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Posts Tagged ‘Elmore Leonard’

 

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CHAPTER 14, EXCERPT 2

DivePhotoVIX

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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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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Dive Calm before storm photo

CHAPTER 13, EXCERPT 2

At twelve on the dot he made the call and put on his best manners and got things squared away, after a fashion. She came over a little later and they rode in her red car, Frank behind the wheel, to the A&W on London Road. When they were finished with lunch Frank wanted to drive off with the tiny root beer mugs but Nikki wouldn’t allow it. For the rest of the afternoon they went through the motions, acting like everything was all right, smiling and being nice to each other while driving around town in the sun, Frank hating the happy couples he saw on the sidewalks and front yards. Were these couples really happy or were they just going through the motions, too? A lot of that going on these days it seemed.

Frank was starting to think that maybe it was himself he hated. Maybe he was just sick of everything and everyone and needed to tear it all down and start fresh. The gut-wrenching afternoon had dragged him back to the final days of his defunct marriage, a gray, sour time that scorched its mark on his head for a long time after. He’d never forget how it ended—more a whimper than a bang. One day Carol just looked at him and said It’s over, isn’t it? And he said, Yeah, I guess it is. And that was pretty much it, except for the legal necessities, which were also a pain in the ass.

But now he just wanted to run.

And things didn’t get any better after Nikki dropped him off at home and he was left alone with his memories and thoughts. The night closed in and he started wishing he was back tending at the Metropole. How sick was that? Man, Sunday was just not his day. Even when he was a kid, he hated Sundays; school the next day and all of that. The day had just always felt shitty.

 

On Monday morning the good times kept rolling. Frank and Moran were greeted at the side door of Pill’s Palace by a note duct-taped to the glass:

To Mr. D. Moran of Malomar Construction:

I will be away from Zenith until the following Saturday, May 10, at which time, the current re-modeling project at 5242 London Road, will be re-evaluated. Any future proposals will also be considered at this time. Prior to this date, please complete all current tasks and have the first floor in a neat, clean and livable state for my return.

Sincerely,

Richard X. Pillsbury

After reading it, Moran’s face fell into his boots. First thing he did was start railing about Waverly and his goddamn drugs. To which Frank responded by pointing out in a calm and reasonable tone that Moran seemed to have no trouble with Keith when the drugs were going up his (Moran’s) nose. And also there was a strong possibility these things would have happened whether Waverly was involved or not. Frank thought of adding that he believed Judy had orchestrated the whole scenario, but didn’t, deciding Moran already had enough on his pickled mind.

Moran seemed to consider things for a moment and then shrugged and put the key in the side door and they went inside and began working toward the completion of all current tasks. Fifteen minutes later Keith showed up and Moran was a little icy but eventually he thawed and the trio shuffled through the workday with an absence of rancor.

Frank figured Moran believed the golden goose was decapitated, and Frank was a little worried himself. He made a mental note to file for his unemployment compensation real soon and get the ball rolling, and find out where Betty stood on the issue.

Some of the joviality was missing from the crew now but they managed to muddle through the days. By Wednesday afternoon at four, the end of the current job was in sight. The three of them were together in the back room, Waverly sweeping up and singing along to the radio, reminding Frank of those black dudes you saw pushing around a broom outside of some white guy’s store down South, Keith not letting the responsibility get to him. Moran had the back end of a pencil between his teeth as he wrapped the cord around his power saw. “I think we can squeeze one more day out of this without trying too hard,” Moran said. “Friday, though, we’ll have to pretend we’re busy. You’re good at that, right, Keith?”

“I’m a pro, Dan.”

And then they all stopped what they were doing as the wail of a passing siren suddenly got up close and personal, Frank thinking the damn thing was coming right in here, the thought confirmed as the siren rattled the windows of the back room before it died out with a throaty sigh. Frank was the first to the door, the other two on his heels. They hurried along the side of the house and came around the corner and sure enough there was a big orange and white ambulance in the driveway, two ambulance jockeys dragging a gurney out of the backend. A young woman in a white nurse’s outfit, who was definitely not Judy, was standing on the front steps of the house with her arms folded across her chest and a look of deep concern on her face. Frank glanced at Moran and Waverly and quickly decided that he was the best suited to talk to the nurse. Frank waited as the two EMTs hustled the gurney through the front door, then approached the young woman in white. “Um, hello,” he said. “My name is Frank Ford and I’m, ah, on the construction crew. The three of us were wondering if Mrs. Pillsbury was all right and if there was anything we could do.”

The nurse looked at him, the muscles in her face contorting. She seemed fearful, nervous, worried. “Oh no,” she said, “Mrs. Pillsbury is not all right. She’s had a seizure. There was nothing I could do but call for an ambulance. The poor woman…” Her voice trailed off as she stared out toward London Road.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Frank said. “Anything we can do to help?”

“No, I don’t think so.” She looked like she was about to cry. “Thank you for asking, though. Mr. and Mrs. Pillsbury will be returning from Las Vegas tonight to take care of things.”

Christ, they got married?

Going back, watching Waverly and Moran shuffling around in the dirt at the edge of the driveway, both of ‘em staring at the tops of their boots, Frank was reminded of two struggling kids waiting for their report cards, pretty much sure of bad news but still clinging to a glimmer of improbable hope.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 11, EXCERPT 3



This bit of news prompted Waverly to leave the fireside and walk bowlegged down to the lakeshore and the excited ladies. Frank stayed where he was, close to the fire, thinking Judy and the two guests must’ve stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog.

Look at Judy down there in an earth-toned hunting jacket. Blue plaid flannel shirt with the tails hanging out, white turtleneck and new-looking jeans, her blonde hair tied back in a little ponytail. Frank was hoping for a look from her but so far nothing, she hadn’t even seemed to notice him. The couple, Pillsbury’s friends—the guy a buttoned up-button-down type with horn-rim glasses and the chick a decent-looking brunette of about thirty, red scarf tied around the crown of her head—were both wearing thickly woven sweaters and tan outdoor slacks that looked like they’d come off the rack this morning. They were also wearing matching green, knee-high rubber boots.

Standing close to Pills, Frank was now positive the man was the one he’d seen beating on Ray last fall. And he was getting the urge to say something to the big prick with the inbred sense of self-importance and the permanent I’m-better-than-you look. Did Pills actually believe he was man enough for Judy Bruton? Was he deluded enough to think she’d even give him a second glance if he wasn’t rich? Was he unaware she was going to take him for a ride? Seemed so. Ignorance, man.  But Frank pushed back his vitriol—he was feeling strangely reticent all of a sudden—and stayed within the bounds of polite company. “You do much fishing, Mr. Pillsbury?” he said, doing a little fishing himself.

Pillsbury, in his watery monotone, said, “Please call me Rick, Frank. Mister rings a bit too formal for our current surroundings, I think. As far as fishing goes, I’ve had a little experience: Some fly fishing for cutthroat trout in Montana and Colorado, salmon on the banks of the Columbia, and bonefish in Florida, just to name a few. But this kind of thing here is something new to me. And I confess, standing so close to a beautiful body of water such as this, gives me the urge to break out a long stiff rod and do some casting.”

“I’m a long pole man myself,” Frank said, “But you have to admire the efficiency of the dip net. Just puts itself in the path of its desired object and stays there, wide open and inviting, until the prey slides in like it’s the most natural thing in the world. And once in, very few ever get back out again, y’know? A very efficient use of energy, don’t you think? And the seine—like those two guys over there are using,” Frank pointed down at two young men dragging a long stretch of netting affixed to two poles along the shadowy shoreline, “is the most efficient trap of all. It takes two people to work it, but when the smelt are really running, when the little fish are overflowing with the need to procreate, the seine can really do some damage.”

Frank checked Pills for a reaction but the rich prick just took a drink from his beer bottle and stood stick-straight staring down the beach at Judy, Frank thinking it was only a matter of time before Pills called him Old Sport. They both kept their eyes trained on Judy splashing in the shallows in Moran’s too-big hip boots, saw her give Waverly a playful shove as Keith offered up the smelt net. Frank didn’t like the feeling it gave him—and fuck, was pissed just having any reaction at all—but figured Pills was a tich perturbed himself. But Pillsbury remained stoic in his dark pullover windbreaker, designer jeans and well-oiled hunting boots, the only indication of unrest his twitching jaw tendons. The man was acting as if he actually thought he was cool, some kind of stud, when in fact he came across like a grandiose—Frank couldn’t think of a more descriptive term than douchebag.

Okay, enough of that shit, Frank said to himself. Keep it together, man.

Frank and Pillsbury stood by the flickering fire watching the two women at the shoreline goofing with Waverly, the girls taking turns dragging the net through the frigid water and whooping with delight when it came out with a few fish flopping in the cone. Moran was standing awkwardly to one side voicing the occasional instruction—Moran a self-proclaimed expert on just about anything—and holding a plastic garbage bag for the captured smelt.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 11, EXCERPT 2

smelt 3

Rick Pillsbury—he always felt more like a Rick than a Richard when doing something outdoorsywas somewhat relieved. Yesterday morning when his Judy had blurted out the invitation to Moran—why, he had the urge to hit the girl, slap the foolishness right out of her. But instead he’d sunken into fearful imaginings, picturing Frank Ford standing in the frigid water with his arms around Judy; Ford demonstrating the proper technique for operating a smelt net. It was a scene from an old Elvis Presley movie in a fever dream, featuring Frank Ford as Elvis-in-chest waders, the big stud hitting on the pretty girls and serenading the provincial locals with ballads about record catches and long-drowned smelters.

How foolish romance can make one.

But what Rick was seeing now was Dan Moran standing along the shoreline talking and gesturing, demonstrating his dip-and-glide method with one of those peculiar smelting-type nets that had a v-shaped metal-mesh basket and a long wooden handle. Judy and the guests—the pharmacist from Goldfine’s by the Bridge, Roger Bergson, and his fiancé, Linda Turnbull—were giving Moran their rapt attention. Moran resembled death in suspenders but he was polite and keeping his distance. And besides the smelting nets, he’d brought along an extra pair of hip boots, a set of chest waders and even a seine, things that Rick had, like a greenhorn, neglected to bring.

Rick’s good mood was tempered somewhat when he saw Frank Ford and the hippie (Waverly?) walking across the beach in his direction. Seemed like a good time to grab one of those bottles of Beck’s beer Judy had insisted he buy. He was squatting down at the brand new red and white Igloo cooler when the two itinerants crunched up the stones and placed themselves in front of the fire, the curly-headed one clad in denim and reminding Rick of someone in that Woodstock movie, while Ford was neat and clean in a green lightweight jacket and a reasonably decent pair of Levis.

Playing host because he knew his fiancé wanted it that way, Rick smiled at the new arrivals. “Welcome, glad you could make it. Care for a fine German beer?” This brew was likely out of their normal price range, so why not show some generosity and give them a taste of the high life? Perhaps it would make them feel grateful and motivate them to work a little harder on the house. Let them see that their employer is a decent, honest, generous man.

Rick lifted out three bottles and set them on the rocks, closed the lid on the cooler. He took the bottle opener—they called them church keys around here—snapped off the caps and stood up with a smile. He handed a bottle to Frank Ford and one to his companion Waverly. It was Waverly, wasn’t it? Up close, that one seemed a bit jumpy and spaced out, if that was the correct term. Maybe the man just wasn’t used to polite company. The car he drove—side mirror hanging down on the door for God’s sake—certainly seemed to indicate a disdain for the values one needed to succeed in this world. But both men thanked him for the beers so at least they were polite.

“We sure got lucky on the weather, eh?” Ray Ford’s older brother said, foregoing formal greetings. “Perfect for the smelt, perfect for the smelters.”

“Indeed,” Rick said. “It is quite pleasant—for Lake Superior, this time of year. I’m afraid I’m not yet adjusted to what passes for spring along the North Shore.”

“So you don’t get rain, wind and cold in North Dakota in the spring?” Waverly said, swallowing beer and wiping his lips with the sleeve of his denim jacket, the hippie’s jaw set at a strange angle and moving slightly, sort of a chewing motion with nothing to chew.

“Oh indeed we do,” Rick said, pushing back his annoyance and pasting on a smile. “Just not with the frequency and consistency that seems to be the norm around here. But this spectacle,” gesturing with a wave of his hand at the smelters, “is like nothing I ever experienced in North Dakota.” Hearing his fiancé give a gleeful hoot, Rick turned to the water’s edge to see Moran lifting out a net full of wriggling silvery fish, water droplets cascading off the netting and shining in the firelight like tiny diamonds. “And now it seems the smelt are running.”

He hoped he’d used the proper jargon.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 3

Frank winced. “Is that it, Danny?”

“Patience is a virtue, Frank. Try some, why don’t you?” Moran took another hit of beer. “So here comes the good part. Judy’s standing there and she pipes up they’re planning to have some friends over tomorrow night and she and Pills thought it would be fun to go out to the river and try smelting. But neither Tricky Ricky nor her has ever done it before so she’s wondering if I might want to join them and give some pointers. Then she says bring the rest of the crew, too. So I tell her I wouldn’t want anyone to get washed out into the lake like happens every year, so I’d be glad to come out and show ’em the ropes. And I tell you; you shoulda seen the look on old Pill’s face. I thought he was about to swallow his goddamn tongue.”

“She really said that?” Frank said, feeling a tickle of anticipation in his solar plexus.

“No, I’m making it up, Frank. Part of the book I’m writing.” Moran knocked down the rest of his beer. “Of course she said it, man. What woman can resist the Irish charm of Daniel J. Moran?”

“Just about every chick alive, from what I’ve seen, Danny.” Frank said, finishing off the bottle of Bud that Moran bought him. “What time we going?”

Smirking, Moran eyed him. “Judy said they were going out to the mouth of the Lester around six to find a spot they can build a fire, roast some weenies and stuff. But we can show up anytime, ’tis a public beach, after all.”

Frank said, “Thank you Daniel J. Moran for that bit of tourist information. What time you planning on going?”

“Oh, I dunno, around dusk, I s’pose. Smelt start running at sundown, don’t they?”

Frank said, “Could be. Good a time as any, I guess. You coming, Keith?”

“Unless I get a call to drive cab.” Waverly paused, seemed to ponder something. “But—you know—the hell with it, I can’t stand sitting in that cab on a nice night when shit is happening. I’m going. You need a ride?”

“I’m not sure,” Frank said. “I’ll call you if I do.” He was tussling with the idea of borrowing Nikki’s car and the turmoil made him want another beer. Sure, he’d said he’d only have one, but everybody says that—and pretty much nobody Frank heard say it in all his years tending bar, ever stopped at just one. He had a pocket full of cash, so what the hell? “Another round, please,” Frank said to the muscled up college type in a blue polo shirt behind the bar. And now, Christ, Frank’s mind was jumping with new ideas, new demands, the chance to get close to Judy opening up possibilities he could previously only dream about. Had previously dreamed about. But he needed to pull in the reins and do some thinking. What would be his approach? Could he ply these people with alcohol and see if someone said something about Ray? That seemed unlikely. Still, you never know until you try. But did he even care about who killed Ray anymore? Wasn’t it Nurse Judy he wanted? Wasn’t she what was driving him crazy? But crazy was the operative word, man. He needed to be smart, in control and looking ahead.

That would be the hard part.

Frank left the Shoal after his third Bud. No shots of Wild Turkey. No joints in the parking lot with Waverly. No drinking games. No nothing. When he left them, Dan and Keith were deeply involved in a discussion about cocaine, both with glints in their respective eyes, and they hardly noticed his exit.

At home in his postage-stamp living room, Frank pushed the button on the answering machine and heard Nikki inquiring as to his weekend plans. Nikki saying she had to work both Friday and Saturday and maybe Frank could come out one night and hang out for a little while, a slight hint of concern—or maybe resentment—in her voice.

He pushed the delete button, wishing he had one for his mind. Last place he wanted to go was Jimmy Carl’s goddamn strip club. And thinking of Nikki made his stomach jump and twist. There had to be something wrong with him. Just a week ago Nikki was his whole world and now he was shitting on her. But hell, that was the kind of garbage you expected from a member of the Ford family.

It was becoming increasingly clear that Nikki was better off without him. And that thought set him off musing, mulling and contemplating.

Frank didn’t mind being alone; in fact, he was beginning to prefer it, but he didn’t consider himself a loner. When you’d spent as much time tending bar in a dive as he had, a place where you saw the human race at its worst—and anyone denies that is lying to themselves—you just tend to crave solitude, man. Sure, he knew he’d always have the need for occasional female companionship, which explained those nights bringing home some chick from the bar for a little of the horizontal tango only to feel bad and cheap afterwards, hating the smell of the stranger on him, but now he could see that this type of behavior—the one-night stands, the after-hours conquests and all that went along with it—was a form of self-abuse. Not self-abuse, like jerking off, but the real and destructive kind—the emotional torment. And he was a lot different now from when he first started at the Metropole. Back then it was a player’s dream, that old line about needing a stick to fight them off nearly true. Cute girls, too, most of ’em, and if you’d told Frank then that this seemingly limitless bounty would eventually get boring and tedious, he would’ve laughed in your face. But it in fact did turn tiresome—and oddly repetitive. And then after he met Nikki—a vision of loveliness working a waitress gig at a saloon just two blocks from his tiny house—Frank hardly ever looked a second time at the nubile honeys smiling up at him across the bar. Just occasionally, you know—but only if she was exceptional.

And that’s why his growing obsession with Judy Bruton was so goddamn troubling.

Fuck it, maybe he’d just order a pizza.

(End of Chapter 10)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 2

Moran was scanning the floor for anything needed picking up and Waverly was pushing back his hair with his fingers when Frank saw Nurse Judy standing at the bottom of the stairwell. And instead of going out the front door like she usually did, she turned and walked toward the side door, which Waverly was about to open. Keith stepped out of her way and Frank saw her give the guy a little smile. Kind of smile had some meaning behind it. Keith nodded to her, saying “Hello,” and gave her a nice look, no lechery visible.

Frank watched Judy say “Hi” back and then couldn’t believe it when she turned his way with what he thought was a randy grin, Judy saying in a husky tone: “See you later, men.” Then turning and walking out the door with Frank staring at her rear.

Now here was the faded, jaded, junky nurse Jagger sang about and Frank remembered. “You see that look she gave me?” he said in a low, hoarse whisper, not wanting the lord of the manor to hear him should the prick be lingering somewhere nearby.

“I think she had gas, Frank,” Moran said. “But wait’ll you hear what went on upstairs.”

“What was it, man? What’d she say? She say something about me?”

“You’ll have to come to the Shoal to find out, lover boy.”

*   *   *

“So I go up to the third floor and knock on the door,” Moran was saying, bellied up to the large rectangular bar at the Shoal Lounge, a workingman-and-college-crowd tavern on London Road that had the advantage of location, being the easternmost bar in the city. The only reason, Frank believed, that the characterless, generic dump did as well as it did. Afternoon on a rainy Friday and the place was nearly full, guys in work clothes drinking and letting off steam. “And Nurse Judy opens it and I’m expecting her to give me one of her snarl-ass looks, y’know, but she just smiles nice and says ‘Come on in, Dan.’”

Moran, standing between Frank and Waverly, continued. “So I walk in there, and Pills is acting kinda pissy. But I’m used to that so I don’t pay it any mind. I give him the time sheet and I’m kinda half-expecting him to start bitching about shit—like I’m trying to screw him or something like that—wouldn’t be the first time, but he just smiles and writes out the check and starts asking me what kind of wood I think is best for the deck he wants built. I say redwood or cedar, but he could go with something cheaper if he wants—I mean, I know he’s gonna want the most expensive shit available so the neighbors will think he’s the King of London Road—”

“Jesus, Danny,” Frank interrupted, “You writing a fuckin’ book? What the hell happened that’s so goddamn interesting—you two talking about wood?”

“I got some wood for you,” Waverly said, grabbing his crotch, earning frowns from both Frank and Moran.

“Just a goddamn minute, Frank,” Moran said, taking a nip of Windsor and washing it back with a gulp of beer. “So we’re standing there and I look over and see today’s paper on the counter. The story on the front page is about the smelt run starting up, all the people coming into town for the weekend and stuff like that. And I say—as a way of making conversation—I ask him if he ever went smelting before. I’m expecting some typical bullshit answer, y’know—like he isn’t interested or doesn’t like fish or whatever the hell—but he says, “You know, Dan, living in North Dakota, I heard about this smelt run for years. And now that I’m right here at the epicenter, so to speak, I thought it would be a good time to try it out.” Moran finished off the Windsor and slugged more beer.

“He really said epicenter?” Waverly said.

 

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 1

The next three days were dry and mild and the crew made good progress on Pillsbury’s Palace. The dormers were roughed out and Moran was having daily discussions with King Richard concerning the details of the remodel. Moran would come back from the talks shaking his head and grinning, saying Pillsbury was constantly coming up with new ideas, new features that he wanted. Moran said the man was talking a showcase job, no expenses spared; make it the envy of London Road.

This was good news to Frank because he’d begun to realize the fallacy in thinking this gig would be a stepping stone to a better life, the first step down the path to respectability and steady employment and all that. The acid trip had clearly made him delusional. Temporarily. Now he was just hoping this gig would last until the leaves started changing and maybe he’d have time to find something indoors before full-on winter came to call.

Over the course of the week, Nurse Judy had made only rare appearances outside, and when she did cross Frank’s path she wore her prim and proper face and barely acknowledged his presence. And it was getting to him. Stuff he was feeling wasn’t going away. He’d avoided Nikki all week, not returning her calls and ignoring her pleas on his answering machine—if pleas wasn’t too strong a word—to come out to the club, “like he used to.” She also offered to let him use the Honda whenever he had a need and that made him feel like a total hangdown.

Thirty-six year old man needs to use his girlfriend’s car. Old perv’s got one hand in the girl’s pants and the other in her purse. Man’s a withering parasite. White trash.

And, man, he didn’t need any more reasons for self-persecution; he was a goddamn expert already.

Rainy dat Dive Bartender                                

On Friday morning Frank was looking out his kitchen window at the gray, threatening clouds when Moran’s truck swung in. Minutes later, stepping in to mingle with the scent of old Coney’s, cheap cigars, puke and decaying fast food, Frank believed the stink was the worst he could recall, the aroma coming off Moran’s tall steaming paper cup of Holiday coffee only making it worse. And he could only open the window a crack because now it was raining.

By the time Moran turned into Pillsbury’s driveway, it was pouring. Frank saw Waverly across the road in the Olds, the hippie grinning behind the rain-streaked windshield, thin smoke escaping from the partially open driver’s window. Moran brought the truck to a stop at the end of the driveway and shut off the ignition. Old Chevy pickup gave a snort and a buck and went quiet. “No outside work today if this keeps up,” Moran said, gazing at the raindrops hammering and bubbling on the truck’s faded white hood. “But I think I can find enough for us to do inside to keep us here until noon at least. Today is payday, so maybe Pillsbury will be so pleased with all the work we got done that he’ll give us the afternoon off on his dime.”

“You think so?” Frank said, his voice rising in disbelief.

“Not really. But a man can dream, y’know? More likely he bitches about all three of us being in his house at the same time.”

Waverly came to Moran’s window, knocked on the glass and pointed at the sky, raindrops bouncing off his high cheekbones. “Okay, Keith, I know,” Moran said to the closed window. “We’ll go in the house so you can stay dry. Grab my tool box out of the back, would you?”

They went inside and checked all the new construction for leaks. Finding none, they completed the finishing stages on the interior of the dormers. Next they measured the outline for the new set of glass doors Pillsbury wanted at the back of the house—the rich man evidently desiring a showy deck to keep up with the neighbors. Every house you saw on London Road these days seemed to have a new and impressive lakeside deck.

Waverly, the gopher and lowest on the totem pole, had, over the course of the morning, made several runs to the dumpster with hunks of scrap wood and assorted debris and was now sitting on a sawhorse, his damp black curls pasted to his forehead, a trail of wet muddy prints leading to his green-striped Adidas sneakers. Watching Moran brushing sawdust off his blue denim Oskosh B’gosh overalls, Waverly said, “We get paid by check or cash, Danny?”

“Pillsbury gives me a check and I total up the hours of my crew and pay them accordingly. Got you down for twelve and a half hours, Keith. Ought to be enough for you to get drunk on tonight.”

Waverly gave him the finger. “Fuck you, man,” he said. “It’s thirteen if it’s a minute.”

“Thirteen hours it is then,” Moran said.

“Blow me,” Waverly said.

“Before or after I pay you?”

“How about both?”

Moran grinned and walked toward the stairs. “Thirty-six hours for both of you losers.”

Frank was standing where he could see the bottom of the stairway, waiting there in case Nurse Judy came down like she often did at this time of day. Behind him he heard Waverly say, “You know what this rain means, don’t you, Frank?”

Turning, Frank said, “Water is falling from the sky?”

“There’s that. But also, man, this time of year after a warm spell, first big rain usually brings the smelt into the rivers.”

“Ah, the smelt run, Zenith’s rite of spring. Hordes of drunken smelters littering the shore with beer bottles, biting the heads off little silvery fish and pissing in strangers’ backyards.”

“Good times, man. You partake?”

“Not for a while. The novelty has kinda worn off for me. My ex and I used to like going to those tents that sell the dinners—and I still like a good plate of deep-fried smelt every year, it’s a tradition I guess—but I haven’t actually smelted in years.”

“Speaking of tradition,” Waverly said, “You been back to the Metro since Sunday?”

“No, man. Betty left a couple pissed-off messages on my machine and I’m not quite ready to face her. Knowing her and knowing me, I might just end up behind the bar again if I let her start her rhetoric.”

“Is that a rhetorical statement?”

Frank threw him a frown and then turned to Moran coming off the stairs waving a check. “Here we are, boys, the goose has shat. I’ll take this down to the bank and meet you guys at the Metropole.”

“Ah man,” Frank said, “not there. Betty’ll tear me a new one if I walk in there. Woman’s got a bullwhip for a tongue. Also, I’m not sure if that’s the best place to be seen distributing cash. Based on my ten years of experience, y’know.”

“How about the Shoal then?” Moran said.

Frank said, “It has to be a bar?”

Moran said, “Best place to buy you guys a drink for making this job go so smooth.”

Frank said, “I was sorta hoping to stay out of the bars for a while, having spent half my life in one.”

“Turning pussy?” Moran said, a dull look taking over his freckled face. “Or just getting old?”

“Little of both, I think,” Frank said. “But all right, I’ll meet you at the Shoal—for one. The one you’re gonna buy, Danny boy.”

“Let’s rock and roll then, boys.” Waverly said.

(To be continued)

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