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Posts Tagged ‘T.K O’Neill’

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Chapter 2, Excerpt 4

Standing in front of the lovebirds, Frank was trying to make eye contact with Judy but she wasn’t playing. Kept her gaze on Pillsbury or the martinis. Frank watched Pills reach inside his charcoal sport coat and bring out a long rectangular wallet, lift out a twenty from a thick stack and put it on the bar top.

Pillsbury said, Keep the change,” looking at Frank with what Frank thought was condescension.

Frank had the urge to tell the prick to shove the money up his ass, maybe lecture the asshole about bringing a wallet full of bills to a sleazy dive like the Metropole. “On the house,” he said, pushing the twenty back at Pillsbury.

Mr. Pills looked at him with a question in his eyes but it only lasted a second. “Thank you,” he said. “You treat first-time customers nicely here.”

“Not usually,” Frank said. “But it’s the least I can do for my ex-sister-in-law.” He nodded to Judy and started backing away, watching the skin around Pillsbury’s eyes crinkle and Judy make a half-assed attempt at a polite smile, her eyes still not revealing anything. Frank watched them take the drinks to a booth against the back wall. Couldn’t help wondering what their deal was, thinking it must be Ricky’s money and her tits and ass. Not that hard to figure. Frank shook his head and turned to look at the clock. It was quarter after twelve, forty-five minutes and he could throw the bums out of here.

A big guy with a ponytail moved into the slot vacated by the Pills. Frank got him a PBR and went back to work, getting the sitting patrons squared away. By twelve forty-five he was toweling off beer glasses and wondering what he was going to do after close, all wired up now, when he saw Keith Waverly leaning across the bar down by the television set. Waverly was a local boy known for his quality weed and other confections from the psychedelic era, and always seemed to be close to action of some sort. Just the kind of shit Frank thought he needed. Anxious to close up, Frank took inventory of his help. Moran was on the patron’s side of the bar in a booth, chatting up some drunken tart. Jenny was gathering glasses from the tables. Frank went down the line to Waverly. “Mr. Waverly,” he said.

“Hey, Frank,” Waverly said. “How’s it going, man?”

“Let’s see,” Frank said, “went to my brother’s funeral today—so that was nice. Got called to work because Sack didn’t show—and that was even more wonderful. And now here I am having a hell of a good time hanging with Zenith’s Illuminati.” He let his gaze slide around the barroom. “So you could say that I’m fuckin’ fantastic.”

“I heard about Ray, Frank. That’s a bummer, man. You doin’ okay?”

“Peachy. What can I get you, Keith?”

“How about a Heineken.”

“Coming right up.” Going to the cooler feeling a headache coming on and the pain in his bum knee getting worse, Frank squinted through the smoke clouds and the glow of beer signs, “Hello Walls” blasting out of the jukebox for the thousandth goddamn time tonight. And at that moment he realized how sick he was of this place and this scene and his brother’s guttersnipe life and all the loose ends that seemed to be demanding he tie them together whether he wanted to or not.

Fuck.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 2, Excerpt 3 

“My current employer just walked in,” Moran said, toweling a beer glass. “Richard Pillsbury. Take a good look. Guy wears a sport coat to the Metropole…. I told him to come down here and have some fun—loosen up a little—guess that’s the best he could do.”

“He does have jeans on,” Frank said.

“Bet they’re designer jeans,” Moran said.

“Mr. Pills,” Frank said.

“Some people call him that. You know him?”

“Seen him around, I think. Heard some things about him, too. How’d you score the gig, man, old friend of the family?”

“Seems that Judy recommended me. Strange, eh? ‘My fiancé tells me you’re a fine craftsman,’ the guy says to me on the phone. Then he hires me to remodel the entire first floor on this big old house out on London Road. Should last me all summer if I play it right.”

“You banging her?” Frank said, watching Judy and Mr. Pills working through the throng.

“Hell no. Judy and I had our little thing a few years back, man, right after she divorced your brother. Fuckin’ chick was nuts, man. Had a fierce craving for pharmaceuticals. But that shit fueled some monumental sex, Franko, I’ll tell you that. After it was over was the problem. Talk about your loons. She was unreachable, man, in her-own private Idaho. She seems changed now though. I see her out at the house and she seems mellower somehow. But I just see her coming and going, she never says anything to me. Looks at me sometimes like she’s thinking I should thank her for the gig or something. Maybe I should, but fuck that.”

“Marrying the heir to a pharmacy chain must be a dream come true for Judy,” Frank said. “Visions of wedding cake frosted with jellied Quaaludes dancing in her head. Mr. Pills, for Christ sake.” He eyed the couple; they were almost to the bar. “Here she comes, man. You wanna take ’em, Danny?” Frank said it soft, almost a whisper.

Danny gave Frank a sharp look and started to say something—Frank thought it was a No—but Frank was already on his way to the cash register. He popped open the drawer and stood there with his back to Moran, Frank listening and neatening up the stacks of bills. Bar was in a rush; sometimes they got all gnarled up in there. “Evening Mr. Pillsbury,” Frank heard Moran say. “Glad you took my advice to come down.”

“Greetings, Daniel,” Pillsbury said, “Quell surprise. Didn’t expect you on that side of the bar. Aren’t I paying you enough?” Pills had the self-conscious, overly controlled speech of someone who was drunk or on drugs.

“Just helping out a friend, Mr. Pillsbury. What can I get you?”

“Please, Daniel, call me Richard, And I’ll have a Beefeater martini. How about you, Judy?”

Judy said, “A mart sounds good, Ricky. You always know what I want.”

But does he know what you need, Frank was thinking as he turned to look at Moran. “Two Beefeater martinis, Danny?”

“Right on, Frank,” Danny said. “You remember Frank, don’t you Judy?”

Frank watched the blonde’s eyes swing in his direction. He looked for the spark of recognition but didn’t see it. “Oh sure,“ she said. “Longtime no see, Frank.”

“Hi, Judy,” Frank said, thinking her speech was a little slow but not drugged to the max like he’d expected. “How’s it going?”

She said, “Oh, fair to partly cloudy, thanks,” avoiding Frank’s gaze and snuggling in next to Mr. Pills.

Frank said, “I’ll get the marts, Danny, if you go down and help Jenny. Looks like she needs it.” There was a phalanx of faces looking beseechingly at Frank but he ignored them and set to making martinis, grabbing the Beefeater bottle and wondering if it was actually Beefeater’s or some cheap shit Betty had switched out.

For some reason he wasn’t quite sure of, Frank took great care in the preparation, getting the gin and the vermouth just right in the shaker, cracking the ice, shaking it—not stirring—straining it into the stemmed glasses and bringing them to Judy and Mr. Pills.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 2, Excerpt 2

It was a game Frank played, trying to stay ahead of the crowd. Tonight he was losing. People were still coming in the door and the place was standing room only. Fucking Sackberger. Wouldn’t be too big a surprise if the asshole himself showed up here before close, blind drunk and oblivious, Sack was known for shit like that.

Prick pulls that tonight I’m going over the bar after him, Frank said to himself.

The old round clock on the wall was showing eleven o’clock when Frank saw Danny Moran coming in. Frank got a Bud from the cooler and put it in on the bar as Danny threaded through the two-deep horde. “Good man, Franko,” Moran said, bellying up. “And what the hell are you doing back there? Thought you were getting too old for this Friday shit.” Gesturing at the surging throng.

“I am, Danny, no doubt about it. But Sack is AWOL and who else is Betty gonna get if it ain’t good ol’ reliable Frank Ford?” Frank glanced at all the hands clutching bills stretching out toward him and shook his head, rolling his eyes.

“I hear you, Frank,” Moran said. “And sorry about Ray, man. That’s a shame.” Moran slid a five-dollar bill next to the sweating beer bottle.

“Thanks, Danny, it’s been a real cluster fuck. Cops asking questions, my mom going nuts, all the relatives asking me what happened—like I’m supposed to know everything about Ray, even though I kept as far away from him as I possibly could. It’s a goddamn pain in the ass; let me tell you. Working this place tonight is just not in my comfort zone.”

“I hear that, Frank. Need any help? Been a while since I’ve been behind a bar but I ‘magine it comes back quick.”

“How’d you like to drink free tonight, Danny?” Frank said, pushing the five back at Moran. “I need someone to wash glasses.”

“You got it, Franko.”

Frank scanned the pulsing mob shouting drink orders and waving money, wondered what would happen if he just turned and walked the hell out. Maybe cause a riot. And poor old Betty would feel even more let down than before. So he bit the bullet and started down the line.

With Moran washing glasses and filling beer orders, things moved along pretty good. Even Jenny got in the act, mixing the occasional whiskey-seven or whiskey-water, anything easy. Around midnight things started to slow down a bit. The horny were heading to the downstairs lounge for live music, dancing and bad pick-up lines, while the light hitters headed for home and the pensioners nursed their drinks hoping the money would last until close.

Frank and Moran were busy stacking glasses when Frank saw Judy Bruton coming in with an older, gray-haired guy at her side, the man dressed about two levels higher that anyone else in the place. Checking the man out, Frank was pretty sure it was the same guy he saw beating on Ray last fall. And Judy was looking foxy in a black sleeveless blouse and black stretch pants so tight if she sat on a dime she’d know if it were heads or tails.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 1, Excerpt 6

Her first stop was at a Holiday station on 26th Avenue East and London Road. Frank pulled into the adjacent lot and left the Pontiac running. As Judy gassed up the Buick, he gazed out at the big lake, whitecaps rolling across it as night began to take over the sky. After a few minutes Judy came out of the store carrying a paper bag, got in the Electra and left in a hurry. He followed her to a brick apartment building in the Central Hillside neighborhood. He parked half a block back of the Buick and watched the nurse walk briskly up to the glass-paneled entrance doors of the building, a big black purse over her shoulder and the paper bag from Holiday cradled in her arms. Shortly after she disappeared inside, Frank saw a light come on in a top floor window.

He decided to wait.

A half hour went by with no further activity seen. Now the afternoon’s booze was wearing off and he was getting depressed, maybe a little grief coming in against his will. And he knew Betty would be getting anxious so he cranked the ignition. Nothing. Waited and tried again. Not a goddamn sound. Dead.

The Metropole was only a few blocks away—all downhill—so he thought What the hell and set out on foot in the rain after slamming the door on the Pontiac so hard a strip of chrome fell off.

Chapter 2, Excerpt 1

Damn bar was crowded, just like Frank had feared—why he no longer got scheduled for Friday nights. Thing about bartending, it was a pain in the ass if it was too busy and no good if it was too slow. What Frank wanted was a nice medium sized crowd of regulars whose drink preferences he was familiar with. Enough patrons to keep you busy but not so many you were chasing all night trying to catch up. Monday night during football season was good. Tuesday and Thursday nights were also good. Wednesday used to be good before Betty decided to have Quarter Taps on Hump Day, but now it was a goddamn zoo. Any day shift was fine with Frank, and he usually got to choose his shifts, one of the benefits given the bartender with the longest tenure.

Tenure. Shit, like this bar was a school and he was a teacher, Frank was thinking as he threaded his way through the crowd and the smoke. That was funny. Funny because ten years ago when he started working here he’d actually entertained ideas of doing good, putting his energies toward enlightening the unwashed masses dragging themselves up to the long oaken bar in an endless line. Yes, sir, Frank Ford would dispense his hipster wisdom and college knowledge for the uplift of all.

Jesus.

Just goes to show how youth, psychedelic drugs and a bit of a messiah complex can pull your shit off line. Christ, now Frank hated drunks. Was sick of looking at the impenetrable gazes, tired of hearing the same meaningless jabber. And that was the young ones. Your old drunks, your little old ladies, retired laborers, whatever—they never gave you much trouble—they were just sad. Lonely and sad. And it got to you once in a while, got you thinking about your own life, your future. Your old age. Your death. All kinds of troubling shit.

Frank nodded to familiar faces and glanced at Betty behind the bar, the squatty white-haired woman chewing her lower lip and looking half-crazy. Wondering how she’d stayed in this business so long, Frank watched her face relax when she saw him. She gave him a half-assed, tired smile and he smiled back at her, not feeling it, and walked behind the bar. He hung up his leather jacket on the wall hook next to the basement door, washed his hands in the bar sink, dug a clean towel out of a drawer, dried his hands and his rain dampened hair and put on his bartender’s face. The mask.

Betty thanked him again for coming in and then left without further ado. Who could blame her? Damn bar was full of young girls tonight and judging by the horde of dirty glasses crowding around the sink, they had ordered quite a few specialty cocktails, drinks Betty struggled with, usually getting behind—like now—with the washing of her limited supply of appropriate glassware.

Frank got busy at the sink. He greeted Jenny the waitress. Nice girl. Or woman. She was somewhere in between, another functioning alcoholic staying close to the source. Frank could tell she was already into the sauce but she usually held it together for the whole shift so he didn’t worry himself.

Took him about an hour to catch his groove and get a line on what people wanted. There was old Mrs. Eckman (Edna) down by the television set, shiny black patent leather purse on the bar in front of her next to a brandy Manhattan with a cherry. Frank always had the impression Edna was wearing white gloves even though her hands were bare. Down at the other end of the bar with a shot of Windsor and a snit was retired UMZ custodian Harold Lundquist. Joel Blackwell, mentally ill offspring of one of Zenith’s influential old families, was on a stool at the middle of the bar drinking Johnny Walker and arguing with invisible relatives. A group of bikers by the front door was taking turns checking IDs and drinking tap beer on Betty’s dime. College jocks at the pool tables were doing Budweiser, and now a cute blond honey of a college girl was ordering screwdrivers and greyhounds for her and her friends.

And on and on it went.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 1, Excerpt 5

Frank took the free drink and nodded thanks to Jimmy Carl, Jimmy behind the bar now. Then Frank gave each of the two pill heads a hard stare and stepped around to the waitress station. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Autry give the Doughboy a backhand slap to his flabby midsection. Autry growled something at the fat man and Frank watched Doughboy gulp once and stare down at the stage, Loy’s face freezing in a weird forced smile he must have worked years to perfect.

The club was filling up with the after-work crowd. Jimmy Carl was zipping back and forth along the bar and Nikki was down by the stage taking drink orders from a group of college guys. Sensing it was the right time to leave, and never really caring much for strip clubs in the first place, Frank knocked back the free whiskey and started toward the door, giving the back of Artie Autry’s head a little shove with the heel of his hand as a parting shot. Artie threw Frank a dirty look and seemed like he might want to start something, but then he pressed his hair back in place with his bony hand and returned his gaze to the stage.

Frank made the short and lonely trek to his station wagon dodging raindrops. He put in the key and cranked the ignition. Thing turned over feebly but finally started. The wind was switched around now, blowing hard and cold off Lake Superior, kind of weather made you want to get the hell out of this town for good.

April is a good month to die in this town, Frank thought. At least Ray got that part right.

Frank was mad. Mad at Autry and Loy, mad at Ray-Ray, mad at himself. Didn’t occur to him that it was cool to be an angry young man but not so cool at thirty-six. Unidentified feelings swirled around in his gut as he drove. The people, the cars, the old brown buildings—they all seemed unreal, moving by out there in an indifferent world. But Frank was tough enough. Tough enough to handle his asshole brother when he was alive and tough enough to handle the poor bastard’s killers now that Ray was dead. Frank knew there was more to the story than Autry and Loy were offering, they pretty much came out and said it. Yeah, both of those boys knew far too much about Judy Bruton’s present situation to be merely casual observers. They had some scam in mind; it was almost a sure thing.

Frank drove around town watching it rain, the sky gloomy and low, total grayness. He turned on defrost on his car heater, listened to the classic rock station play “Dust in the Wind” and wished he had another drink. Cruising slowly down soggy London Road staring out at the big homes on the lakeside of the winding asphalt strip, he was searching for signs of construction. And when he saw it, it made him chuckle. In the front yard of a huge white, three-story house was a homemade sign saying Malomar Construction. Good quality workmanship on the sign. Danny Moran did good work, even though he drank like a fish. But that’s what you get from an Irishman, Frank thought, knowing he had more Irish blood than Danny but Moran had the Irish name. Both men had the disposition.

Frank made a u-turn a block past the big white house, rolled back along the north side of London Road and parked where he could see the long driveway leading to Mr. Pills’ not-so-humble abode. He reached back to stroke his ponytail and remembered he’d had it cut off two months ago. Sighing, he gazed down the well-lighted driveway at the faded yellow grass in Mr. Pillsbury’s substantial yard.

Mr. Pills. Can you believe it?

Left no doubt, did it? Shit, pills were what everyone wanted these days. You had carloads of customers flocking to Pillsbury’s stores for Valium and Librium, Phenobarbital and Percodan, Darvon and Demerol. And your junkies wanted the same thing. So maybe Artie and Doughboy did have a right to a piece of the pie. Maybe the entire pharmaceutical business was a sleazy scam, either legit or black market, and everyone was a player for the wrong reasons. Because clearly there was something wrong here that no pills were going to fix.

Frank was waiting for this current bout of madness to pass when he saw his former sister-in-law strutting out the front door of Pillsbury Manor wearing a long black coat that flapped open as she walked, revealing a tight white nurse’s uniform. Her chest was still proud and noteworthy, Frank observed. He watched her approach a dark blue Buick sedan, snapping a cigarette into the bushes with a flick of her fingers before climbing into the big sled. It was eight o’clock and Frank still had an hour to kill before he had to rescue Betty from the drunks.

Why not take a little ride, eh?

Nurse Judy backed the Buick around and drove slowly out onto London Road, a fresh cigarette hanging from her lips. She turned the Electra toward downtown and hit the gas, white smoke billowing from the exhaust pipe as she rolled away.

Frank was so mesmerized by seeing Judy again he’d forgotten about the ignition problems on the station wagon. Watching her taillights fade, he hit the key. Miraculously, the Poncho caught on the first try and he was soon in pursuit of the junkie nurse with the great ass. She looked a lot better than he’d anticipated. Hard to believe everything was still so taut. Maybe his eyes were going bad. Could be the foggy weather or the distance. No way she should still look that good. With her lifestyle? Come on.

He’d get a closer look before long.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 1, Excerpt 4

Then out of the corner of his eye Frank saw Nikki go behind the bar. He watched Autry turn his head and blow her a kiss. Frank shot the alligator-skinned prick a sideways glance then moved around Doughboy’s bulk to wedge in between the two lowlifes. “Must be something big going on if you two guys are out of bed this early, Artie,” Frank said. “It’s still light out,” He made a fist with his right hand and set it on top of the bar close to Autry’s left hand.

Autry narrowed his eyes. “Your brother’s funeral, Ford,” he said. “Ain’t that reason enough for two old friends of his to have a drink together—in his memory?”

“Don’t remember seeing either of you two at the service, Artie.”

“Nah,” Doughboy Loy said. “We didn’t think it was a good idea to show up, given our past enterprises with Ray, and all.” He was talking slow and getting slower. His eyes were red, but not like he’d shed tears.

Frank said, “Look, you guys, I appreciate your sympathy, if that’s what it is—but what I’m really interested in is some answers. Like how and why did Ray end up floating in the bay all beaten to shit? And who the fuck, did it, man? You know, just simple questions.”

“Man, Frank, I don’t know,” Doughboy said. “You know how Ray got when he was fucked up. Must of been a dozen guys around town wanted to kick his ass. Somebody could’ve caught up to him, you know? Don’t necessarily mean it had anything to do with Ray jumping—but he could have been depressed or something. You take a beating and you might start hating yourself afterwards, right? You seen those billboards they got around town about untreated depression, how it’s a time bomb and all that?”

“You and I both know Ray didn’t commit suicide, Maynard,” Frank said. “He was too chicken shit, too much of a survivor for that. Thought too highly of himself in some twisted way. So maybe it was you guys did it to him, eh?  Say for example you wanted him to pull some tunnel-rat job for you so you could get something to put in your arm and Ray-Ray said no and you two were jonesing so bad you wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Frank turned to the wiry, wasted Autry. “Maybe Artie here flipped out and started beating on the little dick. Knocked him unconscious and he wouldn’t wake up right away so you guys freaked and threw him off the Arrowhead Bridge.”

Frank looked at Doughboy, wanted to squeeze those puffy cheeks until they bled, see what came out of his saggy mouth after that. Instead he turned back to Autry. “Maybe I should pound your scrawny buzzard beak into the bar a few times, Artie, see what your story is then. I really think I might enjoy that.” Frank put his right hand on his lowball glass, turned it slowly and stared at Autry.

“Aw, come on, Frank, this is bullshit,” Doughboy said. “We didn’t do anything to Ray. At least I didn’t.” He glanced at Autry. “And Artie liked Ray. And we like you too, Frank.”

Ford glowered and leaned his elbows on the bar, stared down into his empty glass. After a moment he glanced up at Nikki across the bar and her eyes were on him. “Another, please, Nik,” he said, holding up his glass. She came and took it, flashing a look of concern, woman always finding a way to comment, it seemed. Frank straightened up and looked Autry in the eyes. “If you didn’t do it, Artie, who in hell did?  I have this funny feeling that you know more than Doughboy says you do.”

Autry said, “I know Ray was getting squirrelier by the minute, Frank, that’s what I know.”

Doughboy piped in, “I was his brother I’d have a long talk with that nurse chick Ray was banging. She was mixing him up some really weird cocktails—if you catch my drift.”

Frank said, “Who in hell you talking about, Maynard? Not Judy Bruton, his ex-wife?”

Loy got a smirk on his puffy lips. “It is, Frank, I swear to God. I forgot they were married back in the good old days. Three months, wasn’t it?”

“So he was hanging with that bitch again,” Frank said, watching Nikki pour his whiskey. “That chick is evil, man. Used to steal from old people at the nursing home she worked at, to support her habit. Just your kind of babe, guys. But I heard she got busted, so how in hell can she still be a nurse?”

“She was never arrested. Just fired a couple times. They could never prove anything, I guess.” Doughboy said.  “Now they say she’s gonna marry a pharmacist. Guy with his own drugstore chain. Imagine that, would you? How lucky can you get?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Autry snarled. “They’re not married yet, so let’s not jinx it.”

Frank’s interest perked up. “So where is sweet Judy sleeping these days, boys? Her former brother-in-law might like to reminisce with her about old times.”

“She works out at a big white house on London Road,’ Doughboy said, drawing an angry stare from Autry. “She’s nursing her boyfriend’s mother. Old bag’s got this big mansion on the lake. She lives on the second floor and Mr. Pills is on the third floor. Quite a pad, they say. I think Judy’s been doing a lot of nursing on the pharmacy dude’s dick as kind of a side project.”

Frank said, “Mr. Pills? That’s the guy’s name? Really?”

“Actually it’s Pillsbury,” Doughboy said, a stupid grin wrinkling his fat red lips. “Me and Artie just call him Mr. Pills ‘cause that’s what he is, really, you think about it.”

Frank said, “How can a guy like that—with all that money—how can he not know she’s going to steal him blind?”

“He probably doesn’t care,” Autry said. “Man’s a fuckin’ geek. Judy’s got him so strung out on her pussy he’d do anything for her. She’s probably got him spiking Demerol by now. Wouldn’t be surprised. But I ain’t saying any more. That would be gossip. And I was never one for gossip. Doughboy is also going to change the subject if he’s as smart as he thinks he is.”

“Y’know, Artie,” Frank said. “I think maybe we should go outside and introduce your balls to the toe of my boot.” Frank leaned his muscular, six-foot-two frame in close to Autry. “Your lack of concern is pissing me off, man. I need to get a line on Judy for personal reasons and you think you’re going to cut me off?  What kind of shit is that?  Be real nice if one time in your life you weren’t an asshole, y’know.”

“Fuck you, Ford. What more do you want?  Big white house on London Road… guy name of Pillsbury… figure it out for yourself for fuck sake.”

Frank clenched his jaw and was just about to grab Autry when he heard Nikki’s soothing voice coming from what seemed a very long way off. “Jimmy bought you another drink, Frank. He said he doesn’t want any trouble in the bar. He’ll fire me, Frank, if you start anything.”

Frank wanted to tell her not to worry; her parents would pay her bills if it came down to that—and for that matter, it was about time she got out of this sleazy environment—but he kept his mouth shut.

Then “Afternoon Delight” burst from the sound system and a brunette with extra large eyes hit the stage down front jiggling inside a frilly red bustier.

With his bloodshot eyes trained on the new dancer, Doughboy Loy said, “Your buddy Danny Moran is remodeling the first floor of that same house, Frank. Maybe he needs some extra guys.”

Which got Doughboy another eye dart from Autry, Artie’s face getting redder and tighter as he glowered at Loy.

(To be continued)

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This way and that way—go this way and that.

That bit of an old German children’s song cycling in Frank Ford’s head seemed to be a comment on the flow of his thoughts. In the aftermath of his brother’s funeral, he was bouncing between sad, happy and relieved—and then back again. And to top it off, he had mud on his pants.

“Goddamnit,” he said, brushing impatiently at the dark clumps ringing the cuff of his only pair of dress pants. Most guys would have relegated these sharply creased grays to painter’s pants long ago, but not Frank Ford. To him these trou seemed more than suitable for his brother’s goddamn funeral.

Frank’s temper was not improving as the remaining splotches resisted his vigorous rubbing. Thinking about the funeral service wasn’t helping his head either.

Frank gave up his grooming efforts with a grunt, lifted his legs into the front seat of his rusty blue Pontiac station wagon and slammed the simulated wood-paneled door. He normally had Fridays off at the bar but today was the second time this month Betty called him in because Douglas “Sack” Sackberger pulled one of his infamous disappearing acts. If you could call holing up inside a bottle at his lowlife-welfare-cheater-girlfriend’s dump, disappearing. Frank wondered why Betty didn’t fire the sorry bastard. Maybe they were related, Sack and Betty. He’d heard that.

“Goddamn families,” Frank said as he turned the key, the angry profanity fading into the empty street like a warning. The starter responded with a tired whine.

It’s not like Ray was a brother anyone should mourn.

The whining and buzzing, ground to a halt.

Frank cranked down the window and yelled, “Fuck,” into the damp, gray air. Christ, the way it went down was so typical of Ray, his body lying there with ID in the pocket of his jeans so we could all know who it was. Know what happened to him, what somebody did to him. Make his big brother feel morally obligated to do “the right thing.” Whatever the hell that was.

Why couldn’t the dirt bag have just gone away?

You know how at funerals people always say they’re going to miss the dead person? This ceremony was no different. But Frank knew they were all liars. Except Mom, of course, she always loved Ray no matter what he pulled. “Ray-Ray’s had a hard time of it,” she’d say, explaining why she gave her younger son money or forgiveness. Money Frank always knew would be spent at a bar or a drug house— and forgiveness surely to be taken advantage of by the receiver. Mom babied Ray and took his side most of the time, which never failed to piss Frank off, but now it was left to him to comfort her.

Forgotten, that’s how he wanted to remember Ray. But the lasting image of his grief stricken mother bent over in the church pew and the rising bile in Frank’s craw, foretold a different future. He didn’t know how to answer when she asked why. Why Frankie? Why did little Ray-Ray have to die like this? 

Frank gazed out at the cloudy sky and the small, well-kept houses in the blue-collar neighborhood surrounding his mother’s apartment building and felt the sourness growing. Maybe he should tell her about that time last fall. The time he saved her little darling from an ass kicking. Tell her about driving downtown one night and seeing this gray-haired guy in a dark suit pounding his fists on some turd in a worn-out fatigue shirt. Tell her he got a look at the smaller guy and realized it was Ray. Then maybe he should tell her that his first thought was—Good, he’s probably getting what he deserves. But Ray was Frank’s little brother and Frank had to stand up for him for that goddamn reason and that reason alone, so Frank jerked the car to a halt right there on the main drag—double parking on goddamn Superior Street for Christ sake—honked the horn and waved to his wacko brother. And when the gray-haired guy glanced over, Ray took the opportunity to scramble away and jump in the front seat of Frank’s big station wagon. Then Mom’s sweet little boy Ray-Ray gave the natty dresser the finger and hocked a gob of spit at him as Frank drove off. When Frank asked him what it was all about, Ray said he was fucking the guy’s wife, which Frank thought was a crock because any woman married to the dapper dude was not going to play around with snotty, greasy, Ray Ford. More likely Ray was sniffing around the guy’s teenage daughter, trying to get her high or something.

Frank twisted the key in the ignition again and this time the Pontiac V8 fired up, sending clouds of oily exhaust into the air. He pulled away from the curb and pointed the wagon in the direction of Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club. Nikki was out there doing her waitress thing, the master’s degree candidate working in a strip club for her sociology thesis. Girl was the only joy Frank had left in life. Kept him from thinking about his ex-wife and her asshole new husband or the way the country was going lately, everything costing so much these days. Sweet little Nikki made him feel alive, feel something good inside again. Her company and a couple stiff bumps would get him through the afternoon, but tonight at the Metropole was another thing altogether.

(To be continued)

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