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CHAPTER 14, EXCERPT 2

DivePhotoVIX

Waverly took the High Bridge to Bay City, Frank flashing back to his time of giant crabs and evil orcs as they passed by Goldfine’s, the Black Cow and Port Terminal Road. Frank usually felt a mix of anticipation and dread coming off the bridge and settling into the basin of Bay City, and tonight it was all magnified, feelings gathering in his stomach for a riot. All the things he’d tried to push back—repress, Nikki would say—seemed to be crawling up his brain stem like a colony of diseased rats, rage leading the pack. But Frank couldn’t direct his rage at anything or anyone so soon it turned back on him. You’re just bar trash, Ford, just like your no good Daddy. Yessir, you’re on the way to the loony bin, just like your pop.

Frank could see his old man in that stinky shit hole asylum where zombies walked around in hospital gowns and the food smelled like puke and nobody there—staff included—seemed right in the head. You’re cut from the same cloth as the old man, Frank—you and Ray both. Before long you’ll be just like the sonofabitch. Wet brained, can’t string two sentences together, messing yourself— the way of all Fords. Why fight it? Give in, accept it, go with it. The slide’s inevitable, man, just let go.

Frank was letting go all right. Letting go of the ropes and fences and stop signs tying him down and boxing him in. The pushy cops, the ignorant mental hospital orderlies, arrogant doctors, self-righteous counselors, complacent bureaucrats, falsely-pious Jesus freaks—seemed like somewhere they were all gathering, preparing to make a run at him and get him in line where he belonged. Get him to acting proper, doing what he’s told, what’s expected. Normal—like everybody else.

But in the meantime

Frank and Keith weren’t talking much as Waverly maneuvered the rusty Olds along the darkened streets. Keith was smoking Kools and chewing gum. Frank was biding his time, gritting his teeth, girding his loins and all that good stuff. Also wishing he hadn’t downed so much booze, wishing he could think straighter. He was a raw nerve. But if he didn’t feel so bad he’d be feeling pretty good, because it seemed now that a path was opening up. A way. The way to the truth and the end of his torment.

Up ahead, Frank could see the neon shine of a large sign. The Cottage. Fine foods and spirits. Tonight: The Agates. 10:00 – 2:00. Beyond the sign, a half-mile farther down the gloomy road, the spooky yellow glow of the Arrowhead Bridge hovered, the ancient monolith like a snapshot of the past. When you entered Bay City via the Arrowhead Bridge, the Cottage was pretty much the first bar you came to. Set between a cheap motel and an old gas station on the northwest edge of town away from the main drag, it was the only saloon in a several block radius.

Waverly swung the Olds into the Cottage parking lot, tires crunching on the gravel, side mirror thunking against the driver’s door. There were quite a few cars in the lot. The Cottage was divided into two sections, lounge and bottle shop on the right and a larger restaurant/night club to the left. Waverly pulled in perpendicular to the nightclub side and turned off the ignition. “You all right, Frank?” he said, his eyes wide and stare-y.

“Of course I’m all right, man. Are you?”

“Relax, man. You just look like you’re ready to tear someone’s head off, is all. And I don’t want any trouble that might bring out the cops, y’know. These Bay City boys make Zenith cops seem like Eagle Scouts and I don’t need that kind of shit—given my current means of livelihood and everything.”

“I hear ya, man, I hear ya. I’ll be good, I swear. Let’s just get in there and see if Dory is working.”

Waverly opened his door and slid out. Frank looked at the dashboard clock. Twelve midnight on the button. Plenty of time. Frank stepped out, saw Waverly pointing. “See the sign, Frank? Says the Agates? Must be a rock band.”

Frank groaned. Jesus, here we go.

But it would all be over soon, he could feel it.

The Cottage was not the type of establishment where you expected to find young, partying people—or guttersnipe bar flies like Ray Ford, for that matter. Place had more of a neighborhood tavern/eatery vibe. But the legal drinking age in Bay City was currently eighteen and pretty much every establishment with a liquor license was trying to cash in. And cashing in quite well, Frank thought, stepping inside to what for him was an all-too familiar dimness with colored lighting and the sound of voices chattering out meaningless shit and stale pick-up lines. The stage in the far corner was empty, the band on break. Waverly was scanning the room. Probably checking for narcs, Frank thought. They say there’s a lot of ’em over here. But it’s easy, man, just look for the guy dressed inappropriately for his age.

But Frank wasn’t worried about narcs. “You see her anywhere, Keith?”

“No. But I see the one she was talking to that night. At the waitress station. Dark hair in a ponytail. Think her name is Martha.”

“Let’s go see Martha.”

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 14, EXCERPT 1

Eleven o’clock and feeling no pain at the Metropole.

Waverly was bouncing around the room like a pinball, Keith way into the toot, giving it to old friends, new friends, anyone who’d listen to him ramble on, and cute women. A lot of people were making the trip to the restrooms with Keith’s little brown vial clutched in their soon-to-be-sweaty hand. Place was busy. Waitress Jenny was hard at work. Viola Stemwaggen wasn’t in tonight but some of her peers were. Metro was a familiar nightmare. Moran, forearms resting on the bar, was slouching on a barstool next to Frank. Moran’s face was oily and pale and his eyes were glazed. Looked like he’d been there all week. In one of his coherent moments Moran told Frank that Johnny Beam was there earlier with two foxy women.

Probably whores, knowing Johnny, Frank thought. Frank was working on his fifth beer and staring at a shot of Irish that Moran just bought him. He threw down the shot and ordered two more, one for him, one for Moran. Frank’s replacement tender was behind the bar tonight, younger guy—big—curly blonde hair, allegedly a cop in Florida once, a least that’s what Jenny said. She’d also told Frank that Betty hired this Ron guy specifically to keep order in the bar, a lot of fights in the place lately.

That’s what happens when a guy like me leaves, Frank said to himself as the second shooter of the night ramped up the heat in his belly and brought his mind ticking down to one thought at a time. Then after another timeless stretch of nothingness, Waverly came stepping up to Frank’s barstool and ordered a Bacardi-orange juice from the new guy. Grinning at Frank, Waverly said, “Hey, man, enjoying your vacation?”

“Yeah, man, there’s nothing quite so joyful as being thirty-six and unemployed in an economically depressed area. Closest thing to a Jamaican holiday I can think of. Speaking of Jamaica, got any of that weed left?”

“Nah, man, all gone. Got some ‘lumbo that’ll knock your dick in the dirt, though.”

“All right, man, just thought I’d ask. And, yeah, come to think of it, it really is good to be away from the family Pillsbury, if nothing else. How about you, Wavo, staying out of trouble?”

Waverly made a face and reached in the pocket of his Levi jacket, brought out a fold of bills. He peeled a couple off and placed them on the bar in front of Ron the waiting bartender. Picking up the tall sweating glass of orange liquid, Keith had a long pull, set the glass down on the bar and seemed to go stiff for an instant. Then looking at Frank, Waverly said, “Man, I just remembered something. Something I probably should have told you already. Something I know you’ll want to hear.”

Frank was annoyed. Cocaine made people annoying. Keith was a good guy but he was falling down the rabbit hole, the man’s jaw off-kilter all the goddamn time these days. And now the guy was pouring down the booze like there was no tomorrow. “So what the hell is it, Keith? You gonna tell me or do I have to read your mind?”

“No, man, I’ll tell you.” Keith lifted his drink and had another large quaff. “I was making the rounds in Bay City the other night, y’know, and I stopped over at The Cottage just before closing time. I was at the bar checking the place out for possible customers when I hear these two waitresses talking about this guy was in there a while back. Heard one of ’em say the dude was sitting at the bar sobbing, tears rolling down his face and shit. And this one waitress said she started talking to the guy, asking him if he was OK and everything, and I guess the guy pulled it together. But here’s the thing, Frank. She told the other chick that she thought the guy was the one in the newspaper—the one who jumped off the fuckin’ Arrowhead Bridge.”

Frank’s got a rush of weightlessness in his solar plexus. “Are you shitting me? What’s her name? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“I spaced, man. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay, man.” Frank was being careful with Waverly. “But now I need to get over there. Tonight. Right fuckin’ now. What’d you say her name was?”

“I didn’t, but it’s Dory. Cute little blonde. Real nice girl. Even talks to strangers.”

“That’s good, man. That’s really good. But I gotta get over there. Can you drive me?”

“No problem, man. Soon as I finish my drink.”

“Chug it.” Frank stood up. It was all starting to come together.

(To be continued)

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Dive unhappy ends II

CHAPTER 13, EXCERPT 4

Friday afternoon Frank called Betty at the Metro and copped a plea concerning his unemployment comp. Betty was having none of it, told him she wouldn’t lie on the forms and say he was laid off. When you quit, you quit. So he had to live with that. Wasn’t the end of the world, likely he was still eligible for something. But he wasn’t sure of that so he decided to stay home that night to save money.

Early afternoon on Saturday Frank called Nikki and they talked for a while and later she came over and Frank put the Youngbloods’Elephant Mountainon the stereo and they sat close together on the couch inside a cone of sunlight streaming through the side window, dust motes floating in the brightness, and Frank couldn’t believe how awkward he felt. He didn’t know what he wanted anymore. He sensed Nikki wanted to go up to the bedroom and fool around but the idea made his stomach twist. It was hard to take, hard to figure. They sat there in silence for the most part because Frank couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally, nearly to the end of side one of the record, Nikki said, “I’m off tonight, Frank. Want to go to a movie?” Frank was just glad to have a reason to get off the couch. He said Sure, and got up to find the morning paper to check the listings. They decided on Smokey and the Bandit, the latest second-run feature at the Norshor Theater. Then Nikki suggested they drive to the House of Doughnuts on Fourth Street for lunch, those sub sandwiches were killer. Frank got the roast beef and Nikki chose tuna. They picked up a six-pack of Bud at the Last Stop Bottle Shop and returned to Frank’s Syrup Can Palace to eat. Things began to feel better. Later, after the movie, they stopped at the Paul Bunyan Lounge for a few drinks and that furthered the thawing out process enough so that when they returned to Frank’s house they made love. Too tame to call it fucking, too routine to call it passionate, but there was tenderness and respect and gentleness. And it left Frank kicking himself and feeling sorry for Nikki again and that was getting old.

Nikki went home around midnight and Frank was left alone at the bottom of the barrel. Floating there with the dregs and believing that’s where he belonged.

 

The following week was Frank’s first vacation, if you want to call it that, in ten years. He could’ve taken time off in his days at the Metropole, but without pay. Just like now. The one past exception being a Memorial Day weekend a few years back when he helped Betty move into a new double-wide on the Martin Road and Betty was so grateful she gave him the weekend off with pay. It rained from Saturday afternoon through Monday.

Frank was determined to look at the next two weeks as an opportunity instead of a hardship. He had no clue if he’d ever be back on Moran’s crew again and this was a chance to beat the bushes, see what was out there. But in the back of his mind a little voice was whispering that it was a waste of time. He ignored the voice because now he was dedicated to getting things done.

Monday morning he went to the unemployment office and did the paperwork. After that he went across the hall to the employment agency and filled out forms. Trying to distance himself from bartending, he listed laborer or home construction as his desired forms of employment. No more goddamn saloons for him if he could help it. While waiting to be interviewed, sitting in an uncomfortable chair picking at his fingernails and staring at the worn red carpeting, Frank heard a counselor in an adjacent cubicle offering custodial jobs at the local university and service positions at some of the finest local restaurants, to the clean-cut, conventionally dressed applicant. By contrast, in Frank’s session with the counselor, he got a referral for the City Directory—a door-to-door canvassing job—and another one for the assembly line at the local pizza roll factory, both shitty, minimum-wage gigs. And the hell of it was his hair wasn’t even that long anymore. And his jeans were almost new for Christ sake. Clean, too.

So Frank left the employment office pissed off and frustrated. Thought about going to the Metropole but went home instead and started cleaning his house. Yes—it was truly a miracle. And a two-day job. Nikki came over on Tuesday afternoon and helped him finish, doing those things he’d never do, like cleaning behind the stove and fridge and washing the bathroom floor. Frank did the toilet though. You don’t want your girlfriend cleaning your toilet. More of a job for a wife.

Wednesday was Frank’s day to start looking for a car. He checked the listings in the morning paper but nothing caught his fancy so he called Nikki and asked her if she wanted to go visit his mother again and she said she’d love to. Frank drove the Honda and they took his mother to the new restaurant in Canal Park. Anytime Joan mentioned Ray, Frank changed the subject.

It was a mild day and they walked out on the ship canal after lunch. No boats came through the canal while they were there but they did see a twelve-year-old kid catch a big northern pike off the pier, the kid fighting the fish from the wall of the pier and then jumping down to the large shoreline rocks to land the toothy critter. After the excitement the trio returned to the Honda, and Frank, thinking it was a good day for a trip up the Scenic North Shore Drive, drove out to London Road and headed east. Going by Pill’s Palace, Frank saw several cars in the driveway and unfamiliar people mingling on the front lawn. He recalled the announcement in yesterday’s paper stating that the Pillsbury matriarch’s funeral would be Wednesday at noon. People in front of the house were obviously some of the mourners. Frank recognized Bergson, the pharmacist, and his fiancé Linda, and another face that halfway registered as familiar but he couldn’t quite place.

The trio continued along the scenic route to Knife River and Frank stopped at one of the local fish purveyors to buy his mother a hunk of smoked lake trout, one of her favorites. Nikki didn’t want any fish. And not wanting to be the one with fish breath, Frank also abstained.

It was after five when they brought Joan back to her apartment building. Frank went inside with her and when he came back out Nikki was sitting in the driver’s seat of the Honda. Said she had to work on her thesis tonight and dropped him off at the syrup can.

*   *   *

By the time Friday morning rolled around, Ray and Judy and Mr. Pills and Loy and Autry—the whole menagerie—were By the time Friday morning rolled around, Ray and Judy and Mr. Pills and Loy and Autry—the whole menagerie—were creeping back into Frank’s head. The pressure was building up.  creeping back into Frank’s head. If you put a cork in a steam pipe, it’ll only hold for so long, eventually it’s gonna blow. Nine o’clock Friday night, Frank’s cork was about to pop. The walls were closing in. The straight and narrow path had become tedious and confining. Nikki was out at the strip club and if Frank had a car she’d expect him to be there. But he hadn’t found one yet. Sometimes procrastination pays dividends.

Sensing an opportunity, Frank washed his face, combed his hair, put on a denim jacket over a white shirt and flared jeans, slid on his Red Wing motorcycle boots and left the house. Walking down the hill to the Metropole, he knew he was stuck in a rut. But hell, why fight it? It was clearly time to blow off some steam.

(End of Chapter 13)

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Dive when door closes photo

CHAPTER 13, EXCERPT 3

Ten minutes later watching the ambulance jockeys wheel Lady Pillsbury out of the house, Moran wore the look of a man who’d just lost his wallet.

“She might have had a stroke,” Frank said. “Doesn’t look very good, whatever it is.”

“I suppose that means the big boss man will be returning,” Waverly said.

“Along with his blushing new bride,” Frank said, struggling to suppress a grin. “Fresh from the marriage mills of Las Vegas.”

Moran and Waverly both snapped their eyes on Frank. Their jaws didn’t drop more than a little. “Are you shitting me, they got married?” Moran said, his voice rising.

“Unreal,” Waverly said, not suppressing a wide grin.

“Bet you were never aware of your matchmaking skills before, eh, Keith?” Moran said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Waverly said.

“I’d say your little coke flirtations had to be the reason Pills popped the question. They hadn’t had that big fight; things would still be going along the same and maybe our jobs wouldn’t be in jeopardy. Of course that don’t matter to you, you’re always too stoned to care about things that normal people care about.”

Waverly said, “Normal people like you, Dan? Those that drink themselves to oblivion every goddamn night?”

“Let’s not knock oblivion,” Frank said. “It has its place. And c’mon boys, I’m pretty sure this shit was inevitable. I know Judy, remember? She had to be orchestrating this thing from the beginning. If not Keith and his drugs, it’d be something else. I thought she was gonna be playing off of me out at the river, but Keith was in the right place at the right time, I guess. One thing about Judy, man, she’s an equal opportunity manipulator.”

And now the big fish was all the way into the net.

“This sucks,” Moran said. “Now that the twat has what she wants, we are gone Johnson. No way she’s gonna want us back here after she’s got ol’ Pills wrapped up. So let’s get the fuck out of here and get hammered.”

“Don’t be so sure, Daniel,” Frank said. “Judy might want lots more work done. Could be she’ll want to put on the dog even more now that she’s the lady of the house. A little gilding of the lily, some conspicuous consumption—these are all things in Judy’s bag. You never know, man, you may be here for a long goddamn time. Might even die here.”

“Ain’t holding my breath,” Moran said.

                                

On Thursday morning the crew showed up at nine o’clock, per the usual routine. Pills’ Caddy was in the driveway—the newlyweds were back home. The worker trio kept up a steady pace—slow—until noon, and were ready to break for lunch when Linda, the chick from the smelting party, now wearing a black blazer, white blouse and black slacks, came down the back stairs and approached Moran at the table saw.

Linda announced with a solemn face that Mrs. Pillsbury had passed away at the hospital last night and the family desired some privacy and quiet. If the crew could wrap up operations by one o’clock it would be highly appreciated. Mr. Pillsbury had prepared the check.

Linda handed Moran an envelope and started to walk away. Waverly smiled at her and said, “Hi, Linda,” and she gave him a sideways glance, the corners of her mouth creeping up a millimeter, but then kept on going out of the room and up the stairs.

Moran opened the envelope and smiled as he lifted out a crisp, clean check. “The boss has been generous,” he said, waggling it between his thumb and forefinger. “Looks like a full week’s pay for all of us.” Moran lifted a folded piece of high quality stationery from the envelope and scanned it. “Also looks like we get two weeks off. Without pay, I don’t need to add. Says here he wants to talk to me in two weeks about continuing the work. That’s something, at least.”

Which meant the crew was off for the rest of the day and Friday too. Waverly, just happy to have money coming in and Friday off, it seemed, said, “Whattayasay we hit the Metro, first round’s on me.” Moran didn’t say anything, just stood there with his lips pinched together in an attempt at a knowing smile. But Frank knew Dan would be there when the liquor started flowing. Frank, though, wouldn’t. He was making some changes, getting his shit together, staying out of the bars and trouble. It was a new beginning, the first day of the rest of his life, and other meaningful clichés.

(To be continued)

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Dive Calm before storm photo

CHAPTER 13, EXCERPT 2

At twelve on the dot he made the call and put on his best manners and got things squared away, after a fashion. She came over a little later and they rode in her red car, Frank behind the wheel, to the A&W on London Road. When they were finished with lunch Frank wanted to drive off with the tiny root beer mugs but Nikki wouldn’t allow it. For the rest of the afternoon they went through the motions, acting like everything was all right, smiling and being nice to each other while driving around town in the sun, Frank hating the happy couples he saw on the sidewalks and front yards. Were these couples really happy or were they just going through the motions, too? A lot of that going on these days it seemed.

Frank was starting to think that maybe it was himself he hated. Maybe he was just sick of everything and everyone and needed to tear it all down and start fresh. The gut-wrenching afternoon had dragged him back to the final days of his defunct marriage, a gray, sour time that scorched its mark on his head for a long time after. He’d never forget how it ended—more a whimper than a bang. One day Carol just looked at him and said It’s over, isn’t it? And he said, Yeah, I guess it is. And that was pretty much it, except for the legal necessities, which were also a pain in the ass.

But now he just wanted to run.

And things didn’t get any better after Nikki dropped him off at home and he was left alone with his memories and thoughts. The night closed in and he started wishing he was back tending at the Metropole. How sick was that? Man, Sunday was just not his day. Even when he was a kid, he hated Sundays; school the next day and all of that. The day had just always felt shitty.

 

On Monday morning the good times kept rolling. Frank and Moran were greeted at the side door of Pill’s Palace by a note duct-taped to the glass:

To Mr. D. Moran of Malomar Construction:

I will be away from Zenith until the following Saturday, May 10, at which time, the current re-modeling project at 5242 London Road, will be re-evaluated. Any future proposals will also be considered at this time. Prior to this date, please complete all current tasks and have the first floor in a neat, clean and livable state for my return.

Sincerely,

Richard X. Pillsbury

After reading it, Moran’s face fell into his boots. First thing he did was start railing about Waverly and his goddamn drugs. To which Frank responded by pointing out in a calm and reasonable tone that Moran seemed to have no trouble with Keith when the drugs were going up his (Moran’s) nose. And also there was a strong possibility these things would have happened whether Waverly was involved or not. Frank thought of adding that he believed Judy had orchestrated the whole scenario, but didn’t, deciding Moran already had enough on his pickled mind.

Moran seemed to consider things for a moment and then shrugged and put the key in the side door and they went inside and began working toward the completion of all current tasks. Fifteen minutes later Keith showed up and Moran was a little icy but eventually he thawed and the trio shuffled through the workday with an absence of rancor.

Frank figured Moran believed the golden goose was decapitated, and Frank was a little worried himself. He made a mental note to file for his unemployment compensation real soon and get the ball rolling, and find out where Betty stood on the issue.

Some of the joviality was missing from the crew now but they managed to muddle through the days. By Wednesday afternoon at four, the end of the current job was in sight. The three of them were together in the back room, Waverly sweeping up and singing along to the radio, reminding Frank of those black dudes you saw pushing around a broom outside of some white guy’s store down South, Keith not letting the responsibility get to him. Moran had the back end of a pencil between his teeth as he wrapped the cord around his power saw. “I think we can squeeze one more day out of this without trying too hard,” Moran said. “Friday, though, we’ll have to pretend we’re busy. You’re good at that, right, Keith?”

“I’m a pro, Dan.”

And then they all stopped what they were doing as the wail of a passing siren suddenly got up close and personal, Frank thinking the damn thing was coming right in here, the thought confirmed as the siren rattled the windows of the back room before it died out with a throaty sigh. Frank was the first to the door, the other two on his heels. They hurried along the side of the house and came around the corner and sure enough there was a big orange and white ambulance in the driveway, two ambulance jockeys dragging a gurney out of the backend. A young woman in a white nurse’s outfit, who was definitely not Judy, was standing on the front steps of the house with her arms folded across her chest and a look of deep concern on her face. Frank glanced at Moran and Waverly and quickly decided that he was the best suited to talk to the nurse. Frank waited as the two EMTs hustled the gurney through the front door, then approached the young woman in white. “Um, hello,” he said. “My name is Frank Ford and I’m, ah, on the construction crew. The three of us were wondering if Mrs. Pillsbury was all right and if there was anything we could do.”

The nurse looked at him, the muscles in her face contorting. She seemed fearful, nervous, worried. “Oh no,” she said, “Mrs. Pillsbury is not all right. She’s had a seizure. There was nothing I could do but call for an ambulance. The poor woman…” Her voice trailed off as she stared out toward London Road.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Frank said. “Anything we can do to help?”

“No, I don’t think so.” She looked like she was about to cry. “Thank you for asking, though. Mr. and Mrs. Pillsbury will be returning from Las Vegas tonight to take care of things.”

Christ, they got married?

Going back, watching Waverly and Moran shuffling around in the dirt at the edge of the driveway, both of ‘em staring at the tops of their boots, Frank was reminded of two struggling kids waiting for their report cards, pretty much sure of bad news but still clinging to a glimmer of improbable hope.

(To be continued)

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081920 Dive Bartender photo 2

CHAPTER 13, EXCERPT 1

Frank had a philosophy: Everything could turn to s— tomorrow—and probably will. The following week didn’t do anything to disprove the theory.

Waking up late on Sunday morning, the sun was shining, but to Frank the sky was ashen-gray. To say he felt like shit would do an injustice to feces everywhere. Take your average everyday hangover symptoms, throw in guilt, self-loathing and a vague, rootless, feet-not-on-the-ground feeling and you’ve got an idea where he was at.

He struggled through the remainder of the morning. Took a bath and drank coffee, swallowed aspirins and choked down cornflakes that tasted like soggy sawdust. Then found himself in front of his phone debating whether he should push the message button and unlock the mystery of the flashing red light.

He pushed it.

“Hello, Frank, this is Detective Moore of the Zenith City Police Department. I’m calling to let you know that we are officially declaring your brother Ray’s death a suicide. This is probably not what you wanted to hear, but all evidence points strongly to that conclusion. Our findings will be enumerated in the Zenith News Tribune on Monday, but I wanted you to hear it from me, first. If you have any questions, please feel free to call me at 727-3535, ext. 213. Also, your Pontiac wagon has been cleared for demolition so if there’s anything special you want done with it, you need to give a shout to the Department of Motor Vehicles. And now I’m going to say something man-to-man, Frank. I know this hurts and I know you are in pain, but please try to accept our findings. Stomping around town trying to hunt down imaginary villains will do no good for Ray or anybody else. Please try to find a way to come to grips with your grief. Comfort your mother and your sister and know that Detective Sergeant Wilkes and I are very sorry for your loss, as well as your pain. Time heals all wounds they say and I feel strongly that someday you will see the wisdom in our decision. Good luck to you and your family, Frank, and again, if you have any pertinent questions, feel free to call.”

Thank you, Billy fucking Graham.

What a crock. The lazy fucking cops hated Ray—and Jesus, who could blame them—but that didn’t excuse this slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am shit. Too many forces spinning around the outside of this thing to let it go that easily. The cops knew that. And Frank knew they knew it. But what the hell are you gonna do?

Just keep on keepin’ on.

Which brought Frank to wondering why there was only that one message on the machine. Why hadn’t Nikki called to ask where he’d been and why he never came out to the club to see her? That was the hell of it. Nikki’s messages were a pain in the ass when they were on there but now that she was getting wise and saving her breath, Frank was worried, thinking she was finally getting fed up with him. But wasn’t that what he wanted, freedom from the bonds of responsibility? He wasn’t sure anymore. There was just too much in his head, too many things pulling and tugging. Seemed like he was drifting off into the cold and dark like a piece of trash caught in the current of the Lester River, rushing aimlessly along helter-skelter until he sank to the bottom.

Fucking Frank Flotsam Ford.

Waverly’d get a kick out of that one.

Frank wasn’t at all used to this kind of thing. Something new to him, this internal turmoil shita recent development. He was twisted up inside and free-floating anxieties were sparking little shots of weightlessness in his nausea stricken stomach. He could no longer avoid it, he had to call Nik and try to patch things over, at least for the time being. And sure, it was like spraying that fix-a-flat stuff in your flat tire—you propped it up for a little while but eventually you had to break the seal, take the tire off, follow all the steps and do it right. With Nikki, he’d have to leave that figurative task until sometime in the future, if at all.

Man, Nikki wouldn’t like being compared to a flat tire.

He decided to wait until noon to call her.

(To be continued)

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Frank couldn’t stop the smile from forming on his lips. Maybe it was a smirk. Sounded like a perfect ending to the smelting party. Made him feel so good he felt like ballin’ the jack, whatever the hell that meant. He swiveled around, put his elbows on the bar and leaned back, surveyed his former stomping grounds. Moran was trying to get Sack’s attention. Waverly was heading for the men’s room. Viola Stemwaggen and another old woman were melting into a front booth, both ladies three sheets to the wind.

Frank turned around and saw Sack standing there, the skinny troll struggling to decode Moran’s strained rasp, Dan’s volume shrinking by the second. “Get him a Bushmill’s, Dougie,” Frank said, “And another one for me. And whatever Viola and her friend are having.” Frank knew Sack hated being called Dougie, his actual first name, Douglas.

Looking up at Frank from the barstool, Moran’s eyes were wide and empty, the smell coming off him something awful. Then Dougie put a glass on the bar and poured in the Irish, doing the same to Frank’s glass. Few minutes later Sack brought the whiskey sours for the old ladies and Frank laid down a twenty on the bar top, took the drinks  to Viola’s booth and slid across the shiny red vinyl until his thigh was against Viola’s thigh. “Viola,” he said, setting down the drinks in front of the ladies, “You don’t know it, honey, but I am so into you.”

Viola smiled a dizzy rubber-faced smile as Frank nuzzled into her wrinkled neck.

(End of Chapter 12)

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CHAPTER 12, EXCERPT 1

After midnight at the Metropole, it was all hanging out. Frank was hunched over the bar, his internal discord currently tamped down to a dull harangue thanks to a steady diet of generously poured Bushmill’s from his old friend Sack, the hangdown shuffling around behind the bar like a mental patient on Thorazine. Waverly was standing to Frank’s left, Keith seemingly having a hard time standing still, and was involved in as discussion with some cute young thing. And then out of the blue a fish stink attacked Frank’s nose—nothing fresh or clean about it—followed closely by the sound of Danny Moran’s strained, just-above-a-whisper-because-I’m-really-too-drunk-to-talk voice. “You guys missed quite a show.”

“Jesus Christ,” Frank said, turning to watch Moran struggle onto the barstool. “You slither in here, man? Figured you were still out at the river biting the heads off smelt.”

Moran’s face was paper pale with irregular red blotches on the cheekbones. His eyelids were at half-mast. “I would be,” he said in a rasp. “But Pillsbury and the old lady got into a row and that ended the festivities.”

Frank perked up, lifting his head a couple inches. “They had a fight? You hear what were they fighting about?”

“I got an earful, let me tell you that. Judy and Linda got pretty nuts after hippie boy there (flicking his head toward Waverly) turned their cranks. They were drinking and carrying on with the Sultry Sisters of Smelt routine, and everybody’s having a good time, y’know, but then old Pillsbury starts yelling at her. They’re down at the water and he’s grabbing her arm and she’s pulling away and he’s stumbling after her and she’s saying she’s just gonna jump in the water and drown or some ridiculous shit like that and they go tussling down the shore. Then Judy stumbles and falls in and she’s dripping wet screaming at Pills and he’s yelling at her and the other two geeks are standing there with their thumbs up their ass staring and mumbling to each other like they’re worried it’s their fault or something. Personally, I thought it was fuckin’ hilarious, but all I could do was look concerned and try to keep from laughing, which wasn’t easy, let me tell you.”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?” Frank said.

“Serious as a heart attack, Frank. So then Judy goes storming off up the hill and Pills is still grabbing at her and she’s jerking her arm away and screaming ‘don’t touch me,’ ‘keep your hands off me’—shit like that—and Pillsbury is hissing at her like a big goddamn snake. The rest of us are standing there staring at the rocks like deaf and dumb retards, and a couple minutes later everyone but me takes off. And the bastards left the cooler and the smelt sitting there, so now I got thirty pounds of smelt and Pillsbury’s cooler in my truck.”

“Good source of protein, Dan,” Frank said, turning toward Waverly in time to hear Keith say to the cutie, “I’m not much for inhibitions.” Smiling, Frank said to Waverly, “Moran tells me the toot you gave Judy caused a psychotic reaction, man. She and Pills got into a row.”

“No shit,” Waverly said, turning and seeing Moran. “Hey, Danny, you made it, man.” Then looking back at Frank, Keith said, “Funny thing, though, Frank, I never gave Judy any toot. Offered it—but she turned it down. The other chick, Linda, put a couple mounds up her nose though.”

“I heard Pills growling something about street coke and hippies,” Moran said.

“I swear she never had a grain, at least from me,” Waverly said. “She did seem to be coming on a little strong, and I’m used to that, but it did seem a bit staged, y’know, like she had an agenda—the old make-your-man-jealous routine like the girls in high school used to try to work all the time. But I’m all fucked up, so I could be wrong.”

(To be continued)

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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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