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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 7

     I drove to a spot on Fifth Street across from the Boulevard Lounge, walked across the street and started searching for Johnny Wells’ big Chevy. Found it in the back parking lot, nose-up to the rear door of the bar in a spot marked Management Only Violators will be Towed.

The blood pounded in my head.

I thought about going back inside but put the kibosh on that. I was too fucked up. I considered standing outside by the backdoor but a cold and relentless freezing drizzle was coming down—and even I knew enough to stay out of the rain.

I had to talk to Mary and say my piece. That was what Stephanie wanted.

The fuck did I care what Stephanie wanted?

I owed Mary.

Why is that?

Because she said she loved me.

Did she show any love on that stage tonight?

I don’t know.

She’s doing hard drugs. There’s a warrant out on her. She can’t be trusted. 

     What am I doing here then?

I don’t know. 

I should leave.

But now there she was.

Out came a steady stream of people. I watched Mary peel off to the side, reject an overzealous fan and stop alongside Wells’ car. She leaned against the bricks of the building, pulled a cig from the pocket of her most-likely-new black leather jacket, and fired up. Took a big drag and blew smoke into the rain. Then a deep pull of fresh air, holding it in for a few seconds, head tilted back.

I followed her gaze up to the streetlight. Shining, blinding, raindrops fell. I was almost to her before she saw me. Shock and a wry, groggy amusement played over her tired features but she still looked sexy in her black stockings and burgundy thigh-high skirt. I tried to say something but she beat me to the punch.

“You fucking loser,” she said with a snarl. “What are you doing here? You didn’t want anything to do with me. I’m a stripper—remember? And you’re just so damn good, aren’t you. Ain’t it that the same old story. Ain’t that how it is.” Her voice was metallic, like a spoon rapping on a counter top. “Now I got a real man, so why don’t you split before he comes out and kicks your ass. I don’t want him thinking I’d have anything to do with someone like you.” She pawed the ground with the toe of her knee-high black boot and looked away from me.

“What the hell are you talking about, Mary? You expect me to believe that shit? Or is this some weird way of punishing me for your own delusions?”

Coherence wasn’t coming easy for either of us.

Mary scowled and spit out her words: “You don’t have to have anything to do with me if you want—that’s fine.” There was moisture welling in the edges of her eyes and my chest was about to explode. “Why did you come here? Why did you do that to me?” Her voice cracked.

“I don’t know. Something came over me. I was drunk. The band was weird. My brain broke. Why do we need a reason? How about this thing with you and Wells? What about all those things you said about him before? They’re not true anymore? Stephanie told me a few things about Johnny, like he’s a baby raper, for one. Or maybe you knew that. Did you know that?”

“Steph’s just making that up because she wants Johnny back.”

“Popular guy for a grease ball. Why don’t you just split, Mary? Get out of this town for good.”

Who was saying these words? I wondered. Who was making this body move?

Surely not me.

“Steph is just saying it because she wants to be where I am. I’m tired of running. And Johnny gives me things—things I like. And I make good money. Everywhere I go—everyplace else—I always have to leave.”

“That’s such bullshit. How can you even say that? Can’t you see what Wells is trying to do?”

“Somebody looking for me?”

Wells was standing there in the rain sneering, his narrowed eyes locked on me. He flashed that thin and viciously gleeful grin I‘d seen once before. He was wearing the same ugly leather jacket and the same pointy-toed boots as that time at the Castaway. Screw baby raper, this guy was a killer. Crazy Harvey Dornan knew it but could no longer tell anyone about it.

I stared in Wells’ face like a drunken fifteen-year old defending his first love from the neighborhood bully. “Yeah, I am,” I said with as much bluster as I could muster.

Then his gloved left hand flashed out like a snake’s tongue and crushed my nose. My knees slammed down on the wet gravel. I spit blood and tried to clear my head. I’d been expecting the right hand. His fists were like lead. Then a boot crashed up into my chin and I saw green and red stars and everything went fuzzy. Too gone to beg for mercy, gang.

Goodbye, goodbye, I’m diving into this puddle.

Sounds and voices now—lots of voices—and scuffling in the gravel. Johnny was yelling. Mary was close to hysterical.

Out of my one good eye I saw some bikers dragging Wells back toward the door of the bar. It was Big Dog and Frank and some pals. They formed a ring around Wells and wouldn’t let him get to me.

Then a kind-eyed man in a light-colored golfing jacket helped me up off the ground and held me steady. He tried to keep from getting blood on his jacket but I think some got on there. “You’re in rough shape,” he said, studying me with concern. “Maybe you should go to the hospital.”

“No, man, I’m all right,” I wiped away blood and mud and bits of gravel from my face with my sleeve. “That asshole just straightened out my crooked nose for me, that’s all.” I was about to puke on the guy’s nice jacket.

Pain of a different kind surged through me when I caught sight of those hurting brown eyes staring out from behind a row of cars. I saw tears through the rain.

“Why won’t you leave Johnny and I alone?” she yelled out, just a hint of panic at the back of her throat. “You know how it is. Why don’t you go away, you weirdo?” Then she gave me one last sad look that made me think this wasn’t over yet, turned and walked quickly back into the club.

The show must go on.

 

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 6

     “Can’t be pissing yourself away like a child,” said a deep voice in the darkness.

I jerked and turned in the direction of the voice. A tough looking old man in a bowler hat was frowning at me from ten yards away. He crossed his arms against his old fashioned clothes: wool topcoat, round-collar shirt, tie, Navy blue wool suit.

A bolt of lightning popped inside my temple like a soundless firecracker. “What’d you say to me? The fuck are you laughing at old man?” I waved the geezer away. “Get the hell out of here, you old bastard.” I bent over and scraped some mud off the ground and threw it at him. He moved aside before it got half way there.

The laughter got louder. Now it was inside my head.

Then I recognized him. It was James Wallace Waverly, a grandfather I had never known. His picture was on the wall when I was a kid. According to the stories I’d heard, he was a tough sonofabitch, a hard-bitten Englishman who worked as a bouncer on the trains in upper Michigan during the depression. Had to disarm and disembark freeloaders all the time. But he had died before I was born. And now he was standing right there in front of me.

This was some strong fucking acid.

“What are you doing here, old man? It ain’t Halloween. Why don’t you leave me alone? Everyone else sees Jesus, and I get you.”

“Screw Jesus,” snapped old Jim. “Jesus was a martyr. You have to be dead to be a martyr. You want to be dead—like me?”

Now his face was a skull, worms wriggling from the empty eye sockets.

I freaked and rubbed my eyes and looked again. This time he had a face, a face that was giving me the Look. The look you see on the pioneers’ faces in the photos in the museums. I always admired the Look but I’d never understood what was behind it.

“You trying to tell me that I’m a coward—taking the easy way out? Look at me. I’ve been beaten to shit. Knocked every which way. My marriage is long in the trash barrel and now Mary is playing house with a psychopath, and the Big Perv killed my friend. And these other guys, they—ah, hell. It’s just not worth it anymore. I don’t see the point of life.”

Again the laughter burning in my ears.

“What’s the point of death, son? Anything worth having is worth suffering for. Unless you’d rather give up, of course. It is your choice.”

“That is funny,” I said. “And trite. Do you like that word—trite? I went to college, y’know. I know a lot of words. And they’re all about to come spilling out here on the ground at any moment. What do you want with me? Welcoming me to the graveyard? Introducing me to the family?”

All I got was The Look.

I was close to him now. I took a swing at his head, a looping overhand right.

He disappeared.

Bad acid, probably. Indigestion maybe. Chemicals in the booze. Unhealthy lifestyle. Hormones in the hamburger. Could be anything.

Then the world jumped to the left. Then back to the right. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight. Whattsa matter, can’t you see straight?

      My stomach lurched; loins itched. Some kind of crazy energy came up from the ground. I felt it in my legs—then everywhere. Nostrils the size of Mason jars and my breath rushing like a hurricane. Ready to run with the wild dogs. Then the laughing again—no longer in my head maybe but I really couldn’t tell. Then I saw him across the street encircled by a million pulsating raindrops.

“No sex in the grave, boy,” he shouted as he toe danced in front of a boarded-up theater. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the building before.  Today’s feature was written in bold but fading letters on the peeling marquee: Waverly’s Demise.

More laughing seemed to come from behind me then but when I turned there was no one there. A strange electric buzzing, like from a recording, reverberated off the deserted asphalt and the empty buildings. Then I heard a wailing sound, at first getting stronger and increasingly mournful, before finally fading.

Then a harsh whisper: “The beast is on a short tether, boy.”

I looked everywhere. No Gramps. When I turned back around the theater began to crumble before my eyes. In an instant it was an empty lot with an old tire and a broken concrete block lying in the middle of dead weeds. The distant wailing sound came back again—as a siren this time—getting louder and coming my way. I ducked into the darkness and ran until my legs stretched out. Now everything was clear. Ever clear ever true. Running was good. You just had to have direction.

I got back to the car all ready to go.

 

(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 5

     Back in the womb now I started it up and drove around until I found a street lonely and dark enough. I parked next to a big black oak tree whose branches seemed to point at me accusingly. Across the street a vacant lot divided a row of dark little houses with their shades pulled down. I took a blast on the bottle and the whiskey swirled into the bottom of my gut, hot and shivery at the same time.

I felt myself sinking down, giving up. But I needed a smoke. A man needs a smoke. My matchbook said “Relax and Enjoy” but it was empty. I flipped open the glove box and rummaged for matches because the car lighter didn’t work. A sheet of green pyramid LSD fell out onto the torn rubber floor mat.

What the hell, I thought. Why not do some right now? Could it make things any worse? Always sick, always in trouble, always guilty—don’t get much worse.

I tore off a strip of the acid, sixteen hits at least. Washed them down with Windsor and laughed a bitter laugh like everybody’s fool. Then me, and my friends Whiskey Man and Mr. Cigs, went for a little walk—or stumble, as it were, around the empty streets. I could no longer feel the cold and the icy rain soothed the wounds on my face.

But could I save face in outer space without a trace of sanity?

In a time that seemed like an hour but could have been ten minutes, I came upon a boarded up church, a small, white, clapboard building with a bogus steeple on the roof. I walked toward the rear of the building with the intent of relieving myself. There was a strange metallic taste in my throat. Glands in my neck were going squirrelly. My brain was shifting gears like a sixteen-wheeler rolling down hill in a snowstorm. Putrid smoke from factories was thick in my nostrils. Cars on the bridge whined in my ears and the universe vibrated through me in intermittent waves. Lights on the hillside—miles away—hurt my eyes. Pain always there to remind me.

Bad thoughts tumbled out with the rushing urine: The High Bridge would be a good place to end it all. It would be a big deal—women would cry. What a rush, just walking up to the middle, cars zipping by like you’re not even there and you not caring about jackshit. Every time they whoosh by your heart just about explodes and a chill of fear grabs your balls. Up on top of the span, the wind would be blowing and you’d look down at the dark and icy water below and the voice would be screaming Jump. Jump you miserable coward. Jump.

You’d just go numb—it wouldn’t be that bad.

     Come on, what are you waiting for? Take the plunge. You’re outta here. Gone Johnson. People would be yelling. Horns would be honking. When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah. The lights… the water… all around me they swirled. Inside me it swirled.

On the ground in front of me it swirled.

Jesus, it was a long goddamn piss.

I zipped up and pulled out the bottle and sucked hard on the whiskey.  Take me back to my daddy’s knee, sweet whiskey; take me back. 

     I knew if I stayed here much longer they’d have to change my name to Catatonic State. I could dye my hair orange….

 

(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 4

     I leaned against the side of a house and pushed my hair back off my forehead. I bent over at the waist, pressed my finger to my nostril and blew out bloody snot. Down the alley a neon-bathed rat scurried across the damp pavement.

After a moment of reconnaissance I cut through several backyards of garbage cans and rusty autos and moved quickly across the street, doubling back to my car. Beaten and kicked—kicked and beaten. Needles and pins-a.

I couldn’t make myself drive so I sat there and squeezed the steering wheel while my head reeled and whirled. Eventually I settled down a little.  I found a long butt in the ashtray and fired it up. Nicotine narcosis, baby, let’s have it.

Violated and dominated and kicked around like a diseased rodent—not to mention getting fucked in the ass—that shit will linger with you for awhile. That’s the shit I couldn’t take. That, and about five hundred other goddamn things, that were struggling to the surface like a swarm of pissed-off rattlesnakes. I couldn’t stand for any more abuse. Time to get even before the game got over. Time to stop running. You can only run so far before you realize you’re running from yourself.

I still had the stamp on my hand from the bar.

I tried in vain to figure it all out. What the hell do I get for trying to help somebody? My goddamn ass kicked. I should’ve gone to Jamaica.

Yeah, you shoulda, asshole, but it’s too late for that now. You’re in too goddamn deep. 

Maybe I could live in my car for a while. The automobile is like a rolling womb. You got wheels. You got door locks. You got the radio, heater—storage space in the trunk. You can sleep in your car; eat in your car, fuck in your car. Americans learn how to live out of their cars as teenagers. Why couldn’t I do it? Shit, I could park wherever I wanted. Go wherever I wanted. If anything bothered me I could just drive away.

Just me and my womb on wheels.

A man needs something to drink if he’s going to live in his car. So I struggled over to the now painfully throbbing Viking Liquor sign, went in the store and bought a pint of Windsor Canadian and a pack of Kools from the thick-haired clerk. I didn’t even like brown liquor and I was trying to quit smoking so clearly this was some kind of self-destructive urge like all the cool rock stars had. The clerk gave me a funny look for a second, like maybe I smelled bad, which I probably did. Looked like hell, too.

 

(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 3

     This time I moved directly to the foot of the stage. Men grabbed and shouted at Princess Mary but she stayed just beyond their reach—thrusting and tantalizing—occasionally coming close enough to touch and then darting backward. The room rose to a fever pitch. The band hit the crescendo then crashed to a halt. Mary bent over at the waist with her back to the audience and pulled down those crimson panties. Shivers shot up and down my spine. The mob roared approval. Something in my head broke.

I was squeezed in between two guys in suits when the next song started up. Mary looked down at me, her body naked, face like a mask. She saw me but I couldn’t read her. Was it love? Disgust? Pain? Embarrassment? Now I was just one of the pack. I wanted so badly to taste her. Then she was close to me, leaning over slightly, saying something I couldn’t quite hear through the noise. I grabbed her ankle and squeezed it—softly at first. It was so warm and smooth. I couldn’t make myself look up. I stared down at the stage and squeezed a little harder. She tried to pull away. “No, Keith, don’t. Please stop.” She barked it at me. “You don’t know what you’re doing. Let go.”

Then a fifty-pound bee stung my right ear and a horse kicked my left kidney. Next thing I knew I was saying hello to everybody’s shoes. I tried to scramble away on my knees and a boot popped out of nowhere and collided with my ribs. Then another stung my mouth. I kissed the ground. Star showers everywhere, man, funny electric shocks in my neck. Then two guys pulled me off the floor and shuffled me away. I was spitting blood, not fighting back.

They dragged me across the room. One bouncer slapped me across the back of the head. I struggled free and made a dash for the door. No bum’s rush for this kid. I burst out the door and hit the sidewalk running and headed for the darkness. Shouts and laughter were soon behind me. I turned into a dark alley, walked down half a block, stopped and listened. It was quiet. Streetlights reflected off the puddles of rainwater. I walked another little bit and listened some more.

Still quiet.

(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 6

From his spot at the bar, Nick screamed, “YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE, SAM.”

Peter McKay glared at Nick and blinked his eyes several times. Then his benevolent pose returned. John McKay got up from the table and walked slowly over to a leather couch in front of the fireplace. He picked his brown cashmere topcoat off the couch. His face glowed yellow from the flickering flames as he said a perfunctory goodbye and walked up the stairs. A moment later I heard the outside door open and close. Sam couldn’t hold it any longer and broke down into a giggling mess. Tom Geno grinned along with Sam—he could afford to. Miko regained some composure after downing his brandy but still had the look of a stunned rat.

Now Nick screamed again—at all of us this time: “OUT. ALL YOU ASSHOLES GET OUT OF HERE. THIS IS THE LAST FUCKING TIME I DO THIS SHIT. OUT—GODDAMN NOW!!!” Then he raked his hand across the top of the bar, sending bottles and glasses and ashtrays flying, gave us all one last glare and stormed up the stairs.

That gave us something to smile about as we showed ourselves out into the blustery March night. And I needed a laugh real bad. The sky was cloudy and there wasn’t a star in sight. I shivered. The hawk was blowing from the North and the dampness went right through me. But it was more than the weather had me shaking. Things hadn’t turned out very good tonight. And my whole life was the shits. I was in debt to the brothers for ten grand and after that performance in there I felt sure Nick would soon lose all patience with my financial delinquency, You don’t throw good money after bad, one of his favorite sayings. And after I didn’t turn the cards his way, I definitely qualified as bad.

Things were worse than I knew. Funny how you can get started into patterns without realizing it, and before you know it you’re going down some road leading somewhere you don’t even want to go. You don’t know where you’re going till you arrive and then later when it’s too late you’re not sure how you got there. And for the life of you, no matter how hard you try, you can’t find the way back. That’s the way it was for me.

My love life was also the pits—too many classless, ignorant bar flies with a marked propensity toward procrastination and sloth. I read that last part on a men’s room wall somewhere. But what do you expect from a divorced guy for Christ sake—church socials and discussion groups?

My ex-wife Loraine and I were flower children sweethearts back in the sixties. Then after seven years of marriage she caught me in the car with a topless twenty-year old and kicked me out of the house. Losing Loraine wasn’t so bad though, because by then we really had nothing in common—and even the sex was stale. All she wanted to do was go bowling and eat, while I, according to her, only cared for drinking beer and “staring at little chickie’s chests.” Fact it was imported beer never seemed to make an impression on her. Sometimes I miss the early days when she loved me still.

(To be continued)

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

 

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 5

Peter McKay’s chips lay on the table in neat little equal size stacks and his gaze was fixed on the Greek. Peter was trying to look into the little man’s eyes but Miko got up and walked over to the leather-covered bar along the back wall and poured himself a shot of Petri brandy in a lowball glass. Nick always bought rotgut liquor for these games.

Now old Pete pursed his lips and made a noise in his throat that sounded like hem and brought his cards in close to his body. After studying each player with his prying eyes, he slowly counted out enough chips for the call and slid them in the pot, peering around the table once again.

Sometimes I swore the bastard was fixing on me. All night long when I eyeballed him he had this weird glazed look on his pasty face. Seemed like he was checking me out. But it made sense; I was the dealer.

Sam Cross plucked an unopened Marlboro box from the table and tapped it three times hard against the palm of his hand. He removed the cellophane, tore a hole in the bottom of the box, shook out a cig and left the flip-top unopened. He rolled the unlit cig in his fingers, stared at the pot, avoided Nick’s gaze and checked his cards. Then he brushed the ash off his beard, counted out two-fifty worth of chips and quietly called.

Nick’s face was red, matching fifty percent of his checkerboard wool L.L. Bean shirt. Maybe some gray hairs were popping out. He rubbed his temples like maybe there was an aneurysm. I wasn’t sure if it was one of his signals or the onset of a stroke.

Mayor McKay said, “Too rich for my blood, I’m afraid. Even though I had trips—I’m done. The cards were bound to loosen up. That’s the last hand for me gentlemen.”  He flipped his cards over to me then leaned back and sighed.

Nick—who seemed to be about to swallow his tongue—gripped tightly at the front of his shirt and glumly slid in his chips. “Call,” he said with a weak rasp.

Now Miko was back in his dark captain’s chair looking like John Barrymore waiting for the right dramatic moment. His chest seemed to swell as he looked around at the remaining challengers and proudly slapped his cards down.

Aces over eights, full.

“Full house,” Miko said, big smile on his face. “Beat this, you mothers.”

“FUCK,” Nick screamed at the top of his lungs. “Ace-high flush and I fucking lose. GODDAMNIT.” He tossed his cards in Sam’s direction, stood up and stormed across the room to the bar. He stood there chugging from the Petri bottle and swearing to himself.

“Beats me,” Peter McKay said, smiling. “I’m afraid it’s a bad end to a good evening.” He flipped his cards over toward me, turned and looked smug.

All eyes went to Sam Cross.

Sam could hardly contain his glee. His body jerked with suppressed laughter as he plopped down his four sevens. Little bursts of air squeaked out the sides of his pressed-tight lips as he raked in the monster pot with both arms.

Miko groaned and his body went limp; he sank down into the chair in utter defeat.

Ain’t it funny how the lucky ones stay lucky and the rest of us keep losing.

 

 (To be continued)

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