and smoke. He pulled the graveyard picture out of his pocket. "You have any idea who this is?"

She took it between her ring and little fingers so that her cigarette was undisturbed and held it near enough her face that he suspected she needed glasses to read. "What's this?"

He explained how he found her, the photos. "That one, I can't account for."

"I can read the headstones. Harold Reimer died June 11th, 1959.  A month before Mom disappeared. You check"

"What's that?" he said.

"A registry of graves and locations. I learned to find missing persons while looking for my mother. Now I do some skip tracing for others, part-time. Enough to keep me in cigarette money.  Wait here."

She placed the photo on the arm of the couch, disappeared down the hallway, and returned a moment later with a laptop. He watched, longing for another beer, as she did the search. "Here he is," she said a minute later. "Union Cemetery in Plain City. That's about ten miles from here." She flipped the photo back to him. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

His thought was too dark to express. He avoided her gaze.

When he did not respond, she said, "I'm wondering if maybe he killed my mom and buried her in a newly dug grave. The dates work. You think the bastard was capable of murder?"

He remembered all too clearly the time their dog Spot, who had lived chained in the backyard, had barked once too often while Johnny attempted to sleep after working a night shift. He'd heard the shot from his bedroom. 

"I'm afraid so," he said. "You got another beer?"

Dave quickly came to conclude his sister shared the family taste for alcohol. She not only had one, she had a fresh case, and they spent the rest of the evening working through it, sharing stories of their childhoods, his mundane, hers dark. At ten p.m. they ordered a pizza, but when it came neither had an appetite. The photo lay face up on the coffee table and he noticed her eyes returning to it as often as his own. Finally, around one in the morning, when they had run out of beer and were thoroughly drunk, he said, "We're never going to know if we don't."

"What do you mean?"

He knew she knew what he meant, but somebody had to speak the words. "Dig up the grave."

"And why would we do that?"

"That's one way to hide a body, right? Find a grave that's just been filled and dig it partly out, dump in your body, and refill it? Who's going to know?"

"Jesus, you're ghoulish."

"So was Johnny. You got a shovel?"


Dave drove, pleased to find he still had the ability to stay in his lane while shit-faced. They picked up a twelve-pack of beer at a drive-thru on the way. The night was cold but not bitter, and the alcohol and cigarettes provided an inner warmth that he'd almost forgotten. 

They parked his car on a side street and approached the cemetery on foot. Johnny understandably had chosen a grave as far away from the street and its lights as possible, and there were no nearby houses to disturb then. He had expected the air in a graveyard would have some quality that reflected the setting, but it was as clean and crisp as any, suggesting winter was imminent.

"We going to take up the turf, try to replace it?" Carole said.

"That's the plan."  He laid out the plastic tarp he'd found in Carole's garage before grabbing the shovel and beginning to peel up the grass. "She shouldn't be too deep; Johnny was always lazy."

The beer didn't help the work, as he quickly broke into a sweat that the chill November air turned into shivers. It took him about 30 minutes to reach knee depth in a hole about wide and long enough for a body. Carole took the shovel from him and pulled him out of the hole.

"It's my mother we're looking for," she said, taking off her jacket. "Let me finish." 

He opened another beer as he watched her go to work. Her arms, while thin, were muscular, and she shoveled as though she'd made a career of it. 

The only sounds were the rasp of the shovel and the rain of soil landing on the tarp. His stupor was broken only by fantasies about a future in which he and Carole could function like brother and sister, each having the other's back. The alcohol thing was going to be a problem, though. He'd been counseled against socializing with a drunk, and he'd lost many friends over the years when they went sober. Maybe they could dry out together.

Carole stopped once for a beer and a smoke. Since she massed maybe half of what he did and had matched him drink for drink, he presumed she was at least as smashed as he was. He was suddenly struck with the pathos of what they were doing and began to laugh. 

His sister scowled. "What's so funny?"

He regained control with difficulty. "This is as close to a family reunion as I've ever had."

"One brother and he turns out to be a comedian," she said and jumped back into the hole. 

It only took another 15 minutes before, at a depth of three feet, the shovel bit into something that crunched. Carole knelt in the dirt, and with her gloved hands, began to pull the clay soil aside, revealing the mouth of a skull. Dave shone the flashlight onto it, and both upper front teeth gleamed with gold. 

Carole sat back. "Oh, shit. Mom had those teeth. She always joked they were her nest egg."

He squatted next to her, reached out to place his hand on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry." He began to cry as though it were his loss too. He always was a weepy drunk.

She handed him the shovel and pulled herself out of the grave. She was crying too as she picked her jacket up from the ground. He assumed she was going to put it on, was waiting to hug her after she did, but instead, she pulled a pistol out of her pocket and leveled it at him. 

"What?" he said, raising the shovel blade to his chest. "You can't kill me. I'm your brother."

"Like hell you are." Her eyes were wide, fierce. "I look at you, all I see is Johnny. It's too late to make him pay for what he's done, but I can at least make sure there's no trace of him left in this world." He could tell she was about to shoot, and with a quick jerk, he raised the shovel to shield his face. 

The bullet bounced off the shovel with a loud peal, knocking the blade into his face. He could feel the snap as his nose broke, and he doubled over in pain.

Through his anguish, though, he heard Carole collapse at his feet. He looked down to find her lying face-up, trembling uncontrollably, and he could see where the reflected bullet had entered her head through her left eye. One hand to his bleeding nose, he kicked the gun away and searched her pockets for her cell phone to call for help, but by the time he found it, she had stopped breathing. 

He knelt between her and the skeleton for a long time, a handkerchief to his face. There seemed to be no reaction to the shot from the houses closest to the graveyard, so he figured he had time to bury Carole with her mother and getaway. He wasn't sure the cops would believe his story, the words of a drunk. 

But there was that twelve-pack of beer to finish first, so he sat next to his sister working on it and staring at her body. He held her pistol in his hand, wondering if he shouldn't just join her. 

He tried to imagine what his father must have felt that night. He could only think of what he would not have felt. Compassion. Regret. Love. None of these had been in Johnny's vocabulary.

When he finally heard the caretaker arrive at his office shortly after dawn, he put down the pistol, took his sister's hand, and waited to be discovered. 

His thirst was worse than ever, and it was just as certain as a bullet.

Tom Barlow is an Ohio author of short stories, novels and poetry. Many of his best noir short stories have been collected in Odds of Survival and his crime novel Blood of the Poppy, is available on Amazon. He enjoys visiting the dark in his writings but is grateful he doesn't live there. Learn more at

Monday, October 4, 2021

Near MInt, fiction by James Hadley Griffin


Artist: Street Drugs
Album: Dead Snitches
Format: 12-inch, Limited Edition, Numbered, Black vinyl, Promotional Only
Year: 1985
Label: Plume Records
Genre: Punk/Hardcore Punk
Notes: Only 50 copies printed. 49 accounted for, in the hands of collectors or the original band members. Record Collector magazine named this the number-two rarest record in punk.

FROM A REVIEW OF DEAD SNITCHES. Published in the Benson Sentinel. By Derek Olson, 19 yrs. old.

Mark it in your calendars, people. Music was finally invented in 1985. Its creators? A band called Street Drugs. The album? “Dead Snitches.” Twenty-six minutes of identity-altering, tectonic mayhem designed to make you want to set your school on fire, kiss the girl of your dreams, and pick up a guitar and start your own band. The songs are loud, fast, smart and catchy as the flu.

FROM “THE CASE OF THE MISSING ALBUM”. Published in HeadCase. By Derek Olson, 46 yrs. old.

As you all probably know, for most of my life, I’ve lived and breathed vinyl. The ceiling above my garage sags with the weight of records in boxes in my attic that I have yet to even properly catalog. My basement walls are lined with custom-made, floor-to-ceiling shelving that wraps around every corner. My collection is organized by genre, then alphabetical by artist, then chronologically. I am serious> about records.

I go through obsessions, sometimes fixating on a certain musician or band or label. I systematically track down not only every record they released but often multiple versions of every release. Hell, I own thirteen copies of Fun House by The Stooges. I live for rare color-vinyl editions, misprinted sleeves, subscription-only releases, and Japanese bonus tracks. But there has always been an empty spot on my shelves, one I have been unable to fill for twenty-seven years. I have scoured the earth in search of it, to no avail.

I like to think that what draws one (your humble writer included) to heavier music — music that makes your mom pray for your soul a little extra hard at night — is not that it serves as an outlet for the pent-up anger and frustration of your local loser burnout, but that it translates into sound waves the feeling of what it means to be free. Punk is about freedom. Rock is about freedom. Metal is about freedom. And when are you freer but when you’re nineteen years old? For me, Dead Snitches by Street Drugs is the sound of what it meant to be a dumb, free nineteen-year-old.

I was working at my college newspaper, the Benson Sentinel, doing some record reviews and probably skipping class, when this mystery item showed up on my desk. The sleeve was plain white cardstock with a yellow-and-black hype sticker that read: “For Promotional Use Only. Street Drugs. Dead Snitches. Coming This October.” At the bottom, in pen, someone had numbered this particular copy 19/50. That was all I had to go on.

When I finished listening to it for the first time, I was trembling. I had to steady my hand before I placed the needle back down on track one to experience it again. It was a perfect record. I couldn’t wait to see this band live, to meet the people who made it, to write my review so I could tell everyone I could about it. In fact, that review got me my first professional gig reviewing for the local alt-weekly rag.

Well, I never heard anything ever again about Street Drugs. The album was never officially released in stores. The band never toured. The label never released anything else. Except for the fact that I once owned a copy of the record, I’d be hard-pressed to even say that it ever existed. So it haunts me, like a beautiful dream or the vague memory of a stolen kiss.

Maybe this longing is just the sad bluster of a pudgy rock critic who is losing his eyesight and his hair and wants to regain a shard of his youth. Or maybe it’s about tracking down one of the rarest rock records in the world. Everyone likes a treasure hunt, right? Or maybe it’s just about celebrating the feeling of freedom music can bring. Whatever the reason: if you have any information on the location of this album, please reach out. I will make it worth your while<.

I’ll end on a memory.

It’s Spring Break 1986, and I’m driving my ’79 Buick Electra with the driver’s door that rattles above 55 mph. My cassette-dubbed copy of Dead Snitches is in the tape deck, and the first track, “Here’s to All Us Bastards,” is playing. My girlfriend Jessica and I are headed to go camping in the mountains for the week. The sun is just setting below the peaks, the air smells like spruce, and Jessica looks at me and smiles, her lips shiny from that cherry lip gloss she always wore. Even in the moment, I somehow knew my life couldn’t get much better.

I will never forgive myself for giving that record to Jessica (the other love who got away) in a grand romantic gesture, just before she dumped me and changed schools. I had even written, “I love you more than this record” on the sleeve. God, I was an idiot.

But what can I say? I was nineteen.


We’ve only got today.
So let’s make our mark and have our say.
Who cares that we’re not on the news?
Who cares whose fuckin’ shampoo we use?
Who cares that we were born to lose?
Here’s to all us bastards! (repeat x4)


• Hey, Jessica! It’s Derek Olson. Can you believe it?! I just randomly spotted your profile and thought, My God, is that really Jess the Mess? What’s it been? Like twenty-five years or something? How ya been?

• {No response}

• I know you probably don’t really check this thing very regularly. It’s just, I’ve been thinking a lot about those days back at Benson. I guess because I like being a middle-aged cliche. You’ve cropped up in those memories more than once. Remember that camping trip we took?

• {No response}

• I see you’re “Jessica Butler” now. You’ve got a really good-looking family. Things have been kinda rocky in my life lately. I’d love to try to meet up and just, you know, reminisce.

• {User Derek Olson Blocked}


Subject: Street Drugs LP

Derek, First off, man, I just want to say that I love, love, love your column. No one writes about rock-n-fucking-roll like you. You get it. So, for that, thanks.

Anyway, I read your column last month about your search for the long-lost Street Drugs LP of your youth. About how you would do anything to get it back.

Well, I think I might just have a line on where that particular piece of wax wound up. It belongs to my roommate. We call him Shake Rag. I don’t know his actual name. He’s a friend of a not-very-good friend, and he needed a place to crash for a few weeks. That was five months ago. Sketchy as all hell. Once, he claimed he played bass for Aus-Rotten back in the day. I called bullshit on that, and he flipped out. Threw a fucking ashtray at my head. A genuine crazy-ass lunatic. But he is a pretty good cook, so we’re not kicking him out just yet.

But, yeah, this is the record. Definitely. It even has “I love you more than this record” written on the back and 19/50 on the front. Just like you said. How Shake wound up with it, I’ll never know. He’s currently out getting some Chinese food, and if he knew I was going through his stuff, he’d beat the shit out of me.

The other thing is, I’m absolutely certain Shake Rag would never sell it to you. Money doesn’t mean anything to this guy. Fucker’s as crust as they come. If you gave the guy a million bucks, he’d run it through a paper shredder and laugh while he did it. Anarcho-socialist in the extreme. I mean, I consider myself a pinko commie leftist or whatever, but this guy...he’s the Bill Gates of whatever the opposite of Bill Gates is. It makes it real hard to get rent money out of him.

But I’ll go ahead and ask him if he wants to sell, and if he does, I’ll send you our address, and you can come ask him yourself. You’ll have to see him in person. He doesn’t have a phone or use the internet. Of course.

• Poison Pig

Subject: Re: Street Drugs LP

Poison Pig,
Oh. My. God. When I submitted that column, I literally aspirated a little prayer to Whoever Is In Charge In The Cosmos that it would find its way in front of the eyeballs of someone who knows something. Lord, I hope you’re right. Yes, please, see if Shake Rag will sell and tell him that I will pay whatever it costs.

With bated breath,


Crime: Homicide
Officer: Sgt. Jerome Campbell

Victim Name: Malcolm Howard Agee
Alias: Shake Rag

White male. 33. Thinning brown hair matted into dreadlocks, tied together with multi-colored rubber bands. Large spacers in his ears. Track marks up and down his legs and arms.

Identifying Marks: Numerous tattoos, most of them homemade. The most prominent tattoos are the word “Crass” above his navel and large spiderwebs on both elbows.

When the body was discovered, he was wearing black jeans bearing numerous patches, a studded faux-leather belt, a black t-shirt featuring a skull above the word “Discharge,” a black denim cut-off jacket also featuring numerous patches, and a new pair of black Doc Marten boots.

Cause of Death: Exsanguination. The victim’s jugular vein had been severed by a puncture from a crude blade of some kind. An analysis of the victim’s blood revealed the presence of heroin and hepatitis C.

    The murder weapon has not yet been recovered.


Subject: Henry Lester Powell

Alias: Poison Pig

Q: How do you know the deceased?

A: He was my roommate.

Q: Can you repeat what you told me earlier about the day of the murder?

A: Look, man, I don’t want to get Derek in trouble. He seems like a good dude. I love his writing.

Q: Please just repeat what you told me earlier.

A: All right. Well, I told Shake Rag about him wanting —

Q: Him?

A: Derek. I had emailed Derek about this record he’d been hunting for. He wrote an article about it for Headcase magazine. I wrote to Derek that I knew where it was. Shake Rag had it. Hey, can I get some water?

[tape paused]

Q: Continue.

A: Well, I told Shake Rag about Derek wanting to buy the record, and Shake got this big weird grin on his face and said he wanted to meet up with him. This seemed really weird ‘cause I was certain he wouldn’t be interested in selling it. So I asked why he wanted to meet, and Shake said when Derek got here, he was planning on snapping the record in half in front of him, you know, as a cruel joke or something, a statement on capitalism or some bullshit. I told him he shouldn’t fuck with people like that, but he just laughed. I’m pretty sure he’d shot up just before. He sadistic when he was on junk, so I chalked it up to that. Anyway, I emailed Derek back and told him Shake would see him, though I had a totally bad feeling about the whole thing. When Derek was supposed to come by, my girlfriend and me were out. And when we got back, we found Shake just lying there, you know? Facedown. Giant cut on his throat. Blood everywhere. You saw it.

Q: And the record?

A: Yeah, I checked. The record was gone. I mean, when I sent Derek that email, I never thought... (subject trails off).


Dispatcher: 911. What’s your emergency? Caller: I’m not sure if I should even be calling ‘cause I don’t know if it’s technically an emergency.

Dispatcher: Can you tell me what’s happening, sir?

Caller: Well, I just saw my neighbor get out of his car and go walk inside his house, and well, it looked like he had blood all over the front of his shirt.

Dispatcher: Was he injured?

Caller: He seemed okay. I called out to him, and he waved at me.

Dispatcher: What’s his name?

Caller: Derek Olson.

Dispatcher: Where does he live?

Caller: 4093 Kennison Drive.

Dispatch: We’re sending a car. Can you tell me anything more?

Caller: Well, He’s been acting really strange lately. His wife just left him. Took the kids. I saw him crying in his driveway a couple of weeks ago. Just sitting there crying. I went up and asked him if I could help, and he said — I’ll never forget it because it was so weird — he said, “Who cares whose shampoo I use? Who cares that I was born to lose?” That was it. So strange.


Description: One 12-inch vinyl record entitled “Dead Snitches” by Street Drugs.

Location: Discovered by Sgt. Campbell in a box labeled “Memories” in Derek Olson’s master bedroom, on top of a stack of college yearbooks and letters from someone named Jessica Albrecht.

Condition: Broken into two large, jagged pieces.

Relevance: One of the pieces tested positive for the presence of Malcolm Howard Agee’s blood.

James Hadley Griffin
is a teacher who has lived, at one time or another, in most of the Southern capitals. Currently, he's in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two hounds. He has been published by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Pulp Modern Flash, and Popcorn Fiction. Connect with him on Twitter @JHadleyGriffin.

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Price of Copper and Brass, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

It was important to remember where you came from, to call up at the appropriate time the requisite grit. Nonetheless, Gustafson knew himself to grow wistful, driving in the old neighborhood. The cliché was like a secret code everyone from North End should be able to decipher and know: Don’t forget your roots. No matter how distant you wander from that rougher than rough diamond place, recall that you grew up there.

His mother raised her nine children—their old man would sometimes drop-in, in port, off the boats, drunk and abashed, but with cash—two blocks from the shipyard. Her old clapboard two-story was torn down ten years ago by Gustafson, up from Minneapolis for a long weekend. He sold off the salvageable wood to some artsy-fartsy folks from Duluth, and some Ojibwe guys bought the Monarch wood and coal-burning stove. The majority of Gustafson’s brothers and sisters now lived in northern California, in coastal cities and towns, and in Ohio, on Lake Erie, always drawn to water, always far from North End. Raymond, the oldest brother, like their mother, was in the grave. Her house gone, what remained, he saw from the alley, was a small residential lot overtaken by seemingly every trash tree and shrub dreamed of in creation, ugly under the sun, or in rain or snow, much like the rest of the neighborhood, the surrounding blocks. The down-in-the-mouth leached out, visible, in different ways.

Rodney, a kid he’d grown up with, hobbled out to the black plastic dumpster by his garage with a large kitchen trash bag. A wan little girl with lunchtime smears of peanut butter and grape jelly around her mouth followed alongside him, twirling an open Powerpuff Girls umbrella. Gustafson rolled down his window, stepping on the brake. “Hi there, Rodney.” He nodded at the girl.

The other man smiled, wiped his hands on his dungarees before shaking hands with Gustafson. “My granddaughter. Nancy.” He had to be sixty-five, sixty-six, a few years older than Gustafson. Rodney lived on disability from the long-gone steel plant in Duluth; Gustafson had always liked him. Honest kid. Honest to a fault. His smile now, that was questioning. “Patrolling the alley there, are ya?”

Gustafson lifted his eyebrows: maybe, maybe not. “Just up for a few days. Any changes?”

Rodney sucked his lips in like he had no teeth. “No.” He took a look down the opposite side of the alley, then back at Gustafson. “Nope. Same old same old.”

Gustafson thanked him, said goodbye to the little girl, told Rodney to take it easy, told them both to watch out for the rain.

It was that particular house toward the end of the block that Rodney had glanced at. That house, its yard, was all of a certain North End setting.

Continuing his slow roll down the alley, Gustafson could see the backyard of the place was mud and clay ripped up and churned by wide truck tires, big boy toys, the orange-brown slime rooster-tailed against the owner’s garage; the neighbor’s garage befouled in the same manner. Gustafson understood the people next door wouldn’t complain. And as if anyone would dare trespass on this rutted muck, the owner warned them off with a tire-and-two-by-four barricade—two stacks of tires, at least six feet apart, an old dark two-by-four stretching from one stack of gray-black rubber to the other, a tire on the top of either end of the wood crossbeam, weighing it down. The two-car garage that went with the property, besides the muddy decoration, had its door dented and askew, likely rammed in the past by a pickup truck, probably driven by the property owner.

Gustafson knew these people. They used their world up until it was dead. It didn’t bother them in the least. The dead didn’t bother the O’Neills. Not one little bit.


The sky was a heavy, washed-out blue flannel; April, cold and wet, the month when the smelt ran off Wisconsin Point. Raymond should have run. Gustafson’s brother’s life began roiling that afternoon, forty-plus years ago. He’d been washing his ’72 Plymouth Satellite, a sea-green four-door, at a Connor’s Point slip. The slip was east of a yard where an arm of a corporate monolith dismantled and scrapped Great Lakes ships past their prime. Gustafson could see the spot yet, all these years later, past the shipyard and across Howard’s Pocket, from the old neighborhood alley he eased down.

The way Raymond told it, the two of them in the kitchen of the upper duplex apartment Raymond lived in with his wife and five kids, each man with a sweaty brown bottle of Hamm’s, was that he had been washing his car when he noticed the chain. He chuckled. “The chain was looped around a piling, the other end slung tight over the edge, into the water. I’d wiped down the car — it was that sunny day—remember?—so I thought I’d give the chain a tug. It was heavy. Oh, boy.” Raymond’s eyes shone like a banjo ringing, a phrase the older brother often used to describe delight in others.

“Buckets, not just one. I eased them up, one after another.” He’d set his beer bottle down on the table, dramatized the drawing up of the chain, hand over hand. “Each of the buckets were full of scrap, copper, and brass. From those old boats, they were busy scrapping down the point.”

Raymond was proud of his discovery; his younger brother, thought differently. “Goddammit, you know who probably stole it all in the first place—”

“Fuck them.” His eyes widened to emphasize the point. “I told myself, ‘Ray, you’ve got yourself, Ellie, and five kiddos to support—”

“But the O’Neill boys. Raymond.”

“Fuck. Them.”


Wet, like the short-straw Jaycee dropping into the Tri-State Fair dunk tank, the sky opened up, and the rain came down. Gustafson looked again at the backyard mire before pulling away. By nightfall, it would be a thick soup.

At the motel across from the steakhouse on Fifth, Gustafson watched the local news. The smelt run was the second story in. The run would peak that weekend, like the night the O’Neill boys got Raymond on Wisconsin Point.

Gustafson thought of the boys now: Arne housed at Waupun; Clifford at a prison in Minnesota; Gene and Lawrence perished one Fourth of July near Pattison Park, throwing M-80s from their speeding car. Stuart, or Stu, he still lived in town, a never-to-retire con-of-all-trades.

Growing up in North End, the Gustafsons and O’Neills played football on Rusk Avenue, and baseball too. Swimming in Lake Superior in summer, skating on Howard’s Pocket, and the neighborhood rink in winter. Neighborhood kids who grew up together grew up and away from each other, the Gustafsons turning into strivers for at least the middle ground in life, the O’Neills looking to turn the easier buck, they believed, through criminality. The families managed the neighborhood cordiality. They knew each other; they shared a common history.

No one mentioned the copper and brass haul; Raymond’s filching of the O’Neills’ boodle, no one knew about it, perhaps wouldn’t care, as Raymond believed, if they did.

As he had in years past, Raymond went smelting with the O’Neills when Stu invited him along.

Gustafson heard about it later, how the O’Neills got his brother. The O’Neills and Raymond, along with the other neighborhood buddy, Rodney—someone to pass the word: Don’t fuck with the O’Neills—drove out to the Point for the smelt run.

They arrived late. Everyone was back on the beach, nets pulled in, the small silver fish in washtubs and buckets. Boomboxes pumped out the Stones and Bowie. “Rebel Rebel.” Rodney remembered that one. The beer flowed from kegs, cans, and bottles, and the bonfire flames snapped, the driftwood popped, the noisy partyers cast in orange. The O’Neills trotted Raymond down the beach and away from the firelight toward Dutchman Creek, Rodney tailing them warily. The raucous gathering of smelters flickered, a dying star.

The O’Neills beat the hell out of Raymond, Rodney told Gustafson. They didn’t have to do the other thing, but they did. “Who did it? Did they take turns? Just one of them? Their leader?”

Rodney nodded at that last: Stu.

He had pressed Raymond’s face into the wet sand as if attempting to create a death mask. After he was sure Raymond had suffocated, he had his brothers roll him over. At that moment, a wave rolled in, dissolving the imprint his terrified face had made in the sand.


Gustafson held open the storm door and knocked, the rain pattering down as if there would be no end to it ever, his boots thick, slippery with mud. An older man pulled open the backdoor, looked back into the house, then joined Gustafson on the back porch.


O’Neill nodded. He was an old sixty-five, looked like an orangutan with the belly, the long arms.

Gustafson pictured what he had planned for so many years: suffocating, drowning Stu O’Neill in the backyard slurry, packing his nose, his mouth, his throat — choking him. A crowd would gather under the evening rain in the backyards on either side of the mudflat. The few neighbors, old-timers, they would know. They would watch from the other side of the fence, smoking their unfiltered cigarettes, drinking Old Milwaukee. They knew. They wouldn’t call anyone.

“I always wondered when you’d show up,” O’Neill said. He looked away, peering at the hidden moon, and then his seven-inch prep knife swung up for the evening’s opening move, slicing Gustafson to the sternum.

Gustafson folded. He fell.

No one would be calling anyone. Those who peopled Gustafson’s dream of this night, they were not there to watch. Only Rodney, standing in the shadow of a garage, holding his granddaughter’s umbrella over his head. When O’Neill finished, Rodney turned and walked home.

Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have previously appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Close to the Bone, Crime Factory, Mysterical-E, Mystery Tribune, Pulp Modern Flash, Rock and a Hard Place, Shotgun Honey, and Tough, as well as in Midwestern Gothic, Cheap Pop, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas. He, his wife, and their goldendoodle hellraiser live in Wisconsin at the head of the Great Lakes.

Monday, September 20, 2021

In Nomine Patris, fiction by Elena Sichrovsky

Chiba, Japan  

Shanghai, China  

Vienna, Austria  

Cartagena, Colombia  

Athens, Greece

Cebu, Philippines  

Santa Monica, USA



The word fits around his gums like a mouthguard. He purses his lips, trying to unravel the vowels of the word. The girl shakes her head and pronounces it again: “Otosan,” the weight landing on the “t” like a blade to cleave the heart from the body. A dapple of sunlight moves across her face, illuminating all the patches of sympathy he has been trying to avoid. She fingers the edge of the photograph lightly. She’s looking at the black and white image with too much reverence. There’s no piety to be commanded from the portrait of the guilty.

They stand under the blood-red pillars of a tori gate that leads to the shrine behind them.  The taxi driver told him on the way there that the shrine is dedicated to a protector of military men. The solemn gray lines of the shrine’s roof bow in folded hands, a slanted prayer to honor the bravery that bloomed in the whispers of history. History is what he is hunting down now, but there are no prayers to be offered. God is the second person on his list, but the first name is the one pictured in that photograph, the one whose scent he’s tracking across continents.

He stands there a moment longer, waiting for the girl to find some trace of recognition in the photograph. His chest aches. His lungs are pushing against the bars of his ribcage like a water balloon squished between a child’s fingers.

She shakes her head regretfully and returns it. “Gomen nasai.”  



The two Chinese characters seem uncomfortable standing beside each other. He knows they read as “father” only because the hotel manager told him so. He had asked the manager to help him translate the questions he wanted to ask at the police station. Amid the scribbled indecipherable lines, the manager had circled those two characters with a thin red pen. The character on the left is simple, two intersecting strokes crossing in the center, but the other one is tall and woven with strokes like scaffolding.  

At the police station, he pushes the photograph along with the written note under the slot in the window. The young officer behind the glass takes one look at the paper and immediately looks up at him with too much pity. His dark eyes flit between the scribbled words and the photograph before turning around and beckoning to another officer in the next desk.  

He stands and waits, wondering if he should have had the clerk translate more. If he should have had him translate how he wasn’t looking for the man in the photograph for reconciliation, but for retribution. He imagines what the officers might be saying; how they might wonder what kind of parent would leave their child with nothing but a colorless image and a grown echo of their likeness staring with eyes too hollow to have been dragged down by years.



Aside from the language lesson, he also gets a drag from the young man’s joint. “You look like you need it,” the youth tells him. 

He angles his head away, muscles clenching with the barrage of coughs charging out. Smearing a hand across his lips, he wipes the blood away and finally takes the joint.  

“Fathers are overrated,” the youth goes on, hands in his pocket and back pressed to the spine of the bench. “My old man kicked me out long ago. Best thing he ever did. I’ve made my own way, to the States and back, and now I’m getting married to a girl I’ll make sure he never meets.”

Smoke escapes from his lips and withers away into the September air. The shrinking joint passes between their fingers, a union wordless and true.  

“Why are you hunting down your dad now?” The blue eyes of the youth travel up and down his rumpled suit jacket and crooked tie. “Do you need money from him?”

He shakes his head. The joint dangles between his knuckles as he rests his hands on his knees. Inhaling deeply, he tries to pull a few ribbons of air into his battered lungs. “Not money,” he says at length. “I need something more than that.”



The knife slices through the soft flesh of the lulo fruit, opening its orange facade to reveal a quartet of green seeds joined elbow to elbow like petals. Chunks slide through the woman’s fingers and into the empty blender before they are buried in a scoopful of ice cubes. A fight unleashes the moment the blender button turns on, sharp frozen angles resisting the plump softness of the fruit. After a moment, the struggle is lost, and they yield to each other, purring into a blend of sunshine orange.

Mi papa,” the woman gestures to an older man sitting at the back of the fresh fruit stall. Her eyes crinkle with a smile, and he tries to match it with his own, a line on his face that barely curves.

He’s never been able to say those words, to turn and introduce an old man as his own. He thinks of his father in aging strokes only because of the calculation of his current age and not because he’s actually ever seen him like that. Somehow the imagined portrait feels more genuine than the actual photograph he’s been carrying around. The image in the photograph merely taunts him with the idea his father once knew how to love someone other than himself.

The woman wipes an arm against the curls sticking to her forehead, jabbering on in a language he only understands flickers of. The blender tips over, spilling the frothy sweetness into a tall glass, and she hands it to him with a twisty blue straw.

“Sientate,” she motions to the plastic stool beside the older man she just identified.

He sinks down into the seat, body sagging from the perilous weight of standing. With a practiced motion, he lays the photograph out for the man to see. As he waits for the now-familiar shake of the head and sympathetic noise, he faintly wishes he was this man’s son. He would much rather die in this stranger’s home than have the eyes of a traitor be his final vision.  



He scribbles out the name of the painkiller his doctor once prescribed, and the pharmacist frowns at the inscription before turning to the shelves behind him to investigate. Words like morphine and fentanyl massage his mind, a placebo to help ease the pain more than any local equivalent will. The doctors had advised against his pilgrimage, of course; they would rather have him turn over the contents of his savings so they could hook him up to needles and drugs that would not prolong his life but would extend his suffering.  

The day after receiving his final diagnosis, he had summoned up enough energy to demand to be allowed to go home to die. He paid his landlord the last month of rent and then had taken his gun out of the safe under the bed and put it on the bedside table. While preparing for his apartment to become his mausoleum, he found the photograph of his father in the box of his late mother’s belongings. It was a picture from their wedding day; his father’s young face filled the frame, cheeks pinched in a boyish grin. 

It was then the idea bloomed in his mind. He could shift the burden of what he was carrying onto the shoulders of the one who remained unjudged by the gavel of the world. He had a reason to live now, because there was still justice he could serve. For what could be crueler than reuniting a father with his son, only to tell him that he was dying?

The pharmacist turns back, holding up a small bottle, and he hands over the crumbled bills without question. With his half-formed hand, motions and the pharmacist’s broken English he figures out directions on how to get to the beach. Truthfully he’s never been one to cherish the bitterness of sand and scratchiness of ocean waves. But he wants to allow one more curse upon himself; he wants to feel the fury of the sun to burn his pale skin so he will be even more unrecognizable to his father when he meets him.

The pharmacist points to a bottle of sunscreen, and he shakes his head determinedly. What’s one more cancer to his decaying prison of flesh and bone? He walks out, disappearing between the married scents of grilled meat and crumbling white cheese. 



The skyscraper looms over him like a parent offering a shoulder to shield him from the buffeting rains. The smooth metal of the wall he’s leaning against leaves a dent in his forehead, but he doesn’t care. Elation is coursing fast and reckless through his veins. He forgets the photograph still in his hand as his fingers form a fist, reducing the image to a wad of crumpled lines.

“Jonathan Clark went back to his hometown a few weeks ago,” the man at the trading company had told him a few minutes ago. Suddenly a ribbon had appeared at the end of the marathon, a red line to snap at the brush of his fingertips.

Five weeks. That’s how long the doctor had given him. That’s how long he had to survive crisscrossing the globe to find a father whose voice he cannot remember.

It’s been nearly three weeks now. His body has become a fearful thing, a torpedo wrapped in sweating bed sheets, and yet he is ready. He is ready to hurl the dark shape of himself onto the spike of the sun.  

Above his head, palm tree fronds flop against the typhoon winds determined to tear them from their trunk. The browned fronds know they cannot survive the gale; still they cling desperately to what little remains of their string of fate.  



He meets his father coming out of Saint John’s Health Center. 

They speak to each other in the cafeteria, sitting across diagonally.

“I’ve been looking for you,” his father says.

He doesn’t want to know why. He looks around at the vacant halls of white death and he knows why.

 “I’m dying,” his father says, and he simply shakes his head.

“No.” No, because he has been dying, and being able to deliver the news to his father was the one twisted rope he’s been burning his hands by hanging on to.

“Why were you looking for me?” his father asks.

Why now is the unspoken refrain. Instead, he fixates on the first word of that question. Why indeed. Why would the spawn of your DNA cleave to you like residual cake crumbs? Why would the boy who shares half your likeness beat his fists against the world to find you?  

“Because,” he starts, and then a bout of coughing ambushes him. He grabs the corner of the table to keep himself from folding over. Against his chest, a battering ram sings, and he pushes his palms against his ribs as they creak and cry.

A hand lands gently on his shoulder. The hand of his father. It is a strange shape that does not fit right.

“You’re not well,” his father says. “What’s wrong?”

He sits up, pushing the hand off. It is far too late to be kind. “Because,” he continues, letting the blood dribble from his lips down to his chin, “I wanted to have someone to leave behind.”

The macaroni salad remains untouched on the plastic tray. He leaves before his father even opens the berry yogurt cup.

 He goes back to his apartment and puts the gun from his bedside table into his backpack.

 That night the nurse lets him in past visiting hours because his father is scheduled to go in for surgery the following morning. “He has a good chance of surviving this,” she tells him, pink sleeves rustling noisily as she leads him down the hall. “The doctor caught this tumor in time. It could save his life.”

“I hope so,” he says and means it. Survival is the only sentence fit for someone like his father.

He sits on the chair beside his father’s bed until the old man stirs.

“You’re here,” he whispers, raspy, surprised, grateful.

“I am.” He releases the photograph from his grip, and it lands on the edge of the blanket. A few grams that sink down like a ton. There are more miles on that small piece of glossy paper than in his entire lifetime.  

He moves his hand into the backpack and holds his father’s gaze. “I was three years, three months, and twelve days old when you left me. I am now thirty-three years, six months, and twenty days old.” His finger caresses the lump nestled there before he pulls it out, the silver teeth of the pistol winking in the moonlight. He presses the muzzle to his own forehead. “I won’t let you abandon me twice.”

A spasm of terror from the old man fills his final vision, enough to make him smile as he pulls the trigger. 

Elena Sichrovsky is an Austrian-Tawainese writer living in Shanghai, China. She's a student there at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science and also a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. Through her work she seeks to find the beauty in the terrifying and the terror in the beautiful. You can follow her on Instagram @elenitasich or Twitter @thesoundbtween.