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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Keith O’Neill’

Enjoy Chapter 15 of T.K. O’Neill’s crime/noir enovel Fly in the Milk–and order the whole thing for just $2.99!

CHAPTER 15

William “Big Cat” Edwards always thought it peculiar how he grimaced when the cops passed by on the road. City cop, highway cop, sheriff or goddamn game warden, it didn’t matter. Every time he saw a vehicle with a flasher on the roof and a uniformed driver, he felt the stirrings of anger and resentment and maybe hatred. There was possibly a little fear, but he would never admit it.

Driving north on Highway 53 in his ’69 Buick Electra four-door, he wondered what his old parole officer would say if he ever told her that one. Like if he just came out and said I hate fucking cops, Marlene. The bitch would be busting her ass to get him back inside, that’s for sure. At least until after her period was done with and she mellowed out again.

The bitch. He’d see her in the bars all the time with her old man—her husband—both of them drunk as skunks. Yet they always found a way to look down at you, didn’t they? Give someone a job with power over others and they start thinking their own shit don’t stink.

Sure, he knew that all cops weren’t bad. And yeah, they were necessary to keep the real assholes in line, but he still swore to himself whenever they passed by on the road. Back when he was a kid, his teachers were always preaching that the cops were there to help you. He’d never seen much of the helping, only the throwing in jail part. His daddy… his uncle… him…

Sometimes he wished he were still a kid, innocent and playful, only worried about if his mother might embarrass him with her alcoholic incoherence or her lunacy. Now and then when he was a little down, he wondered if he’d be better off a retard like his younger brother. Ride around all day in a window van with all his tard buddies, making weird faces at the passing cars. Wouldn’t have to go through the grind anymore. Wouldn’t have a care in the world, except maybe if you crapped your pants or not. But maybe that wouldn’t bother you either.

Yeah, this life was getting to be a grind, that was true, but none of the straights would ever believe you if you told them. They think it’s because you’re lazy that you make your money on the other side of the law. They think it’s an easy life, running a blind pig. They don’t know it’s harder than running a regular bar, and you always got to worry about getting busted, besides. These days there’s lots of competition and the money is tight. People would rather stay home and get stoned and watch cable TV. And you’re always looking over your shoulder to see who’s coming after you. Is it the cops or just some crazy drunken asshole you eighty-sixed a month ago?

They think because the blackjack tables and the roulette wheel are always busy, it means you’re rolling in the dough. Nobody thinks that you got partners like anyone else in business. And you got cheaters coming in and trying to rip you off, and you got your own partners trying to skim every nickel they can get away with.

Nah, man, it ain’t easy being an outlaw. You got your times of underemployment just like anyone else. And if you fuck up, you don’t just get fired, you get thrown in the slam.

Big Cat, like his bud Johnny Beam, believed it was time to move on to sunnier shores. Bring the wife and kid down to where it was warm all year long. Score a nest egg and roll down to Florida; maybe buy into a bar or a liquor store and sell gin to retirees. It would sure be nice to not have to see Artis and Gary again. Why in fuck he’d ever partnered up with them, he didn’t know. Maybe it had been God’s will….

The rusty Electra rode like a pillow on a wave, floating along as the sky tried to decide if it was going to rain or shine. Twenty minutes past the Three Lakes Road at the first right after Dunston Road, Cat turned onto the gravel and pushed down the pedal, watched in the rearview as the dust kicked up behind him like an exploded vacuum bag. Two miles on the dirt and he’d be at the house, the sleazy shithole with the dilapidated chicken coops out back that Artis called home.

He was still kicking himself about the past, wondering how he could have let it happen like it did. If he’d been thinking back then, he would’ve asked Johnny to let him run the Hanging Dog. Just him alone, not the other two lizards. But the Big Cat, so named because of the three white vertical steaks along the left side of his full, dark head of hair and the feline grace he’d shown in the boxing ring, could never hang onto money. And Johnny had needed the bread up front. Gary Masati always had cash because there was money in his family. And Artis was Gary’s strong-arm guy. That was how the deal came together. But that was a long time ago and the Cat had always been Johnny’s man, the only one of the three that was smart enough to keep an enterprise going.

Artis Mitchell paced back and forth on the cracked, yellowed linoleum in his spacious and filthy kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink and the place was getting too dirty, even for him. Time to get Elizabeth Hardy from down the road over again to do some cleaning. Maybe this time he would get her inside the bedroom and get her pants off. She was only sixteen but she could clean up the house real good. Three dollars an hour and she earned every cent. Watching her ass in them tight Calvin Klein jeans was worth two-fifty an hour alone.

Warmth flooded him as he replayed in his mind the night that had changed his life and brought a ray of hope into his otherwise bleak existence. That time when there was a knock on his door and Elizabeth was standing there in her red wool car coat, pretty as a pin-up. When she smiled that toothy smile, her lips all curvaceous, and asked so sweetly if she and her friends could come over to his house and party sometime, you know, hang out and smoke dope and drink beer—well, old Artis was thinking a miracle had happened. He’d hesitantly agreed, using every bit of his will, to keep from drooling and babbling like a diseased monkey.

On the evening of the much-anticipated party, five kids had showed up on Artis’ front porch: Elizabeth, her friend Jenny, and three boys whose names Artis kept forgetting. Ricky and Billy and Tommy or some shit like that. They’d brought their own weed and a partially consumed half-gallon jug of Red Mountain wine. Artis kept his own stash of Colombian pot a secret, but he did share a few cans of Pabst from his fridge.

The kids were nice to him but a little afraid of the man with the big beer gut and the huge, hairy arms. Artis chose to believe that their standoffishness was, in fact, respect and shyness.

After the get-together was over and the kids had stumbled out, leaving his little house quiet again, Artis had parked himself on the lumpy gray couch, beer in hand and cigarette burning on top of an empty Blue Ribbon can on the cluttered table, and come up with a grand scheme.

He would invite the gang over again, someday soon. Make sure he had everything set up just right before they got there: some nice Boone’s Farm apple wine for the girls and Steinhaus beer for the boys. Cheap booze always worked better. Then bring out the good weed and the Penthouse magazines and get the kids horny, tell’em to feel free and use the spare bedroom if they want to have a little fun. After a couple had been in the room going at it a while, he’d say he was going to roll a joint and go into the closet of the other bedroom where his camera was mounted on a tripod.

He could work the hole-in-the-wall action all night long.

When the film was developed he’d have leverage on the kids. They wouldn’t want their parents to know what they been up to, so they’d do some favors in exchange for the pics. Maybe some free weed or some stolen goods from the boys—maybe a grab-and-dash job or two. The girls—they got things they can do, too. Let your imagination work for you on that one.

Artis sighed, scratched a stick match on the window molding and fired up a Marlboro, looked through the dusty glass at the brush and scrub trees along the edge of his backyard. Dark clouds like buffalo turds were moving slowly across the steel-gray sky.

He was starting to get pissed off. Where in the fuck was that goddamned Masati? Fat fuck was supposed to be here an hour ago so they could work on their story… excuse… alibi… explanation for the discrepancies in the accounting books at the Dog. Porky son of a bitch was probably into the Valium again and would more than likely be totally useless in convincing the Cat of their innocence.

As Gary Masati bounced along the highway in his Ford Bronco in the direction of what he often caustically referred to as “Artie’s Acres” or “Mitchell’s Mansion,” he had indeed been into the Valiums. Trying to cut back on his coke and speed usage, he had ingested the tranquilizers as part of a self-prescribed therapy regimen.

Masati had two nicknames. One that you could say to his face: Assram, or Ram for short, which referenced his unique ability to break through locked doors using his sizeable hindquarters as a battering ram. The second nickname, “Gag me Gary,” referred to his predominantly rank body odor. You only spoke this behind his back, unless you wanted some trouble. At this moment, his jaw was a bit loose and his mouth hung open. He seemed to breathe and snore at the same time and he didn’t give a fuck about much of anything.

That’s the thing about Valium, take enough of it and you just plain don’t give a shit. No matter what you do, have done or are about to do, you care not. The little pills, be they yellow or big blue, were often prescribed as a means of putting the mind on an even keel, freeing the unhappy user from the sufferings of anxiety and fear and guilt. And they worked. Empathy, patience and tolerance were also frequently banished from one’s emotional repertoire by diazepam, but this side effect was one about which Gary Masati could not have cared less.

As far as he was concerned, the meeting was more for Big Cat and Artis; they were the ones who cared about the Hanging Dog. He, you know, didn’t give a fat fuck. He didn’t need the club and the club didn’t need him. He had an income, a monthly inheritance check from a long-dead uncle that kept him in the necessities of life, like food, dope and alcohol and a place to crash. And because of his ingenious method of entering locked rooms, he was a valuable addition to any burglary crew—and a damn good auto mechanic besides, if he had to work. If you had to work a steady, at least in a garage you could stay stoned on something all day. Currently, he had a tricked-out pick-up on the market that he’d assembled from all “borrowed” parts.

Sure, he’d skimmed a little off the top here and there at the Dog. Fucking anybody would, working that place. It’s not like there were any tips or anything. But the kind and size of the losses Artis was talking about had to be from something else. Like maybe fucking Artis was stealing a pile and concocting some kind of intrigue bullshit to cover it up.

Gary knew how easy it would be to start out small, lifting a few bucks here and there, telling yourself you were going to pay it all back later when you got ahead. But then you never got ahead and all of a sudden you were looking at a pretty big hole in the bookkeeping. That’s probably how it went down.

The road went by in a soft haze. Hardly seemed like any time at all before he was cutting the ignition and staring blankly at the dust as it swirled down on his hood and drifted into the side of Artis’ shitty house. Gary’s brain was a jellied mess, the last twenty miles a total blank.

He had risen that morning with a fierce craving for a burst of illicit chemical energy in the form of powders or pills, a habit that, in its infancy, he had told himself would be good for him, help drop a few pounds. Having finally assessed the damaging nature of such a habit to both his pocketbook and his mental health, Gary often fought the urges with a ten-milligram Valium, which usually reduced the craving to a muffled moan. He had boosted at noon with another blue tablet and nearly passed out during lunch at Silk’s pool hall. Then Peter Klang had given him a white cross in the men’s room to help him revive.

Gary climbed out of the fading orange Bronco, steadied himself on the doorframe and fired up a Viceroy with a black plastic lighter. Mellow but mean; he hoped nobody gave him any shit because he wasn’t in the mood. Didn’t want to pull out the .38 from the waistband of his jeans under the tail of his blue flannel shirt. All he wanted to do was rest. Rest and think about the burglary job that Tommy Soderberg had clued him to, a small safe with cash, old coins and jewels. The picture in his head glowed with warm colors that promised satisfaction like a five-course dinner.

He staggered up the incline and let himself in through the dirt-smudged, scratched-up wooden front door. In the nearly empty dining room, dust floated thickly inside an angled column of sunlight streaming through a high window on the west wall, the sun having found a break in the bank of clouds.

He saw a blurry Artis sitting on a wooden chair in the kitchen, nursing a can of Old Style, huge forearms resting on the rickety wooden table with a cigarette burning between his thick fingers. A steady blue-gray stream of smoke rose toward the yellowed ceiling. Artis looked worried.

“Jesus Christ, Artis, you pig,” Masati snorted, jiggling across the litter-strewn floor. “Don’t you ever clean this place? I remember that peanut butter jar over there from three weeks ago, for the Christ sake. You’re gonna get some kind of rat-shit fever or something. Smells like the fucking landfill in here.”

“Fuck you, Ram. Clean enough for a shitbag like you.” Artis bared his yellowed, tobacco-flecked teeth in an artificial smile that looked more like a grimace.

Masati sat down heavily. The wooden chair creaked and sagged. He dropped his cigarette into an empty Old Style can on the table and took a deep breath. His eyelids were heavy and so was his lower jaw.

“Well I’m heerrrrr…” he slurred.  “Whasss with all the drama? You knock up a sheep an need bread for an abortionnn?”

“I thought it was a sheep at first but then I discovered it was your mother.”

“You would fuck my mother, Artis, you sick fuck. Even the old man won’t do that anymore.”

“Who could blame him after you came out.”

“Fuck off. What the hell you call me out here for? What’s this goddamn emergency you’re all worked up about?”

“Big Cat’s on his way out. He’s gonna want to know why we’re out of liquor at the club and why we don’t have his usual share. Then, in a couple days, when he hears from Randall that he ain’t been paid, he’ll be ready for it.”

“It’s that bad, uh? We got to prepare him for the worst? Fucking shit. You never can tell… it ain’t my fucking fault.”

“Nobody’s saying it’s anybody’s fault. I’m saying we lost a ton at roulette last summer. I think someone was past posting. I think there was a team working us. Remember all those new guys? Them assholes with the Ohio plates?” Artis’ eyes pleaded slightly, hoping for backup on his grasp at straws.

“Nahhhhhh…… but, y’know… there’s new faces every summerrrr.  You can’t catch da same fish everrrryy day.”

“You better remember those faces when Cat shows up, Ram. You better remember how they slicked us. Otherwise he’s gonna think it was you and me been stealin’ him blind and causing the Dog to go tits up.”

“We’rrre tittsss ubp?”

“Like a beached sucker. We only got enough booze left for you and me to get drunk. We can’t afford the rent or the skid to Randall, and the women don’t want to come around no more  ‘cause nobody wants to spend anything on them. Dudes’d rather sit home and whack it to porn videos. And there just ain’t any money around. Not enough for a place like the Dog to stay goin’, anyway.”

“Hell’s gonna happenn to da stuffff?  Jukeboxss an pinball?”

“’Magine someone will come for them.” Artis said, watching the dust-filled column of sunlight as it faded away. “Can’t see Lambert or Johnny Beam leaving them behind. Unless the cops get there first. I think it was just a matter of time before we got popped, anyway, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, we’re getting out at the right time.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “You want a beer, man?”

“No thanks, I’mm watcchhin my waistline.”

“What are you watching it do, take over the county?”

“Fuck you.” Masati shot Artis the bird in slow motion.

Artis snorted, raked the empty beer cans off the table, pinned them against his barrel chest and stood up. He paused to gape at Masati’s head as it lolled on his thick, fleshy neck like a beach ball on a rhino, the chair creaking sharply each time it jerked back upright.

Then they both turned their heads at the sound of a blown-out, window-rattling muffler. Artis looked out the window above the sink and saw a big Buick pulling up, followed by a cloud of dust that swirled around the house. He dropped the beer cans in a plastic garbage pail under the counter by the sink and wiped his hands on the front of his blue denim coveralls.

The Buick jerked to a halt in the dirt. Big Cat held his breath as the dust cloud passed by and settled on the patchy lawn. The massive, copper-colored two-door hardtop with white vinyl roof shuttered and shook, chugging for twenty seconds before it finally wheezed and went quiet.

“Sounns like Cat couldd use hisss timing adjustedt,” Masati slurred.

“Why don’t you offer your services?” Artis asked, grinning.

“I hav in tha passst, I’ll havv yuu knowww—but he never sidts down long enough to gedt it donnne.”

“That’s another thing, man,” Artis said, eager for the opening. “He’s hardly ever at the club anymore, only shows up when we’re closing, to count the cash. Shit, lately he doesn’t even show up at all, half the time. Fucker’s been having me drop it off at his house. Trouble is… I ain’t brought nothing over for the last three weeks.”

“Thisss isss whadt I gedt when I de-le-gate yuuu sommme re-sponnsa-billlidty?”

“Fuck you, Masati, if you hadn’t been passed out in the office or not there at all every goddamn night, I wouldn’t have had to do it.”

“So it’sss my fauldt thattt you spennt the housse’s casssh?”

“I had to pay my rent and electricity, and I had a shit load of parking tickets—they were going to throw me in jail,” Artis frowned until the thick hair of his eyebrows joined at the bridge of his nose. “What fucking choice did I have?”

“I forgive you Artis,” Masati said, his speech momentarily returned to normal due to the rush of apprehension and fear brought on by Big Cat’s arrival. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. But you’re going to have to ‘splain that to our boy Mr. Cat. And I think I hear his footfalls a rustling on the porch right now.”

Then the front door scraped open and the screen slammed behind it. The six-foot-two former boxer and part-time musician known as Big Cat, came striding in, the heels of his blue and red cowboy boots knocking on the decaying wood floor.

“Greetings from the Land o’ Nod,” Masati said from the kitchen, his tongue thickening.

The three men jerked to attention as a clap of thunder ripped the sky. In an instant, a hard rain came ripping down from the black clouds, large oval drops hitting the dry dirt and bouncing. Drumming on the tops of the cars and tapping like a thousand tiny hammers on the shingled roof of the house.

“At least it will keep the dust down for a few days.” Artis said, looking out at the deluge as he moved slowly into the dining room. He kicked at a crumpled McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapping. “Hey, Catman, how’s it hanging?”

“Long and thick, as per normal,” Big Cat said, deep and mellow. He was a large man with wide shoulders, a strong chest and a square head, features that some mistook for Polynesian or Samoan.

“Beer, William?” Artis inquired, gesturing toward the kitchen and the grease-stained refrigerator that only a year before had been a shiny new unit, part of the swag from a warehouse rip-off on the Zenith waterfront.

“Yeah, I’ll have one, Arty.” Then, seeing Masati’s obvious intoxication, Cat went into the kitchen, bent down and looked into the fat man’s eyes. “And how are you today, Gary?”

“Pretty mellow, I guess.”

“Sampling the mother’s little helpers again, are we?”

“You might say that. Just a couple three, my man.”

“Blues?”

“Yessir. Want some?”

“No thanks. Maybe later. I got to stay sharp these days. These are trying times for the Cat. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. We’ve got to make some changes, I’m sorry to say. We have to shut down the Dog.”

Artis felt his nerves lighting up as he returned from the fridge with a can of Old Style and set it down on the table. Big Cat grabbed a paint-splattered wooden chair, spun it around backwards and sat down with his arms resting on the back. He picked up the beer, popped the top and took a large pull.

“Annnd jus exacly why does the Dawg haf to die, oh great leader,” Masati slurred, his lips undulating in a failed attempt at a smile.

“It’s losing money,” Big Cat said. “There ain’t enough cash left to keep it running. Fact is, it’s been going downhill for a while now, as you’ve probably noticed. You guys—”

Artis shuffled his feet nervously, stuffed his hands deep in the pockets of his worn, Oshkosh coveralls, lowered his eyelids and studied his feet. “Look, man, I’m sorry—”

“I’m sorry it’s over, too,” Big Cat blurted, “but it’s partly my fault. I gambled away the capital. It’s that simple. I got into this big poker game with some real high rollers. Big-time dudes with deep pockets that I thought I could clean out. To make a long story short, I lost. I came so fucking close on one huge pot—I still can’t believe the cocksucker hit the third ace. He pulled a full boat over my spade flush. I was tapped. Blew like nine grand, right fucking there. That’s why I haven’t been comin’ around.” He took a chug of beer and sat up straight, a serious look on his face.

Artis and Gary shared subtle “do-you-believe-it?” glances.

“Jesus Chrise, Cat, shhit,” Masati said. “I hat three gran in the Dawg but I made that a hunert times over. You can take yer time payin me back, buddy, I donn’t giv a shit.”

“You don’t owe me nothing, William,” Artis said.

“You guys take all the machines that are left,” William the Big Cat said. “The pinball and horserace machines are gone already. Had the guy in there today from West Side Games. You got the bag of quarters, Artis?”

Artis shook his head and tried to look solemn, when in actuality he was relieved. “No… I don’t. Sorry man, I had to use that to pay off these parking tickets I had. I swear, Cat, they were gonna throw me in jail.”

Big Cat took a sip of his beer and shrugged. “C’est la vie say the old folks. So ah, in lieu of a bag full of quarters—anybody know any guaranteed moneymaking scenarios? I need something, real bad.”

“Hey ah, lissen yu guyss,” Masati said. “I, ah, wasn’ goin’ say nothin’ bout thisss, but Tommy Soderberg tole me about this job. He ah, ah—wants me to do thiss job with’im, ya see.  As lonng as yu guyss are’n such rough shape, y’know, why ah, ah—don’t we doit arselfes.”

Cat was disbelieving. Masati was a chronic bullshitter and Tommy Soderberg always worked alone. “Tommy Soda told you about a job? You fucking sure about that?”

“I swear ta Godt, Cat, I ain’t gonna shit you.”

“I can hardly wait to hear this,” Artis said.

“Shut up Arty, let him talk. It takes him long enough, already. You got any coke or speed or something to give him? It’s like listening to a walrus croaking.”

“But, guys, I’m tryin’ to wean maself from stimulants,” Masati insisted, eyes widening slightly.

“Bullshit,” Big Cat said. “I’ll wean you from your nuts if I have to listen to anymore of your mumbling.”

“I shall make an effort to enunciate.”

“Here, then,” Artis said, shaking his head. “Maybe this will help.” He reached in the pocket of his coveralls and came out with a silver bullet filled with coke, set it on the table in front of Masati.

Assram fish-eyed the dull gray metal vial with the tiny hole on the tip. “I do believe it will, gentlemen, I do believe it will.” Moments later, the life was back in his eyes and he was ready to go. “So anyway, as I was saying. Tommy Sodapop told me about a lovely little safe job that he has researched. A safe that is full of old coins, cash and jewelry, he says. Old man used to own a business, but now he’s retired, but he keeps this office to make him feel like he’s still got what it takes, y’know? Maybe he does a little business once in a great while, y’know? Anyways, Soda said he was in the building doing some painting—doing some work for Harold Greene of Meridian Realty— and he seen the old guy going in the safe and pulling out these books of old coins and shit.

“And then he says that later in the day he’s sitting around at the Golden Flow and the old guy comes in, still dressed in his suit and bow tie. The geezer sits at the bar and has one tap beer and then leaves. Soda asks Paul the bartender if he knows the guy and Pauly says Sure, the guy comes in five days a week, always at the same time of day, has one beer and then leaves. He says the guy is loaded, owned a jewelry store for sixty years or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good, Gary,” Big Cat said. “But what the hell did Soda want you to do? I mean, can’t he get in there by himself?”

“He wanted me to help carry the safe out. Said the two of us could haul it out of there and throw it in the back of my Bronco.”

“Thanks for clueing us in, Ram,” Artis said, sarcastically.

“When can we do it?” Big Cat said, setting the empty can on the table and rubbing his hands together like he was washing with unseen soap.

“We hit the place and Soda’s gonna know it was me,” Masati said. “Not sure I want him on my case for jumping his gig.”

“How much of a cut is it gonna take to get you over your guilt and fear?” Big Cat asked, dryly.

“Half should do it.”

“Half the take?” Artis sputtered. Little balls of spit flew from his mouth and stuck in his scraggly brown beard. “You gotta be fucking insane, you fat bastard.”

“Listen, you hairy Greek fuck, not only do I deserve a chunk for finding the job, I should get another bump for crossing Soda. He’s not exactly going to want to hug me for this, in case you’re thinking otherwise.”
“Soda ain’t gonna do anything to you, Ram,” Big Cat said. “Fucker won’t get near you.” He gave Artis a wink on the sly. “All he wants to do is get high and play ball. He’s not the violent type. He’ll just spread the word around town about your deed and hope you get what you deserve.”

“Which is?” Masati asked, warily.

“Judge not, lest you be judged, has always been my policy, Ram. I’ll let someone else decide your just desserts.”

“I’ve got some good ideas about that,” Artis said, wiping at his beard.

“I bet you do, you sick fucking pervert,” Masati said, eyelids growing heavy. “Got another hit of blow?” he said to the air, his gaze directed at a place on the ceiling where a crack in the plaster resembled the letter Z.

“Maybe I do,” Ram, Artis said. “Providing you stay right where you are and give us all the details on this job.”

“Can do, Artis, my friend, can do. It’s not like I was going for a jog or anything.”

Big Cat got up from the table and walked into the dining room. This was the kind of shit that drove him crazy, the way those two dorks carried on. Took them forever to do anything. How he’d gotten this involved with these two was beyond his comprehension. He must have been lonely back then—or maybe he’d taken pity on the pathetic bastards.

He stared out the window at the puddles and the splashing water and the wind pushing the leaves on the popple trees to their silvery backsides. Now it seemed he was getting in deeper with the diet-challenged duo. When he’d thought that all was lost, opportunity had fallen out of the sky. More correctly and certainly stranger, out of Gary Masati’s rubber-lipped mouth. This was as close to “out of the blue” as you were going to get.

Curiouser and curiouser, Cat thought, wondering where he’d heard that before. Way back in the anterior lobes of his brain, another tiny voice was trying to be heard. But it sounded too much like his parole officer—the bitch—and he tried to ignore it.

You seem to look for trouble, William, it was saying.

(End of Chapter 15)

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Johnny chuckled softly to himself and squinted out the windshield as fog collected on the edges of the glass. He pointed the Olds in the direction of the Bayside Bar and tried to imagine his parents together in this town. It was hard to do.

He was on Banks Avenue, near the viaduct over the railroad tracks, thinking how nothing seemed historical about Bay City, just old. How the past seemed to disappear like last winter’s snow, and once it was gone, nobody thought about it much.

Except maybe if you were drunk and blasted on pain pills.

At 12:20 he swung into the gravel parking lot of the Bayside and was jolted by the sight of two gigantic Great Lakes ships towering in the gloom at the back of the lot. Two brown monsters looming dry-docked, waiting for the ice to go out. Waiting for winter’s grip to loosen, just like everyone else.

He picked up a few stares when he came through the red door into the dim, smoky bar. He didn’t give a damn. To his left was a stage, four skinny white kids with ducktail haircuts, white shirts and stovepipe jeans playing electric guitars and slouching through a love song about a “Little Ragged Dolly.” A few couples slow-danced. Stage lights changed color from red to blue to yellow.

Two meatheads at the bar made a point of staring as he strode confidently and impassively past them. But nobody was about to say anything to the beefy, well-dressed black man with the Band-Aid above his eye and cigar stub clenched between his teeth.

He approached the barman and smiled at the slender guy with the standard ducktail haircut. The tender pointed towards the back of the room.  “Mr. Lambert said you should go on back, Mr. Beam. Just go on back to the hallway there and hang a right.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said, as the kid moved down the bar toward a teetering, rouge-cheeked lush with a pink scarf wrapped around her frizzy, thinning red hair.

Beam walked towards the back of the room, squinted through the smoke and the dim lights at the pool table. He saw faces that looked vaguely familiar. He turned down a hallway of cracked brown linoleum. The smell of stale beer was in the air. Red and white shards of light from a cracked Exit sign strafed the walls. He knocked on the scarred and scuffed wooden door that said Office in gold letters.

“Come on!” Lambert hollered from behind the door.

Beam turned and pushed on the doorknob.

Jimmy was sitting in a wheeled leather chair, wearing sharply creased tan slacks and a tan western-style shirt, brown cowboy boots stretched out alongside a cluttered oak desk. Against the far wall, Gloria was sprawled out on a green, three-cushion couch, drink in one hand and Salem burning in the other, breasts damn near falling out of her dress. Her mouth wriggled into a big smile when Johnny sat down in front of the desk and grinned at her devilishly.

“Glad to see you could make it over, Johnny.  Or should I call you Champ?” Lambert said.  “Glad you came over, my friend.” He lifted out a green bottle of Cutty Sark from a bottom desk drawer. “Here, pour yourself a drink.

“Gloria, get Johnny a glass, honey. And then get me that plastic bag from the file cabinet.”

Gloria lifted herself from the couch, smoothed down her red dress and shook her body like she was trying to get all her parts back into place. She couldn’t quite manage it, tripped on her high heels and went stumbling and giggling across the room.

“So, Johnny, my friend,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike, sucking in smoke and slapping his Zippo down on the desktop. “Tell me about these booze bargains that you were referring to earlier. Tell me how you and I are going to rake in the big dough.”

“I’ve got some real solid plans, Jimmy, real solid. These are some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I thought I’d check with you first—I’m going to do it anyway—but having you along will sweeten the pot for both of us, I can guarantee that.”

“Go on Johnny, you’ve got my ear.” Lambert said, flicking his ash into an amber, circular glass ashtray on the cluttered desktop. “Exactly how can you save me a ton of moolah on booze?”

“No offense to Gloria,” Johnny said, bowing his head as she approached. “But I’d prefer to treat this as private business between you and me, Jimmy.”

Smirking, Gloria placed a thick short glass in front of Beam and then tossed a small rolled-up paper sack onto the desktop.

“Of course,” Jimmy said, dragging hard on his cigarette.  “Gloria, sweetheart, why don’t you go out front and flirt with the guys in the band for a while or something.  Maybe you can get one of them to take you home later. I’ve got to go out to the county tonight, and I know you don’t like it out there.”

“Maybe I want to go along tonight,” she whined, wiggled.

“We’ll talk about that later,” he said.

She flipped him the bird, rocked her hair back and bounced her ass in that tight wool dress out of the room, a slight pout holding on her rapidly aging visage.

The office door clicked shut.

“We’re alone now, Johnny.  Let’s hear the plan.”

“Coincidence, I guess, but it concerns your holdings in the county, Jimmy. All the booze you sell out there. It’s well known that you supply those places, and I know a guy who can cook stuff up so it’s better than the real thing. That means tax-free liquor. High-grade. Stuff would be perfect for your blind pigs, man. This stuff will flat out light up those farmer johns.”

“Moonshine, you say?”

“More correctly, corn whiskey.  My man says he can make whiskey as good as store-bought, color and everything, if he’s got the time to age it. If he ain’t got the time, he can use food coloring and flavoring.  If there’s a call for it, we can get you bathtub gin. My prices are going to be low, Jimmy. I’m talking so low, you’ll have to squat down to see’em.”

“How low, exactly?”

“Truth is, we’re not ready to price it, yet,” Johnny said, but the truth really was that he didn’t have any idea. “We have to make a batch first, to see what it’s gonna cost and how long it has to age and other considerations. A wet run so to speak.”  Johnny grinned.

Lambert was struck with the thought that Beam resembled Louie Armstrong—the big smile and the round face.

“Thing I’m getting at,” Johnny continued, “is that if the sample is to your satisfaction and you decide you want to order big for your clubs, I think I could price it even lower, say, if you were able to toss me a little advance bankroll, you know, in order to increase the size and scope of the operation.”

“And you’re sure this cook of yours knows his stuff?  I can’t be financing any garbage.”

“I’ve tasted the stuff, the guy makes it for himself in small batches. Hillbilly lives in a trailer in the woods outside of Zenith. Son of a bitch is a master. Stuff is smooth going down and sure enough puts the fire in your belly. Of course you’d get a sample before any commitments were expected.”

In reality, never a drop of Big Cat’s shine had touched Johnny’s lips. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

“Your word on it is good enough for me, Johnny.  If you say it’s kosher, then it is.  Tell you what, my friend. Why don’t you come out to the sticks with me tonight? We’ll talk business and party a little and get a grasp on what kind of volume I do. I’ll show you how it works in the boondocks.”  As he spoke, he lifted the paper bag off the desk, reached in and removed a rolled-up plastic bag. He let the baggie unfurl to reveal a snarl of white pills along the bottom, covered in a dusty white powder. “Why don’t you take a couple of these, Johnny, and come along for the ride tonight? You’ll like it. I’ll bring Gloria along and we’ll have a party.”

“I already took some pain pills tonight, Jimmy. I’m flying pretty high already. You know how it is after a fight, the adrenaline and all.”

“These are different than pain pills. These are bennies, my friend. Pep pills, goofballs, uppers. Benzedrine is what the doctors call it. Take all your troubles away and let you run a little longer, don’t ya know. You’ll feel like a new man with these, Johnny, that’s my guarantee.”  He tossed the bag and Beam caught it with a smooth motion.

“I’m going to be flying so high, Jimmy,” Johnny said, grinning like Louie Armstrong, his voice velvet smooth, as he reached into the bag and removed one of the small white tablets. He figured he’d go along with Lambert for the sake of business. Same thing as having lunch with a banker to get a business loan.

“Big man like you needs at least two, Champ.”

Johnny shrugged and took another tablet from the bag, put them both on his tongue; poured some Cutty in his glass and washed them down.  A bitter taste lingered.

“You’ll be right as rain in a little while, my friend,” Lambert said, getting up.  “Pour yourself another drink while I get ready.  We’ll snag Gloria on the way out. That is, if she isn’t already in the parking lot giving head to the band.” He laughed loudly then limped over to the metal filing cabinet, opened the second drawer from the top and lifted out a nickel-plated Colt Python .357 Magnum.

“Jesus, man, what you need that for?” Johnny asked, the skin around his eyes tightening.

Lambert turned with the gun in his right hand, barrel pointing up at the low ceiling. “You never can tell, my friend. You never can tell. I ain’t ever had to use it yet, but there were, you know, times in the past when I wished I had a gun with me. And now, since I got one, nothing happens. It’s like hazard insurance, y’know?  With this bum leg of mine I sure can’t run away if there’s trouble, and it doesn’t help me much if I have to fight, either. I can still handle myself, you understand, you’d be surprised. But I can’t handle more than one guy at a time.”

“Yeah, sure, I know. But I don’t like guns, had enough of guns in Korea. Seems like where there are guns, trouble follows close behind—if it ain’t already there. Way too many of them in Chicago when I was there. Got so you were always checking out a man’s coat to see if he was packing.”

“Man like you, Johnny, can get out of most jams with his fists, I ‘magine,” Lambert said, sticking the revolver in his waistband.  “But ah, come on, man, take a look at me.  Skinny old gimpy bastard like me needs a back-up.”

“I’ll watch your back tonight, Jimmy. You don’t need that thing.”

“No offense, my friend, but walking into one of my joints with you next to me, could start something right there. Could be some kind of trouble start up—uh—just on appearances—if you catch my drift.” Lambert looked down at a stain on the rug.

“I know what you mean, Jimmy; I know what you’re saying. But honestly, I don’t usually have any trouble when I go out. I’m a friendly guy, you know; I get along with people, for the most part. My mother always taught me that was the way you had to be to get by in this world.” Johnny shifted uneasily in the chair, rubbed at his throat and smiled.

“Just the same, my friend, I think I’ll bring the heater along.” He patted the pebbled grip and nodded. “You know the old line: Meet my friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. So here, meet my friends, Mr. Colt and Mr. Python.” Jimmy cackled and a cold light danced in his eyes.

“Maybe I shouldn’t go at all,” Johnny said, wincing deep furrows on his broad brow. “I don’t wanna screw up your deal, Jimmy.”

“Ah, no, Johnny, don’t worry. Just come along for the ride, we’ll be all right. No, I mean it. One thing for sure, you won’t be sleeping anytime soon, I promise you that.” He cackled. “You gotta see these places of mine. You know, get a grasp on the scope of my operation. You gonna be a businessman, you gotta learn.”

“Well I ain’t gonna tell you your business, Jimmy, so we might as well get a move on. I’m already starting to feel pretty good. This is good scotch,” he said, lifting the glass to his lips.

“Have some more while I get a few things from out front, Champ. I’ll be back in a flash.”

The door slammed shut. Johnny leaned back in his chair and took a look around the office. Couch, TV, desk, a few chairs, file cabinet, pictures of fighters on the brown-paneled wall: Joe Louis, Marciano, Max Baer, Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Benny “Kid” Paret and others, also a couple of wrestlers. He recognized Gorgeous George, long, curly blond hair like a woman’s.

Kind of place that Johnny felt at home. He could picture himself in a backroom like this, smoking a cigar and stuffing money in a canvas bag. His would be a little nicer, though, better furniture. Have a color TV, maybe a fridge… That would be real fine.

Half an hour later the three of them were bouncing along on bumpy, two-lane asphalt, ghostly snow and dark woods closing in on both sides.

Dig the spongy, yellow front seat of Lambert’s big gold Plymouth: Gloria in the middle, rubbing her thigh against Johnny’s to the beat of rock music coming from the dashboard radio, WEBC, 560 AM, on the dial.

Twenty minutes on the blacktop and a couple miles on iced-over dirt before they swung into the rutted drive of a ramshackle building, remarkable only for its existence in the seeming middle of nowhere. Cars were parked anywhere that would accommodate them, filling the adjacent roadside for fifty yards in each direction.

Johnny guessed they had to be paying off the local constable to overlook this large volume of visitors at a boarded-up wooden shack in the middle of a jack-pine forest. He found out later he was right. The clubs did enough business to afford payoffs without blinking an eye, and there were a lot of needy, underpaid constabularies in the woods of northern Wisconsin. In most cases and most places, with the exception of the occasional young and over-zealous officer, the rural cops hardly ventured out at night in the cold of deep winter, unless there was a call. And as long as nobody got maimed, mugged or murdered, the blind pigs were allowed to continue operations.

The big Plymouth bounced along the tree-lined drive and pulled directly in front of the sagging, gray, two-story house of moderate size that one time might have held a family of six. Lambert wheeled into a private space marked by a wooden sign nailed to a post in the ground, Management painted crudely in red house paint.

Lambert switched off the ignition, shut down the lights and took the revolver from under the seat, put it in the waistband of his trousers, got out of the car and smoothed down his jacket over the bulge. Johnny and Gloria got out the other side. Beam’s heart was beating like someone was working a speed bag in his chest and he surged with a peculiar excitement.

Jimmy and the lady walked up a trampled pathway of dirty snow while Johnny kept slightly behind, breathing deeply of the cold air. It was dry and crisp and smelled of wood smoke. The three stepped onto the warped, ice-speckled porch and Lambert gave a hard rap on a thick metal door with an eye-level viewing slot. A dull roar came through the thin walls. Yellow light seeped through the cracked and yellowed shade of a bay window. About fifty feet to the right of the porch was an outhouse with a sagging roof and two men beside it in the gauzy moonlight, urinating in the snow.

The door is the only thing solid on this whole damn building, Beam thought—truly a business with low overhead. The slot in the door made him smile. But man, where did all these cars come from? Hadn’t been a house for miles.

“You like this door, Johnny?” Lambert asked. “I had it specially made for this place. This welder I know can do some pretty cute things. The guy is a genius, but he can hardly even read. ‘magine that, eh. The guy is a goddamn genius with metal and cars and stuff like that but it would take him a fucking hour to read a goddamn postcard, if he could do it at all.”

The slot slid open with a metallic click. Raucous noise bled out. A pair of yellow, translucent eyes beneath a narrow forehead and a shock of greasy black hair filled the space.

Lambert scowled at the eyes in the slot. “Open the goddamn door, Gooder, you retarded cocksucker.  Can’t you see who this is?”

A metal bolt scraped and the door jerked open.

“What the fuck, Ray?” Lambert snarled.

“Sorry Jimmy,” said a lanky, oily guy in soiled blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. “I was just surprised that it was you, uh, when I saw the… uh… they ah—don’t look like our normal customers, so I—”

His voice trailed off as clouds of tobacco smoke billowed out into the night. There was sawdust on the floor and a great roar of voices trying to be heard over a loud jukebox. Johnny noticed a couple of large and rotund women standing among a crowd of men at a bar made of unvarnished wood.

Ray Gooder stepped out of the way and the three walked in.

“These are my friends, Ray. That’s all you need to know,” Lambert said, his face tightening. “Don’t ever make me wait out here again, you hear me? Where’s your fucking brother?”

“He’s in the back. I’ll tell him you’re here,” Ray said, the tendons in his jaw bouncing.

“I think I’ll just go back and surprise him tonight, Ray. Ted likes surprises, don’t ya know.”

“All three of you going back there?” Ray said, squinting at Johnny.

“Is there a problem with that?”

“No,” Ray said, pushing a hank of hair back into his pompadour.

As Johnny became visible to the crowd inside, the roar became a murmur and then a kind of hissing, as the inhabitants took notice of the black man with the white woman, and the skinny guy with a limp and a face like a rattlesnake. Some in the crowd recognized Lambert and went back to their card game or their drink or their overweight prostitute.

Johnny felt the tension right away. He’d expected it. He was used to it.  At 5’11” and 185 pounds of thick muscle, with hands as fast as two cobras, he didn’t have to take it if he didn’t want to, and hell, Jimmy had a gun for Christ sakes. But tonight he didn’t want any trouble. He was starting to feel too good for trouble. And Gloria was beginning to look mighty fine. Sure was coming on to him, what with her leg-rubbing routine and all that.

No, he didn’t want any trouble from these Farmer Johns. You often heard the BS about peaceful country folk, but they just seemed like a bunch of ignorant rubes to him. Put them in the same room with a person of dark skin and it’s like they’ve seen the devil himself.  A nigger with a white woman is just too much for the retards; their blood starts to boil. A hanging offense to the slack-jawed dipshits.

Let them come after him tonight, Johnny thought. They started something; he’d sure as hell finish it. The way the bennies had him going, his hands would be quick. Except for the throbbing in his eyebrow, it was like he hadn’t gone ten rounds. He was fresh, like he’d just woken up five years younger. If only Lambert had given him these pills before the fight…. Would’ve put Sparks on the canvas to stay, without a doubt. Fuckin’ right. And any Clem Cadiddlehopper motherfuckers decided to give him trouble tonight, they were gonna be spitting teeth real quick. Anyone pulled a blade and he had Jimmy with that cannon of his. But he didn’t want any trouble. The goofballs were really taking hold, putting a little tightness in the solar plexus. Room was full of white guys spending money.

Ted Gooder’s office had once been a bedroom at the back of the house. The door was closed but Lambert barged right in.

Maybe some poor, lonely little kid used to sleep here in this room, Johnny thought as he floated in behind Gloria.

Besides a console model television in the corner, the office held a desk, a few folding chairs of various styles and a brown vinyl couch against the left wall. The doorman’s older brother Ted was sitting on the couch watching the late movie next to a plump blond in her forties, a former stripper once known as Ethyl Flame. At their feet was an old-fashioned metal washtub filled with ice cubes and bottles of beer. A jug of Seagram’s Seven and a quart of 7Up were propped in the center of the tub like the crown on an ice sculpture. Not that anyone in the room had ever seen an ice sculpture, except maybe for the frozen mounds of urine-carved snow at the side of the outhouse and the bottom of the back porch.

“Don’t get up, Ted, you might miss something,” Lambert said, limping to the metal desk and sitting on the top. He rubbed his hands together. “Come on Johnny, Gloria… pull up a chair.  Ted’s going to offer us a drink, aren’t you Ted?  And then we’ll conduct our business and get the hell out of here. Looks like you’re busy tonight, anyway, Ted.”

Lambert was pretty buzzed himself and he didn’t care much for the Gooder brothers except for what he could get out of them. He knew they were capable of anything, as he had witnessed them torturing cats and screwing sheep back in their school days together at old Walnut School.

But Lambert knew the Gooders were perfect to run this joint for him. Everyone in the area, including the law, was scared of them. And the general populace accepted the fact that if you crossed one of the Gooders you’d better sleep with one eye open and take out plenty of fire insurance.

Jimmy had been able to kick their ass when they were kids and he still had a hold over them. Now they worked for him. It wasn’t hard to be smarter than the Gooders, and in the long run, Lambert was even more ruthless than they were. Over the years, Ted and Ray had accepted it. Sure, they still skimmed a little off the top of the rake at the poker table, and lifted a few bottles of liquor or a couple cases of beer once in a while. But they weren’t aware that Jimmy allowed them to get away with stuff like that—the little things. They just believed they were devilishly clever.

The Gooders didn’t mess with Lambert. They knew quite well what he was capable of, having been his enforcers for years. Besides, why bitch too loud? They were making money and doing what they liked best: getting piss drunk, screwing whores, fighting and dealing in stolen property.

Jimmy believed that contented cows produced more milk. Give the ignorant pricks a little frosting and they’d lay off the cake. And he had other ways of insuring his fair share of the take.

He charged for the liquor used and kept track of the empties, refilling the more expensive brands with cheaper booze. He offered cash to the bartenders in the joints in exchange for any information on skimming, and often hired informants who would come in, spend a little money and watch the goings-on with an eye out for employee theft. The Gooders never could be sure whom Lambert might send. The threat of being caught and what Jimmy might do to them had kept the degenerate siblings in line, so far.

Ted Gooder slid his arm off the bare shoulders of the former exotic dancer. She shifted her position and continued to stare at the TV. Gooder, a slight sneer wrinkling his lips, stern-eyed Johnny. “Jimmeee,” he said, cocking his head back and assuming a slit-eyed smirk. “You’re early tonight. You got a hot date or something like that?”

“Something, like that. And if you’ll get me the bag, I’ll be on my way.”

“You’re so goddamn early, man, it’s still a little short. I gotta hit the till and the poker table one more time. Unless you don’t have the time.”

“I can wait, Ted. For a minute. I’ll have a Seven ’n Seven while I wait. And get us a bottle of good bourbon, would you? We need a jug for the road. Deduct it from the tab.”

Ted turned to Ethyl, still engrossed in the Doris Day, Rock Hudson feature. “What say you be a good girl and fetch my friend Jimmy a bottle of our finest whiskey,” he said. “Some Canadian Club or something. Tell Pete to put it on my tab.”

“Ah Ted, can’t it wait ’til the commercial?” Ethyl whined, wrinkling her nose. “What’s the matter with the Seagram’s, anyway?”

“Get the fuck off your fat ass and do what I asked you. You tell me I should ask when I want things, and now I do, and you don’t do what I ask. What the fucking hell is that?”

Flustered, her bright red lips sagging down like a sad clown, she reluctantly struggled out of the couch and slinked away, thinking that Ted wasn’t getting anything for free tonight.

“And get three clean glasses, too,” Ted yelled as the door swung closed. Then he stood up and stretched his arms. “Jesus, Jimmy,” he said, moving toward Lambert. “You really oughtta knock at a man’s door, y’know. What if I was getting a blowjob or something, and you came barging in?  A guy could get his dick bit off. Someone comes barging in on you like that, it could be dangerous.” He slapped his thigh and laughed, his chin jutting out sharply like a blade.

“Don’t you be talking like that in front of Gloria,” Jimmy snarled playfully, before laughing and coughing at the joke. “The way I see it, Ted, you got no worries at all. First of all, I seriously doubt if anyone would ever suck your dick, but if for some strange reason it actually came to pass, like maybe you had a blind, retarded sister… you’d still be safe. Yup, with a one-inch dick, there’s not enough there to bite off.”

Gloria giggled and glanced quickly over at Johnny’s crotch, all rounded and full under those nice, creased slacks.

“Very funny, James,” Ted said, flipping the bird, his left cheek and eye twitching.

Johnny stood up and creaked across the warped, aqua blue linoleum to a window. Looked out into the small backyard, the gray, grainy snow and the dark tree line dimly lit by a three-quarter moon riding high in the sky. He was thinking about who should run his juke joint when it opened. How it was good to delegate. Spread the responsibility. And the culpability, should the authorities ever choose to enforce the laws and crack down on this shit. His choices were admittedly thin.

First things first, though, he needed to get ahead on the booze angle. His mind was flying with ideas and it was hard to contain his thoughts. The knot in his stomach was still there, like maybe an ulcer.

He turned from the window and walked assuredly to the tub of ice. Smiling politely as he passed Ted, he reached down and grabbed the Seagram’s, twisted the top and tipped it to his lips.

“Your boy sure makes himself at home, doesn’t he, Jimmy,” Ted said, cocking his neck to the side and squinting at the black man.

Johnny felt the muscles in his neck tighten. He gritted his teeth and sucked in some of the moldy air, smiled at Ted with hard eyes.

“That’s nobody’s boy, you inbred piece of shit,” Lambert snapped. “That’s Johnny Beam, light-heavyweight champion of Minnesota. You better show him some respect or he’ll kick your skinny white ass.”

“I’m not out to kick anyone’s ass tonight, Jimmy, I already did,” Johnny said, eyes going gentle. “I’m just trying to relax and have some fun. I’m a guest here, and I should’ve asked for the drink. My mother always taught me to be polite, and I’m afraid I forgot my manners.”

Ted seemed pleased for a second, then confused. His hand went up beneath his nose and covered his mouth.

Johnny took another pull of the whiskey, felt the flush in his cheeks. The cretin would probably throw good booze away, he thought, before drinking from a bottle that a nigger had touched to his lips.

He set the bottle back in the ice and went back to his chair humming the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

Then Ethyl came careening through the door with a jug of Canadian Club and three glasses, her bleached blond, straw-like hair falling in her face and the straps of her green dress slipping down off her shoulders. She set the booze and glasses on the desktop and flounced back to the couch

Ted stared at her, half sneering, then lifted a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, shook one out and placed it on his lower lip. “I s’pose I’ll go make the rounds,” he said, his eyes flickering darkly. “You gonna empty the machines tonight, Jimmy?”

“Like I always do.”

“Well, yeah then, enjoy your drink and I’ll be back before the next gas is passed.” He flicked open a war surplus lighter; lit his fag and exited in a cloud of blue smoke.

Except for the two assholes, it’s a pretty slick operation, Johnny thought to himself. Low overhead, a percentage of the gambling and Jimmy owns the machines, supplies the booze and takes a chunk out of the till. But what about the whores? Much money to be made off whores. Something he’d have to look into. Maybe he and Lambert could work some kind of lend-lease deal.

Gloria and Ethyl were on the couch looking at television, engaged in an amphetamine-fueled conversation. Lambert was in a chair at the desk, his bad leg stretched out, and Johnny, unable to stay seated for any length of time, paced around the room, talking a blue streak and gesturing animatedly with his slightly swollen hands.

Whereas the broads yakked about actors and Hollywood and the contents of their purses, Beam and Lambert were speaking rapidly and in depth about percentages, availability of product and volume discounts, as well as security, bribery and the law.

Twenty minutes passed before Ted returned with a canvas bank bag in his hand and a pained look on his face. Lambert took the bag and looked inside. “You got the invoices on the liquor handy, Ted? I forgot to bring my book out tonight. I also need a bag for the coins from the machines. Forgot that, too.”

“Got your key, for fuck sake?”

“Got that.”

Ted said, “Top drawer, James, everything’s in there: bags, invoices, rubbers—whatever the fuck you need.”

Lambert ignored Ted’s strutting and checked the liquor receipts while Johnny finished the last of his drink. Gloria stood up from the couch just as the national anthem began to blare from the television, tinny and out of synch with the words running across the bottom of the screen.

“See ya next week, Ted, be good now,” Lambert said, slipping on his suede leather jacket. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” grinning like a decaying jackal.

Ted smiled back, his lips peeled back to reveal yellowed canine incisors. “Don’t know what the fuck that would be, Jimmy, you sick son of a bitch.”

“You see the way I get treated, Johnny?” Lambert said, his eyes flashing. “Save these two ungrateful punks from a life of poverty and sex with animals, and see how I get treated. I got half a mind to sell this place to you, Champ, if you want it.” He side-glanced Johnny then back to Ted.

Stuck there inside his stupid grin and filled with the desire to punch somebody smaller than himself, Ted could only stand stiffly, stunned look on his sagging, hang-dog face, while his Adam’s apple bounced up and down like a frog on a hotplate.

Lambert grabbed the Canadian Club from the desk, snickered, and made his way out, not looking at Gooder. Gloria and a smiling Johnny Beam nodded their good byes and followed close behind.

Some sucker is gonna pay for this goddamn shit, Ted Gooder thought, as he watched the door close behind them. Jimmy comes out and embarrasses me in front of Ethyl and now she’s sitting there thinking I’m a stooge. Fuckin’ asshole brings a stinking nigger with him who puts his ju-ju lips on the goddamn booze bottle.

Trying to save some face and always one to look at saving a buck, Ted came up with an idea. He could give that bottle to Ethyl and get back on her good side. She wouldn’t know the nigger had lipped it. Maybe he could salvage something out of this lousy night, anyway….

While Jimmy cleaned out the pinball machines and the jukebox, Johnny and Gloria retreated to the car, got the engine running and the heater going. Johnny had thought it best to leave the building before any trouble started, having correctly assessed the mood of the crowd as just a very short step above a lynch mob. Discretion triumphed over valor despite the pounding speed in his head and the feeling of invincibility it gave him. Funny thing though, sitting out in the car in the empty black woods, he wished he had Jimmy’s gun.

His paranoia evaporated when Gloria brushed her hand across his thigh and brought her mouth close to his ear. “It sure would be an honor to touch the chest of a champion prize fighter,” she cooed, sliding her curvaceous ass a little closer. “I’ve always wanted to feel the muscles of a fighter, you know. They must be really, really hard.”

Well it wasn’t long before his chest wasn’t the only thing that was hard and Johnny was sliding his bruised hand up along Gloria’s thighs, all the way to the moneymaker. In response to this bold move, she moaned and leaned in for more. Their tongues intertwined while Johnny kept one eye on the door of the house. After a steamy few minutes, Johnny finally had to push her off, sensing something.

Lambert emerged from the house a few seconds later, looked around warily and searched the darkness. Seeing no danger, he got in behind the wheel and threw the coin bag on the backseat floor. Johnny liked the musical chink the coins made when the bag hit the carpet. Sweet music indeed.

“Well, gang,” Lambert said, “Only two more stops to go.”

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The Flame was Zenith’s premier restaurant. Situated on the waterfront with a sparkling view of the bay, it featured fine food, a casual but well-dressed atmosphere and the reputation as the place to be seen in the port city.

Johnny and Harry Sloan arrived in separate cars, one behind the other. Harry in his brown Chevy sedan and Johnny in a dark blue 1956 Olds four-door hardtop. They parked in the lot and walked together towards the two-story, white block building, FLAME running vertically down the front wall in red neon.

A biting wind whipped across the ice-covered bay. The temperature hovered slightly above zero. The cold helped Johnny revive. Numbed the pain in his face a little. That and the three Empirin with codeine tablets he’d swallowed.

The fighter and his manager went through the glass doors together, glanced briefly into the dark piano bar on the left, where voices and smoke mingled with soft lights and the murmur of slow jazz. Moving up the carpeted staircase, Johnny peered out the smoked-glass at the blinking lights of Bay City, across the water, the town where he was born.  He smiled at the memory of his mother, how she’d kept the secrets of his birth locked up inside her for all those years. How he’d found out the truth from his people in Chicago, after the war. Aunts and uncles who’d laughed as they told him the story one sticky summer night over jugs of red wine.

Johnny and Harry reached the top of the stairs and their shoes hit the thick burgundy carpet. Melodic mood music and low voices backed by the tinkling of ice in glasses soothed Johnny’s soul.

They gave their coats to the pretty brunette coat-check girl who was smiling behind the dark wood counter. The maitre d’ greeted Johnny by name and with a smile. Several diners turned from their tables to look at the victorious pugilist. Some were fans; some were gawkers. Johnny was well known and, for the most part, well liked in town. He smiled and waved and responded politely to various congratulations.

Promoter Bob Nash was sitting in a black leather booth along the wall with Jimmy Lambert, the owner of several taverns in Wisconsin and a big fight fan. Both men had a large-breasted woman at their side, a blond for Nash and a redhead for Lambert. Nash, a Manhattan glass in his hand, nodded at Johnny and Sloan and pointed to an empty table nearby.

Johnny was glad to see Lambert there. He had a few things he wanted to discuss with the man. Some ideas he had. Thought the two of them could make some money together.

“Your table is ready Mr. Beam,” the maitre d’ said, respectfully. “View of the harbor, as always.”

“Thanks, Kenneth, I appreciate it,” Johnny said, flashing the million-dollar smile and slipping Kenneth a five spot.

Kenneth bowed slightly, “Right this way, gentlemen.”

“What about Bob, Johnny?”  Harry whispered.

“He can come over to our table if he wants to talk, Harry. I ain’t gonna tag after him like a puppy dog.”

Johnny smiled as they walked by Nash.

Bob Nash looked up at him, quizzically. “Johnny… Harry…” he said, wiping his mouth with a white linen napkin.

“Nice fight, Johnny. How you holding up?” Lambert said as the fighter and his manager lingered.

“Fine, Jimmy, fine. Right as rain all the time, you know. I just need a nice steak and a stiff drink and I’ll be as good as new.”

“Let me buy you a drink, Johnny,” Lambert said.

“That would be real nice of you, Jimmy. Why don’t you come over to our table a little later? If you got a minute, I’ve got some business ideas I’d like to discuss with you.”

“You bet, Johnny. What are you drinking?”

“I’ll have a scotch,” Johnny said, tugging on the cuff of his fine white shirt.

“Make that two scotches,” Harry Sloan said, with a wink.

“Sure Harry, I’ll buy you a drink,” Lambert said, grinning like a jackal. “Soon as you pay off your debt from football season.”

“Come on, now Jimmy,” Sloan said. “This is no time for that stuff.  Haven’t I been good?”

“Yeah, you have been good, Harry,” Lambert said, laughing and wrinkling his eyebrows at the redhead sitting next to him. “Just kidding around. Two scotches it is.” He spied a waitress and gestured in her direction.

Johnny kept smiling as he glided over to the table where Kenneth was patiently waiting, manicured fingers holding two glossy red menus.

Harry Sloan followed behind, his face slightly flushed. He tugged at his green, bargain-basement sport coat and sat down across from Beam, who was gazing distractedly out the window.

Kenneth placed the menus in front of them. “The waitress will be with you shortly. Enjoy your meal.”

“Why did you go and invite that bastard Lambert over, Johnny,” Sloan whined, shifting uncomfortably. “You know I don’t like him.”

“Sounds like you like him enough to bet with him,” Johnny said, grinning.

Harry saw through the smile to the fatigue on Johnny’s face. “Christ, that was way back in football season, Johnny. I haven’t done anything lately.”

“Lambert must be a pretty good guy to let you slide this long.”

“I’ve been paying him regularly, for the Christ sake. And it sure as hell isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it’s that he’s smart. Smart enough to know that if there’s any rough stuff, he’ll never get his money. And he’ll go to jail, besides.”

“For assaulting you?  I don’t know, Harry, cops just may congratulate him. That is if any of them ever bought a used car from you.”

“Very funny, champ.  You should go on the stage.  And there’s one leaving any minute now.”

Beam laughed softly at Harry’s same old routine, his permanent response when the joke was on him. But on this occasion, Harry was right. In this town, too much violence and the cops shut you down in a hurry. The way Johnny saw it, if you stayed away from the stupid strong-arm stuff, you could get away with a lot around here.

A busboy in a white linen coat came to the table and poured ice water from a silver pitcher into short-stemmed crystal glasses. Johnny drained his glass before the boy was finished pouring Harry’s.

“More, sir?” the boy asked.

Johnny liked being called sir. “Please,” he said.

The scotches arrived shortly thereafter, followed closely by Lambert and the buxom redhead. Lambert sat down next to Harry, who slid as far away as he could get, wedging himself against the window.

The redhead slid in next to Johnny.

He didn’t budge an inch.

“Hey Johnny,” Lambert said, gesturing toward the woman. “Hope you don’t mind me bringing Gloria, here, she really wanted to meet you. She likes boxers.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gloria,” Johnny said in a mellow baritone.

“The same, I’m sure,” Gloria said, smiling, her lips crooked.

Her large mouth and large teeth, red lipstick and hair were joined together in unison, shouting, Fuck me.  At least that’s the way Johnny was reading it.

“That cut on your eye must be nasty, Johnny,” Gloria said, hormone-induced concern oozing from her husky voice as her long red fingernails slid over his shoulder. “And this awful bump…”

“I’ll be all right, darling. I’m a big boy. I recover fast.”

“I just bet you do,” she said, slowly sliding her hand from his shoulder.

“We just came over to say we enjoyed the fight, Johnny,” Lambert said, slightly slurred. “Didn’t we, Gloria?”

“Of course, Jimmy—it was a wonderful fight,” she said, admiration flowing like clover honey from her big browns.

“I thought you were gonna put the guy out there a couple of times,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike and letting the smoke disperse in a cloud around his head. “You had him on the ropes more than once.”

“Sparks was tough, he knew all the tricks,” Harry Sloan snapped. “He’s had a lot of fights.”

Then the waitress returned and they hadn’t even looked at the menus.  Johnny sipped on his scotch and told her to come back in a minute. “Thanks for the drink, Jimmy,” he said, warmly.

“My pleasure, Johnny.  You deserve it after a fight like that. That guy Sparks was pretty tough, eh?”

“Plenty tough, Jimmy. He hit like a kick from a horse and he fought dirty. You saw the bastard head-butt me, didn’t you?”

“That stuff is low down, all right,” Lambert said.

“You ever been kicked by a horse, Johnny?” asked Gloria, her eyes twinkling as she elbowed him lightly in the ribs.

“Can’t say as I have ma’am,” Johnny said like John Wayne; his grin so deep it made Gloria nearly swoon. “But I can well imagine. I’ve been hit by many a horse out on the football field.”

Gloria giggled and fell into him, brushing her breasts against his thick-muscled arm.

“Well Johnny, just wanted to say hello,” Lambert said, staring at Gloria, his lips and eyes narrowing.  “We better get back to Nash before he thinks we’re plotting something.” Lambert liked Johnny. A man’s color had never meant anything to him, as long as his money was green. That was one of his little jokes.

“Listen Jimmy,” the boxer said. “You got a few minutes? I’ve got some things I want to discuss with you.  Some business ideas I’ve been tossing around. Things I think you’ll be interested in.”

Lambert was always ready to listen to a business proposition. He had irons in many fires and a diversity of investments. As well as bars in Bay City, he owned several establishments in remote rural areas, boondocks buildings on dark tree-lined back roads that housed after-hours clubs. Some called them blind pigs, others, roadhouses. “Good citizens” called them the scourge of the county.

Whatever you called them, these establishments housed after-hours drinking, gambling and, sometimes, prostitution. A local legend had it that carloads of women would occasionally show up at the clubs unannounced. Girls who worked the Wisconsin strip-bar circuit and wanted to supplement their income with a little lying-around money—or so the story went. Just this possibility, the vague dream that someday this might happen while you were in the building, was enough to keep the honkytonks hopping with horny hayseeds on many a dark and frigid night. These were the places that held Johnny’s interest. Something he’d seen in Chicago seemed just right for such establishments.

He’d learned a lot in Chi-town. It had taken getting drunk with his Uncle Charlie (Mama’s brother) to find out about his daddy. Mom had never said much about his father, summing up his existence with: “He was a good man who died when your were three.” Old Charlie hadn’t wanted to spill the beans but he was too honest a person to hold back. At least after he and Johnny had knocked off a gallon of Red Mountain wine. Then the floodgates had opened and the story came rushing out like rainwater down the side of a mountain.

The truth was a shock to Johnny at first, but also a relief of sorts. Here was something to explain the parts of him that had railed against his mother’s teachings in spite of his good intentions. These traits clearly came from his daddy’s side of the family, the people his mama never wanted him to know about. The part of him that, among other things, wanted to make moonshine—in the tradition of the old Chicago gangsters—and sell it in Lambert’s joints.

“What kind of things you talking, Johnny?” Lambert asked.

“I bet you sell a lot of liquor, what with all your taverns—right, Jimmy?”  Johnny smiled, eyes twinkling.

“That’s right, Johnny—quite a bit, I s’pose….”

“What if I could save you lots of dough on the booze? Would that interest you?”

“Of course it would, Johnny. But I don’t see how you could do that. I mean, you know, you should see the rotgut I sell already.” His snaky body folded forward into a raspy, cackling laugh.

“I can beat any price you get—guaranteed,” Johnny said.  “Good quality stuff, too. Is there maybe some time we can discuss this in more detail, Jimmy?”

“Say, listen ah, Johnny,” Lambert said. “We gotta get back over there with Bob. But how about if you come over to the Bayside tonight, say about midnight?  I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll talk business. Just tell the bartender you’re there to see me, and he’ll show you back to my office. I’ll tell him to expect you, so he ah… doesn’t get… isn’t…  Ah fuck, I’ll just tell him Johnny Beam is coming.”

“I can do that, Jimmy. In the meantime, give some thought to the things I said, I think this could be a good deal for both of us.”

Lambert stood up, holding his cocktail glass and coughing. His lips curled down at the edges as Gloria continued to flirt. Impatience creased his shaggy eyebrows.

“Sure nice to meet you, Mr. Beam,” Gloria said, putting her hand on Johnny’s large forearm as it rested on the table.

“My pleasure, Gloria honey,” Beam said, oozing warmth.

Lambert coughed into his fist and walked awkwardly away.

Gloria got up and followed slowly behind, her heart and just about everything else she possessed full of lust for Johnny Beam.

“Jesus, I’m glad he’s gone,” Harry Sloan said, sliding away from the window and flexing his shoulders. “And what’s this shit you’re feeding him about cheap booze?”

“I know some people in the wholesale liquor business,” Beam lied, stretching his arms along the back of the booth and watching Gloria wiggle away and glance back at him. “Down in Minneapolis, that’s all. People I met while I was in college. I get around, you know.” This was partially true. He knew some guys that ripped off delivery trucks.

“You were only down there for a year.”

“I make friends in a hurry, Harry, you know that.”

“I sure do.  Like that broad with Lambert. She was looking for a hunk of dark meat tonight.”

“And I sure aims to please, Mr. Manager bozz.”

“Shut up Johnny, and look at your menu.  Here comes the goddamn waitress.”

“I know what I want.”

The restaurant filled up and stayed that way. The grill smoked. Cocktail glasses jingled and the room hummed. The kitchen pumped out steaks and chops and lobster and the famous shish kebabs that were set aflame in full view, the white-coated kitchen staff carrying the skewers to the tables like burning swords, orange flames shimmering in the darkened windows.

Over the course of the evening, admirers sent drinks to Johnny’s booth.

Others in the restaurant wondered who the nigger was.

After the meal, Johnny lit a cigar. Bob Nash and his girl Sheila went downstairs to the piano bar and Harry decided to go home. Lambert told Johnny he’d see him at the Bayside and departed with the jiggling, redheaded Gloria in tow.

Johnny joined Bob Nash in the piano bar. They didn’t say much to each other; just Bob’s same old line about how Johnny could hold his state title for another ten years, easy. How there was no one out there that could touch him. Always avoiding the question about any big fights or the chance to get a shot against a national contender.

Johnny had a good load on and he began to flirt with Bob’s blond bombshell. He could have left with her, but that night he was more interested in business than pleasure. He was only flirting with the broad to get Bob Nash’s goat. Most of all, he wanted to think about making corn whiskey. A young fighter he knew name of Big Cat Edwards had bragged about making corn whiskey and bathtub gin good enough for a true boozehound.  At least that’s what he’d said one night, and Big Cat wasn’t the type to bullshit. Johnny believed him, anyway, and you just had to go with your hunches.

Around 11:45 Beam said his goodbyes, pumping Bob Nash’s hand and maybe squeezing a bit too hard and planting a big smooch on Sheila’s full, fleshy lips. The parking lot was dark and quiet as he went to his car, the only sound the dull clack of his heels on the frozen pavement. He could see the lift bridge looming in the vague light. The car door moaned as it slid open and the wind bit at the back of his neck. The leather seats were ice-stiff. The throbbing in his head had faded into the background. The ignition fired and the engine roared to life. Johnny looked out at the frozen grayness of the bay and felt like good things were about to happen. For some odd reason, it seemed life was about to start going his way.

Bay City was dark and dirty as it always was. Sooty snow and greasy black ice filled the gutters and clung to the curbs. Hunks of paper and flattened plastic cups danced and pinwheeled across the pavement, driven by the snarling wind.

Johnny considered what it might be like if he still lived in this town and shook his head. All he could remember about his childhood here was a couple of sunny spring days, just a few months before he and his mother had left for Minnesota.

Warm days in the springtime were a rarity on the shores of the big lake; that’s why you remembered them. Having a dying rat flying at your face was another reason to remember.

His mama had been feeling good that day and she’d let him go off with some of the neighborhood boys, even though they were a little older, white and scruffy. The group spent the afternoon walking along the railroad tracks that ran through town, looking to smack rats with a hockey stick. They had two sticks and plenty of targets.

The system worked like this: the older boys held the sticks and walked alongside the tracks while Johnny and another boy walked through the weeds in an attempt to flush out the rodents. When a rat scurried in front of a stick bearer, he attempted to swat the filthy beast, a slap shot being the preferred method.

On Johnny’s day in the sun, the boys developed a new twist to the game: “Hit it at the pickaninny.”

He never forgot the sight of those filthy things flying at his face after a hard slap shot, sharp teeth sticking out like fangs. Enough to make him afraid of rats forever.

     Goddamn state boxing champion afraid of rats…

The memories made him feel the same things again: the dread, the fear—like he was a scared little kid again. He squeezed the steering wheel a little harder and inhaled deeply, felt his boxing wounds throb.

The rest of his Bay City memories consisted of dark mornings and cold nights spent with his mother in a small apartment in a brick building that smelled of cabbage and dust and pine-scented cleaner. One of his favorite things was dropping the table scraps down the second-floor incinerator chute after his mom had wrapped them in newspaper. He’d had a radio, a football and a basketball. He remembered bouncing the basketball behind the building on the cracked concrete in the cold, wet spring. No images of his father reached his consciousness.

Color entered his memories after he and his mama moved across the bridge into Minnesota. It had been summer and the little house with the small backyard had filled the two of them with joy and a feeling of freedom. Something new for his mama, this freedom thing. She instilled in him the need for it.

The circular dashboard clock on the Olds read a little before midnight. To kill some time, he decided to take a ride around the town and soak up some of the atmosphere. Lambert couldn’t think he was overanxious—you didn’t want that.

Bay City repelled and attracted him at the same time. It was a great place for chasing pussy and drinking on the cheap and that was about the extent of it. The trouble was that a black man was like a fly in a bottle of milk over here. It wasn’t hard for anyone to spot you, and when they did, they usually hated what they saw.

Not that Johnny never got around. He could handle himself and had the championship belt to prove it. Duking it out with some drunken fool wasn’t what worried him. It was the strange feeling he got in Bay City, a feeling of uneasiness coming from no identifiable source.

He toured the dark and decaying north end of town and took a little trip along the infamous John Avenue, aptly named, considering the number of brothels it had held over the years. He wondered if perhaps he’d somehow driven by his birth home without knowing it.

His mother had once been a whore.

The knowledge had hurt him at first. Burned him from the inside out like he’d swallowed hot charcoal. He’d only known her as a saint. She’d been a beautiful woman, that part was true. He’d seen the old photos. She’d carried herself tall and straight, and even when she’d gotten heavy in her later years she radiated a noble quality, like royalty.

Whatever she’d done in her past, Johnny didn’t hold a thing against her for it. And over time, he accepted it. He knew that folks sometimes had to do things to get by. Things that the straights and the self-righteous looked down upon. But Johnny had the utmost respect for his mother and everything she’d done for him. It hadn’t been easy for her around here; he knew that.  She’d heard the word “nigger” more times than she cared to, that was for sure.

One thing he deeply regretted was not being there the day she died. Poor woman dropped dead from a heart attack in church while he was living in Chicago. After coming back to Minnesota for the funeral, he’d wanted to stay. Didn’t need any more of Chi-town. One thing had led to another, and after some coaxing his wife Ruby said she’d give it a try, thinking anything would be an improvement over the old neighborhood and the way it was going downhill.

     Johnny moved back to Zenith in 1957 with his statuesque bride Ruby and their unborn child in tow. With the help of some fans of his past gridiron prowess, he managed to land a job at the steel plant in western Zenith.

They attempted to play house.

Sadly, John couldn’t control his wandering eye or the other body parts that followed, and Ruby quickly got fed up. She walked out of the house with John Jr. and hopped a Greyhound bus headed for Chicago in March of 1958.  Somewhere south of Madison, Wisconsin, Ruby was heard thanking the lord for giving her the strength to escape from a “town more drab and gray than the darkest night Chicago ever seen and a man who made an alley cat look like a saint.”

Liquor and pain pills had him giddy; the streetlights had blurry circles around them. No wonder his mind was drifting a little, wondering about what it was like for his mama in this old town, thinking about things that went on thirty-plus years ago in this vulgar little place.

 

                                                     *   *   *   *

 

Walking the streets of Bay City, Wisconsin, in the year of our lord nineteen hundred and twenty-seven, one might wonder as to why this side of the bay was once expected to become the larger and more populous of the two port cities. The “Chicago of the North,” some had boldly predicted.

     Conventional wisdom at the turn of the century had it that the tip of the great lake and its two ports would prove to be a hub for the shipping industry, with the railroads meeting the shipping traffic at a natural vortex of goods from all directions.

     The region did indeed prove to be a hotbed of commerce. By 1920 the port cities were being serviced by fourteen railroads, bringing in over thirty million tons of iron ore and nine million tons of coal yearly. Lumber from the forests and grains from the western prairies also rolled into the ports in great quantities, and by the mid-twenties, the Twin Ports boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the U.S.

     Unfortunately for Bay City, the majority of the new citizenry, and almost all of the wealthy, chose to make their homes in the tree-covered hills of Zenith, on the Minnesota side of the lake. There was something about the hills and the rocky cliffs and brooding pine forests on the North Shore of the lake that made it special. 

     The port town on the Wisconsin side of the bay was soon filling the role of tawdry little sister to the lovely and virtuous Zenith. Bay City was the homely one resigned to collecting the runoff. Like algae to a stagnant pond, the lost, the lonely and the otherwise disenfranchised floated to this low point on the geographical survey where the speakeasies, the gambling joints and the sporting houses waited with open doors. There was always a drink to be found, a card to be turned or a skirt to be lifted. The railroaders, the truck drivers and the seamen, along with many “good citizens” of Zenith, came to pursue pleasure and release in a town known to many around the region as “Hell.”

     Walking down Main Street, Bay City didn’t look much different than many Wisconsin towns. Markets and furniture stores and hardware, mostly low buildings with hastily assembled storefronts. Snowbanks, a few cars and brown-brick structures that made the dark days darker and the sunny days seem dirty. Black and white and shades of gray.

     Leaving the main drag and heading toward the railroad tracks, one would come upon the cracker-box houses of the citizenry. Tap on the window of the right ones and a woman would appear, a woman who would take money for sex. Other stops in the jungle of bungalows might provide a jar of corn liquor in a paper sack or perhaps more exotic means to loosen the bonds of the imprisoned soul.

     Down by the waterfront were greasy cafes, cheap rooming houses and boarded-up, sagging buildings with faded signs touting now-illegal imbibing pleasures. Good names like Budweiser and Schlitz and Seagram’s turning gray with age. Closer to the docks, it was mostly flophouses: two-story flops that were perfect if you were between jobs or riding out a binge, either short-term or permanent. Hobo hotels where the desk clerks knew the right houses in the right neighborhoods to find what was needed to make it through another day.

     

Hell of a place to be born in, Johnny thought. It was after midnight and he was rolling by the High Times Saloon and the Heartbreak Hotel. Wanting to stall a little longer, he decided to cruise over by the viaduct and see if he could find the apartment building that he and his mother had lived in.

He didn’t remember his old man, only the stories.

 

It was said that Clarence Walker Brown knew all the right places and all the right faces. He was a gambler, a bon vivant and the keeper of a few professional ladies: a Negro making a buck in the very cold, very white North. One may wonder what a black man was doing in northern Wisconsin in 1927. Clarence often pondered that question himself.

     He had learned the various scams in and around Chicago from his daddy and his uncle. They had worked the dock and warehouse districts with their women and their cards and their dice. Success eventually had bought them a small club out near the truck stops and the mills. All was fine until prohibition hit and Al Capone and his boys appeared on the scene with a strong interest in corn liquor and the connected rackets.

     Then came the fires and the shootings.

     Escaping on the run, Clarence had ridden the railroad north, hoping to find a place where the ready cash might flow without the loss of his precious blood. Booming Bay City was the end of the railroad line and the beginning of a new life for him, as well as several other Negroes that had traversed the trail of the tracks.

     As always in boomtowns, with the flow of cash and commerce comes the flow of vice. With vice, comes corruption. Bay City had it all. And it was so damn cold the competition was sparse.

     The cold equalized things. In the long winters, the main concern was warmth. Everyone is on the same page when it’s ten below zero. Few like to fight when they’re shivering.

     Post-1920, as the aftershock from a racially motivated lynching in Zenith reverberated through the region; racism in the Twin Ports became mostly a verbal thing. The Scandinavians and the Bohunks gradually learned how to live with the “coloreds,” generally allowed them to fill a niche.

     One Bay City sporting house featured black ladies exclusively, for servicing a strictly white clientele, and most of the other houses featured at least one black prostitute. A black piano player was a fixture on the speakeasy circuit in the infamous North End, and some superb Negro jazz combos occasionally arrived to play all-night gigs. The black gamblers were allowed to ply their trade without interference as long as they played it straight and paid their bills.

      Shortly after arriving in town, Clarence had stumbled into a real sweet deal, the good fortune of which reaffirmed his lifelong belief and reliance on luck and circumstance. It had gotten him this far, after all. The circumstances coming into play here being the shortage of healthy “sporting ladies” in Bay City, and the luck, being the three young prostitutes who accompanied Clarence on his journey from Chicago.

     Destiny came into play when the foursome chose to make their first stop at the Douglas Hotel. After a round of introductions in which the ladies strutted their stuff and made their nicest, Clarence and the hotel proprietor quickly struck up a deal. In exchange for a small rental fee, the occasional free lay for the proprietor, and a cut of the take, Clarence was allowed to run his ladies out of the upstairs of the Douglas Tavern, currently languishing in disuse next door, and host dice and card games in the backroom.

     The local cops pretty much kept their eyes turned away as long as their pockets were lined. On occasion, when the mood struck them or too many ministers had complained to the chief, the boys in blue would bust a card game and scrape a big pot into their coats or maybe make a few nominal arrests of known prostitutes.

     In an effort to keep the raids at a minimum, the gamblers often sent turkeys to the police station at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and many on the force were known to fight the winter’s chill with a bit of local moonshine, free of charge.

     Clarence didn’t like giving money to cops; it went against his upbringing. As far as he could see it, the only difference between the cops in Bay City and those in Chicago was that up North they were dumber and cheaper to bribe. They were, however, just as brutal. Nevertheless, he marched along with the band, kept his mouth shut and greased the right palms when necessary.

     Things went pretty well on the edge of civilization. He wasn’t exactly getting rich, but he had enough to eat and drink and smoke and gamble, put warm clothes on his back and coal in the stove during the six months of winter. He was extremely popular with the ladies, both black and white, and was considered a prized catch among the working girls.

     For a time Clarence enjoyed relatively easy living in Bay City, even doing some fishing and playing a little golf in the all-too-brief summers. By 1929, his stable of women had grown to ten and his gaming salon was the most popular in town, attracting many influential and wealthy patrons.

     Then the Great Depression hit the country like a razorblade rainstorm.

     Railroad and shipping traffic slowed to a near standstill and the mines followed suit. Survival became the watchword. Money got tighter. The poor no longer had anything extra for the occasional bet. Savvy Scandinavians knew how to hunker down and batten down the hatches. The lowlife sunk lower and the ladies of the night, faced with dwindling clientele, moved southward to Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans and points west.

     To complicate matters, Clarence was growing soft. At least that’s the way he looked at it. He’d always maintained a policy of never getting close to any of his ladies. If they got knocked-up, it was a trip down to the yellow shack by the railroad tracks where the wrinkled old veterinarian would take care of things. Either that, or leave town.

     The new, soft Clarence not only had settled down with one of his stable, he was going to be a father. And he never would’ve been in that situation if Ethel Mae weren’t such a fine-looking woman with a good head on her shoulders, as he told anyone willing to listen.

     He was now over thirty and the idea of a son didn’t sound that bad to him, except it meant he was going to have to feed, clothe and put a roof over their heads. The mother of his child wouldn’t be a whore no more.

     As the fear of the Depression sank further into the fabric of the nation, the gambling crowds grew even smaller. Cash flow slowed to a half-frozen trickle. Clarence felt a little panic now and then. Like maybe it was time to pack up and leave. On to greener pastures, as the Swedes liked to say in that particular sing song way of theirs: On tuu greenah pastuhs….

     Being adaptable, he soon tapped into a growth industry: bootleg liquor. In the years after the introduction of the Volstead Act, the sale of illegal alcohol kept the wolf away from many doors across America. Clarence was able to develop a steady income by hawking booze provided to him by a former customer from his brothel days.

     The new decade came in cold, dry and dark. The expected birth was only a few months away. Ethel was getting fatter every day. Clarence had never seen anyone eat like that, let alone a woman. They had a little boxy house in the North End. All the working girls were gone and the only gambling to be had was strictly high-stakes poker with the elite.

     Clarence had found poker to be a horse of a different color. Sadly, cards were not one of his strengths. Big on feelings and hunches, he never quite felt it with the cards, and the other players were too smart and too rich. When their cards were bad they played it close to the vest and folded. When their cards were good they could buy Clarence out of a pot, overwhelm his limited personal resources.

     Best he could do was break even, or, on a good day make enough scratch for a week’s food. He took solace in the fact that he was still close to the guys with the dough. When you were close to the fire, there was always a chance to get warm.

     Clarence Walker Brown Junior came into the world at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Bay City, Wisconsin, on March 2, 1930, a healthy strapping baby with his father’s muscles and his mother’s good looks.

     Clarence couldn’t help but stare at the boy and feel his fatherly pride swelling. This here was some boy.

     The new father proceeded to give family life his best try. He changed his ways some and took jobs doing favors for some of the big wheels from the card games. Little paid favors—whatever they might request. He did the collecting for Jimmy Fuller’s pinball and bowling machines. He chauffeured for Zenith businessman, James P. Baker, who had taken pity on Clarence one night after winning a large pot in which Clarence was holding the better hand but was forced to fold because of a lack of funds.

     The reformed pimp continued his effort at family life for close to two years, spending a good chunk of dough to rent a house out in the South End of town so Ethel Mae and little Clarence could get away from the seedy side of things.

     Sometimes he’d sit in the kitchen and stare mournfully out the windows at the miles and miles of flat empty land. Land that once was expected to hold the streets and neighborhoods of the future “Chicago of the North.” Any hope for a real city on that tundra had been lost October of 1929 when the stock market crashed.

     Clarence often felt an emptiness inside him, a longing for the big city. Busy streets, downtown traffic and smoky nightclubs. An environment in which he could thrive.

     Denied this, he gamely went through the teething and the diapers and being cooped up with Ethel Mae when she wouldn’t stop yammering. He lived through the cold winter months and the frigid, damp, non-existent spring. Got through the bouts of claustrophobia and Ethel’s drinking binges and the looks of superiority from his employers.

     December of 1932 brought change along with the snow. Prohibition was over and tavern owners were dreaming of the sights and sounds of a full barroom, while the citizenry was busy figuring what items they could go without to afford alcohol. For Clarence, repeal of prohibition proved to be a double-edged sword. First there was the decline in profit from the sale of illicit alcohol, which, when all had been tallied, had proven to be a source of income that, if not for his frequent gambling losses, would have been considered quite good for the time. On the other side of the coin, the new liquor-fueled optimism in the air—or perhaps recklessness—brought his dice games back in favor. With the addition of some new players, a ten-percent rake off the top began to look pretty fine, especially when he could make it grow by playing in other hustlers’ games.

     And then came the Big Losing Streak.

     The faster he made it, the faster he lost it, longest such streak of his life. His debts grew faster than the snowbanks. Every gambler knows—at least the good ones—about the ups and downs, but he’d never seen nothing like this. The strain began to get to him. He was drinking heavily and his head hurt most of the time.

     Then one frosty February night, when there seemed to be no end to the torture, the idea—The Plan—came to him. A scheme to make one big score. Fleece the suckers and escape this hole he’d somehow fallen into. The time and the mood were right.

     Clarence had been around long enough to be accepted in Bay City, at least to fellow gamblers. He was part of the scene. His speech, his clothes and his mannerisms had become more Wisconsin than Chicago and his peers treated him accordingly.

     As he’d come to grips with this change from big-city smoothie to small-town hustler, Clarence often battled with disgust and self-doubt. His overwhelming need to escape what he now saw as a slow road to the grave allowed him the moral distance to plan a con of his long-time associates. He actually did struggle with feelings of guilt, at times. He believed himself an honest man but could usually find a sufficient rationalization to ease any concerns that might rise to the surface of his mind.

     Some of the guys… well, he knew he’d feel kind of bad if they got fished. But the rich guys, he’d gladly take to the cleaners like a pile of cheap suits.

     He fed the flames of anticipation among the locals with stories of dice games run by cash-laden Negroes from Chicago with fancy suits, hair straightener and manicures. How these big-time gamblers would cover any bet you could make and smile if they lost. Clarence sold the tales like you sell a kid on the circus, with wild yarns of gigantic pots and of empires won and lost on a single roll of the bones. In the throes of a dull, tedious winter, the brethren were easily led, as the only way to reach Florida back then was a damn long train ride.

     It took Clarence a month of phone calls and letters and telegrams to put it all together. He had hyped, cajoled, wheedled and promised, and by the time all was said and done, a series of big-dough games in Zenith and the Minnesota Iron Range had been arranged for a four-day, Friday-to-Monday span.

     The final game was to be on a Monday evening in the East End of Zenith at the mansion of J.P. Baker.

     A house full of whiskey-addled titans of commerce and industry and enough money to retire to New Orleans in antebellum style would be waiting.

(End of Chapter Three)

T.K. O’Neill’s newly release crime novel Fly in the Milk is available as an ebook for 99 cents at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

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March 1978, Zenith, Minnesota

One of the harshest winters on record didn’t leave without a struggle, but the cold snap had finally broken, the temperature rising during the night to above the freezing mark for the first time in three weeks. At six a.m. the mercury hovered in the mid-thirties at the airport and slightly warmer downtown by the big lake.

Officer Adams of the Zenith Police Department wondered how the steaming wreck in front of him—a late model Olds with the crumpled body of a black man slumped against the steering wheel—had ended up a battered and broken mess at the bottom of a fifty-foot embankment. There was no ice on the streets, only a little ground fog in the low spots. Shouldn’t have any trouble stopping on that.

The location and condition of the auto suggested that it had blown through the railing at the top of the cliff and bounced down along the jagged rocks to the street where it now rested uneasily, crushed in upon itself like a four-door squeezebox, the front end dented and shattered and all four tires flat.

Poor bastard’s brakes must have given out, Adams thought. Pretty new vehicle, though, to have the brakes go out like that and pick up enough speed to rip through the guardrail.

Adams bent over and looked through the empty hole where the driver’s window had been. Chunks of glass lay on the broad but lifeless back of the man in the seat. His head rested at a crazy angle against the steering wheel, blank eyes facing the passenger window. There was a large bloody dent above his right temple.

A flare of recognition hit Adam’s gut and his heart got heavy in his chest. Something familiar about the shoulders and the dark wool overcoat and the shape of the head.

Adams bent in and peered at the bruised and bloodied face. Then he straightened up and filled his lungs with the damp air and squinted up at the top of the cliff again.

Once more he bent down and stuck his head inside the Olds. He was pretty sure now. The face was swollen and distorted but who else could it be? He heard Patrolman Hayes coming up behind him. Adams took another long look inside the wreck.

It was Johnny Beam, without a doubt.

Johnny Beam looking like he’d lost his last fight.

Adams stepped back and fought away the sick feeling as he watched Hayes bend over and study the body, hands in the pockets of his uniform like he was window shopping.

“Looks like there’s one less nigger on the planet,” Hayes said, snapping his gum.

“Don’t let me hear that kind of shit again, Dennis,” Adams growled, balling his fists. “I knew this man. Used to watch him play football when I was a kid. He may not have been the most responsible guy you’ll ever meet, but he wasn’t a nigger, and I won’t tolerate that shit.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean anything, you know—I was just saying…”

Adams stared down at the body, eyes narrowed. “This is Johnny Beam, used to be the state light-heavyweight boxing champion. Great athlete. And a good guy.”

“Ain’t he the one they brought in on that weapons sting back in January?”

“Yeah, that was him. He’d fallen on some hard times, made some bad decisions.”

“Well, it looks like he’s fallen on even harder times now,” Hayes said, the corners of his mouth rising into a smirk. “You might say he finally hit bottom.” He spit his gum on the pavement, hitched his shoulders and gave Adams a stare.

Adams returned the stare. “You really are an enlightened guy, Hayes. For a fucking cretin.”

A siren wailed in the distance as steam smelling of antifreeze, brake fluid and burnt motor oil drifted across the chunks of broken rock, shards of glass and colored plastic littering the pavement. Hayes kicked at a jagged hunk of metal and stared blankly at the wreck. “You sure pick some funny guys to defend, Adams,” he said. “Wasn’t this guy a bookie and a pimp and every other goddamn thing?”

“Fuck you, Hayes. I knew the guy, okay? It ain’t easy to see someone you know, dead.”

A few blocks to the east, an ambulance careened onto Superior Street and roared toward them with the siren screaming. Further back a tow truck and another squad car were also rolling toward the body of Johnny Beam.

“I got a question for you, Adams.” Hayes said, squinting at the approaching ambulance. “How do you think your friend went off that cliff? Think he was drunk—at six o’clock in the goddamn morning? Stinks like booze in there, but still—couldn’t the son of a bitch use the brakes?”

“That’s a good question, Dennis. A question I’m sure somebody is gonna want answered.”

“You never know, the brakes coulda failed,” Hayes said. “You know how them niggers are, never fixing anything.”

Adams swallowed hard. Was about to respond in kind when the ambulance came careening to a stop and the paramedics jumped out. Swirling red lights sliced through the steam and the fog and the grayness.

Like some kind of horror show, Adams thought. “We got a dead man in there, boys,” he said. “Go easy on him.”

The ambulance jockeys looked at the body with wide caffeinated eyes, searched for a pulse and grimly nodded to Adams.

Who’s gonna care about a dead nigger in this town? Patrolman Hayes thought. Sure, there’ll be a few like Adams who’ll moan about it long enough to make sure everyone knows they feel real bad. And then they’ll forget about it just like everyone else.

The tow truck rumbled up alongside Adams, who was scratching his head and trying to reign in his emotions. The gnarled-faced driver leaned out the window, cigarette smoke seeping from his nose and mouth. “You want us to drag that thing out of the way, officer?”

“You bet, Jack,” Hayes snapped, stepping between Adams and the tow truck. “We got traffic that’s got to get through here.”

Adams bristled. “We’re gonna have to leave it where it is until the chief and a medical examiner get a look at it. This could be a crime scene, Hayes. You go up to the top of the hill where he came through and look around.” He pointed at the arriving squad car. “Bring McNally and Ledyard with you. Put some tape around the area and make sure the tracks and everything are left intact. I’ll wait here for the brass.”

Hayes blinked and thought about saying something but instead launched a gob of spit on the damp pavement and strutted toward the patrol car. He leaned a hand on the driver’s door and filled in the inhabitants.

As the squad car pulled away, the chief of police and the chief of detectives arrived from the opposite direction in separate Ford Crown Victoria sedans, one blue and one brown.

Chief of Detectives Harvey Green was a friendly, heavyset man who was smarter than he looked and well liked by most. His personal motto was Do a good job but take care of you and yours first. He seldom thought or felt too deeply about anything and as long as the larder was full, life was good.

Police Chief Ira Bjorkman was old and tired and had been on the job for too long.  Everyone on the force knew it and so did he. A recent increase in local crime coupled with the intrusion of the national press covering the Norville murder trial into his previously serene existence had stoked his growing desire for retirement. There was just too much bullshit going on these days for someone who was raised on Live and let live.

Harvey Green let the chief walk slightly ahead of him as they approached the wreck.

Adams watched them come, waited for the slow-moving pair.

“What have we got here, officer?” Chief Bjorkman asked, bending over and peering in the car.

“What appears to be a dead man, sir, who I believe is Johnny Beam, the boxer. But I didn’t look for I.D. I haven’t touched anything.”

“Very good,” Bjorkman said. “Looks like we got another one for the coroner. That fat son of a bitch hasn’t worked this much in his whole goddamn career.” He turned around and looked east along Superior Street. “And the asshole better get here in a hurry.”

Chief of Detectives Harvey Green bent over and peered inside the Olds.

“Looks like this could be the end of the line on the ATF boys’ case, eh, Harvey?” Bjorkman said, pawing at the damp pavement with his worn wingtip.

“Maybe so, Ira, maybe so. You think someone got to Beam here? He’s pretty battered. Nobody ever hit him that much in the ring.”

“Driving off a cliff will do that to ya.”

Green pulled a clean white handkerchief from his trouser pocket, draped it over his left hand and reached inside the dead man’s coat. He came out with a long wallet that he placed on the roof of the car then leaned back in and sifted the outside coat pockets.

“Here’s a winner for you,” he said, holding up a set of keys. “Still got his keys in his pocket. Look at the little gold boxing gloves. Must be a spare set there in the ignition, just got a plain chain. That’s a little off, wouldn’t you say?”

“A man gets older, starts hitting the sauce, there are times he’ll forget just about anything. You telling me you never thought you lost your keys and then found them later.”

“No… but not like this. This is a heavy set of keys. Man’s gotta know it’s in his pocket.”

“Yes and no. If a man has been up all night hitting the sauce and the foo-foo dust, he might not know much at all. He may be stumbling out the door in a hurry and not know his ass from a tuna sandwich.”

“Yeah, s’pose that’s a possibility,” Green said.  “And it is March….”

“That it is, Harvey, that it is.”

Green straightened up and scratched his chin. Scowl lines formed deep furrows above his eyes. “I think we need to call in a professional accident guy on this one,” he said, turning to gaze at the frozen bay and the hazy outline of the grain terminals in the distance. “Someone whose expertise will override ours. The way the media is jacked up these days, with that goddamn Paul Richards sticking his beak in everything, I think we need someone out front on this.”

“You’re right. I agree,” Bjorkman said. “Your wisdom suits that of the next police chief. But Jesus, what the hell happened to this poor son of a bitch Beam? How did it ever come down to this? I remember when he was really something.”

“Me too, Ira. Me too.”

*  *  *  *

 

February 1960, National Guard Armory, Zenith, Minnesota

Smoke hung thick in the air, stagnant and stinking in the yellow glare of the ring lights. The buzzing of the crowd matched the buzzing between Johnny Beam’s ears as he sank down onto the wooden stool and struggled to clear his head. His opponent had given him all he could handle for seven long rounds but the son of a bitch had paid a price.

The corner man squeezed a sponge and Johnny basked in sweet relief as the cool liquid slid through the tight curls of his black hair and down his bruised, swollen face. All around him, the crowd rumbled. He straightened himself and leaned back against the turnbuckle, stretched his throbbing arms along the ropes and squinted across the blue haze at the cut man working furiously on Al Sparks’ right eye.

The bastard looks like he’s beaten, Johnny thought. Look at him over there, blood dripping down on the canvas. But then, Christ, look at me… the only black men in the goddamn building and we’re both bleeding from the head. But that’s what the paying public wants to see, and you gotta do what you gotta do….

His body was heavy; blood in his mouth made him sick. Legs felt like liquid lead, worse than back in high school football when the rain had turned the pads to concrete. He didn’t feel much like getting off the stool again to face the left-handed Canuck and his goddamn right-hand leads. But the road to the big time went through Sparks, and the big time was where Johnny Beam wanted to go.

He was the light-heavyweight champion of Minnesota—had been for two years. He was proud of it, but it really wasn’t much of a title, and he knew it. Only way to a shot at some real money was by beating better talent. At least better than the punching bags he’d faced so far in his career.

He drank from a glass bottle covered with tape and swished the water around, spit bloody goo into the tin bucket between his legs and ran his tongue over the sore spots in his mouth while old Ernie Callahan applied Vaseline to his eyebrows and dabbed more styptic on the ever widening cut above his left eye.

The ringside bell clanged sharp and shrill.

Trying to focus his thoughts, Johnny stretched his lips around the mouth guard and stood up to answer the call.

Flashbulbs popped. The crowd howled.

Their roar is my engine, Johnny thought; I’ll make sure there’s more of Sparks’ blood to see than mine. If you got two Negroes in the ring, one of them should hit the canvas. That’s just the way it is…

The two well-muscled fighters came together in the center of the ring. A drunk yelled, “Kill the goddamn Canucky, Johnny,” and a cheer went up.

Sparks was desperate and went on the attack. He fakes a right-hand jab and then launched a southpaw haymaker. Beam anticipated well, ducked under the punch, slid to his right, drove upward with his legs and unleashed a vicious right cross to Sparks’ cheekbone, eliciting an audible smack–leather against flesh.

The crowd exploded. Sparks stumbled, crashed into the ropes and grasped clumsily, gloved paws flailing for balance.

The cheers filled Johnny with energy. Just like the old days after busting off a long run or making a crunching tackle across the middle. He moved in for the kill, saw the blood and the look in Sparks’ eyes: dazed, struggling, fearful.

Beam’s jabs shot through and found their mark. Sparks retreated into the corner, struggling for breath and covering up, the cut spreading dark fluid down the side of his angular jaw.

His eyes are pleading with me, Johnny thought. Please don’t take me out. Not in front of all these goodamn white boys… let me stay on my feet like a man.

Johnny hesitated for a second then snapped off another jab, followed by a short, hard right to the mouth that rocked Sparks’ head and sent blood bursting into the smoky air, mixing with sweat in an artful pink mist that put a fever in the fans.

Beam stepped back and searched the Canadian’s eyes. Sparks’ right hand snapped out of its defensive position like a striking cobra, thumping Beam’s cheekbone. Seemingly revived, Sparks came on with purpose in his step and an all-or-nothing look on his bloody, battered face. He jabbed with the right hand, stinging Beam’s widening cut.

Johnny held his ground and they stood toe to toe. An explosion of punches fueled by desperation and anger juiced the screaming throng. Combination for combination, headshot for headshot and body blow for body blow. The crowd rose from the seats, howled for a knockout. The huge armory echoed as the referee stood with his hands on his hips, staring at Sparks.

Beam was tiring but his opponent was further gone.

Like he was lifting a boat anchor out of the mud, Sparks prepped for one more looping left hand, desperately hoping for the knockout punch. Johnny saw it coming and knifed inside. The roundhouse left bounced harmlessly off the back of his head. He came out of the crouch and snapped his own left into Sparks’ chin. Sparks staggered against the ropes and Beam swept in, launching a flurry of punches that were brought to a premature end by the dull sound of the bell.

End of round eight.

The fighters wearily took to their respective corners.

Johnny couldn’t avoid the pang of frustration lingering in his gut, nagging him. This guy just wouldn’t go down like the others. Even in the two fights he’d lost, he’d put the bums on the canvas at least once. Only reason he lost at all was inexperience. But this bastard was tough. Left-handed shit was a pisser.

Johnny drank heavily from the water bottle, trying to douse the fire in his head. The lights seemed to dim as Ernie squeezed the sponge and mopped his brow and chest. His manager, Harry Sloan, was squatting in front of him, a graying, balding head hovering in the fighter’s face.

Ernie worked on Beam’s eye while Sloan wagged his thick index finger and snapped off instructions: “You got him Johnny, stay on him and the fight is yours. Keep on him, keep on him.  Don’t let the bastard take a breath without hittin’ him. Go after the bastard, I tell ya. Keep him on his heels. Win one more round and you got the fight. You gotta want this thing, Johnny. You gotta want it.”

Beam nodded his head but the frustration just wouldn’t go away. Yeah, he wanted to put the guy down and walk out of there a winner—of course he did. But maybe he didn’t want it as bad as he thought he should.  Maybe it didn’t seem worth it quite as much anymore, at the age of thirty. Just look at that goddamn Sparks over there, he’s not right in the head.  Something about the way his eyes float loose in the sockets, and how his jaw takes that funny, crooked angle….

Round nine started slowly. Sparks clinched and held and used the ropes. Johnny lacked the energy to put him away. Both fighters were cautious and seemed reluctant to throw punches.

Deep into the lackluster round, Beam reopened the cut above Sparks’ eye with a solid jab. In return, the Canadian exploded with a jab of his own followed by vicious upper-cut to Beam’s chin that sent the Minnesota Champion staggering backwards toward his corner, only to be saved from any further embarrassment by the dinging of the bell.

Johnny collapsed into the stool, fatigue and frustration sapping his will. Ernie chewed Dentine and stoically worked the Vaseline and the styptic. Sloan shouted sharply, cigar-breath in Johnny’s face: “You let up!  You let up! You let up, goddammit, man! You had him Johnny, but you let up.  Where’s the old killer instinct, man? You gotta show me…You gotta show the crowd… Listen to those fans out there…. They’re your fans, Johnny. They came to see you knock this Canuck bastard into downtown Chicago. It’s time you gave them what they want. It’s time you showed them who the big dog is.”

Johnny’s eye was swollen half shut. He had a fire in his chest, weakness in his knees and a twisted gut. This prizefighting shit wasn’t fun anymore. Not like football used to be. And fighting those hambones—back in the beginning—that had been fun. People had started paying attention to him again. Like the days he was setting the state record in the 100-yard dash in the spring and scoring touchdowns in the fall.

He’d been a two-sport star who the local newspaper had once called “the classy Negro dash man.” Sports, and most importantly, victory, had opened many doors for him in this northern town where you could count the number of blacks on the fingers of your hands and have a few left over—fingers, that is.

But this fight was bullshit. It was taking everything he had inside to summon enough desire to get off the stool and go hard for one more round.

Just three lousy minutes, he told himself as he crouched forward and touched the gloves to his forehead. Just whip this guy for three minutes and be in the locker room smiling, ready to celebrate.

The bell rang. The crowd chanted. “Kill’em Johnny, kill’em. KO, KO, KO. Beam, Beam, Beam.”

Sloan had one leg through the ropes as he brayed his final words: “This is it, Johnny.  Show him who the man is here.  Send him home sorry and sore.  This is your town, big fellah.”

The bruised combatants moved slowly towards the center of the ring where the squatty, balding referee with his prim white shirt and black bow tie waited tensely.

Beam’s nose was swollen; it was getting hard to breathe. He was wishing he’d done that extra roadwork over the Christmas holidays instead of eating cookies and drinking beer.

Sparks’ eye was nearly shut and his cuts were ready to flow red at the slightest contact. He looked beaten but still dangerous, like a cornered dog.

The fighters touched their gloves together.

Johnny glowered and Sparks stared grimly, facial muscles twisted.

The ref gave the signal and the fighters shuffled their weary feet, bobbing and weaving stiffly.

Beam jabbed and circled and waited for his chance. The circling continued while the crowd grew restless.

One minute in, Sparks’ hands dropped slightly and Beam threw a right-hand lead to the forehead, giving the lefty a taste of his own medicine. With surprising speed, Sparks bulled in, grabbed Johnny’s arms and clinched.

“Let him go, let him go,” the referee snapped in a thin sharp voice, reaching between the fighters. “Break it up, come on now, men. Break it up.”

Sparks let up on his grip and Johnny shoved him away.

The ref warned the Canadian.

Johnny moved forward.

Sparks circled.

Johnny threw an overhand right.

Sparks jerked back a half-second too slow and caught the blow on the tip of his chin. His head snapped back and the crowd let out a vicious roar.

Stumbling back into the corner, the southpaw struggled to lift his hands.

Johnny moved in carefully. He could see every past loss in Sparks’ eyes and sense the lingering scars from too many lonely nights on the road.

Beam threw a right hook that Sparks managed to block.

Fading fast, Sparks grabbed on, clinging to Beam’s sweat-drenched torso with all the strength he could summon.

The boxers wrestled. The referee shouted. The fans whistled and catcalled.

The men in Sparks’ corner looked damaged.

Beam’s corner men pounded on the canvas, yelling, “Take him out, take him out!”

The referee moved in to peel apart the writhing octopus.

“Break, damn it, break,” he snarled.

Ignoring the command, Sparks bulled Johnny around until the diminutive referee’s vision was shielded by Beam’s broad back, then, like a ram on the rut, he butted Beam’s damaged eye with his rock-hard forehead.

Gasps and boos filled the air as Johnny reeled backwards on his heels, dark blood spilling down across his cheek and into his mouth. The ref’s face turned crimson. He stared into Spark’s swollen eyes accusingly.

The fighter stood defiantly, like a rat in the corner of a basement.

The ref sent Beam into a neutral corner and issued a warning to Sparks. Then he signaled the fighters to the center of the ring and made them touch gloves before resuming the battle.

Dangerously angry, fists pumping and head jerking like he was swatting flies with his eyebrows; Beam attacked, driving his opponent into the corner with a barrage of thunderous body blows.

Cheers and shouts and calls of derision bounced across the brick walls of the cavernous armory.

Then a funny thing happened. Johnny smelled popcorn. And beer.

Strange, he thought, a transient jolt of mirth passing through him as he pummeled away at Sparks’ midsection, his arms like the limbs of a great tree, heavy and wooden.

Sparks was still on his feet, ducking and covering and absorbing blow after blow, bloodied but not going down. Johnny threw an uppercut that caught mostly glove and was relieved when Sparks snagged his arms and held on.

The ref separated the tie-up but the final bell rang before another punch was thrown.

Both fighters sagged at the shoulders with relief.

Johnny went to his corner reasonably confident he’d won the fight, but not feeling so good about it. It was a different game now.

Prizefighting. Only what exactly was the prize? The money wasn’t shit. Just enough to impress a few women for a couple of nights. And when it came down to guys like Sparks… that kind of fighter, this kind of fight… it was a different world. One that Johnny Beam wasn’t very fond of.

And a distant voice in his head was shouting that he was too old to change.

Truth was, he’d been adjusting to one thing or another all his goddamn life. Whether it was school or the army or white society in general, it didn’t matter. Black man in a white world had to bend or go down for the ten-count. It seemed about time that Johnny Beam—light heavyweight champion of Minnesota—started calling his own shots. Let the world adjust to him for a while, he’d been ducking and dodging long enough.

The fighters got watered down and toweled off and their cuts were treated. Sparks was going to need quite a few stitches and there was a murmur that maybe the fight should have been stopped. “Never seen so much blood,” said some.

Ernie was putting a bandage on the damaged eyebrow. All Johnny could think about besides the throbbing in his face was how badly he wanted to get out of this lousy shit hole of an armory. Hard to believe this was the place where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, had performed just a week before their fatal plane crash. Christ, they had Jeeps in here just like the ones in Korea. Goddamn military trucks, too. And all the assholes out there in the seats—shit—it was way too much like the army.

Sitting there feeling the pain in his hands and head, he recalled the months of training in cold, empty gyms. And all that running outside in the snow and ice so they could put up a ring in a goddamn military garage and come out on a frozen night to see two niggers beat the shit out of each other. But hell, he’d won. He’d beaten the guy; he could feel it. They weren’t gonna come up with some bum decision in this town. He was a hero here, Negro or not. They loved him. He’d won, goddamn it.

The judges didn’t take long to reach a unanimous decision in favor of Minnesota Champion Johnny Beam. But the key word here was decision. Johnny swore he heard a tone of disrespect when the ring announcer said the word.  But then some of the crowd started chanting, “John-ny, John-ny, John-ny,” and he felt better. He held up his tired arms in victory and smiled that famous smile that had won over so many.

As he made his way out of the ring and slowly across the concrete floor toward the dingy lockers in the basement, the crowd was friendly and encouraging, yelling “Way to go Johnny” and “Bring on Archie,” meaning Archie Moore, the current world light heavyweight champion. But the scene just made the knot in Beam’s gut get tighter and fueled his growing desire to escape.

After the tape was cut off his hands, he sat on the bench in the locker room staring at the dark green floor, wiping sweat from his chest with a worn towel and pulling on a bottle of beer from the case of Royal 58 a local distributor always sent over on fight nights. As he sat there letting his muscles relax, smelling the liniment and touching his fingers gingerly to the bump on his face, Johnny started to feel a little more comfortable about his future.

Removed from the ring and Al Sparks’ stinging blows, his victory seemed a little easier than it actually had been. Now it was possible to believe he could do it again. Maybe get a shot at the title. Wasn’t that what they were saying out there?

Ernie Callahan hovered around, squinting at the swelling above his fighter’s eye. Sloan was there, too, a cigar between his lips and a beer in his hand, his free hand slicing through the dank air as he paced around, talking excitedly.

“I think we can get you a shot with Kid Chocolate, Johnny. He’s been ranked as high as number five. We can get a big venue, maybe Chicago… at least the Twin Cites….  I know you want to move up. And y’know, it’d ah, it’d ah… it would’ve been be a sure thing, you know, if you had KO’d the Canadian.  But you know… anyway…  Sparks is well respected in the game. He once took Ezzard Charles the distance, y’know. So beating him in any fashion is good.”

“Wasn’t Charles a heavyweight?” Johnny asked peering up, his eyes showing skepticism as he swiped the towel across his forehead.

“Well yeah, when he was champion, he was. And that should be motivation for you. Charles started out light heavy, I think….  He, ah, put on weight—and then he moved up toward the end of his career.  First light heavy, than heavy. Didn’t reach his prime until his body was mature. Only weighed two hundred when he was champ. Our Mr. Sparks also put on some weight as he matured, you can bet on that. He was packing at least one-eighty-five out there tonight.”

“I sure must be maturing, too, Harry,” Johnny said, chuckling softly and pulling at the growing roll around his middle. “And it’s getting harder to take off, the more mature I get.”

“I told you, you should’ve started training sooner,” Sloan said through a blue cloud of cigar smoke as he returned the empty bottle to the cardboard case on the green bench. Then his head jerked toward the hallway, honed in on someone in the small crowd mingling outside the locker room. He leaned over and grabbed another bottle of beer, waggled his paunchy, late-forties body and said, “There’s some people I gotta see out here, Johnny boy. You hold tight a second.”

“Sure, Harry,” Beam said, turning to Callahan. “You can go home now, Ernie,” he said softly. “I’m going to be fine. You know I heal up real quick. I tell you what, my friend, why don’t you stick a few of those beers in your coat and take them home to the wife. I know she likes beer. Tell her that Johnny Beam wanted her to have a good time tonight.”

Ernie stuffed six bottles in the pockets of his gray wool overcoat, thanked Johnny and left. Beam felt that familiar lonely-in-a-crowd feeling coming back again so he hit the showers. The hot water and steam took away some of the pain. He dressed in his favorite black suit and a white shirt that he’d purchased just last week at Allenfall’s. The suit was from Chicago, acquired when he’d lived there after returning from the Korean War. That suit was the only thing he’d brought here from the big city besides his wife Ruby.

Suit was the only thing still with him.

Those were the days, Johnny thought. Chicago. That had been the way to live. Only it was way too big down there. He really liked it up north here in Zenith. This town had always been good to him. At least when you compared it to what else was out there. At least the places that he’d seen.

He’d thought about Florida after the war but it was too damn hot down there. He’d grown up in northern Minnesota and his blood was like a Finlander’s. Yep, you put Zenith together with Bay City, his place of birth across the bay in Wisconsin, and the place was just big enough. Big enough to contain all kinds of trouble and small enough that the trouble was easy to find. You had everything you needed in the Twin Ports. Yes sir, there were some strong positives to life up here, predominantly white citizenry or not.

The question now forming in the back of his aching head was how to bring a little of Chicago’s high living here to Zenith and cash in on his fleeting fling with fame. One way or another, this boxing gig was going to end someday. More likely sooner than later. There just had to be some elements of the Chicago life that he could incorporate into this locale. Some source of income other than getting the shit pounded out of you for chump change. No way he was going back to being the neighborhood nigger.

He was reaching for his coat when Harry Sloan came bursting back into the room, red-faced and ebullient, a large unlit cigar in his hand and a fresh one burning in his mouth. “Here you go, Johnny, victory cigar from Havana. World’s finest, compliments of Bob Nash.”

“Slow down, Harry, you’re like a whirling dervish. What’s that you’ve got there, a carrot from Bob Nash for one of the horses in his stable?”

Nash was the fight promoter and Johnny had always believed he was screwing the fighters one way or another, undercounting the gate or padding expenses or what have you. He wasn’t driving a Cadillac for nothing. But, giving credit where credit was due, Nash had always treated Johnny right. At least right enough to stay on his good side. And Nash had influence in this town. Had the keys to some of the doors that Johnny wanted to walk through. Nash knew the folks with money and the folks who liked to play—the gamblers and the ladies’ men and the lonely squares that needed someplace to belong.

So Johnny always smiled real nice and made with the jokes around Bob Nash. And hell, Nash wasn’t really that bad once you got used to him. He knew plenty of women who liked to party, and that was a redeeming factor in itself.

“Thanks, Harry,” Johnny said, taking the cigar and flashing his perfect set of pearly whites. “Grab me another beer, will you please? Where is Bob, anyway? He stuck his head in here for a few seconds, and then left. Didn’t seem that thrilled about the fight, if you ask me.”

“Whattaya mean, Johnny?” Harry said, handing over a brown bottle of beer. “Come on. He’s fine. Come on—Jesus man. Good crowd wasn’t there?  You’re always good here; you know that. Bob’s good, too, you know. He wants to meet us at the Flame later. Says he’s got some babes on the line—you know Bob. He wants to talk a little business too, he says. I’m positive he’s got some plans for you.” He paused and stared out into the hall. “You mean he didn’t say anything at all when he popped in?”

“Yeah, he said ‘good fight’ and all that shit.  But he just said it and left. I was getting the tape cut and his head jerked right in and out of here like he had a nervous twitch.”

“He must be preoccupied, thinking about your future.”

“That must be it. Yassuh, bozz, yassuh.”

“Oh, come on, Johnny, ease off,” Harry said, wrinkling his eyebrows. “We’ll go to the Flame. I’ll buy you a steak.  A couple of drinks and you’ll be good as new.”

“Since when do you buy me a steak, Harry?”

“Since tonight. My vote of confidence for our future together.”

“You’re a real prince. What’d you do, sell a car today?”

“Two to be exact. You know I couldn’t afford steaks on the money you pay me. Maybe tube steaks.”

Johnny laughed; his eyes twinkled. “You always said you were doing this for the love of boxing, Harry—the ‘sweet science,’ right? And of course you saw great talent and potential in me.”

“And that is still correct, Mr. Beam. And if you’ll down that beer and grab your coat we can get to someplace where it doesn’t smell like jockstraps and assholes floating in liniment, and they serve real drinks and thick, juicy steaks.”

“I’m ready for that,” Johnny said, as he thought more about his plans.

Yes sir, it sure did pay to be nice to some people. That’s what he liked about living in Minnesota; there were always a lot of nice people out there ready to help you out with things.

T.K. O’Neill’s newly release crime novel Fly in the Milk is available as an ebook for 99 cents at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

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PART NINETEEN

(Published in 1999)

Now here I am, at the highway that will lead me to hell, a.k.a. Superior, Wisconsin. There’s an ungodly roar coming off the lake and the stuff coming out of the sky has the texture of bird shit.  Maybe I should hitchhike, I’m thinking. There’s been someone through here, I can tell… drifted over ruts in the road. They’d probably try and take me to a hospital or something… I think my face is bleeding.  I’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Or one stump in front of another, come some sunny day if the creeks don’t rise.  Roy is due any minute….

You ever hear the sound of a crow on a mild spring day and think to yourself what a nice sound that is?  How things seem more right with the world if there’s a crow up in a tree, cawing down at you?  That’s the feeling I’m getting from that big black raven son-of-a-bitch up in that tree across the road.  He’s about fifty yards down and making the sweetest sound. It’s not a nice day, but the wall-of- pines provide some protection from the wind. He’s perched up there ruffling his feathers and flexing his wings.

All of a sudden I’m thinking I should take my jacket off and go after that crow. It’s all of a sudden so nice and warm. But that can’t be right. I don’t know what I’m thinking about, I guess.  Maybe the crow can explain all this….

When I get near the tree, the crow takes off and spreads his shining wings and flies down another twenty-five yards or so and perches on top of a mailbox. I go after it again. Maybe I can throw salt on its tail, there’s so much lying on the ground up here.

A mailbox?

A driveway?

Down the drive, around the bend, there’s a house. A big, warm house on a cliff overlooking the lake with a light on above the door.

I’m so thankful when I knock on the storm door. I’m saved.  A little porthole in the door opens up, and I see the face of my savior, a decent looking broad about forty.

She takes one look at me, and starts screaming her lungs out. I can hear her yelling, “Call the sheriff, Steve,” behind the thick door.  Then I hear a crow making a sound remarkably like the yuppie bitch’s yelling.  I see the bird perched on a cedar railing alongside a stone stairway that leads down to the shore of raging Lake Superior.

I pick up a rock from out of the little decorator’s row that runs around the front of the house, and peg it at the crow. Not even close. I walk over and he flies off towards the lake.

Down at the shore there’s a dock with a big boat covered by a blue tarp. Looks like a Boston Whaler with a high windshield and a small flying bridge, two big, black, shiny Mercs on the back. She’s lifted out of the water, but I think she’ll probably go. Even got some downriggers if I feel like trolling. Someone’s been using it this year already; everything is clean. I know boats. Worked on a fishing boat once, just outside of New Orleans. I was nineteen.

Water splashes on my feet as I check her out. The prop looks okay; nice electric winch set-up keeping her dry.  I push the green button on the control box on the cedar post and Lucky Lady settles down nicely, like a kiddy ride at the fair. I have to admire this guy’s set-up: protected little cove, nice little cliff-side abode and truly first class permanent dockage.

Once she’s in the water and rocking, I unzip the blue boat cover and jump inside to the controls.  Sure enough the key is there.  I give it a turn.

Nothing.

Again.

Nothing.

I rip off the cover and fling it aside and dash to the stern in a frantic search for the battery. I find it; the positive cable is unhooked. I put the clamp on the post, but it’s loose as a whore’s snatch.

My fingers don’t work any more; they are hunks of dead wood.  There has got to be a wrench or pliers somewhere… just calm down.

Look.

Slow down.

Goddamnfuckingsonofabitch.

I see a little gray plastic box with CRAFTSMAN stamped on top.

Somehow, I manage to tighten down that clamp. Somehow, the engine fires up. Oh what a beautiful sound, exhaust spitting against the water. Somehow, I unhook the moorings.

Motoring slowly, I can feel the power of the lake building in my chest.  Up ahead of me is some angry water.  God how I don’t want to leave the safe harbor.  God….

There is no God.  Eight-foot waves crash against the jagged rocks, roaring like the angry ghosts of a thousand drowned souls.

Fear, Daddy, fear.

God help me now.

There is no God.

I push the throttle down and tug at the dark green rain suit that I found under the seat. If only there had been some dry clothes or maybe a blanket. I keep it a little below half throttle and just aim at the center of the breakers. Straight on into the wind. First big one we hit, there’s a heavy crunch and we rock. I’m thinking we’re in trouble, but we hang tight. I just aim it like a torpedo and hold on tight and up the throttle just a bit. Words cannot describe the bouncing, pounding, gut wrenching, bile tasting kick of Gitchi Gummi.  What does the name mean, Roy?  Bad Fucking Lake?  Lake that never gives up its dead?  Like the song says, you know.

I’m going to beat this lake. Must’ve been at it about an eternity already….

The water seems calmer now. Maybe I’m in heaven.  But no, it is calmer. I’m coming to something. The water is brown, muddy over here. Waves are only rollers now. I can throttle up a little more.

When I first spot land, I feel like Christopher Columbus or one of them guys must’ve felt. So what if it’s an ugly, red clay shore line with a raging snowstorm going on and everything frozen but my gut, which burns like hell.  It’s fucking land, beautiful, marvelous land.  I love land, don’t you?

Two hundred yards from shore, the engines gasp and spit. They kick back in for another fifty yards and then quit for good.  The boat coasts forward for a moment, then slowly turns and begins drifting back. Drifting ever faster, inexorably returning to the middle of the raging, rocking death ride.

I can see huge black serpents coiling and rolling in the dark water.

I’m drifing back to that lonely, indifferent place….

I crank and crank on the starter, but she won’t go; the gas gauge is stuck on the big E.

As the shoreline slowly fades from view, there’s a rock in my gut.  For an instant, I’m ready to jump. Grab a life jacket and jump. But I never could swim much. And the water looks so cold. I’m sick of cold. What is it anyway?  This cold?  This wet?  This lake?

Somewhere the sun is shining, but mighty Casey has struck out.

And now it’s too late.

I just need some sleep.  All those drugs… Ginny… goddamn Stu…

Roy.

It’s starting to get going again out here; the black snakes are licking at the sides of the boat. Best thing to do is curl in the cabin and get some heavy rest. Just lay down and dream a little… maybe, come first light, my daddy will be there waiting….

The end

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PART EIGHTEEN

(Published in 1999)

The Indian never knew what hit him. I put two in his chest so fast that he only had time to fall down. Then I roll out the door and come up around to the back of the Cad. Warpaint is off and running towards the Charger with my money sack clutched under his arm like the Christmas turkey.  I steady the gun with both hands, squeeze away and put some lead in his back, about halfway up. He jerks and falls forward and the bag flies up in the air, bills scattering everywhere, flapping in the wind.

I’m in the ditch, frantically stuffing bills back in the sack when I hear the other two coming out of the woods, shouting and arguing. I run over and crouch behind the derelict Charger.

“Did you hit him, fucker?” shouts one voice.

“Don’t call me fucker, you little asshole,” yells the other.  “Of course I got him. Even though you were the one let him get away.”

“He slipped out of my hands like he wasn’t there anymore. And then I couldn’t see for a second.  Fucking weird. If you hit him, why isn’t he on the ground in there?”

They stop dead in their tracks as they come upon the two bodies and the occasional snowbound Treasury note. I jump up and cut loose. I hit the one with the rifle and he goes down screaming and writhing; crawling and dragging himself toward the ditch. He doesn’t make it; bullets travel faster than flesh. The other prick is moving fast down the road. I do the same, in the opposite direction.

It’s the name game.

A little later, I notice how cold I am. Terrible cold. Terrible wet.  Teeth chattering. Heavy duty shivers. Toes stinging.

Got to keep moving and thumping. My eyes sting so bad I can’t look into the wind anymore so I have to walk backwards. It’s hard to breath there’s so much snow in the air.  Where’s Roy? No one drives by. I know this is a good thing—given the carnage on the road behind me—but still I crave for the sight of headlights or maybe someone on a snowmobile. Those things must be all over up here….

I don’t have a clue how long I’ve been out here. I am crawling on my hands and knees, now, head bent down to the ground in the slushy, heavy snow. My knees sting terribly and my toes are numb. Am thankful for the wool socks I bought at Holiday station.  Sometimes I try and stand up, but the weight of it all pushes me back down. The only money left is what I could stuff in my jacket and pants, the bag long since jettisoned.  I think the cash keeps me warmer, but it seems so heavy. I realize I can’t go any farther without a rest, so I sit down and wrap myself up in a ball on the side of the road, my back turned to the wind.  I’m so sleepy… maybe if I close my eyes for a while….  Where’s Roy?

I jerk back awake to a fierce growling that’s coming from another world.  But then it’s the same world and there’s a great big wolf standing about six feet in front of me. Blood and bits of blue cloth are stuck to the sides of his toothy snout. A beautiful creature, coat full and gray, almost white.

“Go away or I’ll kill you,” I say weakly, reaching for the pistol.  Something in the animals posture makes me stop.  He growls some more, showing his impressive teeth.

“FUCK YOUUUUUGHHH!!!!”  I scream, fear stoking the last bits of adrenaline I have left.

Seems like it almost laughs at me, then trots on by. Up the side of the road and gone into the forest.

Something gets me up and moving and it isn’t too long before I’m walking downhill and I can actually see a few yards ahead through the blow.  I’m getting near the lake, on the final downgrade.  I’m feeling giddy, home free, almost warm.  But there’s ice on the legs of my jeans and my ears are on fire and I haven’t felt my feet in a while, now.

The closer I get to the lake, the number I become. I keep on moving. No sign of an automobile anywhere. I’m walking upright now, my hands over my face, pinching and twisting the flesh in an attempt to get the blood flowing.  The road is just as impassible down here, but the snow is slushier and the pelting from the black sky is wetter. Every inch of me is soaked, except under the leather jacket. It’s funny, because I’m getting hot underneath there.  My thin leather gloves have soaked through long ago. I’m praying to whatever god or spirit or deity that might listen. And what about Roy? He’ll probably be right along, in the Cadillac, all warm and dry, some good tunes pumping out of the radio; not that fucking “Name Game” shit.  Shiver, Shiver, bo pivver, banana pana fo fivver… ah, Jesus.  I regret the day I ever met that crazy fucker.  He’ll be the death of me yet.  Ha Ha.  You like that?  Be the death of me yet.  Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.

(To be continued)

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PART SEVENTEEN

(Published in 1999)

It’s nice and warm inside the Caddy but Roy is a little bit antsy. The guy on the radio is finishing up the weather report:  Big storm, he says, like we can’t already see that. Maximum late winter blizzard, payback for the exceptionally mild, El Nino winter.

“We better hope it’s melting by the lake,” Roy says softly, shutting off the radio. “This is bad. Almost need a four-wheel drive. At least reservation four-wheel drive.”

“What the hell is reservation four-wheel drive?”

“A big old rear-wheel drive American sled with about a few hundred pounds of junk in the trunk. Old wheels, rocks, sandbags… anything with weight. You get some decent snow tires— maybe posi-traction—you can go almost anywhere in one of those boats. We’re going to be plowing snow in some places with this beast. But we’ll make it.”

I’ll tell you right now, I’m nervous. This weather and all, out here in the middle of nowhere… it’s like nothing cares about nothing up here. And there’s no one or nothing around forever… I’m not used to it.  Walking inside a nice clean bank in the morning, before it opens—that’s more my speed. Pushing a gun barrel against the pasty neck of some guy in a suit—I can handle that. But this shit… you could die out here.

We roll by the spot of the accident, plowing snow here and there like Roy said we would.  You can feel the car bog down. I’m sweating over the decision to come up here in a stolen car. Proves why you shouldn’t drink and take drugs.

Another mile or so closer to the lake, and Roy says it looks like it’s going to be better up ahead.

I say, “How can you fucking tell that?” The snow is blowing directly in our faces and the windows are fogged up. In a Cadillac, you would expect better. I can barely see the road, let alone four miles ahead.

Then VAROOM, the derelict Charger comes roaring out of the dull gray nothingness behind us and starts to pass on the left.  It’s throwing out a cloud of gray-white mist, only the mist has weight and you can hear it hitting the side of the Eldor like ice cubes. You can feel it pushing us toward the ditch.

My heart’s beating fast and I’m thinking about the gun. Then they’re by us, disappearing again into the blizzard, the raw growl of their exhaust fading quickly.

Roy says Fuck and I breath a sigh of relief.

“We almost got sucked right off the road,” he says.  “You get caught in the wrong windrow, you’re gone—see you when it’s dry.  The ditch devils drag you right in. Ah, but not to worry. We are home free now, Don my man, I tell you.”

Farther down the road, he says, “Why don’t you roll a joint, man.  The shit’s in my pocket.”  He lets off the gas a little and digs his hand into his tight black jeans.  “Grab the wheel, will you?” he says, digging further into his pocket and lifting his ass off the seat.

I grab the wheel and look through the smeary windshield at the oncoming blur.

Then I see it.

“HIT THE FUCKING BRAKES GODDAMN IT MAN!!! I scream, hands frozen on the wheel.

Slow motion, coming right at us.

No—we’re coming at it.

It’s not moving. It’s stopped.

“BRAKES, MAN, BRAKES!”

Sliding, sliding, sliding, antilock brakes chattering, Roy trying to steer out of it.

No room.

Big collision.

Pain. Neck and back.

What the fuck?  Where are those crazy cocksuckers?  What the fuck they stop in the middle of the road for? Why didn’t the goddamn air bags work? Fucking General Motors!!

Roy has a strange, haunted look about him and his face is vibrating, turning feral.  “It’s the name game, Donny,” he says, grinning oddly.  “Get ready to play….”

“You all right, man?  Did you hit your head or something? I—”

Roy jerks open the door and jumps outside. One of the Indian punks is coming out from behind the Charger, charging.

Roy throws a short right cross and the son of a bitch crumbles face first in the snow.

I’m reaching down for the Glock, when a .22 caliber, long-barrel pistol with a drunken Indian in a greasy blue parka on the other end pokes through the open driver’s door. I straighten back up and squint into the swollen red eyes. His breathing is heavy and fast.

“Just sit there, asshole,” he slurs, steadying the gun at my face.  “Don’t move.”

In the middle of the road, the one in the blue soldier coat is holding a deer rifle on Roy. The guy Roy drilled is returning the favor by punching Roy in the back of the head and kicking him in the ass as they slog toward me in the shin-deep snow. Steam billows from the Caddy’s fractured radiator and the sick-sweet smell of anti-freeze hangs in my nose.

Out of the blue, fucking Roy starts singing:  “Donny, Donny, bo Ponny, banana pana fo Fonny,” and so on.  Then he starts up with Roy. “Roy, Roy, bo Poy, banana fana fo Foy,” etc.

This is pissing our rifleman off.  He’s grinding his teeth, his gaze darting around to me, Roy, the two vehicles, and the great cloud of driving snow. The feathers in his hair shake in the wind and ice forms on his thick black eyebrows.

The other guy is slapping Roy from behind and rasping, “Cap him. Cap the fucker. Cap the asshole. That’ll shut him up.”

While this is going on, the one holding the gun on me reaches into the glove compartment and pushes the trunk button. Christ, does he stink.

Roy is still singing, doing Lana Lana bo Pana.

At the back of the Cad, the war-painted one lifts up the trunk lid and yells, “Take him out in the woods and shut the smart-ass city boy up.”

The asshole with the rifle motions for Roy to move, and the bizarre threesome head off towards the woods.

“What’s in a name, Donny?” Roy stops and says, looking at me, strangely calm. “It’s only a label.  Just a surface to be lifted and thrown away when you choose, eh, paisano.  Just play the name game, Donny my boy.”

He starts up the song again as they lead him to the woods, singing all kinds of crazy names like nothing I ever heard before.

Warpaint goes searching through the trunk. First thing he comes out with is Roy’s satchel, and he brings it around to the side of the car to show his buddy who’s holding the pistol on me. Their eyes light up when he unzips that motherfucker. Warpaint’s voice is thick with emotion: “Look at this, Lonnie.  I told you they were drug dealers or something—car like this… heh… I told you.”  He sets the satchel on the roof of the Cad and goes back to the trunk. He lets out a war whoop. Found my money sack. The guy with the pistol takes a look back to see what all the commotion is about and I reach under the seat and feel the cold plastic. Guy I bought the piece from said you couldn’t knock anybody out by hitting him over the head with a plastic gun. I showed him I didn’t need it for hitting—I broke his jaw with a straight right hand, because he was an asshole.

(To be continued)

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