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CHAPTER 3, EXCERPT 3

He watched the doors on the monster pickup open, saw two big goons step out. Exhaust drifted in the headlight beams, refracting the light and bending it, but Frank’s vision was clear. The acid was like a spotlight shining right to the core of these two assholes. See the tension in their muscles, the way they’re bent and twisted and walking crooked. The driver was the bigger of the two, offensive-lineman size with oily blonde hair falling over his ears. Bad haircut gave him an inbred look, the goon probably raised on abuse. But a nice brown suede jacket, double extra-large, maybe even triple or four X. Other guy was a tad smaller but still bigger than Frank. Look at him hovering back a step or two, not really into it. Watching the big guy and following his lead.

Take out the body and the head will follow. Or was it the other way around?

“You boys lost?” Frank said, feeling the smile taking over his lips as the adrenaline flowed like a river in spring, shaking his muscles awake. “The boat whores are across that little bridge up there.” Pointing up at the Interstate Bridge.

The bigger guy scowled, Frank thinking of an angry steer. Frank almost laughed; dude wasn’t very enthusiastic. Autry’d probably promised him ludes in exchange for an easy stomping job but now the situation looked a bit different than advertised. Frank could see every muscle twitch and the movement of every thought in their thick heads as the two guys exchanged glances before going back to the monster truck.

Is that all, boys? All you got? Leaving before we get to dance?

Frank got his answer when they reached into the truck and their hands came out gripping baseball bats, the new kind, made from aluminum instead of wood, the light from the pole lamps glinting off the shiny metal. Frank could see the doubt on the smaller guy, the man still hanging back, but the big bastard must have wanted his dope because he was coming on, moving in, gripping the bat like an axe, empty-headed meanness written on his white and blotchy face.

Having played football in high school—a running back—Frank knew these ham-huffing mongoloid lineman types were usually top heavy and often had a hard time stopping or changing direction. And the storm trooper mofo coming at him now looked to have fallen off his training regimen some time ago. If Frank could get him moving, get him off balance—he’d have a chance. Second dude would probably split in a hurry should the big guy fall. Problem though was Frank’s left knee, torn ACL when one of those giant lineman types fell on it in the Central game, senior year. Never had surgery and the damn thing never really healed right. So he knew he had maybe five minutes of fast movement, ten at the very outside, before his knee or his wind gave out.

Fuck.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 3, EXCERPT 2

Lowering his hands to his sides, he yelled, “Goddamnit”, across the water, and as the sound died away in the breeze, he got a little nervous. Anticipating a lightning strike or the scolding of a heavenly voice, religious conditioning was wrinkling his mind like a cold wind.

He was still waiting for relief when a flash of light caught his eye. Then the rumble of an engine on the road coming in caught his ears. Frank knew right away what was going down, he was tuned in. Getting the cosmic wake-up call, it seemed, he went to the station wagon, pulled open the tailgate and grabbed the tire iron and the length of tire chain he kept back there wrapped in rags to keep from rattling. You tended bar in a dive you needed weapons in your car because you never knew when some squid you eighty-sixed was outside waiting for you in the dark and harboring ill intent.

Someone like Ray-Ray.

Fuck.

Frank stood there waiting, anticipating; tire chain in his left hand tire iron in his right, the Stones blowing hard and heavy out the window of the station wagon.

You can’t always get what you want…

Squinting into the searing headlight beams of a big white pickup truck rumbling out of the blackness, Frank was thinking, But sometimes, man, you get what you need. Peace and love had turned to violence and hatred—and it felt pretty damn good.

Time to exorcise some demons.

Truck coming at him was a beast with two dark spotlights mounted on a bar across the roof, a grill of steel bars on the front bumper and red-hued exhaust trailing behind it like a vapor trail. Frank watched the big truck swing across the road and stop, effectively blocking any avenue of escape.

And that was just fine with Frank. His internal force was all the way live now and ready to get it on.

With his senses peaking, Frank locked onto the car radio and the Eagles wailing “One of These Nights.” He felt a smile coming on as the wack hit him full frontal. Christ, he wanted to hit the high notes with Henley and Frey, but he never could sing and this wasn’t the time for it.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 3, EXCERPT 1

On Garfield Avenue heading toward the docks, not knowing how he got here, Frank was cruising past Goldfine’s By the Bridge, a discount appliance and furniture store, feeling like something was pushing him along. He angled off Garfield onto Port Terminal Road, wound the Pontiac underneath the Interstate Bridge and looped around past the terminal building. He parked near the water and left the engine running, the radio on, the window down and the headlights off. He got out and went to the spot. Stood right on it. He could still see it there in his mind, the police outline. Shit, see him there, fucking Ray, Frank’s goddamn little brother, the kid’s bloody, swollen face with no peace showing on it. May he rest in peace. That’s what they always say, isn’t it? Was Ray peaceful now? Christ, who knew? Could be more religious hypnosis, they’re always sending it out. What about the living? Don’t we get peace? Comfort in the Lord?

Frank couldn’t find it. Didn’t know where to look so he stared across the dark waters of St. Louis Bay toward the old Arrowhead Bridge way down there in the distance, the long arc of ancient wood and steel stretching across the sky from Minnesota to Wisconsin, a lone set of headlights moving slowly across it now on the way to Zenith, Bay City bars closed for the night.

Cops’ theory was that Ray jumped off the Arrowhead Bridge and the body floated down here, couple of miles or so to the east, took it a week or two to make the journey. So maybe the cops were right. But it didn’t seem like Ray’s style. Goddamn kid was resilient, always seemed to bounce back. He could take it as well as he dished it out. Ray had taken a few beatings in his time and the hell of it was he always came back stronger. Some bouncer knocked him around; Ray would lift weights for a while and come back at the guy. Usually got whipped again but had fucked up a couple over-sized cream puff bouncers in his day. And it seemed a long way for a body to float to get all the way down here to the port terminal but what did Frank know? He was just a goddamn bartender. Maybe it all just finally caught up to Ray. Frank had seen it before, some hard guy spends a few years on the booze and the pills and then one night decides to pick a fight with a green-behind-the-ears kid who proceeds to kick the shit out of him. Next time you see the guy he’s staring down at his shoes and acting apologetic and nervous. Got a permanent cowed look on his face like all the guys he fucked over in the past are trailing behind him in a pack shouting threats and obscenities.

So maybe that’s the way it was with Ray. Little brother was never a tough guy but he did have way more than the average load of bad karma. Ray ripped people off on deals, stole money off bar tops, kicked old drunks, borrowed money and never paid it back—Christ, he died owing Frank more money than Frank wanted to remember. And that was from way damn back, Ray having burned that bridge eons ago.

And that, in a nutshell, as they say, was why damn near everyone who knew Ray was less than saddened by his passing. But not mom or Frank’s sister, Anne. No, those two had, at some point, made a choice not to know how Ray lived. At least that’s how they always acted. And there were also some grieving aunts and uncles at the funeral who knew Ray when he was a kid and hadn’t seen him much since then.

And all of them were living in a fantasy world.

Ray was a shit.

So why the hell couldn’t Frank let it go? He was trying, man. Here he was, standing in the dampness on the edge of the bay and lifting his hands to the stars, waiting for the pain to go away, giving it a pathway. Frank repeating Let it go, let it go, to himself and waiting for the bad shit to magically fly out of his body and leave him happy ever after.

But no.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 2, EXCERPT 11

Frank gave Autry what he hoped was a knowing smirk but feared looked more like an idiot’s grin. The two insects just stood there staring at him, looking confused, as he moved down the hill toward his car. Feeling bug eyes on his back, Frank stopped at the side of the station wagon, turned around and waved. “See you soon, boys,” he said, hoping it was loud enough to have an impact but not so loud as to make him seem nuts. But then again, maybe nuts was good.

Frank slid in behind the steering wheel and watched Loy and Autry get in the GTO and roll down the avenue, Frank in his mind writing Roach Motel in white paint on the faded trunk lid. Then he said the silent prayer for men with a failing battery and turned the key. This time it fired right up. A miracle. The prayer had worked. Had to be a bad battery cable or a crack in the distributor cap, thing always got tricky when it was damp outside, which was most of the time around here in April.

He began tuning the radio, looking for a station that didn’t play disco, settling on KQZS. He took a last look at the apartment building and could still see dim light behind the curtain of the top floor window.

Something up there was attracting the insects and the parasites. What or who the hell was it?

Judith Bruton?

Probably.

Had to be a scam going down.

Waiting there and trying to pull it together, on came the biggest psychedelic wave of the night and Frank was helpless. Letting it happen—no choice—he white-knuckled the steering wheel and watched the pavement undulate like a giant serpent.

Ride it out, man, ride it out.

His breath was coming in machine-gun bursts as that internal energy scratched its way toward the surface. His mind was weaving in and out of past fears and regrets. And then a strong desire for some kernel of wisdom and enlightenment lying just beyond his reach—something he could almost get to that kept spinning away at the last moment—hit him full on. This went on for some time—no clue how long—until finally he began to adjust and gain some measure of control. Pushing in the car lighter, he held it in waiting for the heat then pulled the joint from his jacket and put it to the glowing coil. After a big hit he slid the shifter arm into drive, Ray’s swollen, pulpy face back to front and center.

Ray-Ray dead on the ground… emergency people shooting out heavy vibes…

He rolled down the hill to Superior Street, lingering at the intersection to gaze up at the two canoe paddlers in beaver-fur hats on the Voyageur Motel sign. Their eyes seemed to follow him as he took a right on Superior Street and began driving slowly west through downtown, paranoid as all hell and wishing it wasn’t so bright. Last thing he needed was a cop taking an interest. But once he passed Mesaba Avenue and was cruising along below the big rock wall they call the Point of Rocks, the artificial light began to fade and the disguise of darkness returned.

At this time of night, in his condition, Frank knew he should go home. But the thought sent waves of claustrophobic anguish reverberating through him. His tiny one bedroom house in Central Hillside, resembling one of those syrup containers designed to look like a log cabin, could get lonely sometimes.

And filled with demons.

Hello walls.

(End of Chapter 2)

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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 8

Frank turned up the collar on his leather jacket and started east on Michigan Street, edgy at every approaching recessed doorway, every hidden pocket of shadow. After passing the darkened storefronts of a plumbing supply company, auto parts wholesaler and an out-of-business cafe, he turned left onto First Avenue East, pushed uphill to Superior Street and got caught in the light show.

Spotlight on you, Frank Ford: Where were you on the night of April 7th? Is it true you and your brother didn’t get along? Did you ever threaten your younger brother’s life?

Yeah, Jesus, there was that time Ray was out at the house on Tischer Road hassling Frank’s wife. Scared out of her ass, Joanie called Frank at work, said Ray was drunk and out of control, out in the garage “trying to find your stash,” and breaking shit. Frank left work and blew out there to find Joan trying to get in her car and Ray trying to pull the keys out of her hand. So of course he beat hell out of the little shit. Of course he threatened him. Prick was muscling his wife. But Frank didn’t kill him, just punched him a few times. Same kind of shit they’d done for years, kind of shit brothers do.

Now a scene from that day was playing inside Frank’s head, Ray blowing out the driveway sending up dust clouds while Frank stood there watching the ratty old Chevy swerve at him. Frank jumped out of the way but not before seeing the hatred and the totally gone madness on little brother’s face. And behind that, the lost momma’s boy, trying to show his big brother who was tougher.

Feeling the one block uphill push in his legs now, Frank looked to his left across Superior Street and got hit with searing white light from the Coney Island Cafe. Squinting against the glare, he saw two darkly dressed customers lumbering around inside the diner and a thin man dressed in white behind a counter at the back of the place, the man’s skin looking buttered. And Jesus, now rivers of grease were rushing down the front window glass and torrents of hot oil were pouring down off the letters of the blinking Coney Island sign.

Frank rubbed his eyes and blinked and moved his gaze along to the next building, the Norshor Theater. The lights on the theater’s semi-circular marquee were blinking in rotation like a giant pinball machine. Way he felt, maybe he could stretch up there and play a game. Below the marquee, behind the glass doors, the lobby was dark and seemed to go on forever. Tonight’s feature was Star Wars, a movie Frank had seen just a month ago, and his mind went temporarily into a colorful landscape of light sabers, star ships, Ewoks and talking robots.

He kept moving.

Looking ahead to a crowd gathered in front of the Red Lion Lounge, half a block farther along on his side of the street, shouts, angry snapping voices and racial epithets came rumbling his way inside a dark cloud. And then in an instant he was eleven years old again and it was that warm summer night when the big kid chased him up the hill from Nelson’s Pharmacy, Frank on his way home after taking a leisurely stroll for a lime phosphate at Nelson’s soda fountain. He could feel it now as if he was there again, the fear in his gut and the searing pain in his lungs and legs from sprinting four blocks straight uphill with the dark shadow in pursuit. Eventually, back then, Frank turned around to discover that the big kid had abandoned the chase, but the fear had lingered on.

Was lingering on.

Pushing back at the rising panic, he came to a stop and peered at the crowd. He could feel the angry vibes, the ugliness and the ignorance, the pig-headed drunkenness.  

Come on, Frank, pull it together, you’re thirty-six years old, man, eleven is long gone.

But still, discretion is the better part of valor, they say, and one doesn’t feel much like violence while riding the lysergic train—peace and love, remember….

Hearing the words in his head Frank felt rumblings in the deep recesses, maybe coming from hundreds of years back in his DNA memory. He was sure there was a warrior gene lying half-dormant somewhere in there, just waiting for the wake-up call.

Nevertheless

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 2, EXCERPT 7

Frank wanted to ask a few more questions but now the walls of the room were wrinkling and bending, his facial muscles were going slack and Meagher’s normally square head was taking on the look of a braying jackass. And Oberst was beginning to resemble some kind of large white worm.

Frank chugged the rest of the Michelob and stood up. “Well,” he said, “I’m outta here. Everything’s locked upstairs. Take it easy, boys.”

“Take it any way I can get it, Franko,” Meagher said.

“Have a good one, Frank,” Oberst said, wriggling in the chair now like a potato sausage on a griddle.

Frank was zipping his jacket when Meagher’s lips and large teeth seemed to separate from his jaw and hang in the air like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Cheshire Cat-type shit. Turning away from the image, Frank gritted his teeth and left the office. Going by the stage he noticed a pile of records on the floor and a turntable setup with speakers and an amp, the tools of trade of Betty’s new DJ, and signs of changes coming to the Underground. Frank started to fixate on the colorful album covers and artful record label logos but shook it off and continued through the blue-and-red-hued lounge thinking he was in a comic book frame, Revenge of Plastic Man.

On his way outside, passing through the vestibule, he glanced up at the narrow rectangle of glass above the fire doors and saw more red and blue lights. He was also becoming aware of a throbbing, pulsing energy at the bottoms of his feet that seemed to be chugging jerkily upwards,

Frank pushed the release bar on the fire door expecting to walk outside to the familiar streetlight-bathed emptiness of Lake Avenue and Michigan Street at two a.m. Instead he stepped out to the damp and cool air and was hit with spinning reds and blues, darting white beams, glaring headlights and metallic voices buzzing and murmuring. He froze, fear and paranoia spiking his head. He almost put his hands in the air, almost said, Don’t shoot. Fighting against the panic he blinked and struggled to focus on the source of the commotion.

Across Michigan Street in the small dirt parking lot, the headlights of a police car were framing the steam rising off a red and white Pontiac sedan, ’67 or ’68. The Poncho’s front end was caved in to a deep, ragged, inverted V, and two blue-uniformed cops were moving around shooting flashlight beams at the wreck and its surroundings.

Frank inhaled deeply, controlling his breathing, and felt his heart beginning to slow its hammering as he realized that the only one interested in him was the bum that lived in the hidey-hole over there beneath Superior Street where the steam pipe was, the dude’s mole face, long unkempt beard and scraggly hair seemingly hovering above and behind the wrecked Pontiac and the surrounding commotion. Caught in the ambient light, the guy’s tea saucer eyes seemed to be staring right at Frank.

Frank felt the muscles in his body relax; tiny fingers releasing their grip up and down his legs and torso. He took another deep breath, stuck his hands in his jacket pocket, felt the joint Waverly gave him still safely out of sight, and recalled that, shit, his station wagon was still up the hill across from the apartment building he’d seen Judy-Bruton-soon-to-be-Judy-Pills go into.

Judy Pills, man. Must’ve been written in the universe.

(To be continued)

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