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. 

Kinda continued in Another Stray Day

The New Girl

Andy-Someone's gonna get it.jpg

It wasn’t a race but Steve got there first by just long enough to order a martini. Not actually order it; the bartender saw him and started the process. Bombay Blue Sapphire-tiniest touch of white Lillet and olives. Cold, dry, clean and neat. He was halfway through when Dan slid onto the stool next to him. “Hey” Steve nodded, looking away from his gin for only the tiniest instant as if afraid it would run off.

Danny ordered double Dewar’s, rocks. Or rock is more like it. The only bitch he had with this bar was its hipster ice-a single huge block almost the size of the glass. He didn’t used to drink doubles but had to start here just to float the fucking ice.

As protocol dictated, Steve had nothing to say until his friend had caught up with him drink-wise. He sat in silence reading the condensation on his glass while Danny sucked Scotch around the frozen abomination. Finally he was close enough to half way through that Steve felt comfortable in opening today’s line of discussion.

“I really can’t stand that new girl in HR”, he said.

“Karen?” asked Danny swallowing off the rest of his drink. He knew his only hope of conquering the ice berg was to keep pouring whiskey on it. He raised the empty glass and Kyle-the ever attentive-grabbed it from him. “Same thing-same ice”, he told him.

“She’s not so bad…” he continued to Steve.

“Maybe not for you. But wait until you’re late with an expense report.”

“I was late last week.”

“You were….Wait! You cheap bastard, you’re never late with expenses.”

“I am now….every Friday.”

Steve drained his glass and set it on the bar. “You dog”…

“Ruff!” said Danny, surrounding the glass that Kyle slid in front of him. The ice cube was noticeably smaller.

King Ragnar


My queen was otherwise engaged so I kicked around a few local watering holes unattached.

Usually content with silent rumination I was pulled gently into conversation with a comely drinker on the next stool. “Describe yourself to me” she said “As a TV character.” Easy enough; insomnia and on-demand keep me current.

“King Ragnar”, I said. “From Vikings.”

“Huh. Really? How so?” she asked, then quickly added “in five words or less.”

A deliberate, if not particularly effective, editor I chewed for a moment before saying, “Aging alpha. Going mad.”

The crooked half smile would have been enough. Would have sufficed. But then she reached over and tousled what’s left of my hair. Get it? She tousled my hair! What was I to do with that? By her hands, I figured her a decade my junior. At least. She wore no ring but neither did I. She patted my hand and slid off the stool for the ladies room. I was careful not to watch her walk away.

Leaving a twenty on the bar I followed my hard-on out the door where the chill December night hit me like a splash. Little Tommy led me down the street to a place where the drinks were cheaper and women were scarce.

The Weight


It was everybody’s bad luck that Danny had started drinking at noon that day. His regular shift was 11 a.m. to 6:00. He would open for the oldsters who needed a shot and a beer between Mass and Sunday dinner then manage his regulars through two football games, turning it over to Nick for the evening and late night. Nick was away this weekend, though, so the day was his. Clean through till 2:00.

They called Benny Pace, Hats, even though he had only one-a tortured fedora that was as sweat-stained as his rolled up trousers were piss-stained. A yellowed white shirt completed his motley ensemble; a shabby connection in his mind to when he was a snappy dresser.

His sons, Elmer and Frank inherited his gambling territory but it wasn’t much anymore. They ran poker machines and illegal pinball always scrambling one step ahead of the law. They carried the air of two “connected guys” but weren’t really. Big fish in a very small pond-but it was their pond.

Two guys at the bar that night had caught sight of the roll of cash Benny was holding. The regulars were used to it-always picked up bills that he’d let flutter to the floor and put them back in front of him. “Did you see that old guy’s wad?” one of them had asked him. Danny didn’t know him-short and wiry. Dark-with a pinched face. “He was lucky at the track yesterday. When Benny hits, everyone hits.” Danny chuckled and tapped his knuckles on the bar in front of the two signaling that their next drink was on the house.

Had he been a little less drunk he might have caught the gist of the conversation. He might have caught their eyes as they were casing the old man and felt what was happening. But he didn’t. The next morning, when he heard about old Benny being beaten and robbed he knew who did it and also knew that nobody could ever know how he knew. This place that he’d inherited from his uncle was a safe place. People came in here to be protected from “out there”. Danny had let the outside in.

But today, in the light of day, drinking coffee instead of Canadian Club he was not thinking about making something right. Some things can’t be made right. Some things just have to be worn.

If old Benny ever got out of the hospital-was ever back in here drinking wine from the jug that nobody else touched-whistling at the girls and babbling in his ridiculous way he would always have to look at him and know that the shit that he got plunged into was on him.

When sunlight slashed through the bar he knew even before squinting at their silhouettes that it was Elmer and Frank. Elmer was Danny’s age, short and round. Frank, older and smaller, did all the talking.

“Sorry about your Dad. How’s he doing?”

“Looks like he’ll make it. Fucked him up pretty good though.”

“Damn shame…” said Danny.

“They were in here? They guys did this?”

“There was more than one?” Danny asked.

“Looks like two. Cops got one. The other…” he shrugged.

“There was a lot of people in here last night Frank. Don’t know…I probably saw them. Hell, I probably served them. I’m sorry.”

“For what? You didn’t do nothin’.”


“No, that’s the motherfucker gonna be sorry. They won’t hold him till the old man can ID him, and he can’t see now so….”


“He’s getting out this afternoon. We know where he lives. He’ll wished he stayed in jail.”

Danny rubbed at the faux woodgrain on the bar. And rubbed. His eyes were somewhere in the middle distance. And rubbed. Just as Elmer gave his brother his “what-the-fuck?” face, Danny spoke.

“Don’t do nothing. It will be too obvious.”


“It will be obvious.”

The Pace brothers looked at one another, then back to Danny. Elmer stuck out his hand. “You know we’re not going to forget this.” Which is why he was doing it. He wouldn’t forget it either.

“I just wish there was something I coulda done.”

“These animals. There’s nothing you could do.”

“Go someplace tonight. Be seen and don’t worry about it.”

Danny had taken out the street light next to the apartments where the guy was staying. Just a few blocks up-not far. Hell, if he was standing up on the roof right now, Danny could see the house he grew up in. This was his alley, his bar and the street above, his street. Deep truth be known, he didn’t even like Benny or his sons-two entitled fucks who never worked a day. But this wasn’t about them at all. Not at this point.

He skulked behind the dumpster and pulled the bandana up to his eyes when the scuffling tread came up the asphalt. He recognized him even in the shadows. Stupid bastard didn’t know enough to stay away.

He gripped the bat tightly and strode up behind. The guy never knew what hit him. Danny tried to be surgical-no need to go overboard. Kidneys to bend him backward-stomach so he’d fold. The most obvious joints and bones next-bust the knee cap, ankle, stomp the hand and teeth for good measure. Left him writhing and moaning. Slipped between two buildings and out to the main street. The bat down the sewer. Done and done.

The next morning he was reading the paper when Kevin Bannon, his most regular of regulars came in for his first beer to wash down his first aspirins.

“You hear about that guy? The one robbed old Benny?”

“No. What?”



Somebody put a beatin’ on him. Ruptured his spleen or his kidney…something. Bled out. Right up the alley there.”

“Benny’s sons maybe? Elmer and Frank?”

“Naw, they were at the casino all night playing blackjack and winning like fucks. Everybody saw them.”

A single droplet of sweat trailed from Danny’s collar, down his spine and spread at his belt line. “Well. Fuck him”, he said. “They should give whoever did it a medal.”

“Absolutely!” Kevin agreed.

Danny popped his knuckles on the bar. Beer was on him.



(A few years after The Boy Called Circo)

“You’re Circo, right?” His old rheumy eyes widened then blinked, trying to sharpen focus at the edges. He wasn’t blind by a long shot but back lighting offered a challenge.

“Nobody calls me that anymore”, Tommy growled low enough that only the one person could hear. He could have yelled it though, the place was that empty.

“I knew your grandfather”, he said. “He was a good guy.”

Tommy’s plan to slip unnoticed into a dark room and recharge between engagements had obviously gone to shit. He had come in tense and was not in the mood to become irritated. There was enough of that outside.

“He was too good”, Tommy said biting off the words. “Got fucked more than a whore by people taking advantage of him. Nice guy,” he sniffed and looked at the old man full on for the first time. “Maybe you did too, huh?”

“Not me”, he said sipping at a clear drink that half filled the highball glass in front of him. Unadorned by ice, lime or lemon it could have been water as easily as vodka. “I worked with him. Lost my truck when those developers declared bankruptcy that time.”

“The Liberty Subdivision.”

“Yeah-I’d a lost my house too but your Pap covered me.” He tipped his glass to Tommy before finishing it off in a gulp. “And I paid him back. Every cent.”

Tommy caught the piney whiff. Gin. “Way I heard it”, he said looking down at his own drink, “They paid ten cents on a dollar.”

“You heard right. They fucked a lotta people. Then two years later they were back in business with a new name.”

“That didn’t work out too well as I heard it. They had a problem with fires.”

The old man nodded slightly. “Had a lot of explosions too. Things kept blowin’ up for them.”

“They were careless people, I guess”, Tommy said.

The old man answered with a small shrug, rolling his palms upward.

“What’s your name old timer?”

“I’m Genesee”, he said, extending a hand.

“Like the beer.”

“Like the beer. And I’ll make you a deal. You don’t call me ‘old timer’ and I won’t call you Circo.”

Tommy grinned tightly. He could see this guy working for his grandfather. Ballsy old prick that you wouldn’t see coming until he was in your pocket and it was too late. He shook the offered hand. Firm grip-some steel left in there. “Deal, Genesee”, he said.

“You got a second?” the old man asked. “I got a story about your Pap you might not a heard.”

Fact is, no, he didn’t have a second. He’d been late coming and going all day and this wasn’t going to help things. But really, in his business being unreliable now and again was almost a job requirement.

He waved the bartender over.

Missed Connection


“Are we cool?” I asked him, his friend writhing on the ground between us. He was actually the bigger of the two and I didn’t know if they were friends-they had just come in together.

I had given the writhing one-a head taller and forty pounds heavier than me-the first shot and it had almost been my undoing. One of these days that stunt was going to get me killed; but not tonight. Stunned, I gave him the second too, measuring his long, slow, loping punches that seemed to come from across the street.

I should have been out of there an hour ago. There wasn’t anyone worth talking to, the jukebox was broken and the only woman in the place was the bartender who had missed a belt loop and spent most of the evening watching an Elvis movie with her back to me. The one with Ann Margret. Not bad but not worth staying for. But then, had I left when the thought first struck me, who would have been there when he started in on her? Asshole deterrent-that was me. Shitty fucking hobby.

The third shot was mine as I slipped inside his overhand left and busted his liver twice with hooks then a right cross that crushed his nose as he fell past. Oldest combination in fighting-cave men knocked each other out with that shit. Fact that he didn’t see it coming just showed he didn’t know what he was doing. Used to getting his way with size and general aggressiveness.

“We’re cool”, he answered. “Just met the asshole an hour ago-didn’t think I liked him.”

“You coming back in?” I moved toward the door.

“Not my kind of crowd.”

“I got that.”

“Why don’t you come with me then?”

“Where to?”

“…..’Daniel’s’ probably. Maybe ‘Glows’, late….”

“Really not my kind of crowd.”

The big guy smiled, a strange flicker around the corners of his eyes, and shrugged. “That’s where I’ll be.” He turned and walked off without another word.

Inside, the bartender ministered to the knuckles I had split on the asshole’s face. She used cotton and peroxide from a first aid kit and caught the runoff with a beery bar rag. Her own knuckles were slightly swollen from arthritis but her nails were done it a deep pine green that caught her eyes and the tail of a reptilian tattoo that slithered below her rolled up cuffs. Why hadn’t I noticed those before?

“I’m glad you came back in”, she said without managing a smile.

“Me too”, I answered, pretty sure I was lying.

Big Pete-A Barroom Epitaph


You hear about Big Pete? The old man asked.
No, what?
He’s not doing too good.

When I knew Big Pete, about ten years ago,
He was over 300 pounds. Probably closer to four.
Football was long behind him.
His ankles looked like telephone poles jammed into sneakers
That he never managed to tie.

He mostly sat-sometimes on two chairs side by side;
Getting up was a production and walking-when he finally got started-
Was a bangy herky-jerk that always seemed just shy
Of throwing all four limbs across the room in opposite directions.
This was when Big Pete was in his thirties-
Doin’ good.

It’ll go like that for a time.
Big Pete? Not doin’ too good.
That little phrase-those four words-covering whatever imaginable
Pain and suffering life finally passed his way.

After a time,
Not doin’ too good takes a decided turn.
Big Pete? He’s dyin’ I hear….

Hear about Big Pete?
No more updates.
But dead isn’t where it ends for Big Pete.

It ends with-
Did you hear about Big Pete?

That’s the end.


The Unremarkables


She was an entirely unremarkable looking woman. Maybe she would have been, in the right light, someone his grandmother might have called “handsome”. Good in a man, but not the preferred adjective for a woman. When she walked in he saw that she was almost as tall as he was.

He pulled his attention from the young brunette who wasn’t returning his glances and asked the bartender to send her a drink. He watched the message delivered and raised his head slightly when she looked over with eyes that might have been a little pinched.

She nodded; he raised his glass slightly.


The only remarkable thing about him was that he wasn’t drinking beer out of a bottle. It looked like bourbon-dark, so strong-on the rocks. The corduroy jacket was a nice touch here if a little seedy; like a porn-trolling adjunct professor between classes. Does he think the slight shade in his glasses is disguising his stare?

She hardly got her coat off before the bartender was delivering his message. “You know him?” she asked. “Mostly a day-drinker. Bets baseball, the simple bastard. Seems harmless enough.” He was watching her through the smoky lenses.

She nodded; he raised his glass slightly.