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EXCERPT 12

Several days after the big poker game had come and gone, the first sunny spring-like day of the year hit town. And wouldn’t you know it, man, I had to work my other job: clerk at goddamn Wadena Book, the Twin Port’s only dirty bookstore.

About ten-thirty on a Saturday night and things were pretty slow. I had the glass front door propped open a crack to let in the soft night air. The juices were beginning to flow again and I was feeling pretty good. I leaned back on the rear legs of the hard and uncomfortable chair and sensually fondled a Dunlop red-stitch softball. My eyes flicked restlessly around the brightly lighted room. All the gash and dick and plastic genitalia burned the mucus on my eyeballs and I couldn’t rest my gaze.

I was rubbing my eyes with my knuckles when Sammy Cross walked in arm and arm with a gorgeous girl, the babe about five-six or seven, medium length auburn hair, a gorgeous slinky bod and dreamy brown eyes. Kind of girl that makes your dick hard, your heart soft and turns your brain to mush—just the way I liked it.

My mouth must have fallen open or something because now Cross and the girl were both grinning up at me. Then the light bulb went on in my head and I knew it was the girl from the cab and the Castaway and my dreams, this time without the tortoise-shell shades.

I said, “Sam—what are you doing here? And who’s your friend?”

And now I was embarrassed by my surroundings.

Her blue painted eyelids were at half-mast. A cigarette dangled from her long fingers. She looked me over with an appreciative smirk. My heart thumped like a big bass drum. Surely she must remember me, thought I, but she didn’t let on.

Sam was grinning like a satanic Teddy Bear. “Keith,” he said, “Let me introduce you to Mary.”

Always had manners, that guy.

I said, “Hi,” and a thousand worms wriggled in my gut.

“Hi,” she said, with a sexy half smile.

Then she took a walk around the shop, checking out the fuck-and-suck rags in a wave of perfume and tobacco smoke. I couldn’t keep from staring. Her expression remained the unreadable half smile. Crimson nails, a silver and turquoise bracelet on one wrist and no rings. Breasts pushing firmly against a thin black sweater, butt moving sweetly in tight flare jeans. Some funky platform shoes, an oversize Levis jacket and the picture was perfect, like I’d seen in a dream or maybe an album cover.

“Jesus, Sam,” I said in a whisper. “Where’d you find her?”

“Right over in your back yard, Keitho my friend. She’s a peeler at the Castaway.”

“Jesus—she is the one. She was in my cab. You’re dating her then?”

“I’m trying to—but not tonight—she just dropped in over at Delaney’s with a couple friends while I was sitting there having a few pops. I’ve been trying all night to get her to go to this big party with me, but she says she won’t go with just me alone. Unresolved issues of trust, I suspect. The little girl is not as easy as I had hoped—and after all the cash I’ve stuffed down her g-string.” He peeked up at me for a reaction and got none. “No, I’m kidding,” he said, “really what the deal is, she’s got two friends with her over at the bar and we thought you would be the perfect escort. I told her Carla and Charlene would think you’re dreamy.”

“Fuck you. What do these other chicks look—”

“Why do you work in this place?” Mary said, wide-eyed and innocent, upon her return to the front of my lofty perch above the sea of smut.

I was on a raised platform, two feet above the rest of the floor, sitting behind the cash register at a small lectern. Everybody had to look up to me to pay for the porn. There was a sense of power in that chair. If the customers were feeling guilty when they looked up at you, you were the High Priest of Porn about to pass approval on their sins.

This girl had somehow turned the tables on me.

“Cause I know the manager and the pay is good,” I said, and felt my face reddening.

“How much do you make?” she asked, still with the same expression. I loved the way her hair swept back in wings.

“Five dollars an hour, cash.”

“But minimum wage is only two and a quarter.”

“Well, actually I get three bucks an hour, but I ring up at least a ten dollar no sale every shift and put it in my pocket. Hell, the cops could walk in and bust me at any minute. I deserve a little hazard pay, you know? And besides, this place is owned by Ferris Alexander—I should steal more.”

“Yeah, Waverly is a real prince,” Sam chimed in. He put his hand on the girl’s sexy shoulder. “See what I told you, Mary, have you ever seen such an innocent, honest, trustworthy boy as Keith. Just look at that boyish face. Why, the boy won’t even steal too much from Minnesota’s pornography king, who’s so rich he shits quarters. What a guy you are, Wavo.”

And then two forty-something men in worn trench coats came through the door. Yes, it’s true, men in trench coats. At the sight of Mary they tensed up and began to paw around the room like water buffaloes at an occupied water hole.

I lowered my voice. “What’s this party you’re talking about, Sambo?”

“Over in Bay City at Tony’s Cabaret. Then a private after-hours bash at Peter McKay’s digs. Big party, man. All the hipsters will be hanging.”

“Are you kidding me? Tony’s Cabaret is a gay bar. And fucking Peter McKay—what’s his deal? And how did you manage an invite? McKay didn’t look too enamored with you after the poker game, if I may say so. In fact, it seemed like he wanted to bust open your wise-ass skull, if my perception was at all accurate, you low-life sonofabitch.”

“That maybe so. That maybe so, Keith, my man, but big Peter has seen the error of his ways. I’ll have you know that we are now business associates. Time moves along, my son. By the way, he mentioned you. Said you should come to the shindig, if I saw you. Said he might have a few ideas for you.” Sam paused and stared at a plastic vagina hanging from a peg-board on the west wall. “Um, ah, and y’know, Nick is getting a little anxious to see some kind of positive sign from you, if you know what I mean.”

“Fuck Nick,” I said.

A party given by the powerful Peter McKay, beautiful women at my side—now here was the start up the ladder I’d been waiting for. Nothing was going to bring me down.

Sam gave me a look, said, “Big talk.”

“Fuck you, too,” I said.

Mary stood with her hip cocked to the side. “We have to get the girls, don’t forget, Sam,” she said. Looking up at me with those fascinating, heavy-lidded peepers when she said it.

“How could I forget those two,” Sam said, as he took Mary’s arm and sashayed toward the door. “See ya, Waverly,” he said. “Be there or be square.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” I shouted after them. “Don’t leave without me.”

The clock said 10:45.

“You’ll have to make up your minds, guys,” I said to the water buffaloes as they relaxed and approached the desk “We’re closing in five minutes.”

“I thought it said midnight on the front door,” said the guy with an oval head made me think of an egg. Had a soft-boiled look about him.

“Yeah, we just got here,” whined the other one, his skin the color of bone. “I’ve got a whole pocket of quarters here for the movies.” He lifted up the side pocket of his gray overcoat and jangled it at me. He had long dirty fingernails.

“Boss has to come in and do inventory tonight, guys. Sorry.”

“Well, all right then,” said the guy with the fingernails, looking around.  “I’m gonna buy a magazine. Wait a minute, would you.”

He picked out a spectacular photo collection of extra-large breasted women entitled Big Mamas. I rang up No Sale and set the ten-spot on the counter in front of the register. Fuck Ferris Alexander. A man needs a few bucks in his pocket when he’s going out with a pretty lady or two.

(To be continued)

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EXCERPT 11

CHAPTER TWO

Cross Is What My True Love Bears

February faded into March and I hardly knew the difference. Still gray, still cold, still windy. I guess it was getting warmer though because the boats were coming through the locks out East and steaming down our way. Here at the Head of the Lakes we depend on the boats for a lot of things. A high volume of goods moves through the Twin Ports and a lot of locals make their living because of shipping. And it’s one of the first signs of spring, even though there never is much of a spring on this end of the lake. Most years you’re craving it by Valentine’s Day anyway.

Winter can wear away at you until your innards cry out for relief. The warm weather and sunshine you so dearly crave is cruelly held back, day after dreary day. Your eyes burn from the unrelenting grayness. The weight on your chest and the tightness in your neck are facts of life. It works on your sanity. Bad shit happens in this part of the world come March. Boozers drink more, druggies do more drugs, the well-off head south and the crazies go over the edge.

So when Sam Cross invited me in on his poker scam I jumped at the chance like a condemned man in a hurry to the gallows. He and his brother wanted me to do my little mechanic number to augment their scheme, Sam said. I figured my big break had finally come. I truly felt the game was going to lead me up the ladder somehow—hanging with the rich and influential and all it entails. The right connections, you know—something was bound to fall my way. And I wasn’t going to jeopardize my future position with high society by cheating. Because, what you need in this world is connections. But sadly, my only connection remained the same after the game as before.

Sam Cross.

One of Sam’s bookmaking debtors was paying off his markers in wholesale LSD and I was given the job of turning it into cash. Three bucks for the red pyramids and five for the green. Take a little trip on the cheap. A good ride and you could drink a lot more when you were doing the Sid. Good for the town’s economy, kept the cash registers ringing. I’d sample the wares now and then myself and hit a few bars and usually blow the profits on drinks.

(To be continued)

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EXCERPT 10

The next day a biting Alberta Clipper roared into town, dropping three inches of dry snow followed by a blast of arctic air. I was in no shape to wrestle with the beast of winter. It was shut down dead stop, grinding to a halt cold. The kind of cold where the car exhaust lays down low to the ground and the wind is all the time trying to get inside your face and rip your eyes out. The sun has no warmth and cars don’t start. Furnaces break down and water pipes burst. You can feel the cold pinching in through the windows and underneath the doors. You need some kind of routine to get you through, something solid in your life to hang onto. Me, I had myself a motto: Do what you have to do and stay drunk the rest of the time.

Fate seemed to have it in for me and I didn’t have a lot to be thankful for except that liquor was cheap in Bay City—real cheap. That helped, being I was off the coke. In my own way, I was going through rehab. I provided the castigation.

Slowly my obsession with cocaine was beginning to lift. The drug makes you selfish and greedy and all you care about is drugs and money and sex. After being off the shit for a while, I started thinking about others again, like my wife and son.

Poor Loraine was getting fat and so was little Mike and I blamed her. If only I could’ve seen the kid more often I could’ve straightened him out.  But Loraine told him I was a no good character and that made it hard, if you know what I mean. Then she moved back in with her Jesus-freak parents and I only got to see the kid when she brought him to the bowling alley with her. And I hate bowling. Truly, I hate bowling. Bowling alleys aren’t so bad, but all Mike and I used to do there was eat greasy food and he was beginning to look like a pregnant seal. Made me think of a seal because of the way Loraine slicked his black hair down and this sound he made that annoyed me. I guess eight-year-old kids do that sort of thing but sometimes I think she put him up to it. It was also pretty tough because I was living in Bay City and he was across the water in Zenith City. It wasn’t that far but I only spent time in Zenith when I was driving cab or working at the porno store and those are no places for a kid.

It’s important that you know about the divorce because it was, I think, one big reason I got deeper involved with the Cross brothers. After the break-up, things started going downhill for me in a gravity-fueled spiral.  Success was failure and failure was success and who could tell the difference?

Then on one hung-over February afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading the morning paper in the waning light of a bitter day. The Gong Show was on the tube. Chuck Barris was clowning in a floppy hat and giving away trips to Bulgaria. My roommate Mickey was bartending at the High Times. Dishes were stacked up in the kitchen and my room was piled-high with dirty clothes. Worse, all the beer was gone and I was getting thirsty.

MAN FOUND MURDERED IN BAY CITY MUNICIPAL FOREST  

The headline jumped out at me. It was the lead story of the day and told the sad tale of a Caucasian male found face down in the snow: Shoulder-length light brown hair, five front teeth missing and two large bullet holes in the back of his head. Harvey Dornan. Alleged police informant, it said in black and white right there in front of me. Body partially eaten by wolves was also there.

Harvey had finally pissed off the wrong people in his short miserable life. Maybe if someone had fixed the kid’s teeth a long time ago, things would’ve turned out different for him. It was only two weeks since I’d seen him running out the back of the Castaway with thugs in pursuit. I didn’t do a thing to help him then—but you never can with guys like that.

Now all these bad premonitions and free-floating anxieties were swarming inside me like a cloud of locusts. Did I mention before that I get flashes from the future? Mostly bad premonitions like when you feel something horseshit is going to happen and then it does. And the more I dwelled on it the worse it got. But later that night after a few drinks I started feeling better, you know how it is.

Then things went routinely for a while. Days of high snow banks and nights of low life. I made enough money to get by but not enough to make any progress on my debt. The only lesson learned: time passes quickly when you dread the rising sun.

(To be continued)

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EXCERPT 9

I drove them over to the Castaway and the only thing I could think of to say was, “You girls from around here?” The blond answered yes and the brunette said no. Then they laughed and stared out the windows. I did the same, still trying to think up something clever to say, to no avail. The town looked gray and dirty and the few people on the streets, ugly. I parked in front of the club and the chicks shuffled through their purses for the fare. I figured they must be exotic dancers. Why else would a chick go to a strip bar? Unless maybe they were lesbians. And that would be all right, too. They sure were pretty.

I was just about to ask their names and maybe their phone numbers—at least the tall one, anyway—when I saw this scrawny punk of a guy come scrambling out the side door of the Castaway and start running across the parking lot like the devil himself was chasing. The dude’s shirt was torn up and there was blood and spit all over his face. And I knew the guy. Harvey Dornan was his name. A small-time dealer/hustler who anybody with any brains steered clear of. He’d been missing from the scene for a few years but recently I’d seen him back on the streets and in the bars.

Shortly after Harvey went rocketing by, two big guys in oxblood leather jackets and creased trousers came busting out after him. They were pointing and yelling and running when a third guy—sandy haired pompadour, short leather jacket, blue jeans and a sadistic look—jumped out the door of a brown Lincoln and dished out a forearm shiver to the throat of the running hippie.

I jumped out of the cab and yelled Hey. But they didn’t pay me any mind. I started running to where Harvey was down but one of the husky dudes pulled a huge black gun from under his jacket and pointed it in my direction. I needed only that one hint. Harvey was fucked up anyway.

I ran back to the cab and jumped in and looked back to see if they were coming my way. Much to my relief they threw the kid in the back of the Continental and drove off. Then I realized the girls were gone. Three dollars for the fare lay on the front seat along with a dollar tip. I lifted up the bills and put them to my nose to see if the ladies’ scent was still on them. It was. I made a mental note to go to the Castaway for a show real soon and got the hell out of there.

I laid low in Bay City and waited for my regular Monday-through-Friday fare, taking a guy from the Androy Hotel to the grain terminal for the overnight shift. But after that I was still a little shaky so I drove back over to Zenith City and sat outside the Norshor Theatre for a few minutes to calm my nerves. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it said on the flashing marquee. My nerves didn’t calm down at all. And even though I could have used a few more bucks I drove to the Blue and White office and checked out for the night. I didn’t tell Al the vein-nosed phlegm factory of a dispatcher anything about the incident, just said I was a little ill.

I got in my Olds and wasted no time getting back over the bridge.

Going by the Castaway I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl—the dark eyed one—but I kept on driving. I was a little short on cash. I drove to the gray-shingled barn-like duplex where I’d lived for the last three months and parked in a circle of amber light under a sodium lamp in the alley. I walked up the faded back stairs to the faded entryway, stepped around the empty cases of Leinenkugel’s and the old paint cans and put the key in the lock of the ugly Aqua-Velva-blue door.

My roommate Mick was passed out on the couch in the living room kicking out jackhammer snores, a beer bottle balanced on his slightly rounded stomach, the thumb and forefinger of his right hand holding it upright in a nocturnal death grip. I settled back into the weakened springs of the easy chair and watched the dust mites drift up into the yellow glow of the table lamp. A black and white movie droned on the old tube; Daniel Webster was being seduced by the devil. People and shapes and disembodied voices were trying to pull Daniel over to the dark side.

Shit was eerie. Webster must have had a hard time making his dictionary with those bastards on his ass.

I got up and turned the dial, found a Kojak rerun on channel thirteen. Kojak made me feel secure. If Kojak was your daddy and you ever got in trouble, you can bet he’d get you out of it. But I never liked the dude who played the sidekick so I shut off the TV and went to bed.

 

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EXCERPT 8

I cruised by the Wisconsin Steak House and then a little seaweed green wooden garage in an open field with a hand-painted sign on the door advertising “Hubcaps For Sale.” As the sun began to sink below the western hillside, flophouses and greasy spoons and blockhouse bars cast dark silhouettes. On my right was the Viking Bar, famous for drinks as cheap as a boat whore and strong as a trucker’s breath. Then came the Nickel Street Saloon, the High Times and the Heartbreak Hotel. One Harley leaned on its peg in front of the High Times. On my left was the Boulevard Lounge where the strippers sold cocaine between dances and pussy after hours.

I was thinking maybe I should stop in after my shift was over.

Next up was Johnny’s Bar; where once a three-hundred-pound customer killed his drinking buddy by jumping onto the poor slob’s chest and crushing his heart. Good times. Then came Tony’s Cabaret, the Twin Port’s’ only gay bar at the time, and Al’s Waterfront Lounge, where huge Great Lakes ships rested on the frozen bay behind it like bathtub toys for giants. Up ahead past Tower Avenue Fifth Street came to a a dead-end at a big mound of dirt and a barrier consisting of three black-and-yellow-striped boards bolted to metal posts stuck in the pavement. Beyond that I could see a bleak flat area stretching out dark and endless, dead brown weed stocks and piles of snow-flecked coal lying next to rusty railroad cars and the ghostly hulls of semi-trailers. A phalanx of railroad tracks spider-webbed around a metal hangar and led out of town toward better places.

I turned left on Tower and headed uptown. The streets were pretty empty, as it was still early. Away from the waterfront the bars went upscale. In Bay City this meant they were cleaned once in a while and had bouncers. At least a few of them did. I drove by the Cave Cabaret, featuring The Zenith City Gloom Band, and past a “Girls, Girls, Girls” sign at the Castaway. Then in a blur of neon and exhaust came the Casablanca, the Brass Rail, Zanuzowski’s, Yellow Submarine, Tommy Byrne’s, the Poodle Lounge, Dugout Bar, the Capri, the Lamplighter, the Androy Hotel, the Elbow Room, D.T.’s, the Anchor, the Douglas, Betty Boop’s, the Kro Bar, the Trio, the Classy Lumberjack and the Red Lace Massage Parlor.

Just past Bob’s Chop Suey House, I turned left and went to John Avenue—appropriately famous for its three whorehouses—turned right, drove down one block and parked in the glow of the Port Town Hotel sign hanging from the wall of a dark brick flophouse. Across the street was a Laundromat and a closed café—DINAH’S KITCHEN, on a faded sign.

I was five minutes early for the pick-up so I pulled out a Kool from my pack above the visor and fired up with some matches from Jasmine’s Lounge, Where You Always Have A Good Time.  I flipped the button on the transistor radio lying on the seat. Jaggar came on wailing about love in vain. About that I thought I knew. Then something crossed through the glare from the naked bulb in the pea-green hotel entryway and I turned to see two good-looking girls strutting toward my cab. I remember thinking it was my lucky night.

I feasted my eyes on a tall, dark-haired, clean-faced beauty in a long brushed leather coat. Dark tortoise shell glasses, hair stuffed up inside a floppy brown felt hat and a black silk scarf tied loosely around her neck.  The other girl was a short blond with long straight hair—cute in a baby doll sort of way. She wriggled inside a bird’s egg blue high school letter jacket with a white W on the front. The girls got in the cab, followed closely by a rush of cold air and the scent of sweet perfume, alcohol and chewing gum.

I was putty in ten seconds flat.

(To be continued)

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Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

http://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 7

Despite the wind’s nip, Sam Cross was still flying high. And still laughing about his luck with the cards and his brother’s tantrum. He invited me along for a drink and a blast or two off the silver bullet with him and Miko. Sam was going to buy the Greek a lot of drinks and try to make the poor bastard like him and I had no stomach for the bullshit. I declined the invite and turned in the direction of my rusty 1965 Olds. Then I saw Peter McKay coming up behind me.

“Mr. Waverly,” he said, “hold up for a moment please.”

I did. He caught up and pressed a twenty-dollar bill into my palm and gave my forearm a little squeeze with his other black-gloved hand.

“Just a small tip for your dealing tonight, Mr. Waverly,” he said. He looked me up and down and smiled a little. “I did well, in spite of the rather bizarre group we had assembled. Thank you. Do you do this sort of thing often?”

“Not much, anymore. I just owed Nick a favor—from the old days. Nick and I go back a ways.”

“I see, uh huh. Well, maybe I can use you some day.”

“Sure, anything,” I said, nodding my head like a puppy eager for a bone. By that time we were at my car door so I climbed in and cranked her up while Peter trudged off to his dark green Mercedes diesel. I buttoned up my brown corduroy Marlboro Man jacket and drove away.

*   *   *

It’s clear to me now that the card game was the catalyst for all the sordid events that followed. It was a night where Fate came in and shoved us all into the Big Mixer, threw in some glue and nails and pushed the puree button. But the beginnings of the story go back a little further. Back to earlier that winter when I was still wheeling hack for Minnie Green and her Blue and White Taxi Company.

It was late January of 1978. Football season was over; the lights from all the Christmas trees were out. On my right the ancient Arrowhead Bridge and a rusted railroad trestle watched silently in the cold distance as I rolled toward the John Blatnik High Bridge, the concrete-and-steel span that would get me across the water to the other side. I could see the yellowed ice of the bay stretching out to the mouth of the St. Louis River. It’s called the St. Louis River but it’s a long way from Missouri. Along the side of the road naked tree branches stretched out like arthritic fingers, straining for warmth that wasn’t there. Over to my left huge grain terminals loomed darkly behind rows of faded, empty boxcars.  The wind was coming hard off Lake Superior, pushing and shoving at the taxi’s aging suspension. The heater was on full blast but icy drafts whistled through. I was headed to the Wisconsin side of the bridge and the north end of Bay City—a low spot on the geological survey where the losers, the lost and the sexually disenfranchised washed up like flotsam and jetsam. A place where I felt strangely comfortable. There was nothing to prove and somehow that was a good thing.

Sure, Bay City had its good people and its quiet neighborhoods, like anywhere else. But there was also something strange over there, something peculiar—a feeling that lingered on the edge of comprehension. It was a place where you might find someone as indifferent or as desperate as you. Someone just as willing to go crazy, attempt suicide or commit a crime. Someone just right.

First thing comes to mind when I think of Tugtown is alcohol.  Booze. Liquor. Firewater. Rotgut. For guys like me who grew up on the other side of the bridge, Bay City was a place for first-time experiences. Maybe your first drink in a bar or the first time you bought beer with a fake I.D. Maybe the first time you had a pool cue broken across your back or your ear bitten off in a fight—could be anything. This was a town where anything could happen, when the stars were right.

From the top of the bridge now the three-story skyline spread out in front of me, dark, decaying and slightly greasy, like a 1930’s version of a Dickens’ novel from an alternate universe. I could see U.S. Highway 2 as it wound its way out of town toward a barren and gray frozen wasteland of snow and fir trees and the occasional country bar or small town. Wisconsin—Devil’s Country: birthplace and home of enterprising serial killers Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Endless miles of two-lane roads and a population of outlaw bikers second only to the great state of California.

Dahmer was probably busy grilling up his neighbor’s cat about the time I turned onto North Fifth Street, the primary gateway to the strip clubs and massage parlors, gambling joints, rock ‘n’ roll bars, whorehouses and bad restaurants that were the pulse of Bay City’s erogenous zone. Wisconsin’s legal drinking age was eighteen, recently brought down by the state legislature from twenty-one, and the party was always on. The town’s funky old saloons were filled with raucous hordes getting drunk and doing drugs and raising general hell. Cash flowed as fast as the liquor as wild-siding kids poured into town like beavers to a birch tree farm.

(To be continued)    

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DEAD LOW WINTER

T.K. O’Neill

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

It’s the mid-1970’s and, in his search for a way out of the mire that had become his life, sometimes-cab driver Keith Waverly finds himself in deeper than his wildest nightmares. At odds with both conventional life and life outside convention, looking for a way to break free without giving in, Keith tries to control his fate, but ends up a pawn in someone else’s bigger game.  The vast darkness of the north woods provides a chilling backdrop and powerful force to Dead Low Winter.

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