The Sweet Spot

People who know about fishing but have never actually fished, except for maybe dipping a worm into a pay lake as a kid, think all fishing is the same. It is not. This fishing, that he was doing now, for trout in the mountains, is different from the kind of fishing he’d learned as a boy. Then, he and his father fished down-country rivers and lakes for bass mostly. Sometimes pike. The waters were wide and deep, unreadable to those who did not spend time out there as they had. The man and his son. Both of them named Frank, so he was Junior, which he hated.

They would rise before light and settle into the boat, he in the front, the old man in the back manning the outboard. The ride could be long or it might just be up to the bend in the river to what Big Frank had judged to be the best weed bed, gravel bar or drop off for that morning. As fishermen they were always looking for the best spot. He was right more often than not and big fish would rise to poppers as the sun broke the horizon then, later, dive for rubber worms as it burned overhead. As a boy he had learned from his old man how to lose himself in fishing. How to let it consume him so that there was nothing else for the time he was on the water.

Here, on the streams in the mountains, where Frank had fished since his war, it did no good to get there before the sun. The stream, deep in the cut valley, needed sunshine, especially in April, to awaken the mayflies and begin the hatches which in turn awakened the trout. He’d  seen them in this pool yesterday when he and Bill had scouted the stream. That’s what made the stream different from the rivers or lakes. Here he was stalking fish that he could see, not intuiting where they might be. 

And he saw them. The fish hadn’t been actively feeding when they saw them, just twitching in the current, moving a length this way or that, nosing upstream into the current but rising to nothing.  Apart from the big brown that rolled flashing his speckled side, he couldn’t name them all. But that was fine. This was a sweet spot. An uncommon sweet spot.“You fish this one, Kid”, Bill had said, ceding it to him. 

He appreciated the courtesy but knew that Bill had a bad knee from a fall out west over the winter and one walk up this mountain would be enough for him this weekend. He’d fish the flat water within easy reach of the truck.

Bill could fish where he wanted. Bill could do what he wanted. And if he wanted to call a grown man “Kid” he could do that too. Bill owned the mountain, or the thousand and some odd acres worth owning. A spot beyond compare. Mostly standing pine and hardwoods, nestling two excellent trout streams. One was fed by a small lake over the top of the mountain that Bill owned and a smaller bouncier stream that was fed by springs that he probably owned too. 

Bill got the land and all else through his father and uncle who had left this world suddenly, rich from rapaciously logging and mining anything they could lay claim to. Which was, as they said around here, a shit ton. Truth was, had they lived, this mountain would not have. Bill often said that at night he could hear them raging at him from hell, damning him for turning such a rich resource acquired for ruination and enrichment into a personal playground. He usually ended that part of the tale by raising whatever glass he was drinking from at the time and saying, “Fugg ‘em.”

Bill’s a good guy. Has his quirks, sure. Who doesn’t? Over the last few years, Frank had convinced himself that even if the forebears, that’s how Bill referred to them,  had lived they wouldn’t have been able to pull Bill into their life where money meant everything. That class of people always overreached, thinking that money could buy wisdom, insight or youth. Power though, was something different. Everyone had power, the secret is convincing someone to relinquish theirs. Everything came with a price. A tariff, Bill had called it. 

Frank had come out of a thick stand of mountain laurel to approach the stream across the thin gravel strip. Sunlight was crawling down the opposite ridge as he tied on a Blue Wing Olive and tried to cast to a riffle downstream from a rock where he knew a fish would be holding. As was typical of his first casts, he missed badly coming up short, but the fly no sooner hit the water than it was engulfed by a small splash and the line snapped straight.

“Damn!” he said, setting the hook which the fish had already done a good job of. It wasn’t a big fish, but it was a frantic one. A pink flash on the jump showed it to be a rainbow. He brought it in quickly, not wanting to tire it too badly, and pinned it against his leg with his free hand. Then, keeping it safely in the water, he grabbed the shank of the hook and twisted it out of the fish’s jaw. The trout hung there suspended in the current for a moment flaring its gills. Then, with a flick of its tail, it was off into the current and gone. Frank smiled that he botched his first cast and still landed a trout. Would be one of those days.

He worked upstream slowly, moving to keep his legs warm inside his waders. Most casts seemed to raise fish-if not to be caught, to be missed. That was fine. He was only going to keep a few for dinner so there was no pressure to catch every fish. That was never the point. As the sun crested, and the hatch changed, he switched flies. Then when he reached a shady hole where he knew some big fish would be stacked along the bottom he went with the beaded woolly bugger-something that would go deep. His actions were rhythmic and thoughtless until they weren’t. 

His mind wandered, it always did when the fishing was good, to the mornings with his old man. They were not all good, he knew. Sometimes they went out and his father was still drunk from the night before. Sometimes he carried a bottle. Sometimes the boat would arc in a long circle before he turned to see the old man sleeping against the tiller, cigarette hanging from his limp lips. He knew there were those mornings. But on days like this, when the trout were rising and the creel was filling, he remembered every morning as spectacular with great leaping fish and his father young and strong before whiskey, cigarettes and the world ground him. 

He had met Bill in a stateside airport bar, awaiting the flight for his last leg on his final home trip from Kandahar. He had signed with the Army less than two weeks after putting the old man in the ground and signing everything over to the banks who had been dogging his father during his last, failing years. 

The man in the bar had a rod case leaning against his seat and Frank asked about it. He had ditched his uniform, his boots and everything that connected him with the previous four years. At that moment, in the bar, he wanted nothing more than to talk fishing. And talk was something that the big man knew how to do. Frank took most of it as bullshit, of course. Who in their thirties owns a mountain and was building a paradise for himself?

When he left to catch his flight, Bill called Frank’s phone so he’d have his number and told him to feel free to visit him on his mountain. What a character, Frank thought as he called for another beer. Then his phone buzzed with a text from the big guy with the coordinates to his place. “Come up if you want to learn trout fishing”, read the text. 

Three weeks later, with nothing to do and nowhere to be, he stepped out of his truck in front of Bill’s private lodge on his very own mountain. When he got there that first time, the place still smelled of sawdust and he parked next to the carpenter’s trucks. They were putting the finishing touches on the back of the house and his first tour of the property wound around ladders and chop saws. It was magnificent, he had to agree. “This will be your room”, he motioned into a room larger than his whole apartment. At least he thought it was big, until Bill showed him his own. 

That night, long after the workers had packed up, Bill grilled steaks and they sat beside a snapping fire in the pit and watched a darkness as deep and any he’d seen overseas settle over the mountain. It was then, over bourbons, that Bill laid out the tariff that he would impose for complete access to the mountain and all that was on it.  Frank paused of course. Who wouldn’t? It was a perfect spot though,  and if the fishing were anything near what Bill said it was, it could be worth it. It would be worth it.  Again, having nothing to do and nowhere to be, he agreed. Even with all of everything, Frank never regretted running into the man in that bar.

The shower was better than fine. The water was cold and prickly and he let it spatter the back of his neck until it hurt. The smell of the soap made him want to eat it, and the towels were thick and soft enough to pass as blankets. He’d never felt towels like these off of this mountain. 

He stepped out of the bathroom and into his room. They were all like this: seven bedrooms, seven adjoining bathrooms. He crossed to the sliding glass door and slipped out onto the deck overlooking the valley. The stored heat of the sun radiated from the thick pine boards. He closed his eyes to the falling sun and savored the afternoon breeze caressing his body as he leaned forward, liking the railing’s warm wood against his bare skin. 

The first time he’d stood on this spot he’d flashed back to the firebase in Afghanistan. Like this, it was on a mountain with a view of the valley below but over there, the view was a narrow one with cliffs on both sides funneling vision down to the crossroad and the town beside it. It was brown, it was gray, it was dusty. Then it was gone. That was it. That one thought. A blip. That one memory. It wasn’t a particularly bad one-not ominous in any way and it never happened again. Being up here had cleansed him of those years, he was sure of it. That one obligatory memory had to pop out like some kind of boogeyman to let him know it wasn’t far away if he let his guard down. But he wouldn’t. He was in a good spot. 

He flopped on the bed without dressing. What would be the point? The books on the bedside table were all about fishing and he picked up one he remembered, opening it at random. He read easily, skimming the words one at a time but failing to find any coherent structure. It was as if the words were children’s blocks cast carelessly onto the floor. He tried again from the top. It wasn’t working and the more he tried to concentrate the more his mind scattered. He recognized the feeling even if he wouldn’t name it. He should have taken the drink when offered, but there will be time for that later. 

Facing as he was, he could see the door swing open even with his nose in the book. The man stepped in wearing only one of those plush towels wrapped around his waist. He was carrying a thick rocks glass of bourbon with a single large cube. The way he was holding it, the brown of the liquor contrasted with his white middle. 

“And there you are”, the man said.

“And here I am.”

The man set the drink on the bedside table and Frank rolled onto his stomach facing away. He didn’t have to see it. The first time the man had dropped the towel, on his first visit, he’d seen it. The first time he made the mistake of looking. Didn’t have to again. It would prod him, poke him, spread him and fill him. He didn’t have to see it. He heard the drawer open, where the lotions and rubbers were. He hadn’t looked in there either.  He knew what was in there. 

“You OK?” the man asked.

“Oh sure. I’m fine.”

“Good, good…”

The bed moved as the man maneuvered himself between Frank’s legs. “Those fish are perfect,” he said. “Stuffed  them with thyme and lemons. They’ll grill beautifully.”

“They are perfect”, Frank agreed as he heard the packet tear.

The man’s hands were on him then, pulling and positioning, touching as he liked to. His skin felt cauterized. He could feel the hands rubbing and moving, but not the touch. Even when the fingers moved lower and inside, the feeling was dulled. Then he felt the cool of the oil right there and hissed a breath. 

Then there was the stillness. Then the roll of the bed as the man loomed and covered him. Then the pressure at his bottom. Slow and burning at first but inexorable. He winced as the weight of the man settled on him and squeezed fistfuls of blankets. His mouth opened silently as he was penetrated. 

It had occurred to him before, that this is something, for comfort’s sake, that one should do more often or not at all. But it was such a sweet spot up here he didn’t want to bring it up.  

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. 

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.”

In the Permian Hills

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I watched him kill sparrows once, in the field behind his old farmhouse. This was years after Kate died, but you’d never know it because her stuff was still everywhere. He blamed sparrows for the for the loss of songbirds and his beloved finches and titmice. The trap was a box like contraption of heavy metal screen wrapped around a wooden frame. At one end of the box was a hole and just inside the hole a cantilevered arm with a screened cover. The birds would hop onto the arm which would simultaneously drop them into the box and cover the hole-trapping them inside.

This was back in the Permian Hills, which he called the place where they-he-lived. Soft hills that rolled and undulated between the horizons like waves in a washtub. He loved saying it, planting his flag in the region as if naming it made him something more than a short time caretaker. Remember the place as brown. It wasn’t, of course. Not always. It could be beautiful in the summer when everything was planted and the high sky was deep blue swept with wispy high clouds. But my memories allow it no more than the sickly greenish tinge of a catfish’s belly.

He would bait the device with millet and rough grain, not the thistle or black oil sunflower seeds that he fed the songbirds. He’d set it on the stump of an old oak out back while we went about our business. Later we’d find any number of birds milling about inside contentedly nibbling until we walked up on them and they thrashed against the screen trying to get away. He’d reach into the box and gently grab anything with color that had been trapped and toss them into the air to flit furiously away. The sputzies, as he called them, he’d drop them into an old work sock. Then he’d spin the sock over his head-said it would put them to sleep-before bashing it into the stump.

He’d toss the tiny downy carcasses into the field, food for owls or kestrels, foxes or coons. His face never changed from the lifeless and dull chore-look, the same as if he was changing a tire on the tractor. I still wonder if he did this when Kate was alive. Somehow doubt it.