Maggie – A novella

Maggie-final

I got all these feelings bundled up in a snarl, all the should-have’s and supposed-to’s and unfair verdicts of past mistakes. There are all these bricks of grief and regret and wondering if I could have changed just one moment. Just one. And when I try to build something out of them bricks, they crack and shift into different shapes, and then they fall into a heap worse off than when I started. I know Gram was thinking about Daniel. We’d been stepping in and out of his shadow since I first showed up here, neither of us wanting to conjure him up for real. Thinking about Daniel made me tired and sad, cracked at the spine, broke in the heart.
***
Excerpt from Maggie, now available from Amazon. Many thanks to D. Wallace Peach for her remarkable editing skills. I was under a particularly tight deadline to complete this story, and Diana’s suggestions and thoroughness gave Maggie a little more shine. And I won’t mention all those damned commas. Thank you, my friend.

Revised cover

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The big dreamers weren’t anywhere to be found in my bar that day. You know the kind, if you’ve ever been in a saloon. The big talkers who like to think they have life by the throat. If they were just a little luckier, or if fate was a little pluckier, they could improve their lot in life in a minute.

But you hear all those dreams, those half-lit ambitions, and you know they’re not going anywhere but from the bar stool to the privy, and back to their bar stool. And the drunker they get, the loftier the dreams.

Old Walt Zuckerman, who used to manage the Red & White, he always had the dream of buying himself a house boat. Said if he had one, he’d float on the lake all day, drink beer, and enjoy the fruits of his labor. What particular fruits, and what particular labor, he never said, but he was keen on buying that boat. And on what lake, I don’t have any idea. Wasn’t a lake within 200 miles of Handsome. I guess if you’re going to dream something up, the matter of a lake shouldn’t have no bearing.

Then he decided he was going to build that boat. He studied diagrams in Popular Mechanics, and even bought a garage-full of lumber. He said he sent away for blueprints from a company in Pennsylvania.

Walt spent endless weeks talking about that boat, and how he would name it “The Marie” after his high school sweetheart, and how he’d paint it green and stencil her name on it with bright orange paint. He would have a fully stocked kitchen, which he called the galley, and eat pork and beans and put ketchup on his eggs and leave a bottle of bourbon on his bedside table at night because no one could tell him he couldn’t because he would be the goddamned captain of The Marie.

Of course, the lumber gathered termites, and his hammer and nails turned rusty, and it came to pass you couldn’t buy Walt a drink if you mentioned The Marie. He was done with it, and he never spoke of her again.

Time slipped away, like it always does, and life got in the way. And so it is with everyone who leaves a crumpled dollar bill on the counter of my bar. For every “trade her in for a new Cadillac, maybe next summer,” there’s another greasy sawbuck in my cash drawer.

***

Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome, available here. Thanks for reading!

Brother Efrim

Ah, brother Efrim. He never told his story well. Everything about him was submerged. He wore both masks, the comic and the tragic. When he drank, he was the best goddamn drunk he could be. Sober, his heart was larger than anyone she knew. Elani loved him and she understood the depths, the wear-and-tear of pride, the oscillating moods. She tried to rescue him, and still hoped she could. He was stubborn.

She often drew him in her sketch book, always from memory. He had little patience for sitting still or staying in the moment. His face was angular and whiskered, pliant skin over bone. The portraits were always in charcoal and pencil, because that was him, practically a Dickensian character, bare meat on his bones, unwashed hair, seared lips.

She found him once, on one of her rescue missions, slumped on the sidewalk. The street lights dredged the pavement like flour, and he was a shapeless drift of luminance. He was waiting for the better angels to show up. Or his sister.

She cupped the back of his head. No more, he mouthed, but the words were a malt liquor vapor.

***Excerpt from a work-in-progress, The Stone Age***

Ordinary Handsome: An excerpt

ordinaryhandsomeiiThough 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.

The father of children

The move to Wishing was the best thing. Frank Cobin wasn’t a big shot in town anymore, engorged with bravado and insolence. He was the stranger in town, and had no favor with the thin-faced men: the corner-men, the hustlers, the scammers, the casually dangerous.

The move to Wishing was the worst thing. Marooned from his pals, Frank took his temper out on his wife and kid, bullied them with his knuckles and insults. His ambitions were volatile, written in chalk, scribbled and wiped clean every day.

Eldridge caught him with his pants down, with that woman from downtown, that woman who worked at Bibby’s Department Store, and his old man didn’t have much to say about that. He had a weakness for the Negro women, he told his boy, and

runnels of sweat ran down her round belly, clean like rain water. Her breasts rose with every inhalation, nipples hard like rock candy, hips churning to a hallowed beat. Eldridge could smell the woman’s sweat, and it was not fear-sweat, but a submissive heat-sweat, her face straining for pleasure, her eyes greedy, flooded with inside light, and

don’t tell your mother, don’t let her know.

And his father cried and groveled, but not for forgiveness. He needed to preserve that secret, that deep echo of himself, and he begged his boy not to draw out that darkness.

Eldridge never did tell, but the secret exhausted him. It was a guilty-belly, hungry-belly secret, like a tongue against a throbbing tooth. His father stopped using his fists, and Eldridge learned to use his. He discovered his own appetite that night, and the shades pulled down on his childhood. The shadows, he understood, never went away. They clove to everything, and soon the headaches began, and his temper grew more sour.

Eldridge stared down at his father, his old and ruptured flesh, and heard Frank’s impious excuses for the last time. He ended that part of his life for good. No one ever knew.

“The father of children”, he said, “has a duty to protect them, not bury them.” That was what Frank Cobin did. He buried his son in a lie.

“The father of children needs to be accountable,” he said, and kneeled on his father’s shoulders. The old man had turned scrawny in his old age, dry as jerky, so it wasn’t hard. It was like resting on a piece of shredded hickory.

“You punished us for the smallest mistakes,” he said. His voice was calm, almost soothing. He lowered the heel of his hand on his father’s throat, and he felt its pulse, irregular but strong. “You betrayed your wife and your child for the sake of a whore.”

“No whore,” the old man wheezed.

“You couldn’t be trusted. Who do I trust now? You made us feel like dirt, like we were useless. And you were whoring around like a man of the town, laughing at us behind our back. And the only thing you’ve ever been ashamed of is that you were caught. How do you think that makes us feel? At least Mom was spared. I protected her.” He sunk his hand deeper into Frank’s throat. He felt bone and gristle, paper thin.

Then things got fuzzy around the edge of his temper.

**Excerpt from The Stone Age — a work in progress**

Sirens

He still listens for sirens. He doesn’t hear them, not exactly, but he waits for them, waits for the whole damned thing to come down.

A police siren, a plain blue warble, and you don’t know if they’re coming for you or heading somewhere else.

That town, swear to God, moved and breathed, and the only thing you could smell was its filthy haunches. Sometimes it smelled like the detritus of the dieback wheat, and sometimes it smelled like his father, cotton work pants and Wildroot cream. But mostly he remembers the dark reek of potato vodka slopping on the old man’s undershirt.

The summer Eldridge turned ten, those sirens cut apart his sleep. When your world was a flat plate of broom corn and empty wind, sirens busted everything open. When you’re feverish from the day heat, still slick at ten o’clock at night, you remember. Most times, the silence was so thick you could feel it crawl around your ears. But when those sirens cut through the night like a squall, it scratched scars on your memory.

The sound terrified Eldridge, and made him giddy. Maybe his old man had been knifed in the downtown beer parlor, or maybe he was the knifer. Didn’t matter. When his father slammed the porch screen at 2:30 the next morning, Eldridge was still awake.

“Boy got runned over on Little Route,” his old man said. “Thought it might be you, but I was pitching nickels with Thimble Wyatt and one of them Ostrander fellas, and didn’t have time to check. Now fetch me a beer and get on back to bed.”

And on and on through a hollow span of days and nights, until they moved away from that awful Oklahoma town for good. But the sirens kept chasing him down. One day they’d be for him, and for good reason.

**From The Stone Age — a work-in-progress**