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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 2

Walking up Lake Avenue, the revolver digging into his lower abdomen, a big hole seemed to open up in Frank’s mind. A window to a vast open landscape where he could see all the bad shit that could happen now that he owned a gun, all of it there waiting on the periphery and ready to drop down into the diorama. He didn’t need to make a list; shit was pretty obvious. And it did feel weird carrying a gun. Like maybe he was crossing over into fantasyland or starring in his own movie, The Amazing Adventures of Frank Ford. Yeah, he’d stepped into a new arena with a whole new set of rules, and damn if it didn’t look like Johnny Beam was living in that same ballpark. And it wasn’t treating Johnny very well, judging by the look of the man. Couldn’t really say a black man was looking pale, but shit, Jesus—Johnny was definitely not his old lighthearted self.

But hey, Frank thought, good things come to those who wait. And then he wondered what the hell that had to do with anything.

By the time he got to Fifth Street after five blocks straight uphill—and after a full day of work besides—Frank was sweating heavily under his denim jacket. And the pistol against his stomach seemed to have worn a hole down to his liver. Man, how did those gang dudes live with this shit? Was there some product out there to deal with rod rash? Prickly pistol chafe? Handgun hives?

Maybe Mr. Pills’ pharmacy had something.

But for now he’d just have to tough out the remaining three blocks to his house. He wanted to take off the jacket but couldn’t because of the pistol. So he had to sweat—and that wasn’t a bad thing, mind you—cleansing the river of life, an old football teammate used to say— but shit, that dude was fat and full of poison now, so what the hell.

Finally arriving at the alley above Third Avenue East and Fifth Street, Frank looked down the pavement at his house and saw an unfamiliar car in the driveway, a little red foreign job. Jap car, little brother Ray would’ve called it. Frank’s heart kicked up a few beats and a shaky shot of adrenaline got his feet moving faster. Who in hell could it be? All sorts of foreboding shit was gathering behind his eyebrows as he walked past the playground and stared ahead at the red car. He could see now it was a Honda. Go little Honda. Hear the Beach Boys sing.

And then the driver’s door opened up and lovely Nikki Clark stepped out looking oh so clean and fresh and delicious in jeans and a green T-shirt. Nikki liked green, looked great in green. It seemed to make her eyes bigger.

Frank was feeling green around the gills.

“I came to show you my new car, Frank,” Nikki said, short blond hair glistening in the sun and white teeth sparkling. But her eyes were sending a slightly different message.

But God she looked good.

Frank was wondering what was wrong with him, how he could let Nurse Judy override this beautiful young girl, this breath of fresh air. But that was part of it—she was young. Too young? That’s what people said. You know her parents had to be questioning it. Why Frank is nearly forty years old, dear, surely you can’t have much in common. It might seem okay now, but soon he’ll be middle aged and you will still be in the prime of life. It’s time you started thinking about your future, dear. What kind of father would Frank make? Why, he’d be an old man when your children graduated from high school.

And they weren’t even engaged, for Christ sake.

But Frank had thought about marriage. And yeah, he’d heard it all, the dirty old man jibes, the robbing the cradle accusations. Perv. Sleaze. Lecher. But man, society is just a fancy name for a mob. A mob that gets its jollies from tormenting the non-fits.

And talk about your non-fits, now he had to get the goddamn gun out of his belt before Nikki saw it, the pistol possessing all the characteristics of the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to Nikki keeping the faith. But maybe it was really better for everyone if she found out. Give the young thing a chance to escape before she got roped into Frank’s mess of a life. Keep the sweet girl from getting permanently tarnished by his mongrel heritage.

Son of Tom Ford, family abandoner.

(To be continued)

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 CHAPTER 7, EXCERPT 5

Frank stood up. “C’mon, Jenny, sit down here and help these boys finish the pizza. I can’t stand to watch that sonofabitch behind the stick any longer.” He slid out of the booth, stepped through the step-through and turned down the jukebox sound with the knob on the wall by the cash register. Facing the crowd, Frank shouted, “Everybody listen up,” and watched the faces turn toward him, the smiles and the gawks and the bewildered stares. “Those of you who don’t know me, my name is Frank Ford, and I’m your friendly bartender. This is going to be my last day here at the Metropole—after ten excruciatingly long years—and to honor this milestone, our good man, Sack, here, has offered to buy everyone in the bar a drink.” Frank stepped over to Sack and gave him a loose hug; whispering in his ear, “Say anything, Sack, and I’ll kick your skinny ass from here to Havana.” Sack gave a pained look that almost made Frank feel sorry for him. Almost but not quite. “Now get the hell back to your girlfriend and be careful not to get me upset,” Frank said under his breath. “I’ll put this on your tab.”

Then Frank got busy filling the drink orders of the smiling patrons, seemingly nothing like a drink on the house to get the masses perked up.

(End of Chapter 7)

 CHAPTER 8, EXCERPT 1

It is said that alcohol is the perfect Christian drug, in that for each moment of pleasure obtained from its use, the imbiber suffers a corresponding amount of guilt and pain in the aftermath. No pleasure without suffering, say the hard-core Jesus freaks. And if that was indeed the case, Frank was feeling very Christian this morning. Nine a.m. on a Monday in the backyard of Pillsbury’s Palace, warm sun shining off the calm blue water of the Big Lake and beginning to heat up the day after a crisp night.

Moran was creaking around arranging sawhorses and getting his electric saw set up while Frank and Waverly carried slabs of wood from the interior of the house to the backyard. Frank was amazed that Moran was even here, let alone actually moving. Last night after Waverly took off for Bay City, Moran stayed to help with the close, the redhead swilling on-the-house Bushmill’s for the duration. When Moran dropped Frank off at home about two a.m., Danny had a definite night-of-the-living-dead thing going. But now this morning here he was, drinking coffee and moving kind of gingerly, smelling like a dog’s ass, skin as white as the puffy clouds in the morning sky, but on the job and working. Guy definitely had a strong work ethic drummed into him from somewhere.

Frank wasn’t feeling so good himself. Besides the hangover, he was fighting off the guilts. Figured he must’ve given away a couple hundred bucks worth of Betty’s liquor last night—which probably cost her less than forty, but was more than enough to get him fired if he hadn’t already decided to quit. He’d put the bill on Sack’s tab but knew damn well Sack would whine to Betty and she’d transfer it to Frank’s tab, which meant his paycheck—his final one—would amount to jack shit.

So now he wasn’t quite so onboard with his decisions as he was last night, short nervous rushes over not having steady employment rippling through his throbbing head this morning. Northeastern Minnesota was officially—government declared—an economically depressed region. The once bustling port cities of Bay City and Zenith were in decline. Shipping was off, the mines were struggling and the lumber industry was nearly dead. Steel plant was shut down. And Frank was just hoping Betty wasn’t pissed enough to mess with his unemployment claim. Quitting was one thing, getting fired another. And laid off, another thing all together. How the unemployment people would rule on this was a mystery, but Betty’s take on the situation could be crucial.

But at the moment, Frank knew this big white house on London Road was the place he wanted—and needed—to be. Judy Bruton’s Buick was in the driveway and Dick Pillsbury was inside with his money and his controlled substances. So yeah, this was where Frank belonged. And if he could only shake the nausea and the pounding in his skull long enough, he might be able to learn something by paying attention. And looking at Moran, Frank was sure his spying would go undetected by his foreman.  

After about forty minutes of labor Frank and Waverly set the last of the wood panels on the sawhorses. Waverly was stoned and dancing to a song coming out of the boombox on the saw table, Keith doing his Norwegian-inflected reggae bounce to the Mick Jagger/Peter Tosh duet on that old Temptations song, “Don’t Look Back.” At least that’s what Frank thought it was called when he found himself moving with the insistent beat and wanting to sing at the chorus while sweat leaked from his forehead and his armpits.

Just walk and don’t look back—leave all your troubles behind.

Now that would be cool, Frank thought. Just get down the road. Leave all this shit behind. Get your kicks on Route 66….

“There’s some lumber in the back of my truck I’m gonna need,” Moran said behind them, his voice like it was coming through a bucket of gravel.

“So Danny,” Frank said, wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his dark green chamois shirt, holes in the elbows. “You here when Judy shows up in the morning or does she spend the nights here?”

Moran, lining up one of the wood panels on the saw table, squinted at Frank. “I’m not here at night, Frank, so I don’t know her sleeping habits. All I know is that her car is here in the morning when I get here. Like it was this morning. She usually comes outside once or twice during the day. Sometimes she leaves in her car and then comes back. When the other nurse comes on in the afternoon, Judy usually leaves and I don’t see her until the next day.”

“So there’s another nurse?”

“Two, I think. One for the evenings and one overnight.  I’m not really sure on the overnight. But I do know Pills spares no expense when it comes to the old lady.”

Then Frank saw Waverly moving toward the front of the house and Moran’s pickup. Frank thought he’d better follow him, if Keith Waverly was outworking you, you knew you had problems.

(To be continued)

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 CHAPTER 7, EXCERPT 3

It was a good half hour before Jenny came back with a pungent grease-stained pizza box in her hands. Frank had spent the time well, keeping the drinks flowing and doing a lot of staring at Sack. And sometimes Elaine, too, but Jesus, man, she was hard on the eyes.

With the smell of the fresh pie twisting his stomach, Frank made a decision. Just this one goddamn Sunday he was going to eat his dinner sitting down instead of standing behind the bar.

Jenny put the pizza box down in front of Waverly and Moran; the pair having settled into the booth next to Sack and Elaine’s, food lust taking over their faces. Frank waved to Johnny Beam as the former boxer strolled out the door with his entourage in tow. Then Frank popped out the step-through and came up behind Sack, the degenerate slouching over his beer, seemingly about to drool in it. “Sack,” Frank said, “I need you to work the bar while I eat. You owe me for Friday night.”

With a simpering, whiny look on his gaunt and pale face, Sack turned to gaze up at Frank. “Ah, c’mon, Ford,” Sack said. “I didn’t make you work on Friday, that was Betty’s doing. Why don’t you call her and have her come in? I’m in no shape to work; I’m still under the weather.”

And that was about enough.

Frank grabbed the collars of Sack’s shirt and jacket with his right hand; leaned over the booth and snagged Sack’s belt with his left hand and jerked the skinny dick to his feet. “Either behind the bar, Sack, or out the door, what’s it gonna be?” Before Sack had time to answer, Frank dragged him to the step-through, pulled him to the working side of the bar and gave him a final shove. “You’re too slow, Sack. I made up your mind for you. You’re working for me. And if you come out from behind there before I’m ready, you’ll be under more than just the weather.”

Sack mumbled and shuffled his feet and had a discussion with himself before lifting his head, a weak, embarrassed smile forming on his slack lips. Then he gave Frank a nervous glance and started down the line to the waiting customers. Frank followed him down as far as the Bushmill’s bottle, grabbed it off the shelf and went over to Elaine in the booth. She was staring up at him with what she probably thought was shock but to Frank looked like she just woke up for the first time in days. Frank took a blast direct from the pour spout then slapped the bottle down on the table, causing Elaine’s head to jerk. “There you go, honey,” he said, “something to keep you company while your guy is busy. Old Mr. Bushmill is a very reliable companion, dear. Will double as a dildo in a pinch.” He turned his head to stare at Sack. “’Magine you could use it.”

Elaine’s mouth dropped open and Frank had the urge to stuff a slice of pizza in it but instead he continued his staring at Sack, Waverly and Moran snickering behind him. The skinny wasted Sackbereger was shuffling along behind the bar with self-pity plastered on his sagging face, so Frank shrugged and joined his friends at the pizza box, grabbing a slice and biting down.

“Jesus, Waverly,” Frank said between delicious bites. “How can you not be fat as a pig, smoking as much of that weed as you do?”

Waverly swallowed, wiped his lips with a paper napkin, straightened and patted his middle. “I’m headed in that direction, Frank, got the love handles going. But as soon as the weather gets nice, I’ll get back in shape. Softball season’s coming up.”

“Yeah, I s’pose,” Frank said. “You ever hit the bars over there in Bay City, man?”

“Now and again,” Waverly said. “Got to get out and hustle the acid from time to time. Bar crowd over there really digs that shit. Lets ’em drink more.”

“Ain’t that kinda risky?” Danny Moran said between chews. “I heard the bars over there are full of narcs these days. And I been hearing some shit about a new guy on the scene supposed to be shaking things up. Assistant mayor or something like that.”

Waverly said, “There’s always something fucked up happening in Bay City. It’s a fucked up town.”

“So why do you take the chance then?” Moran said. “Can’t be that much money in it.”

“No man, there isn’t,” Waverly said. “But I owe my soul, my ass and my left nut to the company store, so I gotta at least make the effort.”

Glancing at Frank, Moran raised his eyebrows. “Been working out for you, Keith?”

“Not really,” Waverly said. “I end up spending most of the profits on drinks. Have a good time though. Places are usually pretty wack by the time I leave.”

“I imagine,” Frank said. “I suppose you hear a lot of street talk over there.”

“Oh yeah,” Waverly said, reaching for another slice. “I pretty much hear the street take on everything that’s going on.”

“Any shit about my brother?”

“No. Not yet, anyway.” Waverly said, staring at the pizza in his hand. “But if anyone knows anything, I’m sure I’ll hear about it eventually. Rumors travel like magic over there.” He took a large bite and smiled mechanically.

“Keep your ears open for me,” Frank said. “I’m just not satisfied with the cops’ belief that it was suicide.”

(To be continued)

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 CHAPTER 7, EXCERPT 2

The little hand on the clock was nudging against the six and the big hand was about to kiss the twelve when the first of the Lonelyhearts straggled in. That’s what Frank called the single people who came in to drink their Sunday dinner. They came nearly every week, these lonesome souls living in a sphere of quiet desperation, and usually made Frank feel kind of shitty. Today it was really hitting him hard.

He knocked back another shot and chased it with beer, thinking Kristofferson was right. There was something about a Sunday got a body feeling down.

And then Frank saw Sackberger and his skanky girlfriend staggering through the front door.

Sack and Elaine.

How about that.

Elaine was a skinny, constantly loaded chick with short dark hair that always looked the same, like a helmet with earflaps. Today she was wearing a Levi jacket over a man’s white shirt, the buttons on the shirt stuck in the wrong holes, giving it a lopsided look. Her jeans had multi-colored patches sewn on them. Her man Sack was demonstrating his love and devotion by wearing a similar denim outfit, his decorated with an occasional grease splotch or frayed spot. The two of them were shit faced. Frank knew they liked to mix Valium with alcohol, a combo that rarely brings out the best in people.

Frank stared at the wasted couple as they collapsed into a booth. Stepping down the line until he was directly across from them, he leaned over the bar. “Missed you on Friday, Sack,” he said. “Had to cover for your ass again. What’s your excuse, man, Elaine had her period and you had to stay home and show her how to use a tampon?”

They both tried to give Frank a hard stare, but Frank thought they looked like a couple of withered, week-old, glazed doughnuts. “I had the flu, Ford,” Sack said.

“Was that the Smirnov flu, the Windsor flu or the Fleischman’s flu?”

“The swine flu.”

Frank nearly choked. And now people were starting to look. “Well, you sure made a fast recovery, Sack. Must be your healthy lifestyle.”

“I got some medicine,” Sack said in a low mumble followed by something inaudible as he stared down at the top of the table, head lolling.

Then waitress Jenny moved into the space between Frank and the couple, saying, “Can I get you two something?” to the jelly-like pair, her voice going singsong.

“We’ll have a pitcher,” Frank heard Sack say, and was sure that to the uninitiated it sounded like, Wheels had a pisser.

Frank shook his head and turned to get a pitcher for Sack and Elaine’s beer. Hunger was pushing his anger now. He never liked the term “munchies,” but that’s what he had. Most Sundays he got Chinese food from Joe’s Chop Suey House next door, but today his hunger was deeper. Had a need for something more substantial. Mulling it over, he came down around a greasy Jimmy’s Pizza, the place just two blocks away.

Frank negotiated with Jenny, Waverly and Moran and it was decided that Jenny would walk for the pizza in exchange for two slices and a five-buck “carrying charge.” Frank threw in a free drink as extra incentive and soon the waitress working on her day off went out the door to fetch an extra-large Jimmy’s Pizza, one-third ham and pineapple (Frank’s new favorite), one-third pepperoni (Moran) and one-third with just cheese for Waverly.

(To be continued)

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 CHAPTER 7, EXCERPT 1

Coming out of Betty’s office alongside Frank, Johnny Beam was smiling. Dude could make anything seem fun. Like making an appointment to buy a pistol—that was fun. Frank was to meet Johnny at the Storehouse, Beam’s second-hand store on Superior Street just a couple blocks east of the Metro, Monday at five-thirty. Beam had said he had a few handguns worth looking at.

Frank walked back with Beam to the corner booth, Johnny’s entourage still filling the space: William “Big Cat” Edwards, Harry Collins, sleazy Jimmy Lambert and a big-chested blond Frank didn’t know, one of Johnny’s many interchangeable girlfriends. Taking a seat next to Beam and surveying the barroom, Frank felt a change in the atmosphere. Put a couple of half-loaded amateurs behind the bar and the crowd senses the lack of control and some sort of group hypnosis takes place and before you know it, shit starts to happen, people start going off. But Frank didn’t really care. Let them blow off some steam. Nobody in here going to cause too much trouble. Not like Ray Ford or Art Autry was here, nobody gonna steal drinks or threaten customers. He hoped not, anyway.

Frank relaxed in the red vinyl and listened to Jimmy Lambert discussing the finer points of picking a winner in a cockfight, Lambert saying guys traveled long distances to bring their roosters to his barn for the “Cockfighting Extravaganzas.” Also said he was thinking of bringing in fighting dogs for this year’s Thanksgiving weekend matches. But Frank was only half listening. Waverly’s weed had him fantasizing about Judy again, the two of them in his mind writhing away in the middle of a white shag carpet. Where that came from he didn’t know. And every so often he’d glance over at the pair of temp tenders behind the bar and wonder how much free liquor they were giving away, but not really caring. And also wondering how long it would take before Waverly and Moran realized they’d been Tom Sawyered. Or was it Huckleberry Finned?

Was about twenty minutes later the looks of panic and discomfort started showing on the faces of the amateur mixologists. Frank knew it was bound to happen. Now Waverly was standing at the far end of the bar beneath the television set, staring up at a golf tournament with his back turned to the patrons, a growing number of whom were anxiously shouting drink orders and holding out money. On the other end of the bar Danny Moran was standing there grinning and looking helpless, eyes damn near shut, leaning on his elbows on the bar shooting the shit with some biker chick in a leather jacket. And, like Waverly, Moran was ignoring the customers’ annoyed pleas.

Frank shrugged and smiled to Johnny Beam, said he’d see him tomorrow at the store and went up to relieve the temporary barmen.

Frank was back now—no more waiting—and all along the bar customers were snapping out drink orders with renewed fervor. It wasn’t long before the Metropole was back humming along at its normal Sunday pace. Frank was getting bored so he got himself another Bud and a shot of Bushmill’s and kept up the fight.

Time moved along.

(To be continued)

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 CHAPTER 6, EXCERPT 4

Gazing over at Johnny Beam, the man still in the booth near the jukebox, grey light from the front window illuminating the former boxer’s round black head, Frank grabbed a stack of quarters from the lip of the cash register, navigated the step-through and walked over to the juke feeling like everyone in the place was watching him. Nestling into the warm red glow of the Wurlitzer, Frank dropped four quarters in the slot and punched the numbers for Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country” for his Nikki tribute, then lingered over a choice between Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” finally choosing the Airplane, hoping the bar crowd would join in on the line “when she’s ten-feet tall,” like they used to do when things were more fun around here.

With one choice left he turned to Johnny Beam on his right, Beam laughing and talking, as usual. “Anything you want to hear, Johnny?”

“Hello, Frank Ford,” Beam said in his burnt-smoke baritone. “You got any Aretha Franklin?”

“A-19,” a guy in the next booth said. “That’s Aretha Franklin,” echoing the Steely Dan line Frank heard at least once a month from somebody in the bar thought he was the cleverest mofo in town.

“A-19—that’s Norman fuckin’ Greenbaum on this box,” Frank said to the air.

“Spirit in the Sky?” Beam said, looking up at Frank and grinning.

“Yep. But I got ‘Think,’ at B-11, Johnny.”

“Go for it, Frank.”

“Okay man, you got it.” Then looking down at the former champion, Frank said, “Any chance of getting together for a little chat later, man? I’ve got some pressing issues I was hoping you could help me with.”

“Sure, Frank,” Beam said, squinting up. “I can do that. Just give me a little while.”

“No problem, Johnny, soon as you’re ready.” Frank pushed B-11 and drifted back behind the bar in a pleasant daze, Jefferson Airplane wailing away about Alice and the white rabbit and being ten feet tall. Only one that sang with him was Waverly, and the dude was off key. Then the country songs got Frank thinking about Nikki and he couldn’t shake the sadness. His strongest feeling was regret, followed by sympathy. For some goddamn reason he was feeling sorry for Nikki.

But thinking about it, he knew the reason. She was respectable and he wasn’t. She had straight, conventional parents who thought it was darn well time their daughter stopped working in a sleazy strip bar and got her “real life” underway. Probably the only time Frank might agree with them, albeit for different reasons. But you have to face the facts—working in a sleazy bar was Frank’s “real life”. And now he wanted to defend the sleazy bars of the world against the attacks of self-righteous jerks afraid to have some good dirty fun in a funky barroom.

Speaking of which, those insistent and reoccurring images of Judy Bruton were still insistent and reoccurring and getting him hot. And bothered. What did that say about him? Christ, it was anyone’s guess. Was he what someone as pure as Nikki deserved?  Who fuckin’ knew? Maybe the universe sends you messages through your genitalia. Maybe his dick was trying to tell him something. Judy is for you, man, quit kidding yourself. You’re alike, you two, you come from the same place, you want the same things. Why fight it? Ain’t no shine on those shoes of yours, Frank Ford.

Considering things, he said to himself, No, your dick only wants one thing, and that’s to find some place to put itself—so that won’t fly.

So it had to be something to do with Ray’s death. Something in Frank’s subconscious, conflicts coming to the surface. Something the acid dredged up that would surely pass. Yeah, that had to be it. And all things must pass. George Harrison said it in a song. This was just some psychedelic residue, some misplaced energy, a cosmic prank.

Momentarily satisfied with his reasoning and feeling better, Frank went down the bar delivering reinforcements to the whiskey warriors and the alcohol athletes. When that was done he caught Johnny Beam’s eye and nodded toward Betty’s office in the back, a place Frank didn’t go very often because it smelled just like Betty in there, a flowery, powdery scent that put him on edge.

“Danny,” Frank said to Moran, the redhead slouching at the bar guzzling a Bud. “Could you come behind here for a minute while Johnny Beam and I have a short discussion? You can come back here too, Waverly, if you want. Let’s put some life in this place. Have some fun. Jenny, how ‘bout you play some more tunes.” Frank grabbed a stack of quarters and handed them over the bar to the waitress working on her day off.

(End of Chapter 6)

 

 

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 CHAPTER 6, EXCERPT 3

Frank took a deep breath and blew out a long exhale, watched two aging ladies nestle down into a booth directly across the bar from him. He didn’t know these women by name but they kind of resembled a lot of old ladies that came in here on Sunday, clothes from another era, grim, old-fashioned hair styles and funny shoes.

Frank tried to guess their drink choices. He was thinking brandy and seven for the one with the red scarf above the lime-green sweater and possibly gin and tonic for the one in the charcoal button-up sweater with a broach above the left breast and a high-collared white blouse underneath.

He was wrong on one of them. Charcoal-sweater-with-broach wanted a grasshopper—her “Sunday libation.” Which meant he had to haul out the stemware and the blender and find the crème de menthe so the sweet little old lady could have her sweet little-old-lady’s drink.

And so it went for three more long hours, Frank thinking he must be the slowest bartender in town the way he was shuffling around behind the bar like a Southern gentleman at an ice cream social. Moving so slow that he could feel the anxiety in the crowd behind him when he bothered to pay attention.

Something was stopping him from feeling like he wanted to. It was like there was a boulder in the middle of the hallway to the bathroom that he couldn’t avoid or push out of the way but still had to get past to do his business. So if this boulder, this lump of hard pain keeping him down, was some kind of grief over Ray, then what? What choice did he have but to follow his instincts and see what he could dig up? Boulder wasn’t going to disintegrate by itself, was it?

By four o’clock the obsessive thoughts were beginning to dissipate like an octogenarian muscatel drinker and Frank was getting his second wind. North Stars had knocked off the Blues 4-2, a couple of good scuffles in the game, and interesting people were starting to come in. Keith Waverly was smiling across the bar at him, Keith’s eyes slits, and former Minnesota Light Heavyweight Champion Johnny Beam was over in the corner by the jukebox holding court with a small entourage. What was it with fighters and entourages? Beam hadn’t fought since the sixties but he still had a following. And in some circles, like that of the gambling crowd, Beam was more popular now than in his pugilist days. From what Frank’d heard, and you heard a lot behind the bar at the Metropole, Beam was the man to see about a gun, the former champion said to be trafficking in stolen firearms to pay off some allegedly large gambling debts.

Johnny Beam is the man to see, Frank was thinking as he went to the cooler to get a nice green bottle of Heineken for his friend Keith Waverly, closest thing the Metropole had to Owsley Stanley.

Frank waltzed down and set the sweating bottle on the bar top. “How’s it going, Keith? Not wheeling the hack today?”

“Nah. I came over to work but I saw the driver’s list was full of old timers—which meant I’d be stuck with the shitty downtown runs, so I told Al I was laying off.”

“You’d think there’d be some runs across the bridge on a Sunday.”

“Yeah, there are, usually. And Al sends them all out to his old buddies. But I can’t complain. Those guys got families to feed. Only thing I got to feed is my pot habit.” Waverly smiled and took a swig of beer.

“That Jamaican smoke you gave me sure was good, man,” Frank said. Pulled me right down from that crazy fuckin’ acid, just like you said it would. Nikki really liked it, too. ”

“No false advertising here, Frank.” Waverly grinned. “You still got a bit of the faraway-eyes thing going, man. That shit work out okay for you?”

“Shit was like being strapped to a funhouse chair and somebody threw away the key. A lot different kind of trip than I remembered.”

“Everything changes over time, Frank. Even you. And you did take four fuckin’ hits, man.”

“So I did. And gee, Keith, thanks for that bit of ancient wisdom. Never would’ve figured that out on my own.”

Waverly kept smiling, took another swallow of beer. “And how is the lovely Nikki Clark these days?”

“Lovely,” Frank said. And thinking of Nikki, got a pang in his heart and felt the urge to hear some music, something to draw her nearer, something to make him forget his guilt over the Judy Bruton fantasies. “Got any of that pot with you, man?”

“A little.”

“Care to share it with your friendly local bartender?”

“In here?”

“Nah, that ah, might be a little too bold, even for the Metropole. I’ll get Jenny behind the bar and we can go downstairs. Nobody around on Sundays down there. And I see Moran just came in, so we’ll drag him along and pretend we’re checking out the remodel job Betty wants done.”

Waverly got a nervous look and glanced around the room. “Yeah, all right. Sounds good. Right now?”

“Soon as I get everyone squared away.”

A little while later Frank did something he’d never done before, smoked pot on premises during his shift. Definitely a first. And after, coming upstairs into the Metropole again and feeling the eyes on him and the illegal smile grabbing his mouth, he went behind the bar and did something else that was frowned upon, popping a bottle of Bud and drinking it while he worked. It wasn’t a first, there’d been other occasions, like Christmas Eve and New Year’s, and, of course, St. Patrick’s Day, but as a general rule, he didn’t imbibe at work.

But things were different now, weren’t they?

(To be continued)

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