Though it’s approaching two years since I published Ordinary Handsome, I still have deep affection for it. I still think of it as the benchmark of everything I’ve written since. It’s the simple story of a thief, a mistake, a dying town, and the ghosts, real or imagined, that haunt the town of Handsome. If a writer is allowed to say such a thing, it still haunts me. Enjoy, and thank you for reading. – Steve
Link and reviews here.
Fifty-seven years ago I killed a boy. Tonight, you walked into my room with a Mossberg 510 and a stained hobo mattress and fired a shot into my belly.
But we’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we, Euart?
The memories get scattered like buckshot every time I revisit them. I play them in my head until the sentences become clearer and my confessional feels more sincere. Everything has been garbled and meaningless, tangled in memories and false perceptions; all right, lies.
I’ve lived with a lie for fifty-seven years, and built upon it my cathedral, and you were the only one who knew it. I’ve been expecting you for all these fifty-seven years. One lie built a thousand until I couldn’t cut through them without anything but honest confession. And, maybe, a Mossberg 510 to pare away my guts.
I’m still not sure you’re not a hallucination, though this blood between my fingers tells me different. At this point, it doesn’t matter.
The clock reads: 3:18.
I know I’m finished, and it would have been true even without you in front of my bed. Put down that damned mattress and I’ll tell you what happened that night. If there are any lies, it’s only because I’ve been swimming in them for so long that I don’t know the feel of dry land. They are not intentional lies, just the way I remember things.
Let me put my hands back on the wheel, hands at ten and two, and drive through that night again. And then you can let me be.
Ronny Salmon was hungover and in a nasty mood. His wife left him three days earlier and he’d been living on Evan Williams bourbon-fried egg sandwiches. Archie Dollar was attending a Baptist circus tent revival, so it was Ronny and me, and it was a coin toss as to who was the better driver. When Ronny was in that kind of mood, it was better to let him be, so I ended up with the keys. Would it have made a difference? Maybe not. If Archie was driving, it would have made all the difference. Or maybe not. Sometimes fate squeezes its hand around your throat no matter what you do.
Arlene was… not so well. It was more obvious every day. So I needed more money for treatments that wouldn’t work and I needed more work so I wouldn’t have to see her deteriorate. Selfish? Of course. But I also didn’t want her to see me deteriorate. I was operating on ninety percent grief and ten percent need. It was the right decision, I think. I was there at the end, that’s what counts.
But until it happens, grief is just a word. You may think you know it, but it runs deeper than cancer, more malignant than regret. What the hell did I know about grief? I was sad that my wife was going to die? Is that all? But never mind. You know what I’m talking about.
I needed something quick and uncomplicated. We weren’t showmen, Ronny and me. But we were efficient. And we….
No, that’s not right. We were simple crooks. No finesse, not much better than thugs. Smash and grab, that was more like it.
I said I’d be honest, and listen to me. Daydreaming about the good old days, a couple of daring pirates in an old Bel Air. No. I wasn’t that good or that smart. Any planning came down to: who do we hit/got your gun/what’s the fastest way out of here? It was a job. I needed the money. Simple.
It was another gas station. We were never audacious enough to try anything better. A liquor store once in a while, but mostly gas stations. Fill your tank, check your oil, keep the change.
You know there’s no decent place to rob in a place like Handsome. We usually took our show on the road. But the sky was filling up with some nasty weather, and we both wanted to get home. Maybe not Ronny, all he wanted was a bed and another drink. And maybe not me either, because all I had to go home to was a dying wife. But neither of us were particularly ambitious. It was just workaday until we punched our card. And neither of us wanted to be out in the storm that was coming. We were going through the motions for a few hundred bucks.
Even though it was gray overhead, it was dark gray. Heavy gray. It was going to come down hard. We almost called it off. But when the weather is going to turn, that may be the best time to do a job. Little or no traffic, and you know the poor bastard you’re going to hit isn’t going to care. He just wants to go home, too.