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smelt

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CHAPTER 21, EXCERPT 1

Neither Doughboy Loy nor Artie Autry was at the Paul Bunyan. Not yet anyway. Frank took a seat at the bar and ordered a Coke. That’s right, a plain Coca-Cola—with ice. The bartender, John Burke, knew Frank, and gave him a sideways look but poured the soda from the gun and served it without comment. Which was good, because Frank didn’t want to get pissed off before he had a chance to ask Burke any questions.

Frank was feeling all right with the concussion thing except that parts of his break-up talk with Nikki were playing back in his head non-stop, against his will and out of his control, the words just popping into his consciousness like cold winds blowing through a broken window. And yeah, shit, there was a little dull ache starting up—just a little—but he wasn’t going to indulge himself. Avoiding the booze helped on that score. Drinking and wallowing in self-pity was a lifestyle around here. Everywhere, for that matter. More wisdom from Frank Ford’s ten years of slinging booze in a dive bar.

Frank put a dollar on the bar and Burke pushed it back at him. Frank left it there. “On the wagon, Frank?” Burke said, flashing a knowing grin.

“You could say that, I guess, John. Doctor’s orders. I, ah, sustained a concussion last week and they tell me booze is not good medicine for such things. And here I always thought a little of the Irish cured all ills. Now they tell me, eh?”

“Well, you know, man, life is nothing but a continuous string of surprises interspersing with the abject boredom.”

Jesus, talk about your brain twisters.

“I hear that, John, I do. Hey, ah, seen Doughboy Loy in here tonight by any chance?”

“No, haven’t seen the fat fuck. Doesn’t mean he won’t stumble in later though. Usually comes in sometime before close. Depends on if he’s selling or looking to buy, I guess. Leo doesn’t want him in here but I usually let him slide if it’s just me working. Loy’s such a pathetic bastard that I even hate to waste my time booting him out. Fucker whines and complains like an old woman, never fails. ‘What’d I do, John? Why you always picking on me? I’m behaving myself…’ Sonofabitch carries on, man.”

“I heard he was in here with my little brother on the last day Ray was seen alive. That true?”

Burke frowned. “Yeah, he was, Frank. Him and Artie Autry. The gruesome twosome. I already told that to the cops.”

“I also heard that, John. But I’m not sure the cops really care what happened to Ray. Once the thorn is removed from the side, nobody cares about the thorn anymore.”

“That’s deep, Frank.”

“Someone told me Ray and Autry were going at it in here that day. That true?”

“Didn’t seem like much out of the ordinary, y’know. Like I told the cops, Autry was just getting up in Ray’s shit like he always did and Ray was throwing it back at him like he always did. Just another wonderful Happy Hour at the Bunyan….”

“You happen to hear anything they were saying?”

“Just when your brother was walking out. He was yelling at Autry, ‘You’re not going to do this, Artie, I won’t allow it. Not this time.’ Shit like that. But Autry just sat there laughing at him in that snaky way of his.”

“Autry been in much since then?”

“Now that you mention it, no.  I think I remember him being here only once after that. And he’s not one you tend to forget, know what I mean? Just the look on his face drives customers away. I heard he and the Doughboy moved their operations up to the Filling Station.”

“You don’t say. Right in my neighborhood.”

Then Burke had to wait on some customers and Frank slouched on the barstool, sipping his Coke. Frank figured he’d wait for a while in case Doughboy or Autry showed up. He was contemplating getting a pocketful of change from Burke and calling all the bars Doughboy was known to haunt, but the thought brought on a rush of fatigue. Besides, in all his years at the Metro, he could count the number of times someone actually answered a page on the fingers of one hand. And shit, now the goddamn Coca-Cola was making him sleepy, the caffeine having an opposite effect, it seemed.

Burke came by and nodded at Frank’s empty glass and Frank nodded back out of habit, and Burke filled the glass with ice and shot in the Coke. Frank sipped some more, fidgeting on the barstool and looking in the bar mirror, observing the crowd behind him. He could feel a headache coming on. And by the time he drained the Coke, he was yawning and thinking he might take a cab up the hill and check out the Filling Station, which, coincidentally, was the establishment Nikki worked at when he first met her.

Man, he could feel the universe throwing things into the shaker and getting ready to pour.

Frank left the Bunyan and stepped out into the night air—smoke free, man—and realized he didn’t have much of a plan, no modus operandi—no clue. Two blocks to the west he could see cabs in front of the Greyhound Depot and he wondered if Waverly was driving tonight. But then thought, No, better avoid that. Avoid him.

Faced with having to actually do something instead of just thinking about doing something, his mind was a blank. That is, the future was a blank slate with all kinds of murmurings, innuendo, and accusations rumbling around it like a chorus of Shakespearean witches. Fighting against the strong urge to go home and finish off that joint of without seeds Waverly gave him and float off to peaceful slumber, Frank decided to work his way up the hill on foot, stop at the Filling Station and see if old Doughboy Loy was selling his wares in that popular shit hole on Fourth Street. The idea woke up the thumping rabbit in the pit of Frank’s stomach and filled him with a seemingly inappropriate sense of urgency. He believed he could feel everything coming to a head, the universe sending out energy and messages…

He just had to tune in to the right network.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 20

Richard Pillsbury was getting comfortable with his new life. Comfortably numb, as they say in that Pink Floyd song his wife was fond of, the condition described in the song being one he was appreciating more lately since the death of his battleaxe mother and the resultant inheritance of both wealth and responsibility. No longer would he have to seek Goosy Lucy’s seal of approval for his business proposals and ideas. Or anything else, for that matter.

Believing that the pharmaceutical industry was poised at the onset of a great period of growth, Better living through chemistry, a concept that had infiltrated and seduced the masses, Richard was preparing to reap the rewards. He was currently conferencing with a number of small-to-medium-sized midwestern pharmaceutical interests that shared his desire for larger markets and increased profits. Richard believed that a combined effort—perhaps a loose and unofficial conglomerate based on mutual goals—could influence physicians into prescribing the hot new products on the market. The demand was there and someone needed to fill it. Advertising, as well as salting the wire services with press releases singing the praises of new drugs—like Xanax for instance, the new tranquilizer on the market that would likely supplant Valium and Librium at the top of the sales totem pole—could have a tremendous impact on the industry. If you were generous with the samples and sent representatives around with brochures as well as allowing them to provide financial incentives to doctors when necessary, you could corner a lucrative piece of the market.

But his favorite trick in the bag was a new and innovative concept. A concept, he believed was invented by an ambitious young pharmacist in Minneapolis. A concept, which would allow the smaller companies to get in on the manufacture and wholesaling of drugs after the existing exclusivity clauses expired. The Twin Cities pharmacist had begun bottling no-name aspirin in the basement of his home and selling the products to the local chain stores at a price far below what the big firms offered, and now the man was raking it in.

Generic drugs.

Yes, sir, generic drugs were going to be big. What consumer wouldn’t want to save a little money and still take the edge off of modern living? And modern living could be sharp-edged and occasionally dreary, couldn’t it.

But as much as Richard loved matching wits with the sharks and hustlers of his industry, it took its toll on him. As a child he was high-strung, had tendencies toward nervousness, and experienced the occasional anxiety attack. These were traits he had successfully hidden from his mother in his adult years by the surreptitious use of mood-altering samples from his pharmacy. But now he could see that in the days before he met Judy—his new bride, praise be—he was just a blind man groping in the dark. Judy’s experience as a nurse and caregiver, and perhaps her unfortunate fall into street life, had taught her many things about the successful management of today’s powerful pharmacopoeia. Judy could mix up a cocktail of drugs that made him feel like he was at the top of the world looking down at creation, to steal a line from one of his favorites songs.

Karen Carpenter—now there was a performer of substance.

Admittedly, he had felt a bit uneasy when Jude injected him intravenously for the first time. But the resultant release proved unlike anything he had previously experienced, and, in truth, was certainly more in keeping with medical procedure. Now he found himself looking forward to these cocktails throughout his day, especially if the day was one of stress and strain. But not to worry, Judy assured him she knew what she was doing. And he had to confess he was intrigued by what his bride would come up with next. There seemed to be a never-ending flow of new products on the market promising comfort in an uncomfortable world. Better living through chemistry, indeed.

And if he was perhaps a skosh sluggish in the morning after an evening of deep relaxation and sexual pleasure, there was another miracle substance to take care of that.

And he had it all under control.

Richard believed he and his new bride would soon be a “power couple.” People would look up to them. Their deeds would be remembered for eternity. Why someday he might even donate a few million to a university, have a building named after him and put the name Pillsbury in the public eye for something other than baked goods and a cartoon creature made of dough.

(End of Chapter 20)

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CHAPTER 19, EXCERPT 4

Ten minutes later she walked in with her eyes pointing at the floor and her upper lip kind of overlapping the lower one in the closest thing she could get to a stern look, cute as she was. She had on white Capri pants and a silky red blouse and her hair was golden and perfect. Made Frank wonder if she already had a new man, the way she was glowing with the sheen of the one that got away.

They always look fantastic when they’re leaving you.

“C’mon in, Nik,” Frank said as she brushed passed him. She was halfway to the living room before she turned around and faced him. He could feel it coming, the look she was giving him painful to see. “We gonna have our serious talk now?” Frank asked, immediately regretting it when she made a face like a mother running out of patience with a difficult child. A face that Frank had seen many times before from a variety of sources.

“Can’t you ever be serious, Frank?” Nikki said. “Can’t you just sit down and listen to me?”

“Sure I can, Nik. What’s on your mind? You look gorgeous, tonight, by the way.” Her face scrunched up and turned red and she looked like she was biting down on something.

“Don’t start with that, Frank. Have you been smoking pot? I can smell it in here.”

“A little. Keith brought me a get-well bud.”

“You and Waverly again. No wonder you can’t be serious. You think getting stoned with a concussion is a good idea?”

“Made me feel better,” he said, sinking down into the worn couch and gazing up at Nikki standing there defiant in the middle of the room, hands on her hips like she was staring down a hoodoo. And maybe she was. “Is that what this is about? My choice of companions and my use of controlled substances?”

“Indirectly, Frank. Try to listen without cracking wise if you possibly can. What we need to discuss is your condition last Saturday morning.”

“That’s old news, Nik. You know I got attacked, that someone poleaxed me.”

“It’s about how you smelled, Frank.”

“I know. I stunk. Booze, puke and blood, the bartenders holy trinity.”

“More than that, Frank. There was more.”

“Well, someone pissed on me, Nik. Whoever knocked me out, probably. Didn’t I tell you that before?”

“Several times, Frank, several times. But there was more to your olfactory aura than urine and vomit.”

“I’m sure I needed a bath. It was a long night.”

“I can see you’re not gonna own up. You just can’t see yourself, can you? You stunk like another woman, Frank. Some other woman’s pussy, to be exact. Cheap perfume, cheap booze and cheap pussy— that’s your holy trinity. And you had white powder in your nostrils along with the blood. If I hadn’t had you clean your nose on the way to the hospital you’d have walked in there with cocaine on you. That kind of behavior is just totally unacceptable to me, Frank, and I’m sorry, but I think we need to go our separate ways.”

No need to be sorry, Nik. I agree that’s what’s best for you. So now you can fuck Jimmy Carl like you always wanted to.”

Jesus, why did he say that? Didn’t mean to, it just came out. His mind just spewed things out these days like the censor was on vacation.

Nikki got rigid as a lamppost. “Oh, please,” she said, her face turning shades of crimson. “Jimmy Carl? Is that the best you can do? You really have fallen, Frank. I didn’t expect this kind of shit from you.”

“I’m sorry, really I am. I didn’t mean to say that. Stuff just comes out sometimes and I don’t know where it comes from. It’s like someone else is saying it.”

“It’s your subconscious, Frank. Jimmy Carl? Is that how you think of me? First chance I get I’m going to jump in the sack with that sleaze? God. I think I’ve seriously overestimated you.”

“More than likely you did, Nik. It’s my Irish charm. But once that wears off you see the troll underneath. It’s a Ford-family thing.”

“Here we go with the self-pitying, cursed family nonsense. When are you going to grow up and lose the self-defeating attitude?”

College girl giving the old man behavioral advice. Jesus.

“That’s easy for you to say coming from your entitled background, Nicole. You have no idea what it was like growing up in my house. You never had to go without. Never had to wonder where your dad was. Only hardship you had was growing up in a cloud of religious delusion. And you’re still trying to figure out who you really are, so don’t go all self-righteous on me. Truth be told, I always suspected that I was just another one of your sociology experiments. Let’s call it, Excursion to the wrong side of the tracks.”

“I don’t believe this—I don’t believe you. But you have reminded me that I need to get back home and work on my thesis. My parents want me to come down to Wisconsin to spend the summer at the cottage with them and I wasn’t going to go at first, but I’ve changed my mind. Now I see that a change of scenery is the best thing for me. And if I finish the thesis before I leave Zenith, I can be out looking for a job by fall.”

“So how’s the great work coming along?”

Her lips wrinkled and she shot him a narrow-eyed, questioning glance. “Nearly done,” she said. “Just a couple more things to put in before the final draft.” Her body was less rigid now and the muscles in her face had relaxed into a slightly-bewildered-but-I’m-gonna-keep-pushing-on look. She started for the door and then stopped to gaze at Frank, seeming like she wanted to say something but couldn’t decide exactly what. “Frank… I really have to go. Sorry it had to end this way,” is what she chose, looking at the floor.

“Am I in the thesis, Nik?” Frank said as she walked away from him forever.

She turned and gave him a look of regret or sadness or rebuke, hard to tell which. “You’re an entire damn chapter, Frank. Maybe two now.” She turned to leave again, didn’t stop this time.

“Have a nice life, Nikki,” he said and immediately wished he hadn’t.

Why is it you always say something ridiculous and clichéd at moments like this? 

When she walked out, the air in the syrup can became charged, electricity coming from all points on the compass, the buzz shocking Frank out of his controlled indifference.

No way he could stay here now.

He went upstairs and changed into a tan chamois shirt and a clean pair of jeans; gathered some cash from his dresser drawer and put his pistol in the inside pocket of his Levi jacket. Then he went outside into the darkness wondering what adventures the Zenith City would cough up for him tonight.

Sure would be nice to have a car, Frank was thinking walking down the hill gazing at the auras around the streetlights. Any restraints he might have held about chasing down Artie Autry and Doughboy Loy had flown out the door with Nikki. And although his body seemed to be on autopilot going in the direction of the Metropole, he was able to bypass the place and head west toward the Paul Bunyan, a saloon the two miscreants frequented. And if Autry and Loy weren’t at the Bunyan, at least he could ask the bartender some questions about the day Ray disappeared.

(End of Chapter 19)

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CHAPTER 19, EXCERPT 3

At least he’d gotten that Judy stuff out of his system, he said to himself as the still ringing phone probed his ear like a sharp stick. His phone call premonitions were often right, but not always, so he waited for the drone of the answering machine as his mind drifted back to his childhood.

He was eight years old and his father had just returned home after one of the old boy’s prolonged and unexplained absences. Frank could remember it like it was yesterday. Better than yesterday, actually. It was that gray period in the spring when Lake Superior often keeps the city draped in a coat of clouds and fog and rain. The old man had been gone more than a week this time, sending Frank’s mother to the edge of hysterics and Frank and his sister—Frank assumed about Anne, anyway—to times of stomach-squeezing worry and confusing, unanswered questions. Ray-Ray was still too young to know what was happening. On that particular late afternoon they were in the kitchen, the three kids and their freshly bathed and combed and somewhat stunned and sheepish looking father, all at the table. Dad, with his sagging face, was eating canned pork and beans because Mom refused to cook him anything. Mom was pacing around the room with her arms crossed in front of her and her face all twisted up. Frank was at the opposite end of the table from his father, the eight-year-old boy glad his dad was back home—but why was Mom giving Daddy the death stare?

Not yet aware of tact, Frank looked across the table at his father and said, “Where have you been, Daddy? You were gone a long time and we missed you.” To which his father replied, “Sometimes a man just has to get things out of his system, Frankie. When you grow up, you’ll understand.”

So yeah, now Frank was all grown up and he understood about getting things out of his system. That’s what he was doing with Judy Bruton last Friday night. And he still had a lot more stuff to get out of his system. But now the phone was going to machine and Nikki’s voice was on there and he felt too guilty to let it go so he got up to answer it, thinking, Shit, anything beats sitting in the dark in a syrup can in the Central fucking Hillside.

Nikki’s voice had kind of an edge to it. The word “foreboding” came to mind. But lately Frank’s thoughts tended to veer toward melodrama so he tried not to assume.

He and Nikki exchanged subdued greetings. Nikki asked about his head. He said it was getting better; nearly time to get the stitches out. Then he asked her how she was doing and she told him she was fine, although she didn’t sound fine like she used to sound fine just a couple weeks ago. He told her the sunlight still bothered him and he was getting bored sitting around the house avoiding strenuous activity. Then after a long silence—a pregnant silence, y’know—Nikki put on her no-nonsense voice, telling him they really needed to talk. Not on the phone, in person. Which sounded ominous, foreboding even, but he’d expected it and to his surprise found it wasn’t hitting him very hard. He’d anticipated a fall into the depths of heartbreak—that old love song shit—but instead it was like a passing rain cloud, familiar and no big thing.

So he said he knew how to talk, his words with maybe a small trace of sarcasm, and she got a different edge in her voice, saying in clipped, static bursts that she’d come over later that night if he were planning on being there. He replied that he probably would be here because he was avoiding strenuous activity and stressful situations, immediately thinking that her visit would be a stressful situation he couldn’t avoid but should.

He didn’t mean her any harm.

After she hung up, Frank went looking for a container to store the bud of sinsemilla, but then thought The hell with it and dug some old Top rolling papers out of his dresser and twisted up a bomber. Free weed demands a bomber.

First hit was like a ray of California sunshine. He hadn’t felt this good in days. Second hit got him mello as a cello. Third hit put him on the couch and drifting away.

It was getting dark when he woke up, light through the windows tinged with gray. He rolled off the couch in a careful and slow manner and went into the kitchen to check the time. Nearly nine on the stove clock and Nikki would likely be arriving soon, if she hadn’t already been here when he was sleeping and stormed off in a huff. Frank got a little panicky against his will and started looking around for things to clean up or put away but then stopped himself, shook his head and took a deep breath. Whatever was here was what you got with Frank Ford. If it wasn’t good enough for her then too goddamn bad. C’est la vie say the old folks.

(To be continued)

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081920 Dive Bartender photo 2

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CHAPTER 19, EXCERPT 2

Nikki drove him home and turned into his driveway but didn’t shut off the engine. Looked like she had bees in her bonnet and she wasn’t even wearing a bonnet. Frank asked her if she was coming in and she shook her head to the negative. Her face was stern and seemed to judge him and he couldn’t blame her at all. Her eyes were like mirrors; every time he looked in he saw the asshole Frank Ford. “Thanks for everything, Nikki,” he said. “I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

Nor would I have a huge hospital bill coming in the mail to bankrupt me.

“That’s okay, Frank,” she said. “You obviously needed help. Now be sure and follow the doctor’s instructions.”

She wasn’t coming in.

Frank fought off a wave of nausea and dizziness and stepped out of the Honda. Standing in his driveway unsteady on his feet, sadness descended on him like a rain cloud, self-loathing following close behind like a Canadian cold front.

 

The next day dawned as dark and lonely as Frank could ever recall. Goddamn Ray-Ray was doing the same thing from the grave as he’d done on earth, causing a carload of hurt, frustration and anger. Frank couldn’t get involved with the emotional turmoil—doctor’s orders—but the good doctor never told him how to stop his mind from going where it went or why it always went where it wasn’t supposed to. They always leave out those important bits.

So he just sat in his living room smoking in the dark with his little TV on. He’d found a nearly full old pack of Winston’s in his dresser drawer—dry as dirt but still full of nicotine—and was dutifully using them up so he wouldn’t be wasteful. But after half a day of that it dawned on him that he was just like his mother, Joan likely at home doing the same thing he was. Sitting the same way, watching the same shitty television shows and sucking on cancer sticks. Upon seeing it, he went to the kitchen, tore up what was left of the cig pack and threw the remains in the garbage can.

His moods were on a roller coaster, climbing up to where he thought he was back to normal and then without warning rocketing back down to the pits. The headaches were fading and his memory was getting better but he still couldn’t remember any details of the attack. But it had to be Artie Autry; the asshole seemed to be lurking around Judy’s apartment building all the goddamn time. Had to be the drugs. Judy Bruton and Artie Autry—truly a match made somewhere other than heaven.

By the following Thursday afternoon, Frank was certifiably stir-crazy. But he caught a little break when Keith Waverly came knocking at his door. Frank was so surprised by how good the guy looked, he couldn’t help but ask if Keith if had found a magic pill for health and wellbeing. Waverly responded that it was spring and he was finally getting his shit together, running, sweating, drinking a ton of water, push-ups, sit-ups…. Softball season was almost here, man, and too much booze and coke make Keith a dull boy.

Following that revelation, the two of them sat around shooting the shit about nothing until early evening when Keith wandered off to the House of Doughnuts. Later, alone in the house, Frank realized that he hadn’t had a drink or gotten high since the wee hours of Saturday morning. It wasn’t bothering him, but his good friend Waverly had given him an extremely fragrant bud of marijuana. The size of a small egg, Keith said it was something new from California, what they called sinsemilla, which, Keith explained, meant “without seeds.”

Frank was examining the fragrant bud, had it in his hands admiring the beauty of it and wondering if he should try some, what effects it might have on his concussed cranium, when the phone started ringing. He had a strong premonition that it was Nikki and he didn’t want to answer, believing that hearing her voice would send him deeper into regret over what he was currently referring to as Ford’s Folly, Frank doing his best to paint his disgraceful fall with a dab of wry humor and faint-but-wizened regret.

Good luck with that, man.  

Time heals all wounds, they say, but to Frank it still felt like cheating if he got to feeling better at all. He deserved to suffer, didn’t he? But life wasn’t meant for pain and woe, was it? The hippie songs said it wasn’t. And, Christ, man, you can’t torture yourself forever.

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DIVE man in wheelchair

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CHAPTER 19, EXCERPT 1

Sunday noon and they were releasing him from the hospital. Just another lousy Sunday for Frank Ford. He couldn’t stop worrying about the bill. A goddamn overnight stay in the hospital for Christ sake. Couldn’t stop obsessing about it. It was stuck there bothering him, staying in his thoughts, just kept looping around….

The tall gray-haired doctor with the friendly eyes—not an arrogant prick like Frank had expected—had told him obsessive thinking was one symptom you might get with a brain injury, a concussion. Also told him it would be a while before he felt right again and left it at that. Frank couldn’t help but like the guy, especially after the man seemed to accept Frank’s explanation of his injury, Frank saying it was the result of a fall off a ladder onto a wooden deck. The benevolent Doc never brought up Frank’s appearance upon admission, or the stink of booze and puke that was undoubtedly unavoidable.

And Frank was feeling a little better now, at least sometimes. He’d have his moments when he believed he was improving but usually as soon as the thoughts passed by he’d dive back down into the depths and wallow around in the mud for a while playing the game of What Tortuous Thought Will Come Next? A game he was getting pretty good at. And although it was getting a little easier to focus, nausea was there most of the time and periodically he’d get hit with a case of nerves for no seeming reason he could identify, attacks from out of nowhere turning him cold and anxious until they faded away. And headaches still lingered. 

So he was riding it out.

Another worm wriggling between his ears seemed to be trying to tell him something. His own words were coming back to him, some of his past thoughts on repeat. Went back to that night at the mouth of the Lester River talking to Mr. Pills, Frank telling Pills it took two people to work a seine. Frank was just riffing at the time but the bit kept popping back into his head and he couldn’t figure out what it meant, couldn’t see the significance. Was his subconscious trying to clue him in or was it brain damage? Were the circuits misfiring, sending out false signals? And what did it have to do with the image of a smelt swimming freely into the maw of a dip net, the image currently carrying a particularly stinging sort of significance to him.

You are the dip net; I am the smelt… 

Sitting in a wheelchair watching the two main women in his life huddling together up ahead at the nurses’ station, Frank had a vague hunch that the winged beast in his nightmare had some connection to things, some deeper meaning. The beast had two heads—and the words that kept repeating in his head were It takes two people to work a seine. But it was probably just some inappropriate mixing of brain functions due to the concussion.

Nevertheless, the line kept repeating there like a flashing neon sign.

And shit, besides everything else, now he had to deal with his anxious, worried mother and also a girlfriend who seemed to be steadily forging her retreat from the train wreck known as Frank Ford. Both women had been at his side in the hospital for extended periods, and Nikki had brought him some clean clothes from the syrup can, but now they were both waiting for him with concerned looks on their faces as the nurse wheeled him along.

And, man, he felt like a royal dick, having to ride in a wheelchair.

He got signed out and the nurse wheeled him down to the main entrance and his mom stood there looking worried and overwrought while Nikki went to get the car. Then she came rolling up the ramp in the red Honda and he and his mom got in, mom in the front seat. Nikki drove to mom’s building first, and of course Joan had to express how worried she was. “I already lost one son, Frank,” she said. “Don’t be the second. That would kill me.” And of course he never said to her that he’d gotten hurt in the process of searching for Ray-Ray’s killer, a process she’d urged him toward. And, yeah, sure, he’d made a little detour that caused some problems. But she’d made him feel guilty for not pursuing it and was now making him feel guilty for pursuing it. So what if he got a little dinged up in the process, eh?

Frank’s mother got out of the Honda with tears in her eyes and a wadded up tissue in her hand and went up to her apartment, Frank thinking she’d soon be smoking cigs and drinking coffee until she was a ball of nerves and a had an excuse for another Valium.

Mother’s little helpers.

A pharmacist’s dream.

(To be continued)

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DIVE Daytime

CHAPTER 18, EXCERPT 3

But now he could see his little house up ahead—the syrup can.  A small red car was in the driveway… and that pretty blonde from his dream was standing next to the red car and staring at him with a look on her face like that famous painting you were always seeing. The one where this guy is on a bridge or something, his mouth stuck in a grotesque oval… The Scream—man, that’s it… the blond girl had that look, that scream-face… He hoped she wouldn’t scream… would cut his head in two.

What was her name? And why was she standing in front of his house? Looking at her gave him a pleasant feeling but his brain wouldn’t allow it to stay. And then he was back in that disgusting bed, pouring on the cement to cover his self-loathing, that foul smelling winged thing on his back…

Man, it was obvious, Frank Ford was fucking crazy.

Nikki.

Her name was Nikki and she was his girlfriend and he fucked that whore…  drugs were ripping his life apart… Jesus, man, did he get clubbed? Poleaxed? Was he losing it? Lost it? Did Ray-Ray off himself?

Nikki was coming toward him now still ready to scream. Maybe. Frank was trying to open up and feel that good vibe he knew was once there but his heart had a lock on it. Wouldn’t open. Only blackness… no sunshine… sunshine hurt his head…. 

Could she tell he fucked that whore?

She looked sad… he hoped she wouldn’t cry… didn’t think he could stand that… he was always making women cry… Nikki, his mom, Sack’s girlfriend…

Then pretty blond Nikki, staring at him with blue eyes the size of hubcaps, her lips pinched together, said, “Frank, my god, what happened? Where have you been? Are you all right? My god, you’ve got blood all over you.”

So, which question should he answer first?

He was trying his damnedest to think up a story, some kind of explanation for his lost night, but the pieces just would not fit together. So he let it flow like vomit. “Uh, I don’t really know, Nik. I just can’t remember. Went over to Bay City with Waverly to find some things out about Ray—Keith knew this waitress there that talked to Ray the last night he was seen—then we came back to Zenith and stopped at the Metro to see Meagher… and I can’t remember anything after that… I think someone poleaxed me.”

At least the scream face was gone. Now she looked sad, knowing….

She came in close and hugged him and he saw the darkness cover her face as she stepped back, her mouth twisting into something scornful, her nose crinkling.

What he deserved….

As the pretty blond Nikki stood there staring at him with her arms across her chest, Frank bent over at the waist and began puking on the ground, hands on his knees. It splashed on his boots and on her clean white canvas tennis shoes and then she was dancing backward and he was trying to make it better but nothing worked anymore and what’s the point of trying because you always end up back where you started and he had fucked that goddamn whore Judy. Someone poleaxed him… drugs were bad… booze was bad… Frank Ford was bad…

And then Nikki was taking his hand and leading him away from the pile of vomit to her little red car. Go little Honda.

“Get in, Frank,” she said. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“Okay,” he said, crouching into the passenger seat of the tiny car. “Who’s gonna pay for it? I don’t have any Blue Cross. Did somebody poleaxe me?”

Nikki shrugged and looked into his eyes. Frank saw water collecting at the bottom of her lovely blues. He watched her walk around the little car and get in behind the little steering wheel.

(End of Chapter 18)

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Dive photo IV

CHAPTER 18, EXCERPT 2

He pushed himself upright and stood waiting for the dizziness to lessen, but it wasn’t going away. He looked around. He knew the area but it all seemed different today. Nothing had changed but it all seemed different. How did that work? And although he knew his own house was nearby, somewhere east of here, he wasn’t quite sure what route to take, what street to choose. But he didn’t have the luxury of time or a properly working brain so he just started walking, hoping something would come back to him along the way. He walked across the avenue to the alley and recalled standing in the shadows last night looking up at Judy’s window. And then all the energy he had left glommed onto the disgusting memories and began twisting in the pit of his stomach like a fifty-pound squid with razor blades for tentacles. Thinking he might puke again, he leaned against the small faded house and turned for one more look at that upstairs window. There was nothing to see but the white curtain.

Then he saw a car come up the hill and swing in front of the apartment building.

Sleazy Judy’s big Buick Electra.

Jesus, hadn’t he left her inside the apartment mocking him with her insane laughter?

Time must truly fly when you’re having fun…

He watched her exit the Buick and walk up to the double-glass doors. Man, she was prim and proper and all put back together.  Amazing… confusing… her recovery time phenomenal.

Now he thought he was floating, his legs getting light, and the pain in his head was so bad he had to walk away. At the eastern edge of the alley he turned downhill because he didn’t have the strength to go up. At the intersection he stopped to read the street signs and his own address clicked into his mind and he turned left and pressed on.

So here it was spring and the leaves were green and the red birds were singing… and, Christ, he did need some love—but he didn’t deserve it. No, he sure didn’t. He’d let down his mother… he’d let down Betty… he’d fucked Ray-Ray’s ex-wife, the whore…  And there was a lot more shit back there to prove how low he was, but he just couldn’t remember it all right now.

Maybe you get to a point where life is no longer worth the effort. A point where there is no longer anything out there that makes it worthwhile….

Maybe he was at that point

Everything was fuzzy except the regret and recrimination.

You’re a loser, Frank. A drunk. Dope head. Worm. Lazy. Ungrateful. Never satisfied. And now you’ve gone and put your dick in that whore. You’ll never get it right, you lowlife shitbag….

After five minutes of walking he was getting a new line on things. His house was only a few blocks away… it was a nice day… sunny… the air smelled good… the sun hurt his eyes… and, man, did the head throb. That pretty blond girl was in his mind floating around with the garbage. Christ, he had to remember… the feeling was just too strong… what the hell was her name? He could hear her girlish giggle in his head, a delightful sprinkle of ear candy that made him think of champagne and wedding cake. Girl made him feel better. But he didn’t deserve to feel better… he didn’t deserve anything good… he wasn’t good… he was a Ford…. Who in hell killed Ray-Ray? They were going to pay… all of them…

Revenge was the only thing he had left.

So he walked on, thoughts coming and going in a loop without making much sense. Forgot them quickly anyway. It seemed that he’d swallowed the old Frank Ford, the one he halfway liked, and now Old Frank was lodged down in his solar plexus doing its goddamned best to devour the new guy.

He should give that one some thought….

(To be continued)

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DiveBartenderImage28

CHAPTER 18, EXCERPT 1

Frank could feel the sun shining on him but was scared to open his eyes. He knew it was going to hurt, and hurt bad. But at least the dream was over, if that’s what it was. This big smelly beast, a naked woman with huge wings and two heads he couldn’t quite make out, had just flown him through the fog and dropped him down on a large barren plain, brown, like a desert. But then the desert changed into an empty parking lot, a big hunk of black asphalt, and there was this beautiful young girl standing over him. Looking up at her made him feel good. She was blond with sparkling, crystal clear blue eyes and he thought he should know her but couldn’t quite find the answer, couldn’t put a name to her. It confused him, made his head throb.

He gritted his teeth and slowly opened his eyes and the sun was like a double ice pick to the pupils. He discovered he was curled up against the side of a brick building with no memory of how he got here.

But it was starting to come back.

And then all he could remember was what he wanted to forget.

Okay, Franko, you got yourself in a real fix this time, dickhead. Messing with hard drugs is always a wrong turn onto bad roads and now you’re on a goat path to the pits of the world, smart guy.

And, Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to his head? Felt like his brains were leaking out. Intense, searing pain, man, words not adequate to describe the sensation.

Okay, genius, just get yourself up on your feet. Take it slowly, up on the knees first. Then one hand on one knee and the other on the other knee and push your miserable rotten self up. C’mon smart guy, you can do it.

He did those things. And was nearly upright before the sun stabbed his eyes again and nausea rushed from his stomach to his throat like a volcanic eruption and his legs buckled and he was back on his knees puking his guts out, bilious burning fluid smelling like a month-dead skunk pouring to the ground, splashing, making a soft, squishy, disgusting sound.

Well, that hadn’t worked out so well.

He stayed on his knees for a moment waiting for the spinning to stop, looking around for something to wipe his mouth with. Didn’t see anything so he pulled up the tail of his white shirt and wiped off the odious yellow fluid. Then he lifted his left hand to what seemed to be the center of the throbbing on his temple. Slow and careful, he felt around a sticky, swollen knob that he could barely stand to touch. Then he looked at the blood on his fingers and his gut rumbled like an approaching thunderstorm.

But hey, the look was nearly complete now. Getting in line with the rest of the Ford men. Puke, blood, dirt in the hair… man, it was all there. Least he hadn’t shit himself. But what was that goddamn smell? Had he pissed his pants?

Reaching down there, it felt dry. And the stink was up high. He put his hand to his chest, slid it upward toward his neck and felt the dampness. Sniffing his fingers, he got a dirty helpless feeling like a baby in need of a diaper change.

Someone or something had pissed on him.

Your final christening, Frank, now you’ve made it to the Ford Family Hall of Fame.

And then a shot of cold fear shuddered through him with the realization that it was sometime in the morning and he was kneeling on the ground in the stabbing sunshine with blood on his head and his hands, right the hell in front of Judy Bruton Pillsbury’s goddamn apartment building.

Fuckin’ A.

He had to get out of here.

(To be continued)

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Film Noir Couple Stock Video Footage - 4K and HD Video Clips | Shutterstock

CHAPTER 17, EXCERPT 3

Now Frank had fire ants in his head along with the voices, the goddamn dueling voices. He couldn’t make sense of anything. He liked things simple and straightforward and this conflict was tearing him up. Someone needed to shut the fuck up. He put his palms against his temples and tried to push everything back together but it didn’t work. Gazing across the table at Judy, he didn’t think she was wearing any underwear. He grabbed the vodka bottle, tilted it to his mouth and slugged down a double blast, wincing, nearly coughing. Then she put on that come-hither-bedroom-eyes look that he liked, grinning down at him, and Frank saw a goddamn bird of prey about to slam down on a rodent. Two Fords—two rodents. Score two for Judy Bruton. No—three. Let’s not forget the illustrious Mr. Pills.

Frank set the vodka bottle back on the table and watched her sashay through the archway into the next room, each little bounce of her ass a shot below the belt. Frank had already seen the expensive canopied bed in there, the bedspread shining like gold, and now he was picturing her on it.

And then, from the bedroom, “You ready yet, Frank?” Her voice low and thick.

Frank grabbed two red capsules from the tray, slugged them down with another slosh of vodka, picked up the rolled up bill, snorted half the pile of powder and then repeated the act in the other nostril.

Then Judy reeled in the leash while the soiled seraph pushed him from behind and he staggered into the bedroom stripping off his clothes. She was sitting on the edge of the bed just like he’d pictured, pulling the dress over her head before he could tear it off. And then there it all was, waiting for him. And for a scant instant in his head—here and then gone—he saw a smelt rushing headlong into a dip net.

Judy spread herself, grabbed his arms and pulled him down. He slammed inside her, locked his mouth on hers and their tongues lashed together, writhing like snakes. Thrusting with animal lust, hatred, frustration, anger, sorrow and grief driving him on, Frank was climbing toward the top of the mountain, striving for the peak, the drugs taking him places he’d never imagined, when that weak little voice came back in his head, that meek fellow adrift at sea in the oar-less rowboat. Thrusting harder, Frank tried to shut it out but the little man couldn’t be silenced. “That’s it, Frank, pour on the cement until I’m buried. Pour it on until you can’t hear me anymore. Build it up with every stroke until I’m gone forever. Pile on the cement. Pile it on. Build up the walls… pour it on

Frank continued pushing and thrusting and grinding his hips until he was slick with sweat. And then she was screaming and he was groaning and it was all pouring out of him in a feverish, burning, sick rush.

And then he was left there, small, weak and empty, with a world’s worth of dread sliding over him like a sewer eruption. He rolled off not wanting to see her face but compelled to look anyway, like a kid at the peep show pulling back the curtain on his worst nightmare. Man, her look of total satisfaction tore at him. What the hell had he done? Now his skin was a prison and his mind a cage with poison spikes. He wanted to climb the walls and gnaw the ceiling tiles.

He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the floor. Shame wouldn’t let him raise his head. He was drowning in the Lake of Fire, man, and behind him she was laughing. Not loud but he could hear the derision, the mocking.

She was not human.

He stumbled out of the bed in a sullen daze, picking his clothes from the floor and carrying them into the living room. He sat in a stuffed chair and fumbled them on. When he had his boots on his feet he stared at the coffee table: the vodka, the pills, the grains of white powder. With waves of nausea filling him to the brim, he struggled upright. He could still hear her snickering, louder now. She wouldn’t stop. He stared at the vodka bottle, had the urge to grab it and crush her skull. Or take the lamp cord and strangle that smirk right off her face, watch it turn to fear and horror, watch the poisoned life spill out.

Just turn around and rid the world of one more filthy parasite; one more blood-sucker…

But then a voice of reason found its way in.

Ah, come on, man, you knew what you were getting into. You always knew this was going to happen. You had all your denials set up, but you knew, goddamnit. Now take your lumps and get the hell out of here. You got a long row to hoe, dumb ass.

Frank got up from the chair, picked his jacket off the floor and shrugged it on. Feeling like a man who’d just killed the only thing he loved, he walked to the door on shaky legs and slid back the deadbolt. And from the bedroom came one last pleasantry. She said it loud and it cut him like a meat-clever to the soul.

“Thanks for coming, Frank.”

Her grating, twisted laugh followed him out the door like a reoccurring nightmare.

At the bottom of the stairs he could still hear her laughing. He couldn’t tell if it was real or just in his head but it didn’t matter, it was still there, like a jackhammer excavating his medulla oblongata.

As he moved through the well-lighted vestibule, Frank felt naked and exposed and his mind was working rapid fire, trying to grasp some straws. More booze? More coke? Pills? Suicide? You can take a flier, man, be just like Ray-Ray—two peas in the same goddamn pod.

But Frank was never one to look at life as a veil of tears or a grim relentless struggle. At times even—shit, he actually enjoyed the whole mess. But now stepping outside into the dark and the mist and the flashing cop car lights down at the far end of the block, he was thinking it would be a long time before he got back to that nice place. But more pressing, he was still blocks from home and his legs were wobbly and getting worse, something he ingested creeping over him like a lead blanket. He knew if he didn’t start moving he might not make it to his house. And now there was another squad car blowing up the avenue toward him and the beacon was jabbing red and yellow shards deep into his head.

He ducked around the edge of the building into the shadows and watched the cop car turn onto Fifth Street and head down toward the rowdy party. Then he heard a rustling behind him and turned toward the sound.

He saw it coming.

He scrunched his head down and raised his shoulder to block but he was too slow and too late. The club grazed off the top of his shoulder and caught him up high on the temple and his head exploded in white-hot pain. He saw blue lightning with flashing yellow streaks and then his legs disappeared and the lights went out.

(End of Chapter 17)

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