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Last Week's Featured Author

Sean Bridges Author of
ROLL OF THE DIE <<Buy on Amazon or   Smashwords

Chapter One
Blue Man

Sooner or later, somebody always asks. That question is never far off. I used to wonder, but after awhile it made sense.

You see, a Black guy, Mexican guy, ninety percent of the time, they‟re in for drugs. Possession. Possession with intent. They knew some guy with the intent to possess. Pushers, users. Drugs. Now a White guy? And I'm not talking about some schmuck Banker, or crazy-ass Skin Head. A White guy, an average lookin' Joe.

Ask him why he's inside, and you get the gamut. Drugs sure, usually bottom feeders. But you also get, I shot up everybody down at the office. I went and chopped up my girlfriend for dog food. Sure, I grabbed that girl off the street. They said she was sixteen, but that pussy sure wasn't sixteen.

So when somebody got around to asking me, my story just wasn't that exciting. I thought it was kinda bland actually. I liked robbing people.

It wasn't anything I ever planned. Just something I got good at. Everybody's got some kind of talent. And not to sound like a dick, but I was a sharp little thief. Sure, at first I was nervous, some stupid little kid on a dare. But after awhile, those sweaty jitters just melted away. And honestly, I was smart about it.

First off, I always worked alone. Always. It was my cardinal rule that no matter what, I never broke. Half a reason was because I don‟t trust people, and the other half was, I just don't like 'em much either.

Second, I was never some bad movie tough guy. The kind of asshole that goes into a place or a situation and screams his head off, shoots into the ceiling, don't fuckin' move.

Me, I was always quiet and calm. Steady. Never fired once, that's the truth. I only had to pull it serious a couple times. Usually a flash in my waistband was enough if somebody decided to play. Most of the time, I'd just talk.

I'd walk up to the teller, counter, and they would look at me and I would look back at them, and lay it out. In a calm voice, with razor control and confidence. Give me the money. Right now. Or you're going to force me to fucking kill you.

Now I never did the De Niro thing in the mirror, so I don't know if it was serious or desperation or what was on my face. Usually a few words would do the trick, that and of course the tone. And you always put the choice back on them. That was really the key, you see. Please don't make me fucking do this, but sure as shit understand that I will. That always got the ball rolling.

And I was aware of my appearance. You see, I didn't care how I looked, so I got creative with it. I used every box of hair color that they sell down at the Shop Rite or Trader Joe's.

Sometimes I'd use bleach, but my hair would fall out if I used too much. And if that happened, I never had any problem with going bald. I'd grow my beard or turn it into a goatee.

One of the things I remember about my Dad was that he always had a thing for make-up. I don't mean like a girl or queer, you know, doll himself up with cosmetics. Like make-up and effects. A special effect.

It was a hobby, but he had some real skills actually. Yeah, he was better at being broke or drunk, but he loved that shit. He almost named me Lon, after Lon Chaney, Senior. You know, The Man With A Thousand Faces. That was his hero. I don't know who the fuck Riley was? Maybe his bartender?

Anyway, the day after Halloween, he would buy up all sorts of clay and molds and costume stuff on sale. And he could change his look with just the simplest of things. This one time, he made himself into a wicked werewolf, with only some Elmer's Glue, a can of shoe polish, bag of cotton balls and black eye liner. I still got a picture of it, this black and white photo of him all done up, lying on these old train tracks. He loved to play with that stuff. And he taught me a few things.

I never did get comfortable in one place for very long. I have this internal alarm clock. A mental bell would go off, and it was time to go, and I just knew the day to day pastures were greener somewhere else. There's this Johnny Cash song, the one where he says he's been everywhere, and goes through this laundry list of America. That was me. Soon as I could get away, I did.

Plus I never got too greedy. I'd take what I could get. My life-style wasn't one you would call extravagant, and I could stretch a dollar. When you're on the move, you always erased the chalkboard and started over. I always made sure that my nest-egg was being replenished. When it was time to jump, I did.

And I ended up in a life of hit and run in some form or fashion for a good ten years. And I would have kept going too, if it wasn't for fuckin' Sandy.

Now don't get me wrong, she had her strong points. That woman could cook, and Jesus could she fuck like a rabbit. She used to teach Sunday School and she was this good girl with a hell-cat streak that turned me on to no end. Czech-Italian, with a lot of Jersey Girl. And like a lot of Jersey Girls, she just never knew when to shut the fuck up.
So we saw each other for awhile, and I got comfortable with all the meals and the sex, but never got comfortable with her mouth. So I started to stray. I‟d hook up here and there, but would still make my way back home.

Well, this one day she grabs my cell, and discovers this string of dirty text mails. It was my own damn fault for keepin' them. But she didn't flip out or anything. At least not in the way you would expect, like call the number and bitch the woman out, or chuck a bottle at me.

No. She goes behind my back and calls the fuckin' Cops. 4:30 a.m., they drag my ass out of bed. She's screaming that I'm a scumbag but she still loves me. The red and blue lights flash and I don't know what the fuck is going on.

By the time I do wake-up, I've got some pimple-faced lawyer telling me they've got me cold, surveillance this, eye-witness that, and to plead guilty, or end up doing triple the time. So that's what I did.

I was charged with Armed Robbery, a crime in the first degree, for robbing the Pine Avenue Wawa in the middle of the night. I even got to watch myself on the surveillance video. It was grainy but I looked pretty good. My acting debut didn't sway the judge, and the sentence came down. Six years in the New Jersey State Prison at Trenton. Eligible for parole in three.

Now what can I say about prison. Other than fuck it. There's any number of crazy stories I could tell. It's routine, but there's always some weird shit that fucks with your routine.

I had this cellmate once, name was Fey. Maybe Frey? He was in for burning down the family home to try and collect on the insurance. It didn't much matter to the crazy-fuck that his parents were inside when he did it.

Now this guy, he loved hot dog day. Hot dog day was every Thursday. He'd go on and on about it, like it was fuckin' Christmas. Just pester everybody, willing to swap smokes for dogs. Always pleading for a trade. Fuck-off was the most common response he got, but sometimes it worked. Funny thing was, I never saw him eat one.

It didn't make sense to me, but there's a lot about prison that didn't make much sense to me. So this one night, after hot dog Thursday, I'm out cold on my bunk. And there's a guard, shining his light into the cell. I blink awake, spots in my eyes. I look down, and this crazy fuck, he's got a hot dog, and he's… Well, lemme just say they took special care to cut up his hot dogs from there on out. And nobody traded anymore.
To me, that was fucking prison. This crazy dolt with hot dogs shoved up his ass. Times three years.

Part of the routine is that you listen to Guys bullshit about what they're gonna do when they get out. Most of the time, they end up right back inside, doing the exact stupid thing they did in the first place. I never said much, but when I did, it wasn't about what my plans were. Those thoughts, I kept inside. They belonged to me.

In a place like that, you don't expect time to move. Honestly it crawls, but crawling is still moving. The place was packed to the gills, and the word spread around that they were looking to make some room.

So when they came to me, I kept my shit together and answered all their questions the right way, and that was it. Two years and three months in; they let me go. A free man.
I took the bus and a transfer and made it to Atlantic City. Got a court appointed job at a fish cannery. Made my appointment once a month with my Parole Officer and always remembered to bring in my pay-stubs.

The State set me up at this shitty half-way house on Ventnor. I never could sleep much there, because of the constant hacking and coughing and shouting through the paper thin walls. The whole place smelled like a dirty ashtray.

I was seriously ready to bolt. And the money I made canning fish wasn't nearly as sweet as the money I used to steal. There I was, right on the edge of being one of those stupid Guys doing a stupid thing and ending up right back in Trenton. But then I met Carol.

Every now and then, I'd shoot pool down at Slick Willy's with Joey Keys. Joey was a local Grifter who did a year inside for being a lousy bookie. The crazy Fuck tried to eat as much paper as he could before the Cops grabbed him at a Super Bowl party. But he didn't chew and swallow fast enough.

Joey talked a lot, which was fine since I didn't. Yeah, there's no question he was full of shit, but he was much better company than the walking dead down at the half-way house.

Carol was his sister and we first met over a gin and tonic. I don't know what love at first sight means, but I really did like her a lot because she wouldn't take shit off of nobody.
She knew more about me than I ever told her. Joey always had a big mouth, but she didn't seem to mind my past. She was sweet and hell, it surprised me, but I actually grew to like her.

Carol at her core was a real-deal honest to God, nice girl. It was hard to believe with a brother like Joey and nice sounds like such a bullshit thing to say. I mean who the fuck is nice? But she was. She truly was. The first one I ever met in my life. And after awhile, I never wanted to let her go.

She worked at the Hilton, the fancy one right off the Boardwalk, designed to feed rich people to the casinos. It had a giant fountain in the lobby and a guest needed a valid credit card just to stay there. She always asked me to meet her there for lunch, but that wasn't my kind of place.

We'd meet at Gino's instead and the cheese-steaks were always on me. Frank Sinatra used to get them there, you know, when he was still alive. I loved our lunch dates and she always had a smile for me.

I left the cannery, and got a job down at Sully's Garage. I didn't have much experience, other than keeping the family car alive after Dad vanished. But Carol vouched for me, and Sully gave me a break, and I was a quick study.

Oil changes; tire rotations; bleed the brakes; change the timing belt. It was a good job, and I think Carol just got tired of me always smelling like a dead fish. Not that oil and gas was much better, but let's face it. It was better.

We moved in together. It was a shitty neighborhood, but we pooled our money and made it work. Like a team. And it seemed like the right thing to do, so fuck it, I got married.

I asked her one afternoon at Gino's and to my surprise, she said yes. I picked up a ring that looked real to me down at the pawn shop, and although she wouldn't admit it, Carol actually cried when I slipped it on her finger.

We couldn't afford any big deal, so Carol found a Justice of the Peace on-line. I filled out all the application paperwork for a Marriage License and got it stamped down at the Local Registrar's office at City Hall on my lunch hour.

Then we made an appointment and met with the Reverend Louis Conselitore. He agreed to do the ceremony after our deposit check cleared. Fifteen minutes later we were husband and wife.

Sully from the garage and Crazy Joey stood as witnesses. I kissed my bride and we spent the weekend in a very nice suite at the Hilton. I wanted to give her the world, but it didn't seem to matter to her that I couldn't even afford the hotel room that we were staying in.

We were happy. Together. Shit I was happy, for the first time in what felt like forever. I mean it had been so long, that it took awhile for the emotions that I didn't even know I had, to register. Everything just felt right, and after some time, I learned to stop worrying and actually enjoyed myself.

So when things turned to shit, why did I make some of the choices that I made? Really, who can ever answer that, you know. It always looks better in the rear-view mirror.
If I knew what was coming, I would have held on tighter. I would have grabbed Carol and stole whatever cash I could and we would have erased the chalkboard and started from scratch.

But I didn't. Life was good. Even though I knew better. That's the capper, really. I fucking knew better. The problem with good times is they never last. There's always bad right around the corner.

Chapter Two
Truth or Consequences

The asshole said ten. He left a message for Riley and Riley called him back. "Okay, ten. And don't be fucking late." Through the ether, Joey did his dance. "On the dot. That's a promise, Bro. Fuckin' swear. It's important you got no idea." Riley cuts him off and pockets the phone.

He called Carol on his lunch break. He waited for his moment and lied and told her that he was going to have drinks with Joey down at Farren's. She didn't pick up any loose threads, and just continued to harp about the Visa payment. Riley made sure he agreed when he was supposed to.

A few hours later, he put away his tools in the bay, turned in the paperwork on the Ford, and punched-out. He said good-bye to Sully and wished Darlene well, which struck her as strange, because in three months of employment he never once acknowledged her with anything more than a grunt or nod.

He took the 36 to downtown, and planted himself in a dive bar on Oriental Avenue. He went back and forth, and made up his mind during a steady rollercoaster of one-credit rounds of video poker as he nursed a Rolling Rock.

He stuffed a Gino's cheese-steak wrapper into a full trash can, and headed down the thin planks of The Boardwalk towards The Showboat Casino.

Sharp winds whip off the water and a few tourists brave the cold. Push-carts hustle for rides. Seagulls dive and dance in the aqua neon light of The House of Blues. A sharp left off The Boardwalk and wait by the future parking garage. And wait by the garage. The days events replay on a loop through his mind. And wait by the garage.

"And wait by the garage." He stamps his feet and tries to beat back the cold. The sky is dark and overcast, the construction equipment cold and empty. He mutters to himself.
"Ten. Wait by the garage. It's ten fuckin‟ thirty. No, actually it's ten fuckin' forty-three."

No sign of Joey.

Riley lights a cigarette with a shaky hand, and sits on a pallet of bricks. The nicotine doesn't rein in his tension. His eyes dart up and down, he runs a hand through his short cropped haircut; pulls his coat tight around the greasy-blue mechanic overalls. Ash falls from the smoke.

Traffic growls down the street, heavy bass thumps from a car. He pitches the smoke and shakes his head. Yanks up his sleeve. Through a haze on the cheap plastic, the digital numbers flash. "Fuck it."

He starts back towards The Boardwalk. The muffled roar of a motorcycle, tires squeal a few blocks over.

Headlights illuminate. And a dirty sedan with flaked primer paint pulls up next to him. The driver's window is cranked down.

"Let's go, Bro. Time's a wastin'."

Riley jerks open the rusted passenger door and climbs inside. Joey hits the accelerator and the sedan fishtails down the street. Riley rubs his frigid hands in front of the vents.
"You're late."

Joey grunts back, hunched over the steering wheel, the interior dashboard lights bathe his beady eyes, Grifter smile and loud leisure suit.

"Sorry, Bro. The shoppin' took a hell of a lot longer than I thought. Here, lemme' crank the heater."

Joey glances over at Riley; sniffs.

"Didn't I tell you to clean up? This is a classy place. You smell like the garage."

Riley snaps back. "You were supposed to be here an hour ago."

"Now, come on, Bro. Don‟t cop some attitude. I told you, it couldn't be helped. Jesus, I said I was sorry."

Riley shuffles in his seat, and watches the traffic go by. Joey takes a sharp turn on Atlantic, and blasts the horn at an old Bag-lady who shuffles slow at the curb. He glances over at Riley, who doesn‟t look back at him.

"Well, you might as well button your coat, fix your hair. Splash on some cologne, here I've got some in the glove box. And don't fuckin' worry. I'll do all the talkin', and get us right where we need to be."

Riley turns in his seat and stares at the fool.

"I'm not going to do this. Joey. I'm here to tell you, that's it. No more favors."

Joey shakes his head, hands grip the wheel.

"Hey, Bro. Don't be that way."

Riley shoves Joey's shoulder and pins him against the door.

"Fuck, Bro. I'm driving here."

"I mean it. Whatever mess you've made, you clean it up yourself."

Joey pulls the car over, and kills the engine. He bites his bottom lip and gives Riley his full attention.

"Okay. What's up your ass?"

Riley shoots back a cold stare. Joey's cocky smile fades.

"After everything I've done for you? We're family here—"

Riley cuts him off with a finger.

"Hey. You need a place to crash, you got it. Call collect, I'll accept the charges. You'll get a Christmas card every year. And nothing else. We're finished. This is over."

Joey figures it out.

"Carol's on your back? Is that what this tough-guy shit is all about? Come on. Lemme talk to my little Sis, and trust me, she'll be on-board."

Riley grabs Joey's tacky suit-coat and pulls him close.

"Just stop. Game over. Stay out of our life."

He pops open the car door; steps out into the cold. Hands shoved in his pockets, he strides down the sidewalk. Joey's sedan pulls along-side him, and drives up on the curb. A passing Van blasts a horn. Joey leans over and shouts through the passenger window.

"Bro. Hey, come on. Bro, this ain't funny."

Riley walks past the barred windows of a Cash Advance USA and a deserted storefront.

"And stop callin' me fuckin', Bro."

Joey keeps pace and shouts out.

"Okay. I get it. A few months out, and now you're all Mr. I Got My Shit Together. Let the past be the past. Throw a wave my way and fuck-off, Joey. That about right?"

Riley spits back.

"Yeah. That's about it. So, fuck off."

Joey punches the dash.

"No, you listen to me. Hey. Hey! You owe me."

Riley ignores him, and picks up his pace. Joey dodges a set of parking meters, and revs the engine to catch up. He pulls back up on the curb, and jerks to a halt. He cuts off Riley from the sidewalk. He sputters a sob out the window.

"You owe me. Who took care of you when you got released? Who found you a decent job instead of canning fish? Who said it was okay to fuck my sister? I did. That was me. You owe me."

Riley crouches down and looks in the passenger window. Joey's eyes plead with him.

"They're gonna kill me. Hey, did you hear what the fuck I just said?"

Riley thumps the rusty door.

"Yeah. I guess I can forget that Christmas card."

He moves away from the car. Joey shouts out after him.

"They know about Carol."

He stops in his tracks. Riley returns to the passenger window. Joey looks away like a sullen child, but returns to Riley's glare with a steady nod.

"They know it all, Bro. Where she lives and where she works, where she goes to get the fucking groceries. And if I can't pay, then she will."

Riley thrusts his hands inside and grabs Joey. He pulls him across the seat; jerks him halfway out the window. Joey babbles.

"These are heavy duty players, Bro. And it's not a game. They want their money, right now. Okay. Now you gotta help me. And trust me, I can make this all right, I can make it all go away. You just have to help me out."

Riley shakes him quiet.

"You coughed up Carol? Your own sister? You piece of—-"

"I‟m not gonna argue with you, Bro. But I can make it better. I can. I got it all worked out."

Riley tightens his hold. "How?"

Joey struggles in the grip, and falls back inside the sedan. He pops open the passenger door. Riley stands and breathes back his temper. The rusty door creaks. He climbs back inside.

He burns as Joey fixes his suit coat; checks out his hair in the rear view mirror. Riley hisses through gritted teeth. "Start talking."

Joey offers a crooked smile and shifts into drive. The sedan bangs over the curb and accelerates down the road.

"Last Friday, I‟m at the Raynham Dog Track. Twelfth race, 660 yards. Neist Naples. Started out at 9-2. By Post, that bitch was 26-1. Manna from heaven, a sure fuckin' thing. The fix was solid. Concrete. I mean, you know me, Bro. I wouldn't 'a borrowed otherwise. That fuckin' race was supposed to be fixed."

He races through a yellow light and banks towards the Expressway. Riley bounces in his seat. "How much?"

Joey hits the on-ramp. He turns up the radio; his fingers drum the steering wheel. Riley reaches over and shuts it off. Joey switches it back on.

"Hey, Bro. Do you have seventy-five cents for the toll?"

"I wanna hear it. How much did you lose?"

Joey looks over his shoulder and paces a space in the fast lane.

"Eighty grand. Eighty-two grand. And some change."

Riley searches for an emotion that Joey doesn't have.

"Jesus, Joey. What the fuck were you thinkin'?"

"What was I thinkin'? I was thinkin' about gettin' paid. Now it's time for payback. That fat fuckin' Kraut and his bullshit inside info. You got the toll?"

Joey races for a free slot. Riley fishes three quarters from his pocket. Joey slides up to the basket and tosses them in. The red light turns green. He pulls his arm back inside and reaches in the backseat. He brings back a crumpled paper bag, and drops it in Riley's lap as he accelerates from the toll booth.

Riley opens the bag and pulls out two black leather hoods. Bondage hoods, with zippers over the mouth and eyes. He reaches back in the bag and pulls out a revolver.

"No. Fuck, no. Hey. Forget it. There is no fucking way I'm pulling a heist."

"You fuckin' majored in armed robbery. Come on, what are you worried about? Besides-—"

Joey grabs the revolver from Riley, and points the weapon at him. Riley flinches at first.
"Hey? Hey! What the fuck are you doing?"

One hand on the wheel. His other hand holds a steady aim. Riley reaches for the weapon. Joey pulls the trigger. A dry click.

"You forget? It ain't armed robbery if the guns aren't loaded. Calm down. This baby is just for show. If we get any attitude from some attitude, this'll shut 'em down."

Riley snatches the weapon from his hand.

"You fuckin' crazy moron. No, this isn't your Master Plan? There's gotta be another way. You talk to 'em. Make a deal, you give 'em a bit, and you'll work off the rest."

Joey barks out a laugh.

"I didn‟t borrow from the Bank of Cut Me Some Fucking Slack. Bro, wake up. This is all laid out. You're just here to watch my back, and problem solved. Then you can go on home, play house with my Sis. I'll stay the fuck away, maybe see you two on the holidays. We'll have some laughs. Come on, cross my heart, hope to die."

Riley holds the revolver in his hand; feels the weight. "If Carol finds out—-"

"How? My lips are sealed. And even if she somehow ever finds out. What the fuck? I mean, isn't it better that you sleep on the couch for a week, then have these guys come knockin' on your front door. Am I right?"

The rusty sedan races down the expressway.

Chapter Three

The sedan pulls up to the outskirts of a cavernous warehouse turned nightclub. It reflects off the water's edge and overlooks the Jersey Shore. Multiple strobe lights arc and cut through the night sky.

Neon signs glow on top of the multi-story building. Joker's Wild, framed by two playing cards. A horny Joker grabs for a ravishing Queen of Hearts.

A vast playground for swarms of elegant and tacky players. A fleet of sleek and jacked-up vehicles parade towards the entrance. Roving packs of Juiced Guido's in Armani suits showcase with Silicone Trophies draped on their arms. A growing crowd poses and preens at the velvet rope. The air saturated with skin, money and sex.

The cement walls pulsate with the echoes of a steady beat that cascades through the parking lot. Joey pulls the sedan into a space next to a black Porsche and kills the engine. The chill of the evening mixes with the heat from under the hood. Pings and pops snap from the engine block. The car doors stay closed.

Riley sits in the passenger seat, a mask in one hand, the revolver in the other. Joey turns in his seat. "So, what do you think? You like the masks? You won't believe how many stops I had to make. Jesus, I had to hit, what, three stores before I found 'em."

Riley melts Joey's grin. "I'm still not sure on the plan."

Joey grabs his mask and stuffs it inside his suit coat. "Hey, Bro, lemme ask ya'. Why would a place have twelve copies of midget porn? I mean one, look I get, I understand, but a dozen? You think Raincoats line up and wait for this shit?"

Riley's patience runs out. He explodes in his seat. "Listen to me. I am gone. I fuckin' walk right now. Unless we get this straight. And I mean arrow fuckin' straight."

Joey breaks the tension with a deep sigh. He pats Riley on his knee. "I already told you. I've got it all covered. All you have to do is watch my back. That's it. Just be there for me, just in case. I'll do all the talkin', take all the risk, and get us right where we need to be. Okay?"

Riley's exasperated. "I hear your mouth, I hear you talk. But you're not telling me anything. Now stop fucking around and spell it out."

"Okay, Bro. Okay. Just calm the fuck down. Here it is. Now. Herman the German fucked me over on the fix, right. Well, this is his place. Friday night, they easily clear two hundred grand. And the cash sits there. No shit, it sits there until Saturday afternoon. They keep it in an office, and the office is in the Tower of Power."

Riley looks out the passenger window, he watches the masses move and crowd the main entrance. "Right. We just stroll through that fuckin' crowd, and take as much as we want. Like you said, the money's in the open. Where, on a desk? Bullshit."

"No. The money is in a safe. But they don't lock that safe up until closing time. Fuck the crowd. Where we're goin', they got one guy up there. Every couple of hours, they clear out all the registers and drop the cash at the office. Our guy runs it through the machine; and puts it in the safe. That's it. We don't need a key, we don't need a password; we don't need a fuckin' PIN number. We just need to go in there and get it."

Riley turns away from the window, and gives Joey his full attention. "Right. How can you be sure? This sounds like nothing. Worse, this sounds like a set-up. A bad fuckin' set-up. How can you be sure about any of this?"

Joey nods along with Riley and tries to bring him down. "I heard it from this whore I'm banging. Well, whore is a strong word. I mean, she's just doing her job. She's actually a real sweetheart. And look Bro, call it a miracle, but she kinda likes me. Maybe soon, we're matching couples, bitch and barbeque on the weekends, that kind of thing."

Riley doesn't believe any of it. But he can see on Joey's face that he believes every word. "A whore. You know, you're the second biggest fuck-up in this car. And I'm the first for actually sitting here listening to this. I'm out."

Riley grabs the door handle, opens the passenger door. Joey grabs him by the shoulder.
"Look, I know, it sounds fucking crazy. And you have cold feet which makes perfect sense, since I just dropped all this on you. But I‟ve set this up, it's an easy walk, and I need you to be there for me. I wouldn't bring you in if I didn't think this would work, and it will work because it's all ready to go. All we need to do is make it happen."

Riley shrugs away from Joey. He drops the mask and revolver to the floorboard.
"I know you think you have it all worked out, but you don't. This is way too wide open. This is bullshit prison yard talk. This is the kind of shit that got us there in the first place. You want my help? Fuck you. I‟m not going to jail. Not for you. Not for anybody. Now start the fucking car and let's go home."

The windows in the sedan fogged up. Riley wipes away condensation, axel grease from his jacket smears across the glass. Joey stares at the keys in the ignition, his hands squeeze the steering wheel. "I know you‟re here with no warning. And I know how this sounds, I do. If you need a reason, you're not doing this for me; you're not doing this for you. You're doing this for Carol. You're doing this to keep your wife breathing, and you can fog up a car with her for years to come. Or you can go home and in a few days you can identify her corpse in the fucking morgue. Just give me fifteen minutes, that's all I'm askin', and I'm out of both of your lives, forever. Now watch my back, and think about her and let's fucking do this and let's get it done."

Joey grabs his revolver, and shoves it inside his coat. He scratches an itch on the back of his neck, and punches the steering wheel twice.

"Okay. Are you ready?"

"No. No, I‟m not fucking ready, you asshole."

Carol dances through his mind. Her olive green eyes and the crinkled smile she gets when she has something to say. Her face curled up against his chest, peacefully asleep. The same face, tear-streaked and haggard behind the visiting room Plexiglas of the Trenton penitentiary. And cold and dead under a cloth sheet on a metal table in some sterile dungeon. He jolts away from the mental image; bends down and picks up the cold gun from the floorboard. He slips it in his jacket.

"You got fifteen minutes. For Carol. But Carol or not, I get a feeling, a bad vibe of any kind; I shut this down. Understand?"

Joey bounces in his seat. "Sure, Bro. Absolutely. Now let me—-"

Riley snatches his sleeve and jerks him close. "I said. Do you understand."

"Yeah. I do. I got this all under control. Just follow my lead."

Joey leaps out of the car. Riley grabs the mask and pushes his door open.

A Former Featured Author
MaryPat Hyland Author of 3/17  

See an interview with MaryPat on the Chair to Chair Page


Fionn MacConnell slouched in a salvaged confessional booth at the back of a Galway pub called The Vestibule, staring at his untouched pint of Guinness and a shredded photograph of his ex-girlfriend, Renny. It was half nine in the morning.
Fists curled tightly, he closed his eyes and saw her there in the pub again, just hours earlier, fingernails digging into her Amy Winehouse beehive as she screamed a litany of reasons why their relationship was damned:
“Ye culchie-brained, lazy-arsed, busker-poor eejit! Ye’re never gonna be famous. Ye haven’t a feckin’ clue where ye’r goin’!”
It wasn’t so much her insults that stung him—he’d been called far worse—but the fact that her meltdown interrupted a brilliant session that included his mates and some well-known traditional Irish musicians. Jaysus, it was mortifying! Of course, when you factored in Fionn’s legendary temper, their hostilities erupted into a war of words on the scale of the Battle of Clontarf. (He, of course, represented the Brian Boru side, she—the bloody Vikings.)
Fionn knew by now the tale of this epic breakup was already out there, growing in scale with each kilometer it traveled down the bótharín from the pub. He could imagine the other musicians’ whispers in the distance: “Remember that poor lad who came in second at the All-Ireland fiddle a cúpla years back? Och, the eejit got into a terrible row with his girl. She was after a few pints and created such a commotion! Wanted him to compliment her new dress, but he was in the middle of playin’ the ‘Maid Behind the Bar.’ Well, the evil she-wolf flew into jealous rage, jumped up on a table and started throwin’ things, left and right. Breakin’ pint glasses and mirrors, cursin’ Our Lord. Disgustin’! Took three patrol cars of gardaí to break up the fisticuffs that followed! Feckin’ brilliant. Ye shoulda seen it!”
Fionn sank his head into his hands. Och, how could he have been codded again so easily by a girl? ’Twas yet another bleak chapter in the endless tome of his doomed love life.
They’d met on a warm May afternoon, when he was out walking to clear the peaty fog of last night’s Guinnesses from his brain. He’d wandered by the Spanish Arch and saw Renny in the distance feeding a cluster of swans along the River Corrib. A slight wind teased her towering mane of jet black hair. He was riveted by the sight. When bay breezes lifted her skirt, displaying red fishnet stockings above thigh-high boots, he was overcome by zombie-like lust and marched toward her craving a carnal carnival ride.
He got one, all right. Several months into their tempestuous romance, they tried to make it about more than just sex. She’d even asked him to teach her how to play the bodhrán so she could be part of The Vestibule’s weekly sessions. After two “lessons,” it was obvious that every bit of rhythm she had in her was best used for something else. The problem was, the more he lingered with her, the less time he spent at his music—an important part of his income and the very heart of his soul. He could no longer afford this love drug, but she was a devil of a habit to break.
After Renny solved that problem by dumping him so publicly last night, he took his pint and crawled into the old confessional booth. The only light within came from a Sacred Heart votive candle that Fionn watched flicker from moonset to sunrise. The publican, an old family friend, locked up and kindly left him inside to collect his thoughts and pride.
Fionn stuck his right thumb into his mouth and nibbled on the fingernail. It was a childhood habit inspired by his namesake, Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The legend goes that young Fionn burned his thumb cooking the salmon of knowledge for the druid poet Finn Eces. When he sucked on his blistered thumb to cool it, he swallowed some of the salmon’s skin stuck to it and received the knowledge of all things, a gift he later used to defeat his adversaries.
Fionn MacConnell ached for such a gift at the moment. What the feck do I do now, he worried. He chewed his fingernail a bit more. That’s it! Fionn flipped open his cell phone and called his Cousin Des in the States. After six rings, it picked up.
“Des, it’s me.”
“Me, yer Cousin Fionn.” Fumbling and crashing noises filled the background for a few seconds.
“Fionn, ye feckin’ eejit. It’s feckin’ four in the mornin’.”
“Sorry, lad. It’s just that … Des ye’ve gotta help me. I gotta get outta here.”
“Gardaí after ye?”
“No. Worse. Me girl dumped me in front of the Tuesday night session.”
“Och. Ye poor lad. That’s bleedin’ awful.” Des rubbed his eyes and yawned.
“I know. The whole feckin’ pub was watchin’, too. All these trad legends were there, Johnny Pat Derrane, Micko Harnett and even Tommy Kilcooley. Me reputation’s completely banjaxed.”
Des snickered.
“That Renny’s mental, I tell ye. The craic was so mighty, the music even better. Then she went and spoilt it.”
“Didn’t I warn ye about stayin’ away from them Claddagh swans? I told ye, they’s enchanted.”
“I know, Des. I know. And boy, she’s some witch all right! A talented witch, but she’s a feckin’ mental one. Can ye help me lad? I’m dyin’ here. Need a reason to get out of this place.”
Des yawned as he tried to come up with a suitable scheme to help his cousin.
“This is what ye’r gonna do. Get yer trad band back together and we’ll get ye over here in March for a tour of the States.”
“A tour of the States, with me band? Brilliant! Och, I’m lovin’ the sound of this, Des. I’m not leavin’ to save face, I’m leavin’ ’cause me American fans are pinin’ for me.”
“Ye know, Fionn. It’ll be easy money, too. Yanks love nothing better than a good piss-up before St. Patrick’s Day. They start celebratin’ six months to a year before. No word of a lie. Me friend Sean booked a few indie bands at some college campuses in upstate New York last fall. I’ll see if he can book yez a tour.”
Fionn hung up and smiled. He’d lost his girl and gained some gigs. Interesting 24 hours, he thought. This working trip—his first to America—would be atonement for his recent sins. He’d no longer take his musical gift for granted. He’d share the gospel of traditional Irish music with the new world.
“All I have to do now is put a dacent band together.” Fionn emptied his pint, blessed himself and exited the confessional booth.

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A Former Week's Featured Author

L. R. Giles  Author of  Live Again buy it on Amazon or Buy it on Nook


Part I

Group Therapy

The name of the support group was Live Again. No bullshit.
In retrospect it seems blatantly ominous. That’s only because hindsight is always twenty-twenty. The way I’m starting it off, telling the name of the group, might give the impression that they caused all this. But, truth be told, they didn’t start the bad stuff. Really, neither did the guy in the bar.
I did.
All that was later, though. My forty-nine laps in the rec center pool came first.

*      *      *
Summer, 2002

Forty-freaking-nine. I never swam that far in my life. It was the one p.m. free swim on a Monday in July. The senior citizens were done with water aerobics and the kids wouldn’t be in for lessons until four. I pretty much had the pool to myself.
I’d only woken up an hour before, rolled right out of bed to come to the pool. After a quick locker room shower—rec center rules—I jumped in the deep end without so much as a stretch. I thought that day was the day. I’d planned on drowning myself in two-parts water, one-part chlorine.
What I found out, though, was that drowning yourself isn’t like sticking the barrel of a Mossberg in your mouth. It ain’t just—BANG—done. Your survival instinct kicks in and you’ve got to fight that thing like a bully on the first day of school. Maybe that’s why I went the pool route instead of jumping off the Midtown Bridge. If I had second thoughts there was an out. I could tread water or simply pull up on the side. Plus, the lifeguard was perched on that high aluminum chair like a metallic Daddy Long Legs.
Once again, there’s that hindsight/twenty-twenty thing. I’d really been counting on the lifeguard.
So I swam, tried to build up the nerve to sink and succumb to blue suffocation.
I stroked with my right arm, my head to the left, and sucked in a breath above the water’s surface. Stroked with the left, head to the right, another breath. I had the rhythm of a windmill in a light breeze and I wasn’t breaking it no matter what my conscious mind commanded. No matter how much I missed her.
Keith and Adair, Forever.
It was printed on the matchbooks and those cheap wine glasses at our wedding reception. It’s engraved on an ashen gold plaque attached to our wedding album. It’s what the pastor at her church said—more or less—during the ceremony. I put all that shit away months ago. Haven’t been to church in as long, either. I can’t stand lies.
No one mentioned that ‘Forever’ meant less than five years, or that ‘Keith and Adair’ would get downsized back to ‘Keith’ because of a negligent doctor who might’ve had too much coffee before performing a ‘simple’ procedure.
Even with those thoughts in my head, I kept my hands cupped, toes pointed, and continued to pull and kick my way through the water. I hit the wall, flipped like they do on ESPN, reversed direction. I looked like I actually knew what I was doing. Anyone watching me might’ve said I had an athlete’s physique, slim and lithe. Trust me, it was only because I was barely eating.
Malnourishment aside, I ticked off laps like I was in training. Maybe I intended to swim the River Styx. Don’t bother docking the ferry, Charon. I’m keeping my coins.
The muscles in my arms and legs started to feel like steel bands around lap twenty-five; by thirty my lungs felt like latex balloons filled with hot air and needles. By thirty-five I felt like a marble statue that’d hopped off his podium for a dip. But, I pushed on.
At lap forty-five I’d worked off most of my depression and came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t quite ready for suicide. Yet.
That’s when a stranger emerged in me. My old competitive nature reared its head, noting that I just swam farther without a break than Olympians do. Why not do an even fifty?
If I’d done an even forty-eight things might’ve turned out differently. I would’ve climbed out of the pool and continued to be another critically lonely widower who might’ve succeeded in offing himself eventually.
But, I kept swimming. Lap forty-nine.
I poured it on, tried to set the water on fire. In one of my sideways glances the lifeguard’s spider-chair was in my line of sight, minus the lifeguard. To this day I’m convinced he went off to take a shit or something. Never did find out for sure; he got fired for that MIA act.
I hit the opposite wall ready for lap fifty. As I did my little underwater flip ‘n twist, a hot stitch tore up my side. It hit my arm, knotted my right bicep, then exploded, peppering my calf muscles with cramping shrapnel.
My initial wish was granted. I sank like a stool pigeon in cement shoes.
Problem was, I’d gotten over my afternoon death wish and wasn’t due for my evening morbidity for at least five hours. Basically, at that particular point in time, I didn’t want to die.
I screamed at the top of my lungs. This is not the thing you want to do underwater.
Air exited in bubbles, water entered in waves. My lungs responded to the hydrogen-oxygen mix by wracking my body with convulsive fits. The chlorine felt like acid to my sinuses. I felt my bladder let go. After a slow descent I thumped to my side on a cement floor nine feet below the water’s surface. And at no point did I become content and accept my fate like in movies or books. My survival instinct came out kicking and punching like Mike Tyson in a prison shower. My legs nearly folded into my torso from the pain of constricting muscles; swimming to the surface was impossible.
Like I said before, I pretty much had the pool to myself. Had I actually been by myself the story would end right here. And that would’ve been best for everyone. But, my saving grace was a blubbery, middle-aged woman who wanted to combine her South Beach with some good aerobic exercise. She saw my struggle and worked her way to my rescue.
I remember the strained look on her face, as if her own buoyancy working against the water was the equivalent of quadrupled gravity on planets heavier than Earth. Inside her loud, Korean Sunset patterned one-piece, her flesh rippled in time with the water. She wrapped a meaty hand around my cramped bicep and allowed me to ride her girth to the surface. The edges of my vision became obstructed, fuzzy, and black, like looking through a child’s Halloween mask. Even when we broke the surface the water in my lungs barred necessary oxygen from my body. I passed out.
There was no tunnel, no bright light. There was hot, stagnant air.
My eyes popped open like window shades. At some point during my absence from consciousness the lifeguard returned and gave me an up close and personal view of his stubbled cheek. His chapped lips formed a seal against mine; he blew more of his hot breath down my throat.
Somehow I found strength to push him away. I coughed and gagged, rolled to the side.
“Stand clear,” he yelled.
I threw up, mostly water with some snot mixed in.
It felt like my rib cage was laced with razors, slashing my lungs with every breath, sending me into more coughing fits.
“Go call 911,” he yelled to someone I couldn’t see.
“No,” I coughed out, “don’t call anyone.”
I got my knees under me, “I’m all right. Caught a cramp is all.” I pushed myself onto legs that felt as sturdy as cooked fettuccine. I hacked up some more snot and pool water, “I’ll live.”
I kept my head towards the aqua green tiles bordering the pool. Nothing was wrong with my neck; I just didn’t want to face any of them. In my peripheral vision I noticed the bottom half of that Korean Sun bathing suit.
“Thank you,” I muttered to the woman who’d rescued me on my way to the locker room.
I pulled on my Reading is Fundamental t-shirt without toweling off. It clung to my damp flesh and became translucent, giving a peep show of my brown chest and dark nipples to anyone who wanted to see, not that anyone did. My face was damp too, camouflage for the tears streaming down my cheeks.
Shuffling into the hallway, set for the exit, my eyes finally found their way from the floor. That’s when I saw it.
Live Again.
The flyer was the color of orange peels and fastened to the cork bulletin board with silver thumb tacks. Live Again was the heading typed in a too-creative-by-half font that reminded me of the stuff my students liked to print out during computer time. Leaflets for karate, crafts, and other rec center happenings were draped over the bottom portion, all but burying it. But, right then, that title was all that mattered.
After the forty-nine laps it felt like a sign.
Without even thinking I pulled away the other flyers and let them drift to the floor like dead leaves. What other message did the Live Again flyer have for me?
If the heading felt like a sign, then the details were like an Old Testament miracle. It read:
Support group for recent widowers.
Men, if you’ve recently lost your spouse it’s not good to be alone.
Come talk it over with others who understand.
We meet every 1st and 3rd Monday in Meeting Room 2C @ 7 pm
Coffee and Doughnuts available.
Call Thomas for details, 555-8841

At that point I wasn’t sure how much I believed in higher powers—though I’d be meeting one before the year ended—but, I couldn’t write this thing off as coincidence. That day was the 1st Monday in July.
Call Thomas for details.
I did one better. I went.

*      *      *

Before the meeting there was the matter of getting back my human look as opposed to the soggy dog thing I had going on. My clothes were still soaked through when I pulled into my driveway. I stepped from the vehicle onto my gravel walkway; a familiar click and whir greeted me before I could reach my front door. To my left, between me and the sun’s glare, a large silhouette leaned against the fence, an old-school Nikon camera with a lens like a telescope wound film in his hand.
“Went for a dip, huh, neighbor?”
Les Shire. The type of neighbor you make the mistake of thinking you can like when you first meet him, before the layers of social camouflage peel away to reveal the crass, offensive jackass beneath. He’s the kind that would have you looking out your window every weekend in hopes of seeing a U-Haul.
“Yeah, Les. I just got back from the Rec Center,” I motioned for my door, “I’m going to go in and—“
He cut me off with the wave of his hand, “Come here a second, man.”
Sighing, I made the short trip to the fence.
The camera looked like a toy in his hairless paws. He was linebacker big, his pink Polo shirt made his spare tire gut look like a lump of cotton candy.
He smirked and by the twinkle in his eye I already knew something sleazy would be the topic of discussion, “Have you seen the girl renting a room from old lady Johnson?”
Mabel Johnson lived four houses down on the other side of the street. She was an older woman, a widow, who often rented rooms to Commonwealth University students for company more than income. Much like me, she’d been left with a nice life insurance check, but in her case there were fifty years of marriage savings and a company pension to go along with it.
“I didn’t know Mabel had a new live-in.”
“Does she have a new live-in?” He threw his hands up, a sign of either an oncoming exaggeration or crass comment reserved for any male—usually me—he could lure into earshot, “Keith, this girl’s body is so tight, her cooch could tear your dick out by the root.”
The latter, I saw. “Is that so?”
“Oh yeah, I watched her move in this morning. It was like a peep show. Little gym shorts riding up her ass, tits just about falling out of her tank top, I got plenty of pictures,” He tapped the camera’s lens, “with this baby I could see her stubble, and I ain’t talking about on her legs.”
I was all too familiar with Les’s antics with that damned camera. It’s been said that idle hands are the Devil’s playpen . . . to that my neighbor was exhibit A. At one time he worked at the Calco metal plant but injured his knee on the job. He’s collected disability for several years and picked up the horrid hobby of photography. Not that a camera is an innately evil device, but much like a gun, it can be a terror in the wrong hands.
When Adair was alive, she’d caught him in his upstairs window snapping pictures of her at the clothesline while she bent over the laundry basket. He was a big bastard, but not big enough to get away with that shit. I crossed the fence that day, confronting him, ready to come to blows. He all but called my wife a lying tease.
“I did no such thing, Lansing,” he’d said, “but, if she’s paying that much attention to windows when she’s bending over, maybe she wanted me to see.”
The only thing that saved him from a black eye—and me from a body cast, probably—was his wife, Sarah, coming home and interrupting us. She’s a sweetheart, better than Les deserved, and I didn’t want to cause her any strife over the incident. So I left and didn’t speak to him for a year. The only thing that got me back to being polite was he and his wife’s sincere tears at Adair’s funeral.
And now I had to deal with shit like this.
“Look Les, I have to go. I got somewhere to be later on.”
“Hot date?”
“Not quite,” I turned towards my door.
“I’ll bring those pictures over when I develop them.”
My hand shot up, more of a dismissal than a goodbye wave.
After a shower, I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed dozing in and out of uneasy slumber. The Live Again flyer was neatly folded on my nightstand. The few times I did wake up I flirted with reasons why I didn’t need to go to the meeting. It was just going to be a bunch of sad sacks crying and hugging and talking about moving on. Who needed a pity part?
I’d roll over, trying to get sleep I didn’t need, and every time I drifted off those two words would surface. That flyer should’ve been stapled to my head the way it stayed on my mind. It was five o’clock when I figured what the hell. I threw on my least wrinkled shirt, cargo shorts, and dingy Nike sneakers.
Meeting Room 2C was a tiny conference room. My room at Portside West Elementary was probably double the size. Fluorescent light bars hovered behind frosted glass in the ceiling, casting white light over the windowless room. About twelve tiny desks—the type I crammed into to take my driver’s exam and most of my college finals—made up three rows leading away from the door towards an olive green chalk board on the opposite wall.
My goal was to be first one there, to gain a bit of mental traction on the group members. Don’t ask me why, probably some Type-A shit. I thought I’d succeeded before stepping into 2C and spotting the gentleman to my right setting up a coffee pot between a column of Styrofoam cups and a speckled green and white Krispy Kreme Donut box.
His back was to me. I didn’t want to startle him too badly, so I tapped on the door with my fist, “Knock, knock.”
He didn’t turn around, but said, “Is that a raven tapping at my chamber door?”
Strange, but I played along, “Nevermore.”
He did turn around then, his blue eyes wide when he saw me, “Oh my, I’m sorry. My grandkids do the ‘knock, knock’ thing and I always say that, habit I suppose. This is the first time I’ve ever gotten an answer.”
I shrugged, ““The Raven”. I read it to my kids last Halloween.”
“I’m Thomas McPhee. Are you here for the meeting?”
“If this is the Live Again group, then yeah.” I pulled the flyer from my pocket and unfolded it, “Call Thomas for details, right? I’m Keith Lansing.”
In two long strides he met me and offered his hand, “Good to have you.”
Thomas was taller than me, at least six-foot-six, broader too. When we shook, his hand swallowed mine. His grasp was warm and comforting; I imagined, as infants, his grandchildren fell asleep often in it. I felt no ills in the man.
Now, I wonder what he might’ve felt about me.
His navy-blue blazer was buttoned over a pale yellow shirt—short-sleeved I hoped—with a tuft of silver hair curling over the collar. Pleated khaki pants hung over spotless white deck shoes. I couldn’t help thinking of Thurston Howell the Third from Gilligan’s Island.
The air conditioning wasn’t the best in Meeting Room 2C. I had to ask, “Aren’t you a little hot?”
A tiny crease appeared between his bushy eyebrows. I could just about see the wheels in his head turning as he did a mental comparison of our attire. Finally, “If you’re fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to get to be my age you’ll see old bones are rarely warm.”
“Well at the moment we need to trade because just looking at you is making me sweat.”
He laughed hard and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “How are you at making coffee?”
“I was going to auction my recipe to Folgers and retire young, but I didn’t want to sell out to The Man.”
Thomas looked at me like I had two heads, a sign that I needed to keep the sarcasm to a minimum. “I do all right.”
With a tiny measuring cup I dumped grounds from a Sanka can into a tissue filter while he scrawled the group’s name on the board. I couldn’t help but notice his pained expression as he pinched the chalk between his sausage plump fingers. Fine drops of sweat beaded his forehead before he finished the first word. What that hot blazer couldn’t do, arthritis could. I could’ve asked if he needed help, but I know sometimes pride is all you have. I let him be.
Once the coffee was brewing and chalk rested in its tray, he asked me to help arrange the desks into a circle and decided to chat me up. “So, how old are your children?”
“Typically ten or eleven. It’s hard to tell sometimes, though.”
“I’m sorry?”
“I teach fifth grade.”
“Oh,” he paused, maybe to consider the oddity of a black male under the age of thirty teaching pre-teens. He wouldn’t be the first. “So, you don’t have kids of your own?”
“Nah, me and Adair never got a chance t—,” I caught myself. “No. I don’t.”
The voluminous screeching of sliding desks decreased by half as Thomas ceased arranging the furniture and I continued. “You don’t have to talk about it, but you don’t have to not talk about either. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
No. I’m here because your flyer was the first thing I saw after a botched suicide attempt. But, I didn’t say that, I just shrugged.
“Believe me, Keith. I know how it is. That’s why I started Live Again.”
I slid another desk into the loose circle, “How long has it been for you?”
“Fifteen years. When Margaret died, I had two daughters to look after. They kept me going. I got them out of the house, through college, and living on their own. Both of them married within a year of each other. You know what I did after my youngest girl’s wedding reception?”
“Started the group?”
“No,” he huffed, “I went home and slit my wrists.”
I tipped my desk, almost tripped over it as it rattled to the floor. He held up both hands, palms out. The crooked, pink scars were clearly visible.
Scrambling to get the desk righted, I asked, “How is it that you . . . you know?”
“Survived? Grace of God. One of the girl’s aunts saw me skip out of the reception. She figured I might be suffering from a bit of the empty nest syndrome and came to check on me. The woman had the good sense to use my dish towels as tourniquets before she called the EMT’s. The other way around and I wouldn’t be here today.
“I did some heavy thinking when I was laid up in that hospital bed. The itching from the stitches was a constant reminder of what a fool I was. When I was released the first thing I did was promise my girls that I’d never hurt myself again. Second thing I did was start Live Again. My desire was to keep other widowers from falling into the same pit. That was seven years ago.”
It felt like those times in church when the sermon seems custom fit for you. Through great pains I kept my expression neutral so that my guilt didn’t show. “What a story.”
My stomach churned when I realized I’d given him a perfect opening to ask, “So what’s yours?” As the seconds ticked by, he didn’t say a thing. I guess he’s been doing this long enough to know everyone opens up in their own time.
Shortly after our circle of desks was complete members of the group began trickling in.
The first was another brother. Seeing another brown face raised my comfort level to the umpteenth power. He greeted Thomas with a nod and paused when he saw me, his eyebrows perked.
“Well hello there. New member?” He asked me but looked to Thomas. The old man only smiled.
“Norton Scrubbs,” he said, extending his hands. “They all call me Deke, though.”
I returned the courtesy and was about to ask about the nickname when I noticed the Bible tucked under his left arm. He was a short, stocky dude with attire similar to my own. Instead of a wrinkled golf shirt he sported an old Mark Rypien Redskin’s jersey. He slid into a nearby desk and dropped his Bible in the basket underneath.
Three more men came in—two white, one Hispanic—and it was pretty much the same show every time. I met and introduced myself to Rico Javier, Herm Epps and Jeffrey Diamond.
At seven sharp, Thomas went into mediator mode from his own desk. “Good evening everyone. I’m glad we all made it out tonight,” he nodded in my direction, “we have a new friend with us, as you all can see. I thought we’d do a round robin to get him acclimated to Live Again.”
My heartbeat doubled. It felt like a tribal drum in my chest and blood pulsed in my ears. I could pretty much figure what a round robin was and had a good idea what the climax would be.
Thomas said, “I’ve already told him my story. Is there anyone who wants to go next?”
Jeffrey raised his hand, “I’ll go.” He was a tall, lanky man with a good tan and brown hair with a few silver wisps threaded throughout. He told the story of a car accident that didn’t seem all that serious at first. He’d walked away without a scratch; his wife didn’t. They were rear ended by some kid who’d just gotten his license. The collision was low-speed, but Julie Diamond had been in the process of turning her head to glimpse something out the passenger window at the exact moment they were hit. Her neck snapped, killing her instantly. His tone was casual, “It was a long time ago. She’s in a better place,” he concluded.
Deke’s dirty thief was adult leukemia. “The Lord and this group keep me grounded. I know I’ll see her again. In the meantime, I’m studying The Word and hope to open my own church one day.”
Another car accident took the life of Meraly Javier. The drunk driver that killed her had just slipped through a DUI checkpoint where every third car was being stopped and he happened to be number two in line.
Herm’s wife was murdered by her abusive lover; he hadn’t known about the affair.
Now, that sounds like it would be the most gruesome and heart-wrenching of all the stories, but the bulk of his tale hadn’t been about her death. He’d wrapped that up in a sentence, “Her secret ass-rammer cracked her skull.”
What he preferred to tell me about was the aftermath. “As soon as we buried her I went to take a leak and my pecker felt like it was spraying lit kerosene. Went to the doctor the next day and found out the bitch gave me Chlamydia and Gonorrhea.” He was bug eyed, making wild gestures with his hands. “Can you believe that shit?”
He didn’t have the tone of a hurt, betrayed man. His speech was that of a comedian delivering his money-shot punch line.
Thomas cleared his throat to regain the floor, “Your fervor when you tell that never ceases to amaze me,” he looked to me, “That’s Live Again, Keith. We don’t always talk about our late spouses. We’re a support group, not a morbid reminder group. When we have someone new in our midst we like to lay all the cards on the table. It’s not required that you tell of the circumstances that brought you here. You talk in your own time. But . . . ”
There’s always a but.
“ . . . we trusted you by sharing our pain. It is, after all, what cements our bond. We hope that you trust us, too.”
There it was. I didn’t want to talk about Adair, but I felt challenged. Ten eyes bore into me. In my mind, mocking me. “Be a man,” they said, “face the pain.”
“We’d been trying to have children,” I began. I felt detached, on autopilot as if I was hearing the story for the very first time right along with them. “When we weren’t getting pregnant and the duration of her periods became longer and longer we got her checked out. There were some dark spots on her uterus and ovaries. Cysts . . .”
It was the first time I’d discussed it at all since the botched surgery six months ago. It was like peeling off a scab. Somehow I got through it. I gave a quick summation of how I found a flyer for the group on the bulletin board downstairs, the incident in the pool omitted, of course. When it was over the guys applauded me.
As the claps quieted Thomas said, “Welcome to the club.”
Herm raised his hand. Out of reflex from dealing with my students, I said, “Question?”
“Have you taken off that ring at all in the last few months?” He eyed my wedding band.
Honestly, I’d forgotten about the thing. At Herm’s prompting I stared at it like it was a big, hairy mole.
“Leave him alone,” said Deke, “in his own time. Remember?”
He shrugged, “just curious.”
The rest of the meeting was about bonding activities the group might participate in. Bowling, hiking, hunting trips, etc. One immediate activity was a swim after the meeting (to which I promptly declined). By eight-thirty we were adjourned. I said my goodnights before the guys made their way to the pool. They filed out in a line, me and Thomas being the last to leave.
“We’ll see you in a couple of weeks, won’t we?”
I paused in the doorway and thought about it a second. Then, “Yeah. You will.”
“Glad to hear it.”
That’s how the Live Again group welcomed me, the man who would eventually destroy their lives, if not their very souls.

*      *      *

The next two weeks came and went. I still had rough moments, times when I didn’t have the energy of a dying watch battery, but it was just sadness. No thoughts of suicide, I simply mourned the way I imagine most people do.
I did go check out the 4th of July fireworks at Port Park the week after my first Live Again session. To be honest, I don’t think I would’ve gone if not for the meeting. Talking about Adair with the guys was like taking off a heavy coat. I could move better, and it felt all right to leave it behind.
At the next meeting no one brought up their wives. The topic was baseball. The meeting after that we talked about our most embarrassing moments. We were buddies hanging out, not broken men holding each other together.
That’s how all the meetings went for awhile. The summer ended, I resumed teaching (that seemed fun again, too), it got cold and rainy in Portside. Me and the guys broached every subject from movies to the war. Some topics got pretty heated, politics in particular, but no one left Meeting Room 2C with any lingering hard feelings.
Warhol Pell came to us on the third Monday in October and changed all that, though.
Rico had been telling us a damned funny story about one of his black sheep cousins and the scheme that just netted him five to eight years out at the State Penitentiary, plus a few weeks in the hospital.
“ . . . Jose decides to get the money he owes the bookie by jacking a car. But, the chop shop he’s doing it for says they got an order for a mini-van. That poses a problem. The only place he knows where to find a mini-van is in the suburbs and he doesn’t want to hang out there because of neighborhood watch and stuff. Then he has this ‘ingenious’ idea. ”
The guys were already snickering. I bit my tongue because my laugh’s loud and it carries.
“He goes to a nearby elementary school and hangs back a few blocks watching soccer practice through a pair of binoculars. He figures there’s going to be a whole shit load of minivans there. Only one shows up—and get this—it’s full of kids. At first he figures all the kids are there for the practice, but only one gets out. So, he has this internal conflict. He didn’t want to jack a bunch of kids, but if he doesn’t, the bookie’s going to break his arms. He tells his driver to follow the van.
“They get into the downtown area, the lady driving the minivan turns onto a street with virtually no traffic and gets caught at a red light. Perfect. My cousin tells the driver to pull up behind them, he jumps out, runs up on the minivan, and enters through the side door waving an unloaded pistol. That should’ve been it, the woman and the kids were supposed to get out and he was supposed to drive away with the goods. But, even though the light was red it wasn’t the reason the woman had stopped. They lady was dropping the kids off for another practice.
“At the Judo school.”
I couldn’t help it anymore, I started cracking up.
“Those kids were like a vicious pack of miniature Steven Seagals. They proceeded to break whatever bones of Jose’s that they could, then the Judo teacher sees the ruckus and comes out to assist. My cousin would’ve been better off dealing with the bookie. ”
That was it. My hearty laughter erupted, filling the room and echoing in the hall. I was gasping and crying when I realized everyone else’s laughs had tapered off. My back was to the door; I turned to see what everyone was looking at.
There he was.  He was a short, five-five with a noticeable paunch. Rain drops from the icy shower outside beaded on his bald spot or streamed into his remaining hair. His tan camel’s hair overcoat was spotted from the moisture, but the brown three-piece beneath it still seemed dry and warm. Rosy circles flared his chubby cheeks and the flesh hanging from his chin jiggled when he spoke, “Is this the widowers group?”
Thomas answered, “Yes, this is Live Again.”
“I’m Warhol Pell,” his brown eyes darted from side to side like ping-pong balls, scanning us all. The dark circles beneath them were tar smudges against his chalky skin. “I walked past a couple of times but when I heard all the laughing I figured this just couldn’t be the right place.”
His smug tone didn’t sit well with me at all. But, I had to cut him some slack. Who knows how I would’ve acted three months ago in a similar situation. Being a widower is no laughing matter. I’m the one who said, “Come in. Please.” I regretted it almost immediately.
Warhol sidled up in a desk next to me. He didn’t ask any of our names, probably didn’t care. After a moment of silence where he kept smoothing out the lapels of his coat though there were no wrinkles to be smoothed, Thomas asked him, “How did you hear about the group?”
“My therapist.”
It was a sharp response, as if Thomas should’ve known already. I had an urge to chop the man in his Adam’s Apple. I refrained, and Thomas seemed apathetic about the snipe. “When did it happen?” He asked.
“Four months ago.”
“I see. Everyone in this room knows the hardship you’re experiencing.”
At that, Warhol let out a bit of his own laughter, a sharp, sarcastic yelp. “Is that so?”
“Absolutely. I lost my Margaret fifteen years ago and I founded this group eight years after that.”
That started the round robin. It went in the same order as before with me as the anchor. This time around I added the part about my forty-nine laps in the pool. A couple of the guys sat up when I told that story, but none seemed too surprised. I finished with, “This group turned things around for me. Just give it a chance, Warhol. It can do the same for you.” I gave him the warmest smile I could.
“Are you finished?” He snapped.
I simply nodded afraid I’d only utter curses if I spoke.
“I guess it’s my turn, right?”
Thomas said, “In your own —”
Warhol cut him off, “Fine.” He got out of his desk and actually stood his Hobbit-looking ass in the middle of the circle. “I’m a business man. Built something out of nothing, I did. When I was eighteen my old-man kicked me out, told me to find my way in the world. I moved from my hometown Stepton and started hosing down the floors at the Matheson Slaughterhouse. Twenty years later I’m still there, difference is I own it now. It’s not the Matheson Slaughterhouse anymore.”
Jeffrey leaned forward, glowing with recognition. “Wait a second. Pell as in Pell’s Meat Packing? Stepton’s Bratwurst? Man, I love those things. I throw them on the grill every time I barbecue.”
Warhol tapped on his right palm with the fingers of his left hand, a golf clap, “Joy. A Valued Customer,” he pulled a bone colored card from his inside pocket, flicked it on Jeffrey’s desk, “Call me if you need some scrapple.”
Jeffrey’s face went beet red.
“I’m self-made. A millionaire, I’m not ashamed to say. A year ago I purchased a hundred and fifty year old mansion in the country. Victorian, six-bedrooms, had a movie theater put in. Using my new money to buy old shit had me thinking I’d made it. But that particular piece of old shit had faulty wiring.”
He turned as he spoke, each sentence punctuated with an expert speaker’s inflection and thrown at each of the Live Again members like a poisonous dart. It was easy to see how this man’s charisma could assist in acquiring his fortune. I hated it, and would hate it more as his story continued.
“I had a meeting, a wine and dine deal with the president of an Italian food company. Went well enough, scored a distribution deal with him. I went home intending to celebrate. Instead I found my gate propped open and my driveway tinted red from strobing emergency lights.”
His voice cracked. He stood in that circle for all of us to see with his mouth open and his bottom lip quivering, his words caught in his throat. His eyes were on me and I saw them well up. Then he blinked rapidly, sucked up the tears and continued on, all business.
“My house was still smoking and the firefighters continued to spray it down. I wasn’t concerned with that though, my insurance was paid up. Instead I grabbed the nearest police officer, snatched him by the collar, I did. And I asked. The look he gave me said it all, but I couldn’t take that and I went searching for myself. I rounded the fire engines, saw the ambulance . . . and what was lined up next to it. The body bags.” He paused, maybe for effect, maybe because he was genuinely choked up. Either way . . .
Body bags.
“My wife and the boys, lined up side by side.”
Tears trickled from the outside corner of each of Warhol’s eyes; it felt like there was no air in the room. Save for Thomas, no one else had kids. None of us knew, or wanted to know, that pain.
“One of the EMTs was standing there just watching my house burn, enjoying the show. There was no need to rush, it wasn’t a rescue call anymore, simply a salvage mission. They had my family bagged and laying on the ground like deer. I ran over before they could stop me and snatched the closest bag up. The first thing that struck me was how light it was. Do any of you know what happens to a body caught in a fire?”
No one dared answer.
“Well let me tell you. When a person is caught in a fire—not smoke, but the actually flames—it’s the same thing that happens to chicken burning on a grill. The skin crisps and splits. The fat liquefies and drains away. Our bodies are seventy percent water; all that evaporates. The body bag I snatched up was my oldest boy, Oren. They figured the fire started in the dividing wall closest to him. He cooked. When I grabbed him and unzipped that bag he weighed less than twenty pounds, just bone and some blackened chunks of meat. His jaw was open, like he’d been screaming.”
“Stop it,” Herm mumbled. It’s what we were all thinking.
“My youngest son and my wife weren’t in much better shape. Supposedly they ‘didn’t suffer the way Oren did’. That’s how the coroner phrased it. He said they asphyxiated. So, in other words, they choked to death on the smoke. They may not have suffered the way Oren did, but they suffered.”
He paused to take a breath; he looked ready to go on. Herm stood up, all the color gone from his face. “If you tell one more word of that story . . .”
“Leave him alone, Herm.” It was Thomas. “It’s his time.”
“But —”
“Leave him alone.”
I understood, but I wished Thomas hadn’t stopped Herm.
Warhol had a look of pure hate in his eyes. I don’t know if he hated us, or the rescue teams that came to his house, or himself, but it was a frightful gaze. He opened his mouth and I found myself digging my fingers into my thighs, prepared myself for more. Only a sob crossed his lips.
He collapsed right there in the middle of our circle, his chest hitching like a three year old child with a skinned knee. Deke was the only one to leave his desk and put an arm around him. “The Lord will see you through,” he said softly.
Maybe I should’ve gone in there and put my arm around him too, but there was something about Warhol that made me keep my distance. I don’t know if the guys felt it because I never discussed it with them, but I swear he told that story with some sort of sick glee. Not the same way Herm told his STD story, mind you . . . that story was meant as a comic jab at Herm himself, a way to get others to laugh at how foolish he’d been over his unfaithful wife because maybe he couldn’t.
Warhol, though . . . it felt like he wanted us to suffer through his tale with him. Like his consolation was seeing us in pain.
He got his wish.
Adair’s name, her face, tore at my heart like the mauling claw of some black beast.
By the time Deke and Thomas calmed Warhol down it was going on eight o’clock. I made up some lame excuse about having papers to grade and dipped out before everyone else.
I drove into the storm with one thing in mind. Getting drunk.
That’s how I ended up at Tannen’s Pub. That’s where I met him.
The Necromancer.

L. R. Giles, Author

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