Shitbird

“Yummy!” was the first thing that came to mind. He didn’t say it except maybe under his breath, but it was there, frontmost in his head. Then he was embarrassed. 

She was younger than he was-as was everyone it seemed-but way younger. Not as young as his daughter gratefully, but young. And well put together. A girl in a woman’s body.

She had come to him after the reading and asked about the mystical reverence that the Appalachian peoples, predominantly Cherokee she thought, had for turtles. He was a turtle guy and could happily spend an evening in that conversation, plus she was wearing a washed out university v-neck that put up a valiant struggle but was ultimately no match for her cleavage. 

Others came and went, he signed some books, stood for pictures and as the lights dimmed, she remained. It wasn’t until she was helping him gather his stuff that he allowed that she was interested in more than turtles and Cherokees. They went to a bar she knew and sat in the back. He bummed a smoke and wished he could draw to capture the way her lips pursed as she inhaled then popped perfect smoke rings into the air between them. Ultimately it was to his hotel room since she had roommates. 

Not until morning, when the rising sun washed through the gauzy curtains and ignited a bright blaze of reflection across the downy blonde fur on her bottom, presented to him as she faced away snoring lightly, top leg slightly bent, offering herself in a dream, and he thought, “Yummy!” did he feel the least bit embarrassed. 

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, he thought, looking away from her bum, but Eliot had beaten him to it. Instead he remembered his Grammy Nubs calling him a “shitbird” when he did something she considered off in any way. 

He slipped out of bed and pulled a sheet up covering her, grabbed her cigarettes and headed for the balcony.

The Stray

Olive didn’t wear a mask which was fine with Clay because she was uncommonly pretty for a woman in The Stray. Woman, hell, she was more a girl, and decidedly misnamed, pale to the point of luminescence, with only one chipped tooth in a bright smile that held up freckles, a button nose with only the hint of a bump and eyes the color of a summer sky. Her alabaster skin glowed brighter, accented by the dark T-shirts she always wore-even on the coldest of days which this one certainly was. “I run hot”, she’d say. 

The short sleeves did nothing to hide the scars on her wrists and the wispy gossamer of old track marks up and down her arms that probably explained, at least in large part, what she was doing astride a stool at Strays, which everyone called the place, on a snowy Saturday evening. No longer a death wish and clean, if not dry, she felt comfortable among “her people” whatever the fuck that meant. 

She pushed her empty glass just enough so Robin would see it and refill. Again, playing against type, she drank thick stouts and porters exclusively which everyone figured was a good thing since she barely ate. “Gotta pee”, she chirped and hopped off the stool and headed toward the back. She left her cigarettes so she would be back. Olive lived in a couple of rooms above the bar and was known to slip away from time to time.

Robin pulled a beer from the tap and placed it in front of the empty stool, glancing at Clay’s Manhattan. It was his third and now that he was settled with a soft glow in his cheeks and the glint in his eye dulled, they would go down slower. She was thick and rangy wearing seasonal flannel over a dark camisole. Not a beauty, she had an androgynous look that some women would call handsome and kept her thick brown hair in a ducktail that would have shamed Elvis. She followed his gaze out the window where a snow squall had wrapped the world in a dirty gray blanket. “Hey”, she patted his hand to draw his attention from outside. “You going back to work next week?”

He was. She prodded for more. Sometimes, when they were alone or it was slow, she’d get him talking about work. She didn’t understand most of what he did, but it stopped him from thinking. Tonight his mind was clearly elsewhere so all she knew was he’d have a day in the office, then downstate for a day or two tops, on the new install. “Book my reservation for right here next Friday happy hour,” he said, tipping his glass. 

“Done”, she said. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“You mean liking bending me over a chair and having your way with me?”

She gave him the tight smile reserved for friends who keep repeating a joke that had long ceased being funny. “Well”, she said, “Seeing I don’t get off till ten and I don’t think Sweet Martini Olive”, she nodded toward the girl coming back from the bathroom, “will wait that long,” she pinched the back of his hand before sliding away. “I’ll make a note of it though.”

From her spot leaning against the back bar, she could see that the squall had subsided and fretted that Olive wasn’t distracting him. She knew he could see now, not only the bridge but the exact spot at the railing where his wife Merin, was last alive. Thing was, she was a decent swimmer and the bridge isn’t all that high. His fantasy was that she would have survived the jump, the water would have revived her-snapped her out of what he couldn’t-and she would have swum over to the marina and come home to him, wet but renewed. 

But she hadn’t seen the line of empty coal barges coming upstream from behind her. You’d think she would have heard the tow boat, but their sound is more of a powerful low thrum than the whine of an outboard. The lead barge poked out from under the bridge just as she leapt. He imagined her hitting with a loud metallic clang like the cartoon sound effect when the mouse hit the cat over the head with a skillet. Sad truth was, nobody had seen or heard a thing and her body wasn’t discovered until the barges settled into dock in Weirton days later. 

“You wanna go upstairs?” Olive asked quietly not looking at him but at her half empty glass. Wouldn’t be his first trip, counting her ribs or tracing the outlines of her hip joints on her tumescent skin. Or maybe she’d stay dressed and just take care of him. Whichever. He left two twenties on the bar-twice what he owed-and they headed for the back steps. 

Robin did not turn around but watched them leave in the mirror behind the bar. 

Happy New Year

The light came in soft and buttery, slicing through the bent blinds. It was after noon, certainly, but the sun stayed low-skirting the hilltop across the river and bleeding through the mill smoke. The crash and rumble of a coal train starting to crawl must have been what woke him. He felt better than he had when he’d awakened earlier and left her in the dark. Sleeping in the chair was good, he could keep his feet up. But still his knees ached. And his hands. The fucker was going to rain, or snow for that matter. His joints always let him know. 

She must have been watching from the other room-for him to stir or his eyes to open-because she was suddenly there, sitting on the arm of the couch. Her hair was down, wrapping her face and she was wearing the same striped top from last night but had thrown his vest over it. Her jeans were gone in favor of dark sweats and her feet were bare. 

She looked none the worse for wear but for the little mouse under her left eye which he would have remembered had he done it. Plus her gray eyes wouldn’t have been so soft and caressing had he hit her. She perched lightly-on her toes more than her butt-the air between them twitchy and alight. He didn’t feel tired as much  as empty, though he wished he was still asleep.

She cleared her throat then asked quietly, “You okay?” 

He shifted so the recliner would pop him up a little. Christ, everything hurt. He could manage no more than a phlegmy “Yeah”, before he had to close his mouth against the pain. He didn’t quite remember getting hit in the jaw, but he knew this particular ache too well. Wasn’t too bad, he thought as he moved his mouth around. Nothing broken, loose or bleeding. 

She watched him for a few moments then stood, rubbing her hands on her thighs. “Alright. Now you’re up. I’m going in the bedroom. To get ready.”

“For what?” he asked. 

She was already out of the room and he could only see her from the waist up as she passed behind the couch. “You said you were going to whip my ass in the morning. Remember?”

He let his eyes drift back toward the window as he kept working his jaw. He felt her eyes, so he said, “It’s afternoon…”

“It’s not my fault you slept through”, she answered. Then, “I’m going to go get ready…”

“You really think that’ll help anything?”, he asked the window.

“Trust me”, she said. “It will be worse if you don’t.”

She padded away down the hall. The bedroom door creaked open then, after a long rustling moment, the bedsprings squeaked and settled. He tried to remember what his old man had told him about younger women, but couldn’t. Truth be told, he had a helluva time conjuring up the old man’s voice anymore. He could see him on a stool next to him, even see his mouth moving around the bouncing cigarette, but couldn’t come up with his voice.  One more glowing coal of sadness that he didn’t need right now.

The Wolf

She wandered her way back to the parlor. It wasn’t a long wander, the house was a sprawling manse only in a child’s memory. And she always remembered it as a child, a young girl dwarfed by oversized furniture and looming windows, though she’d lived here up until ten years ago. Two years before he’d died.

They called it the parlor to tell it from the living room which was off the kitchen and where everyone would converge on holidays and birthdays. It was the living room that held the Christmas tree and the train sets with their glittering little buildings and soap flake snow, glowing in front of the french doors with the view of the back porch swing, the mulberry trees, and beyond the yard, the real railroad tracks and finally the river. A long sectional against the wall and a small curled sofa opposite the windows with a few wingback chairs could hold the whole clan as long as some stayed in the kitchen, or filtered through in shifts. 

She only remembered once or twice as a very young girl, the house being at capacity with all the uncles, aunts and cousins seemingly pushing the whole place outward-causing the house to breathe and squall in concert with the crowd inside. Those screeching times became fewer and fewer as everyone grew and factionalized; each claiming their own turf which seemingly could not be done without cutting ties to the ones that claimed their own.  

As she had so many times, she slunk through the archway dragging her fingers across the chilled smoothness of the layers of paint that did as much to reveal the imperfections in the walls as to mask them. Past the staircase bathed in the rainbows from the stained glass window on the landing, past the piano that hadn’t been played in decades, until finally stepping through the open door. As an adult, she always felt a little off balance when she first stepped into the parlor, like a child walking across a bed. It was darker than it should have been and it took her a moment to realize that the rhododendron, untrimmed outside the window, had grown enough to block the morning sun. 

Other than that, nothing had changed back here. Nothing. It was clean enough. Dusted and polished, but it was set up as it always had been-a museum display or something from a doll house brought to life-size. In years past the old man had taken pains to give this place the look of a hunting camp though the only “hunting story” of her life was when he, in his wingtips and tie, had shot an eight-point on the road coming home from work one December evening. As she got older she even doubted that story and wasn’t convinced that he hadn’t hit it with his T-Bird and tossed it in the trunk.

And there he still was, that ratty little deer head still over the mantel complete with the peeling red machine paint on the deer’s nose which  he’d done that one Christmas and laughing drunk told all the kids that he’d shot Rudolph. There were a couple of hunting related gee-gaws around like the ceramic smiling buck driving a car with two hunters strapped to the front fenders. 

Opposite the fireplace sat the well-used olive green sofa with the strategically placed white lace doilies still seeming out of place and above it the framed lithograph of the lone wolf. She stepped closer and, tall enough to not have to stand on the sofa anymore, still rose on tiptoes to get a better look. Squinted. She always saw the print in her mind’s eye as blue, and it was, as a winter night bathed by the moon might be. Warm yet cold at the same time.

The wolf was standing on a snowy hillside overlooking a little village lit only by the golden firelight leaking from the hovels that was quickly consumed by the surrounding ocean of darkness. She had invented families that lived there-their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and later, their fears. Childish things. 

Her idea of the wolf had evolved. As a child she was sure he was the village’s protector, breathing steam and keeping a watchful eye for things that could be even worse than he out in the unseen darkness. But then, over the years, as she spent more time back here, in the parlor, in the company of the man, she grew into the idea that the wolf was a predator, waiting for someone, probably the little blonde girl she’d invented,  to stray too far from the warmth and safety of her lighted doorway, seduced by a false sense of security.  

Or maybe he was both. 

Prayer Cards

The snow fell straight in thick, white ribbons from a sky so low and gray he felt he should stoop. In front of him fanned the prayer cards-a final legacy from his mother. Arranged in tight phalanxes of friends and family, as in life, the favorites closer. Mother, Father, the Grands, all the progenitors, then out to close friends, friends, acquaintances then finally tangential hangers on. 

When there wasn’t a card, or she hadn’t been able to get to the funeral home, she made her own by taping the newspaper obituary onto an index card and cutting it in half making it the same size as the others. She’d draw a cross or a sunrise on the front of it with colored pencils that were, to him, prettier than all the Jesuses and Marys on the printed cards. He moved his glass to the side and studied the array like a nervous chess player, recalling, ranking, touching them all, then finally switching a friend of his father’s (an officious prick that the old man never really liked but worked with for ten years) to the back and promoting the druggist who was good to his grandma back in the days when pills were easier. 

He didn’t get a paper himself, so he made his own prayer cards with the same stack of index cards she had in her desk. The one he just finished he put in the fourth row. “Jack “Bones” Kerklo” it said, in his crimped hand. “Age 72. Good guy. Fell drunk down 4th Street steps. Died AT HOME three days later.” He underlined “AT HOME” with a purpose and grinned. Not having his mother’s artistic talent he relied on his cheeky wit. 

The kids had made noises about him coming out for Christmas but he didn’t see how that could work. That had always been their mother’s time with them. He’d be fine just where he was-feeling more like a presence than a person. In front of him was a blank card with his name printed at the top. 

“Kindness Was His Key to Heaven”

…reads the inscription on Joseph Page’s headstone who passed in 1915 at the ripe old age of 78. I like reading stones, for the tales they tell. Old Joe had missed dying in a war, which was notable here where there were dead from every conflict since the Whiskey Rebellion. And dying in ‘15 spared him the last great pandemic which is represented down around the bend where the hillside falls away to the woods and the many small, numbered but nameless stones lay scattered like cockeyed baby teeth in the unkempt weeds. Those are the Spanish Flu dead, buried quickly enough to be anonymous-whole families gone in days leaving the undertaker to rifle through drawers in infected bedrooms for enough coin to put them in even the most undesirable part of the cemetery. Happily, I know no one who’s died this time around. Mom went two years ago and my mother-in-law last year. It was a blessing. But now we’re all being careful. Even at Shirley’s where I stopped last weekend, all the girls wore masks which was sort of comical especially when we got back to the rooms and they wore nothing else. Especially with Cheri, my regular, who always takes me on knees and elbows so it’s not even like we’re facing each other. Since we’re friends I’ve told her she doesn’t have to fake it with me, which I thought was being nice, but probably shouldn’t have because now she never quits talking through the whole thing. It was about the gifts other girls were getting from their regulars for the Holidays. Small refrigerators, microwaves, coffee makers, big screen TV’s which, she assured me-just as I was letting loose, no less-aren’t as expensive as they used to be. I have a wife and two daughters; enough gifts to shop for. I don’t need to add anything. If I’d tell Shirley how Cheri was trolling for gifts the girl would get a board busted over her ass. I know she’s incorrigible. I’ve seen the bruises. It was easier for me to give her an extra hundo that Shirley didn’t need to know about. Only after getting her to promise she wouldn’t put it up her nose and after checking her arms and between her toes for tracks, pricks or bruises. I promised to see her next week and wanted to do some back-door work. She was fine with that-just wanted to know ahead of time. Plus I pay extra for it.

Endeavoring



He found himself at sea;
alone, misfiled, misplaced:
a spoon among the forks trying
To understand where he fit. 

What did he know about menopause?
About what years did down there 
Turning wetlands into deserts;
Lush marshes into 
Craggy rocky places.
One adapts, he was told.
She had a plan.

Will you take off your pants
At least? he asked.
She played tennis and
knew her legs drove him wild. 
Of course, she said.
But strip now.

He did as he was told and she,
Like a mom with a recalcitrant toddler,
Took him by the ear and patted his bum
Toward the bedroom.

Am I going to regret this 
In the morning? he asked.
Of course darling, she purred.
That’s what mornings are for. 

September Snow

Billy Ragg hurried up the street both hands shoved deeply into the pockets of his unlined leather coat. Back in June, when he’d stolen it, the coat had been real sharp-worth about two hundred bucks. Wasn’t worth a shit today what with winter deciding to blow in a couple of months early. Moving kept him warm. He only slowed to adjust the pistol in the belt at the small of his back. It seemed like a good way to carry it-nobody could see it-but it was uncomfortable as hell. Felt like it was going to fall down his pants. 

He was going to have to get himself a new coat. Something for winter. It was easy enough. Dress nice, go into some happy hour bar, order a beer or two and scope the place like you wanted to hit on somebody but just keep on the lookout for a coat or jacket tossed over a chair or some such. That nobody was keeping tabs on. Hang out long enough you can usually find one that almost fit. Wait for the guy to take a piss to try to chase down a lady and walk off with it. Just walk. Smooth and cool, like it was yours. Plenty of time to run, if you had to, when you hit the street. That was the kind of small-time shit he wanted to put behind him. After today he’d be able to buy anything he wanted. 

He stopped at the corner of Van Braam and Wharton and looked up the street toward the Showboat. It was a little after noon and the matinee crowd was probably just getting settled. A bracer would help. Not much, it’s not like he wanted to sit in there and drink the day away. Not today. Just something sweet to push this friggin’ cold out and a couple of beers to pry his tongue from the roof of his mouth. It would settle him for what was coming. For a moment he actually leaned in the Boat’s direction then remembered that his hands were the only things in his pockets. He grudgingly turned away then hustled shivering, down toward the river. 

He didn’t see anyone he knew. Seemed that the population down here on the ward turned completely every couple of months. Here and there was somebody familiar, but only because he’d seen them hanging around the last time he came down. Not because he knew their names or ever spoke to them. If it was a little warmer he would probably have had to nod to someone that knew him in passing but the cold front had moved most of the derelicts under cover for awhile. That was fine with him. He liked the anonymity of this end of town. It wasn’t like the old days, scoring down on Walnut Street when he was the only white guy for blocks. 

He stepped into a doorway across from Geezer’s building and tightened his belt a notch wincing at the .38 dug into his spine. He was looking up at the fourth floor winder where geezer lived and not paying attention to the street so he missed the blue Chevy that stopped about a half block away. 

“What’s he doing down here, ya think?”

Connie didn’t answer right off, his eyes on his quarry, trying to get a handle on what he was up to.  Ragg was a real gem. Connie had played high school football with him twelve , fifteen years ago. One helluva lineback with no more brains that a side of beef. After a couple of junior colleges gave up on him he came home to settle into the life of a small town hustler. Mostly petty stuff, some strong arm work. Nothing major. Ragg got into the kinds of shit that Connie wouldn’t mess with except for slow days when there was nothing else to do. Like today.

“Doesn’t that guy…big spook…Geezer something or other, live down here somewhere?” 

Jimmy Proffo took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed across the street. “Fourth floor, corner apartment. Busted him for grass coupla years ago. Deals some. Mostly grass, some coke. You think that’s what your friend’s after?”

“Dunno. Why don’t you let me get in the backseat then pull up. Have a talk with him.”

He rolled down the window as Proffo pulled the car up to where Billy was standing in a doorway. “Hey Sunshine”, he called out, “You’re outta your neighborhood, ain’t you?”

Billy Ragg was never known for his quick wit but immediately upon realizing he had let the cops walk right up on him,his brain pounded out a chorus of “For Christ’s sake! How in hell could this happen? What the fuck does that pinhead Connie Rucker want with me? Since he busted me he thinks he’s my caseworker! Not now! I don’t want to talk about no old football games or shit like that now. Son of a BITCH!”

That was what he thought. All he could think to say was “Hey Connie.”

“What the hell brings you down here?”

“Just a change of scene, Con man. Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after awhile, you know?”

“Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after ten minutes. But here? What’s here?”

“Don’t know yet. Just starting to know the place, you know? New scene. Used to be a pool hall down here. Little this and that.”

Connie gave him The Face. Like a doctor needs a bedside manner all cops need a Face. He’d perfected his years ago where everything above his neck goes frozen-dead-just like gray stone while his eyes burn with something that he thought approached menace. The first couple of years when he was putting it together it didn’t always work. It took alot of practice-in the mirror, on chicks, other cops, juevies-until it became something he could throw out and actually use to some effect. Let people know he meant business. 

Jesus Christ, thought Ragg, now he’s throwin’ that stupid fuckin’ look at me. Why can’t cops just look at you and talk like normal people without all the mysterious faces and questions? Anyway, he didn’t like the way this was going. Not one bit. Ok. So he stopped and did his cop thing. Let him know he was always watching, small talk bullshit that was just trying to trip him up. So that was done. Alright. Message received. Now just say so long and take off. Almost unconsciously  he was leaning away as Connie opened the back door. “Why don’t you get in out of the cold”, he asked. “Let’s talk.”  

Suddenly that little .38-that tiny gun with a two inch barrel jammed tightly into the back of his pants-felt like a cannon. He could almost feel the barrel growing down between the cheeks of his ass. What the fuck did he put the gun there for? Anybody on the street could see it! Shit man, even a dense like Rucker saw it. That’s what this was all about. SHIT!

Without hesitating Ragg moved toward the car. He knew enough about cops to know that whatever they wanted you to do out on the street: stand on your head, eat dog shit with a plastic spoon had better be the best idea you’d heard in years. Especially with Rucker. 

The detective slid across the seat and Ragg got in gently, careful not to let his jacket ride up in back. He pulled the door shut behind him.

“I’m a motherFUCKER!”

“What’s the matter Geez?”

Geezer was standing at the window looking down into the street. “That sonuvabitch just got in the car!”

“You sure they’re cops?”

“Sure I’m sure. I don’t know the one riding shotgun, but that big Dago driving busted me two years ago. Fuck!”

“Whattaya think they want with him?”

Geezer turned slowly, away from the window. Giving himself over to his thoughts, he moved mechanically, long head first, like a swinging crane, not wanting to get ahead of himself. Judy was sitting on the daybed in just her panties, taking a stab at brushing her hair which always did what it wanted anyway. She was a looker, there never was any denying that. Tits, legs, the tightest rounded ass a guy could want-the whole package. And she knew how to use it all, sixteen years old or not. In fact, being so young, without the cautioning stains and scars of a lifetime, gave her a more singular focus on getting what she wanted in the moment. But someday, he was going to have to just pitch it all and get him a smart chick. One that could look around and see things. Know things the way that he did. One that he didn’t have to explain everything to. 

“Look”, he said, trying to be patient as he pulled on his shirt. “I don’ see the asshole for a year right? Then  one day he pops up on my doorstep to buy a quarter gram. Outta nowhere. Right? What is it? A week ago? Sell him some blow, he goes away. Now-BAM!-he’s across the street with the cops.”

“You think he’s a snitch?”

“Jesus Christ! Sure. Come on, you don’t see that?” She looked at him blankly, still brushing her hair as if nothing he’d said affected her at all. Patience was a wonderful thing, but anger’s hard edge was scraping it away. Anger at himself. How could he have been so stupid?

“Here”, he tossed her jeans into her lap. “Get dressed.”

“I thought you said the cops knew about you. That you had friends and they wouldn’t hassle you.”

“Maybe they got bored, I don’t know. Needed something to do. Probably sent that guy up here last week. To check me out. See what I was dealin’. Set it up, you know?” Not a deep thinker, Geezer didn’t bother to wonder why they would go to all the trouble to set him up when they could walk in any old time and bust him for the butts in his ashtrays. Or pat him down anytime on the street and find something. “We gotta clean this place up a little”, he said.

It was quiet inside the car. It wasn’t Ragg’s dance; he wasn’t about to lead. Proffo sat in the front seat staring straight ahead through tinted shades. All he wanted was to get through this fucking day and get to work on another hangover. Make him forget the one he was carrying now. Connie got tired of the silence first. 

“I like this weather, you know? The first blast of winter coming in always takes people by surprise. Leave ‘em bitching and moaning about the cold…not me though. Opens my head-makes me want to breathe deep in big gulps.” He swallowed a deep breath and slapped his chest. “You know what it reminds me of?”

Here it comes, thought Ragg. “What?”

“Come on man! Football! Doesn’t it get you?” 

“Sometimes…”

“Oh yeah…especially in the evening. Like when we would be practicin’ and sweatin’ but the sweat would dry and you’d chill down every time you hadda stand around awhile, you know?” He leaned, wanting a reply.

“Sure were some times…”

“Sure were. Just think. Then you were the cock of the walk, huh, boy? Big shit. Superstar with all the girls and all the fun huh? That was you. Hmph! Sure was something. Now you’re just a punk-hanging out on the streets looking to score drugs from some nigger.”

The detective sat back waiting. He wanted to get a rise out of him-prod him into something. But there was nothing. Ragg just sat there, eyes on the lives passing on the sidewalk. It’s not like Connie needed any information or anything. He just couldn’t resist digging into Billy Ragg whenever he got the chance. 

“I mean, that’s all you’re doing down here ain’t it? Superstar? There was a pause, then Connie said, “wait a minute. I’ve got something to show you.”

Proffo glanced into the rearview in time to see his partner lean away from Ragg, as if he were reaching for something, then twist his body back hard, driving his right elbow deep into the man’s ribs. He followed that blow immediately by rising in the seat and delivering a left hook solidly into the solar plexus. Shit, thought Proffo, if the big sonofabitch fights back we’ll have to shoot him and I won’t get out of the office till midnight. 

Proffo wasn’t the only one thinking about shooting just ten. Bent nearly double by the punch Ragg tried to recover his breathing. He was conscious of the pistol. He could straighten quickly and have it out before either of them knew what was going on. Shove the barrel into Rucker’s eye and wait just long enough to say “Surprise!” before blasting him. Then put a hole in the back of the Dago’s head before he knew what was what. 

Maybe he would have done it had he not been distracted by Ruker’s voice . Close up. The cop was right in his ear hissing through his teeth. He sai things like, you were always a piece of shit, go on-make a move-I’d love to break your legs, stay the fuck offa my streets, big shot, you see me coming you better cross the street, tough-shit cop stuff like that. It wasn’t the words that froze Ragg as much as the tone. The venom. What I ever do to him?

Connie reached across and opened the door. He was dismissed. Without a thought or word, Ragged stepped out and straightened, trying hard to look unhurt. His breath was coming in little puffs. The door slammed and the Chevy pulled away. 

“What was that all about?” asked Proffo as he drove away. 

“Fuck him. Let’s go get a coffee.”

Geezer was back at the window. “He’s coming up.”

“By himself?” she asked from the bathroom.

“So far. I don’t see anybody else. It looks like they drove away. Just stay put and remember what I told you.”

Judy was sitting on the tub, right beside the toilet. She held a tray on her lap that was piled high with, what Geezer said, was uncut cocaine. Once he stepped on it a bit and put it on the streets he could nurse it for about ten grand, not counting what he’d keep for personal use. Truth be told, it was more than he could afford to lose-all his ready cash had gone into that coke. But it was only money, he wasn’t about to take a fall for it. No way! This was one man who would trade in some cash to avoid the time. She was sitting in there waiting for his signal to flush the whole shooting match if it came to that. 

Ragg took the steps slowly, catching his breath. Even alone inside the building he wouldn’t rub his ribs or his gut. No way was he about to give in. Not to that psycho cop. He would deal with him sometime later. He didn’t know how, but you can be goddam sure he would. For now, he would use his anger constructively. 

On the fourth floor landing he sighed with relief as he pulled the pistol from his belt. He’d have to get a holster or something. He hefted it, felt its weight, turning it over in his hand and almost shrugged. Some guys got excited about a gun, like it was a piece of ass or something. They’d hold a gun and get all tingly and short of breath like the secret of the world was sitting in their mitt. Ragg looked at the gun and saw a tool. Nothing more. You want to do a job, you need the correct tool. 

The job for today was that stack of bills he had seen in Geezer’s apartment last week. A wad that wouldn’t even roll it was so big. A few grand at least. That’s all he needed. Just a stake of some kind. Buy himself a warm jacket, maybe deal some dope, Get a car. He knocked on Geezer’s door. 

Ragg was surprised when the door just swung open. Last time he was here there were alot of questions and the door opened a crack against the chain while he talked his way in, but today it just swung open as if he was expected. He even thought Geezer was about to say something in greeting but his face froze when he found himself eyeball to barrel with the .38. Yessir, this gun was the right tool alright. 

Ragg backed the dealer into his apartment and pushed the door closed with his foot. The place looked the same and Geezer was alone. Without a word he backed the man onto the daybed where he sat while Ragg went over to the dresser and opened the top drawer. Aside from some underwear and socks, it was empty. “Where is it?” he asked. 

“What?” asked Geezer.

“The money, motherfucker!”

 Geezer’s eyes widened and for an instant it looked like he was about to laugh. “Money? There ain’t no money. Is that what this is? A holdup? You in the wrong place, my man. I got no cash. “

“Don’t shit me. I saw it last week.”

“Last week I had it. I’m in business, man. I get cash, I invest it. You oughta know that. Shit! Come in here thinkin’ I got cash…” The asshole cracker was tryin’ to stick him up. Unbelievable. Stupid shit thinks he can just waltz in here and take from me…

Geezer felt the .45 digging into his bony ass through the thin daybed cushion. Asshole trying to hold me up…Now, he was going through the other drawers. He reached between his legs and actually had the gun in his grip when Ragg, seeing the movement, turned. He held his tiny gun outstretched, pointed at the man’s chest. He was careful to hold it straight and squeeze the trigger smoothly. Not like shooters in the movies, always jerking the gun as they fired. 

The crash of the report startled Ragg. The only time he had fired the piece was in the alley behind the Showboat where the noise could disappear into the night sky. Here the sound was like a roar slamming loudly off the walls of the cramped apartment. Geezer sat back looking surprised as a red blotch bloomed then grew on the front of his shirt. Neither of them heard the startled cry from the bathroom as Judy jerked herself standing, spilling the tray and coke across the floor. 

It wasn’t happening as quickly as Ragg thought it would. He had shot him-that should have been the end of it-but there he was, bleeding but still lifting the gun toward him. Looks like a fucking cannon, he thought as he began to squeeze the trigger again. This time it wasn’t smooth at all. He was panicking and the blast popped a hole in the bottom of Geezer’s shirt down in the belly. 

He tried to fire again. Honest to God tried by couldn’t for the life of him make his hand do what he wanted it to. It was like one of those damn chase dreams when, no matter how fast you run, you don’t get anywhere. That was the last thought Billy Ragg had as he actually watched the nigger’s hand tighten around the trigger. 

Judy would later tell Detective Rucker that she came out of the bathroom door right then, in time to see both men frozen, like some kind of painting. Geezer was sitting sort of sideways-bent, like with one hand over his stomach-this huge gun pointed and the white guy standing there with his gun pointed and she didn’t know for a moment who was shooting. 

Suddenly, the .45 roared with a flash of fire and a concussion that hurt her ears. Billy Ragg’s head exploded in clumps of red and a pink spray spattering the wall and dresser behind him. His body sailed backward and hit the floor hard. As the darkness settled around him, Geezer could hear Judy screaming. The last thing he ever saw was her disappearing out the door, her screams becoming faint. 

Two blocks over, Jimmy Proffo was nursing a second cup of burned black coffee when he heard screaming in the distance and instinctively began to rise. Rucker stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Relax”, he said. “She’s coming this way.”

Of Meatballs and Cat Hairs

Craving, after a few weeks with no pasta, I took a Sunday, popped a bottle of Cabernet Franc and cooked up a batch of sauce and meatballs. A pound each of ground chuck, pork and venison (substituting for the veal in my mother’s recipe) yielded 34 meatballs measured precisely-within reason-with an old ice cream scoop. Lost only one to Loki, who was quite deserving having sat attentively through the whole mixing process. I had to turn my back so he thought he was getting away with something. Of course this all put me in mind of my mother, who used the same sauce and meatball recipe (excepting the veal as noted) for our Sunday dinner and to provide a takeout meal for her little sister and her disagreeable husband who we all knew finagled for the free meals but wouldn’t eat at the house because of Mom’s cats. 

I was visiting one Sunday evening and remember my mother taking the call by the sink, the coiling cord stretched across the kitchen from the wall phone near the door. She did a lot of listening and when she looked my way, rolled her eyes just enough. It seemed that her brother in law had found a cat hair in a meatball that had come from Mom’s Free Kitchen (that would have been from Sammy, a great old soul who spent his days languidly chasing the sun from window to window). Now my mother’s sister was sobbing that they couldn’t take any of my mother’s food anymore, such was her husband’s disgust. Mom cooed apologies and the fervent wish he would reconsider, but for naught. By the time she finally came to hang up the phone she had to spin a small circle to uncurl herself from the cord.

She sat, lit a Salem and exhaled the menthol smell of my childhood. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to stop cooking for that dunderhead”, she said, getting as vulgar as she would, “I just couldn’t figure out how.” We laughed, had a drink and when the time came for me to invite people over to the housewarming of my new place I “accidentally” forgot to invite my aunt and uncle until it was much too late for them to accept. It would be a full decade before my aunt stepped into any of my homes and only then after the dunderhead had died under a transmission that he wouldn’t pay a mechanic to fix. 

Thus are families broken, over meatballs and cat hairs.