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CHAPTER 16, EXCERPT 2

Frank pushed open the door and it complained with a rusty moan. He got out and stood on the sidewalk as Waverly flicked his head from side to side and checked the rearview mirror. Watching the Olds roll slowly away down the avenue, Frank was thinking Good luck, man, always an adventure crossing the bridge at this time of night.

Then Frank looked across the street and saw Jesus staring at him. Shit, it was just a statue in front of the ancient St. John’s Catholic Church. But, man, the eyes did seem accusing.

Frank averted his gaze and crossed Fourth Street, starting up the hill with the rustle of wings at his back. He wasn’t sure what he’d do once he got to the apartment building, only knew he had to go there. He was back to being a drone, a robot, Judy’s clown, the dirty, feathered creature pushing him along. His torment, his obsession, and his madness, were penetrating the layers of alcoholic insulation and tearing at him, making him sting. She owned him. Had his balls in her hand. And he couldn’t stand the pain of it—the shame.

The short walk up the hill didn’t sober him up much, if at all. The neighborhood was mostly dark, streetlights out to accommodate crime it seemed, only the rare porch light or window glowing. Judy’s building loomed ahead of him now, large in the corner lot, the two-story brick structure reaching all the way back to the alley above Fifth Street.

Frank lumbered up the hill and stepped into the alley across the avenue from Judy’s building, his heart thumping like a train pushing up a steep grade and his armpits squeezing out foul, cold sweat. He could see a light in the same top floor window as the last time he was here. Fighting against rising nausea and the weight of the booze pulling at his head, he took deep breaths and leaned against the side of a tiny box of a house abutting the alley, a light mist reviving him somewhat. He could hear loud voices coming from the far end of the block and the thumping of a stereo. Party tonight. Party every night. Gazing up he detected movement behind the gauzy curtain of Judy’s high window, a silhouette behind the glass. As it lingered there for just an instant, he got that familiar spiky heat shooting along his spine.

That old black magic got you under my skin.

Fuck it, he was going in.

(End of Chapter 16)

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CHAPTER 16, EXCERPT 1

Approaching downtown Zenith, the northbound lane of the freeway was nearly empty, while on the southbound a long line of cars was angling off toward the Interstate Bridge.

Lemmings, Frank thought. His madness seemed to be receding but he could still feel the creature—or at least the memory of it—at his back, like a shadow. And the words JUDY, JUDY, JUDY, were burning behind his eyes.

Maybe the lunacy was just lying low.

“Where we going, Frank?” Waverly said, his first words since the Arrowhead Bridge. “Your place?”

“Go to the Underground, man. That goddamn coke of yours has got me shaky as an old lady. I need some booze to take the edge off.”

Glancing at the dashboard clock, Waverly gave him a look. “It’s after one, Frank.”

“Meagher’ll be there. He’ll let us in.”

The tendons in Waverly’s jaw twitched as he took the downtown exit off the freeway and veered onto Michigan Street.

After an hour and three or four bumps apiece, Frank and Keith stumbled out onto Michigan Street peering around for cops, Waverly looking extremely nervous. Meagher and Oberst hadn’t had much to offer besides Betty’s booze. And cocaine. Stuff was everywhere in this town, it seemed, and Frank wondered how people could afford the shit. Like ol’ jonesing Waverly there who bought fifty bucks worth from Oberst that seemed about a third of a gram. Frank had abstained and was congratulating himself even though he had a gnawing craving for the shit that surprised him. Jesus, his nerves were maximum raw and he felt like a shaved cat in a hailstorm, not that he’d ever had the experience. But he did have feelings—all of them bad—and real questions for which he had no answers. He was hoping if he got home soon he could pass out and take another look at things tomorrow in the sober light of day.

“Where to, Frank?” Waverly said, pulling open the driver’s door, the dangling side mirror banging against it. Keith’s voice was up an octave and his words sounded like he was gritting his teeth—because he was.

“Home’ll do me, Keitho. And thanks a lot for doing the chauffeur bit tonight. Without a car one can feel helpless, you know?”

“With a car like this one you can also feel helpless.”

Frank thought he should laugh or at least chuckle, but he couldn’t.

They got in the Olds and went up the hill, turned right and headed east on dark and empty Fourth Street. As they passed Third Avenue East Frank saw Artie Autry’s GTO coming down the hill. He craned his neck around and watched the worn Pontiac turn onto Fourth Street and head west.

Sonofabitch.

Farther up the avenue Autry just came down was Judy’s apartment building, the one Frank followed her to that first night. Seemed a long time ago. Would she still keep the place now that she’d married into the big bucks? Seemed pretty doubtful, but she hadn’t been married that long—so it was possible. You can never be totally sure, man, because once you think you know it all, you’re due for a rude awakening. But it could be a coincidence Autry was in the area; the asshole could know any number of people around here. It was the western edge of the Central Hillside neighborhood—Frank’s neighborhood—although Frank’s house was on the plush eastern end. Plush. What a joke that was. Christ, the Central Hillside was hundreds of small houses jammed together—most of them rundown—and a few aging brick apartment buildings. A goddamn oasis of squalor and broken concrete, shitty old cars, welfare families, slumlords and, not to be overlooked, the bulk of the city’s trade in hard drugs and stolen property.

Artie Autry’s comfort zone.

“I tell you what, Keith,” Frank said. “Just drop me off on the corner here. I need to walk off some of this booze before I puke.”

“Sure you’re not too drunk to walk, Frank? I am.”

“Nah, I’m all right, man. Just need a little cool air to revive me. It’s only a little ways to my place. And now you can just roll down the hill and get back on the freeway. Fly outta here before the cops take an interest in your cantilever side mirror and invite you in for a sleepover.”

“I hear you,” Waverly said, pulling to the curb in front of a large red stone building, Romano Center on a big white sign out front.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 15, EXCERPT 3

Then Frank sensed something behind him, something new and unknown. He jerked around, half expecting to see someone inside the ancient, obsolete tollbooth. Perhaps the ghost of an ordinary man in a gray uniform, some long dead escapee from the past handing out bottles of Wisconsin whiskey confiscated at the Minnesota border for the lack of the proper tax stamp, the tollbooth attendant from a time when somebody actually cared about such things.

For the sake of his head, Frank stepped across the bolted planks and looked inside the tollbooth. It was empty, quiet, and bathed in the eerie glow of the yellow bridge lights, a wrinkled Old Dutch potato chip bag on the floor next to the flattened butt of a filter cigarette.

“Ray, you here?” Frank said to the breeze.

Ray didn’t answer.

Frank knew what a woman could do to you, the pain they could cause. Maybe Ray did jump off this goddamn firetrap. Maybe the little shit was just a sensitive candy ass with a big front built up. Something the mental health quasi-professionals might say, eh? Except for the candy-ass part.

Poor, miserable Ray-Ray… he was the goddamn baby of the family.

“Ray-Ray, goddamnit, can you hear me? I know now, man. I know that what happened to the old man really fucked you up. It fucked us all up, Ray—the whole goddamn family. We all have the scars, you know? But you were the baby and you got hurt the most, I know that now. Ma was half-dead for a while and you didn’t get enough of her. You had it the worst of all of us and I’m sorry, man. We just didn’t know.”

Getting no response but the hissing of the breeze and the groans of the ancient bridge pilings, Frank felt foolish and went back to leaning on the railing and staring down at the black water. And still no answers came. No gut feelings. No intuition. No premonitions. No insights. Just the demanding tug of the puppet strings on his shoulders and the wind pushing at his back.

Man, that water looks cold…

His legs were weightless. He felt himself floating.

And then a flash of stray light hit the corner of his eye and he turned to see a car approaching from the Bay City side, two little white circles back there pointing this way. It had to be trouble. Maybe Pillsbury’s goons were coming to throw him down to join Ray… or Artie Autry followed him, the leather-faced prick seeking revenge… might be the Baytown cops coming after cokeheads… or drunken louts on the way to Zenith, returning home womanless yet again and looking to kick the shit out of some helpless schmuck to ease their frustrations.

Man, it was fucking Baytown, you just never knew.

But it had to be something bad.

Why the fuck hadn’t he brought the pistol?  Went through all the trouble to buy a gun and didn’t even bring it along, something an idiot or a born loser would do.

You ain’t any better than Ray was, Frank. Deserve to get your ass kicked, boy. Feel better after you’ve taken your punishment, son.

So the hell with it, he’d just wait. Just lean against this railing and stare down there in the distance at the big new Interstate Bridge, headlights arcing through the sky from tiny cars rolling across in a drunken rush for more alcohol.

Last call for alcohol.

Man, he’d said it a million times.

And then the goddamn intruder was pulling to a stop right behind him, exhaust fumes fouling Frank’s nose. Frank refused to turn and look. Not unless he heard a door open or a human voice.

But the engine did sound familiar.

“You’re gonna catch your death, Frank, you stand out there all night.”

Goddamn Waverly.

Catch your death, indeed.

Not tonight.

Frank turned to see Waverly leaning across the front seat of the Olds pushing open the passenger door. “You ran off with my coke, Franko. Had to chase you down to get my vial back. Need a ride, man? No fare in Keith’s Cab tonight.”

Frank shook his head, feeling a wry smile forming. Having a tiny moment of reason, he stepped inside the rusty ’65 Olds.

(End of Chapter 15)

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CHAPTER 15, EXCERPT 2

Then Waverly said, “Remember when I was in here the other night, Dory? You were talking with Martha about this guy who was crying at the bar a while back?” Dory nodded to the affirmative, showing a nervous smile. Waverly continued. “I heard you say that you thought he was the guy jumped off the Tallahat—um—the Arrowhead Bridge. This man here,” gesturing toward Frank, “is that guy’s older brother. And he really needs to find out what happened that night. It’s very, very important to him, Dory. You know how family matters can be, I’m sure.”

Her lower lip dropped a bit and she shuffled her feet, gave Frank a guarded look.

Frank returned her look, thinking that some other time he might have more interest in her, but now he was going down a tunnel wearing blinders, no room for side interests. “Nice to meet you, Dory,” he said, handing her the photo. “Is this the guy who was in here that night?”

She scrunched up her face and studied the picture. “I think so,” she said, “but it was a long time ago. And he didn’t look happy that night. Looked a lot older, too—but I’m pretty sure that’s him. We talked for quite a while.”

“Did you see him leave?” Frank asked.

“No, not really. I was working, so I had to keep leaving him. Then this blond chick came in and sat down next to him and I figured maybe that was the girl he was crying over so I let them alone. They were sitting right where you guys are. The next time I came back they were gone.”

Hearing that, Frank ceased being Frank. The familiar things left him. Feelings, thoughts, point of view—you name it—everything was different now. He was a blank slate. And he had a bizarre sense there was something at his back, a large shadow looming there, a dirty white creature with huge spreading wings. A dark angel tearing away any semblance of normalcy he possessed, shredding his decency and pulling him into her depraved sphere. He tried to push back the feelings but they just got stronger, swallowing him up.

He saw Dory watching him, a confused look on her face, the girl probably thinking he was nuts. He tried to speak but it came out a rasp. “Do you think Martha saw him leave?”

Dory took a swallow of her drink and handed the photo back to Frank, looking at him with hooded eyes. “Maybe,” she said, “You have to ask her. All I can say is that your brother was one lovesick guy and I’m sorry he died. But I really have to get to work, so good luck to you guys.” She gave Waverly a last glance and a nice smile and gave Frank one of those sad, I-feel-sorry-for-you-smiles that he hated. Then she grabbed an empty tray and went off into the crowd.

Frank watched Dory move into the throng. Then he looked for Martha. Saw her down at the far end of the room but heading this way. Then somebody must have stuck an electric cord up his ass because his whole body began tingling and vibrating, a burning, driving force pushing at him.

“Hey, Martha,” Frank said, as the waitress approached, her eyes looking suspicious and wary. “Thanks so much for helping us out. Dory was a big help. And I just have one more question and then I’ll leave you alone, I promise.” He held up Ray-Ray’s picture. “On the night this guy was in here, did you by any chance happen to see him leave?”

Martha set her tray of empty glasses and beer bottles on the bar and gave it some thought. “Yes,” she said, “I did. I remember thinking they were an odd threesome, the small guy with the sad face, the blond chick with her hand on his shoulder and this big guy walking behind them like a chaperone. I dunno, it just seemed kind of weird.”

“This big guy, what did he look like?”

“Oh, I dunno—muscle head—no mustache or beard or anything. Had one of those shiny, sports-team jackets on. Light colored hair, I think. I didn’t get a really good look at him but I know he had really wide shoulders.”

“Did you see him and the smaller guy talking at all?”

“No. Like I said, the big guy was acting like a chaperone, just walking behind the other two when they were leaving. It did seem kinda weird, you know, but weird is a way of life around here. But that’s all I got for you guys, sorry.” Then she turned to the waiting bartender, the Seagull giving Frank the evil eye as Martha blew that rebellious hunk of hair off her forehead one more time and started reciting the drink orders. Frank took a ten-dollar bill from his jacket and stuffed it in the tip jar—an empty wine carafe on the bar—and Martha and the bartender suddenly looked more congenial.

Frank turned to Waverly, Keith checking out the chicks on the dance floor as The Agates cranked up Hypnotized.” But Frank had nothing to say. He couldn’t get beyond the grinding inside, the pushing, the demanding. Wouldn’t leave him alone. Felt like marionette wires connected his shoulders to the winged beast at his back and the malevolent angel had an agenda of its own.

Frank was a walking wound. He needed to change his head. Needed something to help him think, help him get free from the terrible energy, the broken-glass feeling in his veins.

Frank took out a twenty and laid it on the bar in front of Waverly. Keith glanced at it and then at Frank. “What’s that for?” Keith said.

“For twenty bucks worth of that toot,” Frank said.

“That’s okay, man, you can have a blast for free.”

“No, I want to pay. Then you can’t say I owe you.”

“Okay Frank, that’s cool,” Waverly picked up the twenty, put it in his jeans pocket, brought out the little brown vial and slipped it into Frank’s hand below the bar top.

Frank took it to the men’s room, stepped into a stall, closed and locked the door. He opened the cap on the vial, spooned up a mound and snorted. Repeated for the other side. Then thinking, What the hell, he did it again—twice. And then the vial was empty and he probably did owe Keith something.

Coming out of the can Frank was thinking the shit had worked. His mind was floating free now and some pleasant sensations were filling his limbs. But as he looked across the room at Waverly sitting at the bar, the man alone and looking forlorn, a bolt of icy lightning shattered the feelings of relief and Frank’s hands and feet went cold. Faces in the crowd turned ugly. The music tore at his nerves. Behind him the waxen wings were flapping louder now, insisting, prodding. With panic clawing at his chest, Frank bolted toward the exit and burst outside into the cold and damp.

Alone in the parking lot, Frank had no clue. What was he doing? What did he want? Without an answer he started walking, drawn toward that apparition floating down there in the distance. The Arrowhead Bridge, Ray’s final stopping point.

Did the little booger really jump off the thing or did Judy and the orc throw the poor heartbroken fuck into the icy water?

No answers came and he kept moving. Couldn’t stop himself. Up ahead the bridge was glowing yellow, with shades of blue.

And before long he was on it, the ancient wood beneath his feet, the empty tollbooths looking ghostly, the lights of Zenith on the far shore eons away. It wasn’t Star Wars anymore, man. The fun had flown and the laughs were faded memories. There was only the bubble pushing him along and the insistent flapping of the wings at his back. He could hear Judy laughing as he walked slowly to the peak of the bridge and leaned against the wood railing. Staring down at the black water, a vaguely sulfurous odor tickled his nostrils. Little balls of yellow light bobbed on the oily surface and he was back in that empty wasteland. Cold. Alone. Jagged. No captain on the ship. A vessel adrift. Unknown forces pushing it. Now he could see her face. That smug look when she was in control and trying to own you, trying to make you beg. Jamming his teeth together, he stared harder at the black coiling water, his body percolating with apprehension.

Could Ray really have jumped from here or did he get some help from Pillsbury’s goon?

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 15, EXCERPT 1

They say that good things come to those who wait. Frank wasn’t sure he bought that one. But right now, right here, what choice did he have? So, as a matter of necessity, he knocked down the shot and signaled the bartender for another one. Waverly was gonna need another one, too.

Frank took a sip of water then fished an old photograph out of his wallet. Picture of Ray sitting on his Honda 305 motorcycle, taken right after he and Judy got married. Frank was surprised how happy Ray looked. Didn’t have that snarling, stab-you-in-the-back-when-you’re-not-looking face Frank had come to know and hate. Made you think Ray really loved the woman. No question he’d gone downhill without brakes after she divorced him.

Frank set the snapshot on the bar and had a taste of Irish, round two sitting in front of him now. Yeah, Judy was a hot, nasty bitch and once she got her hooks in Ray, the poor bastard was done for. There was just something about her that Frank could never quite explain. Harlot just kept coming back into his head. Had to admit he wanted her—goddamnit—and he hated himself for it.

Then time seemed to crawl and Frank was never much for patience. He was fidgeting on the barstool and Waverly was in the can for the third time when Frank saw the little blond in the red cloth coat coming through the entrance. She was approaching the waitress station as Waverly slid in next to Frank. “That her, Keith?” Frank said, gesturing toward the girl in the red coat.

Waverly turned. “That be her,” he said. “Cute, eh?”

Frank didn’t say anything. He was too busy being overwhelmed and taken over by the moment, foreboding riding high and hard in his head and gut. But he was finally getting to something; he could feel it. But shit, maybe it was just the booze. Just about anything seems important and meaningful when you’re hitting the sauce. And god knows he had a good load on. Should’ve been enough to knock him out, but a toxic, grinding energy had a hold of him, pushing him on and allowing no comfort.

Now the sweet-faced Dory was taking off her coat and bringing it behind the bar, sliding it under the counter above the beer coolers. She wore a loose-fitting blue dress that stopped at the knees, sensible flat shoes and dark stockings or tights. Frank never quite knew the difference. He took Ray’s picture off the bar top and rubbed it on his sleeve, stared at it. He watched Dory exchange greetings with the two bartenders. Martha was at the waitress station looking washed out but she had a smile for Dory as the blond came out the step-through. They hugged and Martha said something up close to Dory’s ear. Noise level was high, the Agates rocking out with Hooked on a Feeling.” Frank knew how hard it was to have a conversation when the band was playing. Both the girls were looking at him now. Martha nodded her head.

“You need any help with this, Franko?” Waverly said.

“Just get me started,” Frank said. “She remembers you, I can tell by the way her face fell to the floor when she saw you.”

Dory was looking at Waverly as he beckoned to her, Keith smiling his love-me-I’m-sweet smile as best he could with his jaw muscles wired so tight, Frank thinking it had kind of a ghostly effect. But Dory’s eyes brightened with recognition and she came over. Waverly turned on the stool to face her, saying, “Hi, Dory. Good to see you again. How you been?” Keith sounding mellow, reaching back for a little something extra it seemed, dude sweet as maple syrup.

Dory said, “Fine, Keith,” up in his ear talking loud. “Martha said you guys were looking for me. What’s up?”

At that moment the band hit the final notes of the tune and the room suddenly rang with loud voices caught unaware.

“Can I get you a drink, Dory?” Waverly said, his voice getting softer. “Or don’t they let you drink before closing time.”

Dory smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkling. “I’ve got a few minutes,” she said. “I’m in a little early tonight.”

Dory gestured and caught the eye of the skinny bartender with the sharp elbows and the bony arms that flapped like wings. The Seagull, Frank had christened him. The other tender was a beefy guy Frank figured did some bum dispersing on the side. Man had a look in his eye Frank was familiar with, having seen it a hundred times on guys who enjoyed punching drunks.

“Rum and coke, please, Jimmy,” Dory said, and the Seagull went to make the drink.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 14, EXCERPT 3

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Tables and chairs were stacked around the perimeter of the long narrow room, creating a decent sized dance floor. It was nearly empty now, only a few stragglers lingering, and recorded music was coming through the house system, “Let it Bleed,” sounding tinny. The oval bar was set close to the back wall about halfway down the room, and Martha was standing at the waitress station wearing a tight fitting white T-shirt and blue jeans. She had tiny freckles on her cheekbones. Frank thought she definitely qualified as a cute young thing. Which, strangely enough, was a rarity among Bay City waitresses.

Frank watched Martha zip off into the thirsty throng and felt a little sorry for her, Frank being very familiar with the grief that liquored-up cretins and snippy bitches dumped on waitresses. He and Waverly walked through the smoke and the distracting sparkles of the mirror ball to the waitress station. Frank stood there feeling the impatience and frustration twisting up his gut while Waverly ambled off toward the men’s room.

With Waverly off for his maintenance toot, Frank waited for Martha to return. Few minutes and she was back, breathless and hurried, snapping off drink orders to one of the two yahoos working the bar, The Cottage embossed on the breast of the yahoo’s yellow polo shirt. Frank waited, his gut grinding. He watched Martha take a big breath, extend her lower lip and blow a wayward hunk of black hair off her forehead, her face seemingly saying, Don’t bother me, I’m busy. Frank pushed on anyway. “Are you Martha?” he said, leaning toward her.

Angling her head to the side, she gave him a narrow-eyed stare. Frank smiled as nice as he could. “Yes I am,” she said. “Who wants to know?”

“I’m Frank, Martha. And that curly-haired fellow there…” Pointing at Waverly who, back from the men’s room, was standing behind Martha now, “His name is Keith.”

She turned to look. “Oh yeah,” she said, “I’ve seen him around.” She smiled. Waverly’s cuteness was a reliable icebreaker, although Frank thought Keith looked like shit tonight. And then the bartender was putting the glasses and bottles on Martha’s circular tray and her harried look was back. “But I’m real busy, guys, as you can probably see. I don’t really have time to chat.”

Waverly slid onto the stool, nodding to Frank and Martha.

“Being a former bartender,” Frank said, “I understand, believe me. I hate to bother you, but we’re here on a matter of great importance.” Martha’s eyebrows went up as she grasped the drink tray. “I was wondering if Dory was working tonight,” Frank continued. “She just might be able to help me with some very pressing problems.”

Martha shot an anxious glance over her shoulder toward the bartender and then looked back at Frank. “You guys cops?” she said, a little sneer forming on her cute mouth.

Frank snorted. “Do we look like cops, Martha? Really?”

“You never can tell in this town,” she said. “But I really gotta move here, guys. Dory should be in about one. She works another job on Fridays then comes in here to help close. And now I gotta go. Really.”

And she did, back into the jungle of booze hounds. Frank watched her slap some big lout’s hand off her ass and then stand there while the asshole put it back on her again. She shoved it off again, snapping some angry words at the guy.

“Whattaya drinkin’, Frank?” Waverly said.

Frank turned his gaze to the clock on the wall. Twelve-thirty. Dory wouldn’t be here until one. Long time to wait without a drink. Moran always called it a cocktail, even if it was just straight booze in a glass. Long time to wait without a cocktail. “Shot of Bushmills should do me. And a glass of water.”

“Shot of Bushmills, a water and a Bacardi orange juice,” Waverly said to the skinny, beak-nosed tender in a yellow polo shirt.

Frank settled in.

(End of Chapter 14)

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CHAPTER 14, EXCERPT 2

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Waverly took the High Bridge to Bay City, Frank flashing back to his time of giant crabs and evil orcs as they passed by Goldfine’s, the Black Cow and Port Terminal Road. Frank usually felt a mix of anticipation and dread coming off the bridge and settling into the basin of Bay City, and tonight it was all magnified, feelings gathering in his stomach for a riot. All the things he’d tried to push back—repress, Nikki would say—seemed to be crawling up his brain stem like a colony of diseased rats, rage leading the pack. But Frank couldn’t direct his rage at anything or anyone so soon it turned back on him. You’re just bar trash, Ford, just like your no good Daddy. Yessir, you’re on the way to the loony bin, just like your pop.

Frank could see his old man in that stinky shit hole asylum where zombies walked around in hospital gowns and the food smelled like puke and nobody there—staff included—seemed right in the head. You’re cut from the same cloth as the old man, Frank—you and Ray both. Before long you’ll be just like the sonofabitch. Wet brained, can’t string two sentences together, messing yourself— the way of all Fords. Why fight it? Give in, accept it, go with it. The slide’s inevitable, man, just let go.

Frank was letting go all right. Letting go of the ropes and fences and stop signs tying him down and boxing him in. The pushy cops, the ignorant mental hospital orderlies, arrogant doctors, self-righteous counselors, complacent bureaucrats, falsely-pious Jesus freaks—seemed like somewhere they were all gathering, preparing to make a run at him and get him in line where he belonged. Get him to acting proper, doing what he’s told, what’s expected. Normal—like everybody else.

But in the meantime

Frank and Keith weren’t talking much as Waverly maneuvered the rusty Olds along the darkened streets. Keith was smoking Kools and chewing gum. Frank was biding his time, gritting his teeth, girding his loins and all that good stuff. Also wishing he hadn’t downed so much booze, wishing he could think straighter. He was a raw nerve. But if he didn’t feel so bad he’d be feeling pretty good, because it seemed now that a path was opening up. A way. The way to the truth and the end of his torment.

Up ahead, Frank could see the neon shine of a large sign. The Cottage. Fine foods and spirits. Tonight: The Agates. 10:00 – 2:00. Beyond the sign, a half-mile farther down the gloomy road, the spooky yellow glow of the Arrowhead Bridge hovered, the ancient monolith like a snapshot of the past. When you entered Bay City via the Arrowhead Bridge, the Cottage was pretty much the first bar you came to. Set between a cheap motel and an old gas station on the northwest edge of town away from the main drag, it was the only saloon in a several block radius.

Waverly swung the Olds into the Cottage parking lot, tires crunching on the gravel, side mirror thunking against the driver’s door. There were quite a few cars in the lot. The Cottage was divided into two sections, lounge and bottle shop on the right and a larger restaurant/night club to the left. Waverly pulled in perpendicular to the nightclub side and turned off the ignition. “You all right, Frank?” he said, his eyes wide and stare-y.

“Of course I’m all right, man. Are you?”

“Relax, man. You just look like you’re ready to tear someone’s head off, is all. And I don’t want any trouble that might bring out the cops, y’know. These Bay City boys make Zenith cops seem like Eagle Scouts and I don’t need that kind of shit—given my current means of livelihood and everything.”

“I hear ya, man, I hear ya. I’ll be good, I swear. Let’s just get in there and see if Dory is working.”

Waverly opened his door and slid out. Frank looked at the dashboard clock. Twelve midnight on the button. Plenty of time. Frank stepped out, saw Waverly pointing. “See the sign, Frank? Says the Agates? Must be a rock band.”

Frank groaned. Jesus, here we go.

But it would all be over soon, he could feel it.

The Cottage was not the type of establishment where you expected to find young, partying people—or guttersnipe bar flies like Ray Ford, for that matter. Place had more of a neighborhood tavern/eatery vibe. But the legal drinking age in Bay City was currently eighteen and pretty much every establishment with a liquor license was trying to cash in. And cashing in quite well, Frank thought, stepping inside to what for him was an all-too familiar dimness with colored lighting and the sound of voices chattering out meaningless shit and stale pick-up lines. The stage in the far corner was empty, the band on break. Waverly was scanning the room. Probably checking for narcs, Frank thought. They say there’s a lot of ’em over here. But it’s easy, man, just look for the guy dressed inappropriately for his age.

But Frank wasn’t worried about narcs. “You see her anywhere, Keith?”

“No. But I see the one she was talking to that night. At the waitress station. Dark hair in a ponytail. Think her name is Martha.”

“Let’s go see Martha.”

(To be continued)

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DiveBartenderImage24

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CHAPTER 14, EXCERPT 1

Eleven o’clock and feeling no pain at the Metropole.

Waverly was bouncing around the room like a pinball, Keith way into the toot, giving it to old friends, new friends, anyone who’d listen to him ramble on, and cute women. A lot of people were making the trip to the restrooms with Keith’s little brown vial clutched in their soon-to-be-sweaty hand. Place was busy. Waitress Jenny was hard at work. Viola Stemwaggen wasn’t in tonight but some of her peers were. Metro was a familiar nightmare. Moran, forearms resting on the bar, was slouching on a barstool next to Frank. Moran’s face was oily and pale and his eyes were glazed. Looked like he’d been there all week. In one of his coherent moments Moran told Frank that Johnny Beam was there earlier with two foxy women.

Probably whores, knowing Johnny, Frank thought. Frank was working on his fifth beer and staring at a shot of Irish that Moran just bought him. He threw down the shot and ordered two more, one for him, one for Moran. Frank’s replacement tender was behind the bar tonight, younger guy—big—curly blonde hair, allegedly a cop in Florida once, a least that’s what Jenny said. She’d also told Frank that Betty hired this Ron guy specifically to keep order in the bar, a lot of fights in the place lately.

That’s what happens when a guy like me leaves, Frank said to himself as the second shooter of the night ramped up the heat in his belly and brought his mind ticking down to one thought at a time. Then after another timeless stretch of nothingness, Waverly came stepping up to Frank’s barstool and ordered a Bacardi-orange juice from the new guy. Grinning at Frank, Waverly said, “Hey, man, enjoying your vacation?”

“Yeah, man, there’s nothing quite so joyful as being thirty-six and unemployed in an economically depressed area. Closest thing to a Jamaican holiday I can think of. Speaking of Jamaica, got any of that weed left?”

“Nah, man, all gone. Got some ‘lumbo that’ll knock your dick in the dirt, though.”

“All right, man, just thought I’d ask. And, yeah, come to think of it, it really is good to be away from the family Pillsbury, if nothing else. How about you, Wavo, staying out of trouble?”

Waverly made a face and reached in the pocket of his Levi jacket, brought out a fold of bills. He peeled a couple off and placed them on the bar in front of Ron the waiting bartender. Picking up the tall sweating glass of orange liquid, Keith had a long pull, set the glass down on the bar and seemed to go stiff for an instant. Then looking at Frank, Waverly said, “Man, I just remembered something. Something I probably should have told you already. Something I know you’ll want to hear.”

Frank was annoyed. Cocaine made people annoying. Keith was a good guy but he was falling down the rabbit hole, the man’s jaw off-kilter all the goddamn time these days. And now the guy was pouring down the booze like there was no tomorrow. “So what the hell is it, Keith? You gonna tell me or do I have to read your mind?”

“No, man, I’ll tell you.” Keith lifted his drink and had another large quaff. “I was making the rounds in Bay City the other night, y’know, and I stopped over at The Cottage just before closing time. I was at the bar checking the place out for possible customers when I hear these two waitresses talking about this guy was in there a while back. Heard one of ’em say the dude was sitting at the bar sobbing, tears rolling down his face and shit. And this one waitress said she started talking to the guy, asking him if he was OK and everything, and I guess the guy pulled it together. But here’s the thing, Frank. She told the other chick that she thought the guy was the one in the newspaper—the one who jumped off the fuckin’ Arrowhead Bridge.”

Frank’s got a rush of weightlessness in his solar plexus. “Are you shitting me? What’s her name? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“I spaced, man. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay, man.” Frank was being careful with Waverly. “But now I need to get over there. Tonight. Right fuckin’ now. What’d you say her name was?”

“I didn’t, but it’s Dory. Cute little blonde. Real nice girl. Even talks to strangers.”

“That’s good, man. That’s really good. But I gotta get over there. Can you drive me?”

“No problem, man. Soon as I finish my drink.”

“Chug it.” Frank stood up. It was all starting to come together.

(To be continued)

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Dive unhappy ends II

CHAPTER 13, EXCERPT 4

Friday afternoon Frank called Betty at the Metro and copped a plea concerning his unemployment comp. Betty was having none of it, told him she wouldn’t lie on the forms and say he was laid off. When you quit, you quit. So he had to live with that. Wasn’t the end of the world, likely he was still eligible for something. But he wasn’t sure of that so he decided to stay home that night to save money.

Early afternoon on Saturday Frank called Nikki and they talked for a while and later she came over and Frank put the Youngbloods’Elephant Mountainon the stereo and they sat close together on the couch inside a cone of sunlight streaming through the side window, dust motes floating in the brightness, and Frank couldn’t believe how awkward he felt. He didn’t know what he wanted anymore. He sensed Nikki wanted to go up to the bedroom and fool around but the idea made his stomach twist. It was hard to take, hard to figure. They sat there in silence for the most part because Frank couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally, nearly to the end of side one of the record, Nikki said, “I’m off tonight, Frank. Want to go to a movie?” Frank was just glad to have a reason to get off the couch. He said Sure, and got up to find the morning paper to check the listings. They decided on Smokey and the Bandit, the latest second-run feature at the Norshor Theater. Then Nikki suggested they drive to the House of Doughnuts on Fourth Street for lunch, those sub sandwiches were killer. Frank got the roast beef and Nikki chose tuna. They picked up a six-pack of Bud at the Last Stop Bottle Shop and returned to Frank’s Syrup Can Palace to eat. Things began to feel better. Later, after the movie, they stopped at the Paul Bunyan Lounge for a few drinks and that furthered the thawing out process enough so that when they returned to Frank’s house they made love. Too tame to call it fucking, too routine to call it passionate, but there was tenderness and respect and gentleness. And it left Frank kicking himself and feeling sorry for Nikki again and that was getting old.

Nikki went home around midnight and Frank was left alone at the bottom of the barrel. Floating there with the dregs and believing that’s where he belonged.

 

The following week was Frank’s first vacation, if you want to call it that, in ten years. He could’ve taken time off in his days at the Metropole, but without pay. Just like now. The one past exception being a Memorial Day weekend a few years back when he helped Betty move into a new double-wide on the Martin Road and Betty was so grateful she gave him the weekend off with pay. It rained from Saturday afternoon through Monday.

Frank was determined to look at the next two weeks as an opportunity instead of a hardship. He had no clue if he’d ever be back on Moran’s crew again and this was a chance to beat the bushes, see what was out there. But in the back of his mind a little voice was whispering that it was a waste of time. He ignored the voice because now he was dedicated to getting things done.

Monday morning he went to the unemployment office and did the paperwork. After that he went across the hall to the employment agency and filled out forms. Trying to distance himself from bartending, he listed laborer or home construction as his desired forms of employment. No more goddamn saloons for him if he could help it. While waiting to be interviewed, sitting in an uncomfortable chair picking at his fingernails and staring at the worn red carpeting, Frank heard a counselor in an adjacent cubicle offering custodial jobs at the local university and service positions at some of the finest local restaurants, to the clean-cut, conventionally dressed applicant. By contrast, in Frank’s session with the counselor, he got a referral for the City Directory—a door-to-door canvassing job—and another one for the assembly line at the local pizza roll factory, both shitty, minimum-wage gigs. And the hell of it was his hair wasn’t even that long anymore. And his jeans were almost new for Christ sake. Clean, too.

So Frank left the employment office pissed off and frustrated. Thought about going to the Metropole but went home instead and started cleaning his house. Yes—it was truly a miracle. And a two-day job. Nikki came over on Tuesday afternoon and helped him finish, doing those things he’d never do, like cleaning behind the stove and fridge and washing the bathroom floor. Frank did the toilet though. You don’t want your girlfriend cleaning your toilet. More of a job for a wife.

Wednesday was Frank’s day to start looking for a car. He checked the listings in the morning paper but nothing caught his fancy so he called Nikki and asked her if she wanted to go visit his mother again and she said she’d love to. Frank drove the Honda and they took his mother to the new restaurant in Canal Park. Anytime Joan mentioned Ray, Frank changed the subject.

It was a mild day and they walked out on the ship canal after lunch. No boats came through the canal while they were there but they did see a twelve-year-old kid catch a big northern pike off the pier, the kid fighting the fish from the wall of the pier and then jumping down to the large shoreline rocks to land the toothy critter. After the excitement the trio returned to the Honda, and Frank, thinking it was a good day for a trip up the Scenic North Shore Drive, drove out to London Road and headed east. Going by Pill’s Palace, Frank saw several cars in the driveway and unfamiliar people mingling on the front lawn. He recalled the announcement in yesterday’s paper stating that the Pillsbury matriarch’s funeral would be Wednesday at noon. People in front of the house were obviously some of the mourners. Frank recognized Bergson, the pharmacist, and his fiancé Linda, and another face that halfway registered as familiar but he couldn’t quite place.

The trio continued along the scenic route to Knife River and Frank stopped at one of the local fish purveyors to buy his mother a hunk of smoked lake trout, one of her favorites. Nikki didn’t want any fish. And not wanting to be the one with fish breath, Frank also abstained.

It was after five when they brought Joan back to her apartment building. Frank went inside with her and when he came back out Nikki was sitting in the driver’s seat of the Honda. Said she had to work on her thesis tonight and dropped him off at the syrup can.

*   *   *

By the time Friday morning rolled around, Ray and Judy and Mr. Pills and Loy and Autry—the whole menagerie—were By the time Friday morning rolled around, Ray and Judy and Mr. Pills and Loy and Autry—the whole menagerie—were creeping back into Frank’s head. The pressure was building up.  creeping back into Frank’s head. If you put a cork in a steam pipe, it’ll only hold for so long, eventually it’s gonna blow. Nine o’clock Friday night, Frank’s cork was about to pop. The walls were closing in. The straight and narrow path had become tedious and confining. Nikki was out at the strip club and if Frank had a car she’d expect him to be there. But he hadn’t found one yet. Sometimes procrastination pays dividends.

Sensing an opportunity, Frank washed his face, combed his hair, put on a denim jacket over a white shirt and flared jeans, slid on his Red Wing motorcycle boots and left the house. Walking down the hill to the Metropole, he knew he was stuck in a rut. But hell, why fight it? It was clearly time to blow off some steam.

(End of Chapter 13)

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Dive when door closes photo

CHAPTER 13, EXCERPT 3

Ten minutes later watching the ambulance jockeys wheel Lady Pillsbury out of the house, Moran wore the look of a man who’d just lost his wallet.

“She might have had a stroke,” Frank said. “Doesn’t look very good, whatever it is.”

“I suppose that means the big boss man will be returning,” Waverly said.

“Along with his blushing new bride,” Frank said, struggling to suppress a grin. “Fresh from the marriage mills of Las Vegas.”

Moran and Waverly both snapped their eyes on Frank. Their jaws didn’t drop more than a little. “Are you shitting me, they got married?” Moran said, his voice rising.

“Unreal,” Waverly said, not suppressing a wide grin.

“Bet you were never aware of your matchmaking skills before, eh, Keith?” Moran said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Waverly said.

“I’d say your little coke flirtations had to be the reason Pills popped the question. They hadn’t had that big fight; things would still be going along the same and maybe our jobs wouldn’t be in jeopardy. Of course that don’t matter to you, you’re always too stoned to care about things that normal people care about.”

Waverly said, “Normal people like you, Dan? Those that drink themselves to oblivion every goddamn night?”

“Let’s not knock oblivion,” Frank said. “It has its place. And c’mon boys, I’m pretty sure this shit was inevitable. I know Judy, remember? She had to be orchestrating this thing from the beginning. If not Keith and his drugs, it’d be something else. I thought she was gonna be playing off of me out at the river, but Keith was in the right place at the right time, I guess. One thing about Judy, man, she’s an equal opportunity manipulator.”

And now the big fish was all the way into the net.

“This sucks,” Moran said. “Now that the twat has what she wants, we are gone Johnson. No way she’s gonna want us back here after she’s got ol’ Pills wrapped up. So let’s get the fuck out of here and get hammered.”

“Don’t be so sure, Daniel,” Frank said. “Judy might want lots more work done. Could be she’ll want to put on the dog even more now that she’s the lady of the house. A little gilding of the lily, some conspicuous consumption—these are all things in Judy’s bag. You never know, man, you may be here for a long goddamn time. Might even die here.”

“Ain’t holding my breath,” Moran said.

                                

On Thursday morning the crew showed up at nine o’clock, per the usual routine. Pills’ Caddy was in the driveway—the newlyweds were back home. The worker trio kept up a steady pace—slow—until noon, and were ready to break for lunch when Linda, the chick from the smelting party, now wearing a black blazer, white blouse and black slacks, came down the back stairs and approached Moran at the table saw.

Linda announced with a solemn face that Mrs. Pillsbury had passed away at the hospital last night and the family desired some privacy and quiet. If the crew could wrap up operations by one o’clock it would be highly appreciated. Mr. Pillsbury had prepared the check.

Linda handed Moran an envelope and started to walk away. Waverly smiled at her and said, “Hi, Linda,” and she gave him a sideways glance, the corners of her mouth creeping up a millimeter, but then kept on going out of the room and up the stairs.

Moran opened the envelope and smiled as he lifted out a crisp, clean check. “The boss has been generous,” he said, waggling it between his thumb and forefinger. “Looks like a full week’s pay for all of us.” Moran lifted a folded piece of high quality stationery from the envelope and scanned it. “Also looks like we get two weeks off. Without pay, I don’t need to add. Says here he wants to talk to me in two weeks about continuing the work. That’s something, at least.”

Which meant the crew was off for the rest of the day and Friday too. Waverly, just happy to have money coming in and Friday off, it seemed, said, “Whattayasay we hit the Metro, first round’s on me.” Moran didn’t say anything, just stood there with his lips pinched together in an attempt at a knowing smile. But Frank knew Dan would be there when the liquor started flowing. Frank, though, wouldn’t. He was making some changes, getting his shit together, staying out of the bars and trouble. It was a new beginning, the first day of the rest of his life, and other meaningful clichés.

(To be continued)

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