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CHAPTER 3, EXCERPT 1

On Garfield Avenue heading toward the docks, not knowing how he got here, Frank was cruising past Goldfine’s By the Bridge, a discount appliance and furniture store, feeling like something was pushing him along. He angled off Garfield onto Port Terminal Road, wound the Pontiac underneath the Interstate Bridge and looped around past the terminal building. He parked near the water and left the engine running, the radio on, the window down and the headlights off. He got out and went to the spot. Stood right on it. He could still see it there in his mind, the police outline. Shit, see him there, fucking Ray, Frank’s goddamn little brother, the kid’s bloody, swollen face with no peace showing on it. May he rest in peace. That’s what they always say, isn’t it? Was Ray peaceful now? Christ, who knew? Could be more religious hypnosis, they’re always sending it out. What about the living? Don’t we get peace? Comfort in the Lord?

Frank couldn’t find it. Didn’t know where to look so he stared across the dark waters of St. Louis Bay toward the old Arrowhead Bridge way down there in the distance, the long arc of ancient wood and steel stretching across the sky from Minnesota to Wisconsin, a lone set of headlights moving slowly across it now on the way to Zenith, Bay City bars closed for the night.

Cops’ theory was that Ray jumped off the Arrowhead Bridge and the body floated down here, couple of miles or so to the east, took it a week or two to make the journey. So maybe the cops were right. But it didn’t seem like Ray’s style. Goddamn kid was resilient, always seemed to bounce back. He could take it as well as he dished it out. Ray had taken a few beatings in his time and the hell of it was he always came back stronger. Some bouncer knocked him around; Ray would lift weights for a while and come back at the guy. Usually got whipped again but had fucked up a couple over-sized cream puff bouncers in his day. And it seemed a long way for a body to float to get all the way down here to the port terminal but what did Frank know? He was just a goddamn bartender. Maybe it all just finally caught up to Ray. Frank had seen it before, some hard guy spends a few years on the booze and the pills and then one night decides to pick a fight with a green-behind-the-ears kid who proceeds to kick the shit out of him. Next time you see the guy he’s staring down at his shoes and acting apologetic and nervous. Got a permanent cowed look on his face like all the guys he fucked over in the past are trailing behind him in a pack shouting threats and obscenities.

So maybe that’s the way it was with Ray. Little brother was never a tough guy but he did have way more than the average load of bad karma. Ray ripped people off on deals, stole money off bar tops, kicked old drunks, borrowed money and never paid it back—Christ, he died owing Frank more money than Frank wanted to remember. And that was from way damn back, Ray having burned that bridge eons ago.

And that, in a nutshell, as they say, was why damn near everyone who knew Ray was less than saddened by his passing. But not mom or Frank’s sister, Anne. No, those two had, at some point, made a choice not to know how Ray lived. At least that’s how they always acted. And there were also some grieving aunts and uncles at the funeral who knew Ray when he was a kid and hadn’t seen him much since then.

And all of them were living in a fantasy world.

Ray was a shit.

So why the hell couldn’t Frank let it go? He was trying, man. Here he was, standing in the dampness on the edge of the bay and lifting his hands to the stars, waiting for the pain to go away, giving it a pathway. Frank repeating Let it go, let it go, to himself and waiting for the bad shit to magically fly out of his body and leave him happy ever after.

But no.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 2, EXCERPT 11

Frank gave Autry what he hoped was a knowing smirk but feared looked more like an idiot’s grin. The two insects just stood there staring at him, looking confused, as he moved down the hill toward his car. Feeling bug eyes on his back, Frank stopped at the side of the station wagon, turned around and waved. “See you soon, boys,” he said, hoping it was loud enough to have an impact but not so loud as to make him seem nuts. But then again, maybe nuts was good.

Frank slid in behind the steering wheel and watched Loy and Autry get in the GTO and roll down the avenue, Frank in his mind writing Roach Motel in white paint on the faded trunk lid. Then he said the silent prayer for men with a failing battery and turned the key. This time it fired right up. A miracle. The prayer had worked. Had to be a bad battery cable or a crack in the distributor cap, thing always got tricky when it was damp outside, which was most of the time around here in April.

He began tuning the radio, looking for a station that didn’t play disco, settling on KQZS. He took a last look at the apartment building and could still see dim light behind the curtain of the top floor window.

Something up there was attracting the insects and the parasites. What or who the hell was it?

Judith Bruton?

Probably.

Had to be a scam going down.

Waiting there and trying to pull it together, on came the biggest psychedelic wave of the night and Frank was helpless. Letting it happen—no choice—he white-knuckled the steering wheel and watched the pavement undulate like a giant serpent.

Ride it out, man, ride it out.

His breath was coming in machine-gun bursts as that internal energy scratched its way toward the surface. His mind was weaving in and out of past fears and regrets. And then a strong desire for some kernel of wisdom and enlightenment lying just beyond his reach—something he could almost get to that kept spinning away at the last moment—hit him full on. This went on for some time—no clue how long—until finally he began to adjust and gain some measure of control. Pushing in the car lighter, he held it in waiting for the heat then pulled the joint from his jacket and put it to the glowing coil. After a big hit he slid the shifter arm into drive, Ray’s swollen, pulpy face back to front and center.

Ray-Ray dead on the ground… emergency people shooting out heavy vibes…

He rolled down the hill to Superior Street, lingering at the intersection to gaze up at the two canoe paddlers in beaver-fur hats on the Voyageur Motel sign. Their eyes seemed to follow him as he took a right on Superior Street and began driving slowly west through downtown, paranoid as all hell and wishing it wasn’t so bright. Last thing he needed was a cop taking an interest. But once he passed Mesaba Avenue and was cruising along below the big rock wall they call the Point of Rocks, the artificial light began to fade and the disguise of darkness returned.

At this time of night, in his condition, Frank knew he should go home. But the thought sent waves of claustrophobic anguish reverberating through him. His tiny one bedroom house in Central Hillside, resembling one of those syrup containers designed to look like a log cabin, could get lonely sometimes.

And filled with demons.

Hello walls.

(End of Chapter 2)

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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 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 1, Excerpt 5

Frank took the free drink and nodded thanks to Jimmy Carl, Jimmy behind the bar now. Then Frank gave each of the two pill heads a hard stare and stepped around to the waitress station. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Autry give the Doughboy a backhand slap to his flabby midsection. Autry growled something at the fat man and Frank watched Doughboy gulp once and stare down at the stage, Loy’s face freezing in a weird forced smile he must have worked years to perfect.

The club was filling up with the after-work crowd. Jimmy Carl was zipping back and forth along the bar and Nikki was down by the stage taking drink orders from a group of college guys. Sensing it was the right time to leave, and never really caring much for strip clubs in the first place, Frank knocked back the free whiskey and started toward the door, giving the back of Artie Autry’s head a little shove with the heel of his hand as a parting shot. Artie threw Frank a dirty look and seemed like he might want to start something, but then he pressed his hair back in place with his bony hand and returned his gaze to the stage.

Frank made the short and lonely trek to his station wagon dodging raindrops. He put in the key and cranked the ignition. Thing turned over feebly but finally started. The wind was switched around now, blowing hard and cold off Lake Superior, kind of weather made you want to get the hell out of this town for good.

April is a good month to die in this town, Frank thought. At least Ray got that part right.

Frank was mad. Mad at Autry and Loy, mad at Ray-Ray, mad at himself. Didn’t occur to him that it was cool to be an angry young man but not so cool at thirty-six. Unidentified feelings swirled around in his gut as he drove. The people, the cars, the old brown buildings—they all seemed unreal, moving by out there in an indifferent world. But Frank was tough enough. Tough enough to handle his asshole brother when he was alive and tough enough to handle the poor bastard’s killers now that Ray was dead. Frank knew there was more to the story than Autry and Loy were offering, they pretty much came out and said it. Yeah, both of those boys knew far too much about Judy Bruton’s present situation to be merely casual observers. They had some scam in mind; it was almost a sure thing.

Frank drove around town watching it rain, the sky gloomy and low, total grayness. He turned on defrost on his car heater, listened to the classic rock station play “Dust in the Wind” and wished he had another drink. Cruising slowly down soggy London Road staring out at the big homes on the lakeside of the winding asphalt strip, he was searching for signs of construction. And when he saw it, it made him chuckle. In the front yard of a huge white, three-story house was a homemade sign saying Malomar Construction. Good quality workmanship on the sign. Danny Moran did good work, even though he drank like a fish. But that’s what you get from an Irishman, Frank thought, knowing he had more Irish blood than Danny but Moran had the Irish name. Both men had the disposition.

Frank made a u-turn a block past the big white house, rolled back along the north side of London Road and parked where he could see the long driveway leading to Mr. Pills’ not-so-humble abode. He reached back to stroke his ponytail and remembered he’d had it cut off two months ago. Sighing, he gazed down the well-lighted driveway at the faded yellow grass in Mr. Pillsbury’s substantial yard.

Mr. Pills. Can you believe it?

Left no doubt, did it? Shit, pills were what everyone wanted these days. You had carloads of customers flocking to Pillsbury’s stores for Valium and Librium, Phenobarbital and Percodan, Darvon and Demerol. And your junkies wanted the same thing. So maybe Artie and Doughboy did have a right to a piece of the pie. Maybe the entire pharmaceutical business was a sleazy scam, either legit or black market, and everyone was a player for the wrong reasons. Because clearly there was something wrong here that no pills were going to fix.

Frank was waiting for this current bout of madness to pass when he saw his former sister-in-law strutting out the front door of Pillsbury Manor wearing a long black coat that flapped open as she walked, revealing a tight white nurse’s uniform. Her chest was still proud and noteworthy, Frank observed. He watched her approach a dark blue Buick sedan, snapping a cigarette into the bushes with a flick of her fingers before climbing into the big sled. It was eight o’clock and Frank still had an hour to kill before he had to rescue Betty from the drunks.

Why not take a little ride, eh?

Nurse Judy backed the Buick around and drove slowly out onto London Road, a fresh cigarette hanging from her lips. She turned the Electra toward downtown and hit the gas, white smoke billowing from the exhaust pipe as she rolled away.

Frank was so mesmerized by seeing Judy again he’d forgotten about the ignition problems on the station wagon. Watching her taillights fade, he hit the key. Miraculously, the Poncho caught on the first try and he was soon in pursuit of the junkie nurse with the great ass. She looked a lot better than he’d anticipated. Hard to believe everything was still so taut. Maybe his eyes were going bad. Could be the foggy weather or the distance. No way she should still look that good. With her lifestyle? Come on.

He’d get a closer look before long.

(To be continued)

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