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CHAPTER 4, EXCERPT 2

The sun was up over the lake by the time Frank walked down the small hill at the back of the big yellow frame house Nikki and two roommates called home. Frank scanned the surroundings. Everything seemed cool. Thinking about Nikki and her softness, her warmth, the nice way she smelled—well—it was getting him going, filling his body with that delightful syrupy longing. He moved quietly across the damp grass and went up to Nikki’s first floor bedroom window at the rear of the house. The window was shut, a shade pulled down behind it. He tapped on the glass. Didn’t hear anything so he tapped again and called softly, “Nikki, wake up, it’s Frank.”

No response.

He tapped again, louder this time. “Nikki, wake up. You in there?”

Christ, maybe she was pissed off because he didn’t call her last night after work. Maybe she went home with someone else. That goddamn Jimmy Carl. Maybe the sonofabitch was in there right now.

Frank began rapping the glass with his knuckles and speaking in a daytime volume. “Nikki, wake up, goddamnit. It’s Frank. Sorry I forgot to call you last night, but something came up. Let me in and I’ll get you high. We can talk.” And I hope something else. He gave the window another rap then heard the throaty, moist tone of someone just awakened. “Jesus Christ, Frank, hold your water, I’m coming.”

Shit, not the best of starts.

Frank saw fingers with green nail polish poke under the window shade. He watched the shade rise. Now she was looking at him, making a face, still groggy, short blond hair mussed. Cute. Standing there in a long green t-shirt, perfect nipples forming sweet little bumps. “What are you doing here this early, Frank? I’ve had maybe four hours sleep. And you look like shit. Oh my god, what happened to your head? There’s a knot the size of a golf ball on your forehead. And your clothes look like you crawled here. What the hell have you been doing?”

“I had an altercation with an unruly crustacean.”

He watched her face flick from quizzical to concerned to skeptical and then to disturbed. “What the hell is that supposed to mean, Frank? You wake me up for this?”

“Sorry, babe, that was supposed to be a joke. But the truth is a long and winding story, so let me in and I’ll explain. I’ve got some really good weed. Open the window and I’ll crawl in, we’ll get stoned. Everybody must get stoned.”

“Are you on something, Frank? Your eyes look wild.”

“Just a bit of the acid. But it’s fading a little. Reduced to a gentle whisper, it is.”

“God, I don’t believe this.”

“C’mon, Nikki, open the window before the cops come.”

“This isn’t Huckleberry Finn, Frank. There’s a screen on the inside of this window. Come to the back door and I’ll let you in. But be quiet, my roommates are asleep—like normal people.”

They’re missing all the fun then, Frank was thinking as he walked with contentment across the back of the house to the white wooden door on the east side. Waiting at the door he felt a stirring down low. But when Nikki opened it the look on her face wasn’t what he’d hoped for. “C’mon in, then,” she said in low tones. “I’ll make some coffee. Looks like you could use some.”

“Sounds good, Nik. I’ve got a bitchin’ roach Keith Waverly gave me. Said it was Jamaican.”

“You hanging out with Waverly now, Frank? That sort of explains the way you look. Trouble seems to follow that guy around.”

“I wasn’t hanging out with him. He was just at the bar last night. I was all fucked up after the funeral, so I thought a little of Keith’s acid might help me fly the prison walls. Way up high in the sky—that shit—you know.”

She was shaking her head. Frank saw her face change, looking older for an instant—more like the picture of her mother she kept on her bedside table—but then she shrugged and Frank sensed her mood lightening and he watched her face return to young and beautiful. “Come on then, Mr. Ford,” she said, “I’ll make you a cup of instant and you can tell me all the gory details.”

“Still got that Maxim stuff? Those freeze-dried crystals?”

“Yes, Frank.” She walked into the kitchen, a bright yellow room with tall white cupboards, old-but-clean appliances and a porcelain sink. Frank watched her rear end jiggling beneath the long green T-shirt, the delicious movement above her honey-sweet thighs dragging him along like a hound on a leash.

Let me be your dog.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 4, EXCERPT 1

A bit of gray light was showing above Lake Superior and the streetlights were still sending out vapor trails as Frank walked through the alley toward his little cracker box house. On his right, down a set of steps, was one of the federal government’s gifts to so-called blighted neighborhoods as part of the “Urban Renewal” program: an asphalt playground with swings, a slide, a jungle gym and a teeter-totter. Only ones using the facilities at this hour were a couple fat pigeons searching for leavings. Strangely though, the teeter-totter was slowly moving up and down—with no one on it.

More hallucinations, Frank thought, close to his tiny house now, claustrophobia starting to squeeze his head, the walls-closing-in sensation coming on strong.

And he was kicking himself just a little.

Great idea you had, Ford. Do some acid to escape your grief and confusion. Float off to la-la land where everything is flowers and sunshine and psychedelic-period Beatles…

Yeah, right.

Instead you got a life or death struggle played out in a remote landscape of monsters, spirits and giant crabs disguised as pickup trucks—some kind of weird Star Wars meets The Lord of the Rings hybrid. And because of all that, your car, your only source of transportation, is wrecked beyond repair, your knee and your back are all fucked up from the crab slamming, and you’ve got a vast longing inside for something you can’t identify.

Blame it on that crazy goddamn amusement-park-funhouse acid.

Waverly was right. Shit ripped you off the ground, spun you around in the ozone for a while then dropped you back down to earth—or whatever passed for it in your head. Not like the old days when the stuff would lay you on the ground for twelve hours, mouth open, head totally gone, nothing you could do but take the ride.

Frank stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and kept on going past his little house. Nobody home. All dark. Touching the roach in his pocket, he got an idea, Nikki’s house was only three blocks away and sometimes Nikki liked to get high in the morning. He could tap on her window and wake her up. Feel so good to crawl into her bed. The thought, the idea, seemed to take away the pain in his knee and back and he felt a smile bending his lips. And miracles, man, now he could actually feel the air warming up around him. Seemed like it might be one of those rare sunny spring days in Zenith. Christ, might hit fifty degrees. Sixty even.

His faith in life temporarily restored, his body tired but relaxed and sensual, his weird nocturnal adventures fading into the background and his need for resolution about brother Ray reduced to a distant murmur, Frank walked down the hill to Fourth Street and headed east. Positively Fourth Street, man.

Maybe the acid wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

(To be continued)           

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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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