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Frank watched the blond dancer click the heels of her silver cowboy boots together, turn around, bend over at the waist and touch her toes, showing the crowd her rear end. He was thinking he should go into work. At least for a little while. But maybe first he should call in and see if it was crowded. Frustrated now, he picked his drink off the bar and walked to the antique wooden phone booth up by the front door, the booth one of Jimmy Carl’s prized possessions. Frank sat down inside it and slid the door closed, sipped the whiskey and stared through the cloudy glass at a fading poster on the opposite wall of a beautiful blond standing alongside a stack of Miller Lite cases, the girl all dressed in green for St. Patrick’s Day.  Frank was digging in his pocket for change when two of Ray-Ray’s old druggie associates shuffled by the phone booth without noticing him.

Maynard Loy and Artie Autry.

Not too long ago, maybe a couple years now, Ray-Ray and those two, along with one other guy, Martie Span, had a drugstore cowboy thing going. Ray was small so he did any climbing or crawling or shinnying needed to be done to get inside the stores. And more than likely he never got his fair share of the spoils, either, with those guys. Autry was a real beauty, had done some hard time a few years back for killing a guy in a fight over a girl and stash of heroin. And Loy was just a dangerously unstable bag of shit whatever way you looked at him. But neither Autry nor Loy was what he used to be, Frank was thinking, both of them just burned trash now.

Frank would have a nice chat with those two after he called the Metro and let old Betty know what was up. Betty was always a trip, man. Some days she could have you believing whatever she wanted to, serve you dog shit on a platter and you’d gladly pay double for the privilege of slurping it up. Then on other days you couldn’t help but see her as the lonely, pathetic, money-grubbing old woman she mostly was.

After a fifteen-minute conversation that only occasionally became an argument, Frank’s resolve dissipated and he agreed to come in at nine-thirty so Betty could go home and have a nice hot bath, soak her aching old bones. She told Frank that maybe then she could forget how much of herself she gave to guys like Sack. How much she gave and how much they always took before they let her down. She might even have a brandy with her bath; she was in such pain. And what a dear boy Frank was for coming in on the day of his poor brother’s services. Truly a dear, he was, and she’d remember his kindness next Christmas, Frank could bet his brown eyes on that.

Stepping out of the phone booth, Frank figured Betty would forget about it before Thanksgiving rolled around. Glancing at the bar, he saw Maynard Loy looking at him. One of Loy’s eyes skewed off to the left and the other aimed slightly to the right. Frank wasn’t sure which eye was focusing on him but knew it was one or the other. Doughboy Loy was a career criminal and usually had his guard up. Upon closer inspection, though, it seemed that neither of his eyes was focused at all. There was gray in his close-cropped hair and his skin was pale and unhealthy looking. Smiling, Frank stepped in close to Loy’s pudgy, sweaty carcass. “What you up to, Doughboy?” he said.

Loy blinked his puffy eyes and rubbed a fat finger across his blotchy red nose. “Oh, ah, nothing, Frank.” His voice was scratchy and high-pitched. “Didn’t notice who it was at first—the funny light in here and all.” He swallowed and made a face Frank thought was meant to be sympathetic. “Um, sorry about Ray, man. That’s a real bummer. I always thought Ray would outlive us all.”

Art Autry, on the other side of Loy leaning over a mug of beer, was wiry and sharp-featured, his skin wrinkled and tough like old saddle leather, the furrows and folds seemingly locked in a permanent scowl. He turned his head to Frank and nodded, grunting something mostly inaudible.

(To be continued)

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It was four-thirty on the clock behind the bar when Frank pushed open the gold-painted door and entered the hazy but strangely sweet smelling environment of Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club. Today the stale alcohol, tobacco, hairspray and cheap perfume were an aromatic bouquet, a pleasant antidote for the tightness in the chest Frank always got inside a church. Especially at a funeral.

Frank saw Jimmy Carl at the far end of the room sitting in a booth, the man wearing a white pinstriped shirt and suspenders, smoking a big cigar and pouring over what looked to be his bills, likely deciding who got stiffed this month. Nikki in her uniform of black skirt and white blouse was standing close to Jimmy, her back to Frank and her arm cocked on her hip. Looked like she was waiting for something and seemed like Jimmy wasn’t in any hurry to have her leave his side. Frank knew Jimmy liked to bang his waitresses as a preferred side dish to his main course of strippers and prostitutes, and a cute and innocent girl like Nikki would be an A-1 conquest. Seeing the two of them within spitting distance was giving Frank another reason to be pissed. And worried. He felt a nervous smile coming on as he approached the booth. “Hey there, young waitress,” he said. “Can a person get a drink in this bar?”

Nikki turned around and threw up her nose. “Not for the likes of Irish trash like yourself, Ford.” Then she broke into a smile that warmed his heart and got him thinking good thoughts about the world again. He smiled back as best he could.

“Sorry about your brother, Ford,” Jimmy Carl said, tapping cigar ashes into a gold plastic ashtray. “He was in here a lot.”

“Yeah, sure, Jimmy. Thanks. I know Ray was a tough guy to get along with at times.”

“Get Frank a drink on me, Nikki honey,” Jimmy said, getting back to his bills.

“The usual, Frank?” Nikki said, giving him a quick hug as she went by.

“Make it a double.” Frank watched with admiration as his girlfriend stepped gracefully behind the bar. Five-foot-six of blonde-haired beauty. He loved looking in her eyes. Ass wasn’t bad either. He always told her if she got implants and lost a few IQ points she could be a stripper and make the real money. She always grinned and blushed in response. Working as a waitress in a strip bar had to give girls ideas, didn’t it?

Frank nodded thanks to Jimmy Carl and stepped across the floor to a barstool.

Nikki said, “Funeral pretty bad, Frank? I would have come along if you’d asked me.”

“Nah, better you didn’t come. Then I would have had to introduce you to everybody. Go through all that shit. I mean would you like the first time you met my mother to be at the funeral of her beloved baby boy?”

“I guess not, Frank. I really wouldn’t know about those things, though. I haven’t been to very many funerals. You off tonight?”

“Betty needs me to cover for Sack again. Wants me there at six. I’d like to put a sack over Sack’s head and beat it with a stick, that’s what I’d like to do. I think I’m going to call in and tell her I’m too grief stricken to work—especially for Sack. The Metro will just have to tough it out without me tonight. I need to hang out with my good friend the waitress and do some drinking, watch girls take off their clothes for money.”

Nikki crinkled up her face into a comedic grimace. “I’m sure Betty will go for that one,” she said. “You know how she gets when she has to work the bar.”

“Too damn bad. She can’t fire me for not coming in on the day of my little brother’s funeral. I’ll get the union after her.”

“I didn’t know you were in the union.”

“I’m not. But I’ll sure as hell join in a hurry if she fires me.” He grinned a little. “I see you’re working both sides of the bar today.”

“Only until five when the girls come on, then Jimmy puts in his two hours before Billy gets here. I might actually have some time to talk to you, if it stays slow.”

“No problem. You know me, easily amused.”

“Especially when there’s tits on stage,” Nikki said, the corners of her eyes and mouth turning up in that delightful way of hers. She took a bottle of Canadian Club from a shelf behind the bar and grabbed a lowball glass from a row.

“What? Tits? Me?” Frank stretched his hands out, palms up, his eyes getting wide. “Not me. I’m a Christian. Family values and all that.” Then he stared down at the stage at the back end of the room and got thoughtful. “You get along well with your people, Nikki?”

“Pretty good, most of the time. But they’re hundreds of miles away. I don’t hate being with them—but I don’t mind being away, either.”

Frank shook the ice cubes in his glass and took a long slow pull of the fine Canadian whiskey. “My family was a pain in the ass from the beginning,” he said. “My older sister and my mother were from another planet, and the old man was never around long enough to have a positive effect. I remember thinking when Ray was born that I might finally have an ally. But then he turns out to be the craziest of them all, nothing but a torment all the goddamn time. But I still miss him, Nikki. Strange, I know. But I just can’t stand the thought of someone beating Ray to a pulp like that. Throwing him off the fuckin’ Arrowhead Bridge for Christ sake—even though I wanted to do it myself more than once. It hurts to think of anyone beating on little Ray-Ray like that and it pisses me off because he’s not worth the suffering.” Frank leaned his elbows on the bar and felt some tears leaking out. He rubbed his eyes with the side of his hands.

Nikki put her warm hand on his neck and stroked gently. “He was your brother, Frank,” she said. “Your flesh and blood. There had to be times when you loved him. I know you, remember?”

“You just think you know me,” Frank said, leaning over the bar feeling like a fool and an asshole at the same time,

Then “Shake Your Booty” exploded out of the sound system and the stage lights burst on down front. Frank wiped his eyes with a cocktail nap and tried to smile as a chesty peroxide blonde in a shiny platinum-colored cowgirl outfit high-stepped out from behind the dark red curtain on the small stage at the far end of the long narrow barroom. Frank pulled himself together, took another swig of CC and shifted his gaze to the dancer. Nikki gave him a funny look and walked off to wait on two guys who’d just arrived at a table near the stage.

(To be continued)

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This way and that way—go this way and that.

That bit of an old German children’s song cycling in Frank Ford’s head seemed to be a comment on the flow of his thoughts. In the aftermath of his brother’s funeral, he was bouncing between sad, happy and relieved—and then back again. And to top it off, he had mud on his pants.

“Goddamnit,” he said, brushing impatiently at the dark clumps ringing the cuff of his only pair of dress pants. Most guys would have relegated these sharply creased grays to painter’s pants long ago, but not Frank Ford. To him these trou seemed more than suitable for his brother’s goddamn funeral.

Frank’s temper was not improving as the remaining splotches resisted his vigorous rubbing. Thinking about the funeral service wasn’t helping his head either.

Frank gave up his grooming efforts with a grunt, lifted his legs into the front seat of his rusty blue Pontiac station wagon and slammed the simulated wood-paneled door. He normally had Fridays off at the bar but today was the second time this month Betty called him in because Douglas “Sack” Sackberger pulled one of his infamous disappearing acts. If you could call holing up inside a bottle at his lowlife-welfare-cheater-girlfriend’s dump, disappearing. Frank wondered why Betty didn’t fire the sorry bastard. Maybe they were related, Sack and Betty. He’d heard that.

“Goddamn families,” Frank said as he turned the key, the angry profanity fading into the empty street like a warning. The starter responded with a tired whine.

It’s not like Ray was a brother anyone should mourn.

The whining and buzzing, ground to a halt.

Frank cranked down the window and yelled, “Fuck,” into the damp, gray air. Christ, the way it went down was so typical of Ray, his body lying there with ID in the pocket of his jeans so we could all know who it was. Know what happened to him, what somebody did to him. Make his big brother feel morally obligated to do “the right thing.” Whatever the hell that was.

Why couldn’t the dirt bag have just gone away?

You know how at funerals people always say they’re going to miss the dead person? This ceremony was no different. But Frank knew they were all liars. Except Mom, of course, she always loved Ray no matter what he pulled. “Ray-Ray’s had a hard time of it,” she’d say, explaining why she gave her younger son money or forgiveness. Money Frank always knew would be spent at a bar or a drug house— and forgiveness surely to be taken advantage of by the receiver. Mom babied Ray and took his side most of the time, which never failed to piss Frank off, but now it was left to him to comfort her.

Forgotten, that’s how he wanted to remember Ray. But the lasting image of his grief stricken mother bent over in the church pew and the rising bile in Frank’s craw, foretold a different future. He didn’t know how to answer when she asked why. Why Frankie? Why did little Ray-Ray have to die like this? 

Frank gazed out at the cloudy sky and the small, well-kept houses in the blue-collar neighborhood surrounding his mother’s apartment building and felt the sourness growing. Maybe he should tell her about that time last fall. The time he saved her little darling from an ass kicking. Tell her about driving downtown one night and seeing this gray-haired guy in a dark suit pounding his fists on some turd in a worn-out fatigue shirt. Tell her he got a look at the smaller guy and realized it was Ray. Then maybe he should tell her that his first thought was—Good, he’s probably getting what he deserves. But Ray was Frank’s little brother and Frank had to stand up for him for that goddamn reason and that reason alone, so Frank jerked the car to a halt right there on the main drag—double parking on goddamn Superior Street for Christ sake—honked the horn and waved to his wacko brother. And when the gray-haired guy glanced over, Ray took the opportunity to scramble away and jump in the front seat of Frank’s big station wagon. Then Mom’s sweet little boy Ray-Ray gave the natty dresser the finger and hocked a gob of spit at him as Frank drove off. When Frank asked him what it was all about, Ray said he was fucking the guy’s wife, which Frank thought was a crock because any woman married to the dapper dude was not going to play around with snotty, greasy, Ray Ford. More likely Ray was sniffing around the guy’s teenage daughter, trying to get her high or something.

Frank twisted the key in the ignition again and this time the Pontiac V8 fired up, sending clouds of oily exhaust into the air. He pulled away from the curb and pointed the wagon in the direction of Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club. Nikki was out there doing her waitress thing, the master’s degree candidate working in a strip club for her sociology thesis. Girl was the only joy Frank had left in life. Kept him from thinking about his ex-wife and her asshole new husband or the way the country was going lately, everything costing so much these days. Sweet little Nikki made him feel alive, feel something good inside again. Her company and a couple stiff bumps would get him through the afternoon, but tonight at the Metropole was another thing altogether.

(To be continued)

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EXCERPT 20, FLY IN THE MILK

Last excerpt from Chapter 3 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever books are sold online:

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 sync 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 juju 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.”

(End of Chapter 3)

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

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 16, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam leaps from frying pan into fire in Chapter 3 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever books are sold online:

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.

(To be continued)

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

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 13, FLY IN THE MILK

A tough fight, pain pills and the blur of streetlights take Johnny Beam on a trip down memory lane in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

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 razor blade rainstorm.

(To be continued)

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

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 12, FLY IN THE MILK

A tough fight, pain pills and the blur of streetlights take Johnny Beam on a trip down memory lane in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

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.

(To be continued)

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

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

Read Full Post »

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