Thursday, February 16, 2012

Issue #22: February, 2012

By Court Merrigan

Narin's bird took a mauling at the cockfights that would require many weeks of close tending to heal. Narin didn't mind. He'd made out well, bills bunched in his front shirt pocket. This bird was a good ringer, putting up a vicious feint and attack show that was nothing but prelude to inevitable defeat, useful for goading new cockers into overconfidence on their birds. Riding back to the freehold on the motorbike, Narin handled the cock with a tenderness due a newborn baby. The nubs of his fingers throbbed but tonight it didn't bother him. He had plenty to tell his little brother Taem. 

Now that his daughter Phrae was gone, Taem liked nothing more than to hear about the cockfights. He would nod along, eyelids blinking over empty sockets, jabbing the air with jerky fingers, sucking his teeth and throwing up his arms in a paroxysm of defeat or victory. Phrae used to giggle watching. But she'd left on a bus for Bangkok two months ago, Narin narrating the departure for Taem as the midday sun curled the tar in the joints of the highway. 

Taem spent his days perched by a cracked transistor radio, listening to old songs through AM static, rolling palm leaf cigarettes, stroking the birds that wandered the cock house. A dozen times a day, he disassembled a tarnished .38 revolver, laying the pieces out in sequence, oiling the apertures and surfaces. Every so often he would unleash a series of gravelly grunts, keeping it up until Narin took the .38 and fired it. The cocks were used to the racket, didn't even squawk. Taem would quiet and take back the warm piece to stroke and reload. 

Narin started substituting blank reloads because he worried Taem would accidentally shoot off his foot or worse. He made two vows in his daily obeisance to the household Buddha: to see to little Phrae's future, and to never see his brother's blood again, not in this or the next ten lives. 

*          *          *

When their father and mother died in a motorbike accident, Narin took over the family barber shop in Prachinburi, two hundred kilometers from Bangkok. Taem, meanwhile, bolted for Bangkok the day after the cremation.

Narin worked the barber shop for nineteen years. Weary of the stinking mound of hair he burned each evening, in 1983 he sold up and moved to Bangkok. There he went into business building steel window frames for shophouses and tract homes. Narin was deft with his hands, long fingers graceful about a welding torch, so the money was steady. He sent for his wife after he fixed up the rooms above the shop. But she was a country girl and balked at Bangkok's smoke and noise and the indecent sitting toilet, so unlike the proper squatter back home. She quickly returned to Prachinburi but the separation was amicable. Narin sent money for a while, then stopped, and they did not see each other again.

A few months later, Taem sauntered into his shop.

"Well, big brother," said Taem, looking at the neatly stacked rows of freshly-painted steel frames. "You're doing well for yourself."

They talked a while about the old days, but soon Taem was going on about his woman, his apartment, his job. He was a deliveryman and he was making out good. One day he'd see his way clear to a detached house and a black car and gold necklaces for his woman.

"What's her name?" asked Narin.

"Samnien," Taem said. "You'll like her. I'll bring her around sometime."

Narin never did meet Samnien, never got one look at Phrae's mother. Later he would try to see her in Phrae's face. He couldn't. 

Taem was soon a fixture at the shop, perched atop a steel desk watching Narin work, warbling along to old songs on the radio. He talked to customers. He was good with them. He'd laugh and joke and offer cigarettes and fetch cups of water and if there was a kid, Taem would pull coins and string from their ears and they'd shriek with laughter.  

Every hour he made a call on the shop phone and once or twice a day, he'd strap on his green backpack and zip off on his motorbike.

"Not bad work, huh," he said to Narin, and Narin agreed. "Tell you what, you should have seen the last place I had to hang out in. Real shithole. I got it good here, brother."

*          *          *

Taem was a drug runner, employed by one of the syndicates that had Bangkok divvied up. Pay came in rubber-banded bundles of cash, more than enough to keep Samnien in the two-level apartment but not enough to get her a car. He had to pay off the cops, too, who made a great show of putting him against the wall and patting him down, even though they knew exactly how much they were coming in for. The rates were set by the syndicates. The only annoyance was the occasional necessity to pistol-whip a deadbeat with the .38, kick him to the cops for their monthly arrest quota. 

Taem never fired the .38 until that day in mid-1985 when a couple of syndicate members thought he was getting uppity and snatched away his money bundle, and in the close cement room down a back alley three blocks from the Turkish embassy Taem shot both of them dead. Back at Narin's shop Taem made call after call but no one answered. He sat on the desk chain-smoking and ignoring the radio, nearly backhanding some kid who wanted a magic show. 

*          *          *

They came for Taem in the middle of the night. Kicked him in the balls and drug him out of the two-level apartment in boxers, Samnien screaming. They didn't say anything. They knew who he was. They knew just what he'd done.

*          *          *

When Narin sprinted downstairs into the shop, summoned by Taem's screams, he was invited by the three men standing there to have a seat. He did, and was lashed to a welding table, arms out.

Taem couldn't keep to his feet.  The men let him flop to the floor, naked, every orifice bleeding, including the emptied eye sockets. They had used chopsticks and a spoon for that.         

One of the men took a snipping tool from Narin's workbench and sheared off both index fingers at the first knuckle. Then the man used a blowtorch to suture the spurting wound. He was skillful with both. He had done this before. 

"Now," the man said. "Let's see if you know any more than your brother here."

Narin did not, though he was not believed until the snipping and suturing was repeated on each of his fingers and both big toes. 

"Well, boys," said the man. "What the fuck, huh." He steadied Narin's lolling head, whispered in his ear like a lover. "If I were you, I'd get the fuck out of Bangkok."

*          *          *

Narin convalesced two months at the Sisters of Mercy hospital in Prachinburi, listening to Taem moan, watching him flail and punch air as he tried to ward off invisible attackers in his dark ether. When the nuns finally released the brothers, Narin took the cash he'd plucked from the shop safe and bought the little freehold on a scrap of waste ground deep in the countryside. There he learned with excruciating slowness to utilize his finger nubs, pouring concrete, building the hut and the cock house out of bamboo and palm leaves. He bought Taem the radio and left his little brother listening in the shade of the palm trees. 

One day a postcard frayed at the edges found its way to the brothers. It was from Samnien. It had been some months in transit and it said Taem had a daughter.

Narin located the charity hospital in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok. He found the baby squalling in dirty cloth diapers in a bassinet she shared with two other infants in a vast orphanage hall where hundreds of such infants mewled. The overhead fans had ceased working years before and the swarms of flies were audible from the stairwell. The infant's skeletal body was stippled in sores, her eyes yellow as a Buddha idol. Narin knew the child was Taem's when he saw how she flailed spasmodically every minute or so, as if imitating her father. 

The girl was five months old, possibly six, or nine, or eleven. No one knew for sure. The records had been misplaced. Samnien had abandoned the child the day after it was born. One nurse remembered Samnien saying she feared for her life and that the child was cursed. 

Narin filled out the forms, named her Phrae, and brought her home.

Both infant and father calmed when Narin handed her over. Narin left them together thereafter, the blind man rocking and singing, the silent infant staring at him. Taem fed her out of his own bowl, mashing fish and rice in his fingers, and slept with her curled into him on a bamboo platform. When nightmares bolted Narin awake in the deep night, he listened to their placid breath until he could sleep again. Between occasional cockfight winnings and day labor, plus the little garden Phrae planted and weeded, they stayed in rice and kept Phrae in school uniforms and books and oil for her study lamp. The whip smart little girl was fast becoming all the brothers could have hoped. She won the top government scholarship of 2003 and now she was in a lonely dorm bed in Bangkok, bright future unfurling before her. 

*          *          *

Narin pulled up at the little bamboo and thatch hut on the freehold. He killed the motorbike and squatted on the slab of rough concrete by the spigot in front of the cock house. He switched on a naked light bulb and rubbed down the cock's head with an old rag, staunching the bleeding about its horny scars, squeezing open its beak with thumb and forefinger and running a feather down its throat to extract blood and mucous. He hummed an old song. The cock was mute.

Squawking came from inside the cock house. It sounded like a couple of cocks were out. Strange—Taem was religious about putting them away in the evening. Narin pushed open the bamboo gate. 

"Taem?" said Narin, squinting into the darkness. "Taem?" He found the light switch and squinted into the glare. "Oh, shit, Taem," he said, and kicked aside the two escaped cocks.

Taem lay on his side, putting the .38 against his temple and dry-firing, over and over. He had emptied the chambers earlier that evening, barrel hot to his head. The reverberation of the blank reload perforated his eardrum. Blood seeped from his ears and the two escaped cocks attacked the red rivulets.

Narin gently righted his little brother. Why, he wondered, then stopped. How useless such questions, all questions. He put his brother's head to his chest and murmured one of the old songs.

Court Merrigan has been published widely, including in PANK, Night Train, Spinetingler, Blackbird, Evergreen Review, Big Pulp, Grift, and Shotgun Honey.  You can find links at  He lives in Wyoming’s banana belt with his family.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Issue #21: February, 2012

By Allerton Mead

We rolled into the hills at sunset, passing a bottle of Old Granddad, driving a black Galaxy 500 that Jimmy started with a key I found in the street. Those old Galaxies were some cool-ass cars, and I bet some poor bastard was really going to miss it. Then again, fuck him. The dumb son of a bitch should have known how the tumblers in an ignition will wear down over the years. Motherfucker should have had the sense to buy one of those Clubs.

It was our ride now, and Jimmy turned the wheel with his index finger, stomped the gas and moved us on up. He had the seat pushed all the way back for his long legs, and his head was turned at an angle so his mohawk wouldn't get bent out of shape on the top of the car. It looked real uncomfortable for him, and was probably not something he'd thought of when he insisted on being the one to drive.

At the top of the hills was the top-dollar real estate, and we passed by—several gated driveways with giant mansions set way back from the road. That was what money bought you: privacy and protection. That, and a cool view. We saw that view ourselves when we went along the top of a cliff and looked to the west. That California coast at sunset was really something else. Hills that turned a glowing purple as they rolled out to the sea. Clouds that hung like loose, orange elephant turds in a prune juice sky. Beautiful.

We had climbed to the top of the highest hill when a thin, pale hand with black nail polish slipped out from the darkness of the big back seat. The hand touched Jimmy's shoulder.

"Slow down," said Jet. "That's it on the right."

Jet pulled his hand away, sat back again quiet and creepy, with his long black bangs hung low over his ghostly vampire face.

Jimmy slowed the car down and we came to a stop at the head of a long driveway. At the end was a security gate, which was about twelve feet high and made of spiky, black iron, and was mounted in a gap in a white stucco wall that looked to surround several acres of prime real estate. In front of the gate was a marble statue shaped like a big pineapple. Jimmy stared at the pineapple and gate for a long moment, his eyes squinted in deep concentration. Then he turned to Jet.

"You ready?" Jimmy asked him.

"I am," said Jet.

Jet took the snubnose thirty-eight out of the pocket of his black leather jacket, and Jimmy gave him a handful of shells. Jet fumbled around with the cylinder for a bit until Jimmy took the gun, loaded it himself, and then handed it back.

Jimmy was smart that way, not just because he knew how to handle a gun, but because he knew things about the law. You get pulled over with a loaded gun in a stolen car, you get tossed in Chino for the next year and a half of your life. But you get caught with an empty gun, it's only a months in county, if that. At least that was the way Jimmy explained it, anyhow. 
Jet slipped the pistol back into the pocket of his leather, and Jimmy pulled the car up to the Pineapple. It had a speaker and keypad mounted on the side. Jet rolled down the back window, poked at the numbers with his skinny fingers.

"May I help you?" said the Pineapple.

"Open sesame," said Jet.

There was a long pause.

"Who's there?"

"It's me, Franky, from a week back," Jet said. "We're looking to party."

Another pause. "Franky. Oh, yes. Who do you mean by 'we'?"

"Just a couple of friends. They're cool. We're all looking to party. All three of us"

The speaker went dead. The iron gate hummed and swung open. We were inside.

The driveway curved back through a grove of tall palm trees to a tri-leveled, new age castle, lit up white from big floodlights on the lawn. A white Bentley was parked right up front, and a sporty convertible Mercedes, also white, was pulled under an open air garage around the side.

Jimmy parked the Galaxy alongside the Bentley, in front of a pair of tall double doors that were open on the main floor of the mansion. I took a long pull of the Old Granddad, handed the last swallow to Jimmy.

"Whisky," I said, "makes you frisky."

"But crank," said Jimmy, "makes you stank."

Jimmy took the last slug, and tossed the bottle out the window onto the putting green lawn. Then he took a little plastic baggy from the pocket of his studded leather jacket, snorted a pinch like an old timer would do with snuff. Jet and me did the same. God only knew what Jimmy's crank was cut with—powdered glass and dish detergent, probably—but still, it really got us going, put us on a wave of confidence that we would need to ride all the way into the house, if we were really going to pull this off.

This was especially true for Jet. This was going to be an important night for him. It was going to be a big step from giving ten-dollar gummies to middle-aged sickos down on Sunset. The poor son of a bitch walked around constantly with chapped lips and steering wheel bruises on the side of his head. It was a three-day limp if he pulled an all-night trick. Jet was a good guy, though, which was why Jimmy had decided a while back to take him under his wing.

And really, I guess it was a big night for me and Jimmy, too. After what seemed like months of scuffing our knuckles for chump change on drunk GI's and drunker tourists who wandered off the Boulevard in the wee hours before dawn, this was going to be our first actual gun crime. And by the looks of this house, we were going to hit it big. I just wished I was still under 18, so Jimmy would have let me carry the gun.

We got out of the car and followed Jet down the drive and through the open doors. The inside of the house was as white as it was on the outside. White furniture on marble floors, white pillars that held up a vaulted ceiling. The place was so blinding white and squeaky clean, it could have been a movie set for a waiting room outside the pearly gates.
The only thing that threw off the image was a humongous, rectangular mirror just inside the door. Not the mirror itself, really, but what was in it. Our reflections. Against all that white and sparkling cleanness, all I could think was that Jimmy had been right about what he'd said in regards to speed and personal hygiene: they don't mix. Living in an abandoned hotel room without plumbing didn't help much, either. I saw that my 501's had gone to a grimy shade of grey and could have stood up on their own. A week-old malt liquor stain down the front Jimmy's shirt had turned a color that was not likely to be found on any paint chart. Looking at us in that mirror, all I could think of was an underfed, punk-rock version of the Three Stooges. With smell lines coming off our black leather jackets like Pigsty in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Something about that last image caused that big wave of confidence to drain from my body like a long beer piss in a dark alley.

The mirror seemed to have the same effect on Jimmy. His mohawk, his pride and joy, was listing to port after the long car trip. But he tried to straighten it for only a second, gave up on it and looked away with his shoulders slumped lower than I had ever seen them.

The mirror didn't seem to bother Jet, though. First off, he wasn't quite as dirty as us. Second, I suspected a loaded handgun will do wonders for your self-esteem.

Since this was Jet's second visit, we followed him across the marble floor and through a sliding glass door that led out back. We came out on a huge stone deck on the top of a cliff, with a hot tub and a negative edge pool on the far end. The way the pool was set up, it looked like the water poured right off the deck and down the side of the cliff, onto the sprinkling of lights of the low hills that grew brighter and brighter until they turned into the solid glow of Los Angeles. Out past that was the big, black ocean.

Standing on the deck next to the pool was a middle-aged man, a tall, pear-shaped fucker, with sad, sneaky eyes and a mustache that was somewhere between cop and fag. He was wearing a white robe that was wrapped pretty loose around him, and when he walked toward us a little breeze kicked up to show that he wasn't wearing anything underneath. He smiled at us, and without a word, he led us back inside.

"Stuart," he lisped, once we were back indoors. "But you can call me Stu."

He held out his hand. It was big and limp and clammy, and when we shook I got the feeling he wasn't squeezing near as hard as he could. He shook Jimmy's hand next, and I noticed Jimmy couldn't look him in the eye. Then Stu gave Jet a long, slow wink.

Jet winked back and even managed a grin. That gun had really given him a set of nuts. The plan was to force this rich fuck back into his bedroom to open a safe in his closet, which he had opened the week before, when Jet was in his bed and old Stuart thought he was still sleeping. Jet said he got a good look in there, too, and that there was a brick of coke and several big stacks of bills. Hundreds, most likely. I thought Jet was full of shit when he told us about it, but by the looks of the house and cars, I could imagine this fool would have enough coke and money in the safe for us to rent a real hotel room and live like drug kingpins for the rest of our lives. Or at least for the next couple of months. As for Stu himself, we were planning to shoot him only if he tried something stupid.
Jet stuck his hand in the front pocket of his leather jacket, which was where he'd put the gun. This was it. He shook his black bangs out of his eyes, his hand twitched inside his pocket, and then, right at that very instant, I heard some swishing footsteps behind us on the marble floor. Jet froze in place, the butt of the thirty-eight just barely visible. Things had all of a sudden changed. The old queer was not alone in the mansion. Someone else was with us in the room.

Jet's vampire eyes jumped back and forth between Stu and the guy who had just come in. He was barely five and a half feet tall, but had a rough look to him and the muscles of a professional bodybuilder. He wore a white tennis outfit and carried a tray of drinks. He came across the room and set the tray on a long, low-slung, glass coffee table, and then he swished his way out of there so fast that none of us had time to react. 

I looked to Jet. His mouth hung open like he'd been slapped. His eyes started jumping again, this time back and forth between me, Jimmy, and Stu, who by the way had the strangest expression on his face. It was almost like he knew we were up to something, and was just daring us to go through with it. I think it was this look that made Jet lose his nerve. He let out a long, shaky breath and eased the gun back in the pocket of his leather.

If Stu had actually seen the gun, he didn't let on. The slightest hint of a smile crossed his face when Jet, Jimmy, and me reached down and picked up the three tall glasses full of ice and liquor. Stu checked his watch then, a gold Rolex that looked heavy enough to use as a weapon in a street fight, and his smile got bigger when we turned up our drinks. We slammed them down pretty quick, too, nervous as we were, and by the time we were done, Stu had wandered over to the wet bar and asked us if we wanted more. That, and maybe do a line or two of coke on top of it. We did three or four. Unlike Jimmy's Private Reserve, the stuff wasn't cut with anything at all, much less detergent and powdered glass. Afterward, Stu grabbed a bottle of top shelf Scotch and a bucket of ice, and we all went back out on the deck.

                                    *                                  *                                  *

An hour later, and the bottle was nearly gone. Stu sat next to me in a deck chair, watched Jet and Jimmy frolic around in their boxer shorts in his swimming pool. The rich old fruit checked his expensive watch again and stirred the ice in his drink with a long, sausage-link of a middle finger. He turned toward me and slipped the finger in his mouth, pulled it out with a long, slow sucking sound, like his lips enjoyed the sensation and didn't want to let go. He said, "Do you see that room up there on the second floor?"

He pointed back over my shoulder, leaned in a little too close for my liking. "Yeah," I said, pulling away from him, "something special about it?"

"That's the little girly's room," he said.

"OK, man," I said.

He said, "I never go in there, you see."

"Why not?" I asked him. "It's your house."

"Because, young man, it's full of leprechauns."

"Are you serious?"

"Quite," he said. "They'll get you if you're not careful."

He stared at me and he pressed that thick sausage link along one of his eyebrows, molded it high up onto his forehead and dropped the other eyebrow down into a squint.

I felt my flesh crawl and I got up from the chair. I'd drunk more than I thought and was having some trouble focusing. Jimmy and Jet had just climbed out of the pool, and they were both sitting on the edge and breathing hard. I walked over to them and called Jet by his real name and then said "Franky," real loud so Stu wouldn't get suspicious. But it didn't matter anyhow. Stu had already gotten up and gone inside. I could see him through a window, talking and laughing with muscle boy in the kitchen. I got down on a knee next to the pool and spoke in a whisper.

"Let's get this shit over with." I said. "Now. I'm starting to feel sick or something, and that Goddamn queerhole is giving me the creeps."

"Don't worry," said Jimmy, his eyes swimming. "All we got to do is get them in the same room together, and then...  then we shoot the motherfuckers dead."

"Dead?" I said.

"You in, man?" said Jet.

"You bet your ass," I said. I wasn't going to let a little death rocker act tougher than me. Besides, at that moment, it seemed like the right thing to do.

Jet laughed like he could read my mind and that the whole thing was all a big joke. He was so fucked up he could barely stand. He put his jacket on without even bothering with his shirt or pants. I had taken my jacket off earlier because I'd felt hot, but now I felt cold all over. I got it off the pile of clothes next to the diving board and put it back on. I felt weak and the jacket felt heavy and bulky. My stomach was doing flips. The three of us stumbled back inside, practically hanging on to each other for balance.

Stuart came mincing back in from the kitchen with his terrycloth robe just barely hanging on him. His cock was rock hard now and the head was poking straight out between the folds.

"I like the look," he said to Jet. "Leather on bare, wet skin."

"I'll bet you do," said Jet. "But you're gonna have to call your buddy in here if you want to get this going."

He then hooked his thumb in the elastic of his boxer shorts and gave Stu a look I would have rather not seen.

Stu's breath came faster, and his eyes grew wide and round. "Of course," he said, and then he called over his shoulder. "Pinochet? Would you care to join us?"

A second later, Pinochet, if that was indeed his real name, came out of the kitchen. He stared Jet up and down like he could have eaten his flesh raw.

"Is this a group party?" Stu said next, eyeballing me first, and then Jimmy.

The second Stu took his eyes off him, Jet moved.

"You bet your ass it is!" he said, his voice full of drama. He then dramatically shoved his hand into the pocket of his leather, and his face went a dramatic shade whiter than it already was. He jerked his hand form his pocket, but nothing was in it. He stared at it for several seconds, and the shocked look on his face was almost enough to make me bust out laughing. It was like his wrist had sprouted a Christmas ham, and that if he concentrated hard enough, he could somehow make it turn back into a gun. He then looked at Stu and Pinochet crazily and started backing away. He made about three steps before his legs buckled, and he fell back on his skinny butt. He shook his wet bangs from side to side as his pale, thin body eased down on the marble floor.

Jimmy made a move, but it was a move to lay back on a white leather couch, close his eyes, and fall asleep. I went after Stu then myself, and as my own knees gave out, it dawned on me that the old homo had drugged the whiskey, and that I was about to go through the glass coffee table with my face.

                                                *                      *                      *

What then? Well, I came to in the trunk of a car is what then. Wrapped in plastic. Choking on my own blood. The next couple of minutes were too scary to even remember, really. All that matters is I managed to rip through the plastic and kick down the back seat and poke my head through.

I was alive, but that was about all I could say for myself. My gut was full of rotten liquor, and it felt like some steroid freak cop was knocking me in the back of the skull every time my heart beat. I half-climbed, half-fell out of the back door of the Ford into a sandy parking lot on the beach. When that fresh, west coast ocean air hit my lungs, my stomach flipped and puked for what seemed like an hour straight.

The heaves eased up, eventually, and I leaned back against the wheel well of the car. The sun was just coming up and no one was around to see me, except for a few surfers next to the pier, and they weren't watching. My shaking hands found their way to my belt, to make sure it was still buckled, and that all the buttons were done up on my jeans. They were, and I breathed a long, shaky sigh of relief. My face and neck were stiff with dried blood and it felt like my nose was broken, but I could see pretty clear through both eyes and I checked in the side mirror to see that I didn't have any serious scars.
Thoughts went through my head like ghosts, disappearing when I tried to grab hold of them. The only thing I knew for sure was the gun was still in Jet's jacket, the one I was wearing now, after putting it on by mistake the night before.

I thought about driving the Galaxy back to Hollywood to see if how things had gone for the other two stooges. They were probably both just back at the squat on Wilcox, with no more damage done to them than bad drug hangovers and a couple of really sore buttholes. But when something like that is the best possible case, then the last thing you want is to know the truth.

I tossed the gun in a trash barrel on the edge of the parking lot, pushed some garbage over it so it couldn't be seen. Then I took off the leather, and I walked into the ocean wearing all my dirty clothes.  

Allerton Mead lives and drinks in southeast Virginia, where he is very, very slowly finishing a novel about skinheads, punks and murder. His work has also appeared in Pulp Metal Fiction.