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CHAPTER 2, EXCERPT 8

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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CHAPTER 2, EXCERPT 7

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 setup 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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Chapter 2, Excerpt 6

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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Chapter 2, Excerpt 5

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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Chapter 2, Excerpt 4

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 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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Chapter 2, Excerpt 3 

“My current employer just walked in,” Moran said, toweling a beer glass. “Richard Pillsbury. Take a good look. Guy wears a sport coat to the Metropole…. I told him to come down here and have some fun—loosen up a little—guess that’s the best he could do.”

“He does have jeans on,” Frank said.

“Bet they’re designer jeans,” Moran said.

“Mr. Pills,” Frank said.

“Some people call him that. You know him?”

“Seen him around, I think. Heard some things about him, too. How’d you score the gig, man, old friend of the family?”

“Seems that Judy recommended me. Strange, eh? ‘My fiancé tells me you’re a fine craftsman,’ the guy says to me on the phone. Then he hires me to remodel the entire first floor on this big old house out on London Road. Should last me all summer if I play it right.”

“You banging her?” Frank said, watching Judy and Mr. Pills working through the throng.

“Hell no. Judy and I had our little thing a few years back, man, right after she divorced your brother. Fuckin’ chick was nuts, man. Had a fierce craving for pharmaceuticals. But that shit fueled some monumental sex, Franko, I’ll tell you that. After it was over was the problem. Talk about your loons. She was unreachable, man, in her-own private Idaho. She seems changed now though. I see her out at the house and she seems mellower somehow. But I just see her coming and going, she never says anything to me. Looks at me sometimes like she’s thinking I should thank her for the gig or something. Maybe I should, but fuck that.”

“Marrying the heir to a pharmacy chain must be a dream come true for Judy,” Frank said. “Visions of wedding cake frosted with jellied Quaaludes dancing in her head. Mr. Pills, for Christ sake.” He eyed the couple; they were almost to the bar. “Here she comes, man. You wanna take ’em, Danny?” Frank said it soft, almost a whisper.

Danny gave Frank a sharp look and started to say something—Frank thought it was a No—but Frank was already on his way to the cash register. He popped open the drawer and stood there with his back to Moran, Frank listening and neatening up the stacks of bills. Bar was in a rush; sometimes they got all gnarled up in there. “Evening Mr. Pillsbury,” Frank heard Moran say. “Glad you took my advice to come down.”

“Greetings, Daniel,” Pillsbury said, “Quell surprise. Didn’t expect you on that side of the bar. Aren’t I paying you enough?” Pills had the self-conscious, overly controlled speech of someone who was drunk or on drugs.

“Just helping out a friend, Mr. Pillsbury. What can I get you?”

“Please, Daniel, call me Richard, And I’ll have a Beefeater martini. How about you, Judy?”

Judy said, “A mart sounds good, Ricky. You always know what I want.”

But does he know what you need, Frank was thinking as he turned to look at Moran. “Two Beefeater martinis, Danny?”

“Right on, Frank,” Danny said. “You remember Frank, don’t you Judy?”

Frank watched the blonde’s eyes swing in his direction. He looked for the spark of recognition but didn’t see it. “Oh sure,“ she said. “Longtime no see, Frank.”

“Hi, Judy,” Frank said, thinking her speech was a little slow but not drugged to the max like he’d expected. “How’s it going?”

She said, “Oh, fair to partly cloudy, thanks,” avoiding Frank’s gaze and snuggling in next to Mr. Pills.

Frank said, “I’ll get the marts, Danny, if you go down and help Jenny. Looks like she needs it.” There was a phalanx of faces looking beseechingly at Frank but he ignored them and set to making martinis, grabbing the Beefeater bottle and wondering if it was actually Beefeater’s or some cheap shit Betty had switched out.

For some reason he wasn’t quite sure of, Frank took great care in the preparation, getting the gin and the vermouth just right in the shaker, cracking the ice, shaking it—not stirring—straining it into the stemmed glasses and bringing them to Judy and Mr. Pills.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 2, Excerpt 2

It was a game Frank played, trying to stay ahead of the crowd. Tonight he was losing. People were still coming in the door and the place was standing room only. Fucking Sackberger. Wouldn’t be too big a surprise if the asshole himself showed up here before close, blind drunk and oblivious, Sack was known for shit like that.

Prick pulls that tonight I’m going over the bar after him, Frank said to himself.

The old round clock on the wall was showing eleven o’clock when Frank saw Danny Moran coming in. Frank got a Bud from the cooler and put it in on the bar as Danny threaded through the two-deep horde. “Good man, Franko,” Moran said, bellying up. “And what the hell are you doing back there? Thought you were getting too old for this Friday shit.” Gesturing at the surging throng.

“I am, Danny, no doubt about it. But Sack is AWOL and who else is Betty gonna get if it ain’t good ol’ reliable Frank Ford?” Frank glanced at all the hands clutching bills stretching out toward him and shook his head, rolling his eyes.

“I hear you, Frank,” Moran said. “And sorry about Ray, man. That’s a shame.” Moran slid a five-dollar bill next to the sweating beer bottle.

“Thanks, Danny, it’s been a real cluster fuck. Cops asking questions, my mom going nuts, all the relatives asking me what happened—like I’m supposed to know everything about Ray, even though I kept as far away from him as I possibly could. It’s a goddamn pain in the ass; let me tell you. Working this place tonight is just not in my comfort zone.”

“I hear that, Frank. Need any help? Been a while since I’ve been behind a bar but I ‘magine it comes back quick.”

“How’d you like to drink free tonight, Danny?” Frank said, pushing the five back at Moran. “I need someone to wash glasses.”

“You got it, Franko.”

Frank scanned the pulsing mob shouting drink orders and waving money, wondered what would happen if he just turned and walked the hell out. Maybe cause a riot. And poor old Betty would feel even more let down than before. So he bit the bullet and started down the line.

With Moran washing glasses and filling beer orders, things moved along pretty good. Even Jenny got in the act, mixing the occasional whiskey-seven or whiskey-water, anything easy. Around midnight things started to slow down a bit. The horny were heading to the downstairs lounge for live music, dancing and bad pick-up lines, while the light hitters headed for home and the pensioners nursed their drinks hoping the money would last until close.

Frank and Moran were busy stacking glasses when Frank saw Judy Bruton coming in with an older, gray-haired guy at her side, the man dressed about two levels higher that anyone else in the place. Checking the man out, Frank was pretty sure it was the same guy he saw beating on Ray last fall. And Judy was looking foxy in a black sleeveless blouse and black stretch pants so tight if she sat on a dime she’d know if it were heads or tails.

(To be continued)

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