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Blog photo 35

“Hole in the World” 

And he is just about right. We drive into a rundown section of town—tiny, sagging houses all jammed together—until we come to a boarded up little number on a corner lot. Roy turns in the alley and jerks the big boat into the two mud ruts that serve as a driveway for the brown-shingled garage standing next to the dark little corner house. 

Once we’re under the sagging roof, Roy pulls down the squeaky, crooked, overhead door and slides a rock over the strap at the bottom. Strips of streetlight peer in through the sides. Roy takes the plates off the Lincoln with a Swiss army knife and we are soon out of there. He tells me the house is empty, used to belong to his uncle, but the city condemned it on some trumped up deal about the plumbing and the electricity.

We walk about a block and a half while Roy goes on joyfully about his sawing a hole in the floor of his girl’s kitchen so he can drop down into the pharmacy below. How sweet it was, he says.  Had it all planned for months, he says. Knew the perfect spot to cut and everything, he says.  

Then we come to a little parking lot at the rear of a bar and he tosses the now folded-up plates into a dumpster. I see a red and white Leinenkugel’s Beer sign above the back entrance of the building and we stroll in. 

I find out later it’s called The Downtown Bar, but to me it’s just another piss-and-puke joint with an asshole for a bartender and bigger assholes for clientele. 

Roy and I take a booth in the back by the men’s room. I notice he is still carting around his satchel full of burglar tools and pharmaceuticals. I know right then that I’m slipping. Too many things on my mind.  Just trying to get out of this town and I run into this crazy motherfucker. But, you know, I’m thinking this dude’s kind of fun. I kind of like the guy. And he has all those drugs. I’m starting to feel like Jack Kerouac now.

I go up to the bar and order a shot of Jack Daniels and a tap beer for myself, and a Bacardi Coke for Roy. The bartender is a skinny guy in a long sleeved maroon shirt made from petroleum products. His black hair is greased back flat on his head and he’s watching some talk show on the tube: an Indian and a Black and a Hispanic dude having a panel discussion about race problems. The barman is fixing our drinks when he turns to his two cronies down the bar and says: “Them people just ain’t as smart as white people, and that’s a fact. They just don’t have the same mental capacity.”

The bald guy and the fat guy nod their agreement and I’m thinking that these three white guys’ IQs added together wouldn’t equal a perfect score in bowling, if you catch my drift.

I get back to our table and find two Percocets and a Brown + Clear lying there on the table waiting for me. My personal version of the Green Bay Speedball, Roy says. This is not my usual modus operandi. But I’m thinking Kerouac, so I knock the pills down the hatch with the soapy tasting tap beer.

By the time the Perc is gnarling and twisting in my stomach and the speed is crawling up my spine, we’re on our way down the street to meet some “fine ladies”.  No car, you understand—we are walking. There are all these bars in this town, and they’re all so close to each other. It’s not a big town either. Just a bar town, I guess. Easy to find some action, Roy says. Now I can’t remember what I was worrying about anymore. Everything is going to be all right, I’m thinking.

So we’re walking down the street, kicking at the trash on the sidewalks—seems like there are flattened plastic cups everywhere—when Ray grabs my arm and pulls me into another sleazy bar. 

My tastes run towards the clean, well-lit drinking establishments at this point in my life, like the lounges at Holiday Inns—shit like that—but I’ve spent my share of time in places like Marlene’s: Music on the weekends, drugs all the time, good jukebox, nice looking chicks, drugs all the time.

So here I am, all fucked up—don’t know if I’m coming or going—and sometimes I think Roy is walking us right into a police sting operation of some sort. Then the Percs weave through and he suddenly becomes this magical spirit who’s showing off to impress me. Showing me how to find the Hole-in-the-Day and other indispensable lessons for a life on the road. Stuff you need to know to be free.

Time goes by. And I’m trying to have some fun, I swear to god.  But I just can’t get into it. These two chicks that Roy is hot on are sisters; I thought they were Indians at first. Turns out they’re Italian Jews, name of Stolten. Goes to show you never can tell. I get kind of interested in the older one (Ava) for a bit, but after about thirty minutes her drugs kick in and she goes from being stupid to moronic to imbecilic in an instant and I feel kind of sick. Kerouac must of been in more interesting bars than this. Pretty soon I can’t take it any longer; shit is building up. I tell Roy to meet me outside—without the women. 

(To be continued)

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“Hole in the World” 

We hang a U-turn in the middle of the block then head back south for a few blocks and make a right. I figure he’s going to his dealer’s place when we turn into the alley behind a forties-era strip mall: three shingled, seen-better-days two-story buildings adjoining a brick drugstore on the corner.

Roy parks the ratty Continental in the alley and I sit watching while he gets out and grabs a greasy canvas bag from the trunk then proceeds to climb up the drugstore wall. The corners of the building are built with the bricks protruding about an inch and a half on every other row, and old Roy just scurries right up that convenient little ladder like a monkey to a banana stash.  When he gets to the little flat area behind the second floor apartment, he disappears from my sight.

Now I’m freaking out. I should leave right away. It seems this guy is burglarizing the place while I sit waiting in the getaway car. Me with priors and almost a million bucks waiting for me up in God’s country. No way I should jeopardize that. I mean, I’m not running scared; I just have to get the hell out of this car. I go behind a dumpster where I can still see everything and take a piss. Roy doesn’t come out right away so I sit down at the base of an old oak tree and fire up a Kool. At least from here I can run if the cops come. The ground is wet but I plant my ass on one of the tree roots and stay dry. The ground has a pleasant musty smell until the wind swirls and I whiff the dumpster. 

Must be a half an hour before that crazy fucking Indian comes sweating back down the bricks and hops into his car. I can see him inside there behind the wheel, bathed in blue light, his head jerking all around. I know he’s thinking, Where the fuck is that guy, asshole out dropping a dime on me?

I time it so just as he backs out into the alley, I grab the door handle and rip it open. Only trouble is Roy sees the door fly open and floors it and damn near jerks my arm out of the socket. A couple of yards down the alley he realizes it’s me and starts laughing his ass off. I run up and get in and he floors it again like a fucking idiot and we go swerving and tire spinning down the dusty trail. I’m sure by then that every house for a square block has dialed 911.

None too pleased, I say, “What the fuck were you doing back there, Roy, buddy? If it was anything illegal I suppose I should say what did we do back there, because as long as I’m in this car with you, I’m an accessory. And that means I get to know what the fuck it was you were doing.”

“Oh, nothing much, man. No sweat, not to worry,” Roy says. He’s barely under control, lips sticking to his teeth. “Just something I been thinking about for a long time.”

“Whose apartment was that you just illegally entered?”       

“That was my girlfriend’s apartment.” 

“What’s the matter, lose your keys or something?”

“Yeah, I did, a long time ago. I should’ve said my ex-girl friend.  We just broke up. Just this minute. Only she doesn’t know it yet. I don’t think she’ll want me anymore now that I’ve ruined her kitchen floor.”

“Ah, man, what did you do, trash the place ’cause she’s balling someone else or some shit?” I’m imagining all sorts of weird shit he might have pulled.

“No, man.  I wouldn’t trash a woman’s place. I mean—for screwing somebody else. Nah, not me, it wasn’t like that.”

“What the fuck did you do then? I think I have a right to know. And one thing you need to know is that I got priors. That’s what you need to know. And if I need to get out of this car to keep from getting popped, I expect you to tell me.”

“I’m sorry, man,” he says. His eyes are sparkling, burning in the dashboard light. “Back at Mama’s I was thinking you might have done some hard time. I don’t want to get your ass in a sling, man, so maybe you’re right. Maybe we should ditch this car. Take off the plates and—”

“It’s still got registration numbers.”

“Yes, it does. But I never changed the title. Bought it from a skin off the rez—up by Bemidji—and they’ll never find that fucker. They come looking; he’ll just disappear into the woods. Probably stole the thing anyway. The plates, though, are mine—off an old Pontiac I had.”

“You still haven’t told me what you did back there in that apartment, Roy. You’re a tricky one, aren’t you?”

“And you’re a persistent one, Mr. I-Got-Priors. I was going to tell you, man. But you need to know one thing: I was an MP in the service and I fucked up a lot of tough guys when I was in. Some of ’em thought they were real fuckin’ bad, too—before they decided to mess with me, that is. So don’t think you can horn in on my action, here. I—”

“Listen, Roy, goddamnit. You brought me along on this, man. And now you got me wrong. This ain’t no strong arm. I got plenty action of my own that I’d like to get to without having to spend time in some jerkwater jail, that’s all.”

“Okay, Donny boy, then take a look in that bag back there and see if there’s anything you recognize. Besides the burglar tools, I mean.”

“Ha, ha, very funny. You’re a funny guy, Roy. So come on, tell me, funny guy, what did you do back there in your girlfriend’s apartment?” I snatch the greasy bag from the back seat and it’s so heavy I wrench my back a little. When I look inside I have the answer to my question: I’m not sure how he did it, but the fifty or sixty bottles of colorful pills lying in the duffel tell me that the crazy sonofabitch hit the drugstore, hard.

“Jesus fuckin’ Jenny,” I say, “you got thousands of bucks worth of pills here. You got your Percocet, your Valium, your Dilaudid, Xanax… some generic morphine, five and fifteen milligram… looks like some Brown + Clears at the bottom here. Codeine… Percodan… Jesus Christ, man, I’d say you hit the mother lode.” I take a nice deep breath and let it out real slow. “So now that I’ve praised your work, can you let me get real far away from you?”

“Relax, relax, my man. There’s no problem here. We’ll be rid of this car and inside a bar in ten minutes, I promise you.”

(To be continued)

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Blog photo 31

 

“Hole in the World” 

Ma was never the same after Bill left. She took to the pills and the cheap booze, didn’t matter what kind.

So I’m sitting here watching the fishing show and trying to avoid looking at Mama. I mean, check out her white, fringy cowgirl boots, they’re too much. But after a while I’m getting a crick in the neck so I stretch and turn my head from side to side and come eyeball to eyeball with the Indian guy and he’s smiling at me. 

“You like fishing?” he asks me, saying it nice and friendly.

“I never caught one of them walleyes before, like that guy,” I say, gesturing up at another ‘nice fish’ being netted on the tube. “I haven’t fished in a long time. One of those fly-in trips to Canada would be a kick.”

“Shit, man,” the guy comes back. “You can catch fish like that right around here, if you know the right places. Too bad there’s not much going on now… maybe trout or salmon if you can get out on the big lake. It’ll be better in a few weeks.”

“Nah, I won’t be around that long. I’m just here waiting for my car to get fixed—over at Carlson’s. I’m not staying around. But that Lake Superior is something, though.”

Then we get to talking about fishing and sports and all that for a while and I kind of get to liking the Indian guy. Even Mama ain’t bad with time. She smiles too much and wears too much lipstick and makeup, but she’s all right. After a couple more shots and beers we order-up hamburgers and fries that Mama cooks up to a delicious result. I’m feeling so good and generous that I pay for the meal and order another round. Mama (by now she’s sipping pink wine from a champagne glass and insisting we call her Ethel) starts spinning yarns about her days as a stripper. Even brings out some yellowed old newspaper clippings with stories about her “dancing” at places called the Saratoga and the Classy Lumberjack and the Silver Slipper, under the moniker Ethyl Flame—sometimes Ethyl Fire. Her real name is Ethel Hawley, but what’s in a name?

So we carry on for a time, like good-natured drunks. At one point Mama is down at the other end of the bar waiting on a couple of guys in blue coveralls and the Indian guy asks me if I want to go outside and smoke a joint. He tells me it isn’t that great, just some homegrown, but it tastes good, and it’s the least he can do after I bought dinner. So I say yes, and after we finish our drinks he puts on his jacket that he’s been sitting on and we go out to the alley. 

After we finish the jay I pull a little chunk of black hash out of my pocket and inquire into the availability of a pipe and he says, “Yeah, I got one in my car but we better go inside and say goodbye to Mama first.” 

I say, “Fuck Mama.”

And he says, “I did once.” 

I laugh; he winks.

“I can’t stand anymore pink,” I say.

“Just a quick in and out,” he says. “I need a pack of smokes.”

I want a pack of Kools myself so I go back in. 

The place is overwhelming this time around. The walls look hideous and Mama’s scent hangs everywhere like a lethal, tobacco- smoke-laced nerve gas. My throat constricts and I can’t breathe. I swear the picture behind the bar of Mama Hawley in fringe pasties is doing the shimmy. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and I walk fast for the door. As soon as I get outside I’m all right. I smoke my last cigarette while I’m waiting and then Roy comes out with a pack of Kools he flips over to me. I say thanks and we go over to his beaten down old Lincoln and smoke the hash in a little pipe made out of a red stone he calls pipestone. He says it’s sacred to the Indians and leaves it at that. 

So we’re sitting there staring out at nothing and pretty soon he says, “We gotta go find us some pussy. You up for that, my friend? What was your name again?”

“Don Enrico. What’s yours?”

“Roy Hollinday. I already told you that.”

“I forgot.”

“How could you forget, man? I told you what it meant back in the bar. My original family name was Hole-In-The-Day. Remember now? I told you about the white school people changing it to Hollinday. And Roy was for Roy Rogers, because my mother had this alarm clock with Roy and his horse Trigger on the face. When the clock was working, they clicked back and forth like they were riding across the prairie. I told you all that.”

“Now I remember. Before I didn’t. Sometimes I got a lot of things on my mind.” An Indian named after Roy Rogers—I really should’ve remembered that. Sometimes I just ain’t listening, I guess.

Roy shrugs slightly and says, “No problem, Don. Whattaya say we sample the nightlife around here. It’s the only life in this town.”

“Yeah, I could do that,” I answer. Guy has a way about him.

We cruise down to the main drag in Roy’s rusty Continental, hang a right and head toward what Roy calls the North End: bars, massage parlors, an out-of-business hardware store, cab company and more bars. A few more bars and then an all-night cafe. 

Roy rubs his forehead and stares out at the gaudy neon as we bump across the railroad tracks. Out in front of the Cave Cabaret, I see a burly bouncer type punching on somebody. Then three chicks burst out of the darkness and dash arm-and-arm across the street in front of us. Roy hardly slows. “Dykes,” he says, and gives me a wicked grin. 

Next comes a flashing Girls Girls Girls sign and an old bum vomiting on the sidewalk. People and cars move by in a slow blur.  I’m feeling pretty vacant but starting to feel like something good is going to happen. The pressure begins to lift.

He seems so calm and sincere. 

(To be continued)

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BLog photo 1

“Hole in the World” 

EXCERPT TWO

I’m thinking maybe I should get some food in my belly, until I hit the pavement and catch a breath of this stink in the air, like Limburger cheese. A real god-awful stench hangs thick in the air in this dirty old town. 

The sound of the answering machine keeps echoing in my head as I walk. And the smell in the air is so bad that I go quickly to the yellow concrete box that is Mama’s Bar and Grill. I glance through the little parallelogram window on the red door for an instant and then push my way inside.

Pink. 

Except for the obligatory Green Bay Packers poster and a couple of beer signs, the whole place is pink. Top of the bar is mahogany or cherry wood—some nice stuff— with pink vinyl padding around the edges. Behind three rows of pink-lit liquor bottles is a mirror ringed in fluffy, padded, pink satin. The faded red walls have little pink dots and bows painted on them. A pink hue clings to the window trim, the pool table felt, and the vinyl tops of the chrome barstools. Sugar sweet, like cotton candy.  

I’m kind of overwhelmed at first, especially after I catch a gander of the aging, poof-haired broad with Howdy Doody cheeks and peroxide-silver hair standing behind the bar in a shiny white pantsuit with pink powder puff wristlets, her lips as big and red as her teeth are big and white.

I sit down and try not to look too fucking mind-blown. I order a shot of Wild Turkey and a Budweiser. The Bud comes in a can, the Turkey in a two ounce shot glass about three-quarters full. Mama’s perfume is strong and cheap. I whack down the shot and shove the tin can to my lips for a wash. Goddamn. Sonofabitch.

The fucking Mosers better answer their phone pretty goddamn soon.

A couple of stools to my left there’s an Indian guy wearing a wrinkled blue pinstriped dress shirt and jeans He’s got swarthy, lightly pockmarked skin, heavy lidded eyes and some kind of Coca-Cola drink sitting in front of him.. About five-ten and a middleweight, he’s checking out a fishing show on the wall tube behind the bar. His profile is exactly like the face on those old buffalo nickels, guy’s grandfather must’ve been the model. 

There’s a blonde, bearded guy in a flannel shirt on the TV hammering the walleyes on some Canadian lake. I always liked fishing; my old man used to take me fishing. In fact that’s the last time I ever saw the asshole—the time he took me fishing—years ago, when I was eleven. 

When you go after catfish in the summertime, you go at night.  Build a fire by the river, boil a pot of coffee and throw out setlines with bells fastened to the rods so you can hear the fish take the bait. My old man always used a glob of chicken livers on a big hook.

We bagged a couple of nice cats that night. I fell asleep by the fire on an old canvas chaise lounge. Then at first light I woke up and my daddy was gone and one of the rods was busted, the line broken. At the time I don’t remember what pissed me off the most: having to walk all the way home, breaking the rod, or losing ol’ Bill. Couldn’t say I’d miss the Saturday night slap arounds so I guess it was the rod, walking home a close second.

(To be continued)

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BLog photo 1

 

“Hole in the World” 

EXCERPT TWO

I’m thinking maybe I should get some food in my belly, until I hit the pavement and catch a breath of this stink in the air, like Limburger cheese. A real god-awful stench hangs thick in the air in this dirty old town. 

The sound of the answering machine keeps echoing in my head as I walk. And the smell in the air is so bad that I go quickly to the yellow concrete box that is Mama’s Bar and Grill. I glance through the little parallelogram window on the red door for an instant and then push my way inside.

Pink. 

Except for the obligatory Green Bay Packers poster and a couple of beer signs, the whole place is pink. Top of the bar is mahogany or cherry wood—some nice stuff— with pink vinyl padding around the edges. Behind three rows of pink-lit liquor bottles is a mirror ringed in fluffy, padded, pink satin. The faded red walls have little pink dots and bows painted on them. A pink hue clings to the window trim, the pool table felt, and the vinyl tops of the chrome barstools. Sugar sweet, like cotton candy.  

I’m kind of overwhelmed at first, especially after I catch a gander of the aging, poof-haired broad with Howdy Doody cheeks and peroxide-silver hair standing behind the bar in a shiny white pantsuit with pink powder puff wristlets, her lips as big and red as her teeth are big and white.

I sit down and try not to look too fucking mind-blown. I order a shot of Wild Turkey and a Budweiser. The Bud comes in a can, the Turkey in a two ounce shot glass about three-quarters full. Mama’s perfume is strong and cheap. I whack down the shot and shove the tin can to my lips for a wash. Goddamn. Sonofabitch.

The fucking Mosers better answer their phone pretty goddamn soon.

A couple of stools to my left there’s an Indian guy wearing a wrinkled blue pinstriped dress shirt and jeans He’s got swarthy, lightly pockmarked skin, heavy lidded eyes and some kind of Coca-Cola drink sitting in front of him.. About five-ten and a middleweight, he’s checking out a fishing show on the wall tube behind the bar. His profile is exactly like the face on those old buffalo nickels, guy’s grandfather must’ve been the model. 

There’s a blonde, bearded guy in a flannel shirt on the TV hammering the walleyes on some Canadian lake. I always liked fishing; my old man used to take me fishing. In fact that’s the last time I ever saw the asshole—the time he took me fishing—years ago, when I was eleven. 

When you go after catfish in the summertime, you go at night.  Build a fire by the river, boil a pot of coffee and throw out setlines with bells fastened to the rods so you can hear the fish take the bait. My old man always used a glob of chicken livers on a big hook.

We bagged a couple of nice cats that night. I fell asleep by the fire on an old canvas chaise lounge. Then at first light I woke up and my daddy was gone and one of the rods was busted, the line broken. At the time I don’t remember what pissed me off the most: having to walk all the way home, breaking the rod, or losing ol’ Bill. Couldn’t say I’d miss the Saturday night slap arounds so I guess it was the rod, walking home a close second.

(To be continued)

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Northwoods Pulp Reloaded 2021 Cover

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Friendly campfires and twinkling stars can conceal a vast darkness in the great northern forest. Some say it’s in the land itself. Others point to the people who live there. The raw and plaintive stories in T.K. O’Neill’s Northwoods Pulp Reloaded allow for both possibilities, featuring three reloaded short stories (“Hole in the World,” “Snowmobile Stick-up,” “The Devil You Say”) and a new short novel (“My Ship Comes In”).

“Hole in the World” Accompanied by an Indian guide with special skills, a renegade member of the trench coat gang heads north for his share, his woman and his freedom.

“Snowmobile Stick-up” Outlaw snowmobilers heist a bank during a driving blizzard and discover pursuers other than the law.

“The Devil You Say” A down-on-his-luck reporter believes he’s found his ticket to the big time with his investigation of devil worship in a small, Wisconsin town.

“My Ship Comes In” Two dead men in his wake, a Minnesota man flees to every northerner’s preferred hideout: Florida. But temptation is everywhere in the Sunshine State and soon he finds himself waiting on a remote beach for a sailboat loaded with contraband. Complications ensue.

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BLUEROAD3

 

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CHAPTER 29

Frank drove home in a fog with the edge of anticipation ticking in his gut. His limbs were heavy. His mind was wasted and filled with things he hoped didn’t become clear until he was long gone from Zenith. Going into his little rental house for the last time was weird, only a single kitchen chair and a mattress on the living room floor, his footsteps echoing in the empty rooms of what had been his home for many years.

And now all the memories were coming back to haunt him and he knew he’d never get to sleep, the bare walls closing in on him one last time.

He sat in the chair and opened Waverly’s going away gift. On top was a little note. Figured you’d never be able to wait until you were on the road, Frank. Was I right? Best of luck and I hope these items make your journey a real trip.

Underneath a wadded up hunk of newspaper, Frank discovered a plastic pill vial with three large black capsules inside, the original label on the vial peeled off, Stay Awake Pills scratched on the cap with a ballpoint pen. There was also a cassette tape labeled Travelin’ Tunes, which Frank didn’t know how he’d play because Betty’s old Ford wagon didn’t have a tape player, two wrinkled, dog-eared paperbacks, On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler, and, Waverly being Waverly, a joint as big as your thumb. At the bottom of the box was a sheet of paper containing names, addresses and phone numbers, all from Phoenix, Arizona. At the top of the list Waverly had scrawled, “In case you wander south of Route 66, man, these old college friends of mine will show you a good time.”

Frank smiled to himself and was again hit with a surge of sentimentality and fondness for a past that he hadn’t liked that much in the first place. Fearing that he might sink into nostalgia and change his mind, he opened the pill vial, took out one of the black Dexedrine caps, went into the kitchen and put water in a plastic coffee cup and swallowed the capsule.

Hell, if he was lucky, he could be out of the state by the time the sun came up.    

 

(The Real End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)

 

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enger 3

 

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CHAPTER 28, EXCERPT 2

The next few days went by slowly, Frank constantly looking over his shoulder or anticipating a phone call from the police. There were some nights that sleep didn’t come easy, but the cops never gave him so much as a sniff, the Zenith Police Department evidently overburdened by the massive onslaught of national media pouring into the Twin Ports to cover the Pillsbury murders, as the press was calling them.

One national tabloid ran the headline: Diabolical duo does dirty deeds to pharmaceutical heir, pays price.

Another: Down and dirty double team does in pharmaceutical tycoon.

Frank, taking a little something from Keith Waverly’s bag of tricks, had one of his own: Drug douchebag dies from dope dose. Demonic dames did it.

From what Frank could ascertain from the newspapers and the television news, the ZPD had pieced together a scenario remarkably close to what he’d hoped for. The cops theorizing that Richard Pillsbury somehow became aware that his new bride, the former Judy Bruton, and her twin sister, Lisa Semke—previously unknown to Pillsbury, the girls separated shortly after birth—had conspired to gain his affection, trust and matrimonial bond in order to carry out an elaborate masquerade designed to make him dependent on drugs and sex and thus create the opportunity for his eventual overdose death. His death in this manner would have cleared the way for the wife (Bruton) to inherit the massive Pillsbury fortune, as she was listed in Richard’s recently revised will as the principal heir, as well as a partner in Pillsbury Enterprises, the family corporation. And continuing, that Richard became so enraged and distraught upon his discovery, already emotionally unstable from intravenous drug use and sexual excess, that he killed both sisters and then fell into despondency, committing suicide by drug overdose and completing the sisters’ “destructive drug and death spiral,” the police department showing that it too, could alliterate.

Frank thought they had it just right enough.

Sitting at his kitchen table gazing out at the rain, he quickly switched gears to fantasize about California sunshine and California girls and California everything, not wanting to think about his approaching return to the Metro tonight. Jesus, it was going to feel weird. He could already see the looks on their faces, the lushes thinking they knew something about Frank Ford.

*   *   *

In his temporary return to the Metropole, Frank worked day shift, afternoon shift, late shift, Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays—whatever he could get. And three weeks in he asked Betty for two additional weeks because he needed more money to buy a car for his trip. Not only did Betty agree, but she also offered to sell him her ’71 Ford station wagon at a nice price, an offer Frank couldn’t refuse, a station wagon the perfect vehicle for hauling things out West.

Things had changed at the Metro. The Underground Lounge, the downstairs bar, was closed do to declining business, the DJ thing Betty introduced as a last-ditch effort to bring in customers having failed miserably. Now Tom Meagher was working upstairs and he and Frank were the only tenders on the payroll. Betty had fired Ron, the guy who replaced Frank, for beating up too many customers, and Sack, of course, had already been sacked.

Meagher and Frank ran the bar with just enough control to keep it tolerable and also profitable. Frank enjoyed the time but realized that a big part of his enjoyment came from knowing he’d soon be leaving.

Time moved along, and soon Frank’s final week at the Metro arrived. He was working the day shift on a Monday when Waverly walked in the bar at four in the afternoon, Keith smiling and looking fit and healthy. Frank had put in some time practicing positive thinking and visualization—even some yoga moves—in preparation for his future immersion in California culture, but as Waverly related the latest buzz on the street concerning the Pillsbury murders—what Keith referred to as The demise of Pills and his pussies—Frank was getting little jolts of fear in his gut. According to Waverly, the murmur currently making the rounds was that the cops had determined Pillsbury Manor to be abnormally clean of fingerprints, which had lead them to consider the possibility of an as yet unidentified fourth party involved in the murders. And although most everyone believed that fourth person was either Doughboy Loy or Artie Autry, the cops, Waverly said, were seeking input from the local barroom denizens, with a possible reward if any information led to an arrest of this unknown suspect.

This, of course, ramped up Frank’s anxiety level and got him back to walking on pins and needles—bed of nails—broken glass, you name it. The time wouldn’t go fast enough. He’d seen the cops in the bar a few times applying their manipulative, good-cop-bad-cop methods on the vulnerable types (those they had something on or snitches) but so far they hadn’t confronted him. But how long could it be?

He soldiered on and tried to stay busy. He had a rummage sale at his house. He took the stuff that didn’t sell to the dump and Goodwill. He had his newly acquired Ford Station wagon tuned up. He changed the oil. He paid the hospital bill for his concussion stay, the exorbitant amount eating at him, but mostly he just worked the bar and worried, the time dragging on slower than those last days of school before summer vacation when he was a kid. But he endured and persevered and finally his final day at the Metropole dawned.

His friends and loyal customers were throwing him a Bon Voyage party after close, and Betty had offered the use of the shuttered downstairs bar for the occasion. Betty saying it wasn’t a time to mourn but more a time to celebrate Frank’s contribution to the “Metropole family.”

Jesus.

Coming into the Underground for the party, Frank was surprised how many people showed up, even though a good third of them had only come for the free beer, Betty letting them drain the taps of the recently closed saloon as a gesture of gratitude for Frank’s years of service to the “Family.” Frank thought it was a backhanded gesture—the beer in the lines borderline stale—but about as good as you were going to get from Betty, the woman getting even tighter with the bucks the older she got.

One of those free-beer drinkers was Daniel Moran, who acted uncomfortable and nervous in Frank’s presence and couldn’t stop talking about the murders while giving Frank the evil eye. In spite of that, the party was fun. And surprisingly emotional. Somewhere around two a.m. Frank got hit with second thoughts and feelings of regret, because, shit, what guarantee was there he’d ever find a bunch like this, a group that genuinely liked and appreciated him? You just couldn’t predict the future. Who knew, California might be too crowded for his liking? He might be too impatient for driving in heavy traffic. He’d probably miss the changing of the seasons. And goddamnit, man, three different women came up to him at the party and got physical, touching and rubbing up against him and letting him know in not uncertain terms that he missed out on their bounty.

But it was too late for that kind of regret. It was just separation anxiety, as Nikki might say. And speaking of the blond, blue-eyed one, Frank had seen her on the street driving in her little red Honda, bringing to mind a line from an old Velvet Underground song.

What he had but couldn’t keep—linger on your pale blue eyes.

.And now he conceded that his heart was broken.

But what better treatment for a broken heart than California sunshine?

The going-away bash careened on until after three in the morning. Watching his old friends wander out, Frank had a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. But at least the cops weren’t waiting out there for him. Then he was about to leave, thinking he wouldn’t sleep tonight with tomorrow’s drive on his mind, when Waverly called to him from the back office, Meagher and Keith the only partiers left in the building. Frank went back there and of course there were lines of coke on the desk and of course they offered him some. He declined. But then Waverly lit a bomber and passed it to him and he partook. It just seemed appropriate to break the law on his last day as part of the “Metropole family.” So he and Keith shared the joint, Meagher abstaining, and Waverly said the weed was just like they had out in Cali these days and Frank was sure lucky to be going there. As the joint hit the halfway mark, Frank felt a shroud drop over his head and the weight of the last few months come down on his shoulders. He was exhausted and anxious, excited and just a little bit scared, all at the same time. “I got a long day ahead of me, gentlemen,” he said, “ so I’m afraid I have to mosey. You guys have been great. It was a great party. But I gotta split before I sink into nostalgia and sentimentality and beg Betty for my job back.”

“No, you sure as hell don’t want to do that, Frank,” Meagher said with a big grin as he rose from behind the desk and extended his hand. Frank shook his hand and then turned to Waverly. Keith was holding out a shoebox wrapped in a piece of the comic section of the Sunday paper. Very colorful, even had a little red bow stuck on the top. “Got a little going away gift for you, Franko, as a token of my appreciation for all the fun you’ve let me in on. How dull my life’s gonna be without you around, man. But I wish you the best of luck wherever you land, and I must admit I’m a little jealous. Going somewhere that doesn’t have winter sounds pretty good to me. Drop me a line when you get settled and maybe I’ll come out and visit. And don’t open the box until your on the road, man, stuff in there will make your journey a little more enjoyable, I think. At least I hope. Really, man, I don’t have a fuckin’ clue.”

Frank took the box and felt compelled to give Keith a hug. And then found himself on the verge of tears, months of suppressed emotion seemingly ready to come slamming out of him at any moment. But he held it together and soon all three of the men were standing and grinning and Frank knew it was time. He turned away and walked out on his Metropole family for the last time.

Probably.

On his way to the door, stumbling by the stage in a state of anticipatory excitement and sentimental longing, Frank glanced down at a couple stacks of albums the former record spinner had yet to haul out. On top of one of the stacks was a Led Zeppelin record, “Physical Graffiti,” lying loose and out of its cover. Frank glanced down at the label and saw his old companion and tormentor—the winged beast. There it was, the inspiration for his nightmare, the image of a naked human with large white wings— the logo for Swan Song Records. Only had one head though.

He couldn’t help but smile. So that’s where it came from. What drugs’ll do for you, eh?

(End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)

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DIVE SHADOW 7

 

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CHAPTER 28, EXCERPT 1

On Tuesday it was on the front page of the morning paper.

Pillsbury pharmaceutical heir, wife and mystery sister-in-law found dead in alleged murder-suicide scenario.

In a constant state of fearful anticipation waiting for this moment, Frank had learned firsthand the meaning of the phrase on pins and needles. But now, sitting at his kitchen table reading the News Tribune and eating corn flakes, he was feeling pretty damn good. Yeah, there was still the regret eating at him—but that went back to his initial involvement, Frank knowing that if he’d stayed away from Judy in the first place his nightmare would never have happened. But hell, things had turned out for the better and you could make a case for Frank Ford as somewhat of a hero. He hadn’t saved anybody but he had rid the world of two festering cancers. If it weren’t for Frank Ford, Judy and Lisa would still be out there spreading their insidious seeds upon the world.

Okay, that was a bit over the top. Suffice to say he wasn’t destroying himself with guilt. He was, however, worrying about Artie Autry and Doughboy Loy. Shit, how long could it be before the Zenith cops picked up on the pair’s association with Judy? And following that, how long before the two dirtbags flapped their gums about Frank fucking Ford and his own interactions with Judy Bruton? Not to mention Frank’s usage of a .38 caliber revolver, which, obviously, matched the caliber of the identified murder weapon from the front-page story.

He shot Autry’s goddamn earlobe off for Christ sake…

So now Frank was fast becoming adverse to the Zenith City. Always a tough place to make a buck, the economy was still mired in depression—or at least recession—without much optimism for the future of the rustbelt port city—so it seemed like a good time to leave.

Early the next morning Frank was at the kitchen table biting his nails—a newly acquired habit—when another shocking headline greeted him.

Body of Zenith man found near Enger Tower.

Biting faster now Frank anxiously read the story of Arthur John Autry’s body being discovered—throat cut from ear to ear— beneath some tree branches and other debris in the foliage surrounding Zenith’s historical bluestone tower.

Man, Doughboy Loy finally gave it to Artie. Fat man had to be long gone by now.

Two days later Frank was greeted with another world-rocking headline.

Overdose death linked to Zenith man’s murder, it said at the top of page one of the News Tribune.

Poor Maynard, Frank thought, reading the story. He could never get things right. Christ, they found him with the syringe still in his arm, the Doughboy never much for originality. Either Maynard got too excited after coming into possession of Autry’s drug stash and fired up too heavy a load, or he couldn’t deal with the guilt of slitting his old running mate’s throat and overdosed on purpose.

Frank’s money was on the former, but you never know.

The story went on to say that the police found Autry’s car keys in Loy’s jacket pocket, and Artie’s GTO was discovered parked a half block away from Loy’s rundown residence in Piedmont Heights.

Jesus, with those two drug-soaks dead and gone, it was hard to believe, but it looked like Frank was home free. At the very least, he had a little more breathing room.

And, yeah, sure, that kind of shit gets you thinking. Like maybe Ray-Ray was somewhere out there in the ether pulling the strings, the powers that be giving him one last shot at making things right.

If you believe in that kind of thing.

And even if you don’t, sometimes you wonder….

So right then and there he decided he was going to California. They had to need bartenders out there, didn’t they? Californiashit, manwhere it was happening, where it was going on. Had to be tons of good-looking women out there. Get to a nice quiet town on the coast somewhere and find a small, clean, well-lighted place where all the customers are tan and smiling, perfect white teeth glistening….

That sounded nice. And as guilty as he felt about leaving his mother with her grief, he knew Anne was always better with her. But he had to admit that he was also running away from telling Joan that he now believed Ray had committed suicide. He just couldn’t face that one. He’d have to write her a letter once he got settled and explain his conclusion, feeling strongly that his mother would never accept it, no matter how it was presented.

So it was settled, he was heading for the West Coast. But he needed money for the trip, so later that day he swallowed his pride and called Betty Brown. After he begged and pleaded with her to put him back on the payroll for a month, Betty showed her forgiving side and agreed, telling Frank he was the best bartender she’d ever had at the Metropole—and by the way, she’d just fired Doug Sackberger.

About goddamn time, Frank was thinking as the universe came through for him once again.

(To be continued)

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DiveBartenderImage31

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CHAPTER 21, EXCERPT 3

Doughboy turned up the hill at Third Avenue East. They were passing by the alley above Fourth Street when Frank pulled the thirty-eight from his jacket and shoved the barrel into Loy’s bulbous, pillow-y middle, thinking now he knew what a tub of lard felt like if you jammed a pistol into it. Shit, he’d wanted to jam the barrel hard into Doughboy’s ribs and give the fat fucker a jolt, but instead it was like he’d buried the thing in a goddamn mattress.

Doughboy tried to jerk away from the pistol, his movements like ripples in a bowl of Jello, but there was nowhere to go. He wheezed. He winced. He tilted his head down toward the pistol and gave Frank a hurt, questioning look. “What the fuck are you doing, Ford? I thought we were going to your place.”

“There’s been a change in plans, Maynard. Instead, you’re gonna take me to see Artie, and the three of us are going to have a little talk concerning what took place at the Paul Bunyan the day my brother disappeared.”

“Ah, come on, Frank, I already told the cops everything I know, why you picking on me?”

“I’m picking on you because you were there that day, you stupid sonofabitch. And I know that Artie had some kind of scam planned that Ray didn’t like. That was the subject of the disagreement, according to what I heard. So you want to tell me what it was about or do I keep shoving in this gun until it hits something hard. You never know, thing could go off by accident. Just bought the piece and I don’t know how reliable it is. Might not kill you but sure as hell will do some damage,” Frank jammed the gun deeper into the corset of fat.

Doughboy’s breathing was strained and uneven. Frank could see sweat popping on the fat man’s forehead in the dim light, the skin on Loy’s face red, like barbecued pork. “I can’t drive with that thing stuck in my side, Frank.” Doughboy pulled the Dodge to the curb and stared at Frank with a frightened-but-determined look, Doughboy having had plenty of practice dealing with bullies, it seemed.

“Okay, Maynard, you got it,” Frank said, pulling the gun away, thinking maybe he should wipe it off or something, but instead resting it on his thigh with the barrel pointing at Loy. “But now that I’ve done you a solid you need to return the favor and tell me what Artie and Ray were arguing about, or this little devil goes back into your roll,” lifting the .38, waggling it.

Doughboy slid the shifter arm into park, wiped the sleeve of his gray sweatshirt across his forehead, swiveled his head around for a look outside then inhaled deeply and gave Frank a nervous smile. “Ray was doing some kind of speedball that day. He’s talking a blue streak and he starts going on about how Judy’s got this pharmacist on a string and how she’s getting all these pill samples from him. All the big companies are handing them out by the ton these days, he says. Well, Artie hears this and pretty soon he’s in Ray’s shit telling him we need to share the bounty. How if Ray don’t cut us in he’s going to drop a dime and bust the whole scheme wide open. But Ray dug in his heels and told Artie to fuck off.” Doughboy looked out the window again and then back to Frank. “So that’s what it was all about.”

Frank knew the Doughboy was an efficient, practiced liar, and believing what he told you was the essence of foolishness, but still he sensed a ring of truth in what the man had said. Just a light ring, though, like one of those push-top bells at the meat counter in a butcher shop. “And so, Maynard, when we get together with our mutual friend Artie, is he gonna back up your story or spin a totally different tale?”

“Of course he’s gonna back me up, Frank. I ain’t shittin’ you. But I don’t know where Artie is tonight, I swear. I got no idea.”

“Oh, please, Maynard, stop the shit. Artie is who you were waiting for at the bar. And I think Artie is meeting up with Nurse Judy tonight for a supply of fresh pharmaceuticals courtesy of the illustrious Mr. Pills. And I also think that whatever dope you took tonight is either just kicking in or just wearing off and either way you’re falling apart and need something else. You took a chance on me because you know Ray was getting a ton of shit from his ex and that made my story believable.”

“You mean you don’t have anything?” Loy’s voice was a grating whine in Frank’s ears.

Frank shook his head in disbelief and gave Doughboy a hard stare. “No, Maynard, I don’t have anything. Afraid you fell victim to the hunk of cheese in the rattrap, because you is the big fat lab rat. Now get this piece of shit on the road to wherever your partner in crime is.”

“I told you, Frank, I don’t know exactly where he is. He said he’d find me.”

“I tell you what, Maynard. Put your drug-sniffing nose out the window and pick up the scent. I know you can find drugs like a bloodhound finds blood.”

“He could be out at Squirrel’s, I guess.”

“Squirrel’s it is then. Drive on, Jeeves.” Frank waggled the gun in a circle like a master of ceremonies at a circus, which, come to think of it, he kind of was. A twisted, stinky, exploitive circus—just like the real thing.

Loy whined some more. “Aw, c’mon, Frank, it’s way out in the West End, I’m in no shape to drive all the way out there.”

Any patience Frank once possessed had gone out the door with Nikki a few hours ago. He lifted the pistol from his knee and drove a corner of the butt into Doughboy’s bulbous bicep, hitting something firm beneath the layers of fat.

Loy yelped, grabbed his arm and continued whining. “Frank—Jesus, c’mon, would you? I was just saying, man, just telling it like it is… ease off, all right? Artie might not even be out there. I told you… I’m not sure where he is.”

“Feeling more alert now, Maynard? Think you can get us to Squirrel’s?”

Biting down on his lower lip in an exaggerated pout while rubbing vigorously on his bicep, Doughboy flashed Frank a hateful glance then gingerly lifted his arm, dropped the shifter into drive and peeled away from the curb in a cloud of dust and a roar of un-muffled V8.

(To be continued)

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