Rusty Barnes lives in Revere MA with his family where he writes and edits TOUGH. His work has appeared widely, and his latest book is KRAJ THE ENFORCER. This is his first appearance with fiction in BEAT to a PULP.
This was not your mother’s Wetonawanda. Drag Hill sat looming over the Blackbird county seat like a pile of horseshit over another smaller pile of horseshit, and Johnny Piper sat in his rusted 1986 Dodge Dart in a copse of trees just off the road, waiting. Sometimes for the end of his self-appointed shift, so he could get home to his Plott hound Willie, sometimes simply for a kind word from his wife Dora. He didn’t care that she’d been named for some famous long-dead woman the way she reminded him a couple times a week as he tried to make it with her in bed: he wanted maybe a kiss on the cheek. Romance. He wasn’t a fucking machine. And she wanted Brady Bragg, drug dealer, twice-jailed hellion and raconteur.
Three weeks before, word had come down from above, the way it does, that his services were no longer required at one of his three jobs: the lightest job among them, cashier for the Dandy-Mart. With the news, Dora had packed two suitcases and her birth control pills, then hightailed it for the woods, without even a word of explanation. Her mobile phone number changed, he had no way of knowing exactly where she was, and he became, as his therapist would say, troubled.
He’d missed work, and work had missed him enough to reprimand him. Once. Then one incident at home piled over another like petty larcenies. Their daughter Sylvia, thirteen years old and already bitter like asparagus on the tongue, might be described one way as rebellious and another way as troubled as he was. His second job, at a night-shift-only adult bookstore called Frank’s Films, fired him for conduct unbecoming a retail slut. Johnny realized now that nobody knew who Frank was, but it didn’t matter, just like the meth-head kids he was waiting in the trees for now, didn’t matter. Here, Johnny was a guy waiting for another guy—Brady Bragg—who would sell another guy drugs—meth or crack or, scary for these times, injectables like heroin—then, snorting and hopping, or cranked to the gills, Brady would drag-race his buyer down the hill and into the half-mile straight stretch before the highway and the roadside bar and restaurant, Wheaty’s. Winner got a free hit, and everybody left happy, scratching themselves bloody.
Today, though, Johnny had a radar gun and a.357 Magnum (these kids could get edgy) for backup. He reported the names of the buyers he saw to State Police Officer Fritz, barracks conveniently located across from job number three, where Johnny janitored under contract via union to clean the rooms where his now-missing social worker wife saved marriages and counselled low-lives. It had been a hard but decent life, and now it was fucked. He heard the brassy gunpowder-like sound of Brady’s glasspaks coming up the other side of the hill. Brady loved the car like a pet wolf, although he also loved beating it up on dirt roads and gravelly switchbacks all over the surrounding county. Brady’s love had limits, in other words, which J0hnny swore deep in his heart had something to do with Dora. He knew Dora was with Brady. No limits.
Soon Brady’s Frankenstein monster Mustang came tearing down the road, a lean Trans Am not far behind, like it was 1985 again, a crescendo of exhaust fumes and whining engines passing quickly as a John Elway rifle shot from the pocket. Johnny hit the button on the radar gun to see 92 on the screen. He wrote down Brady’s name, put a checkmark by it, and stowed the radar gun under the seat, shoving aside a tire tool kept alongside the shifter. He looked both ways before pulling off the service road and heading toward the racers. They’d already be in the bar, and tonight he didn’t feel like following them in. It would have been better if he could represent himself as a regular. No such luck. He was not a bar drinker, Johnny was a home drinker. Fuck it, he decided. One drink, and he would see Brady’s face at least, and know if Dora was with him.
Inside Wheaty’s the lights were low and the noise came at Johnny like a wave. A DJ high on a rickety stage spun some remixed tune with a high synthesizer part that immediately grated. As with IHOP, cafeterias and most country bars, the 80s had never ended, but instead percolated softly in every person above a certain age, a certain swagger. Memories of the salad days. Brady and Beanie, a couple guys with full-sleeve tattoos and backward straight-brimmed hats took up two of the small tables. Brady nodded shortly in Johnny’s direction. That’s as much as I need, Johnny thought. He picked up his Budweiser and approached the table. Brady’s right eyebrow was pierced and he had an ugly green neck tattoo.
“What up homes?” Johnny said.
Brady tipped a bottle in his direction. “You know, this and that, a bit of the other. You know.” Their eyes locked for just a moment, cracked and tinted mirrors.
“I heard your car from way outside town just now. Loud as a motherfucker,” Johnny said. “Real, real loud.”
“These kids all wanna make the noise,” Brady said, “but they ain’t got the shut-up or the put-up.” He pointed with his bottle at Beanie, who had disappeared to the bathroom for a bump. “How you with put-up, John?
“You know me. I do all right.” Johnny said.
“I see you downtown pretty regular. Like Dora says, you got a habit of coffee at Molly’s?” Molly’s was a tiny cafe on the same street as the police station. It had never been robbed by Brady or his type due to the regular state police presence.
“I drink good coffee, man. Wherever I find it.” A look at his watch convinced him he needed to exit soon, before he accidentally said the right thing. Brady had mentioned Dora, which should have sent him into Zone Violence, but something stopped him. Did Brady know his secret impotence? Had Dora told him?
“You one of those lazy-ass sons of bitches want a Starbucks on every corner. Vente motherfuckers got no sense. They need to keep out of shit, stick to the big cities. Elmira. Syracuse. Harrisburg,” Beanie said, overhearing as he came banging through the restroom doors rotating his head back and forth. He looked at Johnny with undisguised contempt. “Who’s the bitch?” Beanie said, sneering. Before Brady could answer, Johnny abandoned his already-tense acting and stepped into Beanie’s chest, who pushed him back roughly. “Oh, you’re a tough guy. 300 pounds of shit I be kicking down the river,” Beanie said.
“Fuck off,” said Johnny, pushing back. Brady stepped between Beanie and Johnny before it could go any further.
“Two assholes,” Brady said. “Every stupid man ends up in monkey mind, like he ain’t got sense.” Brady rubbed his chin.
“The fuck, Brady?” Beanie said.
“It’s a Zen thing. You’re trying to calm your center and here comes a dude in monkey mind, got all sorts of stuff in his brain, dunno whether to shit or go blind. You got to chill, Beanie.” Brady pushed Beanie and Johnny back, one hand each on their shoulders
“And this fuck?” Beanie said, stepping back. “This your woman’s man.”
Brady held his breath for a moment, then blew it out. “He ain’t nothing to stew about, Beanie. Check yourself. And Johnny. She ain’t my woman. I’m just helping her.”
“I was just leaving,” Johnny said, shooting his cuffs as if he wore a suit. It was better to go when no one’s pride had gotten too chippy. He’d have to be more careful next time. And there would be a next time. “Gentlemen,” he said, and left his half-full bottle on Brady’s table. Outside the darkness grew, and so did his anger.
Johnny drove home with one hand on the wheel and the other clamped on a whisky bottle he’d brought from under the seat between his legs. At every stop sign he’d take a pull, and in the 45 minutes it took him to get home, he’d gotten pretty well toasted. All the lights were off in their modular home except the one in Sylvia’s room. Willie looked like he’d trampled Dora’s flowers, all dirty nose and energy.
Once inside, he yelled to Sylvia. “I’m home.” Sylvia came out from her bedroom, a petite girl with hair just beginning to show roots from the black dye she normally put in it. She snapped on the light as Johnny sat down heavily, whisky slopping on the sofa.
“You seen Mom?” Sylvia said. She crossed her arms.
“Nope. She’s with Brady now. I don’t know when or if we’ll see her.” He took a pull from the bottle. “You eat yet?”
“I already had a bowl of cereal. I didn’t know when you’d be home.”
“Give me a minute,” Brady said, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “I’ll boil some hot dogs and pierogies. You need more than cereal.”
“It’s fine, Dad. I’m fine.” A long moment passed between them, during which Johnny took another sip. Just like that, he’d gotten drunk. “Aren’t you going to go get her?” Sylvia said.
“It’s not that easy if she doesn’t want to come,” Johnny said. He stood up and weaved toward the kitchen.
“But why?” Sylvia said. “What does Brady have that you don’t? I mean, I’m here too. Does she not want to see me?”
“She’ll be home to see you. Right now, she can only see Brady. And what he has, darlin’, is dispensable income.”
“You mean disposable income?”
“Exactly.” He opened the bag of pierogies and dumped it into a pot, ran water over the top.
“You’re supposed to boil the water first,” Sylvia said.
“This way works too,” Johnny said. He put a coffee cup under the Keurig and threw in a pod of Dunkin’. Then the button wouldn’t work. He sighed.
“So what are you going to do?” Sylvia sat down at the kitchen table and worried at a strand of hair. She needed a trim.
“I already did it. Went to see Brady Bragg at the bar.”
“Did you beat him up?”
“No.” Johnny sat down at the table across from Sylvia and laced his fingers behind his head, trying to force his mind steadier.
“A lot of reasons, some of them good. If he kicks my ass, who’s going to take care of you now that your mother’s gone?”
“Good point. I still wish you’d tried though.” Sylvia got up and stirred at the pierogies with a wooden spoon.
“I wish I’d tried too,” Johnny said. “It wasn’t the right time.”
“So you’re going to get him?” She turned to face him.
“In my own way, yep.” Johnny stood up, weaving a little. “Those done yet?”
Sylvia dug the sour cream out of the refrigerator and put some pierogies in a bowl for each of them, with a heavy dollop on top. They ate in silence, listening to the wind in the branches outside the screened kitchen window. In the distance Johnny imagined he heard the roar of glasspaks and saw in his mind Brady Bragg laid out on the hood of his fancy Mustang like a gutted deer. The thought gave him passing satisfaction.
Johnny woke five hours after he’d gone to sleep, ready to get to his job cleaning the strip mall offices of Kings Realty, Wetonawanda Savings and Trust, and most importantly, New Wings Psychotherapy, the place Dora worked. He’d managed to make it to work these past three weeks, but she hadn’t, taking a month off, according to her supervisor, under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Which left her a week to get her shit together, not that he was going to wait that long for her to make a decision between him and Brady Bragg. Needless to say, he didn’t believe Brady. They were together. Johnny showered under a roaring head of steam, shaved and laid out a banana and a packet of Quaker Oats for Sylvia when she awoke.
The Dart started with a roar—good bones, that car had, but a Bondo body—and he pulled out of the pitted dirt driveway for the trip into town. When he got in, he pulled a ring of keys off his belt and opened the utility office, pushed the cleaning cart down the strip.. Kings Realty didn’t take long; he only had to pop the trash bags off their cans and vacuum the rugs, wipe down the phones and the glass front door. The Savings and Trust took somewhat longer. He needed a key and a key card both. The electronic front door locks and the loss prevention system didn’t work together, and more often than occasionally he’d have to call and wake the grumbling manager to come down and reset the alarm before the state police showed up, guns drawn. Today, luckily, was not one of those days, though some fucking joker had left two leaky garbage bags on the floor that he had to haul out the back door and down the short hallway to the Dumpster, then scrub the carpets.
This left New Wings. He squeegeed the front window and door first, then opened the lock and emptied the recycling and refilled the tissue boxes in each separately locked and keyed door, squirted sweet-smelling sanitizer in the bathroom pot and swirled it around with the toilet brush. Dora’s office door had a poster of an Amazon rainforest. Inside, it smelled like chrysanthemums, and glossy photos of Sylvia covered a corkboard over her desk. Hang in there, a cute little monkey said, dropping by a red ribbon from the side of her ancient computer. He sighed and looked around. For a sentimental woman, she didn’t show it when he came into the picture, or more accurately, the lack of pictures. He couldn’t see any reflection of himself anywhere in Dora’s office except in the trash he emptied and the community refrigerator he cleaned. He traced her desk blotter and came to the five days a month she affixed with a red X to denote her period. There weren’t any marks for the last month. A penciled line offset the margin with two phone numbers. Johnny pulled out his phone and entered both of them as Numbers A and B. He supposed that was something she must have considered before she’d FMLA’d with Brady Bragg. He locked the doors behind him.
Outside, under the overhang, he hauled a hand truck filled with six flats of soda and water. He keyed open the two soda machines at once—no one here to complain at this hour—and begin filling the slots two cans at a time until he’d finished. Finally, he’d swept the concrete frontage and emptied the two huge trash receptacles at either end and the smaller one at the sidewalk entrance. By then Betty from the bank had pulled into the back, waved to Johnny, and walked around to the front to let herself in. Johnny had finished for the morning. He pulled a warm soda from the flats stored in the utility office and sat on the concrete. It was time for his unofficial government job, watching for speeders and looking for Brady Bragg and the other small-time dealers to make a mistake.
State Trooper Arnold Fritz had clued him in to this job one night after he’d come in to rent Hookers and Blow for the third time in a month. Johnny handed him a ten and a five back from his twenty—nobody worried about change— and they’d gotten to talking, no one else in the place.
“Got a job for a guy who can keep his mouth shut,” Fritz had said, toothpick hanging out of his mouth, moving up and down against his yellow teeth as he sucked at it. “Pays 20 bucks an hour, maybe 20 hours a week, varying hours. In fact, once you learn the job, you could pretty much call it any way you see fit.” Johnny thought of the extra money he could make in his off hours.
“I’m listening,” Johnny had said. Fritz sat with him a few times to teach him the ropes, and it wasn’t as if Johnny didn’t know the criminals in town already. “All right,” Johnny had said to himself. “All right.” And so it was. In no time he was sitting on service roads and in certain alleys, visiting the truck stop on 14 and the other adult bookstore, making note of who broke the limit and who sold the speed, all so Fritz could come in when the criminals got lazy and make the bust that would satisfy his superiors and kick him up the line into a cushier job and a better assignment. No one wanted to stay in Wetonawanda for very long.
Later that afternoon Johnny waited for Brady Bragg to come and make his daily run to Wheaty’s. In the meantime, he kept alternating his thumb between Number A and Number B on his phone. Number B was a 607 area code, purchased somewhere in neighboring New York state, so he decided to try it first. He pushed the button and after a few moments a man picked up. “Brady,” the man on the other end said. “Who’s this?” Johnny groaned at the voice and thumbed it off. Fucking Brady.
Just in case push came to a motherfucking shove, Johnny had a five-gallon can of gas in the trunk and an old lockable Zippo lighter stashed in his pocket. Before he pushed Number A, he brought the Zippo out and set it on the seat next to him.
Johnny managed to clock the sixteen-year-old Vanderpool kid doing a smoking 110. He put a double check next to Vanderpool. The fourth time he’d noted him this month. He’d be off the road soon via Fritz or via accident. Around four in the afternoon, just as it started getting dark, Brady Bragg came roaring through at his usual 90 miles per. No one followed him today. Brady got out of the car in the Wheaty’s parking lot, and he had a woman with him. And a girl. Sonofabitch. Dora. Johnny angrily pushed Number A. A business-like pleasant woman answered the line. “McKinley Fertility Center,” she said. “How may I help you?” Oh God.
“Can I speak with Dora Piper?” he said hesitantly.
“You just missed Ms. Piper,” the woman said. “Now what was your name again?” Johnny thumbed off the line and contemplated what he had learned.
The three of them disappeared into Wheaty’s. Johnny guessed they were going to eat dinner. Wagh. Brady had taken his wife, now he would take his daughter too? Not hardly. Brady walked down the road, gas can banging against his thigh, tire tool in his off hand. He took the half-mile of road as quickly as he could. Seven or eight cars and a couple trucks remained in the driveway with Brady’s Mustang. He walked over quickly and smashed in the driver’s side window of Brady’s ride and opened up the car. It took only seconds to douse the leather interior. Johnny backed up and threw the lit locked Zippo into the car where it exploded into a tiny poof of flame that grew larger and larger by the moment. With it, Johnny felt his hopes for a happy family from these ashes grow modestly too.
When the car had taken off sufficiently, he walked inside, the tire iron still in his hand. Dora and Sylvia and Brady sat at a back table, eating cheeseburgers and fries. Nobody at the table looked comfortable, and it took Johnny only a sad moment to realize he’d irrevocably fucked it up.
“It’s not what you think.” Brady looked up at him, a weary look of resignation in his eyes, then at the tire iron. “But you know that don’t you? What the fuck do you want then?” Brady said.
Johnny swallowed. “Wanted to tell you,” he said softly. “Your car is on fire.” Just then an explosion shook the room to cries of astonishment and alarm from the patrons. Brady leapt up and rushed outside. Two of three people followed him excitedly.
“Johnny,” Dora said, her eyes filling. “I wanted to have a baby. But you.” She left the sentence unfinished. All around them the restaurant emptied. A swell of noise came through the door, and the smell of burning gas, an undertone of leather. The sound of sirens in the distance.
Sylvia blinked back tears too. “Oh Daddy, that car meant the world to him.” she said. “What did you do that for?”
Copyright © 2021 Rusty Barnes.
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KRAJ THE ENFORCER
Available at Shotgun Honey Books