Monday, September 5, 2016

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME by Donald Ray Pollock

I recently discovered Donald Ray Pollock and read his book, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. It's one of those books that will stay with you long after finishing it. If you enjoy backwoods, Hillbilly Gothic with a long list of demented and twisted characters, then Don's your man. I highly recommend this book.

Best,
J.P.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Boxcar to Paradise

by
Jeremy Perry
Copyright 2016

Joel Hester ran alongside the northbound train, his leather boots leaping one in front of the other. He was in great shape, broad shouldered, strong, lean, and his stride was swift, but catching the train was harder than he had first imagined. To the point of giving up, he tucked his bundle tighter under his right arm, and with his outstretched left hand, he gripped the bar mounted on the side of the boxcar. He swung up to a drop-step and held on. He looked up the tracks and embraced the moment while cool wind massaged his smiling face. He then looked south, to his hometown of Hickory Hollow, the place of hopeless dreams and unfulfilled desires, and saluted it with a raised arm and extended middle finger.
He tossed his bundle inside and heaved himself up and in. The interior smelled of straw and the wooden planks on the floor were timeworn and needed replacing. The boxcar casually swayed to the left and to the right as it rolled up the tracks, away from the only town Joel had ever known.
On the front wall was a collage of street art featuring designs of swirling colors and sprawled names of those who had ridden the rails long ago. Disco Debbie, Free Bird, Big Frankie, and other insignias. A painted crown of thorns hung from the top of a cross, dazzled with greys, browns, and white.
Joel stepped into a darkened corner to retrieve his bundle when two shadowy figures took shape.
“Shit,” he said, startled. He reversed into the lighted area when one of the figures moved closer.
A young woman stepped into the lighted area to join him. “Welcome aboard. My name’s Reese.”
He looked at her, frozen, mesmerized. Her blonde hair was long and straight. She wore bell-bottomed denim jeans and a flowery blouse—no bra underneath, he thought as he noticed her erect nipples pushing through.
Removing his eyes from her nipples, he said, “I’m Joel.”
She yawned and then said, “Nice to meet you. That’s Boyd over there. Wake up and come out of the dark and say hello to Joel.”
The man named Boyd stepped from the shadows. His hair was dark and greasy and styled in a pompadour, which needed a fresh combing. Patches of dark side burns clung to his thin face.
“Hey, man,” said Boyd, hardly noticing Joel. His interest was with the girl named Reese. He hooked his arm around her waist only for her to fling it away.
“Don’t start that shit again,” she said.
“Okay. Okay,” said Boyd. “Don’t get all bent out of shape." He looked at Joel and smiled, displaying a brilliant set of pearly white teeth. “Welcome aboard.”
Joel eyed the fellow, and his teeth, warily. “Thanks.”
“Where you headed?” asked Boyd.
“As far from Hickory Hollow as I can get.”
“How old are you?” asked Reese. “You look young.”
“I’ll be eighteen tomorrow.”
“No kidding? We’ll have to celebrate. You got a girl?”
“No,” he said sharply.
“Oh. Screwed you over, huh?” said Reese, sensing his animosity. “And let me guess… you decided to skip town? Well, put all that behind you. This is where it’s at, seeing the country. This is your new love. There’s no better feeling in the world than being seduced by a green rolling countryside—or by the low-lying fog drifting through the mountains early in the morning. And do you hear that?” She cocked her head and put a hand to her ear. “That’s the best part. There’s no better sound than the clickity-clack of the train going down the track.”
Joel rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. “Nah. It wasn’t like that. She had her plans, and I had mine. What about you?”
Reese shook her head. “This boxcar is my lover. It brings me more love and joy than any man ever could.”
Joel glanced again at her erect nipples. He tossed his bundle along the boxcar wall. He saw Boyd venture back to the shadows in the corner. “Are you two traveling together?” he asked Reese.
“For now,” she said. “We met a couple days ago, but I think I’ve had my fill of Boyd’s company. You ever drifted before?”
“No,” said Joel. “Lived my entire life in Hickory Hollow.”
“Well now, that’s all about to change. You’ll never be the same person again. Drifting can be a hard life, but it can also be a wonderful life.”
In a trance, Joel dialed in on the clickity-clack of the train. It soothed his heart. The hint of straw infused his spirit with a freedom that it had longed for since he had first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in his first year of high school. The novel changed his life. He too wanted to be the adventurous, go-where-the-wind-takes-you spirit like the characters in the book.
Curious, Joel asked, “Has there ever been a place you’ve come to where you thought about staying, a place you could settle down and start over?”
Reese brushed a strand of hair from her face. “Oh. There have been a few. I met this chick in a town down south. She was something else, that girl. Jessica was her name.”
“What happened?”
“She went back to her husband. I was just her lesbian fling, I guess. She even tried persuading me to live with her and her old man. Can you believe that? Some people!”
“Why didn’t you?” asked Joel.
“I thought about it, but I have other dreams and ambitions, other attractions.”
Joel persisted. “Like what?”
Reese paused. “I’m attracted to the human spirit. If your soul radiates with kindness and love and joy…well…I guess that’s what I’m drawn to.”
Boyd stepped from the shadows.
Joel asked him, “Have you been drifting a long time too?”
“Too long,” he said. “This isn’t for me anymore. What I need is a good woman and a good town to settle down in. Both seem almost impossible to find.”
The train continued north into the late evening. The sky grew dark and grey and the air turned cool and crisp. Joel and Reese sat together, shoulder-to-shoulder, legs dangling from the door of the boxcar, looking out to the mountains and towns through which they passed. They had waved at strangers and received many a weird look from old men and women. Children, however, were never reluctant to smile and wave.
Reese chatted extensively about her travels. Joel listened and held on to her every word. He often stared at her, watched her thin lips stop and start, forming the most precise and descriptive of words that collectively told the tales of wild nights of yesteryear, and of her dreams and ambitions to come. A real vagabond, Joel thought. She spoke of the odd jobs she had acquired to make ends meet and some of the great people she had encountered along the way. “If not for a few of those wonderful folks,” she said, “I would be face down in the gutter right now, or maybe worse. If you remember anything out here on the road, Joel, my new friend, remember never carry around too much pride that prevents you from accepting the help of others. Don’t consider it a handout, but more like a favor, a favor you can pay back some day or one you can pay forward. Either is as rewarding as the other.”
With his back against the wall and a lantern glowing next to him, Boyd sat absorbing the conversation between Joel and Reese. He sipped from a bottle of Old Grand-Dad and then wiped his wet, shiny lips on the sleeve of his denim jacket. He took another swig, climbed to his feet, and walked over to join them.
“You think you’re cut out for this life?” He directed the question toward Joel. “You think you have what it takes?”
“Cool it, Boyd,” said Reese.
“No,” said Joel. “It’s an honest question.” He removed himself from the boxcar door, stood, and joined Boyd. He extended his hand, summoning the bottle of whiskey. Boyd smiled curiously, swilled again, and handed over the bottle. Joel grabbed the bottle and drank the stout liquor. His face contorted and his throat narrowed. He let loose three or four heavy coughs. He handed the bottle back. After gathering his composure, he said, “I’d like to think so. Time will tell.”
Boyd sipped from the bottle, and returned to his spot by the lantern. Joel followed him, and soon after, Reese joined the fellows. They passed the bottle around, the three of them. The more Joel drank, the smoother the whiskey became.
Boyd’s disposition loosened and Joel found him interesting. He watched him drink mercilessly from the bottle and listened to Boyd tell his life stories and expound upon his dreams.
“I used to be an auto mechanic,” said Boyd. “A damn good one. People came from miles around so I could fix their cars.”
“You look like a mechanic,” said Joel, passing the bottle to Reese.
“I couldn’t take my boss’s shit anymore,” said Boyd. “He was the biggest prick. Always on my ass. I had to get out.”
“Is that when you went on the road?” asked Reese.
Boyd nodded. “I had to get away. I miss being a mechanic, though.”
“Seems like anyone who hits the road is running from something,” said Reese. She drank from the bottle and extended it to Boyd.
“Not always,” said Joel. “Some of us just want to see other places. We’re tired of walking through the same town, seeing the same people, everybody knowing your business.”
Boyd grabbed the bottle. “And what are you running from?” he said, looking at Reese.
The question surprised her. She stared at the glowing lantern, as if caught in a trance. Her hair fell into her face again and she brushed it aside. There had been many things in life she’d done of which she wasn’t proud. She had ingested her share of drugs—cocaine and marijuana being two of her favorites. She had even committed petty theft—stealing a box of tampons one time and a Payday when her guts turned and twisted from starvation. But there was one thing that exceeded them all.
“I became pregnant one time,” she said.
“You have a child?” asked Joel.
Reese nodded. “A son. I gave him up for adoption at birth. He’s with a great family now.”
“Do you ever see him?” asked Joel.
“No. I’ve never seen him. Not since the day he was born—and that was only for a few seconds. He turned five in June. He’s in kindergarten now.”
“Shit. That’s heavy,” said Boyd. “Have you ever tried seeing him?”
Reese shook her head. “Maybe someday. Maybe someday, when I settle down, I’ll look him up. Pass me the whiskey.” She grabbed the bottle, pulled a large gulp, and wiped her mouth. “I’m afraid if I tried marching back into his life, it’d fuck him up somehow…you know, mentally. I don’t want to risk that. He’s with great people now. I had my chance.” She extended the bottle to Joel, stood, and headed toward the door of the boxcar.
“Where you going?” asked Joel. He sipped again and handed the bottle back to Boyd.
“Out here,” she said.
She grabbed the inside doorframe and stepped around the corner into the darkness. And just like that, she vanished.
Joel leaped to his feet and hurried over to investigate, wondering if she’d had too much whiskey and decided to jump. Boyd followed with the whiskey and lantern.
“Where’d she go?” said Joel, poking his head out the boxcar to peer down the track behind them. He saw only the black of the night. Then, he heard a voice.
“I’m up here,” said Reese, standing on the roof of the boxcar. “Use the ladder on the side and climb up.”
He reached around to the outside, patted, and searched until he felt the steel rungs of the ladder. It didn’t seem far. Even if it was, he wasn’t feeling any fear. The whiskey made sure of that. He gripped one of the rungs with his right hand and held the inside of the door with his left. He stepped out with his right foot, then his left, and climbed up. Boyd raised the lantern out the door to light the way.
When Joel arrived at the top and stepped up, a chill ran through him, not from the cool air, but from the experience. He sat beside Reese to absorb the moment.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“It’s cool,” he said looking to the clear, moonlit sky.
“Isn’t it though,” said Reese.
“When I was little I would lay out all night in my grandma’s back yard,” said Joel, “on top of the mountain staring up at the huge vastness that surrounded me. I would pretend to be in outer space floating around, just looking at the moon and the stars. I miss being a kid.”
“Why’s that?”
“You know,” Joel began, “because back then it was okay to pretend, to stay in your make-believe world as long as you wanted to.”
“What’s stopping you from doing that now?”
Joel thought briefly, and said, “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
He stretched his legs, laid his back against the roof of the boxcar, and stared to the roving world above him. He forgot about everything. He forgot about the people back home who didn’t understand him. The grandparents who had raised him. They didn’t have the faintest clue who he was or what his likes or dislikes were. Nobody in Hickory Hollow knew who Joel Hester really was. All he wanted to do was forget his former life. This was his new life now.
The glow of the lantern came up and over the side of the boxcar. Boyd extended the light out in front of him, his face showing two glistening eyes and his sparkling white teeth.
“You have the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen,” said Joel.
“He does, doesn’t he?” said Reese. “Mr. Pearly Whites!”
Boyd eased over and sat. “My old man was a dentist. He engrained in us kids that taking care of our teeth was priority. He said it would look bad on him if his kids went around with a mouth full of cavities. It’d make for bad business. Check this out.” Boyd reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Rolled up inside were a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. “Never leave home without it.”
“My dad didn’t teach me shit,” said Joel.
“My dad raised me,” said Reese. “He was always there when I needed him. My mom ran off with some drug addict. They were into some serious dope. Heroin and PCP is what I heard.”
The three of them drank only a little more and after a while climbed down. Back inside, the bottle went around until emptied. Boyd pulled another from his bedroll and the three continued to reveal their feelings and deepest secrets. They laughed about their pasts and told of more events that only another pint of Old Grand-Dad could convince them to tell.
“I wanted to be an elementary school teacher,” said Reese. “That was my dream.”
“You would’ve made a damn good one,” said Joel, slurring. “You could still be one, you know. I need another drink. Quick hogging the bottle, Lloyd.”
Boyd.”
“What?” said Joel.
“Boyd. My name’s Boyd, you drunken bastard. Here.”
“Righty-o,” said Joel. “Boyd it is. Like I was saying, you still could be one, a teacher, if you wanted to be. You’re not that old. How old are you?”
“You don’t ask a lady her age,” said Boyd, whose words also slurred.
“Oh. Sorry,” said Joel.
“It’s okay,” said Reese. “I’m twenty-five.” She looked at her wristwatch. 12:15 am. “Happy birthday!”
“Happy birthday,” said Boyd. He swilled from the bottle again and then passed it to the birthday boy.
“Thanks,” said Joel. “I’d almost forgotten my birthday.”
“Sorry, I didn’t get you anything,” said Reese. “If I’d known sooner I would’ve planned a party for you. I would’ve gotten disco lights, blow, and hookers. You name it. Nothing is too good for my pal Joel!” She leaned over and pecked a kiss on his smooth cheek.
“Thanks,” he said again. He even blushed a little.
He raised the bottle to drink, but stopped when a twisting, burning sensation flared deep within his abdomen. He handed the bottle to Boyd. Standing wasn’t an option. He dragged himself to the edge of the boxcar door and waited. He had not been this drunk since the night of his fifteenth birthday, the night he drank two bottles of Mad Dog 20/20. The wine was cheap and served its purpose.
A sharp surge came forth, then another. Nothing. Dry heaves. A strand of spittle hung, stretching, blowing in the wind, from the corner of Joel’s gaped mouth. He moaned. His stomach, wrapped in knots and vacant of food, burned and sloshed with Old Grand-Dad. He had never experienced such pain, such brutal agony. He wanted to die. “Push me on out the door,” he said to Boyd, who had ahold of Joel’s belt, holding on tightly. “It’s for the best.”
“Can’t do it,” said Boyd. “You can’t die tonight. It’s your birthday. Your death-day can’t be the same as your birthday. People will know you planned it. They’ll think you sought some kind of glorified death. That’s no way to go out.”
“You’re right,” said Joel. The slobber and spittle blew away from his mouth. “That wouldn’t look good, would it? I need to die with dignity. How should I do it?” Waiting for Boyd’s response, he jerked, convulsed, and moaned. Another round of dry heaves. Reese shoved her fingers into her ears to block the sound.
“I don’t know, man,” said Boyd. “You’re not dying tonight. We have to celebrate.”
It was during this round of heaving that it happened. Joel’s stomach torqued worse than the previous times. His moans were louder than the previous ones. What came reflexing up and out his mouth was a spewing faucet of stomach bile and Old Grand-Dad. Reese walked away, not wanting to vomit herself. Boyd held on to Joel’s belt.
“Happy birthday, pal!” said Boyd. Those words were the last Joel remembered.

Morning came and Joel awoke to a silent boxcar. His eyelids parted slowly and he noticed the train was no longer moving. He jerked both hands to his throbbing temples as nausea rolled in his stomach. The urge to vomit presented itself again. He fought it off. He looked around and found himself alone, without pants, wearing only his boxers. He rolled over and sat upright, still massaging at his temples.
Looking from one end to the other, he saw no one. The other bedrolls had vanished and only his remained. The only traces of additional life were two empty bottles of whiskey and his boots and pants over against the wall. He had a memory—snippets of his birthday celebration. He remembered stripping his pants and boots when hot flashes swept over his drunken self.
He stood, stumbled over to retrieve his pants, and leaned against the wall to keep his balance as he painstakingly stepped into them, one leg and then the other. After he fastened the button at the waist, he vomited, or yet, he dry heaved so violently his vision muddled with dark, floating spots. He wiped his mouth, put on his boots, and grabbed his bedroll.
Outside the boxcar, the sky was dark and overcast. He peered up the tracks and spied a town. He had no idea where he was, where Reese and Boyd had gone, or how far the train had traveled throughout the night while he slept. He smelled wood burning and to his left saw the faint shimmer of a fire glowing through some trees. His inclination was that Boyd and Reese had wandered over to make breakfast, but there was no way he could eat now with the unruly hangover he nursed. Even so, he cut down a slope, jumped a ditch, and went to investigate.
He dredged through the poorly lit forest, pushing limbs aside. He swore under his breath when a briar patch snagged his shoulder, most likely breaking the skin underneath his shirt.
Nearing the fire, he saw only one silhouette sitting at the fire’s edge. The silhouette abruptly rose as Joel entered the campsite. The fire’s glow cast on a face that was neither Boyd’s nor Reese’s. A skinned animal—Joel didn’t know what kind—sat on a spit, a makeshift rotisserie high and in the center of the flames.
“Ho to the camp,” Joel announced hesitantly.
“That’s far enough,” said the man, leveling a pistol waist high, pointing in Joel’s direction.
“Hey, take it easy,” said Joel. “I was looking for my friends.”
“Step over here in the light so I can see you better,” said the man with a wave of his gun. Over the round spectacles that rested on his flat nose, the man eyed Joel.
“A girl with long hair and a man wearing a denim jacket,” said Joel, walking into the lighted area.
A moment passed and the man said, “I saw them.” Judging Joel as not a threat, he tucked his gun behind his belt. He stepped to the fire and turned the skewered animal. “They passed through a couple hours ago.”
“Which way were they headed?”
“Looked to me like they were heading into town. Care for some rabbit?”
“No, thanks,” said Joel.
The man grabbed the end of the skewer and lifted the rabbit from the flames. He ripped a hind leg from the charred carcass and replaced the skewer over the flames.
Joel watched the man, suspiciously, but not so the man would notice. He huddled closer to the fire pretending to warm his body, wanting to get a better look.
“Sure is good rabbit,” said the man. “Help yourself, if you want.”
“I better not. Thanks again. I could use a drink of water.”
“Sorry. I don’t have any more water.” The man hunched over to grab a coffee pot that sat on a rock next to the fire. He poured himself a cup. “You and your friends hitching on the train?”
“Yeah,” said Joel. Then he heard a rattling, clearly a cage or trap. The noise stopped. He heard it once, twice more before the old man spoke again.
“You be quiet over there.” He looked to Joel. “That’s my supper—another rabbit—I trapped last night. Got him in a cage. Rabbit on an open flame is damn good eating.”
“I’ve eaten it a few times,” said Joel.
The train whistle blew.
“Sounds like they’re pulling out,” said the man. “You pulling out with it?”
“Not on this one. I might head into town to find Reese and Boyd.”
“Who?” asked the man.
“My friends.”
“I’d be leery of that town. I’ve heard some strange stories about that place.”
“Oh,” said Joel.
“I’ve never been. And I’ve traveled up and down this rail line for many years now. I don’t scare easily, but that place sure does it.”
Joel listened as the man talked. He finished his rabbit and threw the leg bone into the fire. Wiping his hands on his dirty shirt, the old man continued, “I’ve heard of people entering Paradise and never coming out, not being seen again.”
Paradise?”
“The name of the town.”
“Strange name for a town with such a strong stigma,” said Joel.
The whistle blew once more.
“I’m fond of my traveling ways. I couldn’t bear being stuck in the same place forever.”
“Why would someone not be able to leave?” asked Joel.
“Woo wee!” said the man after sipping his coffee. “That’s good stuff. There’s nothing like that first sip of coffee in the morning.” He placed his cup beside him. “Why does anyone ever stay in a town, son? Who knows, really? Some places just have that distinct lure that attracts a certain type of soul. Some people love town, love the hustle and bustle. I don’t know why, but they just do. This world is made up of all kinds of people.”
The whistle blew again. The line of boxcars creaked as it pulled away.
“I think I’ll head into town to find my friends,” said Joel.
“Okay, then. You be careful. And good luck to you.”
Joel trekked north in the direction of the town called Paradise. He dredged along, weak and feeble minded, wanting a drink to wet his parched mouth and throat. To swallow was a struggle. He smacked his mouth, tongue sandy and rough. He came to a sign that read: Welcome to Paradise…where all your dreams come true.
Walking in, the town looked like any other. In fact, Paradise looked like his home town of Hickory Hollow. People roamed up and down the sidewalks. He saw a postal carrier with a sack of mail heading from one house to the next. He spied a man waiting at a bus stop reading the newspaper. Across the way, a construction crew worked busily framing a building of some kind—a new business, Joel assumed. He heard the air brakes of a garbage truck when it stopped and a woman stepped off the side to grab the bags of garbage at the curb in front of him.
The town seemed pleasant and friendly enough. Maybe the old man in the woods didn’t know the truth of this town. Maybe he was only trying to scare Joel.
He walked further along and saw children playing in a schoolyard, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Each laughed, chased, and ran. Joel guessed the little ones to be five or six years old. They fled from one another, kicked soccer balls, and glided through the air on swings. He stopped and absorbed their innocence. Watching, he smiled. To be young again, he thought, free of worry was a thing of beauty.
Before stepping away, he saw a face in the distance, a face he knew. He hurried alongside the fence.
“Hey, Reese!” he yelled. The whistle blew and recess was finished. Reese corralled the children into a single line. “Reese, it’s me! Joel!” The children laughed and pointed in his direction. Reese and another teacher noticed the strange man over by the fence shouting and waving his hands in the air.
“What are you doing over there?” asked Joel. “Where’s Boyd?”
The recess teacher calmed and hushed the children and dismissed them back inside.
Reese walked to the fence.
“What are you doing?” she said, whispering. “You shouldn’t be here.” Her eyes showed compassion and delight to see her friend, but her tone was worrisome. She looked over her shoulder and saw the other teacher approaching. Reese’s disposition changed. “Do you want me to call the police? I will,” she said, raising her voice. “You have no right to disturb these children. Why don’t you get a job, you bum!”
Joel ignored the insults and threats. “Am I glad to see you. Why’d you guys take off like that?”
“Listen, if you don’t get out of here in the next three seconds I’m calling the police.”
“Go ahead and call them,” said the other teacher to Reese. “We don’t need his kind in our town.”
“But…it’s me!” Joel exclaimed.
“One…,” said Reese.
“Why are you doing this? Don’t you remember me?” asked Joel. “The drinking? My birthday?”
“Two…”
“Reese, snap out of it! You’re making no sense. What are you doing?”
“Three!”
She reached into her pocket, pulled out a cell phone, and dialed. She stepped away a few feet, but Joel could clearly hear her beckoning the help of the police.
“Okay, I get the picture. I’m leaving. I thought you looked like someone I knew, that’s all.”
Joel glanced back at the girl he thought was Reese, but that girl showed little signs of being the caring, free-spirited soul he’d shared a boxcar with the night before.
He turned a corner and he saw a sign to a café and went in. Half a dozen people sat scattered throughout the intimate eatery. He chose a booth in the corner and sat his bundle beside him. He wanted nothing more than a cool, refreshing beverage. It didn’t matter what, just something cool and wet.
“What’ll it be, sugar?” said a blonde waitress whose bosom stretched the buttons on her uniform.
“Water, please,” said Joel.
The waitress left and Joel thought of the woman at the schoolyard. There was little doubt that she was Reese. What he couldn’t understand was why she pretended not to know him, and why she was in the schoolyard in the first place.
The waitress returned and sat a glass of water and a straw on the table.
“Thank you,” said Joel. He skipped the straw and gulped heavily from the glass. Cool and refreshing, just as ordered.
“You’re a thirsty one,” she said. Her nametag had Betty stamped onto it.
“Had a rough night.”
“Would you like to order something to eat?” asked Betty.
“No, thanks.”
“What’s your name, sugar?”
“Joel.”
“Are you new in town?”
“No. Just passing through. Drifting more or less.” He drank again from the glass.
Joel then received a few odd stares from the other half-dozen patrons.
“You mean you don’t work?” asked Betty.
“I’m not looking for work. Living by my wits. Going where the wind takes me. That sort of thing.”
Betty looked surprised and disgusted. “Maybe you should be on your way. There’s no charge for the water.” She walked to another booth and refilled a man’s coffee cup. The two spoke secretively. Staring in Joel’s direction, the man pulled out his cell phone.
Joel peered around the diner. Seeing all eyes on him, he drank from his glass a last time. He grabbed his bundle and eased out of the booth, slowly, and headed toward the door.
“What the fuck is going on?” he whispered to himself. “This town is full of whack jobs.”
He walked along a sidewalk that carved through the heart of Paradise. He passed a bakery and then a floral shop. He crossed the road and heard the sound of an impact wrench followed by the humming of an air compressor. The large bay door was open and inside a garage, a man worked under the hood of a red Camaro. Joel eyed the beauty as he walked past. The mechanic swung out from under the hood and nodded in Joel’s direction.
Joel stopped short of clearing the bay door.
“Hey, Boyd!” he yelled over the noise. Walking into the garage, Joel received a hard stare from the mechanic that worked on a car in the next bay. “Hey, Boyd!” he said again. The mechanic again swung from under the hood. “You talking to me?”
“Yes, I’m talking to you,” said Joel. “Why’d you take off this morning? I just saw Reese. Man, she’s acting weird. I think she called the cops on me. What are you doing? Making a little cash to get you to the next town?”
Boyd walked a few feet to a tool chest and exchanged the open-end wrench in his hand for a ratchet. Before speaking, he looked to the other mechanic in the next bay, then back to Joel. “Sorry, pal. I think you have me confused with someone else.” He pulled another drawer and dug out a socket for the ratchet.
“Not you too,” said Joel. “What the hell is going on around here? Something is really fucked up.”
Boyd resumed his work under the hood. He wrenched a bolt loose and again swung out from under the hood. “Stepping out for a minute, Charlie,” he said to the other mechanic. Joel trailed him out the garage. “Listen,” Boyd started, “maybe you should just keep moving. This town isn’t for you. There are other towns that will suit you better.”
“What are you doing here? I thought you were drifting too?”
“Keep your goddamn voice down,” said Boyd. He peered back inside at the other mechanic named Charlie, making sure he didn’t hear the conversation. He turned to Joel. “If they find out who you are, or more importantly, what you are, you’ll be stuck here, forever. Just go!”
“If who finds out?” asked Joel. “And finds out what? And why would I be stuck here?”
Over Joel’s shoulder, Boyd saw three individuals walking swiftly in their direction. “You have to go now. They’re on to you!”
The three people hustled down the sidewalk. One was the man from the diner, pointing, saying something Joel couldn’t make out, and the other two were police officers.
“You have to go now!” said Boyd.
Boyd ducked back inside the garage, leaving Joel standing on the sidewalk. He glanced at the three pursuers. They no longer walked swiftly, but instead sprinted. Joel darted in the opposite direction.
He didn’t know why he was running. He cut a hard right down a vacant side street. He waited behind a dumpster, heavy of breath, unsure of his next move.
“You go that way and we’ll go this way,” he heard someone say. “He couldn’t have gone far.”
Through a narrow crack between the dumpster and a stack of boxes, Joel spied one of the officers advancing, gun drawn, and ready to shoot. He couldn’t understand what he had done wrong. He simply came into town looking for his friends, who were acting nothing like themselves. Something wasn’t right. He wasn’t a criminal, but everyone perceived him as one. He didn’t like the idea and it riled him. The more he thought about it the more pissed he became. He’d done nothing wrong. He had to take action. He could step from his cover and try reasoning with the cop, and let him know there must have been some kind of misunderstanding—perhaps mistaken identity, but even that seemed out of the question. This cop was serious. And Joel couldn’t run now. He would get a bullet in the back for sure.
He peered through the crack and waited for the right moment. The cop stepped meticulously, swinging his gun behind every trash pile and dumpster along the way, ready to pull the trigger on the outsider who had come into his town. The dumpster Joel hid behind was next. He was no longer able to see the police officer through the crack and could only anticipate his steps. In his mind he slowly counted…one-steptwo-stepsthree-steps. It was now or never.
He leaped, and with a swift, downward strike, sent the officer’s revolver to the ground. The officer collected himself and pawed for the baton at his waist. Joel popped a stiff right jab to his nose and a left to his stomach. He swung again and connected with the jaw. This strike rattled the officer. With a boot, Joel pounced the officer’s groin, causing him to buckle at the waist, moaning. This gave Joel the chance for an escape. He grabbed his bundle and ran to the main street and turned left toward the garage. He saw a closed bay door. He kept running. He ran down the sidewalk, rounded the corner, and nearly ran into Boyd.
“Hurry, in here!” said Boyd. Through a door, they came into the break room of the garage. “You’ll be safe in here,” said Boyd.
“I need to get the hell out of here.”
“Relax. I’m going to get you out of here.” Boyd motioned to a chair. “Sit down. Catch your breath.”
Joel, short of breath and panting, listened to Boyd as he told him about the town of Paradise. He explained that drifters, or bums, as the town’s people called them, weren’t welcomed. Everyone of age had to work and add economic value to the town. They wanted no freeloaders. If caught, they would haul you into questioning and force you to work where needed, or give you a job that coincided with your skillset. But you had to work somewhere.
“That’s why you need to get out of here,” said Boyd. “You’ll become a slave to the town, forever.”
Joel jumped out of his chair. “Well, come on. Let’s go.”
“Not me. I’m finally turning wrenches again. It’s my passion, man. This is probably where I’ll die.” He paused. “Besides, I was promised a good woman—one who’s looking for a hardworking man. It’s all working out. This place really is ‘Paradise’.”
It was then the other mechanic, Charlie, stormed into the break room. “There he is, Tom.”
Behind Charlie came the officer with whom Joel had fought. Joel bolted for the backdoor, but the second officer was waiting. He rammed his nightstick into Joel’s stomach. He let out a horrible moan and folded over. From behind, Officer Tom grabbed Joel by both shoulders and forced a hard knee to his back.
“Take it easy!” said Boyd.
“Stay out of it,” said Officer Tom. “This doesn’t concern you. You think you can come into our town and destroy the order of things, son?” He whipped his nightstick around Joel’s throat.
Through a struggling gasp, Joel said, “I wasn’t trying…to do anything.”
“Shut up!” said Officer Tom, pulling harder.
They searched, handcuffed, and gave Joel a good beating before shoving him into the backseat of a police car and taking him down to the station. Inside the station, the first officer jabbed Joel in the back with his nightstick while he followed Officer Tom through the main office.
“We don’t allow your kind in our town,” said Officer Tom. “We normally try to give our new citizens a choice of where they’d like to work, but I think you’ll do just fine shoveling shit out at Hasting’s pig farm.”
“Please, let me go and I’ll be on my way. I’m only passing through.”
“Can’t do it,” said the second officer. “If we release you, you’re likely to keep on drifting, end up in another town, being a bum. This is for your own good, son. Trust us.”
They led Joel down a hallway. At the end, Officer Tom pulled his keys from his belt and unlocked a large, steel door that led to the cell area. With the same key, he unlocked the cell door. The second officer removed Joel’s handcuffs and shoved him inside with another lucky individual.
“Don’t rough him up too badly, Leon,” said Officer Tom. He locked the cell door and then headed back down the hall.
A gray-haired man, the one named Leon, wearing denim overalls, sat on a bench in the corner. Joel limped over to him.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked, standing at the opposite end of the bench.
Leon sat hunched over with elbows on knees, staring to the floor. He looked up when Joel spoke. With contempt, he eyed the young man.
“Rather you didn’t,” he answered, and looked back to the floor.
Joel chose a place over in the corner and sat on the cold cell floor. He had never been to jail. Under normal circumstances, he would be entitled to a hearing, but his situation was outside the realm of normal; this town was outside the realm of normal. There was no chance of escape while sitting behind the steel bars. He thought of fleeing while at Hasting’s pig farm—wherever that was—but the chance of making it would be slim, he knew. They would guard him heavily. They would know his every move from sunrise to sunset.
An hour had past when outside the cell and down the hall the door slammed. Footsteps approached and then Officer Tom appeared. Squinting, he looked inside at Joel, sizing up his captive.
“You comfortable?” he asked with compassion.
Surprised by the officer’s change of attitude, Joel answered, “Not really. Could I have a chair?”
“Sure,” the officer said, maintaining his compassion. “Just as soon as pigs sprout wings and soar through the sky.” The officer laughed at his own joke. “You have a visitor.”
From around the corner a face appeared, one he thought he would never see again, a face of beauty. He stood.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hello,” said Reese. She took a step forward, coming only an inch away from the steel bars. “Will you give us a few minutes?” she asked, turning to Officer Tom.
He hesitated, and then sighed. “You got five minutes.” He walked back down the hall and Joel heard the door slam again.
Joel too stood at the bars. “What are you doing here? Why’d you call the police? You’re the reason I’m in here to begin with.”
“I didn’t,” she said. “I was only pretending because Mrs. Rose, the other teacher, came up on us. I had to do it. I didn’t want her knowing who you were. I knew you were just starting your life and you didn’t want anything to do with what this town is about.”
Joel rested his hands on the bars, and murmured, “The man at the diner.”
“What?” said Reese.
“The man at the diner…he must’ve called the cops. Never mind. I also thought you wanted something other than this kind of life.”
“I’ve had my time, Joel. I’ve seen my share of the country. This is my dream, to teach. I can’t let it pass me by. And being around those children has made me consider reaching out to my son’s adoptive family. This town really has been a blessing in disguise for me. It has everything to offer.”
“But how did all this happen … I mean … so fast? You becoming a teacher? Boyd a mechanic?”
“All I had to do was tell them what I wanted to do with my life, Boyd too, and they made it happen. Instantly. The only drawback is we have to stay here forever. We had to sign a life contract. You understand, don’t you?”
Joel looked to the ground, searching for the right words to say. “I understand,” although he really didn’t. He paused. “Was this your plan the entire time—to come here and start a new life?”
Reese nodded. “Boyd’s too. We both were ready to settle down. We were going to tell you, but you passed out before we could. We didn’t know you’d follow us to Paradise. We tried to wake you…”
“It’s all right. And I’m happy that you’re happy,” said Joel, “but there isn’t going to be a happy ending for me.”
Reese smiled. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Reaching into the front of her blouse, she pulled a key from her bra, which surprised Joel to see her wearing one. She extended it through the bars, and whispered, “Hurry. Take it before dipshit comes back.”
“Wait…how did you—”
“Just take it. It’s the spare. I got it from the desk drawer up front. And don’t worry…there are no cameras in this redneck police station.”
Joel grabbed the key, blocking the transaction with his body. He looked to Leon who was still eyeing the floor. Carefully, he slid the key down his boot and into his sock.
“You really are a good friend,” he said.
The door down the hall opened and Officer Tom came in.
“Time’s up,” he said. “Say your goodbyes.”
“Happy birthday,” said Reese. “I’m going to miss you.”
“Thank you,” said Joel. “And I’ll miss you. Tell Boyd goodbye for me.”
“I will.”
“Come on. Let’s go,” said Officer Tom, beckoning Reese with his palm up and fingers waving back and forth.
“Goodbye,” she said a last time.
He stood at the bars until she trailed out of sight. The door slammed again.
He returned to his spot on the floor to devise a plan. Escaping seemed impossible. How would he do it? How could he pull it off? They had guns, nightsticks, and Joel was unarmed. He had nothing to protect him. He knew nothing of this place. It was a chance he would have to take when the time came.
He deliberated on and on and after a while, Joel’s escape plan slipped his mind. He forgot about his incarceration and being in the stronghold of Paradise. He indulged his original ambitions of seeing the country on the rails. There was land he hadn’t seen, and he would be damned first before this town, or anyone in it, tried to stop him now. This wasn’t the end of the line; it couldn’t be. He had only begun his journey.
Thinking of what was to come beyond Paradise, Joel was drawn from his thoughts when Leon spoke.
“After they serve supper.”
Joel turned to Leon. “What?”
“After they serve supper,” Leon said again. “That’s when you should go. The tall one,” he said, referring to Officer Tom, “he naps in his chair after he serves supper. And the shorter one, he’s out cruising, making his rounds.”
“Are you sure?” asked Joel.
“That’s when you should go,” the old man answered.
“But how did you—”
“Just go then.”
Joel nodded. “Thanks.”
More time passed and the door down the hall opened again. As Leon predicted, Officer Tom pushed a cart with two trays on it up to the cell door. “Come and get it, you animals.” Through an open slot, he pushed one tray through and then the other. Joel grabbed them both, giving one to Leon and keeping one for himself. “Eat up,” said Officer Tom to Joel. “You’ll need your energy for all that shit you’ll be shoveling tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait,” said Joel.
He returned to his spot on the floor and placed his tray beside him. He bypassed the small piece of dried up ham that served as the main course, and instead nibbled on the lump of biscuit and sipped coffee conservatively from a Styrofoam cup.
Patiently, he waited. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but guessed enough that Officer Tom was surely snoozing in his chair as Leon proclaimed he did this time every evening. He reached for the key in his boot and then crept to the cell door. He pushed his arm through the bars and reached around to the keyhole. With his shaking right hand, he slipped the key in. Gently, he twisted to his right. Nothing. He looked up the hall, watching, listening for the door to open. He twisted the key to the left. This time it turned a three quarter rotation and clicked. Before pushing the door open, Joel looked over to Leon who sat on the bench watching the young man execute his escape.
“You coming?” asked Joel.
Leon said nothing.
Joel shrugged. He eased the door open and crept down the hall to the big door. At the top, the door had a small window through which Joel saw Officer Tom sleeping in his chair, kicked back, feet propped on desk, just as Leon had predicted. Once again, Joel gently slid the key into the lock and turned.
Inside the office, Joel slipped across the room, heading for the front door and ultimately his freedom. There was no turning back now.
Then, it happened.
Only a few feet from reaching the door, the phone on the desk rang—a loud blaring ring. Officer Tom came to and saw Joel standing in the middle of his office. Joel had a decision to make. Fight or flee.
He shot toward Officer Tom while he sprang from his chair. The officer went for his gun, but Joel was on him before he could draw. The two hit the floor.
Rolling and slamming, the two went around, neither acquiring a true advantage over the other. When Joel sat astride seeming to have the upper hand, the officer shimmied and maneuvered only to toss his younger adversary. Back and forth they went. Joel fought and scratched for freedom while Officer Tom battled to keep order in the town of Paradise, neither wanting to succumb to the other. The match went on until both became worn and tired.
A stern forearm to the side of Joel’s head gave Officer Tom the opening he needed. Encompassing Joel’s neck with thick, powerful hands, he smashed his thumbs into Joel’s throat, blocking his airflow. The young man pawed and fought. Darkness filled his vision as his strength weakened. Before going out, Joel saw a forearm wrap under the chin of Officer Tom.
The officer went flying and there standing stone faced was Leon.
“You better get outta here,” he said. “The short one will be back any minute.”
Joel gasped for air while rubbing his neck. His climbed to his feet.
“You dumb son of a bitch!” said Officer Tom to Leon. “What are you doing?”
He went for his gun and Leon went for him. They crashed and rolled on the floor. Joel ran for the door. He saw his bundle on a table and grabbed it.
He made it half way down the street when he heard a gun discharge. He stopped and considered going back, but knew it would do no good. Poor Leon, he thought. He ran some more. He ducked down side streets, dodging people, traffic, and even a stray dog. He ran until he was nearly out of breath and continued running until he arrived at the city limits and the train tracks. Seeing the tracks was a desirable sight, one that—only a short time before—he thought he would never see again. There wasn’t a boxcar to hop, or a train whistle to be heard. This didn’t matter. Joel was happy just to have broken the bonds of Paradise, to free himself from a tyranny he couldn’t understand.
With moonlight faintly lighting the way, Joel ventured south. He glanced to his right only to see the shimmer of a campfire through the woods—the old man’s most likely. He veered through the woods.
“Ho to camp,” said Joel.
The old man sat in the same spot as before with yet another skewered rabbit destined to be his evening meal. The one in the cage from the morning, Joel recalled.
“I see you made it out,” said the old man.
Joel stumbled up to the fire. “I did.”
“You’re a lucky one. Most people don’t.”
“It wasn’t easy,” said Joel.
“Where are your friends?”
“They stayed behind.”
“They ‘stayed behind’ or they didn’t make it out?” asked the old man.
Joel didn’t answer. He was too beat to explain.
“Care for some rabbit?” asked the old man.
“I would,” said Joel.
“Help yourself.”
Joel lifted the skewered rabbit from the flames and tore off a hind leg. He placed the skewer back over the fire. He bit into the dry meat then chewed. It was the best meal he’d ever eaten.
“What do you think of this drifting life?” asked the old man.
Joel swallowed the rabbit, and said, “I’m not sure I have what it takes.”
The old man spat into the fire. “Nonsense. I don’t believe it. I’m a firm believer in that every man has what it takes. You were sadly mistaken if you thought this was going to be an easy row to hoe. You have to have guts, grit, and gumption. If you want to be a man of the land, a drifter, someone that roams as he pleases, then you need to toughen up. No matter where you go there are always going to be folks who try to tell you what to do.”
“I’ve sure had my fill of that today,” said Joel.
“Well,” the old man started, and then grabbed the rabbit from the fire, “don’t let them. Stand up for yourself. I’ve been doing that my entire life.”
Joel listened while his teeth ripped another hunk of rabbit meat. In the distance, he heard a train coming up the tracks. The old man reiterated the importance of believing in oneself and not taking shit from anyone. He didn’t mean to break the law or impose harm on anyone, or just flat out do wrong for the sake of doing wrong. He was referring to the bullies in the world who tried to position others for their own personal gain. Somebody had to stop these scoundrels and put them in their place.
“You get what I’m saying, son?” said the old man.
Joel knew exactly what the old man was trying to say. What he had experienced in Paradise wasn’t his first encounter with a society that tried to control one’s inhabitants. Hickory Hollow was very similar. The ones who possessed a free spirit were condemned, and marked as trouble, a waste to the community and town.
The train’s whistle blew when it rolled past.
“I get it,” said Joel.
“Then I think you know what to do.”
Joel finished his rabbit and threw the bones in the fire.
“Maybe I’ll see you on the rails again someday,” said Joel.
“I don’t see why not,” said the old man.
Joel nodded. “Thanks for the rabbit.”
“You’re welcome around my campfire anytime.”
Joel headed through the woods toward the train. He ran and jumped up on the drop step, held on, and felt the night wind upon his face. He was free once again.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

MOONSHINER'S JUSTICE (Excerpt)

Frank Jamison grabbed a few more pieces of the seasoned hickory and placed them in the bottom barrel of the copper still. The homemade apparatus sat in a remote hollow in which no other human had likely stepped foot. No beaten paths or blazed trails led to this place. The virgin land made for the ideal location.
While Frank stood at a distance smoking his pipe, the fire began to take hold. A physically solid man, he was dressed in his only pair of denim overalls. His once coal black hair, now greying, rested on broad shoulders. His long beard hung to his chest, and, due to worry and despair, the darkness under his eyes had long set in. He had entered his fortieth year this year, nineteen-hundred and twenty-three. Frank had invested thirty of those years into the mysterious trade that became the basic means to his family’s survival. As a boy, he watched and learned from his father. Now, his son stood by his side and observed the family secrets of moonshining.
“See there, Raymond,” Frank said to his son. “You have to get your water boilin’ nice and hot so the steam’ll rise up and out the line.”
Raymond, with his high cheekbones and Cherokee ancestry, was a miniature version of his father. Consumed by intrigue, he stood in bare feet, wearing tattered overalls. The thirteen-year-old boy watched as his father fired the still.
“How much you reckon this’ll make?” asked Raymond.
Frank stirred the corn mash with a wooden oar. “I’d say ‘bout twenty jars or so.”
“We gonna make another batch tomorrow?”
“Doubt it. Not for a few days, anyway.”
As time passed, the mash boiled and condensed into the copper coils, and the liquid trickled slowly into a quart jar. When the jar reached its capacity, Raymond skillfully exchanged the container for an empty one. From the stack on the ground, he grabbed a lid and placed it onto the filled jar, turning it to a snug fit. The jar’s clear contents depicted innocence equal to that of the young boy.

The windy, narrow road that led to the Jamison home snaked for miles through the hills and hollows of what many would consider unknown land. The two-bedroom home sat deeply nestled and secured in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
Inside, Frank’s wife, Mary, sat at the family dinner table. Her belly protruded from her homemade dress prohibiting her from sitting at a comfortable distance. She’d birthed three wonderful children, while the fourth was less than a month away from making its arrival. Her golden hair rested snugly in a bun atop her head, just the way it did every day. Peeling potatoes, she worked intently preparing the evening meal.
“Anna, honey,” Mary said to her daughter. “Go draw the water from the well, please. And take Jake outside ‘til we finish our supper.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Anna. With one last brush stroke to her doll’s hair, the little girl sprang from her seat opposite her mother. “Come on, Jake. Come on, boy,” she said to the Golden Retriever. Jake followed her out the door with a floppy tail wag.
Inside the home were signs of a modest living. In the kitchen, the handmade dinner table was the centerpiece, a gift from Frank to his wife on their first wedding anniversary. It had been the gathering area for many conversations over the last fourteen years. Across the room, the fireplace steadily burned. An unlit oil lamp sat on the mantel, along with the family Bible and reading spectacles. Above the front door was a plaque with the words Bless this Home inscribed into it.
Moments later, Anna returned with the kettle of water and sat it on the table.
“Thank you, dear,” Mary said.
“You’re welcome, Momma.”
“You best get washed up. Your daddy and brother’ll be along directly.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

As the sun dropped behind the horizon, Frank and Raymond made their final climb up the steep ridge. Having placed the liquor into pine crates and securing them on the back of his packhorse, Frank carefully led the animal through the dense forestry, making his way back to the family farm.
Walking along and pleased with Raymond’s willingness to learn, Frank said, “I’m proud of you, son. You did good today. Pretty soon you’ll be able to do this by yourself.”
“Hopefully I’ll be as good as you someday,” said Raymond.
“You’re already good as me.”
The boy grinned, swelled out his chest, and proudly marched alongside his father. Frank saw Raymond’s reaction and produced a smile of his own.
Although Frank felt proud of his son, his moonshining business had brought its share of heartache. The federal revenuers had wreaked havoc on the backwoods distiller—and Frank was no exception. Three years before they destroyed his operation and eliminated his only means of financial stability. That following winter, his oldest daughter, Doris, lay sick with pneumonia and fever. With his funds stripped, Frank was unable to purchase the proper medicine, and after a two-week struggle, Doris succumbed to her illness. The young girl died in the same house that she was born in only eight years before. It was then Frank Jamison vowed that no one would ever come between him and his family’s survival again.
After trekking for some time, father and son broke free of the woods that surrounded their home. Raymond spotted Jake squirming out from his favorite spot under the porch. The dog stood, stretched his stiff muscles, and casually sauntered out to greet them both.
“You go on and tell your momma and sister we’re back and I’ll tend to Sylvester,” said Frank, leading the horse around the chicken coop and into the barn.
“Yes, sir,” said Raymond.
In the corner of the barn, Frank unloaded the pine crates next to a dozen or so bales of straw. After securing Sylvester in his stall, he returned and moved the bales, one by one. He slid the last bail over, kicked away some loose straw and revealed three weather-beaten barn slats fitting firmly side by side. Bending to one knee, he removed the slats and placed the jars into a deep, dug out hole. He stacked his inventory neatly just as he’d done many times before. He returned the slats and bales to their original form and exited the barn toward his house to join his family.
“Sure smells good in here,” said Frank, walking through the door of his home.
“Momma’s cookin’ pork stew with boiled potatoes,” said Anna. She ran over to hug her father. “I been helping too.”
“You’re gonna be a good cook when you get older. Just like your momma,” said Frank.
“How’d things go out there today?” asked Mary.
Frank walked over to greet his wife.
“Not bad,” he said, as he placed his arms around her and their unborn child. “Produced about the usual, I guess.”
“Let’s hope they sell.”
“We’ll be fine, dear. I’m sure of it. I sold quite a few jars the other day. Business is good.”
After supper, Frank took refuge in his rocking chair by the small, crackling fire. He mentally observed the day and thought it was a productive one. He would have no trouble selling what he’d made this afternoon. His regulars would be around eventually looking to purchase some of what they believed to be the best moonshine in the region, and possibly in the entire state. The market was a demanding one and Frank had no worries.
Outside, a rattling car engine came up the driveway. Visitors were uncommon at the Jamison residence, so Frank sprang from his chair and grabbed the shotgun hanging above the mantel. Jake let loose a few alerting barks.
“Easy, boy,” Frank said to the dog.
“Who is it?” asked Raymond, jumping to his feet to look out the window.
“Not sure.” Frank gazed from the doorway into the darkness. As headlights advanced, he said, “Looks like John Lytle’s truck.”
John Lytle was a long-time friend of Frank and his family. He was also the Deputy Sheriff. Frank leaned his gun against the wall and walked outside. He struck a match and lit a lamp that hung from a nail on the porch.
“How are ya, Frank?” asked John, as he stepped out of his truck.
“Oh, I’m gettin’ by.” Frank walked over to greet his old friend with a firm handshake. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Had to drop in on Ms. Coburn—make sure she was gettin’ along okay. Thought I’d stop by on my way back through to see how you and Mary were doin’.”
“Come on in. She’ll be glad to see ya.”
“Sure. Okay.” John removed his hat and followed Frank inside. “Look at you. Pretty as ever,” he said to Mary. “Can’t be much longer now. About a month or so?”
“Any day now,” said Mary, placing her hands across her belly. “How you been? And how’s Eliza?”
“We’re both doin’ fine. She’s been gettin’ her preserves ready for the Indian Summer Festival. You all are comin’ I hope? I know Eliza would sure be happy to see ya.”
“As long as this young’un doesn’t decide to come between now and then—we’ll be there.” There was a hint of fatigue in Mary’s voice.
“Only the Good Lord knows the answer to that, I suppose,” said John.
“Care for a cup of coffee?” asked Frank.
“Sure,” said John, kneeling to pet Jake. “Never turn down a hot cup of coffee.”
Mary poured two cups, handing one to Frank and the other to John Lytle. After a few minutes of small talk among old friends, the Deputy finally saw his opportunity.
“Frank, you mind if we step outside and talk for a bit?”
“Sure, John.”
Raymond attempted to follow.
“You stay here, son. Me and John need to talk alone.” Raymond returned to his spot on the floor by the fire. Jake followed and flopped down beside him.
The two men stepped down off the porch and away from the house.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Frank.
“Well,” John began, and positioned his hat back on his head. “I’m really not sure how to go about tellin’ you this but…ah.”
“Go on, John,” said Frank, trying to reassure his old friend.
“Okay then. It’s the damn revenuers, Frank. They’re crackin’ down again.”
With the lamp’s light shining on his face, Frank’s expression turned harsh. “What do you mean they’re crackin’ down?”
“They’re making another sweep.”
“Keep talkin’,” said Frank.
John sighed. “In this region. They’re comin’ for your operation tomorrow. I tried to throw ‘em off, but they wasn’t havin’ it. They’re dead-set on takin’ out your still. Somebody round here must’ve tipped ’em off. But God as my witness, it wasn’t me.” John threw his right hand up declaring his oath.
Frank stood silent for a few seconds as a chill ran down his spine. He thought of his daughter, Doris.
“Frank, please do us all a favor. Don’t show up at that still. I know what it means to you, but it’ll get downright ugly if you do.”
Frank said, “So what you’re tellin’ me is to just go ahead and let them goddamn feds strip my livelihood away?”
“I know how you feel–”
“You don’t know how I feel,” Frank interrupted and his voice trembled. “You ever buried one of your babies, John? Do you know how that feels?”
With his hands in his pockets, John looked to the ground, unsure how to respond.
“You ever had to think of the right words to say to your wife as she lays over her daughter’s grave—cryin’ and beggin’ God to bring her back? What about the guilt and shame a man feels when he can’t provide for his family?”
“Is everything all right out there, dear?” asked Mary, poking her head out the door.
Frank tried to regain his composure. “Yes, honey,” he answered, switching back to his natural tone.
“Okay, I was just checkin’. If you two need anything, just yell.” She closed the door.
“Listen, Frank,” John began, “I’m not here to make life difficult for ya. I’m here ’cause you’re my friend. I don’t want anything happenin’ to you and your family. You think on it.” John opened the door on his truck, but stopped before getting in. “And for what it’s worth…I’ll still respect you and be your friend no matter what you decide.”

Frank’s mind raced with doubt as John drove away. He was unsure of what to do and realized there wasn’t much time to decide.
~~~
Read Moonshiner's Justice in its entirety by purchasing it on Amazon.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Now Available: BROTHERS OF THE MOUNTAIN: Heart of the Frontier





Heart of the Frontier is a book of seven interconnected stories that follows the lives of mountain men and brothers Henry and Lucas McCarty. Ride along as they face hostiles and adversities at every turn. Each story in this book is not only filled with extreme action and adventure, but also represents the special breed of men who were willing to risk their lives in America's western frontier in the 1820s and 1830s. 

Featured stories:
Pride of the Shawnee 
River Pirates 
Two Buffaloes 
Grizzly Rendezvous 
Blood on the Prairie 
Justice in the Valley 
Savagery of the Blackfeet

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Now Available: MOONSHINER'S JUSTICE




Available at: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Moonshiner’s Justice is a continuation of my short story Faith, Love and Moonshine: An Appalachian Tale, which I’d written about five years ago and now stands as the first chapter of this book. I’d received feedback from a few readers wishing Faith hadn’t ended where it did. They wanted more. Although the story was a standalone, I knew it wasn’t quite complete. I tweaked and revised the storyline just a bit, but no drastic changes were made. Now, five years later, Moonshiner’s Justice is born.

Description: Moonshining is a common way of life in the poverty-stricken region of eastern Kentucky. For Frank Jamison, backwoods distilling is his primary means to surviving the harsh and uneconomical time.Three years have passed since the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale and distribution of intoxicating liquors. It was also then, in 1920, Frank had his first run-in with the federal revenuers. The encounter resulted in a temporary setback for his business, but also led to the tragic loss of his oldest daughter. Now, an insider has tipped-off the authorities and Frank is once again feeling the pressure of losing his operation. It's Frank's father, an old-time moonshiner with an itchy trigger finger, who steps in with readied guns to set matters straight and help restore the reputation of the backwoods distiller.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Old Writer and the Hungry Squirrels: A Short Story

By
Jeremy Perry
Copyright 2016 Sunrise Publishing

This story is included in the short story collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories.


It was an ongoing chatter of squawks and barks that rattled Ian McAllister from his sleep. This noise woke him the same time every morning, but there was no one to blame for it except Ian. Two weeks earlier, he had nailed an empty soup can onto the outside ledge of the kitchen window and filled it with handfuls of corn. Two lively squirrels had accustomed themselves to this routine and were awaiting their daily handout.
The old man opened his eyes and looked high above to the square, wooden ceiling beams running parallel with his bed. They ran from one wall to the other, adding to the sound structure of the one room cabin.
Slowly, he swung his legs over the side of his bed and slid his bare, boney feet into his house slippers. He yawned, stretched, and stood, joints stiff and cracking.
“I’m coming, you rascals,” he said, scratching his round belly from over his nightshirt.
He grabbed his walking cane that was beside his bed and paced wearily to the kitchen cupboard. He opened the door and scooped a cupful of corn from a small burlap sack. When Ian raised the window, the squirrels leaped to the snow-covered ground and returned to the ledge after he filled the can and shut the window.
“There you go,” said Ian, looking on as if he were a proud papa.
With pleasure, the old man watched the squirrels—the large red one, which he had named Arthur, and the smaller grey, dubbed Maxwell—nibble yellow kernels between their tiny paws, standing on the window’s ledge.
What fascinating creatures, Ian thought, standing in front of the frosty glass. Lifting his gaze, he looked past the furry squirrels beyond the grey fencing that surrounded his front yard, and out to the wooded hillside. Ian marveled at the pine trees blanketed with fresh fallen snow. He loved this secluded countryside that he had called home for more than thirty years. He reveled in the wonderment of the morning, and shortly after, stepped away from the window and sidled over to the coffee pot.
It had always been these little things—the playful squirrels, the beautiful landscape—that had brought comfort and joy into Ian’s life. Such were the small pleasantries of a lonely writer, whose wife had died long ago, and who was without anyone to call a friend.
After making his coffee and pouring himself a cup, Ian ventured a few steps over to his roll-top desk. He set his cup on top, eased down in a cushiony chair, and leaned his cane against the side of the desk. The desk had been his grandmother’s and the smell of her stale pipe tobacco still permeated the old wood, which hurled him back to his youth every time he sat down to write.
The old writer pulled out his notebook, and with pen in hand, he stared down to yet another intimidating blank page. He contemplated a plot line that he had been mulling over, but found it weak and disposed of the idea.
“That’ll never work,” he said. This was his common response to any inkling of creativity that he had had in recent months. It was the mindset that had ruled his thinking much of the passing year.
Creating stories had become a struggle for Ian. He had run into nothing but disappointing dead ends. However, he had never given up. This life, the one of a writer and storyteller, was all he knew. Every day he drudged forward, hoping to revamp his creative talent which he fervently believed was lying somewhere within.
He grabbed his coffee cup, sipped, and again glanced over to the kitchen window—adjacent to his desk—to watch the squirrels devour the kernels of corn. The squirrels were the only reliable entity in Ian’s life. They brought him comfort and happiness.
Again, Ian sipped and then placed his cup on top of his desk. He returned his concentration to the vacant page of his notebook and tapped his pen mindlessly, searching for the slightest glimpse of hope.
“If only I had a muse that I could count on,” he said while twisting the end of his white mustache.
Several minutes passed and still no words or ideas came forth. He rotated his neck, trying to unbind the stiffness which was setting in faster than usual. An hour went by and then another and not a single scribbling of a sentence or word occurred.
Becoming frustrated, Ian slumped in his chair and said, “Damn you, muse! Where are you? I need you more than ever.”
With his fingertips, he massaged his head at the temples and again he glanced to the kitchen window and noticed the squirrels were gone. They had gotten their free meal and headed back to the wooded hillside.
In a small way, Ian felt used. Maybe it was loneliness causing his feeling of dismay. Maybe it was his inability to create the marvelous stories for which he was once widely known. Whichever the case, he had never felt this way about the little woodland squirrels.
“You creatures are like all the rest,” he said. “You’re no different from the agents and publishers who are constantly putting their grubby hands into my pockets.”
As Ian finished his complaining and looked again to his notebook, a discharge of knocks came from the front door of his cabin. He was not one who startled easily, but he jumped slightly and expelled a few obscenities under his breath. He grumbled and rose from his chair.
More knocks came and Ian grabbed his cane and walked across the one-room cabin. When he turned the deadbolt and opened the door, the old writer’s eyes gazed upon a being that made his bitter heart flutter and dance.
“Good afternoon, Ian,” said the visitor.
Ian stared giddily. Standing before him was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen—a woman with hair as black as the night sky and complexion equal to that of the fallen snow behind her. She wore a long, elegant red dress that sparkled in the sun’s reflection. Draped over her shoulders was a shawl fashioned from the fur of an exotic animal.
“It’s you,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
She walked through the doorway, going past him.
“My goodness,” said the woman, “someone could catch a deathly cold out there.” She rubbed her arms, as if trying to induce circulation back into her limbs. Ian shut the door behind her, and his enchantment of her soon turned to irritation.
He asked, “Why are you here, Tamara?”
The elegant woman unfastened her shawl, exposing vast cleavage and ample breasts. Ian took notice of her sexual allure. It had been years since he had witnessed such erotic splendor. From the tips of her shiny high heels to her long, straight locks, he absorbed it all with much delight.
“My, aren’t we getting touchy in our old age?” said Tamara. “Can’t a person stop by and see a dear friend whenever she wishes?”
Ian said, “I’d never realized we were such dear friends.” He turned his eyes from her enormous bosom and headed back to his desk.
“Surely you don’t mean that,” said Tamara. We’ve been friends for so many years. Don’t be so bitter, Ian.”
He said, “How am I supposed to feel? You’ve been away for a long time now.”
“Yes, I know I’ve neglected you,” she said with a voice absorbed in guilt. “But I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Ian ignored her out of spite. He grabbed his pen and thought he might write a line or two. For a moment, he had truly felt a jolt of inspiration. And at last, he did write. He jotted two brilliant sentences.
He had loved her dearly. The pain and agony grew within him each passing day.
Ian stopped writing, sat back in his chair, and stared down to the page.
“I haven’t been able to do that in months,” he said, astonished.
Tamara said, “It feels wonderful, doesn’t it, Ian—to produce your prose once again.” While she spoke she stood behind him, watching over his shoulder.
“Yes, it does. I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time.”
“I know you have,” said Tamara. “I heard your wish. That’s why I’ve returned to you. As you said, you need me. And there are plenty of wonderful stories floating around inside that magnificent mind of yours, waiting to make you a best seller once again. I can make that happen, Ian, just like before.”
Ian turned in his chair and with suspicious eyes stared up at her.
“How can I be sure you won’t leave me again? How can I be certain that I can trust a muse like you?”
“Muses do come and go, Ian. We all know that.”
“True,” said Ian. “But I don’t care for that uncertainty. I’ve lived this way for far too long. I need to know that you’ll always be there when I need you. And I’m old. I don’t have much time left.”
Tamara leaned over, pressing her large breasts on the back of Ian’s neck. She breathed heavily and seductively into the old writer’s ear. Ian’s old heart thumped in his chest.
“Now, Ian,” she softy whispered, “we’ve been through this all before. We both know what it will take so that you’re able to write your stories at will. Better yet, so that we’ll be together forever. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Nothing has changed, Ian. My offer still stands.”
The feel of bare cleavage on his neck and the smell of Tamara’s exotic perfume sent a pleasing chill down Ian’s back.
“But why must I sign over my soul?” he asked, remembering the terms that she had introduced the year before. “There must be another way.”
The seductress sank her hands into Ian’s shoulders and neck and intricately massaged his old, tired muscles. And again she lowered herself, whispering into his other ear.
“I wish there were, Ian, but I’m afraid there isn’t. The gods of the underworld will need your immortal soul if you wish to write as you did before. That is the only way. You owe it to your fans.”
For the old writer it seemed like ages since he had published any respectable works. It had also been ages since he had received his last piece of fan mail. Ian missed that connection with his readers, the corresponding back and forth. He missed touching their lives as he had done when he was a young, prolific writer. He wanted to be the free-spirited writer from the days of old.
“And you can promise me the words will flow as freely as I please? No more struggling. No more misery?”
“Of course,” said Tamara. “I promise all that—for the rest of your days.”
Ian pulled away from the muse’s persistent pawing, grabbed his cane, and pushed up from his chair.
“I’m still not convinced,” he said, walking over to peer out the kitchen window. He hoped to catch another glimpse of his furry friends, and he wished he had not felt so bitter toward them earlier.
“How can you say that?” asked Tamara. “Wasn’t that wonderful feeling of writing a few moments ago convincing enough? Ian, you can have all that again and so much more. All you have to do is give up your soul. Hand it over and write as you’ve never written before.”
Staring out the window to the snowy hillside, Ian listened to the words of his muse. She continued her swooning and coercing. The longer she talked, the more sense she made. He was tired of this burden of being unable to write, but most of all he was heartbroken because he was unable to enjoy his craft.
Ian turned to Tamara. “Okay, I’m ready.” After a moment of silence and a deep breath, he said, “Take my soul and do with it as you wish. I don’t need it. Just give me back my will to write.”
Tamara walked over to Ian, her high heels clacking on the hardwood floor. Smiling, she placed her soft, pale hands on either side of the writer’s whiskered face and caressed gently.
“You’ve made a wise decision, Ian,” she said in a caring tone. “Your love of writing will return as will an outpouring of story ideas that will indeed touch your fans, just as you have wished.”
She pulled her hand away from his face and darted toward the front door.
“Wait. Where are you going?” asked Ian. “I thought we were going to be together forever.”
Stopping at the front door, Tamara refastened her shawl and turned to him.
“I’ll always be with you in spirit, Ian. And I’ll drop in on you from time to time. When you awake tomorrow morning, everything you’ve wished for will be as it should be.”
Tamara walked out the front door leaving a skeptical old man in her wake. Ian did not attempt to write any more that evening. Instead, he would wait until morning to see if the muse stayed true to her word.
After a night of unsettled sleep, Ian rose again to the squawking sound of the squirrels. He was glad to see they had returned.
“Here you are,” said Ian, dumping the corn in the soup can.
This time he did not admire the critters while they ate. Instead, he brewed his coffee and quickly took his seat at his desk to continue with the wonderful story he had started the day before. Relaxed and confident, he pulled out his notebook and pen.
With little effort the words and ideas streamed from Ian’s pen onto the page. He could not contain the huge grin emerging on his creased face.
“Remarkable,” he said to himself, energized as he continued to write.
After only an hour, Ian had completed an entire story. And it was not just any story; it was one of brilliance. He felt as if it were one of his best. Reading over the finished work, he basked in the joy and comfort of something he had not been able to do for a long time. Most importantly, he felt no different. He did not feel like a man who had lost his soul. He was not even certain that he had. He was however convinced of one thing: he could write again. To Ian, this was all that mattered.
Day after day, until a week had passed, Ian repeated his routine of feeding the squirrels, preparing his coffee, and writing his stories. Each story, saturated with the old writer’s style and flair, possessed a quality unlike any story of the present day. To Ian, each one appeared almost lifelike. And in true Ian McAllister fashion, each story covered his favorite subjects: chaos, death, and destruction. He had written many stories of this nature throughout the years, but none as magnificent as the ones he had churned out in the past days.
One evening while in the midst of another writing session, Ian stopped briefly to read over his work. This story was starting out to be even better than the one he had written the day before. He thought this could possibly be the greatest work to date.
His starry eyes scanned the page and again he noticed the intricacies of his writing, possessing realism unlike anything he had ever written before. It had been so long since he felt this way about his craft and he sensed his talent as a writer was improving day after day. The old writer fed from this natural high and felt Tamara had indeed held true to her word; although, he still did not feel like a soulless scribe.
While Ian wrote, Tamara, all charm and allure, again appeared at the front door wearing the same dress and shawl that she had worn on her original visit.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been a very busy man, Ian McAllister,” she said, walking into the cabin, high heels clacking on the hardwood floor.
“Oh yes. More than ever. You’re truly remarkable, Tamara. I won’t doubt you again. Thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”
The muse walked over to Ian’s desk and gently ran her hand along its top and down the side.
“I’ve come to thank you as well, Ian,” she said, admiring the craftsmanship of the wooden desk.
Perplexed, Ian said, “For what? I’ve done nothing—nothing that I know of.”
She picked up Ian’s notebook that lay on his desk.
“Your stories are changing the world, Ian—even as we speak. The gods of the underworld are extremely pleased with you.” She quickly flipped through the pages of stories.
“Please forgive me,” Ian began, “but I haven’t submitted anything to my publisher. My fans, or the rest of the world, know nothing of my stories.”
Tamara threw the notebook back on the desk and laughed.
“You really have been busy, haven’t you,” she said. “Even too busy to know what’s going on all around you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ian.
“Turn on your television.”
“My television? Is this some sort of joke?”
“It’s not a joke. Just turn on the TV,” Tamara said again.
The old writer shuffled over to the end table by the sofa and picked up the remote to the television. Hesitantly, he aimed and pushed the power button.
When the screen’s illumination was at its fullest, Ian saw flashes of brutal chaos and destruction. This was something often showed by the news stations so it was nothing unusual for Ian. He glanced over to Tamara.
“What is it I’m supposed to be witnessing?” he asked.
“Flip to the next channel,” said Tamara, watching the screen, intently, enjoying the scenes as each played out one by one.
Ian did as she said, and again the screen displayed the same bloody suffrage.
Breaking News, the headline stated. Many Dead after Today’s Catastrophic Earthquake.
Somewhat rattled, Ian flipped to the next channel.
“Bodies burnt alive,” said the news anchor. Again, the old man changed the channel.
Every station depicted mayhem—nothing but widespread death and chaos. The old writer became uneasy and sensed something was not right, in fact, something was eerily wrong. He turned off the television and tossed the remote onto the sofa.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked.
“You’ve gotten your wish,” said Tamara, elated. “Your words have once again made a huge impact on the people of the world.”
It was then Ian understood her. All the turmoil on the television mirrored that of the stories in his notebook—the topics Ian loved to write about most: pandemonium and destruction.
“You mean I’m responsible for all of this?” He gave a nod to the television.
“I’m afraid so,” said Tamara.
Ian stood stone-faced; not wanting to believe the moment was real.
“You fooled me,” he said through a trembling voice.
“Nonsense,” said Tamara. “I’ve made you the most prolific writer in the world—just as you wished for. There was no trickery involved.”
“You are evil in the purest form,” said Ian. “How could you have allowed this to happen? Innocent people are dying!”
Tamara said nothing. Instead she walked over to a painting hanging on the cabin wall.
“For an old man you are naïve,” she said. She bumped the frame a little to the left, squaring it with the other pictures hanging on the wall. She turned back around. “Evil is everywhere in the world, Ian. Don’t you see that? It’s greedy people like you who spread evil. If you hadn’t bargained your soul for your precious writing career, none of the destruction would be happening right now. You’re the only one who’s to blame. Not me.”
Ian was not sure how to respond. He thought for a moment, and then stood up a little straighter and blurted out the first logical thought that came to his mind.
“Then I’ll quit writing.”
Tamara laughed. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. You’ve made a deal with the gods of the underworld. They will force you to write your stories. And even if you try to stop, you won’t succeed. You are without a soul, Ian. You have no choice in the matter.”
Ian was in disbelief. He had always been a gentle, caring man. He had never wished any harm on anyone. He had always loved Mother Nature and the woodland creatures, and he respected his fellow man. He had no idea that one day his words would lead to worldly devastation.
Walking to the front door to leave, Tamara said, “I hope you understand this has nothing to do with you personally. Good and evil have always existed in the world, Ian, and it’s always been a balancing act between the two. I hope you understand. And I want to thank you for your contribution.” She walked out, shutting the door behind her. The old writer dropped his cane and quickly walked over to turn the deadbolt.
Distraught, Ian nervously ran his fingers through his white hair. He walked to the kitchen cupboard, pulled from it a bottle of whiskey and a glass, and unscrewed the lid from the bottle. With his shaking hand, he poured a generous shot into his glass and gulped it. He poured another and drank again. Ian tried not to think of his stories but was unable to avoid them.
With every attempt to sway his mind, Ian found himself steering back to his latest story. Ian grabbed the bottle of whiskey and his glass and made his way back over to his writing station. After sitting, he poured another, this time filling the glass to the top. He took a large gulp and then placed his glass where his coffee cup normally sat. He opened his notebook and with pen in hand he began to write.
Even with concentrated effort, Ian was unable to stop himself from writing and so he eventually gave up and let the muse’s influence prevail. Subconsciously, he was aware that the story was of pure evil, although he did not mind. It was the writing, the act of creating, the act of producing art, something that he had missed for far too long, that took over his being. He had always loved and valued the art form, and did so as he scribbled out the words in his notebook. But at the same time he loathed it as he never had before.
On and on, into the early hours of the morning, he wrote with nothing holding him back. Finally, Ian stopped and looked down to his words when a welling tear broke from his eyelid, rolled down his whiskered cheek, and splashed onto the page of his notebook. He wrote one final sentence, scooted from his desk, and made his way to the bedroom area of the cabin.
It was an hour later when the sun started rising above the wooded hillside, just past the grey fencing that surrounded Ian’s front yard, that the frolicking squirrels were already at the window’s ledge, wanting their morning ration of corn. For a solid half hour they squawked, barked, and played, trying to capture the attention of the one who had been feeding them regularly for the last couple of weeks. Even with the squirrels’ playful persistence, the one who filled the soup can did not come to the window this time.
Through the frosty window, past the old, roll-top desk, a shadowy figure gently swayed from one of the square, wooden ceiling beams of the log cabin. Ian McAllister’s lifeless body hung suspended by a stretched rope that had elongated his neck to unnatural proportions. No more would he hurt anyone else. No more would this caring man have to worry about wreaking havoc on the world with his words. Ian McAllister had written his last story.
On the desk with the half-filled bottle of whiskey and empty glass, sat Ian’s notebook, and on the bottom of the last page of his final story was his final request:
God, forgive me.
And someone please feed my squirrels.