Friday, February 26, 2010

The Joys of Hell, I

I'm spending a good part of today in Hell, writing queries to prospective agents. It feels like I'm somewhere in Dante's Circles 2-5, where sins of incontinence are punished ... those souls who were not very adept at resisting their passions. My passion is writing, not querying. (Is that a word?) But there's a method to my sinfullness!

I've gotten tons of good advice from a successful, local writer (Jessica), and from my nextdoor neighbor, who's also a writer (Ricardo). Let's call her Virgil 1, and him Virgil 2. (Are you keeping pace with this stunning literary allusion?)

I've known Virgil 1 three or four years, and several weeks ago I contacted her about "picking her brain." You see, I'd just finished my novel ("finished," that is, until an agent, editor or publisher says otherwise), and I hoped she might offer a little free advice about acquiring an agent. She graciously agreed, even to the "free" part. We met a few days later at a local bistro (beer for me, wine for her), and she was a veritable fountain (Yeah, that's a cliche.) of information: names of agents, blog sites, tips, cautionary advice, etc.

Wow! I told her she's an angel! (Or so she seemed!) So, that's what I'm doing today: the dreaded "follow-up" to that bistro meeting, a classic case of an angel leading a poor innocent to Hell. (Yes, I'm mixing my metaphors, Virgil and angel ...) So far, I've queried two of the agencies Virgil 1 suggested (I checked them out first, seeing if they were suitable for my novel, which I describe in my queries as "a realistic literary novel, in the vein of "Sideways" and "Sometimes a Great Notion," and is completed at 120,000 words. It is the first part of a prospective trilogy, the theme of which appeals to a universal commercial market: man’s struggle for love against the powerful currents of the past.") [Pretty cool, huh?]

The two agencies I've thus far queried (this serves as my official notification of a "multiple query") are the Kimberley Cameron Agency and the Ann Rittenberg Agency.

Virgil 2, my nextdoor neighbor and fellow swiller of cheap wine, is a man who's passionate about writing and writers. He and his wife host a literary event each month in their home. It's a rather mad, spontaneous occasion, which attracts a crazy, eclectic group of artists, singers, writers, jugglers, etc. "Emotive" is the term he would use to describe it. It's his favorite word, to the exclusion of all others. Anyway, he suggested I query a local publisher, Ooligan Press, which I did a few days ago.

What these two Virgil's have done for me (to me?) is incalcuable, and I deeply thank them ... or curse them, since they've led me into this Hell, and haven't yet pointed the way out.

Anyone know the way to Purgatory?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

John Wayne in My Tower (short story)

Note: I first wrote this story over twenty years ago. This version remains fairly true to the original, but has substantial changes--hopefully, for the better.


Billy Green and I walked across the tarmac that night toward our guard post, and the monsoon sky opened up with black rain splattering off our ponchos, and had I believed in omens at the time, the ugly downpour might have qualified. But as it happened, I was nineteen and ignorant, and so the two of us just trudged down the flight line heading for the perimeter, oblivious, M-16’s slung over our shoulders, and Billy toting a rucksack and a bandolier of claymore mines.

Billy was from Arkansas and, therefore, given to bragging about Verla’s tits. “Ain’t she got a pair of dandies?”

I nodded, and water poured off my head. “You bring the pictures?” She’d mailed him three nude photos: Verla standing beside her horse and showing off her dandies; Verla riding the horse at a gallop, her dandies bouncing; and Verla’s dandies sprawled across the hay in the barn.

“Nah. They’s back at the hootch.”


The rain eased a little, and ahead we could see the glowing lights of the perimeter, our first line of defense, a bad-assed place full of obstacles and lurking guard towers. But during that particular time in 1970, and at that particular firebase in the Central Highlands, the enemy had apparently forgotten all about us: They hadn’t launched a single mortar or rocket, or sent even one sniper or sapper for a visit in months. But nonetheless, on any given night a commie or two might infiltrate and blow something up. We’d been told by the Officer of the Day, Lieutenant Reets, to keep our eyes peeled and our cocks stiff. That night—and every night we pulled guard duty—the choppers were the objects of our responsibility: Whatever happens, don’t let Charlie blow them up. That sounded simple enough. As we walked along, the Cobras and Hueys squatted inside the walls of their revetments.

Our tower—number eighteen—was twenty feet high and built with creosoted beams, sandbags, sheets of tin and lumber. A roofed platform was perched on top. From there, you could look down into a defoliated no-man’s land of row after row of concertina wire, stacked two- or three-high. And then there were the hidden trip-flares and mines and free-fire zones and other inconveniences. It was supposed to be Charlie’s worst nightmare.

I said, “You plant the trip, I’ll plant the clacker.”

Billy nodded okay.

We walked past the tower to the concertina wire, where he pulled two claymores from the bandolier and handed one to me, along with a roll of electrical wire and a clacker, a triggering device. The mines were about a foot wide, six inches high and two thick, sheathed in olive-drab plastic, each loaded with C-4 explosives and shaped so that when the C-4 detonated, about 700 steel balls would blast across a 60-degree kill zone. In Army nomenclature, the mines were known as an “anti-personnel device.” I unfolded the thin scissor legs on my claymore, knelt down onto my knees and shoved the legs into the sand. Now the mine faced the perimeter. The funny part was this: Its convex face had FRONT TOWARD ENEMY embossed on it. To win a war, I guess, you have to keep things simple. But of course, that didn’t work in Vietnam. Anyway, I secured the wires to the mine and backed away, spooling out the wire as I went.

Billy set his claymore about ten yards away, to my left, directly in front of the tower. Its trip wire was stretched taut a few inches above the ground.

Back at the tower, I climbed the ladder, taking the spool with me, and Billy followed. The accommodations weren’t much, just a Prick-25, two chairs and a small cot. I fastened the wires to the clacker and set it down on the sandbags. To detonate the mine, all I had to do was squeeze the clacker.

Billy leaned his rifle in the corner. “You takin’ the first look-see?”

I set my ‘16 beside his. “Sure.”

We’d alternate throughout the night: two hours on duty, then two hours of cot time. The Prick was a standard Army field phone, a hot line to the guard shack and Lieutenant Reets. The rucksack contained food, four Cokes and some different colored hand flares. According to that night’s SOP, green meant “contact to my front”; white meant “my position is overrun”; and red meant I’ve kissed my ass goodbye—or something like that.

Billy set the phone on a chair, dialed in the freq and ran a commo check: “Hey, Reets, ya got yer ears on?”

“Roger, eighteen, Go ahead.”

“How’s the hammer hangin’?”

“What the hell’s your sit-rep, Specialist Green?”

“There ain’t no need fer ya to git yerself all bowed up. Eighteen’s snug as a bug.”

“Roger, and out.”

We settled in for the night, and there wasn’t much to do except shoot the bull, but Billy wasn’t too keen on that, and we’d had a six-pack of Hamms after chow, so he lasted about five more minutes before his head started nodding. He shucked off his poncho and crapped out on the cot, pulling a thin blanket over himself. “Time fer some shut-eye and dreamin’ ‘bout Verla.”

I took a seat, propped my elbows on the sandbags and checked the perimeter for the slightest sign of enemy movement. There wasn’t any. Right away Billy started snoring, and then moaning—quietly at first, but then with growing passion, until he cried out, “Ride, baby, ride!”

I nudged his shoulder and he shut up and rolled over. He claimed the towers were phallic symbols and, as such, they inspired fantastic wet dreams about Verla, and he truly believed that if you dreamed on something hard and long enough, it was bound to come true, but since I was stuck with him for eight more hours twenty feet up in the air in a foreign country where unknown numbers of bullets had my name written on them, or with “To Whom It May Concern,” I wasn’t in the mood for his dreams, wet or dry.

Tower eighteen was perched on a little rise of ground, and I could see the perimeter lights all around the firebase, a ring of bright pearls in the dark. It was too damned beautiful and, in truth, a bit disappointing, since I was itching for something far uglier. During the months I’d spent in Nam I hadn’t seen one live commie, either a VC or an NVA. I felt cheated and unpatriotic. There was a morning a few weeks back, when seven VC were stacked up by the horseshoe pit, shot to shit in an ambush, but that was nothing to write home to Mom about. She was only interested in the live ones, too.

I got to thinking about how, when I was a kid, I was the cherry pit spitting champ, so I leaned over the sandbags and peered down at the ground, searching for a likely target. I spotted a rusty can, worked up a nice wad of spit, accounted for the elevation and wind, factored in the wad’s viscosity, and then let it slide off my lip oh-so-oh-so carefully. It bulls-eyed, splashing into the rainwater in the bottom of the can.

Boredom worked me over in a funny way. I stood, pulled my poncho up, stepped over to the ladder, unbuttoned my fatigue pants and let a stream of Hamms beer loose. I tried writing my name in the sand, in cursive. The trick is to start the first letter before the first drop lands, and to be successful it takes a keen eye, fine motor skills and visualization. I almost finished before things petered out. The penmanship was bad, and I hadn’t dotted the i.

I zipped up and sat back down again and chewed a stick of Doublemint and thought about Carol, my girlfriend back in The World. She hadn’t sent me any nude photos, but with my imagination I didn’t really need them. The main problem with thinking like that is it makes a guy lonely, or horny, or homesick, or depressed, or crazy. As I recall, it made me three out of the five.

I looked out across the wire and imagined scenes from “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” which I’d seen twelve times as a kid. I was John Wayne, aka Sergeant Stryker, the hard-drinking, tough-talking platoon leader. Stryker lights up a Camel and turns his back to the perimeter—only for a moment—and when he pivots back around a thousand gooks have slithered into the wire. They’re half-invisible, camouflaged with the freshest jungle foliage. They’re damned good at blending in, but no match for Stryker’s eagle eyes. Their leader, a colonel with facial scars and sneering lips, leaps to his feet and lets loose with a bugle blast, and the foot soldiers rise up and charge forward in the banzai fashion … and Stryker mows them down in his fashion: from the hip, eyes steely, helmet perched at a jaunty angle, chip strap unfastened.

And then my actual ears said to me, “Hey, there’s a REAL noise coming from out there.”

I shook my head to clear the dead bodies out, and then peered down into the rows of concertina wire. I didn’t see riddled bodies or a sneering colonel or anything out of the usual. Then, from out of the deepest shadows on the far side of the perimeter, and just inside the farthest snarls of concertina, a lighter shadow haltingly emerged. My eyeballs locked on … and it dissolved quickly into nothingness. Maybe I was seeing things. I remembered a night-vision technique they’d taught us in basic training: let your gaze drift around the edges of what you want to see, and your peripheral vision kicks in, which is better for seeing in the dark.

There was something there, alright, a dark blot creeping low to the ground, then halting, then coming closer. It could even be a REAL enemy. Shit. I grabbed my M-16 and fumbled it to my shoulder, then looked at it dumbly, momentarily clueless as to its purpose and functionality—and why, oh why hadn’t the Army stamped POINT TOWARD ENEMY somewhere on the damned thing.

I nudged Billy, trying to wake him, but he just moaned and rolled over.

Then I heard a low and throaty whimper, a sort of agonized whine, and the unnerving sound somehow gave a familiar shape to the shadow. It was a dog, a mangy reddish-brown one with white spots, and it was picking its way through the wire toward me. I almost phoned Reets, but what the hell would I say? That I’d need a different colored flare, maybe russet, for “dog in the wire”?

Its head slung low and tail dragging, the mutt lurched into the middle of a coil, and then staggered down the center of the looping wire for a ways. It lurched sideways into the wire, jarring the coils stacked above and loosening a pelting shower of water. It yelped and jerked away and limped its way directly to a spot in front of the tower where, like some dogs do before they lay down, it hauled itself around in a couple of worrisome circles, as if obeying an ancient bed-making instinct, but then its rear legs just collapsed and it heaved into the sand. It pulled it self forward a yard or so by its front paws, and then let out a sharp yap and rolled over onto its side and lay there panting.

She didn’t look like a commie dog, just a very pregnant one—her belly swollen, her teats swollen, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.

And by the looks of her she was hurt bad. The fur on her left flank was matted dark with what looked like blood, and her panting was so ragged you could hear it over the rain’s soft patter on the roof.

I’d grown up with my own dog, Queenie, part elkhound but all her other parts were unknown. She littered three times, and we gave all the pups away—and the next thing I knew the dog in the perimeter was birthing pups too. She did a full-body shiver and the first one began to emerge, and she kept shivering and licking at it until it slipped all the way out and onto the sand, where she tongued it some more and then nosed it to a teat. She lay there for a minute recuperating, with that one pup latched onto a fat teat. Then she let out a piercing whine, and out slipped another pup, faster this time, and then two more, one right after the other. She sniffed each the just-born pups as they were born and nudged them to a teat, and then her body just uncurled itself flat and she didn’t move at all, not even her tail or her ears. It seemed as if another pup might have half slipped out of her, but she still didn’t move.

Billy moaned in his sleep again, and both Sergeant Stryker and I didn’t know what to do next.

I ejected the clip from my ’16, leaned it back into the corner and slid three rounds from the clip. I tossed all three and they arced downward through the yellow light and twanged off the wire and she still didn’t move.


I stepped over to the ladder and climbed down and stood on the wet ground staring at the dog, about thirty yards away. Surrounded by the wet and dark night, without a weapon and a dead mother in the wire, I wished I’d brought my helmet: Maybe the steel shell would have helped my head think better. I walked around the base of the tower and headed toward her, wondering what I was going to do once I got there, and just before I reached the concertina, I remembered Billy’s trip wire. It was a couple feet in front of me, about toe-high. The mine was behind and off to my left side. I’d halted one step short from being really fucking stupid. I couldn’t help but laugh, but it felt hollow, like when you’re in a dark cellar and something cold brushes across the back of your neck, and then your heart jerks a beat and your hand jolts up and swats a sticky strip of dead flies hanging from the ceiling. I laughed how your heart laughs when it figures out it will beat again.

I stepped over the trip wire very carefully, lifting one foot ridiculously high, and then the other foot equally high, using the same kind of extreme caution I’d used when I’d fumbled on my first live rubber.

The mother dog still hadn’t moved, still sprawled over on her right side in the middle of rusted coils of tough-assed steel razor wire, and the four squirming pups had their faces buried in her teats. There was a fifth pup, and it wasn’t moving. And I’d guessed right about the blood: She had an ugly crease of seeping flesh along her flank. Maybe she’d been shot.

I got down on my hands and knees in the wet sand and reached through a gap in the coils, trying to reach her leg and drag her to me, but it was just beyond my fingertips, so I shouldered against the wire and bent it back. I grabbed her back paw and pulled her toward me, and the four live pups clung to her teats, and the dead one was pulled along by the afterbirth. A razor snagged my poncho, and another sliced into the lobe of my right ear.

To this day I sometimes find myself reaching up to that tiny jag of healed-over scar tissue. It’s almost impossible to see or feel, and no one’s ever asked about it, and it’s too bad they don’t give Purple Hearts for wounds like that.

I pulled one of the warm, blind pups from a teat, its tiny mouth smacking, its eyes pinched raisins. It was a male, maybe four inches long, and its brown fur was slick from rain and birth. I tucked him inside my poncho and into a pocket of my field jacket, and then gathered up the others, all females, and settled them down into the same pocket. I scooped out a shallow hole in the sand, held the dead pup for a moment in my cupped hands, lifted my face to the night and felt the tears come hot and blinding. Then I laid it in its perimeter grave, which seemed a good enough place for it, an in-between ground.

I pulled the mother out of the wire, scooped her limp body into my arms and carried her back to the tower—careful to avoid the tripwire. One rung at a time, I climbed the ladder to the platform, where I stepped over to the cot.

Billy was snoring away, curled up with his back to me. I laid the mother down beside him, so her back was up against his back, and he must have felt her there because he turned over and, still half asleep, he draped an arm over her body and pulled her against his chest. He must have been dreaming about Verla because he wore a shit-eating grin, but he was as dead to the real world as the dog.

I tugged on his sleeve. “Billy, wake the fuck up!”

He grumbled and tried to turn over again but I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it hard and he startled awake. He sat up and saw the dog and jerked away from it. “Gaww damn! What ’n tarnation?”

I pulled the four pups out of my pocket, stroked their tiny bellies a few times, and then held them out for him to see, and his eyes galloped between me and the dead mother and her pup. I said, “I need you to dream up four of Verla’s dandies.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Leghorn Love (short story)

Note: I wrote the short story "Leghorn Love" (formerly "Marlene") several years ago, and you'd think in the intervening years I would've learned a thing or two about women. I haven't ... except for one thing: In the battle between the sexes, I'm a real chicken.


A jukebox in the corner of the joint plays one of Marlene’s three-for-a-quarter tunes, and she listens intently, bobbing her head with the beat, her red hair bouncing. She’s nursing a beer with a couple of sips left, and she’s lavishing the beer and the song with far, far, far more intimacy than she’s ever shown me. Sure, she’s sitting right across the booth from me, right here in Pete’s Bar and Grill, with only a blue Formica tabletop between us, but there’s a lot more than Formica separating us. Or, for that matter, blue. Her heart’s flown the coop again to some distant place, and it’s a faint speck on the horizon of tomorrow.

The song ends and her head stops. “How’s your beer?” she asks.

“Still cold,” I say. Like you, I don’t say. If she were sitting beside me, we could hover over our beers together and touch and be warm. But no. We held hands once, and hers were cold, and we’ve never kissed and … oh, hell, just forget about it.

She fingers the gold chain around her long, white neck. “Did you know that Pete’s adding fried chicken to his menu?”

“No kidding.”

“Of course, good chicken depends on how it’s prepared and cooked, don’t you think?”

I just nod. With Marlene it’s just miniscule talk, Lilliputian talk, or quantum-sized talk—ideas so small they slip between the wrinkles of your brain. I know she cares for me a little bit, and I don’t need all her love, but its total exclusion makes me crave it all the more. It gnaws at me.

She finishes her beer, and I know better than to ask if she wants a second one. She never does. Absolutely, positively never. Pretty soon, though—five minutes, max—she’ll ask me to walk her home, and I will, and that’s the way it always goes.

She reaches across the table and touches my hand, a calculated brush of her skin on my skin, so lightly felt it could be a passing breeze. With her it’s all a charade, a pretense without substance, but I play along because she’s such a sad case, somewhat laughable and pathetic. What I’m supposed to do next is seize her hand in mine and squeeze gently, and then she’s supposed to squeeze mine back—a purely reflexive action—and then I’ll squeeze hers again, and then she’ll squeeze mine again. It’s supposed to be a regular squeeze-fest. So I do. I grab her hand and squeeze it, and she squeezes, and I squeeze, and she squeezes, and then our hands beat a hasty retreat back across the Formica to the safety of our laps.

She says, “It’s been fun, Larry, I mean the park and picnic and all ….” She has picked up the salt shaker, and now she’s rocking it back and forth, so the salt slides this way and then that way and, I guess, she wasn’t talking to me, but to one of the grains named Larry.

I say, “Sure, we’ll do it again, sometime soon, okay? Together, I mean. Maybe we could go to the circus, or something. A movie? Yeah, well. You know?” To be brutally honest, the picnic and park were an utter drag-fest. Her feeding the ducks, me skipping a few stones across the pond, her brushing the pussy willow catkins across her lips and ooohing and ahhhing, both of us dipping a super-sized order of chicken nuggets in barbeque sauce—I’m sure she’s had a lot more fun than that with lots of other guys.

“How’s your beer?” she asks again.

I begin to fold my napkin into small and smaller squares. “It’s still cold.”

She looks right at me, a faint sparkle in her brown eyes, one I can’t recall being there before. Once in a great while she’ll pull something like that—stare right at you, unblinking, eyes aglitter. But soon enough she looks up at the clock above the counter, then over at the menu beside the cash register, and then down at the far end of the joint where the pool hustlers hustle. She turns her beer glass upside down on her napkin and says, “If you’d care to, you can walk me home now.”


The screen door is closed, and she’s standing behind it, and the wire mesh is masking her face, and I’m standing across the porch on the top step of her parent’s house. I say, “Tell your mom and dad ‘hi’ for me.” Her mom’s an apparition who sometimes peeks out between the red curtains, which are usually closed, and her father owns a gas station. They’re upright Christians and are often gone for work or church business.

She says through the tiny mesh of screen, “Thanks again, Larry. I had a wonderful time. I hope you find a job really, really soon.”

“Yeah, me, too.” It’s the beginning of summer and I haven’t worked since last year. I’m pretty broke, and the infrequent beers and picnics add up to more than pocket change. It’s been like this since last October, when we started seeing each other. I’m in no financial position to make demands, and I’m growing sick and tired of our so-called relationship. It hasn’t evolved. But Marlene’s happy with it, apparently, and could go on like this forever. She thinks I’m “comfortable.”

We say goodbye, and she closes the front door and disappears inside, and I turn and hurry down the step to the sidewalk. It’s hotter than hell for early June, and the sky’s a stark, blue bitch, and it hasn’t rained for two months. I head down the baking sidewalk toward home, a mile away on the other side of town. The thought of her cold hands cools the back of my neck and almost makes the sun bearable. Why, I ask myself, do I keep fooling myself? Marlene must think I’m a no-job jerk and—hell, I am, but she’s a bitch, too, just like the sky.

Farther down the block there’s a telephone pole with a circus poster, yellow and red and black, with elephants and lions and a half-dressed woman. The Greatest Show This Side of the Mississippi! Down at the bottom there’s a note tacked on: Help Wanted. See Tony.


Tony’s Italian, or maybe Romanian or Greek. Dark hair and eyes, a mustache, but he talks like a regular guy. “Use white leghorns,” he tells me. “They show the blood real good.” He eyes me. “This work ain’t easy like some folks think. A guy’s gotta get to know his audience so he can play ‘em, squeeze ‘em with the right timin’ and flair.” He holds up a costume mask and waves it at me. “You gotta have flair!”

“How much it pay?”

“Fifty cents a customer.”

“How many shows?”

“Three a day, five on Saturdays and Sundays.”

“How long’s the circus in town?”

“Four weeks.”

“What happened to the last guy?”

“He ran off with a girl.”

“And the mask?”

Tony tosses it to me. It’s a black swath of fabric, with eye holes and an elastic band, like a Zorro mask. I try it on. It’s a perfect fit around my eyes and nose, but a little tight by my ears. I say, “I’ll take the job.”

The geek show’s in a blue and red tent just off the midway. It’s baking inside, smelling of sun-baked canvas, sweat, popcorn and dried chicken blood, and it’s especially hot right now, the night of my first performance. Tony and I are standing together behind a pair of drawn red curtains. I peek between them and see a small wooden stage and, beyond it, my first audience—a group of guys, some of whom I recognize, old high school buddies. They’re sitting on two benches, punching each other in the shoulder, laughing and having a good time. At fifty cents a head, I’ll make about seven bucks. There’s a white leghorn in a cage on a small table. I’m nervous and scared, shaking and almost peeing myself.

Tony puts his hand on my shoulder. He smells like Brut aftershave. “You can do this, yes?”

I nod.

“Is it a woman you do this for?”

I shake my head. “Hell no!”

He shrugs. “Your gloves. Put them on.”

I’d forgotten that. They’re tucked into my belt. I slip them on. “Okay, I’m ready now.” Tony pulls the curtain back, and I step out onto the stage, and every guy’s head turns and looks.

One of them yells, “Come on, geek, do that chicken!”

Another shouts, “Pluck it, baby!”

“Do it, chicken lips!”

I stand there dumbly, thankful for the mask, but scared shitless someone will recognize me. Then I remember Tony’s instructions. I step to the cage, open it, reach in and grab the leghorn by its foot. It’s a real scrapper, scratching and pecking at my gloved hand and squawking. It’s a fluttering white hurricane, but I grab its neck and manage to get both its feet in my other hand. Arms raised, I stretch it out above my head, and then behind the curtain Tony plays the recorded drum roll, and its rapid tap-tapping is like my heart.

The leghorn’s still squawking, and I yank it tight between my hands and it quiets, and the crowd quiets, and my heart almost quiets, and I wonder when I’ll see Marlene again.

When the drum roll stops, I lower the leghorn till it’s right in front of my face. It smells like alfalfa and fear. I open my mouth and close my eyes and draw the leghorn to my lips and feel its feathers. It goes bonkers, twisting and flapping and spraying crap all over the stage and me. A leg slips free and spurs my ear and the mask, and I imagine an audience full of Marlene’s. I piss my pants. No matter what, Tony had said, never let it go. I pull the neck deeper between my teeth and bite through flesh and bone; I twist my head and shake the bird till blood dribbles down my chin and the chicken spasms.

I spit the head onto the stage, and spit feathers out, and I hold the spurting carcass up. The crowd goes ape.


“How’d you get the scratches?” Marlene asks.

“My dog.” I walk down the steps of the front porch. She follows, but not closely enough.

“And your finger, too?”

“He’s got distemper or something.” I don’t like lying about the dog, and guilt walks along beside us for awhile as we head down the sidewalk. We’re going downtown. I’ve got some money, and I’m going to buy Marlene a nice gift.

“It can get infected,” she says matter-of-factly, “especially from animals.”

“I put some hydrogen peroxide on.”

“Mercurochrome is better.”

Her concern is part of her act, like she feels obligated to feel sorry for me, a sort of pathetic identification. She’s probably glad she doesn’t own a dog.

Downtown, I steer her into a JCPenney, and she’s impressed when I lead her into the lady’s wear department. “Pick out anything you like,” I tell her. “I’ve got money.” What I don’t say is, it’s blood money: In the last few days I’ve done twenty leghorns. The technique’s been pretty well mastered, and now I’m working on my flair. Flair’s the most important thing, Tony says, for building an audience.

Marlene chooses a plain white blouse and goes into the changing room to try it on. She comes out smiling and says, “It’s lovely.”

I wish she would’ve picked out a colorful one, but bright colors probably don’t exist in her life. When I pay for it, Marlene smiles at the clerk, and for a crazy moment I wish she’d be afraid of me the way a leghorn is when, just before I deliver the coup de grace, it flutters and ruffles. But no. She’s all cool and calm.

We walk over to Pete’s and I’m hoping that, this time, she’ll drink more than just one damned beer. Two would be a miracle; three, I’d drop dead. The blouse ought to be worth at least two.

I sit and invite her into the booth beside me, but she sits across from me and sets the blouse on the table between us. I wave at Pete for two Oly’s, and when he brings them over Marlene sips the foam off of hers, draws a face in the sweaty glass, and then asks where I’ve been lately.

“Still looking for a job,” I say.

“No luck?”


“Daddy says times are tough.”

“Yeah. Maybe I’ll go back to school and take up agriculture.”



“You need school for that?”

It’s been thirty-two minutes since we sat down when Marlene finishes her beer and turns her glass upside down. The signal. She asks if I’ll walk her home, and I say yes, and I do walk her home, and when we say goodbye through her screen door she doesn’t kiss me, again.


I raise the leghorn over my head and wait for the drum roll to stop. The tent is jammed with people. During the past three weeks, I’ve worked hard to improve my flair. I wear a costume now, all in red and blue, with a sequined lightening bolt across my chest. And I’ve begun tying silver ribbons to the wings of the chickens, and now when they do their death flaps it’s a tornado in a hurricane. Tony says I’ve got great flair and timing. Marlene, I’ve decided, doesn’t and never will.

The drum roll stops, and I lower the chicken.

Only it’s not a chicken. It’s Marlene. She’s stretched out between my hands, pulled tight by her head and feet, naked. Her hair is silver. She wiggles, but when I pull tighter she quiets. I’m in command. The audience rises and crowds forward to the front of the stage. They’re spellbound fools for blood. I lower Marlene and suspend her before me for a tantalizing moment. The crowd leans closer, reminding me that Marlene’s never close. We’re through, damn it. I’ve got money in my pocket, the circus is leaving for Seattle in the morning, and I’m going with it. Marlene is a bitch.

A second drum roll, louder than the first. The lights are cut to pitch black, then a spotlight stabs me and my lightening bolt sparkles. Marlene’s arms flap wildly, a protest against intimacy and love. The drum roll stops.

I draw her neck to my lips. Her skin tightens, and then the tearing of her muscle … her bone … a burst of hot blood and her head falls to the stage. I hold her body up, her arms flapping, her legs jerking.

The crowd goes ape shit.


I pick up the phone and call. “Marlene?”


“Look, I’ve gotta say something to you. I’m at Pete’s.”

“I can’t come down right now, Larry. I’ve got cookies in the oven: peanut butter.”

“Screw the cookies. Pete’s, fifteen minutes, be here.” I hear her gasp and it thrills me, and I want desperately to slam the phone down as an exclamation point, but I can’t. And then she breathes again. She meekly says, “I’ll take this batch out, and then I’ll come right down.”


I’m on my fifth angry beer when she arrives. She’s late. She walks between the pool tables and stops beside my booth. She’s wearing a pleated dress and a beaded necklace that highlights her slender neck.

“Sit down,” I tell her, and point across the booth.

She does. “This better be important. The way you talked over the phone ….”

“It’s over between us. Consider this our last performance.”

Marlene picks up the salt shaker. “I don’t understand. Your mood on the phone, the way you’re talking now. Things between us—”

“That’s the problem. I don’t like the things between us.”

She looks confused. “What things?”

“You tell me.”

“You’ve been in a foul mood lately, like you’re—I don’t know—always thinking of something big.”

She’s forgotten all about the salt shaker, and her gaze lands everywhere except on me. “And what might I be thinking of?”

“I don’t know. You’ve always been so nice. Is it something I did … or said?” She plucks at one of the beads on her necklace.

“No. It’s what you don’t do.” I finish my beer and, determined to get plastered, wave for another one.

“I’ll have one, too,” she tells Pete. He nods, gets two fresh glasses and heads to the taps.

“Do you realize,” I say, “that’s the first time you’ve ordered a beer for yourself? Amazing!”

“But you’ve always ordered for me.”

“No more. I’m leaving tomorrow.”

She looks concerned. “To where?”

“Seattle. I’ve got a job.”

“What kind of a job?”

Pete brings our beers, and Marlene raises hers and powers half of it down. Always, always, always before she just sipped. She stares into her beer. I’m feeling strong and sure and in total control of my audience. I exude flair, and I imagine the lights dimming, a lightning bolt across my chest, and the corner jukebox playing a drum roll. “Poultry,” I tell her.

“Oh, so you are going to school?”

“No, it’s a job, and I like it.”

She lifts her gaze and looks at me oddly—but she’s looking right at me, nowhere else. “How long will you be gone?”

“The rest of the summer, maybe longer. Who knows? The money’s good.”

Marlene guzzles the rest of her beer, and then waves for another.

God damn. She’s having two.

“Look,” she says, staring into me with her brown eyes, “things have been comfortable between us. Do you want that to change?”

“I want comfortable to disappear like feathers in a hurricane.”

She puckers her mouth in a way I’ve never seen before, as if she’s kissing the air. “Do you want more … involvement?”

“Maybe I did once, but not now. We’re over with. This is our final act, the curtain closer.”

Pete brings her beer, and I order another round—for both of us. Marlene gulps her Oly as if she’s thirsting for all the answers I won’t give. But her eyes are certain and steady, like the grip she has on her beer. Someone plays “Losin’ My Head Over You” on the jukebox. Marlene says, “Sex, is that what you want?”

“God, no!”

“What do you want, then, Larry?”

“Things could have been different. But it’s too late. I’m leaving.”

“How different?”

“Warmth … that’s it. You’re never warm with me.”

“Sex isn’t warmth?”

My flair has slipped a bit, and now I’m holding onto my beer with both hands. I want to be one of the pool hustlers, a man who’d know what to say.

“Do you want it?” she asks. She takes another long pull, drains the glass, and then turns it upside down on the table. “You’re afraid of it, aren’t you?”

For a crazy second things spin around and I don’t know if I’m breathing. She takes my hands in hers and squeezes, and our hands are hot together.

She breathes my name: “Laarrryy.” And then: “Please walk me home now.”


We’re on her front porch, and for once we’re standing close together, very close, and her face isn’t obscured by the wire mask of the screen door. The only thing between us now is a warm inch of wet space. We’re both soaked, from a summer shower during our walk back from Pete’s. She’s holding my hand, and hers is hot, and the door leading into the living room is wide open, allowing in the breeze, and she turns and opens the screen door and pulls me inside by my hand.

The walls are painted red, and the carpet and the over-stuffed couch are blue, and the peanut-butter smell of baked cookies still lingers. The door closes behind us, perhaps shut by a sudden gust that draws the air from the house.

She looks right into me, and then pulls me against her wet dress, her stomach and legs and breasts, and we kiss, and her mouth sucks the deepest air out of me, and I’m lost within her lips, a complete surrendering.

There’s a long crescendo, but not of drums or from jukeboxes. It’s a beat full of urge from my own pulsing heart. And then, as if I’m nothing in her strong hands, she lifts me off the carpet and high up toward the ceiling, where I’m held steady, steady, steady by my head and feet. Her breath is a tickle to my feathered neck, and then her teeth pierce, and then the flutter and ruffle of coup de grace, and then my head drops off to applause.