Thursday, January 1, 2009

Coyote's Ballad


Originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of Hardluck Stories



“You’ll blow your cojones off, if you no careful.”


“Que?” asked Miguel. “You say something?”

The man behind the wheel adjusted his Stetson and flashed a third-world smile. His name was Cruz—no first name, just Cruz. “This road, she’s a bouncy one,” he said. “And you have that pistola in your lap. A good way to blow your balls off.”

“You don’t know nothing, loco,” said Miguel. But he stowed his Browning under the bench anyway and let his gaze return to the window.

The U-haul rumbled along a rough gravel road, kicking up waves of dust. It was dark out, the sky thick and moonless. A good night to be a coyote. A perfect night, if it wasn’t for the INS flood lamps, lighting up the desert.

Cruz yawned, puffing out his barrel chest. He made Miguel think of a bull stuffed in a flannel shirt. “So how many chickens we got back there?” Cruz asked.

“Ocho,” Miguel spat, disgusted with the number. Just west of Agua Prieta, he’d guided ten pollos—six men, four women—over a trampled length of barbed wire into Arizona. For almost a kilometer, they snaked across the desert on their bellies, hiding from the Border Patrol’s 4x4s. Somewhere along the way, two got lost. Miguel hated leaving them behind, but when he spotted Cruz waiting at the rendezvous, he knew the group couldn’t linger. So he herded his cargo into the back of the truck and jumped into the cab.

Now, the U-haul was headed for the interstate. For Phoenix.

Cruz had a boom box on the dashboard, spinning bootleg CDs. The raspy voice of Chalino Sanchez rang out mournfully, juxtaposed with happy polka beats and tooting horns. The song was a narcorrido, a Mexican drug ballad.

“I know that they’d like to kill me,” the boom box crooned in Spanish. “But let me catch them sleeping, two or three I will take with me, with this .45, I will demand that respect.”

Cruz drummed the steering wheel in time with the music. “Eight is okay. How much we charging? Nine hundred a head?”

Miguel nodded. “Si, that’s right.”

“And we got ourselves a little bonus,” Cruz said. He jerked his thumb at the back of the truck. “I saw that girl you brought in. Una chica bonita, even with dirt all in her face.”

“She’s only a child.”

Cruz flashed his teeth again. “Not for long.”

Miguel said nothing. He turned back to the window and peered out at the desert, trying hard to forget Cruz’s crooked smile.

“…first you must betray him, ” Chalino Sanchez sang from the boom box. “…chest to chest I guarantee you, your hands will perspire. ”

*

Fifty miles outside of Phoenix, Miguel spotted a rest stop and said, “I need to piss.”

“Sure, sure,” said Cruz, pulling the U-haul over. “I’ll stay with the chickens.”

Miguel reached under the seat for the Browning and tucked it behind his back as he dropped out of the cab. There was a time when coyotes didn’t carry guns. But that was before the smugglers organized into gangs, before the hijackings and the turf shootings. Now, Miguel went armed on every run.

The rest stop was graveyard quiet. Miguel took his time in the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face. In the mirror, his skin was sun-worn and wrinkled. Twenty-six-years-old, but looking forty. That’s what being a coyote did to a man.

As a child, Miguel’s family drifted the American highways like a feather on a quick running stream. They bent their backs in the fields. Picked citrus, lettuce, cotton. Always moving but never getting anywhere.

Back then, Miguel’s home was the rear seat of a rust-bucket Buick. He had no real possessions. Nothing to call his own but the clothes on his back and his sister’s smiling eyes. Now, even that was gone.

He splashed himself again, the water bringing his thoughts back to the world. His watch said it was 2:00 am.

Almost time.

Leaving the bathroom, Miguel felt the weight of the Browning tucked in his waistband, touching his skin.

*

“Mierda!” Miguel cursed.

His heart pounded hard against his ribs. Cruz was gone.

Circling the truck, Miguel checked the cab again, thinking maybe the bastard was lying down across the bench seat. That would be just like him, taking a siesta in the middle of a run. But the cab was empty.

This can’t be happening.


He pulled the Browning out and ran to the back of the truck, scanning the locks. That’s when he spotted Cruz on the fringe of the parking lot, the big man stomping through some bushes, buttoning up his jeans.


Miguel jogged to meet him, the pistol low at his side. “Where’d you go?”

“Relax, amigo.” Cruz bowed his head to put on his Stetson. “Just taking a leak.”

“A leak, eh? Why didn’t you use the bathroom?”

“Soy un ranchero. A farm boy from Sinaloa. I like giving the earth a little something to drink.”

Miguel grit his teeth. He’d heard Cruz’s voice crack, saw his brown skin go pale. No, thought Miguel. Please, not this again.

He marched to the edge of the lot, to the bushes Cruz had trudged out of. It didn’t take long to find the girl.

She was sprawled across the hard desert floor, a few yards from the blacktop. Her skirt was torn. Her panties were around her ankles like a white flag of surrender. The soft flesh of her neck had gone black, squeezed by strong, rough hands. In Agua Prieta, the girl’s eyes had reminded Miguel of his sister’s, somehow filled with both sadness and joy at the same time. Now the girl’s eyes were like dusty glass.

“Hijo de puta.” Miguel’s swear was snake’s hiss. But Cruz wasn’t there to hear it. The big man was already heading for the truck, hands in his pockets. Slinking away like a guilty child.

“Why?” Miguel shouted, catching up to him. “Why’d you do this?”

Still walking, Cruz shrugged. “Lo siento. I’m sorry, Miguel. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Not good enough.”

“Calm down,” said Cruz, facing him now. “I’ll pay you for her, okay? We’ll still get plenty for the rest of them. I’ll give you part of my cut when we get paid.”


“No, you won’t,” said Miguel. And he brought the pistol up and fired.

The bullet caught Cruz high in the chest and spun him around. The big man stumbled, almost falling to his knees. Then he caught his balance and frantically ran for the truck.

Miguel stood his ground and pulled the trigger twice more—loud “pops” that broke the desert’s silence. One shot nailed Cruz in the kidney. The other caught the back of the leg. The bullet passed through the kneecap, blowing out chunks of muscle and bone.

Cruz howled like a dying dog. He pitched forward, finally losing his stupid hat, and skidded face first across the blacktop.

By the time Miguel reached him, Cruz had rolled over to his back, desperately trying to draw a .38 from an ankle holster. But it was no use. Cruz couldn’t make his body work. Too much blood had escaped.


Calmly, Miguel stood over him and squeezed on eye shut to take aim.

“No,” Cruz pleaded. Blood and saliva bubbled from his lips. “You can’t do this. Not over one little puta. There’ll be a thousand more crossing over tomorrow.”

Miguel shook his head. “I wish that was the reason. I wish this was for her. Maybe then God would forgive me.”

The Browning bucked in Miguel’s hand. Cruz’s head jerked as the bullet punched out the back of his skull. Blood and gray matter followed in its wake, spraying the air with a red mist.

For a long time, Miguel stood there motionless, peering down at the slab of dead flesh that had been his partner. In his head, he could hear Chalino Sanchez again, singing narcorridos. Songs of bloodshed and betrayal. As hard as he tried, Miguel could not shut them out.

The yellow Ryder finally rumbled into the lot, two minutes behind schedule. The truck belonged to the Santos brothers, rival Coyotes with fat wallets. Its reverse lights lit Miguel’s face as it backed up towards him.

Miguel walked to the U-haul and unlocked the rear gate. One-by-one, the pollos hesitantly climbed out. Their faces were etched with fear and they clutched their possessions like a drowning man clutches a life preserver.

“Bienvenido a América,” Miguel told them, as he opened the back of the Ryder. “Welcome to America. Now get in the other truck.”

Monday, March 5, 2007

BLOG SHORT STORY PROJECT 3 (This time, it's for real!)

“How Does it Feel?”
Her back gate is unlocked, so I let myself in.

No porch light. No moon. Just pitch-black night and the sound of my boots sinking into wet grass.

A dim light glows inside. Not from a bedroom or a kitchen, but from a hallway. The kind of light you leave on all night while you’re tucked under the covers. Did she leave it on for me?

I shrug off my backpack and pull out the gear—raincoat, rubber gloves, shower cap. I don’t plan on leaving any hair or prints behind for the CSI guys.

I suit up and catch a glimpse of myself reflected in a window. I look fucking ridiculous. Not a bit scary at all.

Until I slip out the knife.

The key is under the mat, right where she said it would be. I open the back door and let the darkness follow me inside.

*

Her email came after my Thursday blog post.

“You ever do any of that stuff for real?” she asked.

I waited the better part of an hour before answering her, taking time to consider my response. All I came up with was…“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

More emails followed. My blog fascinated her, she said. Horrible and beautiful, she called it.

Weeks went by. Months. She sent two, sometimes three messages each day. Without ever hearing her voice, I got to know her dreams… her nightmares.

More and more, I began to write the blogs for her. The blood, the pain, the shadows of my mind—it was all for her and no one else.

Somewhere along the way, I confided in her. Told her I was a fake. Told her the blog was nothing but made-up stories. Big lies and a dark imagination from a guy who barely left his house.

After that, I didn’t hear a word for three days.

Then a single email appeared on my screen, with a single question inside.

“Don’t you wonder how it feels?”

Right then, I knew I loved her. And someday soon, I knew I was going to kill her.

*
Light from the hall seeps into her bedroom, drawing a yellow slash across her face. I leave the door open and go to her. Her eyes stay shut.

Getting closer, I drink her in. She described herself, but the picture in my head wasn’t complete. Her emails couldn’t recreate that dimpled chin or the soft cheeks. She’s an angel. My angel—frail with a rough, shaved head and a nightstand full of pills.

I cover her mouth, watch the eyes snap wide. My palm suffocates a cry of panic.

It’s a crime to cut that soft flesh, but I do it. The blade slides along her throat, opening it to the world. Blood bubbles out. The bubbles turn to squirts, and a white wall becomes a crimson Jackson Pollock.

She struggles beneath me, a fighter to the end. In time, she goes still and her eyes lose their light.

Now, I know what it’s like, and my world will never be the same.

“Sleep well,” I say.

Then, behind me, I hear the cocking of a pistol and the little room fills with thunder.
*

“I’m sick.” It was an instant message, her words glowing blue in the dialogue box. “The kind of sick you don’t come back from.”

I’d been waiting for this. My fingers felt like thick slabs of meat, too clumsy for the keyboard. “How long have you known?”

“I’ve always known. Even before us. But you knew too, didn’t you? You knew I was sick.”

I let her words hang on the screen for a moment. Then I punched the keys. “Tell me what you want.”

“It hurts, dying like this.”

“Tell me what you want,” I repeated.

So she did.

She told me her story. A young sister to take care of. A life insurance policy that wouldn’t pay out for preexisting conditions. A world of pain and a dream of release.

I read every word like they were etched in stone. My veins slithered, filling with adrenaline.

“Besides,” she typed at last. “Don’t you wonder how it feels?”

*

My knife clatters to the floor. I pitch forward and sink to my knees. Something hot and sharp is lodged in my back. The pain is like nothing I’ve ever felt.

More thunder. An alien chunk of my brain screams, “Gunshot.” But it’s too late for warnings.

I sit down hard and my vision goes red and hazy. I close my eyes, just for a moment. When the haze clears, I’m lying on my side, staring at shoes.

“So?” says a voice—the shoes’ owner. “How does it feel?”

I strain to look up. A woman stands over me, gun in hand. She’s got baby soft cheeks and a dimple in her chin. Just like my angel. But there’s color to her skin and a head full of healthy black hair.

“You’re the sister?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Actually, she’s the sister.”

“I don’t…” Blood clogs my throat, making me hack. “I don’t understand.”

The woman nods at the corpse on the bed. “She was the sick one, the one with the insurance policy.”

“Yes. She told me all about it.”

The gunwoman shakes her head, looking very small and sad. “You don’t get it. She’s the sick one. Me? I’m the one who reads blogs.”

My lips tremble. I want to speak, but the words won’t come. A slow cold snake wraps itself around my spine, freezing everything it touches.

“You never answered my question,” says the woman. Her voice is small and distant now. “But that doesn’t matter, does it? I guess I’ll know how it feels soon enough.”

She raises the pistol and shuts one eye tight, and I can’t tell if she’s taking aim or winking at me like we share a secret.

Mike MacLean

Blog Short Story Participants:

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Silencer

Originally published in Flashing in the Gutters, October, 2006.

His cell phone rings. He lets it go a couple more times then checks the caller ID. Flips the phone open with practiced ease. “Hey dude, what’s up?”

The guy doesn’t know I’m right behind him, waiting in the dark. Sooner or later, I knew he’d get the call.

“Yeah?” he says into the phone—not a care in the world. “Nothing much. What’d you got going on?”

As quietly as I can, I pull out the little .22 and rack the slide. It’s a black Smith & Wesson, Model 2214. A stubby automatic that looks like a child’s toy. Almost cute.

“Really?” he says, still on the phone. “Yeah man. You got that right.”

I can’t believe he doesn’t notice me. I’m so close, watching the back of his head, watching him nod. My breathing is slow and steady as I screw a silencer and a flash suppressor onto the .22’s muzzle. The extra hardware plays havoc with a gun’s accuracy, but at this range, it doesn’t matter.

“Hey, dude,” he says. “Fuck’em. What do I care? What’re they gonna…”

He doesn’t get to finish his sentence. I press the gun against the back of his skull and squeeze off a single round. A muffled bark, and it's all over.

The guy’s phone clatters to the floor. A disembodied voice on the other end of the line calls out in the darkness. “Mark? You there?”

I lean over the guy’s seat, pick up the cell phone, and shut it off. Then I tuck my gun away and sit back to enjoy the rest of the movie. When I take a sip of my Coke, I’m careful not to rattle the ice.

Straight Razor Girl



Originally published in The3rdegree, April 2003


I find Rachel in a rundown motel near the airport. It’s noon, but the curtains are drawn, allowing only thin slices of light into the room. I sit with my gun and watch her sleep. Her father's straight razor is on the dresser, folded up and out of reach.

A 747 roars overhead, rattling windows. Rachel stirs then rolls over to face me. Her eyes flick open like switchblades.

"I knew you'd show up sooner or later," she says. She's pretending not to see the Ruger Blackhawk in my hand. Even in a dark room, the big revolver is hard to miss.

"Where is it?" I ask.

"Under the bed."

For once she's not lying. The briefcase is right there. Waiting.

Rachel is in jeans and a flannel shirt, sleeping with her sneakers on in the middle of the day--on the run for three weeks now. But the clothes don't matter. The girl is as beautiful as ever.

"So what now?" she asks. Those lips curve into that smile of hers.

Once upon a time, I loved that smile. It made me think of late nights and perfume and sweaty sheets. Now, the smile makes me think of Sammy. He was on the sofa last time I saw him, a new mouth cut for him across the soft flesh of his throat. A smile without teeth. The work of a straight razor. There were bloody bills on the floor, next to Sammy's shoes. But the rest of the First National take was gone. And so was Rachel.

The motel room suddenly gets hot and tight. "I would've given you everything," I tell her. Then I'm up, leveling the revolver on her lovely face.

"I wanted more than your everything."

The Blackhawk is an inch away from her nose, yet Rachel doesn't flinch. Instead, she rolls out her tongue, touching my gun with its wet tip. She wraps the barrel with slender fingers then takes the cold steel into her mouth. All the while, she's looking up, her eyes calling to me.

"Not this time," I tell her. And I slide the Blackhawk out of her mouth, placing its muzzle gently against her forehead, a cold metallic kiss.

Her eyes never change. Even when I thumb the hammer back. Even when I pull the trigger.

I lug the briefcase out from under the bed and head for the door. Not once do I look back.

The Revenge of Carlo Pulaski


Originally published in Plots with Guns, September 2002


On the street, people get out of my way. Hustlers, pimps, gutter punks. I hear them whisper as I pass.

“Dead man.”

I slip into the adult bookstore on Fifth Street. They call it a bookstore, but these days its trade is mostly peep shows. DVDs too. Rows of them spread out on folding tables. Blondes on the covers with gravity defying tits, going for the academy award with fake moans.

The men rifling through the DVDs keep their eyes down. I keep mine straight ahead. I go to the back, where the peep show booths are. A guy at a cash register guards the entrance.

“Fifteen,” I tell him.

“It’s closed,” says the guy. I can barely hear him over the bad techno blaring through the shop’s sound system.

I say it again, this time slipping a wad of bills across his counter. “Fifteen.”

The guy hands me a roll of tokens.

*

I find room fifteen and close the door behind me. There’s a big picture window along one wall, blocked by an iron curtain. I slip five tokens into a slot and the curtain slowly rises. I take a seat.

There’s a man on the other side of the glass. Not a bleach blonde bimbo ready to strip and tease, but a man in a cardigan sweater and thick glasses. Roly-poly kind of guy. Don’t know his name but they call him “the Case.”

The Case lugs out his trademark Samsonite suitcase and points to a phone on the wall. There are two receivers, one on either side of the glass. He picks up his. I pick up mine.

“Hey Riley,” says the Case. “I was wondering when you’d show. I guess you heard the Pulaski brothers are in town, huh?”

“I heard.”

“So you want a piece?”

“No. I want you to shake your ass for me.”

The Case is all smiles as he clicks open his Samsonite. Five guns are strapped inside with velcro, three automatics and two revolvers.

“What you want is stopping power,” says the Case. He rips a large automatic from the velcro and holds it up to the glass. “This here’s a .357 Desert Eagle. Holds nine rounds in the mag plus one up the snoot. You like?”

The gun is big and mean and black. No flash. All business. Just what I had in mind.

We talk price. I give him a number. He gives me one back. I give him another number and he grins. I leave a roll of bills on the stool and ask for an extra clip of ammunition. He agrees, saying he’ll wrap it up for me. Like I’m buying dinner plates.

I’m just about out the door when the Case says, “The Pulaskis came to see me too.”

This stops me. “What’d they buy?”

“Can’t say. Client privilege and all. But they weren’t looking at cap pistols.”

“Thanks for the heads up.”

“No problem,” says the Case. Then he smiles again. “So in light of this new information, can I interest you in a back up piece?”

*

The Case is awful convincing. I buy an ugly hold-out Smith & Wesson to go along with the Eagle. Two guns for two brothers.

From the bookstore, I walk five blocks then turn down Roosevelt. Big department chains line the street and every few minutes I slow down to window shop. I’m not looking at the mannequins. I’m trying to scope the people around me, the reflections in the glass. That’s how I spot Roberto across the street--Carlo Pulaski’s little brother.

Roberto looks like his brother and his brother looks like his parents. Broad shoulders and a thick neck. That’s from his Polish father. Wavy black hair and caramel skin. That’s from his Puerto Rican mother. Roberto knows I’ve caught him. I can tell by the heavy dose of dead eyes he gives me. I can feel those eyes from all the way across the Avenue.

Roberto disappears into the street crowd. Around a corner and gone. And that’s what I should be--gone. Out of the city, out of the state, out of the country. But I’m not going anywhere. I know if I start running, I won’t ever get the chance to stop.

*

When I reach my flat, Theresa is waiting at the kitchen counter, drinking my beer.

“Jesus, Riley,” she says. “I was so worried.”

She sinks into my arms. Her body is warm and soft and her hair is like silk against my cheek. The next thing I know, I’m taking the beer bottle out of her hand, setting it on the counter.

My hands slip down to her hips. My lips press against her neck.

Not dead yet, I tell myself. And I take Theresa to the bedroom and prove it.

*

“He’ll kill you,” Theresa says afterward. She’s wrapped up in the bed sheets, tan skin against white cotton.

“I know.”

She stares up at the ceiling, like she hasn’t heard me. “Or his brother will do it. Shoot you down in the street. Then he’ll come after me.”

“No way. Carlo loves you too much.”

We both go mute. I think of Carlo Pulaski in prison, alone in his cell. He did six years. A long time for Theresa to be alone.

“Did you rat him out?” she asks.
“Would it matter?”

“I guess not,” says Theresa. Then she rolls on to her side, showing me her back. “We both have it coming anyway.”

*

Sometime around two am, she slips out of bed and gets dressed. I keep my eyes closed, pretending to sleep. The door slams shut and I’m alone.

I sit up in bed and gaze out the window. One thought rattles in my brain: What’s Carlo doing? It’s been six years since he’s had the street under his shoes. Plenty of time to plan his revenge.

Me and Carlo had run together since high school, starting small then making our way into the serious stuff--armed robbery, trafficking, gun running. But I wasn’t there when he took his fall.

He was driving a Plymouth full of black tar heroin across the Sonoran. Made it past the border but not past the DEA. Someone tipped them off. Someone close. There’s plenty of motive to be a rat. Know the right things and you can make a lot of money.

I pull the Desert Eagle out from under the mattress. Check it’s magazine. Flip off the safety. Jack a round into the chamber.

Then I wait.

Somewhere out there, Carlo Pulaski is waiting too.

*

The phone rings just before dawn.

“We need to talk.” It’s Carlo. But not the fun Carlo. Not the drinking buddy Carlo. It’s the business Carlo.

“Where are you?” I ask.

“The high school. Out on the football field.”

“We doing the high noon thing?”

Carlo hangs up, letting the dial tone answer for him.

*

I’m not going. That’s what I tell myself. But then I’m in my Buick, driving towards the old high school. It’s the middle of summer, so the place is empty. I pull into a parking space then make my way to the football field.

Someone is waiting for me, sitting in the visitor’s bleachers. It looks like Carlo, but I can’t tell for sure. I march towards him, feeling the weight of the Eagle tucked into the back of my jeans. The sun is just now coming up. I hope it’s not the last time I see it.

Before I get across the field, the guy stands up and jogs down the bleacher stairs, disappearing in the thick shadows underneath the stands. My heart skips a beat.

Normally, I’d think this is a trap. But Carlo doesn’t play that way. He likes to take care of his own messes. Likes to do it personally. An ego thing.

So it’s not a trap. Right?

I draw the Desert Eagle and step beneath the bleachers. The guy is waiting for me twenty paces away. Slats of dawn sunlight cut in from above, giving my eyes something to work with.

It isn’t Carlo I’m looking at. It’s Roberto.

“Where’s your brother?” I ask.

Roberto edges a little more into the light and I see the machine pistol in his hand. “You got business with him,” he says, “you got business with me.”

I shake my head. “Shouldn’t be this way,” I say. But it’s no use. Roberto is too far gone. He’s got the adrenaline shakes. The trembling hands. The bugged out eyes.

It’s going down.

Time drips into slow-mo. I see Roberto bring the machine pistol up. See his finger curl around its trigger. Then I’m diving to the left as I raise the Desert Eagle, moving without thought.

Roberto’s machine pistol blazes in the darkness and I hear the bullets go “ting, ting, ting” off the aluminum bleachers. I wait for the pain. Wait for the hot lead to burn my life away like butter in a frying pan. Except it doesn’t happen that way.

I don’t remember pulling the trigger that first time. But I remember the Eagle’s booming roar. Roberto stumbles backward and I pull the trigger again. And again. And again. And I keep pulling until the gun clicks dry.

And there’s Roberto Pulaski, on his knees. His shirt is a mess of jagged holes. His torso is ruined, dotted with perfect red circles, like Japanese suns.

For a few moments, I just stand there, frozen. Then there’s motion in the corner of my vision. I let the Eagle clatter to the ground and go for the ugly Smith & Wesson in its ankle holster.

“Easy Riley,” says a voice from behind. I recognize it right away.

Carlo Pulaski ducks his head under the bleachers, a sawed off 12-gauge in his hands. Right then, I know he has me cold. The Smith might as well be a mile away.

But he doesn’t pull the trigger. Instead, Carlo plants a boot on his brother’s chest and tips his body over. “I knew you could take him. Roberto was mean as shit, but he didn’t have your juice.”

“What’s the game, Carlo?”

Carlo shrugs sadly. “The little fuck ratted me out. Couldn’t do his time like a man. So he told the DEA about my trip to Mexico. Used his own brother as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“What’s that got to do with me?”

“He’s my brother. I hated him for what he did, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill him. That’s where you came in amigo.”

I should be mad. I should make a play for the Smith & Wesson. Lug it from the ankle holster and blow Carlo’s brains out. Yet all I feel is relief. “So there’s no beef between us?”

“No beef,” says Carlo. Then he smiles. He just lost his brother, and he smiles. And he’s the fun Carlo again. The drinking-buddy Carlo.

“So you don’t care?” I ask.

“What’s there to care about? It’s over.”

My heart starts beating its normal rhythm. My blood cools. “Jesus, it’s good to hear you say that. I thought you were going to kill me.”

“You didn’t rat me out. Why would I kill you?”

“I thought you were mad. You know, about the Theresa thing.”

Carlo turns into a statue. He isn’t moving. He isn’t blinking. He isn’t breathing. He’s just standing there, the sawed off shotgun looking so big in his hands. And at that moment, I know I’ve just made the biggest mistake in my life.

“What thing with Theresa?” Carlo asks.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Luck and a Gun


Originally published in Plots with Guns, January 2001

When the helicopter fell from the sky, I was sitting in my rusted Nova, waiting for a traffic light to go green. It was early. The morning sun was burning away the night and Johnny Cash was on the radio singing "Ring of Fire." I listened, drumming my thumbs against the steering wheel as I watched the traffic flow by.

Then the shadow stretched over the street. A dark, whirling blur.

The helicopter came down on its side--rotor blades chopping into the black top. I saw shards of jagged steel rip away from the craft. Saw them rain into windshields like buck shot. Heard the sick sounds of metal ringing off metal. People screaming. Brakes screeching. Fenders slapping against bumpers.

Then everything went silent.

Everything but Johnny Cash singing, "And it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire."

***

Darcy and I sat in the blue glow of the television, watching the ten o’clock evening news. Darcy was on the floor, sitting yoga style among old pizza boxes, smoking a Camel cigarette. I was in the broken E-Z-Boy that didn’t recline. The crash was the top story again. It had been the top story all day, followed by the space shuttle landing and the upcoming Ortega fight.

Darcy watched the crash footage, eyes wide, like a fish being hauled into a boat--a bony fish with bifocals and bad hair. "Those poor people," she said. She was twenty eight but had the voice of a forty-year-old. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that when we first started dating. Now, sixteen months into the relationship, I was noticing lots of little things about Darcy.

Craning a leg up, Darcy touched her toes to her forehead. A yoga thing. The soles of her feet were the color of dirty cement.

"I bet they saw it in slow motion," she said. "You know, like in the movies. I bet they saw it coming."

"No they didn’t."

"What’d you say, Quinn?"

My finger played over a hole in the E-Z-boy’s fabric. It was one of Darcy’s cigarette burns. "Nothing," I said. "I’m beat. I’m going to bed."

"Okay. But remember, seven o’clock. Just like this morning."

"Sure," I said. Darcy was talking about my job hunt.

"Early bird, right?" said Darcy.

"Early bird," I repeated. Then I shuffled down the hall.

Inch by inch, the walls seemed to close in on me with each step.

***

That night in bed, I stared at the cracks in the ceiling and listened to Darcy snoring next to me. I never told her about being at the crash. For some reason, I wanted to keep it to myself. A secret all my own. Something even Darcy’s prying claws couldn’t touch.

She was on my case a lot lately. Maybe with good reason. I’d lost my job two weeks ago and hadn’t tried too hard to find another. I just didn’t have the will for it anymore. I’d worked as a bar back, a grocery stocker, even a janitor. All of them paid lousy, and when I looked at my check each week, I felt empty inside. Like I was missing out on something. Not just money, but something else.

I closed my eyes and saw the helicopter again, its blades whirling ever so slowly, each one snapping against the street like old tree branches. In memory, the moment was perfect. I could see it all without panic or shock. I remembered looking to my left, catching a quick glance of the car sitting next to me. A piece of the helicopter’s landing skiff had speared through the hood, stabbing all the way into the front seats. Blood was splashed across the side window. So much of it, I couldn’t see inside.

I opened my eyes again.

The car. It had been right next to me. So damn close.

I didn’t sleep that night. Instead, I thought of helicopters. Of Gravity. Of my life with
Darcy in a shitty one bedroom rat-trap full of roaches and unpaid bills. But most of all, I thought about luck.

And thinking about luck always brought to mind Richie the Y.

***

There was a rumor about Richie the Y. He was said to have worked as muscle for the Cleveland books. When somebody didn’t pay on time, he’d leave a dead dog with a nail through its skull on their doorstep. If they still didn’t pay, he’d catch them on the street and pull them into the back of his van, the one with the dark tinted windows. Then he’d use a hammer on them, smashing their toes one by one.

Now, seeing Richie outside his pet shop, I could believe the rumor was true.
He was at his usual spot, on a short wooden bench, watching college girls go in and out of the bagel place next door. He drank coffee from a foam cup, leered over the frames of his sunglasses. Behind the lenses, his eyes were black and flat and strangely dry. Shark eyes.

"Morning Richie," I said to him.

Richie peered up at me. The vein that had given him his nick-name bulged on his bald head like an exposed wire--a blue/gray Y against pale skin.

"That you Quinn?" he asked.

"Yeah Richie. It’s me."

Richie the Y smiled. "You fuck-heads always come back," he said. Then, without another word, he stood up and lead the way into his store.

The pet shop was warm inside and the air was heavy. Puppies yapped in kennels, birds squawked behind bars and fish circled lazily around foggy aquariums. I followed Richie through a door marked "Employees Only," then into a back room. The room’s walls were dirty and its floor was piled high with sacks of dog food. In one corner, a jumble of filing cabinets and loose boards had been built into a makeshift desk. Richie took a seat behind the desk and pulled a leather satchel from a drawer. The muscles in his forearm flexed a bit as he set it on the desk top.

"Let me guess," said Richie. "The Ortega fight."

"Yeah," I said.

"I can read you like a watch Quinn. So what do you want? A couple hundred on Ortega?"

I didn’t answer. Behind Richie was a chalk board with rows of numbers scrawled out next to the names of sports teams. Beside the chalk board was a poster, its edges ripped and yellowed by the sun. It was a promotion of some sort, an advertisement for an exotic bird, its wings like brilliant flags of red and green. But it wasn’t the bird that caught my eye. It was the beach in background, the water that surged up to perfect white sand.

"Hey Quinn? You want Ortega or what?"

"No," I said. "I want Wilson."

Richie glared at me, the vein on his head coming to life again. "Wilson? You serious?"

"That’s right. Wilson to win."

"He’s a fucking white guy. Not only that, he’s a bum. This fight’s all for show. Odds are at thirty-to-one."

"I want Wilson for a grand. You taking my bet or not?"

Richie smiled again. "Listen to you," he said. "Mr. Tough Guy. Okay I got you, Quinn. A thousand dollars on Wilson."

Richie filled out a slip of paper with a short pencil, the kind found at golf courses and libraries. When he finished, he zipped open the satchel to slide the paper inside. That’s when I saw them, stacks of green bills strapped together carelessly as if they were just paper. Among the bills was a gleam of chrome, a nine millimeter pistol bulging against the satchel’s side. Money and a gun.
It was what I had come to see.

Turning on my heels, I started to leave. Before I could get through the door though,

Richie’s voice boomed behind me.

"You can cover your action, can’t you Quinn?"

"Yeah," I said. "I got it."

"Good," said Richie. "Because I’d hate to see our relationship soured. You hear me?"

I nodded. "I’ll have it Richie."

"That’s what I like to hear," he said. He stowed the satchel back in his cabinet drawer.

"So tell me, why Wilson? You usually go for the safe bet."

Once more, I saw the helicopter in my mind.

"I feel lucky," I said.

***

On his deathbed, my father told me, "Son, sometimes you can be choking and not even know it."

He had lived to see his sixty second birthday. He had raised a family and worked forty years as a warehouse foreman. Came home everyday to his nice safe home and slept in his nice safe bed. Once, I thought his life had been full. Now, I knew better.

***

The night of the Ortega fight, I didn’t go home to my apartment. I didn’t want to see the place. Didn’t want to see Darcy, her fish-eyes beaming at me in disappointment. Instead, I rented a motel room close to Richie’s pet shop and sat alone in the dark. It was silent. I had tried to watch TV earlier but couldn’t focus on it. I had tried to listen to the radio, but everything sounded like static.

From an open backpack, I drew out my father’s revolver, an old .38 special, the grips worn smooth by time. I held it up, staring at it hard. Moon light filtered in through the window blinds, cutting black and white slats across the gun’s barrel, illuminating its scratches. It might not have been a shinny nine millimeter automatic. But it was still a gun. It was still heavy with a hair trigger and bullets that would tear through flesh.

I held the .38 close to my chest and closed my eyes, waiting for sleep to come. It never did.

***
I drove to the pet shop at eight am. I knew Richie would have more money in the morning than he would that night. When gamblers lose, they take as much time as they can paying off their debts. But when they win, they show up early, palms extended, smiling like bastards. Richie would be ready for them. He’d stuff that satchel of his with just enough cash to pay off his losses. I wanted to get to Richie before the winners did.

I pulled into the parking lot and backed the Nova into a space up front. I needed to be able to get out quick. Richie the Y was waiting for me in the doorway, shoulder against the frame. A couple of college girls in cut off shorts strolled past him, sunning their bare legs. Richie didn’t even glance at them.

"Why so early?" he asked.

I pulled the backpack from the front seat of my car and stepped towards him. "I want to get this over with."

Richie smiled, showing off yellow teeth. "Yeah," he said, "I bet you do."

He waltzed into the store, turning his back to me. Not a care in the world. He was expecting a thousand dollars. He wasn’t going to get it.

Slowly, I unzipped the backpack and reached inside. My fingers wrapped around the worn grip of my father’s revolver. My heart began to pound. Richie was just two feet ahead of me, his bald head so white and big. I could do it now. But maybe he didn’t have the satchel here, or he could have it locked up, the key hidden. No. I had to wait. Just a few more minutes and it would be done.

My hand began to sweat as I drew the revolver out. The dogs in their kennels were barking, exposing their teeth. They could smell the fear on me. They knew. Did Richie know too? Was he trying to get to his satchel so he could pull the nine millimeter?

He reached the back door and swung it open, walking inside. I stepped in behind him. I was so close. He bent down beside his makeshift desk, slid open a drawer, then brought out the satchel.

I made my move.

The first time I hit him, he had his back to me. I brought the butt of the revolver down against the base of his neck--brought it down hard. Richie fell forward, bracing himself against the wall, and I hit him again. This time, I struck at the side of his head. The revolver clipped his ear and slammed downward into his collar bone. I felt something give way. Heard Richie scream. Saw him spiral to the floor.

Blood surging in my veins, I lashed out with my foot. The force of the kick sent Richie rolling onto his back and we faced each other. His eyes no longer made me think of sharks.

"I don’t understand," said Richie the Y.

"Shut up," I shouted. I picked the satchel up from the desktop, where Richie had dropped it. I unzipped it and took a quick look. The bills were still there, filling the leather case to its brim. The pistol was there too.

Hauling up my back pack, I stuffed the satchel and my father’s revolver away then turned the nine millimeter on Richie. In the corner of my vision, I saw the bird poster again, the perfect beach in the background. Blue water. White sand.

"Why?" said Richie. His ear was bleeding and he was cradling his bad shoulder like it was a sleeping baby. "Why are you doing this?"

I leveled the pistol on him. It felt so heavy in my hand. "Sorry Richie," I said. "I just don’t want to choke anymore."

Then I pulled the trigger.

***

The Nova rumbled among the mid-morning traffic, spitting smoke out of its exhaust pipe. I sat behind the wheel, thinking of white sand. Just moments ago, I had cleaned my fingerprints from Richie’s pistol and tossed it down a drain pipe. Then I filled the Nova with gas and took the first freeway entrance flowing south. If I made good time, I could reach Mexico in under 12 hours.

Sitting on the seat next to me was the satchel stuffed with money. I wasn’t exactly sure how much was there. Counting the stacks of hundreds, I guessed around $24,000. Enough to start a new life in a new place.

I traveled a good 30 miles before the silence got to me. I needed noise. I turned on the radio and spun around the dial until I found a sports station. Two guys were talking about the Ortega fight. Jesus. In all the excitement I had forgotten about the fight itself. I was too focused on Richie. On what I had to do.

On the radio, the two guys were squawking at each other like the birds back in Richie’s shop. Their voices were excited and full of disbelief.

No, I thought to myself. It couldn’t be.

I kept listening as the two men recounted the entire fight, blow by blow. When they got to the third round, they began to laugh a bit.

"Who could believe?" said one of the men. I imagined him shrugging his shoulders with his palms up, confused. "Who could believe a no-name like Robby Wilson could throw such a lucky punch."

In that moment, my whole world seemed to close in on me. Wilson had beaten Ortega, knocking him out in the third round.

My grip grew tight on the steering wheel. I saw images of Richie on the morning I placed the bet. He was smiling. I had put a grand down on Wilson, a known loser. The odds were thirty to one.

Richie only had about twenty four grand in the bag. If he was alive, he would owe me another six thousand dollars. Thirty thousand in all.
If he was alive.

Again, I saw Richie’s face. This time, he was staring down the barrel of his own pistol. "Why are you doing this?" he had asked. Now, that question made all the sense in the world.

I gripped the wheel even tighter, my knuckles going white.

Damn that Wilson. He was a horrible boxer. Who could believe a loser could get so lucky?