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CHAPTER 11, EXCERPT 3



This bit of news prompted Waverly to leave the fireside and walk bowlegged down to the lakeshore and the excited ladies. Frank stayed where he was, close to the fire, thinking Judy and the two guests must’ve stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog.

Look at Judy down there in an earth-toned hunting jacket. Blue plaid flannel shirt with the tails hanging out, white turtleneck and new-looking jeans, her blonde hair tied back in a little ponytail. Frank was hoping for a look from her but so far nothing, she hadn’t even seemed to notice him. The couple, Pillsbury’s friends—the guy a buttoned up-button-down type with horn-rim glasses and the chick a decent-looking brunette of about thirty, red scarf tied around the crown of her head—were both wearing thickly woven sweaters and tan outdoor slacks that looked like they’d come off the rack this morning. They were also wearing matching green, knee-high rubber boots.

Standing close to Pills, Frank was now positive the man was the one he’d seen beating on Ray last fall. And he was getting the urge to say something to the big prick with the inbred sense of self-importance and the permanent I’m-better-than-you look. Did Pills actually believe he was man enough for Judy Bruton? Was he deluded enough to think she’d even give him a second glance if he wasn’t rich? Was he unaware she was going to take him for a ride? Seemed so. Ignorance, man.  But Frank pushed back his vitriol—he was feeling strangely reticent all of a sudden—and stayed within the bounds of polite company. “You do much fishing, Mr. Pillsbury?” he said, doing a little fishing himself.

Pillsbury, in his watery monotone, said, “Please call me Rick, Frank. Mister rings a bit too formal for our current surroundings, I think. As far as fishing goes, I’ve had a little experience: Some fly fishing for cutthroat trout in Montana and Colorado, salmon on the banks of the Columbia, and bonefish in Florida, just to name a few. But this kind of thing here is something new to me. And I confess, standing so close to a beautiful body of water such as this, gives me the urge to break out a long stiff rod and do some casting.”

“I’m a long pole man myself,” Frank said, “But you have to admire the efficiency of the dip net. Just puts itself in the path of its desired object and stays there, wide open and inviting, until the prey slides in like it’s the most natural thing in the world. And once in, very few ever get back out again, y’know? A very efficient use of energy, don’t you think? And the seine—like those two guys over there are using,” Frank pointed down at two young men dragging a long stretch of netting affixed to two poles along the shadowy shoreline, “is the most efficient trap of all. It takes two people to work it, but when the smelt are really running, when the little fish are overflowing with the need to procreate, the seine can really do some damage.”

Frank checked Pills for a reaction but the rich prick just took a drink from his beer bottle and stood stick-straight staring down the beach at Judy, Frank thinking it was only a matter of time before Pills called him Old Sport. They both kept their eyes trained on Judy splashing in the shallows in Moran’s too-big hip boots, saw her give Waverly a playful shove as Keith offered up the smelt net. Frank didn’t like the feeling it gave him—and fuck, was pissed just having any reaction at all—but figured Pills was a tich perturbed himself. But Pillsbury remained stoic in his dark pullover windbreaker, designer jeans and well-oiled hunting boots, the only indication of unrest his twitching jaw tendons. The man was acting as if he actually thought he was cool, some kind of stud, when in fact he came across like a grandiose—Frank couldn’t think of a more descriptive term than douchebag.

Okay, enough of that shit, Frank said to himself. Keep it together, man.

Frank and Pillsbury stood by the flickering fire watching the two women at the shoreline goofing with Waverly, the girls taking turns dragging the net through the frigid water and whooping with delight when it came out with a few fish flopping in the cone. Moran was standing awkwardly to one side voicing the occasional instruction—Moran a self-proclaimed expert on just about anything—and holding a plastic garbage bag for the captured smelt.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 11, EXCERPT 4

Frank sensed Pills was tensing up, the man perhaps getting a bit jealous and insecure. Pills was chugging beer and trying hard to act cool but his shoulders were up a little and he was starting to fidget. And then the other guy, Pill’s friend with the glasses and the Elvis hair, was coming into the glow of the campfire. “The smelters sent me for more beer,” the guy said, grinning like he was actually enjoying himself and not just putting on an act for his boss man’s benefit.

Pillsbury did the proper social thing and introduced Frank to Roger Bergson. Frank shook Roger’s hand, noticing the lack of calluses. And then another yelp came from the lakeshore and the three men turned their heads to Judy lifting a full-to-overflowing net of smelt from the dark water and dumping it into the waiting maw of the garbage sack, Moran shuffling around, the Hefty bag awkward in his hands. A few of the smelt leapt prematurely from the net and commenced flopping on the rocks and Moran bent over and scooped them into the bag, keeping a large one—Frank thought it was at least a foot long—in his hand.

Frank knew what was coming next, as Danny straightened himself and promptly bit the head off the big smelt.

So there it is, Frank thought, there’s always someone. And of course it was Danny Moran. Who else was more qualified to play the fish-decapitating sideshow geek? Moran was at the water’s edge now and Judy and her friend were still laughing. But their necks were stiff and the new girl was maybe put off by Moran’s nod to tradition. Always respectful of the past, that Dan. And what the hell did the chick know, anyway?

“Did my construction foreman just bite the head off a dead smelt?” Pills said, his voice clicking up an octave.

“I think it was a live one,” Roger Bergson said, running his fingers back through his oiled black hair, his face stuck somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

“Lake Superior sushi,” Frank said, watching Waverly and the women ambling down the beach toward a dark area beyond the glow of campfires and Coleman lanterns. The ladies sure seemed to be enjoying Keith’s company and the guy was obviously playing it to the max. Both girls had cigarettes and Frank could see the glowing orange tips gliding around and flaring in the darkness about fifty yards down the shore.

Waverly bringing the women into the shadows meant one of two things, either they were going to smoke pot or snort coke. Frank guessed coke. Disco dust. Satan’s semen. Nose candy. Shit was all over town these days. Rumor had it some local guys were picking it up in Panama and bringing it back here in large quantities. Hide your wallets. And your upwardly mobile types, like those two women lurking down there in the shadows with Waverly, often thought of weed as something for dirty hippies, whereas coke spoke of money and prestige and status. This was total bullshit, total image-conscious emptiness, but shit, whatever the hell the three of ’em were up to down there in the dark, it seemed to be too much for Mr. Pills and his main man Roger, because the pair exchanged meaningful glances and Pills said, “Seems like the fun has begun, Roger, what say we join the ladies?”

Frank could hear the women laughing, Waverly a real card when he made the effort. Frank was halfway ready for the pharmacist to shout Tally Ho or Hear, hear, but Bergson just squatted down and picked three bottles of Beck’s Dark from the cooler before he and Pills went off to rescue their women from the charms of a coked-up hippie boy on the skids.

Frank saw Waverly and the two women coming back into the light as Pills and his pal approached on the rocky beach. Frank heard Judy say, “Ricky babe, ready to get your feet wet? The Sultry Sisters of Smelt are about to do some serious damage. Bet we can catch more than you two big strong men.”

The Sultry Sisters of Smelt—an obvious Waverly creation. Dude loved alliteration. Should’ve been a headline writer for a tabloid. Sometimes the guy could influence you without you even knowing it.

Down at the shore now Pills and Elvis-hair were picking Moran’s seine off the rocks and unrolling the netting from the poles, Moran giving instructions while still holding the garbage bag. The girls were in the water dip netting at warp speed, pulling up half-full baskets nearly every lift and Frank was wondering who was going to clean the damn things. Hard to picture either Pills or Judy leaning over a tub of fish guts. Maybe there was a service you could hire.

No longer fighting it, Frank stared at Judy, hoping against hope she’d turn and give him some sign, some repeat of Friday’s meaningful glance.

But she never even turned around.

“You don’t want to catch any smelt, Frank?” Waverly said, strutting now as he came across the stones. He squatted at the cooler, his face orange in the fire’s glow.

“Nah, man, don’t want to spoil your fun. Only so much to go around.” Frank was trying hard to picture Judy naked in the hip boots and he just couldn’t get there, couldn’t find the groove. No longer seemed worth the effort. The dark beer had his mouth tasting like the bottom of an old hip boot and, basically, he was resigning himself to the fact that everything sucked. “You want to get out of here, Keith?” he said.

“Sounds good, man. My work here is done. Whattaya say we hit the Metro.”

“Uh, not sure about that… But—ah fuck it, why not? Where particular people congregate, right, Keith?”

“Right on, man.”

(End of Chapter 11)

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CHAPTER 11, EXCERPT 2

smelt 3

Rick Pillsbury—he always felt more like a Rick than a Richard when doing something outdoorsywas somewhat relieved. Yesterday morning when his Judy had blurted out the invitation to Moran—why, he had the urge to hit the girl, slap the foolishness right out of her. But instead he’d sunken into fearful imaginings, picturing Frank Ford standing in the frigid water with his arms around Judy; Ford demonstrating the proper technique for operating a smelt net. It was a scene from an old Elvis Presley movie in a fever dream, featuring Frank Ford as Elvis-in-chest waders, the big stud hitting on the pretty girls and serenading the provincial locals with ballads about record catches and long-drowned smelters.

How foolish romance can make one.

But what Rick was seeing now was Dan Moran standing along the shoreline talking and gesturing, demonstrating his dip-and-glide method with one of those peculiar smelting-type nets that had a v-shaped metal-mesh basket and a long wooden handle. Judy and the guests—the pharmacist from Goldfine’s by the Bridge, Roger Bergson, and his fiancé, Linda Turnbull—were giving Moran their rapt attention. Moran resembled death in suspenders but he was polite and keeping his distance. And besides the smelting nets, he’d brought along an extra pair of hip boots, a set of chest waders and even a seine, things that Rick had, like a greenhorn, neglected to bring.

Rick’s good mood was tempered somewhat when he saw Frank Ford and the hippie (Waverly?) walking across the beach in his direction. Seemed like a good time to grab one of those bottles of Beck’s beer Judy had insisted he buy. He was squatting down at the brand new red and white Igloo cooler when the two itinerants crunched up the stones and placed themselves in front of the fire, the curly-headed one clad in denim and reminding Rick of someone in that Woodstock movie, while Ford was neat and clean in a green lightweight jacket and a reasonably decent pair of Levis.

Playing host because he knew his fiancé wanted it that way, Rick smiled at the new arrivals. “Welcome, glad you could make it. Care for a fine German beer?” This brew was likely out of their normal price range, so why not show some generosity and give them a taste of the high life? Perhaps it would make them feel grateful and motivate them to work a little harder on the house. Let them see that their employer is a decent, honest, generous man.

Rick lifted out three bottles and set them on the rocks, closed the lid on the cooler. He took the bottle opener—they called them church keys around here—snapped off the caps and stood up with a smile. He handed a bottle to Frank Ford and one to his companion Waverly. It was Waverly, wasn’t it? Up close, that one seemed a bit jumpy and spaced out, if that was the correct term. Maybe the man just wasn’t used to polite company. The car he drove—side mirror hanging down on the door for God’s sake—certainly seemed to indicate a disdain for the values one needed to succeed in this world. But both men thanked him for the beers so at least they were polite.

“We sure got lucky on the weather, eh?” Ray Ford’s older brother said, foregoing formal greetings. “Perfect for the smelt, perfect for the smelters.”

“Indeed,” Rick said. “It is quite pleasant—for Lake Superior, this time of year. I’m afraid I’m not yet adjusted to what passes for spring along the North Shore.”

“So you don’t get rain, wind and cold in North Dakota in the spring?” Waverly said, swallowing beer and wiping his lips with the sleeve of his denim jacket, the hippie’s jaw set at a strange angle and moving slightly, sort of a chewing motion with nothing to chew.

“Oh indeed we do,” Rick said, pushing back his annoyance and pasting on a smile. “Just not with the frequency and consistency that seems to be the norm around here. But this spectacle,” gesturing with a wave of his hand at the smelters, “is like nothing I ever experienced in North Dakota.” Hearing his fiancé give a gleeful hoot, Rick turned to the water’s edge to see Moran lifting out a net full of wriggling silvery fish, water droplets cascading off the netting and shining in the firelight like tiny diamonds. “And now it seems the smelt are running.”

He hoped he’d used the proper jargon.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 11, EXCERPT 1

“Seems like the whole town has come alive,” Waverly said, gazing down the road at the commotion.

The Olds was at the curb on the lakeside of London Road at the back end of a long line of parked cars, nearly two blocks from the Lester River. Rolling down the window, first thing that hit Frank was the sweet sting of smoke from wood-burning fires. Then the smell of fish. Not the stink you got from a fish market but a fresh, moist, rich scent that brought to mind spring and rebirth and the end of winter. Up ahead at the bridge Frank could see cars and headlight beams moving along the pavement, exhaust clouds lingering in the damp air. The city was indeed coming alive, awakened by the ringing of cash register bells, as invading hordes rolled into town with the intent of getting drunk and possibly filling garbage cans full of tiny, tasty fish.

“Fuckin’ people everywhere, man,” Waverly said. Keith had a vague, indistinct, dotted-line look going for him tonight, eyes wide and kind of stare-y, the ligaments in his jaw tight and bouncing, the man holding a can of Old Milwaukee as if it was glued to his hand, third one he’d had since picking up Frank twenty minutes ago. Waverly had explained his condition by saying, “Danny and I got into the coke yesterday after you left and I haven’t been to bed. Danny passed out at his place and I went home, but I was too wired too sleep so I just kept on going.”

Frank felt a growing sense of alarm watching Waverly reach in the pocket of his tan chamois shirt and bring out a joint looked to be the size of a carrot. “We should have a couple of tokes before we go down there,” Waverly said.

“No thanks, man,” Frank said, “I’ll pass. That shit gets me too fucked up.” About to see Judy, Frank didn’t want his eyes getting all goofy, but wouldn’t tell Waverly that.

“No problem, man. How about a toot then?” Keith lifted a brown glass vial with a tiny spoon attached to the cap from his pants pocket and held it out towards Frank. Waverly’s hand was shaking.

This night feels so goddamn sleazy already, Frank thought, why not push it over the top and see what’s on the other side?

But no, not tonight.

Tonight he had all his stop signs in place, the I’m not gonna’s, the shoulds and the shouldn’ts and the vague promises to himself. He wouldn’t get out of control. He’d act respectful and sober. He’d observe. He’d stay aloof and clinical. He was on a mission for the Ford family. It was time to set things straight. Stay above it all. Keep your eyes on the prize. No intoxication. No flirting. No eye fucks.

Keep your goddamn distance, Frank.

“Nah, man, I’ll pass,” Frank said, “that shit makes me nuts. Let’s just get down there and see what they got going. Wonder if there’s any beer?”

“I got a couple left,” Waverly said.

“Warm Old Mil. Mmmmmm.”

Later, looking back, Frank realized that in the back of his mind he’d always known exactly what was happening. Walking down the sidewalk towards the bridge he was like a junkie, an addict telling himself he wouldn’t have the first taste. Putting out all the roadblocks, the rational reasons why he’d keep his hands off the candy and not let his mind drift to that heart-shaped box between the legs of Judy Bruton. But goddamnit, a worm of descent was wiggling and growing in his gut the closer he got to her.

At the top of the Lester River Bridge the fish scent was even stronger, fuller, wetter. Gazing down toward the river mouth from the middle of the concrete-and brick structure, Frank thought the whole scene looked sepia toned, like an old photograph in a museum or an ancient postcard. The recent rains had the Lester up and flowing and the dull shine of street lamps lit the caramel colored water as it rippled and gurgled below him, churning along toward the flat blackness of the Big Lake looming out there in the dark distance like a mystery. Lanterns glowed yellow on the rocky shoreline. Bonfires blazed and crackled, orange flames undulating in the breeze, sparks streaking across the night sky like angry fireflies. Bathed in the glare of high-lumen spotlights, people in flannel shirts and rubber waders were swinging dip nets into the froth. Frank heard shouts and laughter and a boombox pushing out the Hendrix version of “All Around the Watchtower, the occasional scream of mirth joining the scent of freshly opened beers and marijuana smoke in the evening air. Behind him on the bridge, cars crawled along, random jabs of music and voices mixing with the rumble of exhaust. Gazing to his left, Frank saw three guys coming up the slope from the lake carrying a green plastic garbage can full of smelt. He watched them cross the road and lift it into the bed of a rusty maroon pickup. On his right, Waverly was leaning forward, hands resting on the bridge rail.

“It’s a gen-u-ine  (saying it like it rhymed with wine) pagan ritual, man,” Keith said.

Frank nodded. “Yep. And if you look over about twenty or thirty yards from the mouth of the river, over on the west bank, you’ll see the unmistakable shape of Daniel Moran, pagan par excellence, although he’d never admit it because of his Catholic upbringing. See him down there? Green fatigue pants, red plaid shirt and red suspenders, holding court like he’s giving a lecture on birding to an Audubon group?” Frank pointed. “See Rockin’ Ricky and Nurse Judy? They’re right there by that fire. Seems that our Dan Boy has rallied.”

“I don’t see them,” Waverly said.

“Over to the right, on the other side of the river. Down close to the lake. See ’em?”

Waverly squinted, scanned the shoreline. “Can’t see ’em. My eyes are all cloudy.”

“Methinks they’ve been cloudy all day,” Frank said. “Along with your mind. Shall we?”

They walked back to the west side of the bridge and took the narrow path down to the beach. As they stepped across beach stones worn smooth by time, Waverly seemed to be finding his second wind. Frank was still searching for his first. Gazing across the river, Frank watched shadows bending upward on the concave under-wall of the bridge, odd black shapes rising and falling and stretching in the flickering firelight. He was sick with anticipation, a heavy ration of guilt mixed in. Like waiting on Christmas morning to open presents you knew were stolen. Ah, but what the hell, they were almost to the party. Anticipation anxiety would be over soon.

(To be continued)

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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 5

Frank stayed silent for the entire drive, dwelling on the past. He thought Nikki seemed ticked off as she swung the Honda into the short driveway alongside his house. “You want to come in, Nik?” he said, struggling his large frame out of the little car. “Might be something on the tube worth watching.”

“I doubt that,” she said, “but I’ll come in anyway.”

That was a surprise but he rolled with it. He put the key in the lock and opened the door to his house and was hit by a musty smell and the odor of something decaying in the kitchen garbage can, perhaps a whiff of dirty socks lingering on the edge of it all. Shit he wouldn’t think twice about if he were alone. He stepped into the tiny living room, flicked on the television and collapsed into the aging couch, one of those fuzzy old maroon jobs seemed like every second-hand shop in the area had two of. He’d just seen one in Johnny Beam’s store. Nikki slid in next to him on the couch looking like she wanted a kiss but Frank was fighting it, a dark cloud enveloping his mind now. For the sake of easing the tension, he leaned over and gave her a peck, one of those kisses old married couples do, a reflex. A conditioned response, the sociologists—like Nikki—would call it.

“You tired, Frank?” Nikki said. “You seem distant.”

“Yeah, I’m a little tired. And just a smidge burnt. Been a long time since I did that kind of labor. It felt good but now my body is rebelling. Seeing my mother also has a draining effect on me at times.”

“She’s a sweet, sad little old lady who just lost her son, Frank. And I know you’re grieving, too, but try not to be gruff and terse around her. She’s hurting and needs your support.”

Frank didn’t have the energy to dig into that one. “Hey,” he said, Rockford Files is on. Sometimes that’s pretty good.”

Nikki snuggled up close until Frank could feel the heat of her body like an electric blanket for his soul. But he was still fighting it, his mind continuing to look for reasons he shouldn’t be with her. So he pretended to be nodding off, snapping his eyes open and uttering a dazed, “Huh” whenever she said something.

And then he was waking up on the couch with drool dripping on the pillow and Johnny Carson on the tube making a crack about the guys in the band getting stoned. Every downstairs light was on. He got off the couch and went into the kitchen, saw the dishes were all washed and stacked in the drainer and the garbage can was empty with a fresh plastic bag inside. But Nikki wasn’t around. He called her name and nothing came back. He shrugged, figuring it was probably for the best, turned off the TV and the lights, locked the front door and trudged up the goddamn too-narrow staircase to his bedroom, checking on the pistol in his sock drawer before pulling off his clothes and collapsing into the sagging mattress. He could hear some kids shouting and kicking around a tin can in the playground across the alley but he fell asleep before it disturbed him.

He dreamed he was tending bar at the Metropole on a Sunday. He knew it was Sunday because he had that cloying, grey, chest-in-a-vice feeling. All the regulars were there: the old ladies, the front row whiskey pigs, Johnny Beam, Jenny the waitress, Moran, Waverly, Tom Meagher, the bikers, the retards, the nut jobs… and Christ, over in the corner by the juke, Ray-Ray and Judy were slow dancing to that Blood, Sweat and Tears song “You Make Me So Very Happy.” Ray was crying, tears flowing down his cheeks. Watching them didn’t bother Frank and he was thinking it should. But it didn’t. Frank was behind the bar, as usual, but now there was a thick glass partition separating him from the patrons, who were milling around in slow motion, distant in their own little worlds, voices a hollow drone like a swarm of sedated bees. Gazing at the numerous hands clutching paper money poking through the rectangular slots in the thick glass, Frank was craving something, needing something. He searched the crowd but couldn’t find what he was looking for. Glancing down at his arm, he noticed his skin was wrinkling. He watched, transfixed, as it began morphing into something strange. Lifting his forearm to his nose and sniffing, he was reminded somehow of Viola Stemwaggen, she of the tight blue-gray curls, cheap perfume and Ban deodorant. Feeling a dull, rising panic, sort of a queasy inevitability in his stomach, Frank turned and stared into the mirror behind the bar. The flesh on his face was beginning to move and pulse. Now he was no longer Frank Ford, but a generic creature with a thousand different features struggling to gain purchase. And, Jesus, man, now his skin was turning red, a worn, faded red matching the vinyl on the booths behind him. He rubbed hard on his crimson forearm. It was greasy, slick and shiny, just like the upholstery on the booths. He spun around to ask for help but the figures on the other side of the glass were totally indifferent, moving in their familiar patterns, oblivious to his needs, all of them wearing faint apathetic smiles—except Ray and Judy. Those two were absorbed in each other to the point of isolation from the rest, the couple waltzing in a slow circle, Ray clinging to her, tears still rolling down his cheeks.

Couldn’t any of them out there see the place was swallowing Frank up? Absorbing him like an amoeba sucking in bacteria? Somebody needed to do something before it was too late.

Gasping for breath, Frank woke up rubbing his forearm, a thick layer of sweat greasy on the skin, and was glad to see the light seeping in around the edges of his window shade. He wiped his face with the sheet, rolled over and set his alarm for seven o’clock. Moran wasn’t scheduled to arrive until quarter to nine but Frank wanted to eat something before work and have the time to choose some halfway decent clothes, something that didn’t make him look like a decaying barfly.

(End of Chapter 9)

 

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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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