One Trick Pony

For the last fifteen or so years I've been living with a bunch of dead guys at a motel in West Texas. Like the characters in my stories, I'd really like to move on, see the world, go places. But I'm just like them. Anchored by love, worn down by circumstances and fascinated by how much there really is underneath it all. So I keep writing their stories and tell myself that someday, when I've got this all out of my system, I'll write deep, meaningful literature about... something else. In the meantime, this is a place for the short attention spanned. I'm making a commitment to keep it small here. Flash fiction and scenes from the life inspired by, The Bella Vista Motel.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween, 1944

The charred, waxy smell of burning pumpkin was everywhere. It seemed to crawl down Chuckie’s throat only so far and then stop. He tried to swallow, but simply couldn’t. He wondered if he had made it back to his room, or if he was still in the lounge where last night’s party had ended in a brawl.

His eyes were closed and he feared opening them would bring in the punishing morning sun, though he wasn’t sensing light against his eyelids. His head was throbbing with pain.

He’d been dishing it out pretty good, but the last thing he remembered was a cracking blow to the jaw that left him swimming in blackout lake.

He tried a tentative stretch to assess the damage, but found he couldn’t move at all. Christ, he thought, I must still be dead drunk. He tried to go back to sleep, but it was no good. He was too uncomfortable. It was hard to breath, the air was muggy and smothering, and that disgusting pumpkin smell…

The pumpkins had been what started the whole mess. Romeo had squashed their plans to pick pumpkins out of the motel garden to make jack-o’-lanterns. “Madge’s garden is off limits to you mooks. Those pumpkins are good eating, Madge makes a hell of a pumpkin pie. I’m not going to sacrifice them so you guys can act like a bunch of kids,” he’d said in that irritating, condescending way he had.

Chuckie and the other guys had resentfully settled for drinking in the motel lounge, passing the time playing pool, pissed off and complaining about the lack of Halloween fun.

Michael, usually the quiet one of the bunch, complained the loudest and got the other guys riled up. “Why is it we gotta be treated like prisoners here? It’s like being locked up in a lunatic asylum, except even there they get to celebrate holidays.”

Jason agreed. “How hard would it have been to put up some decorations or get some candy? If Romeo and that little slut could pull themselves apart for a minute, she could have made us some treats or something.” He glanced out wistfully at the pool. “As warm as it is, we coulda had a swimming party.”

Freddie was the one who dreamed up the pumpkin raid and spurred them all to action, though. “Who says we can’t make our own fun? The spirit of Halloween is trick or treat, right? They didn’t make treats for us, so they earned tricks…”

Chuckie groaned and tried to open his eyes.  It was as if his eyelids were pasted shut somehow, they felt gooey and thick.  Jeez, he thought I must have taken some beating...

The men had waited until they were fairly certain the couple and that half-wit kid helper had gone to bed, then they snuck out around the front of the motel into the garden. The moon was up, and though not full, had given them enough light to judge their prey. Freddie had produced a couple of razor sharp knives and they'd set about picking the biggest, best looking pumpkins and quietly cutting them free of their vines.

They couldn’t just leave it at that. Freddie’d brought a roll of toilet paper from the john in the lounge and before they had a chance to consider the wisdom of their actions, they were tromping down vegetable plants, ripping down vines and streaming paper all over the mess as quietly as four grown men could, wrecking the garden.

Chuckie’d been resting off to the side stifling giggles when he’d heard a faint creak and a rustle of dry leaves right behind him. He’d glanced over his shoulder and nearly jumped out of his skin when he looked up into the face of the garden scarecrow looming over him. It was perversely real looking in the moonlight, its ragbag wardrobe complete––ancient, rotting cowboy boots, leather gloves, sun-streaked overcoat and a battered fedora. Its flour sack face leered at him, black button eyes gleaming.

It’d given him such a fright that he got mad and pulled it down off its pole. He’d ripped it apart with the relish of a murderer, not stopping until he'd pulled its head off and left it on the kitchen doorstep.

He’d picked up his pumpkin, twice the size of his own head, tucked it under his arm and spit on the scarecrow’s severed head as he turned and left.

He remembered they’d been having a hell of a good time back in the lounge carving up the pumpkins, but somehow they’d ended up fighting. His thinking was so muzzy, had it been Romeo who’d showed up, somebody had… or had they just got too drunk and started brawling amongst themselves?

Chuckie's eyelids slowly tore open at the sound of angry voices outside the lounge and muffled footsteps. He couldn’t hear clearly, and when he finally got his eyes open, he couldn’t see straight either. His field of vision was limited like he had a mask on and there was a beer bottle sitting right in front of his face. Was he laying on a table? It seemed like his chin was resting in cold mush, he hoped it wasn’t vomit.

Madge screamed. There was a commotion and that kid yelled at her to stay out, don’t look, and the patter of high heels running away. He heard the kid whistle, and his footsteps as he walked around the room.

Damn it, why couldn’t he move his head so he could see around that bottle? He heard more footsteps and Romeo’s voice coming closer.

“What the hell happened in here?” Romeo said.

“Looks like the pumpkins fought back,” cracked the kid. Little wiseass.

“Yeah, and the pumpkins won,” Romeo said, “where do you suppose this guy’s head is?”

More footsteps, shuffling nearer… the kid’s voice right in front of him, “There’s an awful lot of blood under this pumpkin,” he said.

He saw the kid’s hand move the bottle aside and then his face peering at him. The last thing Chuckie heard before the blackness overwhelmed him again was the kid shouting, “Found it!” as he pulled the lid off the top of the jack-o’-lantern to expose Chuckie’s head inside.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We'll Just Talk About The Murder

Agent Ramiel walked around the corner to his nondescript black Ford, got in and drove two blocks away from the crime scene.  The details were burned into his eyes like afterimages.  The detective's words kept coming up in his mind like an irritating song, "She was a nice girl, a waitress.  She wasn't a whore."

He parked in front of Clark’s drugstore, killed the engine and sat there watching the red-and-blue neon mortar and pestle sign blink and spin while he waited.  He wondered if his would-be informant would actually show up, she was new, someone referred by a friend to his under the table network of eyes on the street.

He needn't have worried.  Ten minutes later a striking young woman with improbable red hair paused next to his car.  She wore an equally vibrant shade of red lipstick and an attractive turquoise colored summer dress.  He glanced at her neutrally and watched while she rummaged through her red handbag and pulled out a compact.

He rolled down his window as she powdered her nose.  “Excuse me, Miss, did you make a phone call earlier this morning?”

She met his eyes over the edge of her compact.  “Maybe, who’s asking?” she answered cautiously, scanning the sidewalk and windows around them.  Her hands were shaking and her vivid blue eyes were glassy.

“I’m Agent Ramiel.  Have you had your breakfast?  There’s a diner a few blocks away from here, isn’t there?”

She pulled out a tube of lipstick and tried to reapply it with slow, forced nonchalance, but her lips quivered and she messed up the line.  “Goddamn it,” she cursed under her breath.  “I don’t think I’m ever gonna eat breakfast again.”  She capped the lipstick hastily, dropped it back in her purse and pulled out a handkerchief to dab away the errant color.

“I understand,” he said kindly.  “How about a cup of coffee then?  It will get us off the street and we can talk a bit.”

She glanced up suspiciously, the handkerchief half way to her mouth.  “Nobody said anything about talking.”  She glanced around nervously, “I made the call, I get a reward.  Right?”  She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and back again.  Her red patent leather pumps, while fetching to the eye, appeared to be cruel on the arches.  “Anyhow, it’s way past my bedtime, if you catch my meaning.”

He smiled.  Her coloring made her look like a painted carousel pony in the early morning sunlight.  “Having a cup of coffee would be more discreet then standing next to my car and taking money through the window.”

She frowned and snapped her compact closed.  He had her there.  

“Please talk to me, I won’t take very much of your time and I’ll pay extra, Miss…?”

She hesitated.  “Ruby.  Just Ruby.”  

He tipped his hat.  “Pleasure to meet you Ruby, my name is Ramiel, Agent Ramiel.”  

“Yeah, you told me already,” she commented, as she narrowed her eyes and looked over the interior of his car in an appraising manner.  Her gaze seemed to note each item and weigh it in some personal scheme of judgement--his camera case beside him on the seat, a fine, well-used brown leather satchel, open and brimming with files, the day's newspaper hastily refolded, his light weight grey suit coat laid over the back of the passenger seat.  The car was clean, but he became aware of how very lived in it must appear to her.  He thought it was a good thing she couldn't see inside the trunk.

She abruptly met his eyes again and seemed to continue her assessment.  “I didn’t believe you were for real when Belinda told me about you.”  She dropped her compact back in her purse.  “How do you know her?  You a trick?”

He glanced at her upper lip, at the place where the lipstick had gone astray over the edge. She’d forgotten to fix it.  He had an urge to reach out and smooth the line with his finger.  He met her eyes with a calm, steady gaze.  “No.  I’m just a friend.”

She nodded and looked away, perhaps unconvinced, scanning the street again for observers.  “The nearest diner’s called Jack Flap’s.  It’s three blocks down, one to the left.”

He leaned over to unlock the passenger door.  “Don’t bother,” she said quickly.  He looked up at her, puzzled.   

“You’re getting ahead of yourself, mister, if you think I’m getting in a car with you.”  She turned briskly and started walking.  She didn’t look like her feet hurt once she started moving. “I’ll meet you there,” she said over her shoulder.  

He watched her go and thought about Belinda as he started up his car.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Keep The Devil Close

When the old Ford finally gave out, the elderly preacher slowly eased it over onto the roadside. He'd been driving tight-lipped, his eyes locked onto the far horizon ahead, his hands gripping the steering wheel with the same force of will he used when laying on hands to drive out illness from one of his congregation back home. A few miles from San Angelo, Texas where they'd stopped in for lunch, the car had suddenly begun to grumble and groan. It stuttered and threatened to quit with unsettling loss of speed, then picked up where it left off and drove normally for a while before it made good on the threat.

His wife stared straight ahead with her hands folded tightly in her lap and her lower lip tucked up nearly under her nose. She tsked, gave a long sigh, resettled her lips into a mere grimace and turned to give him one of those silent looks that was part acknowledging glare and part demand for action.

The small child in the back stood up on the seat and looked curiously at her grandma and grandpa in the rear view mirror. She had half a bottle of orange Ne Hi in her hand and it sloshed and fizzed softly against the glass. The still, hot air settled down on them like a blanket. He glanced at the child in the mirror and smiled briefly before he grabbed his hat off of the seat beside him and stepped out of the car into the blazing sunlight.

He propped open the hood, relieved that his wife and grand daughter could no longer see his face and peered down at the engine. He knew almost nothing of engines and their ways. He sighed and wiped the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand.

He closed his eyes and prayed aloud, "Lord, if it be your will, send us assistance so that we may be on our way." Before he had a chance to mutter, "Amen," he heard the familiar chuckle from behind his left shoulder.

"How long has it been since he answered you?" asked the sardonic voice he knew so well. He finished the prayer with a firm, "Amen," and ignored the figure that stood behind him, mimicking his pose and also peering into the engine.

Sweat ran down the preacher's face from beneath his hat, dripping off the edge of his set jaw. The engine looked like a black painting of hell to him, the arms and legs of demons and suffering souls entwined on torture racks, bound, impaled, charred and writhing in the suffocating heat.

"What have you done to it?" he asked the figure without looking back.

"Why is it always my fault when something goes wrong?" came the rhetorical reply.

"Will?" his wife called out impatiently from the front seat.

He walked around her side of the car and looked in at her through the open window. Her light cotton dress was dark with sweat under her arms and spreading out from beneath her bosom. Her white hair was lying in limp, wet waves against her scalp. The coral red lipstick she wouldn't be caught dead without was feathering up into the wrinkles above her lip like bleeding cracks. He smiled at her reassuringly. She did not smile back.

He looked up the road in the direction they had been driving. The sun was high, it was just past one. He knew the next town on the map was Ozona, but he didn't know how far away it was. He felt like San Angelo was closer.

"I'm going to walk back and get help. Just stay in the car. Everything will be fine," he said. His wife nodded her head, but said nothing.

The child leaned out of the backseat window, looking up at him sideways, her light blue eyes screwed up against the blinding sun. He stepped over to her and put his hand on top of her small head, pale cornsilk hair doing nothing to protect the glowing pink scalp. Her head felt like a sun warmed peach from a roadside fruit stand.

"Stay out of the sun, baby girl. Mind Grammy and stay still," he told her, pushing her head back inside gently.

She flopped down against the seat, scowled up at him as only a four year old could and said, "I'm not a baby."

"I'll be back soon," he said and began to walk down the road.

He didn't look back at the car, where he knew the child would be watching through the rear window. He didn't look over his shoulder where he could hear the footsteps behind him. The land ran as far as he could see in irregular patches of scrub brush, low disorienting hills and loose rock. The road ahead disappeared into shimmering waves of light. He walked at a steady pace. It seemed like he was going nowhere.

After a while, he began to recite the lord's prayer under his breath, as much to block out the sound of the footsteps as anything else. The figure behind him began to whistle, maddeningly. Within a moment, he recognized the hymn, There's An Old, Old Road... He laughed despite himself and shook his head.

"That's right, Brother. Keep your sense of humor," the voice behind him said. "Nothing to worry about. I've got it all under control."

He stopped walking. "I didn't ask for your help. The lord will provide," he said, his eyes fixing on the farthest point he could see at the road's end.

"The lord will look the other way while carrion birds pick your bones. I take care of business," the voice said.

A tiny car hovered above the road in the heat waves like a magic trick, still far away but driving toward him. He began walking again, a smile coming to his lips. He hummed along with his whistling companion until the car got close enough for him to flag it down.

A big gaudy black Packard pulled over and a fancy young redhead wearing sunglasses looked out at him. "Sir, are you in some kind of trouble?" she asked, pushing her sunglasses down on her nose and assessing him with concerned grey eyes. He took hold of the side of her car to steady himself, his vision beginning to swim and sparkle.

"Car broke down, my wife and grand daughter are waiting up the road there," he pointed off weakly as everything started to spin and his knees gave way.

He heard the young woman exclaim, "Oh, my!" as she opened the door, got out and took a firm hold of his arm. She opened the back door and guided him to the seat. "You just sit right down there, I've got some water in a canteen, just a minute."

He sat back against the seat fighting nausea while she retrieved the canteen and handed it over to him.

"Just take a little sip," she cautioned. "Oh, my, it's a good thing I came along. You look fit to have a sun stroke."

He squinted at her, rolling the metallic tasting warm water around on his tongue and smiling faintly at her youthful candor.

She made sure he was all tucked in, shut the door and started the car up again. "Just take it easy," she said, pulling back onto the road. "We'll get your wife and grand daughter, and you can all come back with me. My husband and I run a little motel just a few miles up the road. We'll get you all cooled off and then see about your car."

He closed his eyes and ignored his companion's satisfied chuckle in the seat beside him. Despite what he had told his wife, he knew that things were not going to be fine.

Friday, October 1, 2010

All Those Windows, All Those Doors

Slappy watched Romeo drive off down the road in the piece of shit farmer pick-up truck that belonged to the motel. The dust from the road floated up into the air in the truck's wake and hung there like dirty cigarette smoke. Standing at the edge of the road by himself with a peeved expression, he looked every bit the bored teenage boy he was. He sighed heavily, jammed his hands in his pockets and turned back to the driveway where the three big mutts that also belonged to the motel stood watching him.

Slappy regarded them. "So, away he goes and it's up to us to hold down the fort, eh guys?"

The dogs abruptly sat down and began to pant, tongues lolling.

"Some gang I got here," Slappy said, shaking his head and walking back up the driveway.

The motel courtyard was half shadowed from the late afternoon sun, the pool, still and glassy but for small clusters of dead leaves floating on the surface. He walked over to the edge at the deep end and stood looking down through the cool aqua water at the pale empty bottom.

"Think I'll have a swim," he said. His voice sounded loud and shrill, echoing around the empty courtyard weirdly.

Those leaves needed to be skimmed off. He didn't like the idea of a bunch of dead leaves sticking to him.

He headed back toward the rear of the courtyard where a utility room held cleaning supplies and tools to get the leaf skimmer.

Glancing around at the doors and windows of the motel, he had a brief sensation of unease. He'd never been alone at the motel before. Romeo had taken him along whenever he went to San Angelo for supplies, but he'd had to go into Ozona for some reason and said Slappy shouldn't be in any hurry to meet Sheriff Cobb.

He'd expected to be treated like a juvenile delinquent, but so far Romeo seemed to think he was only good for menial chores. Whenever Slappy asked when they were going to do something interesting like pull a gas station heist, Romeo would just stare at him in that, "You've got to be kidding," way he had. But he knew that Romeo just didn't trust him to behave yet.

"Ah, so what?" he said to himself in a much quieter voice, "what do I care if I never see Ozona?"

He looked back at the dogs, sacked out in the shade of the driveway next to the lobby door. They seemed far away, and the utility room seemed farther as he walked past all those windows, all those doors. Except for his room, number 7, right next to the lobby, the rooms were unocupied. The windows were closed, blinds drawn to keep the sun out.

The air was heavy and static like it had been on his first morning there when he'd woken to find that he'd brought along more than his suitcases and radio.

He'd come out of his room at dawn to find that the courtyard was still, but not quiet. The sound of wind moving through trees was everywhere, though the lone tree back in the corner was as peaceful as a photograph.

Confusion and a sense that he was dreaming with his eyes open had given way to heart pounding recognition as small familiar sounds he'd heard every day for most of his life came through clearly – the soft creaking squeak of leather straps rubbing against each other and the high, almost imperceptible oily whine of metal wheels rolling.

He'd turned around slowly and looked up the walkway. A low, boxy shape was moving toward him, the light glinting off of steel spokes as the wheels turned, wild black hair softly swaying around her face as she sat forward, leaning into the straps...there, and then gone.

That had been almost a week ago, and the memory of it felt more like a dream with each passing day.

The utility room was cool and dark, and despite their best efforts to clean it out, still smelled like mildewed laundry. He grabbed the skimmer and stepped back out into the walkway just in time to see a guy's foot disappear into one of the rooms down the row and hear a door slam.

He dropped the skimmer and hurried down to the room, never taking his eyes off the doorway. It was room number 9. He stared at the door, listening for movement inside. He could hear birds, those weird insects that made the humming sounds, but not anything to give away that a guy was inside room number 9.

He glanced over at the dogs and saw that they were still asleep in the driveway. There was no way the dogs would have let anybody get by them. He knew that. But he still felt obligated to make sure that room was empty.

He put his hand on the doorknob, remembering that Romeo kept them all locked. The doorknob turned easily and the door pushed open. He leaned in, his hand still holding onto the knob.

He saw the gun barrel pointed right at his forehead before he saw the grinning face of the man behind it. “That’s a good way to get your face blown off, kid,” the man said, and laughing, he pulled the trigger.

The explosion started in the gun. It always starts in the gun, but with the gun right in his face, he got to see it, the small flash of fire that sent the bullet hurtling out. The impact was immediate, but he experienced it in a series of stuttered images, like photos taken in rapid succession.

The bullet thunked against the wall of his skull. The sound was like being inside of a base drum just as it is struck, sound waves radiated outward, blowing out his eardrums.

His skull shattered inwards like busted glass as the bullet pushed through.

His thoughts and feelings and everything he knew or thought he knew, his memories, his desires, all awareness as the person, Salvatorre Allamonte, AKA Slappy, were dragged back through the meat of his brain, caught on the point of the bullet like fish on a hook.

The bullet exited the back of his skull, taking a good sized portion of pureed brain with it, and for a moment, he was flying, back and up and out over the walkway, light as a bird, wet as a fish, still here, I’m still here, I’m...

He hit the concrete walkway and found himself sitting on his ass outside room number 9. His heart was pounding so hard, his face was throbbing and his fingers were hot. His ears were filled with a high pitched ringing. He was breathing like a steam engine.

The door to room number 9 was halfway open, the slice of dim interior showing nothing.

He looked up and down the row of rooms, all those windows, all those doors, all closed and blank except for this open doorway, this broken mindway.

He stood up and turned his back on room number 9, though it set his teeth on edge with fear to do it, and walked back over to the deep end of the pool. He stripped off his clothes and dove into the water all the way down to the pale empty bottom. He touched the rough white bottom with both hands before he shot back up to the surface.

He swam laps back and forth, never minding the dead leaves until he couldn’t do it anymore, got out and laid on his stomach against the warm concrete. He was still panting, his heart still pounding, every muscle burning.

He wished he was back home with Oma, pushing her around in her wheelchair, hearing her beautiful laughter.

He could see the dogs lying in the driveway, just as they had been. Even though they weren’t right by him, it was comforting to know they were all laying on the same solid ground.