Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 237 - Karl Koweski


They left for school at 7:30. Already the early morning heat was stifling. Without air conditioning, they knew the coming school day was going to be an exercise in misery. From the front stoop, they could see the steeple of St. Casimir church jutting toward the heavens like a righteous middle finger. Three blocks away, a freight train rumbled along the tracks.

Brian walked ahead. He carried his arithmetic book and his Catechism in his hand. Sheets of loose leaf paper curled out of his books like cowlicks. Harley carried his books in his backpack. Brian had an identical backpack but refused to carry it since it cramped his style.

At the end of the block, they were met by Milsap and Skiba walking to school from the opposite direction. Milsap and Skiba lived within a few houses from each other in an area where Harley’s dad said the poor lived. They met here on the way to school every day.

Skiba was one of those kids, even shy of being a teenager, you knew would never have a chance at life. God had tattooed BORN TO LOSE on his upper arm in invisible jailhouse ink at conception. And Skiba seemed content to live up to this destiny. He was tall, gangly; he often skipped breakfast but not by choice. His hair was the greasy brown of dead raccoon, his teeth were chipped, discolored and painful to look at. The characteristic that defined him to most of the kids in the neighborhood was the livid scar that jagged across his large Frankenstein forehead. This being a generation before Rowling came along and made such a facial scar desirable. The cheap buzz cut Skiba sported called further attention to the scar.

Skiba was run down in the road when he was eight years old as he chased a frisbee thrown by an overzealous cousin (who most people believed had seen the car coming). The sole reason Skiba was able to attend St. Casimir was because Father John, hung over from bingo the night before, was driving the Buick.

How Milsap’s parents came up with tuition was a bit more vague. Milsap mentioned something about a rich gramma who wanted him to have a good Catholic education even though she was Lutheran and, supposedly, a Nazi sympathizer. Whatever the case might be, her charity obviously stopped when it came to supplying Milsap with laundry soap or clothes that fit.

Milsap was short and on the same diet as Skiba. He carried neither books nor backpack. His philosophy on homework: anything that couldn’t be done during the first five minutes of class wasn’t worth doing. As far as the good Catholic education went, Milsap couldn’t tell the difference between an immaculate conception and a good transubstantiation.

“We stopping at Biedron’s?” Skiba asked.

“Hell no,” Brian said. “She never gots anything worth a damn. Let’s go to White Hen.”

“Deep money pockets wants to go to White Hen,” Milsap scoffed.

“I ain’t got money for White Hen,” Skiba said.

“Well, you ain’t got money for White Hen, then you ain’t got money for Biedron’s.”

“Yeah, but I get the five finger discount at Biedron’s.”

“Then go on and go. Me and Harley’ll wait outside for you.”

Skiba glanced at Milsap. Milsap shook his head no.

“We need someone to go in there and buy something,” Skiba said. “We can’t just go in there and start taking stuff.”

“Well, it looks like you’re shit out of luck, then, cause I’m going to White Hen and getting me a suicide.”

They walked past Biedron’s corner store. The two story brick structure looked like an apartment building except for the plate glass window at the front. The store offered a little bit of everything but sold mostly nothing except penny candy to the neighborhood kids who were just learning to feel contempt for the elderly. The products scattered about the shelves were coated with enough dust to choke a coal miner. Most of the perishables had long since perished. The two 5lb sacks of flour were rat-gnawed.

Mrs. Biedron staring out the window looked as though she’d been left on the shelf twenty years past her sell-by date. She sat on the stool in front of the manual cash register, lording over an array of Sour Patch Kids, Bazooka Joe gum, cherry balls, swedish fish. There was no television or radio to ease her corner store existence. And that struck Harley as sad.

“Goddammit. You’re gonna leave me and Skiba high and dry so you can make one of those bullshit drinks.”


Brian’s latest obsession centered around White Hen’s fountain drinks. He prided himself on a concoction he called “the suicide” which consisted of Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper and Grape Nehi mixed in a 40 oz. cup. Those hoping to curry favor with Brian often asked him to create suicides for them. Brian was all too happy to oblige, thinking in the back of his mind, such a skill might serve him well in the future when he embarked on a career as bartender.

Milsap, never one to curry favor, was always quick to offer his opinion of Brian’s suicides. “I don’t know how you can drink that liquid shit.”

Milsap made eye contact with Mrs. Biedron momentarily. Her watery blue eyes swam behind glasses thick enough to start forest fires in San Diego from where she stood in South Chicago. Though his mind registered no other thoughts than his usual unexpressed revulsion for all things, seeing her motivated his hand to rise up and his middle finger extend. He blew her a kiss.

“Why you gotta be such an asshole, Milsap?” Brian asked.

“I don’t know,” Milsap shrugged. “Guess that’s just how god made me.”

“He threw in an extra asshole and left out the brains,” Skiba said.

Everyone laughed. Harley laughed a little too loudly, and a little too long. Brian cut his eyes at him. The message was clear. Don’t overstep your bounds. Your ass is lucky just to be here.

Another block brought the quartet to White Hen Pantry with its polarized plate glass windows, asphalt parking lot and fountain drinks. It had something for everyone willing to pay exorbitant prices rather than drive the extra mile and spend the extra five minutes shopping at the grocery store.

“Any you guys want a suicide?” Brian asked.

Nobody consented. Brian reached for the door when Milsap stopped him dead with three words. “Look at this.”

It wasn’t so much the words as the tone of voice. Likely it was the same tone of voice Carter used when he discovered the entrance to Tutankhamen’s burial chamber or when Skiba found his first nudie magazine while he was rummaging through an alley. The three boys turned their attention to Milsap.

Milsap stood next to a refrigerated truck parked alongside the White Hen. Grinning ear to ear, he motioned at an unlocked compartment. Quickly, they glanced around ensuring there were no curious passersby. Milsap opened the door and grabbed a twenty-four count box of ice cream.

And then they were off, racing around back, down the alley toward school. Though lugging the ice cream, Milsap set the pace. He’d never ran track in school. Never did much of anything in school. But given ample motivation, Milsap could outrun damn near anybody. His utter lack of school paraphernalia didn’t hurt any, either.

They raced for half a block until Milsap could no longer resist examining his loot. He stopped and dumped the box on the ground. He used his fingernail to slice the brown tape. The four boys crowded around the box.

“Chocolate and banana fudgesicles!” Harley announced. His absolute fucking favorite. The gods were smiling upon him.

They reached in simultaneously, knocking each other’s hands out of the way, somehow grabbing two or three apiece. Wrappers came off. Fudgesicles jammed into mouths.

“What are we gonna do with the rest?” Harley asked. It seemed imperative he eat all the ice cream.

Skiba took his fudgesicle out of his mouth long enough to say “hide ‘em under a porch”.

“They’ll melt... Skiba.” Idiot being the word Harley wanted to use.

“After school, we’ll take them home and refreeze them.”

“Won’t work. They’ll drip out.”

Skiba, not much liking having his plan shot down out of hand by a kid two grades lower, sniffed, “Since when are you an expert on fudgesicles?”

“Shut up, Skiba.” Brian gave him a glare that begged the question: How would you like another scar across your head?

Milsap spoke with the expertise of a kid who’d been stealing since he stole from the womb. “We take as much as we can eat and ditch the rest.”

Skiba grabbed another handful as did Brian. Harley watched as Milsap took one more from the box to go along with the one he’d almost finished. Harley followed Milsap’s lead.

Milsap dumped the remaining fudgesicles in a garbage can, and they finished the trek to school. By the time they arrived at the red brick compound named for the patron saint of Polocks, Milsap and Harley were empty-handed. Skiba and Brian still carried three fudgesicles between them.

Outside St. Casimir school’s front doors, thirty kids congregated, grouped according to age, and divided again by social order. The cool girls, most of them favoring tight navy blue slacks as opposed to the billowing blue and white plaid school girl skirts worn by the heavier, unpopular girls, stood near the doors on the right side of the lobby. The boys gathered on the left side near the flower beds where they told dirty jokes and played grab ass.

Milsap, followed by Harley and Skiba, joined the boys. Milsap already had a joke on his lips concerning the St. Casimir clergy and altar boys. Skiba stood on the fringes, unable to even give away one of his fudgesicles for a few moments of conversation.

Brian glanced about subtly to see who was watching before approaching the girls. He nodded and smiled to every girl who made eye contact but didn’t slow his step until he reached Holly Wargo. He offered a fudgesicle and she accepted.

“Skiba,” Milsap hissed.

Harley tore his eyes away from Brian’s attempts at romantic bribery. Skiba stood off by himself, his face flushed, and the scar lightning bolting down his forehead in stark white. He double fisted the fudgesicles, taking turns on each. He didn’t seem to hear Milsap. His eyes were as distant as his chances of ever getting down Holly Wargo’s pants.

Harley looked back at Milsap who was making curt motions toward a red Honda parking in the No Parking Zone. Harley recognized the driver. Mr. Vavercan with his neatly-trimmed beard and seventies holdover white man’s afro was the owner/operator of White Hen Pantry. The moment he stepped out of his vehicle, his eyes locked on Skiba sucking down fudgesicle.

Act casual. Act casual.

Harley playfully slugged Adam, standing next to him. “So how’s it going, Adam?”


Harley glanced over his shoulder. Mr. Vavercan approached Skiba. Skiba was still oblivious to everything except the two chocolate banana fudgesicles in his hands.

“So whatcha up to, Adam?”

“Standing here. What’s it look like?”

Harley looked for Milsap. Suddenly, he’s no where to be seen. Where’d he go? Should Harley have ducked out of sight? And where was Brian? A quick glance in that direction revealed only a bevy of Catholic school girls.

He heard Mr. Vavercan’s simpering voice asking Skiba where he got the chocolate banana fudgesicles from.

“From the store.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep.” Skiba continued to lick the ice cream, alternating from one hand to the other.

Mr. Vavercan’s hand darted out, seizing Skiba’s wrist and knocking the fudgesicle from his hand. It splatted on the ground. Skiba tenaciously held on to the other ice cream.

“Look what you made me do,” Skiba griped. “You owe me a fudgesicle.”

Mr. Vavercan didn’t bother replying. He led Skiba to the front door. At his approach, the congregation of girls divided and Brian stepped out. He held a half-finished fudgesicle in his hand and nonchalantly ran his tongue across it.

“Where’d you get that fudgesicle?”

“It rained down on me from heaven, where you think, Disco Joe?”

“Ok, let’s go, smart ass.” He pushed Brian toward the door. “We can discuss it with the principal.”

Brian didn’t give him the satisfaction of a retort. He opened the front door and walked through without so much as a glance over his shoulder.

The enormity of the situation hit Skiba smack dab in the forehead. He’d ditched the remaining fudgesicle and busied himself wiping the chocolate away from his mouth and staring wildly about like a horse being led to the glue factory.

The last thing Harley heard Mr. Vavercan say was, “I thought you Catholics had rules against stealing.”

“What’s going on there?” Adam asked.

“None of your fuckin business,” Harley dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

No sooner had Adam walked away when Milsap appeared at Harley’s side.

“It’ll be a long time before Brian makes another one of his famous suicides,” he said.

“Oh, we’re so fucked,” Harley said.

“Why you say that?”

“Are you kidding? Skiba’s gonna...”

“Skiba’s not gonna say a goddamn thing. After Father John plastered him with his Buick, they’re practically canonizing Skiba. He’s a saint. Especially when he’s sitting next to your brother.”

“Oh.” Of course. Since Brian entered St. Casimir school, no misdeed occurred without Brian getting blamed. And no one took advantage of this fact more than Ronnie Milsap. “Dad’s gonna kill him,” Harley muttered.

Milsap laughed. “Shit, Harley, don’t you know you can’t kill a man born to hang?”

BIO: Karl Koweski escaped the shadow of the steel mills thirteen years ago. He's been running in place ever since. He writes the monthly column Observations of a Dumb Polack for www.zygoteinmycoffee.com. His stories and poems have been published across the small press. His first full length collection of short stories will be out by the end of the year from Epic Rites press.


Andy Henion said...

Good story. Good atmosphere.

Al Tucher said...

Good one, Karl. I can't wait to see this crew in a few years.

Sheila Deeth said...

Great characters. I like it.

Joyce said...

I agree with Sheila. The characters are terrific. Would love to see more of them.

Karl said...

I have a story a few days earlier featuring the same four kids called The Great Funeral Home Candy Bar Heist.

Paul D Brazill said...

“He threw in an extra asshole and left out the brains, how true. Little Rascal return. Top story.