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Archive for the ‘Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry’ Category

Ebook now available at all online bookstores for $2.99; paperback available in mid-December for $15.95!

 

Then Frank felt that peculiar deep-seated energy pulsing and chugging higher, up to his knees and growing there, urging him on. Hatred and anger for the giant insects was fueling his fire. The image of Ray-Ray on the concrete—his swollen face like raw hamburger—was a garish neon sign flashing in his brain, insistent and burning. The ugly wounds and the blood and the gore seemed to be demanding revenge. And right over there, two of little brother’s known antagonists were strolling down the avenue like the world was all theirs.

Ray-Ray’s killers?

Remember what Oberst said?

Autry and Ray were arguing at the Paul Bunyan.

The insistent energy was all the way up to Frank’s gut now and making his heart race, the power flowing to his arms, his chest, his legs.

Just step out there and confront the two bugs, man. They’re coming to you.

The bugs were creeping toward Autry’s car; an old red GTO parked just a little ways down the avenue.

Time to rock ’n roll, Franko.

But wait. Let’s think about this.

Something was pulling on him, slowing him down. An anchor. Must be the weed, he thought. Shit makes you indecisive they say. But it was common knowledge that Autry often carried a gun. And the big cockroach could have a knife hidden somewhere under a flap of exoskeleton, more than likely did. Discretion was a big part of valor here.

And now take a look at that over there, a shadow, a dark spot, a vague image in the rear window of the top floor apartment. Someone looking down at the bugs, dim light from the interior outlining a female form.

Another insect?

The queen bee?

The mantis and the cockroach were nearly to the GTO now. Watching their unbalanced steps, the unsteady reeling, Frank stepped out from the darkness and crossed the avenue, trying to act like he was surprised to see them. He felt his chest puffing up. “Goddamn,” he said, hard staring at the bugs, “fancy meeting you two here. Some blind, brain-damaged girl giving out two-dollar blowjobs in the neighborhood or you guys find a cancer patient needed to sell his pain pills to buy food?”

Frank didn’t miss the apprehension. Doughboy Cockroach was looking for a cupboard to scurry under. But the mantis seemed to be growing taller, stretching, the wrinkled face glowing darkly and the eyes of stone lit with hatred.

“Well, well,” the mantis said. “If it ain’t Frankie fuckin’ Ford again. Ya lost, Frank, or you following us?”

“I wanted to follow dog shit I’d buy a dog, Artie, all due respect.”

The acid had Frank quivering inside. Gritting his teeth, he watched the mantis sneer, saw the wiry power there, watched the big thing straighten and lean its beak toward him. Frank smiled and pointed up at the dimly lit window. “You guys know who that is up there? Whoever it is, she’s watching us.”

The bugs turned to look and Frank edged back up the hill a bit, thinking caution was the right play. Then he saw the mantis go slack, watched him drop back to slouching, saw the face change.

“That’s just someone we met tonight likes to party,” the fat, pasty cockroach said.

And the mantis said, “How about you, Ford? Out searching for booze bottles in the garbage cans?”

“That’s it, Artie, you got me. But now if you’ll excuse me, I must take my leave. I need to find an exterminator.”

(To be continued)

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Ebook now available at all online bookstores for $2.99; paperback available in mid-December for $15.95!

 

Frank glanced to his left as a car rumbled by shooting out cones of whiteness. He squinted down at the angry crowd changing postures and leaning ensemble toward the passing car. After the big Chevy passed by he made a fast left turn and hurried across Superior Street, quick stepping into the long narrow parking lot running between the Norshor Theater and the Hotel Zenith. Deep within the throes of LSD now he slinked past sleeping dinosaurs with names like Chevy, Dodge and Buick, then ducked into the darkness of the alley, thin blue beams streaming down from the back wall of the hotel to light his way. He picked up his pace along the cracked and broken asphalt but frequently became distracted by luminescent puddles swimming with strange wiggly things of unknown origin. An eternity later he reached the end of the alley and turned left at the avenue, heading uphill four blocks that seemed like four miles. By the time he got to Fourth Street the top of his head was lifting off and he was thinking he’d bitten off more than he could chew. But then something Waverly had said came back to him like wisdom from the ancients.

Get to flying too high, have yourself a couple tokes. Shit will pull you right down to earth.

Christ, did he even have any matches?

He dug with numb fingers through his pockets as he walked, finally feeling a flattened matchbook in his left-hand jacket pocket, second time through, Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club on the sparkly green book, four bent matches inside. The matchbook sent Nikki’s pretty face into his head. Shit, he forgot to call her. Shaking his head, his mind spinning like a waterspout, he continued along.

A block and a half later he was standing in the alley across from the apartment building he’d seen Nurse Judy go into, amazed that some sort of homing instinct had brought him back to his Pontiac, the wagon looking dark and derelict over there in the spot where he’d left it. Pulling out the joint, Frank leaned against the side of a small house at the end of the alley and torched up.

First hit was like a blanket for his brain, warm and comforting. Second hit made him cough and he hacked there in the alley like a TB patient spewing lung tissue. Then everything began tapering off a bit, the brakes slowing the carousel, and shit was looking somewhat normal again. Strangely lit and fuzzy, but somewhat normal.

This acid hits you like swells on the ocean, pushing you and tossing you around and then smoothing out and turning calm and pleasurable.

Taking another hit of the weed he peered across the avenue at the apartment building and, Christ, he couldn’t believe it; goddamn Artie Autry and Doughboy Loy were strolling down the sidewalk over there. Frank stared at them and got tunnel vision, the wack coming back at him like a wave, a rush, a passing fancy in a wee-hours dream. Now the Doughboy was a giant cockroach—one of those fat greasy ones they call palmetto bugs in Florida—and Artie Autry was a goddamn praying mantis, leathery face pinched and evil, smoke coming out of his insect mouth like the insect brain was on fire. Smoke was billowing, floating, drifting. Frank could smell the tobacco stink. Doughboy Cockroach had it, too.

(To be continued)

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Frank turned up the collar on his leather jacket and started east on Michigan Street, edgy at every approaching recessed doorway, every hidden pocket of shadow. After passing the darkened storefronts of a plumbing supply company, auto parts wholesaler and an out-of-business cafe, he turned left onto First Avenue East, pushed uphill to Superior Street and got caught in the light show.

Spotlight on you, Frank Ford: Where were you on the night of April 7th? Is it true you and your brother didn’t get along? Did you ever threaten your younger brother’s life?

Yeah, Jesus, there was that time Ray was out at the house on Tischer Road hassling Frank’s wife. Scared out of her ass, Joanie called Frank at work, said Ray was drunk and out of control, out in the garage “trying to find your stash,” and breaking shit. Frank left work and blew out there to find Joan trying to get in her car and Ray trying to pull the keys out of her hand. So of course he beat hell out of the little shit. Of course he threatened him. Prick was muscling his wife. But Frank didn’t kill him, just punched him a few times. Same kind of shit they’d done for years, kind of shit brothers do.

Now a scene from that day was playing inside Frank’s head, Ray blowing out the driveway sending up dust clouds while Frank stood there watching the ratty old Chevy swerve at him. Frank jumped out of the way but not before seeing the hatred and the totally gone madness on little brother’s face. And behind that, the lost momma’s boy, trying to show his big brother who was tougher.

Feeling the one block uphill push in his legs now, Frank looked to his left across Superior Street and got hit with searing white light from the Coney Island Cafe. Squinting against the glare, he saw two darkly dressed customers lumbering around inside the diner and a thin man dressed in white behind a counter at the back of the place, the man’s skin looking buttered. And Jesus, now rivers of grease were rushing down the front window glass and torrents of hot oil were pouring down off the letters of the blinking Coney Island sign.

Frank rubbed his eyes and blinked and moved his gaze along to the next building, the Norshor Theater. The lights on the theater’s semi-circular marquee were blinking in rotation like a giant pinball machine. Way he felt, maybe he could stretch up there and play a game. Below the marquee, behind the glass doors, the lobby was dark and seemed to go on forever. Tonight’s feature was Star Wars, a movie Frank had seen just a month ago, and his mind went temporarily into a colorful landscape of light sabers, star ships, Ewoks and talking robots.

He kept moving.

Looking ahead to a crowd gathered in front of the Red Lion Lounge, half a block farther along on his side of the street, shouts, angry snapping voices and racial epithets came rumbling his way inside a dark cloud. And then in an instant he was eleven years old again and it was that warm summer night when the big kid chased him up the hill from Nelson’s Pharmacy, Frank on his way home after taking a leisurely stroll for a lime phosphate at Nelson’s soda fountain. He could feel it now as if he was there again, the fear in his gut and the searing pain in his lungs and legs from sprinting four blocks straight uphill with the dark shadow in pursuit. Eventually, back then, Frank turned around to discover that the big kid had abandoned the chase, but the fear had lingered on.

Was lingering on.

Pushing back at the rising panic, he came to a stop and peered at the crowd. He could feel the angry vibes, the ugliness and the ignorance, the pig-headed drunkenness.  

Come on, Frank, pull it together, you’re thirty-six years old, man, eleven is long gone.

But still, discretion is the better part of valor, they say, and one doesn’t feel much like violence while riding the lysergic train—peace and love, remember….

Hearing the words in his head Frank felt rumblings in the deep recesses, maybe coming from hundreds of years back in his DNA memory. He was sure there was a warrior gene lying half-dormant somewhere in there, just waiting for the wake-up call.

Nevertheless

(To be continued)

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Frank wanted to ask a few more questions but now the walls of the room were wrinkling and bending, his facial muscles were going slack and Meagher’s normally square head was taking on the look of a braying jackass. And Oberst was beginning to resemble some kind of large white worm.

Frank chugged the rest of the Michelob and stood up. “Well,” he said, “I’m outta here. Everything’s locked upstairs. Take it easy, boys.”

“Take it any way I can get it, Franko,” Meagher said.

“Have a good one, Frank,” Oberst said, wriggling in the chair now like a potato sausage on a griddle.

Frank was zipping his jacket when Meagher’s lips and large teeth seemed to separate from his jaw and hang in the air like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Cheshire Cat-type shit. Turning away from the image, Frank gritted his teeth and left the office. Going by the stage he noticed a pile of records on the floor and a turntable set up with speakers and an amp, the tools of trade of Betty’s new DJ, and signs of changes coming to the Underground. Frank started to fixate on the colorful album covers and artful record label logos but shook it off and continued through the blue-and-red-hued lounge thinking he was in a comic book frame, Revenge of Plastic Man.

On his way outside, passing through the vestibule, he glanced up at the narrow rectangle of glass above the fire doors and saw more red and blue lights. He was also becoming aware of a throbbing, pulsing energy at the bottoms of his feet that seemed to be chugging jerkily upwards,

Frank pushed the release bar on the fire door expecting to walk outside to the familiar streetlight-bathed emptiness of Lake Avenue and Michigan Street at two a.m. Instead he stepped out to the damp and cool air and was hit with spinning reds and blues, darting white beams, glaring headlights and metallic voices buzzing and murmuring. He froze, fear and paranoia spiking his head. He almost put his hands in the air, almost said, Don’t shoot. Fighting against the panic he blinked and struggled to focus on the source of the commotion.

Across Michigan Street in the small dirt parking lot, the headlights of a police car were framing the steam rising off a red and white Pontiac sedan, ’67 or ’68. The Poncho’s front end was caved in to a deep, ragged, inverted V, and two blue-uniformed cops were moving around shooting flashlight beams at the wreck and its surroundings.

Frank inhaled deeply, controlling his breathing, and felt his heart beginning to slow its hammering as he realized that the only one interested in him was the bum that lived in the hidey-hole over there beneath Superior Street where the steam pipe was, the dude’s mole face, long unkempt beard and scraggly hair seemingly hovering above and behind the wrecked Pontiac and the surrounding commotion. Caught in the ambient light, the guy’s tea saucer eyes seemed to be staring right at Frank.

Frank felt the muscles in his body relax; tiny fingers releasing their grip up and down his legs and torso. He took another deep breath, stuck his hands in his jacket pocket, felt the joint Waverly gave him still safely out of sight, and recalled that, shit, his station wagon was still up the hill across from the apartment building he’d seen Judy-Bruton-soon-to-be-Judy-Pills go into.

Judy Pills, man. Must’ve been written in the universe.

(To be continued)

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Ebook now available at all online bookstores for $2.99; paperback available in mid-December for $15.95!

After Waverly finished his beer Frank let him out the front door then stepped outside to watch Keith walk down the boardwalk to a rusty, mid-sixties Oldsmobile, the driver-side mirror dangling down to the middle of the door on thin wire cables. Already feeling the internal stirrings signaling the beginnings of his acid trip, Frank watched the big Olds disappear around the corner before going back inside the Metropole.

Wanting to get out of here before the LSD hit him full on, Frank quickly totaled up the cash register, checked it against the beginning balance and put the numbers on Betty’s daily income sheet. Next step was to put the night’s profits in a bank bag along with the form and bring it downstairs to Tom Meagher, manager of the Underground Lounge, the meat market on the lower level.

Frank got his jacket from the wall hook and went down the stairs. Going through the glass-paneled doors into the Underground, he noticed that the blue and red stage lights were still on and it was starting to look very weird in here. The bar was empty but yellow light was slipping under the door of the office in back. Frank went back there and found Meagher and Burt Oberst sitting on chrome-and-plastic chairs holding Michelob bottles, a small pile of white powder on top of the green metal desk. Meagher said, ”Hey, Frank, care for a toot? You look like you could use one.”

“No thanks, Tom, I’ll pass. One is too many and a thousand not enough with that shit.” Frank set the bank sack on the desk as far from the powder as possible. “Will have a beer, though,” he said, eyeing the torn-open twelve-pack of Michelob on the floor by the desk.

“Knock yourself out, man,” Meagher said. “Busy upstairs tonight?”

“Pretty much. ‘Nother pile of money for Betty’s retirement fund.”

“That old hag’ll never retire,” Oberst, the Underground’s other bartender, said. “She’ll keep working until she falls the fuck over, long as the place is turning a profit.”

“I don’t know about that,” Frank said. “She’s worried about these new dram-shop laws they’re talking about. They say they’re going to hold the bars responsible if one of their customers gets drunk and plows into someone on the way home. Betty claims the insurance rates are going to skyrocket and the DWI fines are gonna rise with ’em. She seems to think it’ll be the death knell for places like this.” Frank leaned over and plucked a Michelob from the pack on the floor, twisted the top, sailed the cap into the wastebasket next to the desk and had a swallow, feeling something strange happening in his neck now.

“Betty’s an old lady,” Meagher said. “Old ladies worry about shit all the time. Doesn’t mean it will come true. And if it does, it’s not like we’re losing the golden-egg-laying goose.”

Frank knew that was true but still had a thread of unease in his stomach thinking about changing jobs. Getting set in his ways. Not good. Too soon for that. “Nah, you’re right, Tom,” Frank said, “but not many bosses out there are as easy as Betty to get along with, either. Look at the shit she lets Sack get away with.”

Oberst said, “I hear that, man. Sack her goddamn nephew or what?”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Frank said. “I don’t know why she puts up with him. Feels sorry for the bastard, I guess.”

“Wouldn’t let me get away with that shit,” Meagher said. “I’d be on the street in a heartbeat. Fuckin’ Sack must be on his fifth last chance by now.”

“No shit,” Frank said. “I had to come in tonight because of that asshole. On the day of my brother’s fuckin’ funeral.”

Meagher looked down at the floor. “Sorry about your brother, Frank. Ray had a hard time of it, man. It’s a sad deal.”

“Yeah, sorry, Frank,” Oberst said.

“Thanks, Tom, Burt,” Frank said. “You and my mother must think alike, Tom. She’s always saying, ‘Ray had a hard time of it.’ And it’s true, I’m not arguing that, but Ray brought most of it on himself. I don’t believe he killed himself though. You guys heard any rumblings?”

Meagher said, “Kevin Andrews told me Artie Autry and the Doughboy were with your brother at the Paul Bunyan on the day Ray was last seen. He said Autry and Ray were arguing but Ray left before anything physical started up. Also said the cops came to the Bunyan to ask him about it.”

“The Bunyan is one of the few downtown bars that would still let Ray in,” Frank said. “He was probably afraid to lose his privileges. Kevin, say anything about Ray’s physical condition? Bruised up or anything like that?”

“No, man, nothing,” Meagher said.

(To be continued)

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Frank brought the sweating green bottle down to Waverly, the guy, judging by his droopy eyelids, carrying a good buzz already. “What you up to tonight, Keith?” Frank said.

“Just checked my cab in. Gonna head across the bridge to Bay Town, go home and sleep, I guess.”

“Slow night?”

“Not too bad. But I wanted to get out of there before the bars closed. Al always sticks me with the ninety-cent runs from the Kozy, which are a real pain. I’ve had drunks puke in the cab—piss—nobody’s shit in there yet but how long can it be? And it’s always the fuckin’ Kozy crowd. Thought I’d skate out early and save myself the anguish.”

“I hear that, man. But say, ah, by any chance do you have anything on you might help loosen the bonds of reality for your friendly local bartender?” Frank was weary of the grief and the turmoil and ready for some of Waverly’s old-time peace and love vibe.

“Got a few hits of green pyramid, man. Give you a nice ride.”

“Sounds like something I could get into. Any chance you can stay till close, fix me up after the place empties out?”

“Got a few more Heinekens in that cooler?”

“Enough.”

“Can I yell, It’s hotel-motel time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here?”

“Free of charge, Keith. Warm up those vocal cords.”

Then the time seemed to stand still and before Frank had a chance to lock the front door a fresh pack of thirsty customers crowded in. It was one-forty on the bar clock before he got the place cleared out. Waverly was still there at the bar smiling, Jenny seemed content cleaning up the tables with a tall double brandy-water waiting for her on top of the bar, and Judy and Mr. Pills looked pleased to be allowed to stay after hours. In with the in-crowd, as it were. But it wasn’t long before Judy and Pills finished their drinks and Frank unlocked the front door and let them out, Frank thinking that Judy was a changed woman. This new version was a little more controlled, less frayed around the edges—and she didn’t seem to give three shits about Frank or his brother Ray—her former husband for fuck sake. She had not said one goddamn thing to Frank about Ray-Ray’s passing. No Sorry for your loss. No How’s your mother taking it? No nothing. So maybe she was the same self-serving twat as always, just better at disguising it.

Once the room was picked up and the glasses all washed, Frank let Jenny the waitress go home. Waverly had a fresh Heineken in front of him and it looked so good Frank got one from the cooler for himself. After knocking down a bracing shot of Bushmill’s, Frank went to see his old friend. “What ya got for me tonight, man? Green pyramid you say?”

“Yeah,” Waverly said, reaching in his tan corduroy Marlboro Man jacket and coming out with a baggie containing a little sheet of what appeared to be green plastic. He laid the baggie on the bar, wiping the spot with his jacket sleeve first. Frank took a closer look and saw a square of tiny, connected, pyramid-shaped units.

“Shit pretty strong?” Frank said. “I’ve been hearing about this stuff.”

“Shit’s all over town, man. You just wanna stay awake, all you need’s a little chip. Whole one’ll take you to the edge of the ozone.”

Frank picked up the sheet and carefully tore four pyramids from the corner, put them on his tongue and washed them down with a big swig of Heineken.

Waverly raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Got a big night planned, man?”

“Just need to fly away from my pain and woe, Keith,” he said, rolling his eyes. “See if there’s any wisdom to be found in the cosmos tonight.”

Waverly, still grinning, reached into his jacket again, brought out a bomber of a joint. “You might need this, man. Get to flying too high, have yourself a couple tokes. Jamaican ganja, man. Shit will pull you right down to earth and get your feet back on the ground. And, ah—good luck with your search for wisdom. As for me, I think I’m gonna head across the bridge and catch some Z’s, last-call rush ought to be over by now.”

Frank took the joint and put in the pocket of his white shirt.

(To be continued)

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Standing in front of the lovebirds, Frank was trying to make eye contact with Judy but she wasn’t playing. Kept her gaze on Pillsbury or the martinis. Frank watched Pills reach inside his charcoal sport coat and bring out a long rectangular wallet, lift out a twenty from a thick stack and put it on the bar top.

Pillsbury said, Keep the change,” looking at Frank with what Frank thought was condescension.

Frank had the urge to tell the prick to shove the money up his ass, maybe lecture the asshole about bringing a wallet full of bills to a sleazy dive like the Metropole. “On the house,” he said, pushing the twenty back at Pillsbury.

Mr. Pills looked at him with a question in his eyes but it only lasted a second. “Thank you,” he said. “You treat first-time customers nicely here.”

“Not usually,” Frank said. “But it’s the least I can do for my ex-sister-in-law.” He nodded to Judy and started backing away, watching the skin around Pillsbury’s eyes crinkle and Judy make a half-assed attempt at a polite smile, her eyes still not revealing anything. Frank watched them take the drinks to a booth against the back wall. Couldn’t help wondering what their deal was, thinking it must be Ricky’s money and her tits and ass. Not that hard to figure. Frank shook his head and turned to look at the clock. It was quarter after twelve, forty-five minutes and he could throw the bums out of here.

A big guy with a ponytail moved into the slot vacated by the Pills. Frank got him a PBR and went back to work, getting the sitting patrons squared away. By twelve forty-five he was toweling off beer glasses and wondering what he was going to do after close, all wired up now, when he saw Keith Waverly leaning across the bar down by the television set. Waverly was a local boy known for his quality weed and other confections from the psychedelic era, and always seemed to be close to action of some sort. Just the kind of shit Frank thought he needed. Anxious to close up, Frank took inventory of his help. Moran was on the patron’s side of the bar in a booth, chatting up some drunken tart. Jenny was gathering glasses from the tables. Frank went down the line to Waverly. “Mr. Waverly,” he said.

“Hey, Frank,” Waverly said. “How’s it going, man?”

“Let’s see,” Frank said, “went to my brother’s funeral today—so that was nice. Got called in to work because Sack didn’t show—and that was even more wonderful. And now here I am having a hell of a good time hanging with Zenith’s Illuminati.” He let his gaze slide around the barroom. “So you could say that I’m fuckin’ fantastic.”

“I heard about Ray, Frank. That’s a bummer, man. You doin’ okay?”

“Peachy. What can I get you, Keith?”

“How about a Heineken.”

“Coming right up.” Going to the cooler feeling a headache coming on and the pain in his bum knee getting worse, Frank squinted through the smoke clouds and the glow of beer signs, “Hello Walls” blasting out of the jukebox for the thousandth goddamn time tonight. And at that moment he realized how sick he was of this place and this scene and his brother’s guttersnipe life and all the loose ends that seemed to be demanding he tie them together whether he wanted to or not.

Fuck.

(To be continued)

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