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CHAPTER 2, EXCERPT 10

Then Frank felt that peculiar deep-seated energy pulsing and chugging higher, up to his knees and growing there, urging him on. Hatred and anger for the giant insects was fueling his fire. The image of Ray-Ray on the concrete—his swollen face like raw hamburger—was a garish neon sign flashing in his brain, insistent and burning. The ugly wounds and the blood and the gore seemed to be demanding revenge. And right over there, two of little brother’s known antagonists were strolling down the avenue like the world was all theirs.

Ray-Ray’s killers?

Remember what Oberst said?

Autry and Ray were arguing at the Paul Bunyan.

The insistent energy was all the way up to Frank’s gut now and making his heart race, the power flowing to his arms, his chest, his legs.

Just step out there and confront the two bugs, man. They’re coming to you.

The bugs were creeping toward Autry’s car; an old red GTO parked just a little ways down the avenue.

Time to rock ’n roll, Franko.

But wait. Let’s think about this.

Something was pulling on him, slowing him down. An anchor. Must be the weed, he thought. Shit makes you indecisive they say. But it was common knowledge that Autry often carried a gun. And the big cockroach could have a knife hidden somewhere under a flap of exoskeleton, more than likely did. Discretion was a big part of valor here.

And now take a look at that over there, a shadow, a dark spot, a vague image in the rear window of the top floor apartment. Someone looking down at the bugs, dim light from the interior outlining a female form.

Another insect?

The queen bee?

The mantis and the cockroach were nearly to the GTO now. Watching their unbalanced steps, the unsteady reeling, Frank stepped out from the darkness and crossed the avenue, trying to act like he was surprised to see them. He felt his chest puffing up. “Goddamn,” he said, hard staring at the bugs, “fancy meeting you two here. Some blind, brain-damaged girl giving out two-dollar blowjobs in the neighborhood or you guys find a cancer patient needed to sell his pain pills to buy food?”

Frank didn’t miss the apprehension. Doughboy Cockroach was looking for a cupboard to scurry under. But the mantis seemed to be growing taller, stretching, the wrinkled face glowing darkly and the eyes of stone lit with hatred.

“Well, well,” the mantis said. “If it ain’t Frankie fuckin’ Ford again. Ya lost, Frank, or you following us?”

“I wanted to follow dog shit I’d buy a dog, Artie, all due respect.”

The acid had Frank quivering inside. Gritting his teeth, he watched the mantis sneer, saw the wiry power there, watched the big thing straighten and lean its beak toward him. Frank smiled and pointed up at the dimly lit window. “You guys know who that is up there? Whoever it is, she’s watching us.”

The bugs turned to look and Frank edged back up the hill a bit, thinking caution was the right play. Then he saw the mantis go slack, watched him drop back to slouching, saw the face change.

“That’s just someone we met tonight likes to party,” the fat, pasty cockroach said.

And the mantis said, “How about you, Ford? Out searching for booze bottles in the garbage cans?”

“That’s it, Artie, you got me. But now if you’ll excuse me, I must take my leave. I need to find an exterminator.”

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 2, EXCERPT 9

Frank glanced to his left as a car rumbled by, shooting out cones of whiteness. He squinted down at the angry crowd changing postures and leaning ensemble toward the passing car. After the big Chevy passed by he made a fast left turn and hurried across Superior Street, quick stepping into the long narrow parking lot running between the Norshor Theater and the Hotel Zenith. Deep within the throes of LSD now he slinked past sleeping dinosaurs with names like Chevy, Dodge and Buick, then ducked into the darkness of the alley, thin blue beams streaming down from the back wall of the hotel to light his way. He picked up his pace along the cracked and broken asphalt but frequently became distracted by luminescent puddles swimming with strange wiggly things of unknown origin. An eternity later he reached the end of the alley and turned left at the avenue, heading uphill four blocks that seemed like four miles. By the time he got to Fourth Street the top of his head was lifting off and he was thinking he’d bitten off more than he could chew. But then something Waverly had said came back to him like wisdom from the ancients.

Get to flying too high, have yourself a couple tokes. Shit will pull you right down to earth.

Christ, did he even have any matches?

He dug with numb fingers through his pockets as he walked, finally feeling a flattened matchbook in his left-hand jacket pocket, second time through, Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club on the sparkly green book, four bent matches inside. The matchbook sent Nikki’s pretty face into his head. Shit, he forgot to call her. Shaking his head, his mind spinning like a waterspout, he continued along.

A block and a half later he was standing in the alley across from the apartment building he’d seen Nurse Judy go into, amazed that some sort of homing instinct had brought him back to his Pontiac, the wagon looking dark and derelict over there in the spot where he’d left it. Pulling out the joint, Frank leaned against the side of a small house at the end of the alley and torched up.

First hit was like a blanket for his brain, warm and comforting. Second hit made him cough and he hacked there in the alley like a TB patient spewing lung tissue. Then everything began tapering off a bit, the brakes slowing the carousel, and shit was looking somewhat normal again. Strangely lit and fuzzy, but somewhat normal.

This acid hits you like swells on the ocean, pushing you and tossing you around and then smoothing out and turning calm and pleasurable.

Taking another hit of the weed he peered across the avenue at the apartment building and, Christ, he couldn’t believe it; goddamn Artie Autry and Doughboy Loy were strolling down the sidewalk over there. Frank stared at them and got tunnel vision, the wack coming back at him like a wave, a rush, a passing fancy in a wee-hours dream. Now the Doughboy was a giant cockroach—one of those fat greasy ones they call palmetto bugs in Florida—and Artie Autry was a goddamn praying mantis, leathery face pinched and evil, smoke coming out of his insect mouth like the insect brain was on fire. Smoke was billowing, floating, drifting. Frank could smell the tobacco stink. Doughboy Cockroach had it, too.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 2, Excerpt 5

Frank brought the sweating green bottle down to Waverly, the guy, judging by his droopy eyelids, carrying a good buzz already. “What you up to tonight, Keith?” Frank said.

“Just checked my cab in. Gonna head across the bridge to Bay Town, go home and sleep, I guess.”

“Slow night?”

“Not too bad. But I wanted to get out of there before the bars closed. Al always sticks me with the ninety-cent runs from the Kozy, which are a real pain. I’ve had drunks puke in the cab—piss—nobody’s shit in there yet but how long can it be? And it’s always the fuckin’ Kozy crowd. Thought I’d skate out early and save myself the anguish.”

“I hear that, man. But say, ah, by any chance do you have anything on you might help loosen the bonds of reality for your friendly local bartender?” Frank was weary of the grief and the turmoil and ready for some of Waverly’s old-time peace and love vibe.

“Got a few hits of green pyramid, man. Give you a nice ride.”

“Sounds like something I could get into. Any chance you can stay till close, fix me up after the place empties out?”

“Got a few more Heinekens in that cooler?”

“Enough.”

“Can I yell, It’s hotel-motel time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here?”

“Free of charge, Keith. Warm up those vocal cords.”

Then the time seemed to stand still and before Frank had a chance to lock the front door a fresh pack of thirsty customers crowded in. It was one-forty on the bar clock before he got the place cleared out. Waverly was still there at the bar smiling, Jenny seemed content cleaning up the tables with a tall double brandy-water waiting for her on top of the bar, and Judy and Mr. Pills looked pleased to be allowed to stay after hours. In with the in-crowd, as it were. But it wasn’t long before Judy and Pills finished their drinks and Frank unlocked the front door and let them out, Frank thinking that Judy was a changed woman. This new version was a little more controlled, less frayed around the edges—and she didn’t seem to give three shits about Frank or his brother Ray—her former husband, for fuck sake. She had not said one goddamn thing to Frank about Ray-Ray’s passing. No Sorry for your loss. No How’s your mother taking it? No nothing. So maybe she was the same self-serving twat as always, just better at disguising it.

Once the room was picked up and the glasses all washed, Frank let Jenny the waitress go home. Waverly had a fresh Heineken in front of him and it looked so good Frank got one from the cooler for himself. After knocking down a bracing shot of Bushmill’s, Frank went to see his old friend. “What ya got for me tonight, man? Green pyramid you say?”

“Yeah,” Waverly said, reaching in his tan corduroy Marlboro Man jacket and coming out with a baggie containing a little sheet of what appeared to be green plastic. He laid the baggie on the bar, wiping the spot with his jacket sleeve first. Frank took a closer look and saw a square of tiny, connected, pyramid-shaped units.

“Shit pretty strong?” Frank said. “I’ve been hearing about this stuff.”

“Shit’s all over town, man. You just wanna stay awake, all you need’s a little chip. Whole one’ll take you to the edge of the ozone.”

Frank picked up the sheet and carefully tore four pyramids from the corner, put them on his tongue and washed them down with a big swig of Heineken.

Waverly raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Got a big night planned, man?”

“Just need to fly away from my pain and woe, Keith,” he said, rolling his eyes. “See if there’s any wisdom to be found in the cosmos tonight.”

Waverly, still grinning, reached into his jacket again, brought out a bomber of a joint. “You might need this, man. Get to flying too high, have yourself a couple tokes. Jamaican ganja, man. Shit will pull you right down to earth and get your feet back on the ground. And, ah—good luck with your search for wisdom. As for me, I think I’m gonna head across the bridge and catch some Z’s, last-call rush ought to be over by now.”

Frank took the joint and put in the pocket of his white shirt.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 2, Excerpt 3 

“My current employer just walked in,” Moran said, toweling a beer glass. “Richard Pillsbury. Take a good look. Guy wears a sport coat to the Metropole…. I told him to come down here and have some fun—loosen up a little—guess that’s the best he could do.”

“He does have jeans on,” Frank said.

“Bet they’re designer jeans,” Moran said.

“Mr. Pills,” Frank said.

“Some people call him that. You know him?”

“Seen him around, I think. Heard some things about him, too. How’d you score the gig, man, old friend of the family?”

“Seems that Judy recommended me. Strange, eh? ‘My fiancé tells me you’re a fine craftsman,’ the guy says to me on the phone. Then he hires me to remodel the entire first floor on this big old house out on London Road. Should last me all summer if I play it right.”

“You banging her?” Frank said, watching Judy and Mr. Pills working through the throng.

“Hell no. Judy and I had our little thing a few years back, man, right after she divorced your brother. Fuckin’ chick was nuts, man. Had a fierce craving for pharmaceuticals. But that shit fueled some monumental sex, Franko, I’ll tell you that. After it was over was the problem. Talk about your loons. She was unreachable, man, in her-own private Idaho. She seems changed now though. I see her out at the house and she seems mellower somehow. But I just see her coming and going, she never says anything to me. Looks at me sometimes like she’s thinking I should thank her for the gig or something. Maybe I should, but fuck that.”

“Marrying the heir to a pharmacy chain must be a dream come true for Judy,” Frank said. “Visions of wedding cake frosted with jellied Quaaludes dancing in her head. Mr. Pills, for Christ sake.” He eyed the couple; they were almost to the bar. “Here she comes, man. You wanna take ’em, Danny?” Frank said it soft, almost a whisper.

Danny gave Frank a sharp look and started to say something—Frank thought it was a No—but Frank was already on his way to the cash register. He popped open the drawer and stood there with his back to Moran, Frank listening and neatening up the stacks of bills. Bar was in a rush; sometimes they got all gnarled up in there. “Evening Mr. Pillsbury,” Frank heard Moran say. “Glad you took my advice to come down.”

“Greetings, Daniel,” Pillsbury said, “Quell surprise. Didn’t expect you on that side of the bar. Aren’t I paying you enough?” Pills had the self-conscious, overly controlled speech of someone who was drunk or on drugs.

“Just helping out a friend, Mr. Pillsbury. What can I get you?”

“Please, Daniel, call me Richard, And I’ll have a Beefeater martini. How about you, Judy?”

Judy said, “A mart sounds good, Ricky. You always know what I want.”

But does he know what you need, Frank was thinking as he turned to look at Moran. “Two Beefeater martinis, Danny?”

“Right on, Frank,” Danny said. “You remember Frank, don’t you Judy?”

Frank watched the blonde’s eyes swing in his direction. He looked for the spark of recognition but didn’t see it. “Oh sure,“ she said. “Longtime no see, Frank.”

“Hi, Judy,” Frank said, thinking her speech was a little slow but not drugged to the max like he’d expected. “How’s it going?”

She said, “Oh, fair to partly cloudy, thanks,” avoiding Frank’s gaze and snuggling in next to Mr. Pills.

Frank said, “I’ll get the marts, Danny, if you go down and help Jenny. Looks like she needs it.” There was a phalanx of faces looking beseechingly at Frank but he ignored them and set to making martinis, grabbing the Beefeater bottle and wondering if it was actually Beefeater’s or some cheap shit Betty had switched out.

For some reason he wasn’t quite sure of, Frank took great care in the preparation, getting the gin and the vermouth just right in the shaker, cracking the ice, shaking it—not stirring—straining it into the stemmed glasses and bringing them to Judy and Mr. Pills.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 2, Excerpt 2

It was a game Frank played, trying to stay ahead of the crowd. Tonight he was losing. People were still coming in the door and the place was standing room only. Fucking Sackberger. Wouldn’t be too big a surprise if the asshole himself showed up here before close, blind drunk and oblivious, Sack was known for shit like that.

Prick pulls that tonight I’m going over the bar after him, Frank said to himself.

The old round clock on the wall was showing eleven o’clock when Frank saw Danny Moran coming in. Frank got a Bud from the cooler and put it in on the bar as Danny threaded through the two-deep horde. “Good man, Franko,” Moran said, bellying up. “And what the hell are you doing back there? Thought you were getting too old for this Friday shit.” Gesturing at the surging throng.

“I am, Danny, no doubt about it. But Sack is AWOL and who else is Betty gonna get if it ain’t good ol’ reliable Frank Ford?” Frank glanced at all the hands clutching bills stretching out toward him and shook his head, rolling his eyes.

“I hear you, Frank,” Moran said. “And sorry about Ray, man. That’s a shame.” Moran slid a five-dollar bill next to the sweating beer bottle.

“Thanks, Danny, it’s been a real cluster fuck. Cops asking questions, my mom going nuts, all the relatives asking me what happened—like I’m supposed to know everything about Ray, even though I kept as far away from him as I possibly could. It’s a goddamn pain in the ass; let me tell you. Working this place tonight is just not in my comfort zone.”

“I hear that, Frank. Need any help? Been a while since I’ve been behind a bar but I ‘magine it comes back quick.”

“How’d you like to drink free tonight, Danny?” Frank said, pushing the five back at Moran. “I need someone to wash glasses.”

“You got it, Franko.”

Frank scanned the pulsing mob shouting drink orders and waving money, wondered what would happen if he just turned and walked the hell out. Maybe cause a riot. And poor old Betty would feel even more let down than before. So he bit the bullet and started down the line.

With Moran washing glasses and filling beer orders, things moved along pretty good. Even Jenny got in the act, mixing the occasional whiskey-seven or whiskey-water, anything easy. Around midnight things started to slow down a bit. The horny were heading to the downstairs lounge for live music, dancing and bad pick-up lines, while the light hitters headed for home and the pensioners nursed their drinks hoping the money would last until close.

Frank and Moran were busy stacking glasses when Frank saw Judy Bruton coming in with an older, gray-haired guy at her side, the man dressed about two levels higher that anyone else in the place. Checking the man out, Frank was pretty sure it was the same guy he saw beating on Ray last fall. And Judy was looking foxy in a black sleeveless blouse and black stretch pants so tight if she sat on a dime she’d know if it were heads or tails.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 1, Excerpt 6

Her first stop was at a Holiday station on 26th Avenue East and London Road. Frank pulled into the adjacent lot and left the Pontiac running. As Judy gassed up the Buick, he gazed out at the big lake, whitecaps rolling across it as night began to take over the sky. After a few minutes Judy came out of the store carrying a paper bag, got in the Electra and left in a hurry. He followed her to a brick apartment building in the Central Hillside neighborhood. He parked half a block back of the Buick and watched the nurse walk briskly up to the glass-paneled entrance doors of the building, a big black purse over her shoulder and the paper bag from Holiday cradled in her arms. Shortly after she disappeared inside, Frank saw a light come on in a top floor window.

He decided to wait.

A half hour went by with no further activity seen. Now the afternoon’s booze was wearing off and he was getting depressed, maybe a little grief coming in against his will. And he knew Betty would be getting anxious so he cranked the ignition. Nothing. Waited and tried again. Not a goddamn sound. Dead.

The Metropole was only a few blocks away—all downhill—so he thought What the hell and set out on foot in the rain after slamming the door on the Pontiac so hard a strip of chrome fell off.

Chapter 2, Excerpt 1

Damn bar was crowded, just like Frank had feared—why he no longer got scheduled for Friday nights. Thing about bartending, it was a pain in the ass if it was too busy and no good if it was too slow. What Frank wanted was a nice medium sized crowd of regulars whose drink preferences he was familiar with. Enough patrons to keep you busy but not so many you were chasing all night trying to catch up. Monday night during football season was good. Tuesday and Thursday nights were also good. Wednesday used to be good before Betty decided to have Quarter Taps on Hump Day, but now it was a goddamn zoo. Any day shift was fine with Frank, and he usually got to choose his shifts, one of the benefits given the bartender with the longest tenure.

Tenure. Shit, like this bar was a school and he was a teacher, Frank was thinking as he threaded his way through the crowd and the smoke. That was funny. Funny because ten years ago when he started working here he’d actually entertained ideas of doing good, putting his energies toward enlightening the unwashed masses dragging themselves up to the long oaken bar in an endless line. Yes, sir, Frank Ford would dispense his hipster wisdom and college knowledge for the uplift of all.

Jesus.

Just goes to show how youth, psychedelic drugs and a bit of a messiah complex can pull your shit off line. Christ, now Frank hated drunks. Was sick of looking at the impenetrable gazes, tired of hearing the same meaningless jabber. And that was the young ones. Your old drunks, your little old ladies, retired laborers, whatever—they never gave you much trouble—they were just sad. Lonely and sad. And it got to you once in a while, got you thinking about your own life, your future. Your old age. Your death. All kinds of troubling shit.

Frank nodded to familiar faces and glanced at Betty behind the bar, the squatty white-haired woman chewing her lower lip and looking half-crazy. Wondering how she’d stayed in this business so long, Frank watched her face relax when she saw him. She gave him a half-assed, tired smile and he smiled back at her, not feeling it, and walked behind the bar. He hung up his leather jacket on the wall hook next to the basement door, washed his hands in the bar sink, dug a clean towel out of a drawer, dried his hands and his rain dampened hair and put on his bartender’s face. The mask.

Betty thanked him again for coming in and then left without further ado. Who could blame her? Damn bar was full of young girls tonight and judging by the horde of dirty glasses crowding around the sink, they had ordered quite a few specialty cocktails, drinks Betty struggled with, usually getting behind—like now—with the washing of her limited supply of appropriate glassware.

Frank got busy at the sink. He greeted Jenny the waitress. Nice girl. Or woman. She was somewhere in between, another functioning alcoholic staying close to the source. Frank could tell she was already into the sauce but she usually held it together for the whole shift so he didn’t worry himself.

Took him about an hour to catch his groove and get a line on what people wanted. There was old Mrs. Eckman (Edna) down by the television set, shiny black patent leather purse on the bar in front of her next to a brandy Manhattan with a cherry. Frank always had the impression Edna was wearing white gloves even though her hands were bare. Down at the other end of the bar with a shot of Windsor and a snit was retired UMZ custodian Harold Lundquist. Joel Blackwell, mentally ill offspring of one of Zenith’s influential old families, was on a stool at the middle of the bar drinking Johnny Walker and arguing with invisible relatives. A group of bikers by the front door was taking turns checking IDs and drinking tap beer on Betty’s dime. College jocks at the pool tables were doing Budweiser, and now a cute blond honey of a college girl was ordering screwdrivers and greyhounds for her and her friends.

And on and on it went.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 1, Excerpt 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Pills. Can you believe it?

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

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

Why not take a little ride, eh?

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

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

He’d get a closer look before long.

(To be continued)

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