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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 3

Frank winced. “Is that it, Danny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be the hard part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(End of Chapter 10)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

“He really said epicenter?” Waverly said.

 

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 1

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

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

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

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

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

Rainy dat Dive Bartender                                

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirteen hours it is then,” Moran said.

“Blow me,” Waverly said.

“Before or after I pay you?”

“How about both?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Good times, man. You partake?”

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

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

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

“Is that a rhetorical statement?”

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

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

“How about the Shoal then?” Moran said.

Frank said, “It has to be a bar?”

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 4

Frank and Nikki went in the building and took the elevator to the fourth floor. They knocked at apartment 404 and Frank’s mother came to the door. Frank felt the poor me vibe hanging heavy like cheap air freshener in the one-bedroom apartment. The television was on loud to the evening news and the air stunk of cigarettes. Frank could see his mother’s ever present pack of Kents on the coffee table in front of the TV. Joan looked a bit hazy and weak. Frank could tell she was surprised to see Nikki.  Mom was a little uncomfortable at first—Nikki too—but Mom came around after Nik gave her a hug and told her she was sorry for the loss of her son. Mom had a short cry while Nikki rubbed the old woman’s boney shoulder, and, miraculously, Mom’s face eventually brightened. Before long she was asking if they wanted coffee or a beer, not taking no-thank-you for an answer, and then going into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee and open a can of Hamm’s for Frank.

Frank was lying back with his beer in the recliner mom bought for the old house the year he graduated from high school—shit—eighteen years ago. It was a little worn on the armrests but still comfortable. “See this can, Nik?” he said, holding out the Hamm’s.

“Yes, Frank,” Nikki said. She was across the room on the brown couch, her eyes narrowed in expectation.

“Someday this can will be part of one of those Hondas. It’s how the world saves its precious resources.”

“Really, Frank? Really?”

“Would I lie to you?”

They stayed for dinner. Frank’s mother heated up an Italian-style casserole one of the neighbors from the old Holy Rosary neighborhood had brought over the day of the funeral. After the meal the women had more coffee and Frank had more beer. Nikki washed the dishes and Joan insisted on doing the drying. Frank heard them talking in the kitchen about interesting shit like electric coffeemakers and fudge recipes. Mom preferred old-fashioned percolated coffee in a porcelain pot and liked her fudge with walnuts in it, while Nikki said she had no preferences in those areas—she liked it all. After the dishes were done the three of them watched The Six Million Dollar Man on Mom’s old TV. Frank thought Joan seemed better than she’d been since the day they pulled Ray out of the water, and that was saying something.

By eight o’clock Frank was drifting off. After one nod-off and a head jerking snap-to, he thought they’d better get going. He saw his mother’s disappointment when he announced it, but Nikki was there to save him, moving in to give Mom a long hug and some encouraging platitudes that Frank chose not to hear. This was one of many things you had to admire about Nikki; she was so good. She knew the right things to say and the right things to do. At least compared to Frank. Yeah, his girl was good and sweet and kind—an upstanding citizen on all fronts—and maybe that was the problem. All her goodness was becoming confining, tiresome and tedious. Boringly predictable. Sometimes it felt like an extra large anchor slowing Frank down, holding him back. From what, he didn’t know, but still it made him want to bust out and do something insane.

Like balling Judy Bruton.

There she was again, jumping into his head.

Frank gave Nikki the car keys and she gave Joan a hug and went out ahead of him. He was at the door giving his mother a goodbye hug when she said, “That’s a sweet little girl you got there, Frank. It’s nice that you’re dating up, even though she looks like she’s still in high school. But don’t you forget, Frankie; the police in this town are not going to help the Fords. You have to find out who did this to Ray and make it right. You’re the only one this family has left.”

This family—meaning her, Joan Bennet Ford. Everyone else at the funeral had seemed willing to let sleeping dogs lie. Maybe a poor choice of words, but even Frank’s sister Anne seemed willing to let Ray fade away quietly.

When Frank got to the Honda Nikki was sitting behind the wheel with the window down. To the west the sun was sinking behind the hills and lighting up the little red car like a flameless fire. Frank opened the passenger door and folded himself into the seat. “Thanks for coming along, Nikki,” he said. “Old Joan showed some life for the first time in days.”

“I like your mom, Frank. She’s sweet. Now I wish I’d come to the funeral.”

No you don’t, Frank thought. You only think you do. Man, the stories he could tell… But he didn’t say anything, just nodded.

On the freeway heading east Frank slouched in the passenger seat, occasionally glancing in the side mirror at the orange skullcap of sun dropping below the hillside. Nikki kept looking over like she was expecting him to say something but he just sulked and stared and brooded on his mother’s words. No, Ma, he wasn’t Barnaby Jones or Kojak or any of the TV heroes. He was just Tom Ford’s thirty-six year old son trying to find a life he could live with. But rest assured he was gonna do everything he could to find Ray’s killer, because he couldn’t live with this shit tearing at him any more than his mother could.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 3

“Wow,” Frank said, putting on a happy face and squinting at the little red car. “It’s shiny, like a new penny. Parents buy it for you?” Shit, he was sounding like a dick. And he could tell Nikki was looking for something the way her eyes were studying him, digging and searching. “I’d give you a hug, Nik, but I’m pretty stinky from my day of labor. That and walking up the hill from Superior Street.” He started edging toward the house while Nikki stood there, hands on hips, at the side of the Honda her parents got her in an obvious attempt to buy her away from Frank Ford.

“That never stopped you before, Frank. You weren’t exactly rose-like on Saturday morning. We didn’t seem to have any intimacy issues then.”

Intimacy issues?

College girl coming at him with the latest buzzwords, showing off her education. Then he started thinking maybe Nikki was slumming and he was just another topic in her thesis. Maybe she was playing the same game that was going on all over the country. Young people living in dumps and hanging out in dive bars for the “experience.” Was he Nikki’s experience?

“True,” Frank said. But I did have your roommate’s Ban roll-on.”

The skin around Nikki’s eyes crinkled and then she smiled that wide Irish smile that lit up like a flower in the desert, putting Frank solidly back in her camp. “I tell you what, babe,” he said. “I’ll go in and change and then you can take us for a ride. I really need to get out to my mom’s. Haven’t seen her since the day of the funeral and her messages on my machine are starting to sound ah… sort of needy.”

Nikki gave him a kind look. Generous. Forgiving. Meaningful. “I’d like that, Frank. I need to give your mother my condolences.”

Frank was picturing his mother sitting alone in her living room, the furniture as tired and worn as the woman, all of it a package. Could see her on her faded brown couch all limp and surrendered, no fight left in her. So maybe Nikki would give her a lift. There’s truly something infectious about youth and beauty and Irish smiles.

 

Nikki insisted Frank drive and he got in behind the wheel. Being a General Motors guy all the way, he was a little suspicious of the tiny vehicle. There was something about being surrounded by three tons of steel and iron that made you feel safe, and these miniatures gave you one ton of Japanese steel that the mining guys up north on the Iron Range claimed was substandard. Stuff like that was in the local papers all the time. But all Frank knew for sure was that the stuff cost less; these pregnant roller skates were priced to sell.

“How do you like the car?” Nikki asked as they pulled to a stop in front of the Merry Dale Assisted Living Facility, a six-story, government funded complex on the west side of Zenith.

“It’s cute, Nik. But it seems a little vulnerable, y’know? Seems like anything hits you you’re gonna get crushed like an old beer can. Isn’t that what they make these things out of?”

“Yes, Frank, they do. But they use those really old ones. Those thick old cans you find in abandoned cabins or on the ground out in the woods. The cans that stay the same for, like—forever.”

“Really? Okay then. But don’t take it up to the Iron Range. They hate these Japanese cars up there. Kick the hell out of them if you leave ’em unattended.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

(To be continued)

 

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 2

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

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

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

Maybe Mr. Pills’ pharmacy had something.

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

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

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

Frank was feeling green around the gills.

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

But God she looked good.

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

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

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

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

Son of Tom Ford, family abandoner.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 1

It had to be past five-thirty when Frank knocked on the glass door of the Storehouse, Closed sign at eye level. But in just a few seconds Johnny Beam was there with his familiar Satchmo smile, Frank thinking it looked a tad forced today. He followed Beam through a showroom of used furniture, toys, dolls, appliances and other collectables, to a doorway at the back of the store with a green curtain across it. They went through the curtain to a large storage area with a concrete floor, a ton of boxes and loose stuff lying around on it.

Johnny said that he thought Frank wasn’t gonna show, said he was about to leave. Frank explained about his new job, a day job, one he didn’t know he’d have when he’d talked to Johnny yesterday. Beam gave him a knowing chuckle and stepped into a small office cordoned off in the southeast corner of the expansive back room.

Lotta old shit in this place, Frank was thinking. Hope Johnny doesn’t bring out a flintlock dueling pistol or some junk piece from the Korean War…

“So you quit on old Betty, eh, Frank?” Beam said, sitting down behind a dark green metal desk, on a worn cloth chair with wheels. On the desk were papers, a phone and one of those rectangular metal address books with the little arrow on the side pointing at the letters of the alphabet. Frank’s mother had one of those things when he was a kid and he used to play with it for longer than he could now reasonably explain.

Frank said, “Yep, that’s a fact, Johnny. I quit. Goddamn bar just finally got to me after all those years. Got so I fuckin’ hated the smell of the place.”

Johnny was chewing gum and drumming his fingers on the desk, fidgeting in the squeaky wheeled chair. “I hear you, Frank. More power to you, man. Change can be good for a person. Been trying to make a few changes, myself.” Then Beam reached down under the desk and brought up a rectangular wooden box that reminded Frank of those silverware boxes he’d seen at Pills’ Palace.

Resting on the burgundy velvet-lined interior of the box were four handguns, two revolvers and two semi-autos.

“I’m not gonna ask you what you need a gun for, Frank,” Beam said. “But I will say that this little popper here,” touching the smaller revolver, “is only gonna be effective at close range, three to ten feet. After that it’s gonna be iffy. This bigger one, the thirty-eight, will give you a little more range and better stopping power but it’s heavier and harder to conceal, if that’s something you’re concerned about. One advantage you get with the revolvers, they don’t kick out any shell casings, don’t leave evidence scattered around. Again, if that’s something that matters to you.” He pointed at the semi-automatics. “The autos hold more cartridges, so that’s an advantage. We got a nine-millimeter and a three-eighty, essentially the same caliber, just one is metric and the other one is American. Some guys don’t like the autos because they say they jam. But these two are top shelf, man, Baretta and a Browning. Go ahead, pick one up; see how it feels.

Frank liked the look of the Baretta. He picked it up and hefted it. Thing was solid, heavier than he expected. Felt good in his hand, strangely satisfying. “How much for this one, Johnny?”

“New, that’s a seven hundred dollar piece, Frank. You can have it for three-fifty.”

Frank only had two hundred and twenty-three dollars in his pocket, all the cash he had in his house when he left for work this morning. “Fraid that’s a little out of my league at the moment, Johnny. What’s the cheapest piece?”

“That would be the thirty-two, the snub-nose, your basic Saturday Night Special. Let you have that for a yard and a half. But I warn you, man, the piece is off brand, could be a hunk of shit. I hear they’re stamping these things out by the carload these days; demand in the big cities is so high.” Beam put his hand across his upper lip and leaned back. The chair squeaked.

Frank picked up the thirty-two and bounced it around in his hand. It felt cheap and tinny. He put it back in the box, sat back.

Beam said, “Tell you what, man, you want a revolver, I’ll give you the thirty-eight for two bills. Smith and Wesson. Good solid weapon. Bluing’s a little tarnished and the wood on the grip’s got a little crack in it, but still very functional.”

“You got a deal, Johnny.”

“Good man. But remember, Frank, ain’t gonna be no bill of sale. You get popped with that thing; heavy shit could come down on you. I ain’t lyin’. And sure as hell don’t try to pawn it.”

“Okay, man, I hear you.” Frank stuck his hand in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a fold of wrinkled bills.

Johnny said, “You gonna need a holster or a shoulder harness or anything?”

“Nah, man, I’m good. I’ll stick it under my belt and put my jacket over it like they do in the movies.”

(To be continued)

 

 

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CHAPTER 8, EXCERPT 4

Frank went through the side door, got inside and sniffed his armpit. Not exactly fresh, but passable. Anxious for the chance to get close to Judy, he was pushing back fantasies as he stepped across the sawdust-covered hardwood floor avoiding hunks of cardboard, scraps of plastic and tin, a level, a plane, a tape measure and power tools. His footsteps sounded loud in the empty back room that seemed to be a den, nice view of the yard and the lake from the long windows. Hearing voices, he continued along a short hallway to what seemed to be a dining room. Nurse Judy and Mr. Pills were there standing in front of a finely crafted, green wooden cabinet.

“Oh, ah, hi,” Frank said. “Sorry to barge in on you like this, but, ah, the Buick in the driveway needs to be moved so the dumpster guy can swing in. I guess he’ll be coming pretty soon.”

Nurse Judy was maybe ten feet away from him in her white uniform, her hair tied back in a short prim ponytail. She was holding what looked to be a box for sterling silverware. Pills, on her left, was holding a similar box. Then Frank’s mind went blank and the next thing he knew he was staring at Judy’s chest. Right at those fantastic tits cupped in the silky bra he could see underneath the white nurse’s blouse. Catching himself, he blinked and glanced at Pills, saw a knowing, bitter smirk, Mr. Pills arching his eyebrows and staring at him, the man’s lips pinched together in a way that made Frank think of a prune.

“Uh… I think the Caddy is all right where it is, though,” Frank said.

“Very well, then,” Pills said, his face blank now. “I’ll take these upstairs,” nodding at the silverware boxes, “so you can move the car, Jude.”

“No need, Ricky,” Judy said, “I’m sure Frank can move it if I give him the keys. He seems a capable enough man.”

She gave Frank a little smile—Jesus, was it Come hither?—and then turned toward the front door. She went into a vestibule with coats and jackets hanging from hooks on the wall and Frank watched her put her hand in the pocket of a long dark coat.

Then she was coming back with the keys and Frank was staring at her eyes, trying to see what was behind them. He was locked in on her, and goddamn if she wasn’t almost wincing. Shit, here we go again, Frank thought, glancing at Pills, the man gritting his teeth and frowning and looking like he knew Frank had the hots for his woman. And also probably knowing that Frank wanted Judy to be aware of this interest.

Frank lowered his eyes.

“Here you go,” Judy said, handing him the keys. “Just leave them in the ignition when you’re finished. Should be safe out there with three strong young men to look after it.”

Did she put extra emphasis on the word young?

Keeping his eyes pointing down, Frank took the keys, reminded now that Mr. Pills was older, somewhere in his forties. All right, so he wasn’t that much older than Frank. But Frank was young for his age, goddamnit. Putting the keys in his pants pocket, he murmured Thanks and went back outside.

Opening the door on the big Buick, first thing that hit him was the scent. Back when Judy was Ray-Ray’s wife, she liked to give Frank hugs. And not really your family-type hugs, y’know. Always a breast pushing against him and lingering a beat too long or a thigh touching a tender spot or maybe a hand straying where it shouldn’t. And man, her fragrance would stay there teasing him for a long time afterwards. But the scent in this car now was different, some change in perfume or shampoo or something. Just the same, Frank knew it would stick in his craw for the rest of the day.

He started the Buick and slid it over alongside the baby blue Cadillac. Then he took a long slow inhale through his nose.

 

The dumpster guy came like he said he would, setting the big green box on the lawn on the east side of the house. Frank and Keith spent the rest of the day tossing in the scraps from Moran’s furious sawing, measuring and nailing. Frank helped with some of the building and believed he’d learned something. Hopefully the start of a new skill set.

By late in the afternoon the backyard was finally free of debris and Frank and Waverly were out front lingering by the dumpster, wondering if Moran would have anything else for them to do. Frank was thinking Danny was anxious to get somewhere that sold alcohol, judging by the way the man’s eyes had begun tunneling back into his head.

Waverly looked to the backyard. “I better put that radio inside,” he said, “looks like we’re done for the day.”

“Can you handle it by yourself, man?” Frank said.

“I’ll try my Boy Scout best, Frank.”

“Good man. You gonna head across the bridge right away?”

“Thought I would, yeah. Why?”

“I could use a ride. Danny probably wants to stop at the Shoal, and I’m supposed to meet someone downtown.” Frank didn’t have a watch to check but he figured it had to be after five and he wondered how long Johnny Beam would wait for him, the two of them never having done any kind of business before except Frank selling Johnny drinks. So shit, maybe the sonofabitch forgot all about it, appointments made in taverns often unreliable. This was some of the wisdom Frank had picked up in his ten years behind the bar.

“No problem, man,” Waverly said, walking to the backyard.

After watching Keith lift the boombox off the sawhorse table and carry it inside the house, Frank leaned against the dumpster and turned his gaze to London Road, the cars zipping by Waverly’s rusty Olds. Frank was tired, could feel the complaints of a lot of unfamiliar muscles, and was fighting with a cigarette craving when he heard the front door of Pills’ Palace squeaking open. He stepped around the dumpster and saw nurse Judy moving toward her Buick carrying a dark coat, kind of a grim look on her face. But her ass was still looking proud in the tight white skirt, the sexy little tart. Frank stepped out a little farther and tried to catch her eyes, let her know what was on his mind, thinking he’d lost all reason but not giving a shit.

He watched her back the Buick up, swing it around and drive away. Didn’t even turn her head. He had a strong urge to follow her but had to swallow it, his car being currently unavailable.

(End of Chapter 8)

 

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CHAPTER 8, EXCERPT 2

“I see our carpenter has brought in some new workers,” Richard Pillsbury said to his fiancé, the couple standing at the large bay window gazing down at the backyard. “I’m not sure if I approve of his choice of help. I see he’s got Ray Ford’s older brother on the crew today, the damn bartender who refused to take my money.”

“You did tell Moran you wanted him to go faster, Sweet Cakes. More men means more work, so they get done faster. And Frank was just being nice, giving you a drink on the house. Don’t take everything so personal, Richard, loosen up a little. Those guys are kind of cute. I mean, when you take them as a group, they’re kind of cute and funny, don’t you think? All shaggy and hungover and everything this morning… look at the one with the long curly hair dancing to the radio. I’m sure they’re harmless.”

“Cute? More like mangy mongrel dogs,” Richard said. “Dancing on my dime.” But the truth was, these roughneck construction types made him nervous, got his stomach jumping, got him thinking they were going to steal from him. That’s why he was having Judy take all the silverware upstairs. If only he could lock her up in the safe with the sterling, he might feel a little better. “And your former brother-in-law might be trying to stir up trouble about his low-life sibling getting what he deserved, exactly the kind of thing life hands out when you mess with other men’s women.”

“Oh, I seriously doubt that, Frank knows how Ray was. Losing me was too much for Ray to take, and I felt sorry for him, honey. I was just humoring him, being nice, trying to let him down easy—you know that. Ray was crazy, but I could always handle him. And I imagine I can handle his big brother if it comes down to that. So let’s try and enjoy our time. You’re only young once, you know.”

“I guess you’re right, honey. You’re always right.” Looking at his watch. “And now it’s time for mother’s morning meds. Mustn’t keep her waiting.”

“I’m on my way, Ricky. You going in to the store today?”

“I don’t want to. And I don’t really have to, but I suppose I should make an appearance. Monday—the start of a new week and all. But it’s so dreary there, and it looks like we’re going to have a stretch of nice weather… we should go for a drive later.”

“I’ll see. I have to look in on my aunt today, see how she’s doing.”

“Anything you need?”

“I’ll call you at the store.”

“Then I guess I’ll have to go in.”

“That’s a good boy. Lucille will be proud of her young man.” She gave Richard uplifted eyebrows and left.

(To be continued)

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 CHAPTER 7, EXCERPT 5

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

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

(End of Chapter 7)

 CHAPTER 8, EXCERPT 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So there’s another nurse?”

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

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

(To be continued)

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