Friday, May 28, 2010


A couple of weeks back, I received what I consider to be noir gold.

Laurie Powers, granddaughter of Paul S. Powers and daughter of John H. Powers, sent along a story called Wine Without Music, a nearly 7,000 word story that simply plays like a great movie in your head.

She worried that something of this length would not be eligible for publication at A Twist Of Noir, due to its length.

As with all writers or contributors to ATON, I assured her that it’s not the length of the story but the content.

The content, let me say again, is noir gold.

I’ve said enough, allow me to turn the stage over to Laurie.

In 1999, my aunt and I were going through my grandfather’s personal papers that had been stored away in an attic for almost 30 years. My grandfather, Paul S. Powers, had been a prolific pulp fiction writer during the 1920s through the 1940s. Most of his work was published in Wild West Weekly, a Street & Smith pulp fiction magazine, but he also wrote for Weird Tales in the 1920s. Later, after Wild West Weekly shut down in 1943, he wrote for several other Western fiction magazines. In the box was an unpublished memoir about my grandfather’s life as a pulp fiction writer. There were also 180 letters from the editors of Wild West Weekly during its production years, letters from relatives, several unfinished stories, and this story: Wine Without Music.

This story was a surprise. For one thing, it wasn’t a western, nor was it a horror story in the Weird Tales tradition. For another, it shows my father, John Powers, as a co-writer, which was a surprise because my father wasn’t a writer – he was a doctor. If the address shown on the manuscript is any indication, this story was written in the early 1950s, when John was in medical school.

Both my grandfather and my father, who were very close, battled alcoholism their entire adult lives, and their personal experiences lend some authenticity to “Wine Without Music.” My father eventually died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1964, and my grandfather died seven years later – not from drinking, but I suspect a broken heart had something to do with it. There were over a dozen letters from John in his papers, most of which were written in the last years of his life as he drifted in and out of society.

The memoir found in 1999, Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street, was published in 2007. I recently discovered over two dozen unpublished short stories written by my grandfather in the years between 1940 and 1952, and I am now compiling the best of these for publication. One of these stories, “The Killing on Sutter Street,” can be found at Beat to a Pulp here.

If you want to learn more about Paul Powers, go to Paul S. Powers - Pulp Writer, or to my blog: Laurie’s Wild West.

A Twist Of Noir 470 - Paul S. and John H. Powers


I was over the pneumonia, and except for being a little weak in the legs, I felt fine. Since noon I’d had my clothes on, and time was beginning to drag. I walked back and forth up at the end of E Ward where there were some empty beds. From the windows you could see the traffic rushing by on Potrero Street. I wanted out, and I was getting out. The sooner I got away from that big red pile of bricks the better it would suit me.

Then I saw Doc Wakeman coming up the aisle. My own special doctor, a husky young guy in a white coat and wearing heavy-rimmed glasses, and his listening device like it was a necktie. He grinned at me and held out his hand.

“I hear you’re leaving us, Bill,” he said.

“Yes, I’m signing myself out,” I told him. “Got another hour or so to go. Waiting on a social worker. One of those flat-heeled old gals. I’m getting staked to a ticket to the Valley and a little piece of money. Five bucks, unless I can get her to raise the ante.”

The Doc said, “Don’t go back to Howard Street.”

“No more Howard Street for me. No Howard Street, Doc. I’m through with that stuff for keeps.”

“Got a job over in the Valley?”

“I can get one. I’m a machinist. A good machinist, and when I work I make good dough. You needn’t worry about me. I’m off of it for life.”

“Ever say that before?”

“Plenty of times, I guess. But now I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve never had any pneumonia before. When they were wheeling me down that hall to this place --- hell, that ride is two miles long --- I thought I was gone for sure. Funny, though. I wasn’t scared; I was just mad. Mad at myself for being such a damn fool. ‘This is the end of it, Bill,’ I told myself. ‘This is what you did with yourself and it’s too late to do anything more about it.’ I pretty near died, too, didn’t I, Doc?”

This young Wakeman nodded his head. “You were sick, all right. Next time you sleep in an alley, Bill, you’d better find an ashcan to crawl into.”

“No more alleys. I want to thank you, Doc, for what you did, pulling me through.”

“You don’t need to call me ‘Doc’,” he said. “Not for two years yet. I’m a junior in the Cal School of Medicine. We don’t dare tell the patients that until they’re ready to leave; they’d die on us.”

“I’d have croaked, sure.” I laughed.

“Well, to be serious, Bill, would you mind answering some questions?”

“Fire away. But how about a cigarette?”

He held out his pack, and when I took one he lighted it for me. Then he pulled up a chair and took the notebook out of his back pocket. I sat on the edge of one of those high beds. From there I could look down on him, and it made me feel sort of good to see that he was already getting a bald spot. Me, I’ve got a good head of hair.

“I’ve already worked you up as a pneumonia case, and officially I’m supposed to be through with you. Some of these questions are going to be pretty personal, and of course you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“My hide’s tough. Go ahead,” I said.

“The notes I’m going to make are for my own use. You’ll be helping me a lot. Later, when I’m through medical school, I think I’ll study some more and go into psychiatry.”

I tried to figure that one out. “Do you think I’m nuts?”

“No. Now, let’s see; according to your case history you’re forty-five years old. Born in Iowa? How long have you been on the Coast?”

“Fourteen, fifteen years I’d say.”

“When did you work last? At your regular job, I mean. As a machinist.”

“It’s been ten months. Foreman in a shop up at Martinez, but I got on a bender and came down the bay. I remember hitting Richmond, then Berkeley --- the Berkeley police treat you like you was human, but it’s no town for a wino. Those Oakland waterfront cops are big and mean. They roughed me up some. Soon as I was out of jail I rode the big bridge to Howard Street here.”

Wakeman wrote something down. “Must be hundreds of you fellows there. Whenever I drive through I wonder what can be done to help. If anything.”

“The cops aren’t too bad. We don’t get a rumble unless they see us north of Market.”

“They saved your life with that ambulance ride. How long have you been going on these sprees, Bill? How long do they last?”

“Since prohibition days. Began to do it on bootleg. At first I’d go a couple of weeks, but now it’s months before I can straighten out. And I suffer the agonies of hell doing it. That’s something the doctors don’t know about.”

“What is it you drink?”

“Musky,” I said. “Muscatel. Of course sherry, and port, tokay, all of those fortified wines are about the same. Twenty percent. I drink any of ’em, but musky goes better with me. Got food value.”

“I wouldn’t count on any food value,” Wakeman said. “That’s the trouble with you guys, you don’t eat. I like a drink of wine, myself. With my dinner.”

“You like a drink of wine. A drink, he says. You don’t know anything about it, kid. You’re not old enough.”

“Don’t you like whiskey? Brandy?”

“Sure. But the people that call us winoes don’t savvy the fix we’re in. If we’ve got a buck we can’t throw it away on three or four drinks of booze. With that we can buy a couple of fifths of musky, a lot more kick and something that’ll stay with you. We drink wine because it’s the cheapest alcohol there is. And you spoke about eating. You can’t. It gags you, and you couldn’t poke it down with your finger until you’ve got enough wine in you. By that time it’s night, and then you eat if you’ve got enough dough. Usually you’re out of wine, then, too, and you know you’ll go nuts if you don’t have some for morning. So you don’t eat; you buy a jug.”

“According to your case history you’ve had neuritis. Ever have a convulsion?”

“Fits? Hell, no.”

“Ever have alcoholic auditory hallucinosis?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s something like the D.T.s, but more serious. Instead of seeing things, you hear them.”

“D.T.s! Man, oh, man, they ought to call ’em the TVs. The things you see. Man!”

“You’ve had them before?”

“About ten years ago, up in Seattle. I was in the clink. Tried to make a rope out of my undershirt and hang myself. I was in such a hurry to hang myself that I botched it.”

“You were developing the delirium tremens the night you came in here from Mission Emergency. We cut them short with a big vitamin cocktail.”

“Well, I was seeing ’em. Didn’t last long, but it was some show while it lasted.”

“If it had been any worse we’d have sent you to Psych Ward. Pneumonia and all,” Wakeman said. “For your sake I wish you’d have gone there. The trouble is, Psych has its hands full with the really badly off mental cases. They’re short of beds, doctors. But that’s the kind of treatment you need, Bill. I’m telling you.”

“I’m perfectly O.K. now. Didn’t I tell you I’m off the stuff for life? I don’t need to go to any Psych ward now.”

“And they couldn’t take you now. But there’s places like Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino. You might possibly get into one of the state hospitals, even though they’re overcrowded, too. Of course you’d have to sign yourself in; you’d be a ward of the court.”

“Nothing doing. I haven’t done anything to be locked up for,” I said. “None of those places for me. Even if I was needing it now.”

“That’s one of the things that make me mad every time I drive through Skid Row. Some of the taxes on that wine ought to be spent to help out fellows like you.”

“The taxes are too damned high already. I used to buy musky for half what it costs now. For a third.”

“Sure, they’re too high. In your time, Bill, you’ve paid a lot of tax. And some of the money ought to be used to take care of you. But we’re not getting anywhere along this line; it’s not my line anyhow. To get back to your D.T.s, what did you see this time?”

“Lots of things. And I mean funny, Doc. When I think of ’em now I could bust out laughing.”

“But at the time, they terrify you. Isn’t that it?”

“You said it, Doc. The thing that scared me the most was an ordinary man standing by the bed looking down at me. Just an average-looking fellow and of course I thought he was real. Then all of a sudden he made a face at me. There’s nothing so awful about it now, but then it was horrible. I’ll bet you could have heard my yell clear out on Potrero.”

“Remember anything more about it?”

“Not important is it?” I asked him.

“Sure it is. Just as the happenings in your ordinary dreams are important,” he said. “Everything has a meaning if we can find out what it is. Not that I’m very sharp yet, Bill.”

“Well, this face, all of a sudden instead of a mouth there was a kind of horrible red triangle where the mouth should have been. What did that mean?”

“I don’t know. Was the tip of the triangle pointing up or pointing down?”

I thought he was kidding me along, but behind the glasses his eyes were serious. So I thought awhile and told him that the triangle was pointing down.

“Are you writing that in your notebook? What difference could it make which way it was posting?”

“Maybe no difference. Only a triangle posting up is a male triangle. One pointing down is female.”

I laughed until my ribs ached. “You guys are screwier than we are. Male and female triangles. You got to study to be one of those psychiatrists? Listen. I went to high school. An old maid taught us geometry. She didn’t know about those triangles.”

Wakeman he laughed, too. Then he began to look like an owl again. “Have you been arrested a lot of times, Bill?”

“For drunk. And I’ve been vagged and picked up for panhandling. Never for more than thirty days. I’ve never stole anything, or hurt anybody but myself.”

“Want to tell me about your last arrest, the time you were picked up here in San Francisco?”

I got a little sore. “Did those jumpin’ cops have my police record pinned to my chest when they dumped me off at this joint?”

“You needn’t talk about it if you don’t feel like it.”

“It was a bum rap. The jumpin’ judge gave me ten days for no reason at all. They charged me with loitering. Tried to stick me for molesting, but they made it loitering in the vicinity of a public school.”

“Was it a high school?”

“Well, no. A grade school. All I was doing was watching the kids play. Just minding my own business, standing outside the fence there. I never made a word or sign to any of ’em. Hell, how did those coppers know but what I was the father of one of ’em?”

“Girls’ or boys’ playground?”

“The girls’. They were playing softball. If there’s one game I like to watch it’s softball.”

“Boys play a better game of softball than girls. Why weren’t you watching the boys?”

I was sore again. “You shouldn’t be studying to be a doctor. You should be a lawyer.”

Wakeman grinned at me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to needle you.”

“O.K., Doc. It was a bum rap, that’s all. How about another cigarette?”

He gave me his pack and a book of matches and told me to keep them. “Some of these questions may not make sense to you, but try and answer them. You’ll not only be helping me, but you might be helping others. Thousands of people drink just the way you do.”

“You mean we all do it for the same reasons?”

“No two of you do it for exactly the same reasons. Were you ever married, Bill?”

“No, I never was.”

“Do you feel attracted to other men?”

“I’m not one of those guys. Those guys make me sick. I could beat hell out of ’em.”

He wrote that down. I was glad to see him writing it down.

“You’ve had affairs with lots of women?”

“I’d hate to have to count ’em. Yes, quite a good many.”

“What kind?”

“What kind are there? Back in prohibition days, wild parties sometimes. Since then, well, pick-ups, chippies. Prostitutes, I guess. But here lately not at all. What’s all that got to do with my drinking?”

“Were you drinking when you had these relationships?”

“Yes, it was always when I was on a bat.”

“Didn’t you ever have relations with a woman when you were perfectly sober?”

I was a little surprised myself at the answer I had to come up with. “No. Guess I never did. I’ve got kind of interested in a few when I wasn’t drinking, but before there was any kind of showdown I’d have to get lit.”

“In your phantasies --- well, I’ll put it another way: if you could have any woman you wanted, what would she be like? Blonde, or brunette? Slim, or plump? How old? What would be your ideal, physically?”

“I don’t have what you’d call a sex life, Doc,” I told him. “It just doesn’t bother me anymore. I don’t think of it.”

“When you’re sober, you mean. But try and answer. What type of female would be most apt to interest you?”

“Oh, she’d have to have a good shape. Not beautiful like a statue, but alive if you get what I mean. Young and pretty.”

“That’s the kind I like, myself. Can’t you be more original than that, Bill? About how young?”

“Well, younger than me. Young, that’s all.”

“About thirty?”

“I don’t know. Yes, I guess so.”

“Want to tell me about your very first love affair, Bill?”

“You’re sure trying to find out what makes me tick.”

“I want to know what makes you stop ticking.”

“All right. There’s no harm in telling you about it now, because if she’s still living she’s probably fat, and married, with a lot of kids. I was seventeen, back in a little town in Iowa where my father ran a grocery. Baby Belle was twelve or thirteen.”

“Baby Belle,” Wakeman said, when I stopped.

“I called her that. To myself. Her name was Belle. She lived on a farm about five miles out. The first time I ever saw her, or remembered seeing her, was at the picture show. In a little town of seven or eight hundred you know everybody, but Belle had been going to one of those little one-room country schools. When the lights came on, after the show, there she was. We looked at each other. I don’t know how she felt, but to me we were alone in that dingy, cement-floored old building, we were alone in all the world. Just one look it took. One. Well, I guess this sounds like puppy stuff. It’s puppy stuff, but I’m forty-five and I’ve never felt that way again.”

“Keep talking, Bill.”

“Her folks took her home that night, and I walked the streets suffering, but sort of singing inside. Nothing like it. Sunday I went to her church her folks went to, and glimpsed her again. Monday I walked clear out to that country school and back, just to catch sight of her. It was worth it. This was along about nineteen twenty-four, early June. Well, things went on and once or twice I got to talk to Baby Belle. Her mother thought it was quite a joke, and she took pity on me and told Belle I could take her to the street carnival and fair. It was a doings they used to hold every year in that town. That was my first and last date with Baby Belle. Her old lady was jolly and good-natured, but her father got wind of it and raised hell.”

“What happened?” Wakeman asked, when I slowed down.

“Nothing happened. Well, everything, to me. My old man had a pretty-new Model T delivery truck, and he finally let me borrow it after I told him I’d quit my job at the store if he didn’t. I took Baby Belle to the carnival, and like a kid she wanted to spend all our time on the merry-go-round. I won three kewpie dolls for her, throwing baseballs. About ten o’clock we started home, and there was all kind of stars shining and you could smell lilacs everywhere. A mile from the farmhouse I steered into a sideroad and stopped the engine. I left the dashboard light on so I could look at her, just look at her. Then I held her hand, warm, so soft and small. All of a sudden wings seemed to be beating around me and she let me kiss her. Just once I kissed her little girl’s mouth.”

I stopped talking, and after a while Wakeman asked, “That was all?”

“To do anything more would have been like pulling a flower to pieces. I didn’t want to. It was enough. I just wasn’t in this world.”

“Didn’t you see her again?”

I shook my head. “Her father sent Baby Belle to her aunt somewhere in Wisconsin. After awhile I beat it away from home and put a hitch in the Navy. Well, that’s all, Doc. My flat-heeled old gal just came into the ward, and I’m signing myself out of this dump. I hope she can raise the ante. Right now she’s talking to the Mexican. Going to get him a job. She’s a good old sport, at that.”

Wakeman looked at his wrist-watch and stood up. “We’ve hardly scratched the surface,” he said. “In one of the state hospitals they’d work weeks, months with you. They’d help you, maybe clear up your trouble entirely.”

“I’m not an alcoholic, Doc. I’m through with all that. Can’t you get that through your head?”

“Good luck, Bill, I hope you’re right,” he said. “I’m always pretty short at this time of the month, but here.” He took a five-dollar bill from his wallet and handed me a card. “My address is on that. It’s a loan. Write to me as soon as you’ve located. I’ll want to know how you’re getting on.”

“Thanks, Doc. I’m your guinea-pig,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m going to do just fine.”


Two days after I hit Sacramento I had a job in a big garage near the capitol working as a mechanic. I felt better and stronger every day, the guys were a good bunch and the shop foreman could see that I knew my business. I even put in overtime, and first payday I bought myself some clothes and moved to a better room. Also I wrote to Wakeman and sent him a money-order for five. All was rosy, and I was eating steaks.

A couple of weeks more and I began to get restless. I didn’t sleep so well, and sometimes when I went to a movie I’d get up and leave before I’d seen it all. Some bromide I got in a drug-store just made me dull and depressed. I could still eat a steak dinner, but I’d go to sleep right afterward and wake up at two A.M. feeling low and mean. After twenty years of going on sprees I still didn’t know what ailed me, or what it was I wanted.

Then I had an idea that I thought was bright, and absolutely new. I’d take a whisky or two after work. No more than that. I wasn’t going on any bat, come hell or high water. After what had happened to me at the Bay I’d surely have sense enough to handle it.

For more than a week it worked fine. A double highball fixed me up; I felt better in the daytime and I slept well at night. I had it licked. Once I even stepped over my limit, accidently – a guy from the shop came into the bar just as I was leaving; he was a swell egg, and before I knew it I’d had five or six. But not even that started me off. “See here, Bill,” I told myself, “bars are dangerous to you. What you’d better do is buy yourself a little bottle, take it home and measure yourself out a small sup whenever you really need it.” For another week I did all right, except that I always finished up the half-pint before I went to bed.

The week-end of my second pay-day it tore loose. Monday morning I had to have a drink, and after three or four at a bar I was already late for work and didn’t give a damn. When I showed up there in the middle of the next day it was no good.

“We’ve been swamped around here, Bill,” the foreman said. “Why didn’t you phone me yesterday? Why, you’re drunk, right now,” he said, looking at me harder.

“What do you think I am, an Indian? I’ve got as much right to take a drink as anybody else.” And I told him what he could do with his jumpin’ job.

I drew the money they’d held out of my check, and altogether I had about forty dollars. In a couple of days it was half gone, and I rode the cushions down to Fresno, drunk all the way. By that, I don’t mean staggering. Once he gets in the groove, a periodical usually stays on an even keel.

In Fresno I intended to taper off as fast as I could and find another situation. After all, I hadn’t been drinking very long, and I was in good shape. By that time I was back on wine, drinking two fifths a day. I knew that before I could look for work I’d have to get off the stuff, and I had begun to count my dimes.

But it was the old pattern. When you’ve been drinking two fifths and cut it down to one it’s as if you hadn’t had a drink at all. So you keep on drinking two. I rode freight trains to Los Angeles by way of Bakersfield, and if there was any water shortage across that long stretch of Mojave Desert you couldn’t prove it by me. I had plenty of musky.

The Skid in L.A. isn’t just a street or two; it’s a city inside a city, with a population of bums and people that prey on bums. Don’t remind me that there’s lots of cops, too. I mentioned bums, didn’t I?

I lost track of the days, but I must have been in L.A. about a month, and I was down to the place where I was getting along on less wine. Not that I’d tapered; it was just that I was weaker, and it didn’t take quite so much to keep me under. I wasn’t eating much, and some days I didn’t eat at all. I could do with a fifth now, but a fifth I had to have. At this stage you don’t get any lift out of your drinks; you take it because without it you’ll start screaming inside. My nerves got bad, anyway. I got scared of crowds, even of crowds of people like me, so I hopped another train. I was kicked off in Santa Ana.

There was some orange picking going on around there, and I worked at that. For part of one day. Try to pick, sometime, alongside Mexicans who know how. Those trees are worse than cactus, and at the end of an hour I had a pair of bloody hands and half a lug of valencias.

“You’ve been pickin’ too many grapes,” the boss said, sarcastic, when he paid me off.

One night, soon after that, I was in an East Fourth Street bar trying to get a transfusion of wine into me when in came a couple of coppers. There was an empty stool on each side of me, and they sat down and ordered beers.

“Want a ride uptown?” one of them said.

“I haven’t done anything,” I told them.

“That’s just it,” the other one said. “No visible or invisible means of support. But we’ll give you a break. Move on out of town. Right now. The paper here is raising a stink. Too many of you guys.”

“Jim, give the man a drink,” the first cop told the bartender.

“You fellows are all right. Thanks. I’ll shove off right away,” I said, but I got the drink first.

I went to the shed where I’d been sleeping and got my stuff. I had a safety razor, a piece of soap, and some odds and ends folded in a blanket, which was a good one. No more pneumonia for me. At a liquor store near the depot I bought a split bottle of cheap sherry. I didn’t have enough for a fifth, and I knew I was in for trouble.

A police car was standing near the railroad yards. I didn’t wait for a train to come along, but started walking alongside the tracks. Thumbing rides on the highway was too tough, and besides that the traffic made me jittery. So I hit the grit, hoping to wind up, in a day or two, in San Bernardino. During the war I’d worked in aircraft with a fellow who lived there. He’d been my friend, and maybe I could look him up.

There was a bright moon, but after I’d gone beyond the outskirts I did a lot of stumbling. I was kind of confused, and couldn’t be sure which direction I was heading. For a while I thought somebody was following me, but after I got a good slug of brown ink into me I stopped being panicky.

I was dead tired, though. When I came to a railroad bridge two or three miles out of Santa Ana, I left the tracks and went down under, digging my heels hard in the steep embankment. Beneath the end of the bridge was a level, grassy shelf, and I spread out my blanket. After a while I killed the sherry, and I went to sleep.

A train went roaring over me, six feet above my head, and woke me out of a terrible nightmare. My nerves were howling and I was soaked in cold sweat. The sun was halfway up the sky, and I sat up and looked around, trying to figure where I was.

Below me was the creek that the bridge crossed, a little stream a few yards wide and inches deep. On one side it curved away out of sight with tall eucalyptus trees bordering it, and there were some houses beyond, almost hid by orange trees. On the other side the stream ran straight toward a small town about a mile away, and in between were orange and walnut trees, and beehives. I could see some packing houses and, nearer, a big school building. The railroad made a long turn, after crossing the bridge, to get into the town, and I could just make out the yellow depot.

I tried, but couldn’t roll a cigarette. I was shaking too much, inside and out. I was out of stuff, and I had just four cents in my pockets. Something horrible was going to happen to me; I didn’t know what.

A long freight, coming from the direction of Santa Ana and running slow because of the curve, rolled over the bridge just above me and I bit the grass to keep from yelling out. The noise, the clanking and pounding and those awful wheels that could cut you in two without a jar or a bump. In my mind’s eye I was on the track above, seeing those big iron wheels coming at me, and I couldn’t duck between them because of all the guts of the train hanging down, cylinders, rods, hoses like snakes, all coming at me, coming at me. Before the caboose went by I did yell out.

It was more than I could stand. I crawled out, leaving my bed and things right there, and started toward town, following a path that zigzagged through the brush of the dry-wash. When I came to a highway, where a cement bridge crossed, I climbed up to one of the residence streets. It led me into the main stem of the place, whatever it was; I never did find out the name of it. All this time I was panting for breath, sweating in streams, and hearing my heart pumping the blood through my head. Everybody in the town was staring at me, laughing at talking about me. Even the people going by in cars turned to look.

“You’ve got to have something, Bill,” I told myself. “You’ll be O.K. after you’ve had something. Walk. Keep walking.”

Into an alley. There at the rear of a bar I saw a swamper in shirt sleeves and an apron stacking some empty cases. I hit him up for a drink.

“I’ll clean up the back here for you, sir,” I said. “I sure need one. You’ll be saving my life.”

“What makes you think I’d be interested in saving your life?” he comes up with.

I thought he was kidding, so I forced what I hoped was a grin onto my shaking face. He stepped backward into the bar and slammed the door and snapped the lock. He wasn’t kidding. Me, I was too sick to cuss him. The only other liquor dump was across the street, so I went there and stood near the door until two young sailors came out together. They’d had a few. I put the bee on the likeliest for two-bits.

“Tryin’ to get the rest of my bus fare to San Berdoo,” I said.

When the guy gave me a buck I nearly fell over. Then the other sailor pulled his billfold out of the front of his pants. He gave me a dollar, too.

“If he can do that, so can I do that. Where did you say you were going? San Berdoo? Where in hell’s that? Why don’t you go to a good town? Go to Corpus Christi.”

“Yeah, go to Corpus Christi,” the first one said. “Go to a good town.”

Where I went was to a chain grocery where I bought a whole gallon jug of muscatel. I headed back to my bridge then, holding the big sack on both arms like it was a bomb, grinding my jaws for fear I’d drop it. When I got to the side-street I hurried faster. There was a billboard down at the highway and I went behind it. My hands were so jerky it took me an age to unscrew the tin cap, and when I did it rolled away from me and down the bank. I didn’t care. With my elbows braced against my knees, I squatted and drank from the jug. I took it down two inches. Then I waited until it began to get its hooks into me, and when my stomach stopped fluttering I drank again.

When I found the cap and screwed it on I noticed a row of orange trees at the bottom of the bank. I filled my pockets with windfalls, and put some more in the bag on top of the jug. Vitamins. That shows you how different I was feeling. Picking fruit off the ground, even rotten fruit, is worse than stealing money in California. The growers have got an association. But I had musky in me now. Back at the bridge, I took another shot of medicine and stretched out on my blanket in the shade.

It was about two in the afternoon, and hot, when I came to. I went down to the creek and managed to shave, but my blade was dull and I had to fortify myself a couple of times before I could get my whiskers off. Afterward I didn’t feel so good. For some reason I began to feel low in my mind, and the musky didn’t seem to help. When I smoked a cigarette it made me kind of dizzy. I was sitting there, trying to think, when something flew into my right ear.

At first I thought it was a little beetle. The groves were full of all kinds of bugs. I scratched and dug for it with my finger, but it crawled further in and I could feel it moving and tickling. I sharpened a match and prodded, thinking I could at least kill the thing. It had started a high, shrill singing like a mosquito, or some other kind of fly.

Then I got sick all over. It wasn’t any kind of insect at all. It started talking to me.

It was like somebody on the telephone, a man’s voice, far off sounding, and yet it was there deep inside my ear. It got louder and very clear, so that I couldn’t have missed a word if I’d tried.

“What are you doing to do now, Bill?” it asked, repeating it three or four times, as if it expected an answer. Right at first it seemed friendly.

I rolled back and forth on my blanket. This was different than any D.T.s I’d ever known or heard about. My mind was clear as a bell, and I could think straight. There was just that Voice, and it was getting impatient now, more sneering. I knew it wasn’t real, and that if I ever got to thinking it was real I’d be a goner.

Something had gone haywire inside my head, that was all. It would go away, because D.T.s or anything else came to an end sometime. It wouldn’t kill me. I’d just try not to pay attention. Let it talk away, I thought.

“Why don’t you use that razor blade on your throat and wrists?” the Voice said. “You don’t deserve to live. Are you too yellow?” And it laughed and laughed.

It’s just coming from a part of my brain that’s sick, I thought to myself, but the rest of my brain is all right. It’s not real, keep remembering that. It won’t last.

“You’re a degenerate, worse than any the papers tell about,” the Voice said, all the time mocking and jeering. “You’re a pervert. Even the doctor up north knew that.”

“It’s a lie,” I answered out loud. “I’ve never done anything.”

The Voice came back with a lot of low-down abuse. It told me about things I’d done and forgotten about long before, and it accused me of other things I’d never done or even thought of doing. It was all coming from inside my right ear. I pressed it as hard as I could, but it went on just the same, calling me nasty names. On and on.

Some school kids, a couple of boys and a girl, showed up on the footpath. They were taking a short-cut to the houses back of the eucalyptus trees, and they went under the bridge a few yards below where I was sitting. Of course they saw me. After they’d gone a little ways past they stopped, and one of the boys picked up a rock and threw it my way. Then the other one and the girl threw, and ran whooping. Of course they hadn’t come near hitting me, but the Voice made a big thing of it.

“Even the little kids know what you are. The whole world knows what you are. Why don’t you get out of it while the getting’s good? They’ll gang up on you and grab you. Then it will be too late.”

“I’ll fix you. I’ll shut you up.”

The jug was lighter now and I tipped it up and drank and drank. It made the Voice mad, at first, but then it pretended that I was making it drunk. It belched, hiccupped, and sang silly songs. All the time mocking me, of course, but it got so comical that I was laughing, myself, before I passed out.

Next thing I knew it was night. The Voice was gone from my ear. The quart I’d taken had either paralyzed it or killed it, and I was thinking I had everything licked when I heard a train off in the distance. It whistled my name. My first, middle, and last name. Then it was closer and it whistled my name again, loud and clear, filling the whole sky with it.

When the train roared over me it woke up the Voice. It was with me to stay. But there were pauses in it now, and it didn’t jabber all the time. Sometimes it would make up idiotic, nasty rhymes, like it was amusing itself.

I watched the sky get gray. It was foggy and the grass was wet. With the blanket wrapped around me I sat there until the sun came through. The packing house in the town whistled out my name, and I heard a big diesel truck roaring out my name over on the highway.

I ate some oranges, though I wasn’t hungry. And I kept drinking all through the day. The stuff didn’t keep me from hearing things, but the more I took, the less the things worried me. And the Voice didn’t talk so much, or so mean.

The afternoon was hot and still. I was sitting there wondering what I’d do when I got out of wine when I spied somebody skipping along the path toward the bridge. It was the girl I’d seen the day before, and this time the boys weren’t with her. She was alone. I watched her. She was ten or eleven years old, and she was wearing a short, plaid dress, a thin blouse and white shoes and socks. Her hair was like ripe wheat and there was a red ribbon it in.

She got closer. So close I could see the freckles on her impudent face, and my heart began to pound so that I could hardly breathe.

“Bill,” the Voice said, “it’s Baby Belle.”

And now, instead of being insulting, the Voice was soft, and kind, and understanding.

“It’s Baby Belle,” it said again.

The girl was almost under the bridge, and she started to run, as if she knew I was there and wanted to dash past me. Her dress kind of fluttered and I saw how tanned and plump her legs were. She had little pink panties on.

“Hello,” I said. “Don’t be in such a hurry.”

She stopped, and looked at me. I had stood up. The wind seemed to have come up and was making a rushing sound, but the leaves on the trees were still, and the heat waves were dancing in the drywash.

She’d decided not to run from me. Her eyes had wavered, but now they were bold, curious.

“It was Wayne said to throw the rocks. I’m sorry we threw the rocks.”

A freight train was pulling out of the town, and I could hear the exhaust of the big locomotive. “The rocks,” it said. “The rocks --- the knocks --- the box --- the fox --- the box --- the hocks --- the cocks ---- the pox, the jocks, the mocks, the socks, the docks, the locks..” Faster and faster.

“You don’t live up in there under the bridge, do you?” she asked me.

“Sure. Let me show you the house I’ve got fixed up here,” I said, and reached my hand down for hers.

She let me love her I swear she did at first but when she began to cry and wouldn’t stop I pulled her up the embankment while the train was going by and pushed her under and I intended to jump under too like the Voice said but there were those wheels and the iron entrails hanging out and I was scared and ran but at first she had let me love her and it was worth it a thousand times no matter what happens to me now.

That’s the way it happened. That’s the way it was.

BIO: Paul S. Powers was a pulp fiction writer during the 1920s through the 1940s - most of his work was published in Wild West Weekly, a Street & Smith fiction mag. If you want to learn more about him, his granddaughter Laurie keeps a blog and has had published a memoir about being a pulp fiction writer, entitled PULP WRITER. He died in 1971.

John H. Powers helped his father, Paul, write the story, contributing in large part to the Doctor Wakeman character, due to the fact that he was, himself, a doctor. He died in 1964.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 469 - Michael A. Gonzales


Harlem, 1976

Sporting a massive pair of fresh high-top Pro-Keds on his feet, Birdman zoomed down the street with a James Brown beat banging in his brain. Faster than a speeding bullet, to me he was like a ghetto Superman.

Soaring down the steep hill dressed in loose gym shorts, a sweat soiled white t-shirt and a sweatband around his peanut shaped head, Birdman wasn’t bothered by anything. Lost in the white shroud of fluffy clouds, his shaved head was shiny under the gleaming summertime sun. Rain or shine, Birdman was ready to fly.

Every morning, leaning out of my second floor window, I watched as he approached the top of the hill. Stretching his limbs to avoid cramps, he stared intensely towards the rooftops. Grimacing at the dirty pigeons perched on concrete gargoyles, he took a deep breath, rubbed his eyes and ran in place until an imaginary starting pistol blasted towards the heavens.

Picking up speed with every step, Birdman raced to the bottom of the hill. Swiftly turning the corner, he ran along the quiet sidewalks of Riverside Drive. Not bothering to stop until he reached Dead Man’s Hill six blocks away, it was as though Birdman was possessed by the sheer joy of movement. He then ran up the hill and ran down Broadway, back to my block.

“Use distance to build speed,” he thought. His coaches at George Washington High School (which almost everyone referred to as G-Dubs) preached that gospel repeatedly and Birdman was a true believer.

“But what does it feel like to run like that?” I asked him one afternoon as we stood in Jesus’s candy-store, playing a game of pinball.

“It’s like being in your own world,” explained Birdman. Although he was a few years older, he never minded me hanging around. He had heard me cheering from the window and knew I was fan.

“You’re in your own world and every morning is Christmas and every night is the Fourth of July. And no one ever screams at you because of your schoolwork ain't done or the stereo’s too loud or dumb stuff like that.”

Pausing to flip the silver ball as though he had suddenly transformed into a pinball sorcerer, he finally said, “My coach at school told me, you know, the more I practice the better I’ll get. Maybe even get a chance at the Olympics like Bruce Jenner.”

Birdman slammed the ancient machine when the silver ball began rolling down the middle. “Stop fighting the machine!” Jesus screamed, his Spanish accent thicker than gravy. “Machine don’t fight back, but I do,” he laughed. Jesus’s shop was our personal chocolate factory, toy store and social club.

Some dudes spent more time hanging-out in Jesus’s than they did inside school, church or their own apartments. It was a festive joint, where salsa blared from the radio and young boys dragged their dates after leaving the picture show.

Unlike the other merchants in our hood, who reserved a special brand of hate for all teenagers, we felt as though Jesus understood us. In the fall, boxes of candy apples were stacked on the counter while in summer illegal fireworks were stashed underneath.

Hanging on the wall was a list of store rules that began ‘Please no cursing’ and ended with ‘Please count change before leaving.’ You had to be especially rowdy for Jesus to put you out of the store.

There had been a few fools who tested his niceness, and in the summer of ’78, a mulatto psycho named White Mike became a persistent problem. The son of a drunken Polish superintendent and his meek Black wife, White Mike had been banned from the store for being rowdy and stealing a bag of Wise chips.

“Don’t worry, old man,” White Mike screamed. “I’ll be back, you just watch your back.” A hyper-disco track called ‘Get Off’ blared from the radio, filling the small store with heated percussion and orgasmic wails. But that had been weeks ago.

After Birdman finished with the pinball machine, we walked outside. “You think you might make it to the Olympics for real?” I asked Birdman. On the color television set in my mind, I could see international crowds screaming loud, chanting, ‘Birdman! Birdman! Birdman!’ as his size 13s blazed across the track holding the trademarked torch.

Looking down at me, Birdman laughed, which was rare; he usually looked so sad. “Hope is forever,” he mumbled, sounding like one of damn fortune cookies from Chow Wong’s, where pork rice and chicken gizzards were the house specialty. “Catch ya later, dude.” He slapped me five and ran down the block.


The only child born to a wild beauty named Candi Lewis, even after Birdman was born, she preferred swinging her shapely sepia legs from bar stools rather than rear him right. Rather than squatting on park benches with the other mothers, Candi was a night crawler, a nocturnal creature whose simple life consisted of being fine, swilling drinks and laying down with other women’s men.

Birdman spent most days and nights at his grandmother’s place. He addressed her as ‘Ma,’ and she called him by his real name, ‘Norman.’ A kindly, wrinkled woman who retired from her factory job two years before, she lived only for her grandson. “I gave up on that girl of mine years ago,” she once wearily remarked about her loose daughter. “Saves me a lot of heartache that way. She belongs to the streets now.”

His grandmother’s only vices was watching game shows, playing the numbers at Big Daddy’s joint and a more than occasional sip of blueberry brandy. Lying in bed surrounded by old newspapers and faded photographs, she drank her warm liquor from a decorative glass and frequently talked back to the contestants who couldn’t guess the answers on The Price Is Right.

Although his grandmother was the only person who never called him Birdman, she still understood his dreams of flight, often shelling out cash to supply his sneaker obsession. She made sure her wig was fitted tightly when she screamed, ‘Go, Norman, go!’ at every track meet.

As his grandma sat in the gorgeous George Washington High bleachers, the chilly winds blew in from the Hudson River, causing her brittle bones to shiver. Surrounded by cheering crowds and gang members, usually White Mike and his menacing disciples, she silently prayed that she would live to see the day that her baby could fly away from those mean streets forever.

Of course, like Big Daddy the number banker used to say, “Prayers in the ghetto are like watercolors in the rain. If God moves in mysterious ways, then the Devil his own plans.”

Maybe if Candi had thought clearly, she never would have messed with Big Daddy. Hell, everybody in Harlem knew that his woman, the infamous Sheila Mae (breasts the size of overstuffed pillows, legs thick as tree trunks), was no joke. A colossal country chick who prided herself on hellraising and slicing the competition with the garlic-soaked straight razor, which she kept tucked in her cleavage.

Still, most of the broads who hung at the Oasis had cocaine for brains and stiff drinks for courage. As my own mother, who had worked at the ’O since I was a baby, told me after Miss Candi’s accident, “That poor woman was blinded by the cash, the flash and that big-ass Caddie.”

Dressed in a Flare Brothers three-piece crimson linen suit, a black silk shirt and a pair of spit-polished gators, Big Daddy was definitely on some Superfly shit that night. Swaggering into the bar like a big dick lion with Tarzan riding on his back, everybody greeted him like ghetto royalty.

Surrounded by two-bit glamour guys and sepia-toned dolls, Big Daddy sat down. Behind the bar, red and white Christmas light bulbs were strung up on the ceiling, creeping down the wall like illuminated vines.

“Drinks for my friends,” Big Daddy shouted, pulling Birdman’s mama Miss Candi into his lap. She laughed as he caressed her soft bottom; on the tattered jukebox Al Green’s sang, “Love and happiness…something that can make you do wrong, make you want to do wrong.”

As the night slowly inched towards daylight, my mom filled the numerous cocktail orders from processed hair slickie boys who were watching their dates soulfully sway their thick hips to the beat. The sticky stench of sweaty passion, spilled drinks and choking cigarette smoke tainted the air. With all the loud talk and bump ’n grind, girlish giggles and hard cock pelvis wiggles, nobody noticed when Sheila staggered drunkenly into the bar.

Dressed in high heels and a sky blue dress, she clutched the matching purse close to her chest. Without realizing it, Sheila stood directly in front of a black velvet zodiac poster of freaky couples in various sexual positions.

“You call this working, motherfucker?” she screamed indignantly at Big Daddy. A sudden hush overcame the boozy haven once Sheila had made her presence known. Big Daddy smiled foolishly, familiar with his woman’s antics. “You supposed to be a number banker, not a pimp. And this lil’ ho young enuff to be your own child.”

With her once pretty face contorted into a nightmarish image of disgust and evil, Sheila focused her blurry-eyed sight towards Candi. “Ever dance with the devil, bitch?” she slurred, her breath reeking of gin.

“Come on now, Sheila,” my mother yelled across the bar. After years of working there, she was used to being peacekeeper for Saturday night drunks. “This ain’t the time or the place. Y’all need to handle your personal business outside.”

Mom poured Sheila some Gordon’s gin, hoping that one more shot would calm Sheila’s nerves or knock her out. While most of the customers had scattered like roaches, the next day they would be back embellishing the story of how Sheila’s bloodshot eyes lingered over Candi’s sheer tube top, skin-tight mini-skirt, pretty brown thighs and knee-high boots.

“You right, Fran,” Sheila said, walking over the scarred oak bar. “But when these hoes gonna start giving a bitch some respect, huh? All a country girl like me wants is some respect.”

Downing the burning liquid as though it were water, she lit a Kool cigarette. Big Daddy and Candi were stiffly seated, too horrified to move. Sheila puffed the menthol cancer stick as though it might be her last in a long time.

“Be cool, baby,” Big Daddy barked. “Don’t do nothing you going to regret tomorrow.”

“You want that bitch, then have that bitch,” Sheila screeched. Coldly, she flicked her lit cigarette towards Big Daddy’s smooth face. He laughed nervously. Turning her back to Big Daddy, she slithered her fingers into her purse and pulled out an old applesauce jar filled with battery acid.

Turning back around, she opened the lid. In what seemed like slow motion, Sheila threw the liquid fire into Candi’s pretty face. “But, every damn time you look at that bitch, you’ll be thinking ’bout me!” Sheila’s laughter became uncontrollable, until one of the barfly’s cold-cocked her; she wobbled for a moment before crashing to the floor.

Candi’s piercing screams sounded like slow death. “My eyes,” she howled, crawling across the floor. Like a bucket of water thrown on the Wicked Witch, the dazzling splendor that had moments before been Candi’s flesh began to melt.

She tried to scream again, but no sound came out. The bar’s spooky Christmas lights created an eerie effect as her skin dripped to the floor. Candi looked like one of those horrid creatures from the Coney Island haunted house. For some folks, this was just another savage Saturday night in Harlem. But for Candi, it was the beginning of a blind bitterness that would last for the rest of her life.


After his mother’s tragedy, Birdman disappeared. Nobody seemed to know what had happened to the brother who had once ran with such grace, practicing every day for his chance to escape the blue funk of Harlem: he was going to be a champion, before the shadows and vultures overcast his sun; he was going to be a legend, before the walls crumpled in his path. Every time I looked out of the window in the mornings, I expected to see my skinny friend racing down the block.

I tried to visit him a few days afterwards, but had zero luck. “Norman doesn’t want to see anyone,” his grandmother said. Her eyes were sad. “No one at all.”

Weeks later, my homeboy C.C. said he saw Birdman swinging lower than a sweet chariot, dressed in a denim gang jacket and sharing a bottle of Night Train with that thug White Mike. The dubious duo were standing in front of the McDonald’s on 145th and Broadway, scaring folks to death. C.C. had just come from tagging the walls in the subway station.

“It was crazy, man. They was all high and shit, talking high talk ’bout how bad they are and all that dumb mess,” rattled C.C, his hands stained with red spray-paint. “Ain’t never seen a brother flip-out like that Birdman done flipped. Look like he might be sniffing dope or glue or something. Hope he ain’t strung out on junk, because that p-funk is a killer diller.”

It was candy apple autumn again when I saw finally saw Birdman, although it took me a minute to recognize the brother. Talk on the street was that he was spending his days in a heroin haze and his nights in gang fights; the illicit influence of White Mike had destroyed whatever humanity he once displayed.

His hair was now a nappy nest. His clothes were in desperate need of soap ’n water. His once prized sneakers were now as busted as the rest of him. It was obvious, he just didn’t care anymore. Deferred dreams were one thing, but shattered hopes are worse.

As I stood in the rear of Jesus’s, watching a stranger rocking the pinball machine, I noticed Birdman standing out front, nodding like a needle park junkie. “Yo, Birdman!” I yelled, over the swelling congas and psychotic pianos of Eddie Palmieri’s wild Vamonos Pa’l Monte. “Yo, Birdman.”

From the bugged look on his face, it was obvious that Birdman was feeling no pain. For a moment, I thought he was going to completely ignore me, act as if he didn’t know who a little brother was or some shit.

A few minutes later, when it was my turn to play the machine like the pinball wizard I believed myself to be, I was startled when Birdman walked over, looking crazy. For no reason at all, he shattered the glass of the pinball machine with his bare hands. He was crying, howling like a wounded beast as blood dripped down his bony arms.

Jesus cursed loudly in Spanish, searching for his wooden baseball bat. Out of nowhere, as though he had merely materialized from the chaos, White Mike stormed into the store and grabbed the chipped bat from Jesus’s trembling hands.

Smashing the glass candy case with a swing that was straight out of the Reggie Jackson handbook, he laughed. “I told you I’d be back, motherfucker!” he hollered like madman. With a zonked-out look in his eyes, White Mike dented the ice cream freezer and bent the comic book racks, smashed soda bottles and rows of toys. While his rage lasted only a few minutes before the cops rolled up, Jesus’s Spot looked like a riot had occurred.

“What is wrong with you, Birdman?” I shouted, scared to death. “Birdman, you out of your mind or something?”

“My name is Norman,” he muttered sadly. “Just call me Norman.” Minutes later, as the cops angrily dragged him to the waiting patrol car, Birdman wept.

BIO: Brooklyn-based Michael A. Gonzales writes for Wax Poetics, New York magazine, Stop Smiling and the Village Voice. His fiction has appeared in Brown Sugar 2 edited by Carol Taylor, The Darker Mask edited by Gary Phillips & Christopher Chambers and Bronx Bi-annual edited by Miles Marshall Lewis. His essay on Chester Himes appears in Best African-American Essays 2010 edited by Gerald Early. He blogs at Blackadelic Pop.

A Twist Of Noir 468 - Jason Duke


Previously published at Plots With Guns in 2000

Thursday, November 6, 1997

“Mister Hess, can I have a word with you, please?”

Jesse Hess tilted his chair back into an upright position. He lazily stood up, interrupting Angel in mid-braid of his ponytail. He stared down the kids in the rest of the classroom; walked up to the desk of his English teacher, Mr. Daniel. The wide bottoms of his baggy JNCO jeans dragged across the floor.

“What up, teach?”

“What up is the subject matter of your story. I told you when I gave you this assignment I wouldn’t accept another gang-banger story.”

Mr. Daniel handed back Jesse’s story with a giant F in red pen across the front page. Jesse saw the grade and his face hardened.

“Man, why you gotta punk me like that?”

He threw the story on Mr. Daniel’s desk, scattering the papers.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me, mother...”

“Whoa,” the student teacher, Mike, stepped between Jesse and Mr. Daniel’s desk. He flashed his trademark wry smile.

Mr. Daniel exhaled an uneasy sigh. He removed his glasses and massaged his forehead.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Daniel,” Mike whispered. “Let me handle this.”

“Fine... you do that, Mike.”

Jesse and Mike stepped out into the adjoining hallway.

“Man, I’m tired of his shit. He never gives me props for my stories.”

“Jesse, I keep telling you Mr. Daniel is just an old-fashioned teacher who thinks all stories should read like a Hemingway,” Mike stroked the thin, black stubble along his chin that substituted for a goatee. He put a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Don’t let Mr. Daniel get to you. You have potential. You should try submitting your stories to magazines. There’s a few right here in Phoenix.”

“Yeah? So why do you like my stories so much?”

“Because, man, you write from experience, and that’s the best way to write a story... you write about what you know. You just have to refine your writing skills a little and learn to turn those experiences into fiction. Remember what I told you?”

“Yeah, yeah. A writer’s not supposed to write ver... ver...”

“Verbatim, man,” Mike laughed. He playfully pushed Jesse toward the classroom door and Jesse pushed back.

Jesse strode back into the classroom over to the pale, thin Mexican girl, Angel, who’d been braiding his hair.

“Sorry about that. Mr. Daniel was trying to play me again, but I put him in check.”

“Yeah, right. Whatever.” Angel gave Jesse an annoyed, sideways look. “You gonna let me finish your hair?”

Jesse went to sit back down when the school bell rang.

“I’ll let you do it tomorrow, promise...”

Angel rolled her eyes, folding her arms.

“Don’t make promises you’re not gonna keep...”


Jesse splashed his face with water. He stared into the mirror of the men’s bathroom in back of the Taco Bell off 43rd Avenue south of Dunlap. He studied the scrawl of graffiti etched into the glass; slowly ran a finger over the surface. He followed the maze of lines that riddled the glass and stopped at a name along the bottom of the mirror – CHUKO.

“Hey, Jesse. You almost done in there, homes?” a kid said outside the bathroom door. His voice was hoarse and he pounded on the door anxiously with his fist. “C’mon, me and Jesus wanna hit this pipe.”

Jesse wiped his face with the sleeve of his t-shirt. He opened the door. Lurking near the door in the hazy twilight were two Mexican kids. They were bone thin and their baggy pants and t-shirts hung loose from their bodies, the way skeletons looked dressed in oversized clothes. They hurried into the bathroom; shut and locked the door.

“What was taking you so long up in here? Damon’s been fiending like a little bitch to hit this pipe and shit.” Jesus picked at the speed bumps along his hollow face. He flicked on a lighter; gently touched the flame to the bottom of a glass pipe. The flame licked at the underbelly of the bowl and scorched it black. The meth caked to the inside bubbled and melted. The bowl filled with creamy white smoke that snaked up out of the pipe like an albino demon escaping its prison. Jesus took a long hit and fought to hold it in, wheezing as he exhaled.

“Let me get a hit now.” Damon wiped at the greasy film on his face. He blew out the stale smoke and hit the pipe the same as Jesus.

Jesse batted at the smoke. The acrid smell stung his eyes and nostrils. He threw open the door and ducked outside, exchanging the polluted air of the bathroom for the polluted night air.

Jesus and Damon passed the pipe back and forth as the door swung closed. Jesse strode over to the round plastic tables scattered with food and trash along the side of the Taco Bell. A worker swept up the mess with a wide broom into a long-handled dustpan, glancing up at Jesse.

Jesse scowled and read the worker’s nametag: Freeman.

“What happened to your boys?”

“What?” Jesse said.

“The two other dudes you were with.”

“They can’t take a piss without holding each others dicks.”

“Shiiittt,” Freeman chuckled. “You fellas go to Apollo High School?”

“Yep... you got it. So why you working at Taco Bell, man? No disrespect, but can’t you get a better job than this?”

“Well, it’s the best I can do at the moment. I was taking classes at Glendale Community College a few years back, but I fucked up.”

“What happened?”

Freeman stared at the ground.

“Got hooked on dope...”

Jesus and Damon barrelled over to Jesse like two energizer bunnies. Freeman continued with his sweeping duties, wandering back inside the Taco Bell. He exited the back door a few minutes later toting a rubber garbage can; passed under a flickering streetlight and dragged the can across the parking lot to a dumpster.

“Man, homeboy takes out the trash every night at the same time like clockwork. I’m surprised nobody ain’t robbed this place yet. That shit would be so easy, too... just wait for him behind the dumpster with my gat, then snatch his ass and make him open the back door. I could do it right now if I wanted.”

Jesus lifted up his t-shirt; flashed the handle of a 9mm tucked in his waistline.

“Do it, homes. I got your back, ese,” Damon said.

“Man, that glass dick you been sucking on made you fucking stupid?” Jesse scoffed.

A cherry-red ’62 Park lowrider pulled into the parking space adjacent to the table. The tinted window rolled down. Behind the steering wheel sat the slant-eyed face of an older Mexican kid about 19, with thick eyebrows.

“Hey, Jesse, my man. What up, homes... long time no see.”

“What up, CHUKO?” Jesse looked at the ground. Jesus and Damon dashed to the car like dogs begging at their master’s feet.

“CHUKO, man...” Jesus leaned against the car door. “You gonna front me that eight-ball or what, ese?”

“Shit, here!” CHUKO palmed Jesus a large seal full of dirty white powder and rocks. “You been slinging that shit pretty fast, huh? Almost as good as my boy, Jesse, here. When you gonna come back and work for me, ese?”

“I’ll check you all later... I gotta bounce.”

“I’ll be seeing you around, eh, Jesse,” CHUKO said. He turned his attention to Jesus. “Get the fuck off my car, puto!”

The tinted window rolled back up and the lowrider drove away.

Friday, November 7, 1997

The lifeless hallway waited expectantly for the hour hand of the clock to reach 3:00pm. A giant paper banner with the neatly painted words “Welcome To Apollo” hung beneath the clock. Patches of buffed graffiti marred the white-washed walls and bland, dark-gray lockers that lined each side of the hall, their ranks broken by numbered doors with tiny square glass viewing panes.

The hour hand finally pointed to its destination. A bell rang, the doors swung open one after another, and like crazed animals fleeing a freak show menagerie, the students held captive inside piled out into the hallway, quickly making their way to their next classes.

“Jesse. Over here, ese.”

Jesse peered through the crowded hallway. He spied Jesus and Damon huddled near an open locker. A white stoner kid wearing a Slayer t-shirt flashed a twenty-dollar bill; slipped the money into Jesus’s hand in exchange for a seal of speed.

“What up?” Jesse caught Jesus and the kid in the middle of their transaction. The kid pocketed the seal and hurried off.

“Hey, don’t forget to tell your homies I got plenty more of this shit,” Jesus yelled after the kid.

“What up, homes,” Damon said, “you gonna kick it at my house tonight? CHUKO’s gonna be there... he said he wants to talk to you, homes, so you better come.”

“Yeah, ese. I don’t think he’s fucking around this time,” Jesus chimed in. He turned to Damon. “Hey, hold onto my gat for me.”

“Bet!” Damon eagerly slipped the 9mm into his waistline.

“I don’t know, man,” Jesse shook his head. “Why’s CHUKO want me selling for him again? It’s not like I owe him for that shit I got busted with last month. I already paid him back his ends.”

“Yeah, well, he seems to think differently, homes,” Jesus said. “Just come to Damon’s tonight and smooth things out with him. We’ll back you up, right, puto?”

Jesus slugged Damon in the shoulder, who nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, right, ese.”

Jesus glimpsed the blue and white windbreaker of a security guard at the end of the hallway. The guard eyeballed them; raised a radio to his mouth.

“Ah, shit! Bounce!”

The guard stalked through the crowd. Jesse, Jesus and Damon scattered, rounded a corner at the end of the hall, exited through a set of double-doors.

“Stash the tweek for me,” Jesus shoved the eight-ball of meth into Jesse’s hand, but Jesse hesitated. “They ain’t after you, homes. Just hold it til after school and I’ll get it back then. I’ll meet you up at the park. Here, take it motherfucker!”

“Alright!” Jesse jammed the eight-ball into his underwear. Jesus grinned and made a break for it to the school parking lot with Damon on his heels.

Jesse walked to Mr. Daniel’s classroom. He rounded a corner and passed a boys bathroom along the way. He was almost home free when the guard rounded the corner behind him.

“You, hold it right there,” the guard shouted as another guard rounded the corner ahead of the bathroom. “Hey! Stop him!”

Jesse ducked inside the bathroom. He rushed into a toilet stall and flushed the eight-ball. The guards charged in after him, slammed his face into the stall, tackled him to the floor.

“Get the fuck off me. I didn’t do nothing.”

“Oh yeah?” the hall guard smirked. He yanked Jesse up onto his feet. “Why’d you run, then?”

“I had to take a piss, man.”

“My ass,” the other guard scoffed. “You’re taking a little trip with us to the Security Office.”

“Man, let me go. I didn’t do nothing.”

The guards dragged Jesse back outside as Mike walked by the bathroom.

“Hey, Jesse... I’ve been looking all over for you.” Mike flashed a wry smile. “What’s the problem? I’m the student teacher from his seventh-period class.”

“I caught him with his friends selling dope, that’s the problem,” the hall guard said. “We’re taking him to the Security Office to search him.”

“Man, I didn’t do shit,” Jesse said. “I went into the bathroom and they rushed me.”

“He’s already late for class,” Mike smiled again, “so why don’t you just search him here. If he’s clean like he says, I’ll walk him to class.”

“Whatever, pal.” The hall guard patted Jesse down. “You wanna take responsibility for the little punk, be my guest.”

“There, you convinced now?” Mike said.

The hallway guard leaned in close to Jesse.

“Your teacher-buddy here may have bailed you out this time, kid... but next time, you might not be so lucky.”

“So, you finally decided to join us.” Mr. Daniel raised a stern eye at Jesse as he walked into the classroom. “Can I have a word with you please, Mike?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“Mike, you can’t keep covering for this kid.” Mr. Daniel massaged his forehead. “He’s just going to drag you down with him.”

“What should I do then? Stop helping him because he got into some trouble? Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody deserves a second chance. Not that you’d care, but I submitted one of his stories to the city-wide writing competition.”

“For Christ sakes, Mike!” Mr. Daniel leaned in closer. “He was arrested for drugs. You make it sound like he toilet-papered the ceiling of the boys bathroom. He’s as rotten as they come. Look, all I’m saying is focus on the legitimate kids who are here to learn.”

“Mr. Daniel, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”



Angel squeezed through the crowded school hallway.

“Mike, I have to talk to you. It’s Jesse.”

“Calm down.” Mike smiled. “What about Jesse?”

Angel paused a moment to catch her breath. She looked up at Mike and her eyes were wide with panic.

“What is it, Angel? What’s wrong?”

“Jesse told me not to tell you...”

“Tell me what?”

“Jesus is why the guards chased after Jesse. Jesus was dealing and talked Jesse into stashing it. Jesse had to flush it or the guards would’ve busted him.”

“Where’s Jesse now?”

“I don’t know, but they always kick it at the Taco Bell, just north of 43rd Avenue and Olive.”

Mike stared out over the crowd.

“Go straight home and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“What’re you gonna do, Mike?”

“I’m going to stop Jesse from ruining his life.”


Jesse flopped down on a cement park bench. He rubbed his face in his hands.

“What up, bitch?” Jesus laughed from behind Jesse. “Where’s my stash?”

“I had to flush it... school security rushed me right after you and Damon bounced,” Jesse exhaled a long sigh. Jesus’s mouth dropped open as he struggled to register what Jesse said.

“Ah, yeah... you’re just fucking with me. Your ass ain’t that stupid to flush CHUKO’s shit...” But as Jesse’s confession sank in deeper, Jesus’s face hardened. “Man, I can’t believe you did that, yo! You done for, now. You gonna have to sell for him again to pay it off,” Jesus said coldly. He walked away, shaking his head.

“I ain’t selling shit.” Jesse blocked Jesus’s path. “It was your punk-ass that wanted me to hold onto his shit in the first place.”

“What, motherfucker?” Jesus growled, clenching his fists, ready to throw down. Jesse jumped up and socked Jesus dead in the eye; knocked Jesus to the ground. Jesus pulled out the 9mm, aiming it at Jesse.

“I oughta smoke your ass.” Jesus nursed his puffy red eye. “But if I do, I’m gonna owe CHUKO your debt.”

Jesus eased up on the trigger; stood up. He threw the gun at Jesse’s feet.

“Take it... you’re gonna need it.”

“Fuck you. You ain’t my friend.”

Jesus smiled.

“I never was...”


Jesse climbed a short flight of stairs. He stopped at an apartment door. A large crack taped shut with duct tape ran the length of the front window. The door was splintered from years of abuse and neglect. Jesse stepped up to the door, listening to the ruckus inside. He chambered the 9mm; slipped the gun into his baggy pocket; banged against the door. The ruckus died as Damon peeked through the window’s curtains.

“Yo, what up, Jesse?” Damon poked his face back through the curtains. The door unlocked and opened. “Come in, ese.”

“Where’s CHUKO and Jesus?”

Jesse walked into a smoky living room. He scanned the faces of the partygoers. He thumbed the hammer of the 9mm as he looked around. The partygoers resumed in hushed voices. Someone hit a glass pipe, adding to the stench of meth and weed that filled the air.

“They around?” Jesse asked again.

“Nah.” Damon noticed the gun-shaped bulge in Jesse’s pocket. “Jesus never showed and CHUKO said he was going to Taco Bell after he finished with some business.”

“CHUKO say anything to you?”

“Nah, just that he wanted to talk to you about some shit... probably about last night.”

Damon turned to the kid hitting the pipe.

“Let me get a hit off that, puto. And keep it down... my grandma’s trying to sleep.”

Damon leveled a lighter beneath the bowl but Jesse snatched the pipe and lighter from Damon’s hands. Jesse lit the pipe; inhaled a long, deep hit. His eyes went blank. He hit the pipe again and again, walking stiffly into the bathroom. It was just him, the pipe, and the raw, jittery sensations that followed.

“You okay, ese?” Damon said.

Jesse dropped the pipe outside the bathroom and shut the door. He stared into the mirror. His heart thumped against his chest like someone trying to pummel him to death with a hammer. He hit himself hard in the chest, as if doing so would override the pain of his racing heart and dull it with pain of his own.

“Jesse?” Damon said through the door.

“Leave me alone, motherfucker! I’ll be alright.”

Jesse rummaged through the drawers along the side of the bathroom sink. He grabbed a pair of electric clippers, plugged them in, flipped the ON switch, and ran them over his head. His hair fell into the sink in long, dirty blonde locks, filling the basin until every last strand was gone. He threw the hair into a small trashcan; rinsed his shaved head and neck in the sink.

“What’d you do to your hair, homes?” Damon said.

Jesse walked out into the living room, to the apartment door. Damon and the partygoers stared and everything seemed frozen in the moment – even the smoke stood still. Jesse opened the door. He leered at Damon; pulled the gun out of his pocket and pointed it to his head.

“Now I’m like you... spun out my mind.”


“Why I always gotta do this shit?”

Freeman threw open the back door of the Taco Bell. He toted a rubber garbage can across the vacant parking lot to the dumpster. Jesse ducked down into the darkness behind the dumpster, but Freeman saw him and stopped under the flickering streetlight.

“Hey, you can’t loiter here.”

Jesse sprang up. He aimed the 9mm and Freeman tripped over the garbage can.

“Man, you gotta be the dumbest motherfucker.” Jesse motioned with the gun for Freeman to get up. “Get your ass up. I said now, bitch!”

“It’s cool, it’s cool,” Freeman shielded his face. “You got it, kid... whatever you say...”

“Man, just shut up and open the door,” Jesse nudged Freeman toward the backdoor with the gun barrel and Freeman stumbled back over the garbage can. “Take the fucking trashcan with you.”

“Alright, alright.”

Jesse followed on Freeman’s heels. Freeman started to open the back door.

“Hey, I know you,” Freeman opened the door.

“Yeah, you know shit,” Jesse said and shoved Freeman inside.


Mike walked to the back door of the Taco Bell. He glanced over his shoulder at his faded-yellow Toyota parked in the empty parking lot. He reached for the doorknob when the door cracked open and a large shoed foot poked out, wedging open the door. Mike opened the door the rest of the way and looked down at Freeman sitting on the floor, gagged and bound by duct tape.

“Man, your pants fit too tight,” Jesse yelled from up front near the counter.

Mike stepped inside as Freeman pleaded for help through muffled cries. Mike put a finger to his lips; positioned himself to one side of the open doorway leading to the front. He peered around the corner and saw Jesse struggling to fit into a Taco Bell uniform.

“I oughta kick your ass for lying to me, bitch.”

“Jesse.” Mike stepped out.

“Mike? What the hell are you doing here, man?”

Mike took a step forward.

“Why’re you doing this, Jesse?”

“This was the only way I could get close enough to CHUKO.” Jesse gripped the 9mm tight in his hand.

“You’re better than this. I know you are.”

“Nah.” Jesse’s face hardened and he squeezed the gun tighter. “It’s too late for that shit. Mr. Daniel was right about me. You should’ve listened to him.”

“C’mon, man.” Mike took another step closer. “You don’t really believe that, do you? You’re a writer, man... a good writer. Don’t throw it all away. Let’s make things right.”

A cherry-red ’62 Park lowrider pulled up next to the drive-thru window.

“Hey, motherfuckers. I’ve been out here trying to order for forever and shit,” CHUKO shouted up at the window.

Jesse looked to the window; cocked back the gun’s hammer.

“There’s only one way I can make things right.”

“Jesse!” Mike leapt forward and grappled Jesse to wrestle the gun away. The gun fired and Mike hit the floor, blood seeping out from underneath his limp body.

The lowrider peeled out. Jesse fired into the back windshield and the lowrider rolled into the side of the Taco Bell, smashing into the building with a crunch of metal and shattered glass. CHUKO threw open the car door and scrambled out, Mac 10 Ingram in his hand.

A staccato of bullets exploded into the drive-thru and tore through Jesse as his own bullets plugged CHUKO in the head and chest. A cloud of blood sprayed the air from behind CHUKO’s head and he dropped, firing the Ingram into the sky.

Jesse gasped for breath on the floor at the bottom of the drive-thru window. His breaths grew shorter and shorter, until they stopped altogether, his dead, glassy eyes staring blankly ahead at Mike’s body.

Wednesday, November 12, 1997

“Michael Devroe was taken suddenly and unexpectedly from this world by the sins of another. Although we take solace in the knowledge that he is in the hands of God now, a tough road lies ahead of us as we struggle with the anger and sorrow his death has left us with...”

Mr. Daniel’s attention wandered from the Minister. He looked past the large group of family and friends gathered around Mike’s coffin, to a small group of only three people at the opposite end of the cemetery where Jesse’s coffin was being interred into the ground. The Minister’s words focused Mr. Daniel back onto Mike’s coffin.

“We commit this body to the ground... ashes to ashes... dust to dust.”

Monday, January 19, 1998

The school bell rang. Mr. Daniel watched his students eagerly file out of his classroom until the last of them disappeared out of the door. He exhaled an uneasy sigh and rubbed his face in his hands.

“Mr. Daniel? I have a letter here for you.”

He looked up at one of the young secretaries from the front office.

“Actually,” she gently set the letter on his desk, “it was addressed to Mike, but... since he’s...”

She looked at the floor.

“Well, I thought I’d just give it to you since he was your student teacher and all.”

Mr. Daniel rested his face back in his hands. She waited for a response, turned and left. He opened the letter.

“Dear Mr. Hess:”

He crumpled the letter in his hands and threw it into the trashcan next to his desk, getting up to leave. He stopped in the doorway; looked back at the trashcan. He walked over to it, digging out the letter.

“Thank you for entering your story into our writing competition. Although your story didn’t win, you show great promise as a writer...”

Mr. Daniel lowered the letter. He opened a desk drawer and pulled out Jesse’s story, staring long and hard at it. He read through the story one more time, taking his time with it, carefully reading it so he understood, the way he would a Hemingway. When he finished, he set the story down. He took a red ink pen, scribbled out the F, and next to it wrote the letter A.

BIO: Jason Duke is a Sergeant in the U.S. Army and served 15 months in Iraq as part of OIF 07-09. He was borderline before going to Iraq, but now he's totally fucked in the head. He mostly misses killing shit and blowing shit up. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler Magazine, Pulp Pusher, Flash Fiction Offensive, Darkest Before the Dawn, A Twist of Noir, 3AM Magazine, Suspect Thoughts, Shred of Evidence, Outsider Ink, The Hiss Quarterly, Dungeon Magazine, The Murder Hole, A Cruel World. He’s also branched out into horror with his story “Route Cobra” which can be found at House of Horror.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 467 - Des Nnochiri


Van Camp had promised retribution. For the mix-up, in Zurich.

Mix-up? More like nightmare.

Eight civilians killed. Thirty-seven injured. Interpol, alerted to the activities of the cartel.

And Brooks had missed the target.

Son of a bitch was still walking around. Or jogging. A fitness nut; jogging would be more his style.

With the police closing in, and the net of Van Camp’s agents drawing tighter, Brooks had done the only thing he could.


To the farthest, darkest corner of the globe that his multiple false identities would take him.

And hide.

Which, in this case, meant more plastic surgery.

He had an appointment with the doctor, in fifteen minutes. A local man; butcher, probably. But he’d come recommended. And, under the circumstances, what choice did Brooks have?


God, but it was so damn hot, here.

Brooks wiped his brow. Sploshed water on his cheeks.

He looked up, into the bathroom mirror. A last glimpse of his current face.

Brooks grabbed the toothbrush, from the holder by the sink. Brushed. Spat. Spat again.

That toothpaste...

A local brand. Vendor at the pharmacy had practically shoved it into his fingers. Along with the gauze, chemicals, and a bunch of other crap he probably didn't need.

The stuff was sharp and minty, all right. Like the label said. But, there was something else. An undertaste.

Brooks couldn’t quite place it.

Toweling off as he entered the bedroom, the first wave of asphyxia hit him.

As his vision swam, the analytical part of Brooks’ brain kicked in. Identifying that undertaste.

Bitter almonds; a cyanide derivative, probably.

Death would be almost instantaneous.

As the floor rushed up to meet him, Brooks might also have observed that the plastic surgeon wouldn’t be necessary. The corner of the bed would rearrange his features perfectly well, thank you very much.

But he didn’t have time. Even for that.

BIO: Desmond (Des) Nnochiri spent his early years traveling with his parents, and was educated in England, the USA, and the Republic of Ireland (Eire). He writes freelance now, and has taken his first steps into the world of screenwriting. He has contributed stories to A Twist of Noir, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and Powder Burn Flash. He blogs at Des Nnochiri’s Write to Speak.

A Twist Of Noir 466 - Nancy Sweetland


It would be a perfect night for a murder. I suppose not many people would think like that, but then not many people are in my line of work. It never seems like work to me, though; each job is an intriguing challenge. Who? How? Where? And when? And I do so enjoy the outcome: money. Lots of money.

This particular job was going to be especially interesting, my first in a small town. I usually work big cities, where it’s easier to do my deed and disappear.

The Who was somebody’s wife. The How was, of course, up to me. The Where was dictated by her husband, who was going to be anywhere but there. The When was also stated in our contract (verbal, of course, not on paper, can’t have something like that lying around, can we?).

We met in the food court of the Cliffside Mall, where other people, intent on their dinner plates, paid no attention to us. “This Friday,” the husband said decisively. “Between eight and ten.”

It was already late Wednesday afternoon. Not much time to plan. I asked, “You’ll be safely away?”

“Thousands of feet in the air between Vegas and Chicago.”

“And she’ll be where?”

“She leaves the fitness center about eight, drives home over the cliff road. She never varies.”

“Even if she knows you aren’t going to be home?”

“She doesn’t know. I told her I’d be there by about seven, and that I’d bring takeout and wine - she loves wine - so she wouldn’t have to worry about cooking dinner.”

I nodded. He’d done half the work for me already; now all I had to do was finish her off and get out of town. “Got a picture of her for me?” I wouldn’t want to pick off somebody else’s wife.

“Sure.” He handed me a color snapshot.

My heart stopped.

I knew her. Well. Very well. She was - had been - the first love of my life. We’d lost touch over the years, yet I’d have recognized her anywhere. Same wide blue eyes, same tilted nose, flyaway blond hair. Same air of excitement that had thrilled me as a teenager. And that, I realized, could still thrill me now.

I swallowed. “You're sure this is her?” My grammar fails me when I’m flustered. “I mean she?”

He frowned. “Don’t you think I know my own wife?”

“But...but...” I stuttered.

“What’s the matter? Fifty thousand isn’t enough? I’ve got it right here.” He reached for his inner coat pocket.

“No, no.” I swallowed. Hard. “It’s plenty.” Erasing (my preferred terminology) a stranger was one thing, but the girl that had taken my virginity so sweetly in the back seat of my father’s Buick way back when? That was another.

Fifty thousand. Good pay for a couple of day’s work, wouldn't you say? It was more than I usually asked, enough to set me up for some time in a new place, with a new name. Maybe even in a new business, I thought now.

He handed me the packet of bills and we shook hands. I watched him walk away, shoulders straight, a nearly rich man without a care in the world. I could almost hear him humming under his breath.

My own shoulders slumped; I felt the weight of that world on me. Sweet Janie Mason. Not Mason now, I thought. Janie Glidden. Rich Janie Glidden. She’d inherited a bundle from her father’s tech business. Her husband wasn’t into sharing; he wanted it all. And it was my well-paid job to see that he got it.

“Make it look like a mugging gone bad,” he suggested. “Or run her car off the cliff road on her way home, something like that, I don’t care. Just do it.” His voice was cold.

I’d nodded. Sure.


I felt sick. Really, really sick. But before I went back to my motel (small, cheap, the kind of place where the guy at the reception desk was used to not noticing people), I decided to take a drive around town, check out the cliff road Janie’s husband had mentioned. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad if I could work out that scenario, if I didn’t have to actually touch her? If she never saw my face?

I tried to think back on my other jobs - there had been more than a dozen in the past couple of years. Had I ever really thought about the mark? About what he or she was really like, had done, or cared about? I closed my eyes, trying to picture faces, places, but nothing stood out. They were just jobs to be done, were done, became history. Get paid, do the work, move on. This one was different and I wasn’t sure how to make it happen.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening at the library, checking over microfiche tapes of the past year’s social events. Janie was all over the papers at one charity event or another, at a soup kitchen, a day care, helping out at a blood drive. In every picture her love of life shone around her like an aura. Her husband, on the other hand, was no more than an escort on a couple of occasions. There was no press on his accomplishments. I assumed there weren’t any, except for marrying well.

The truth was, I’d been hired by a gold-digging nothing to erase not only a beautiful but a worthy person. It made my stomach ache, and I headed back to my motel to brood. Maybe something would come to me in my sleep. I’d heard about the subconscious working out solutions that way.

It didn’t happen.

The next morning I got into my rental sedan, a nothing special model that wouldn’t be remembered by anyone unless they had reason to notice me, and drove to the east side of town where the road climbed steeply up a rock cliff overlooking a swiftly-flowing river. A vehicle pushed over the edge would tumble over a few outcroppings before hitting the water. The current looked strong enough to push the car well away from the site where it went over the embankment. But there was a problem to the cliff scenario: the drop off was protected by a sturdy rock and cement wall almost three feet high. No way would a car break through that.

I headed back into town, considering and discarding possibilities that ran through my mind, oblivious to my surroundings until, at a stoplight, the Lexus that pulled up beside me honked. My light was still red, so what was the beef? I turned to give the driver a scowl that changed to astonishment as the window toward me slid down and a smiling woman waved.
Janie Glidden.

This couldn’t happen. I thought about gunning the motor and disappearing. I thought about pretending I hadn’t noticed. I thought about Buicks and yesterdays and rolled my own window down.

“Janie!” I called. “What a surprise!”

“Pull over,” she said.

I did.

Later, much later, over drinks and dinner at a nondescript bar and grill I would bet had never been graced with Janie Glidden’s presence before, we were still catching up. We laughed and reminisced. I fabricated a job in Chicago (advertising) and a reason for being in Cliffside (just passing through, going north to check on some vacation property). She was honest about what she did (I knew most of it already) but hesitant to talk about her husband. I was pretty sure she didn’t like him much.

“Are you married, Tom?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Never found the girl that could measure up to my memories of you,” I answered, surprised to realize that was probably true. I raised my glass of wine.

She blushed, and I remembered how easily the color came over her face. “Silly,” she said, and impulsively reached out to take my hand. “It’s so good to see you. Won’t you stay over and have dinner with us tomorrow night? Alec will be home, and I know he’d be pleased to meet you.”

Yeah, right.

“I can’t,” I said. “I have an appointment up at Tomahawk.”

“Oh.” She really was disappointed.

“But I could have lunch before I leave town,” I suggested. “If you’re free.”

She smiled, the old sparkle in those wide blue eyes. “I’d love to,” she said, and we parted. I didn’t kiss her, but I wanted to.

I couldn’t wait until the next day, just to be with Janie again. I was smitten. And I felt awful.

I couldn’t sleep. My stomach churned every time I thought about the job I had to do. I’d already been paid for it. I had never backed out on a contract. And what if I did? That wouldn’t save Janie. Alec, the jerk, would just find another hit man to erase her. This old world would keep on turning, as the song goes, but without Janie’s special light. Without her good works. Without her smile.

It was beginning to get light before I fell asleep, and that didn’t last long. But it’s true, your subconscious can solve problems for you. When I woke up, I knew exactly what to do.

Janie and I had a wonderful lunch in the restaurant on the top of the highest building in Cliffside, five whole stories up overlooking that swiftly-moving river. By the time we left, the restaurant was almost empty, and I knew it was time for me to leave town to make my fictitious appointment in Tomahawk.

“You will come back, won’t you, Tom?” she pleaded as she got into her Lexus. “I really want to see you again.”

“Oh, yes, I will,” I said. “I promise. I want to meet Alec.”

And meet him I did, as he strode through O’Hare on the way to come home, fully prepared to act his way through the horrible disaster of his wife’s demise. I met him in passing, with a stiletto so thin hardly any blood spotted his white shirt. I was yards away through the crowd before he sank without a sound to the marble floor.

As I said before, it was a perfect night for a murder. I’ll wait a while, then I’ll return to Cliffside. After all, I promised Jamie I’d come back.

BIO: Nancy Sweetland has sold over 350 feature articles, 62 adult short stories; poems to both adult and juvenile magazines, 40+ children’s magazine stories, seven picture books and an adult romance, “The Door to Love.” She’s been awarded 60 regional and national awards in adult and juvenile fiction and poetry, essays, commercial copy writing and outdoor writing. She lives and works in Green Bay, WI.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 465 - Jonathan Ashley


I left the Christmas party after Anne threw her whiskey and ginger in my face. I mean how much does she think a man can take? Maybe I deserved it because of how I talked to her. But the way she’d treated me all night, avoiding me like I was an irksome little cousin her mother had forced to bring along, what else was I supposed to do? It was as if the men who worked at the restaurant with her were more deserving of her affections than I. Of course, being unemployed and inebriated most days and nights, placing the burden of rent and bills on her shoulders, what did I expect? How was she supposed to introduce me?

“Hey, everybody. This is my no account, unemployable fiancée, Lyle? Look at the opal ring he bought me when he proposed. He couldn’t afford diamonds, but that ain’t what matters, now, is it?”

When the strippers showed up and started dancing on the bar and Anne stuck that five dollar bill between her breasts for one of the girls to retrieve with her mouth, I’d had enough. Here she was, acting like a complete and utter libertine, gallivanting around in her see through dress that barely covered her ass. And she was doing all this right before my very eyes, like it didn’t matter that she’d had a man for four and a half years and needed to be settling down.

I turned away at the sight of her with the strippers, a gathering of her co-workers, mostly male, cheering her on, an orgasmic smile scarring her otherwise angelic face. She caught me outside as I was about to exit the patio, right before the marble fountain with the statue of Venus spitting water.

A corpulent sheriff’s deputy stood with his back against the brick wall of the business next door, supervising the work party, making sure that no minors were served alcohol, that there were no illegal drugs on the premises and that everyone behaved themselves. He wore a broad brimmed Stetson and a nylon green down jacket with a gold star emblazoned on the right breast.

“Where you going?” Anne asked.

“Home,” I said. “Leave you to your leisure.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I told you I liked your dress and the first thing you say back is, ‘You ain’t gonna ruin my time tonight. Don’t you be following me around all night like some sort of lost puppy.’ Remember you saying that?”

“You were making fun of my dress.”

“I said, ‘Nice little dress.’”

“‘Nice little dress.’ That’s your idea of a compliment. And you had a tone in your voice, making fun of me.”

“Well, you walk around dressed like that.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Not nearly enough.”

“Don’t go,” she softened up to me, trying to hold onto my hand.

I jerked it away and said, “Don’t touch me, you asshole”

“What’d you say to me? You called me an asshole.”

“At least I didn’t call you a cunt. You could always think of it that way.”

Then she reared back and splashed her drink right in his face. The deputy ran over, standing between the two of us and grabbing us by our shoulders. His face was red with something akin to fear, worried that he’d get jacked in the back of the head settling another domestic dispute.

“Y’all don’t simmer down, one of you’s going to jail and I don’t care which.”

I backed away, brushing Anne’s hand off my shoulder. I backpedaled toward the wrought iron gate that separated the sidewalk from the patio.

“Take her to jail,” I said. “She’s the asshole.”

“You piece of shit,” Anne said, chewing her lower lip, nodding her head dejectedly.

“It’s no problem, sir,” I said, still glaring at Anne. “I’m leaving anyway.”

The deputy didn’t bother to ask if I’d had too much to drink to be driving. He probably figured that was the least of his worries. He was just glad one of us hadn’t taken to throwing fists. I walked on down the sidewalk toward my rusted Dodge, Anne’s voice trailing me.

“Lyle,” she yelled. “Lyle, baby, wait.”

I ignored her as I fumbled with the lock on my car, trying to fit the key in right. It was only then that I realized just how much I’d had to drink at the party. I opened the door right as Anne walked up behind me. Just as I sat down in the driver’s seat and stuck the key in the ignition, she blocked the door so I couldn’t close it.

“Where you going?” she said.

“Nunya,” I laughed.


“Nunya business.”

“You think you’re funny.”

“At least one of us does.”

“Don’t go,” she was whining now, begging me, thirty seconds after flinging alcohol in my face.

“You think I’m gonna stick around this place after you embarrass me like that. Sorry, hon.”

I started the car and began to back away from the parking space. The open door pushed her along until she finally backed away and it shut. She drew back her black leather purse and begun hitting the window and the side of the car with it, calling me everything but a child of God. I peeled out of the restaurant’s parking lot, Anne disappearing in the rearview mirror, the winter winds ruffling her close-cropped raven hair, her hand on her hip as she struggled to stand in one place.

Somehow I wound up on the West End, neon-lit liquor stores interspersed with dilapidated shotgun shacks. As I drove further west, boarded-up row houses littered each side of the street along with more liquor stores, bars on the windows. The falling snow whitened the rooftops and gave the town a hollow, bleak look. I drove aimlessly, trying to get as far away from Anne as possible.

I was in no shape to drive or, for that matter, to congregate with civilized folk. Perhaps that’s why I chose The Green Room as my destination, the seediest, sleaziest strip club in Louisville. Housed on South Seventh Street, the whitewashed building sat on the corner of one of the most dangerous areas of the city. Crack dealers parked themselves on brownstone steps, patrol cars speeding through red lights as not to get stones thrown through their windshields.

It was not a place for a white boy in his mid-twenties with a shaved head and a Black Flag sweatshirt.

I was too inebriated to care, still simmering with rage over the embarrassment she’d had put me through.

As I parked the car across from the strip club’s whitewash facade and headed to the front door, the corner boys yelling curses, the whores cat calling, I wondered what Anne might be up to. Had she found a suitable mate with which to exact her revenge? Had she passed out at the foot of the bar? Or was she merely flirting with one of her fellow servers or a bartender?

I shook my head, exorcising the thoughts. I needed to focus on walking a straight line. There was a cop car creeping up behind me. The bastard must’ve had guts driving that slow through this neighborhood. I glanced over my shoulder. The black haired cop had a thick handlebar moustache and looked like Wyatt Earp, the one Dennis Quaid played alongside the always pathetic and horrible Kevin Costner.

The cop saluted me and drove on.

I entered the dark club, red vinyl booths aligning the western and southern walls, a long mahogany bar to my right. Two stages were situated in the middle of the room, ebony skinned dancers writhing like serpents around rusty poles. A stout, swarthy looking man in a purple vest, an over starched white suit shirt and a bow tie stood at a podium to my left and held out his hand. He heaved a heavy sigh when my only response was to stare.

“Five dollars,” the man shouted over the hip-hop music that blared from massive speakers mounted above each stage.

“Jesus,” I murmured as I fumbled for my wallet.

I scrounged up five ones, placing the rumpled bills in the swarthy man’s sweaty, upturned palm. I turned away and headed to the stage to get a closer look at the dancers. A man in a green flack jacket and blue cap that read ARMY sat in a wheelchair across the stage. Long strands of gray hair peeked out from beneath his cap and he had a deeply pock-marked face. He gazed upon the dancers like they were angels bringing him legs. A crumpled pile of bills lay before him on the counter connected to the stage. The woman dancing closest to him was slightly overweight, stretch marks on her stomach and butt cheeks. But she moved lithely, like a woman half her size. The haggard dancer approached the veteran and crouched, grabbing him by his hair and shoving his face into her bosom, shaking so her breasts bounced his head back and forth. She let go of him and squeezed her breasts together. He placed a five dollar bill between them. A moment later, a waitress wearing nothing but a g-string, balancing a tray of drinks against her hip tapped the veteran on the shoulder. When he turned to order, the haggard stripper reached into his pile of money and came out with a handful, throwing it on the stage behind her with the rest of the cash customers had been handing her. The veteran reached blindly into the pile and handed the waitress a bill. The waitress placed a thin glass filled with amber liquid onto the counter and disappeared into the darkness.

The fact that the stripper had stolen from this war hero bothered me. In fact, I was enraged, angrier than I’d been when I entered the club. Revenge was in order. I could tell the poor bastard that he was being robbed, but what good would that do. It would just be my word against the dancer’s and the bouncers and management would undoubtedly believe her. Instead, I opted for something more personal. I stood, staggering away from the stage and toward the hallway in the back with the neon sign indicating a men’s room. I traipsed through the door and glanced under the stalls. I was alone. I entered a stall, unbuckled my belt and dropped my Levis. Bending down, I fumbled through the pockets until I found a one dollar bill. I folded it lengthwise, shoved it halfway up my ass and pulled it back out, making a mental note of which half was now covered in invisible fecal matter.

When I got back to the stage, the same dancer was working her angle, this time spreading her legs before the disabled veteran. I sat across from him and placed the clean half of the dollar bill in my mouth. She glanced over her shoulder, sensing my presence. I winked, knowing she’d noticed the dollar bill. She crawled across the stage, wiggling her ass as she moved, never losing my gaze, trying to draw me in with those big brown bedroom eyes. I pretended like it was working. She placed her lips around the dirty half of the dollar and drew it from my mouth, dropping it into her hand and throwing it over her shoulder with the others. She grinned and stood, stepping backwards toward the pole.

At this point, the PA crackled and the voice of the DJ came on. The DJ was a rotund black man in a seersucker suit standing in a booth to the left of the stage closest to the door. His voice was throaty, cigarette tinged.

“And now our star attraction,” he said.

I got up and walked outside and sat on the curb. I didn’t care to sadly sit there and watch the show anymore, to see these girls who were someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s fiancée, someone’s girlfriend, someone’s angel. As far as I was concerned, their star attraction sat in a wheelchair being robbed. Past the smokestacks of the outskirts of downtown and through the gusted clouds in the distance, all I could see was the face of my fiancée.

BIO: Jonathan Ashley is a reporter and columnist for LEO or Louisville Eccentric Observer. He has worked as a screen printer, aprivate investigator, a counselor for adolescent orphans and a coffee shop Barista. His stories are soon to appear in PLOTS WITH GUNS and THUGLIT. He has a BA from Indiana University and is currently seeking and MFA from Murray State. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.