Fiction Schmiction

Poole’s Paradise: Excerpt

by John Vorhaus

Poole's Paradise

0.  Waffles

“Shut up! At the end of the day, can you not just shut the hell up?”

He grinds a knee into my back and jams both guns against my head.

“Here’s the deal, Poole, final terms: Speak again and I will blow your brains through this floor. What do you think about that?”

I say nothing.

“No? Nothing to add to the conversation? No clever observations? No bon mots? Good. Let’s see how long you can hold it.”

Well, how long can I hold it?

Trouble is, the longer I stay silent, the more unstable the situation becomes, and unstable situations with guns have to make you nervous. Plus, this guy can be talked to. I know that. Chilling him out and keeping him chilled out have already saved my ass more than once. But now he’s taken away my weapon, because how can my mouth save my ass when the next word I utter will end me?

Unless the next word is waffles.

Waffles? It’s true, unbelievable but true. The word that can save my life is waffles. I don’t even have to speak it, only mouth it.

But I don’t rush into it, because this is another egg I can’t  unbreak, and if it goes wrong, then that’s game over for Poole. Just a minute ago, I’d said that I wouldn’t mind dying – the boast that got these two guns to my head in the first place. But is it true?

Can I save myself?

Dare I risk it?

No time to dither.

The situation is unstable.

But all it takes is a word…

1.  The Low Spark

I turned off the ceiling light and placed my trusty Koss Pro 4aa headphones over my ears. In an instant their thick foam cushions cancelled out the horrible gacky sounds of Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” coming from a stereo down the hall.

Disco, God help us. How fast did that catch on?

I lifted the smoked plastic lid of my manual play Pioneer turntable and carefully cued up Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” I cranked the volume on my Nikko 5050 receiver, lay back on my narrow bed and fired up a joint. Not for the first time – more like like every time – I tried to penetrate the lyrics of the song.

We were children once, playing with toys

and the thing that you’re hearing is only the sound

of the low spark of high heeled boys

What’s a high heeled boy anyway? What’s a low spark? A quiet revolution, maybe? Something that sneaks up on you and messes with you and you don’t even know. That’s what I need, I thought. I need to be lit by a low spark.

My roommate came in, Donny (occasional Donald, never Don) Dawkins. He turned on the light and stood over me wearing an expression of harsh disapproval. He was thickset: not fat, but chunky; what we used to call husky when I was a kid. A struggle of muttonchops framed his round face, along with an enormous Jewfro. He loved that big nimbus, thought it made him look cool beyond cool.

I thought it made him look like Angela Davis.

I lifted one ear cup and said, “What?”

He wagged his finger at me sternly. “Alexander Poole, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you are not to smoke marijuana in this room we share,” he paused, then added as I knew he would, “without sharing.” He plucked the remaining half a joint from my ashtray and lit it up, then went to my stereo. “What are we listening to? Wait, let me guess. Traffic?” He briskly unjacked my headphones and listened for a second to place the song. “I knew it. You are in such a rut. You’ve played this record every day since we got back to school. Let’s play some Led Zep.”

“And listen to Robert Plant screaming like he fell off a cliff? No, thank you.”

“Have it your way, but enough of this.” He lifted the turntable lid and pawed the tonearm off the LP.

“Hey, be careful with that.”

“Relax, Audio Joe, I know how to handle a record.” This he convincingly disproved by jamming the record into its sleeve and racking it among my LPs in some completely random place. He examined my albums with familiar disdain. “God, you have some lame taste.” I wasn’t insulted by this. That was just Dawk, how he was. He pulled out Countdown to Ecstasy and said with exaggerated relief, “Ah, Steely Dan, at last a band that doesn’t completely blow. You know they’re named after a dildo, right?”

“Which you only mention every time you say Steely Dan.”

“True. I beat a dead horse. By the way, speaking of dildos – ”

“Were we speaking of dildos?”

“Son, we don’t speak nearly enough about dildos. You know what I just figured out about them? What they represent?”

“No, tell me. What do dildos represent?”

“Horny women. For every dildo sold, there’s a women out there somewhere who wants to have sex. All we have to do is find them and convince them we’re better than a dildo.”

“Son,” I told Donny, “you’re going to have some trouble with that.”

“I’m telling you, this is big news. All this time we’ve been thinking of banging as something we want to do but chicks don’t. The dildos tell us we’re wrong.”

“’The dildos tell us we’re wrong,’ I could see that on a tee shirt.”

“And it would totally sell. But the question is, what are we to do with this monumental news? I will tell you: We are to take it out, son. This information, we are to take it to the world. To, specifically, the Rat, where I’m told there’s a honking blues band playing right now.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was planning to study.”

“Oh, was that before or after you listened to Low Farts for the jillionth time?”

“Shut up,” I said. “What’s the band?”

“Coincidentally, they’re called the Dildos.”

We jabbered back and forth for a moment, but the conclusion was foregone. I grabbed a sweatshirt and headed out into the night. You do that sometimes, just be a cork bobbing on the Sea of Dawkins. Interesting things can happen. Drunk things at least.

The search for the low spark could wait.

The dorm we lived in, Ira Lemke Hall, had been co-ed for a couple of years now, and I’d already learned that it’s not the nudity parade you might think. You get to watch a girl brush her teeth, big deal. That said, as Dawk and I walked out, we both looked back, as we both naturally would, for the girl who lived in a certain single on the second floor had been known to entertain gentlemen with the shade not drawn.

“No Layla,” sighed Dawk.

“No Layla,” I agreed.

We had no idea what her real name was. To us she would always be Layla, a rare, exotic bird we could label but never hope to catch.

In the topography of Cort College, where outlying hills of the Connecticut Berkshires turned everything into a gully or ridge, it often seemed like every building on campus was uphill from everywhere, even coming back. In the case of the Rathskeller, or Rat, in the basement of the James Cort Union, or U,  it was true. But the night had some bite to it and the uphill grind felt good.

The U was built into a hillside, and had the oddity of two ground-floor entrances, one on the west side, facing Memorial Plaza, and the other around back, two levels down. As we crossed the plaza we saw a scruffy dude standing there playing guitar and singing “Proud Mary.” He wore a beat leather cowboy hat, jeans and a pretty thin jacket. He played well enough and tried to put some soul into it, but you could tell he was mostly just cold. A German Shepherd lay at his feet, looking equally dolefully unwarm.

“Seen that guy before?” I asked Dawk after we passed.

“Huh-uh.”

“Weird he’s not playing for money.”

“Maybe it’s art.”

“’Proud Mary?’”

Dawk shrugged. “Cover art?”

We went inside, crossed to the back stairs, and dropped down to the Rat, near the back entrance. You always knew you were getting there before you got there, for the smell of stale beer and brutal cleanser never failed to greet you from below.

We got a pitcher and occupied a corner booth. This was the key to value at the Rat: think pitchers. The other key was Haffenreffer, the house beer and consistently cheaper than anything else. It tasted like pony sweat, but if you pounded it fast enough, eventually it would catch up to you.

I knew it had caught up to Dawk when he burst out of a contemplative silence with a loud, “Here’s one!”

“Here’s one what?”

“A thing. A thing I think I thought up. Listen,” he said intently, “boobytrap spelled backward is partyboob.”

“That is amazing,” I said. “I’m speechless at the amazingness of that.”

“As well you should be. Now you do one.”

“What? What are you talking about? I can’t just ‘do one.’ I’d have to be a freak like you.”

“As you like. But I don’t think the Beatles sat around all day saying, ‘Ooh, blimey, I can’t just do a bleedin’ song.’” He pouted out his lower lip. “’I don’t know ‘ow.’”

“Okay, first, that’s a terrible Liverpool accent. Never do that where people can hear.”

“And second?”

“What?”

“What?”

“You said first. What’s second?”

“What second? There’s no second. Shut up.”

I guess the ‘Reffer had caught up to me, too.

Dawkins sighed. “Still, though, that’d be cool.”

“What?”

“To be the Beatles of something. You should do that.”

“Do what?”

“Be the Beatles of something. You’d be good at it.” He waved vaguely at our empty pitcher. “Start with that. Be the Beatles of that.”

I picked up the pitcher and headed for the bar. It wasn’t a long trip, but long enough to think a few things through.

So how do you get to be the Beatles of something anyhow? Can you even think about it if you’re stuck up here in the Berkshires (or Buttshires or Berserkshires, as Cort kids call them)? So easy not to. When winter comes down, maybe all you want to do is stay in. Do your homework, play some cards, drink some, smoke some, go to classes, go to concerts, hang out. Next thing you know it’s summer and you have nothing to show for your year. Understimulated, that’s what I was. And I let myself get away with it.

This girl from Upper Volta changed all that. She was a counselor at my same summer camp, on exchange, and she flat couldn’t believe some of the classes I’d taken freshman year. “Sex in Cinema?” she asked, incredulous. In her country, the chance to sit down with a book, any book, in any sort of school setting, was almost unheard of. “And you waste on Sex in Cinema,” she said. “If were mine, this opportunity, I would not waste.”

Thank you, buzz kill.

I spent half the rest of the summer freaking out over My Wasted Life and the other half trying to get into the girl from Upper Volta’s shorts, with limited success. Back home in late August I stayed up late in my family’s copious New Jersey nest, mulling this very business. I wrote poetry into it: mawkish, self-conscious; it had to be destroyed, and it was. But she got under my skin, that girl. She made me want something to show for my time. She made me want the low spark.

Whatever the hell that was.

I climbed onto a stool and clacked my empty pitcher down on the bar. “I seek purpose,” I announced to the bartender with some ceremony. “But I’ll settle for a pitcher of beer.”

This earned a snerk from the girl sitting next to me. I turned to her and said, “What?”

“Nothing,” she said. “It was just funny.”

And that began Melanie, or Mel, which lasted a breathless three weeks, and then fell apart over this: Mel’s gonna be her own gal. That’s her rule, she’s decided, and no one’s moving her off it. Besides which, this bombshell –  she’s pretty much sure she doesn’t like boys anymore.

The breakup happened in the dining hall, during dining. I was talking about the upcoming Mott The Hoople show, riffing on the strangeness of bands’ names. “Moby Grape. Vanilla Fudge. And what the hell’s a Hoople?”

She interrupted me abruptly, saying, “I’m not going to that show with you, Poole.”

“Why not? What are you, some kind of Hoople hater?”

“No; we won’t be dating by then.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m breaking up with you now.”

“What? Why?”

“It doesn’t make sense. We don’t make sense.” That sounded like something Mel would say. Because the thing about Mel was – the decidedly admirable thing – she was just so level-headed. The whole brief time we were together I couldn’t get over how together she was. She didn’t have to be entertained. She could hang out, just sit in a room and read or do sketches. She wasn’t wide-eyed. She was solid. And philosophical. But she hated distractions, and had determined that, nice as I was, that’s what I was. Consequently, we were ended. She figured it was better to tell me now before our Motts got all Hoopled. “Don’t take it too hard, Poole. Everything beautiful dies. We can still be friends.”

“Can we still fool around?”

“Oh, my God, are you really asking me that?”

“Well, why not? It’s been pretty great. At least I think it has.”

“Really?”

“Want me to sing your praises? I will.”

“Go on.”

I thought about our lovemaking for a moment. In truth, Mel was the first regular partner I’d had, and compared to the harried fumbles that came before, well… “Well, for one thing, you’re very matter-of-fact.”

Mel cracked up laughing. “Oh, man, this is rich. Keep it up, bub, I’m going to enjoy being your ex.”

“Never mind, forget I brought it up.”

“No, no, go ahead. Sell me on matter-of-fact.”

“Well, you’re just…you’re not self-conscious, you know? You do what you want. You don’t play games. You make sex work.”

“Oh, God!”

“Not like that. I mean function, work well. I’ve been with plenty of women who don’t.”

“Plenty?”

“Well, a few. Plus me, I don’t do sex well at all.”

“You’re getting the hang of it. You have a promising future.”

“Just not with you,” I said, hangdog.

“No.”

“Well, there you go. I didn’t know that. I’ve never been broken up with before, not by someone I’m sleeping with. I don’t know the rules for exes. I do know what I want.”

“What’s that?”

“See you naked again.”

Melanie sighed. “Okay, Poole, here’s the real news.” That’s when she told me the thing about guys, about maybe being over them.

“How are you over guys?” I asked. Holy smoke, did I do that? Was I worse than a dildo?

“I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“I get it, I see. I have to tell you my dirty sexy secrets but you don’t have to share yours?”

Mel blinked. “No,” she said. “No, you’re right, that’s not fair. Okay, here’s the size of it. I always was a sexual girl. I wasn’t interested in boys, exactly, I just wanted my itch scratched. Boys were handy, boys were eager, and frankly the thought of girls never really crossed my mind. It wouldn’t, not where I grew up.” She paused for a moment, then went on. “So, I’ve been with boys. I’ve been with a couple of men. I didn’t like the men, they wanted to take control. The night you and I met, I made out with a girl for the first time.”

“At the Rat?”

“In the bathroom. In a stall. It was exciting. I wanted to go with her, but it seemed like such a radical change. I thought I’d give boys one last chance.”

“Which I blew.”

She took my hand. “You were fine. You’re a sweet dude, dude. You know how to be good to a person.”

“Great,” I said ruefully. “The man can show a lady a good time.”

“Not lady. Person. You’re good when you’re real, Alex. I think I would call it your strength.”

“So now what am I? Someone’s knight in shining armor?”

“No, man, someone’s lover. Real lover. You’ll find her. Just look for someone as real as you.”

“You’re real.”

“And I’m really looking forward to being your friend, but let’s not let the sex weird us out, huh? If we can do that, I think we’ll be okay.”

Just at that moment Dawkins blew in. He and Mel had become chums in these weeks. “What’s kickin’, kittens?” he asked.

“Melanie just told me she’s queer,” I said, then covered my mouth, mortified. “Was I not supposed to say that?”

“No, that’s you keeping it real,” said Mel. “And the technical term is lesbian, not queer.”

Dawkins nodded and said solemnly, “Like Alice B. Toklas.”

Mel slapped his head. “That’s all you’ve got? That’s the sum total of your knowledge on the subject of homosexuality? Dude, at least give me Stonewall.” She read his blank stare. “No? Okay, here’s your homework: Go read Alan Ginsburg and report back.”

“Hey, you’re not my teacher.”

“We’re all each other’s teachers, bub. Haven’t you figured that out?”

 

2.       Re-Grand Opening

I want to say this about Mel: She knew a thing or two about sex. Not everything, obviously, including where she stood, up to a point. That I happened to be that point was something I decided to take as a blessing, because now I too knew a thing or two about sex. Anyway, she made her choice and I couldn’t hold it against her.

So Saturday, November 2, 1974, found me reasonably mentally fit as I wandered around downtown Greenville, Connecticut, a backwater berg of no known note apart from having been home to Cort College these hundred years. It was a typical autumn day in southern New England, just cold and raw enough to call for my prized Poolian possession, a genuine army surplus coat with my own name – Poole – serendipitously stenciled on the pocket flap.

I had made my way to Waxx Traxx, a record store so woefully behind the times they were still flogging There Goes Rhymin’ Simon as a current release. Finding no new music to get excited about, I bought a Rolling Stone magazine with Evel Knievel on the cover and walked back out onto Canal Street, the angle-parked main drag vestige of Greenville’s past.

A few doors down a bright banner hung over a storefront, lettered with the words Re-Grand Opening, which, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make look right. Two big Peavey amps pumped Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” all over Canal Street. I recognized the store as Hill’s Hi-Fi, but you’d never hear Cream coming out of Hill’s. They were more of an Andy Williams joint, hawking the sort of big living room consoles your parents might buy, with built-in TV, speakers and a vile automatic record changer to violate your vinyl. Not cool. Not stereo at all.

Not there anymore. Not like it was. The  hokey old  hand-painted window treatments were gone, replaced with posters for all the top audio brands: Bose, Akai, Bang & Olufsen; JBL’s well-known Blown Away Guy sitting deep in his armchair, blasted by speakers so big and loud they blew his hair back.

A sign near the door read Campus Reps Wanted. No, really? In my experience, Greenville merchants treated Cort kids like lepers, like when you walked in it was assumed you were going to boost something. Now they’re looking for reps? What’s this, the Twilight Zone?

The store next door was a tailor shop of some kind, and the seamstress had stepped outside to glower at the racket coming from Hill’s. I guess Cream wasn’t quite to her taste.

But it sure was to mine.

I went in. The place had been completely revamped. All the crappy old consoles were gone, along with the 1950s fixtures and noisy ceiling fans. Everything was new and modern, ultra high tech, with charcoal carpet, black lacquer shelves and track lighting. In back I could see a small listening room with a couch and glass coffee table. Wow. When did Hill’s become this?

While the salesman was helping his customer, a pretty, skinny girl in a velour poncho and low-rise jeans, I checked out the stuff in the display case. Phono cartridges, needles, anti-static vinyl cleaning kits, a goodly selection. And blank tape, man, cases and cases of the good stuff, CrO2s, all brands, including the excellent BASF from Germany. I had been ordering cassettes through the Lafayette catalog but their prices sucked and they didn’t have BASF. If the prices on these babies were anywhere near decent, this was real news.

The salesman noticed me and called down the counter, “Be with you in a sec, sport. I’m just doing this lady.” The way he said “doing” made the girl react and look up, and she found him waiting with a wink. When he put her change in her hand, he lingered on her fingers until she got flustered and pulled them away. It was a fairly wolfish thing to do and I couldn’t tell if she minded or not. Both, it seemed. Her face was flushed as she walked out, but she was smiling, too. The salesman leered after her as he came around the counter to greet me.

I will tell you how I feel about leisure suits: I’m not a fan. This guy almost sold it, though. White web belt, elephant bells, chukka boots – it shouldn’t have worked but it did. He had kind of a feathered mod haircut, and wore blue-tinted glasses with wire frames. All in all, he looked pretty cool, although maybe a tad too trying-too-hard. “Now then,” he said. “What can I do you for, my man?”

“Nothing. I was just looking. I didn’t know you were here.”

“Well, here we are. You into stereo?”

“I guess.”

“Let me ask you a question. If you pumped full gain on a Marantz 2270 through a pair of small Panasonics, what kind of sound do you think you’d get?”

“None,” I said. “That amp would blow those speakers to smithereens.”

The salesman smiled and repeated, “My man.” He gave me some skin. “Wayne Collins.”

“Alex Poole.”

“Poole,” he said. “That’s crazy, you know, my mother’s maiden name is Poole.”

“Is that right?”

“Tell me, Poole, what are you rockin’ right now?”

“You mean what system?” He nodded. “Well, a Teac tape deck. A Nikko receiver. Pioneer turntable.”

“Which Teac?” he asked with some urgency.

“The 450.”

“Well, that’s a piece of shit, that’s got to go. You can keep the receiver for now – that Nikko’s a workhorse – we’ll see about the turntable later. What speakers?”

I said, “Harman Kardon,” and he furrowed his brow. “Is that a problem?”

“One thing at a time. Let me show you something over here.”

He guided me to a selection of cassette decks, all high-end, all completely gorgeous. I eyed them greedily and said, “These are great.”

“Oh, yeah, beautiful machines, all the latest brands. Onkyo, Sanyo, Aiwa. Sexy Japanese names. You’ve seen their ads, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. Know how expensive those ads are?”

“No.”

“Crazy expensive. That’s why these cost so much.” He gave them a dismissive wave and led me to the next shelf over. “Now these decks here, they’re just as good, often they’re made in the very same factory, but they don’t cost nearly as much. Why? No sexy name andno money wasted on ads. But this one…” He indicated a deck that didn’t have a brand name, just a tiny logo of three lower-case letters: xyz. “This one here kicks your tired old Teac’s ass.”

He went to press play, but gestured for me to do it instead. “Light touch,” he whispered. I barely tapped the play button and down it went on a smoothly damped solenoid.

“Nice,” I said.

“Good ol’ xyz.”

He drew me back a step and positioned me between two column-style loudspeakers, also xyzs. As I listened to the Eagles’ “Take it Easy,” it became clear to me that for the thousand times I’d heard the song, I’d never really heard it before. So clean, so crisp, every note sharp and clear, distinct, carved out and served up in slices.

“Amazing separation,” I said.

“You ain’t heard nothing yet,” said Wayne. “Come on in back.” He led me into the listening room and blew me away with Houses of the Holy.

“Wow,” I said. “I’ve never heard Led Zeppelin sound this good. Or even good.”

“Thanks,” said Wayne. “You know, I designed this room myself.”

“You’re kidding. You bought Hill’s?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “Not me, man. But it did get bought. The whole chain, all over everywhere. I’m just doing the re-grand opening.”

“Is that correct? Re-grand opening? I thought it was grand re-opening.”

“Grammatically, maybe, but…caught your eye, didn’t it? Anyway, when I’m done here I’ll leave it to some other poor schlep to run this store, and move on to the next one.”

“What a cool job. You’re like a commando. You parachute in.”

“That’s right, I’m SWAT, baby. Stereo weapons and tactics. So what about you? Are you a Cort kid or a townie?”

“Cort kid. You know about that?”

“Oh, me and Greenville go way back. Believe it or not, I actually worked in this very store ten years ago. Yeah, I know all about the never ending town-gown feud, but don’t worry: to me you’re cool.” He sniffed. “Can I tell you something, Poole? I’ve got a problem with the xyzs.”

“What problem? They’re fantastic.”

“Yeah, I know. But my boss doesn’t like it when I push ‘em. He says it makes the other brands look bad, pisses off their distributors. Which is a shame because the xyz people, they like me a lot. They give me the best goods at the best price. I could sell you a whole xyz system – turntable, speakers, receiver, tape deck – for under three hundred bucks.”

“That’s incredible,” I said. “That’s such a good deal.”

“How much you think Cort kids would pay?”

“Four hundred, easy. Maybe more.”

“Okay, good. Now, suppose I gave you the territory. Cort College, all yours, exclusively. You spread the word about the brand, find people who appreciate its quality. I sell you a system for three or so. You sell it to whoever for whatever. It’s a win-win situation. Your friends get a terrific deal on great sound, and you make a few bucks. What do you think?”

“You want me to be a stereo salesman?”

“Not salesman. Campus rep. It’s why you came in, isn’t it? I assumed you saw my sign.”

“No, yeah, maybe, I don’t know. I guess.”

“That’s some decisive shit you’ve got going there, Poole. Maybe you’re not right for this.”

“No, I am. I think I could be.”

“Okay, we’ll give it a go. But remember, this is strictly through you. Nobody hears the words Hill’s Hi-Fi.”

“Understood,” I said.

And just like that I was a stereo salesman. Sorry, campus rep.

Dawk thought it was pretty funny, and wasted no time calling me a suit-and-tie guy and a sellout. I told him it was nothing like that. I’d put up some fliers, maybe go door to door in the dorms. No suit. No tie. Just a way to turn spare hours into loose change. Besides, if everyone’s my teacher, why shouldn’t I learn how to sell hi-fi?

Melanie saw it a different way. She was dating a girl now, and busy with classes, so she didn’t have much time to hang out. But we met the following Wednesday at the Magic Onion, a greasy little snack bar upstairs at the U, where you could score hot soup on a cold day and bad coffee anytime at all. When I told her about the xyzs, all she said was, “It sounds like a hustle to me.”

“What? You’re crazy.”

“A brand no one’s heard of? At prices too good to be true?”

“That’s overhead, low overhead.”

“Is that right?”

“It’s not a hustle. I heard the components. They sound great.”

“Yeah, because no one can make a stereo sound good in a stereo store.”

“Come on, Mel,” I said.

She must have heard something in my voice, because she backed off a bit. “Whatever, bub. I hope you sell a million zizzits or whatever.”

But she still tsked, and when she did, I said, “What? What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s just…sales, dude? Is that really what you want to do with your life?”

“Mel,” I said, “it’s just a gig. It won’t distract me when something better comes along. How’s your girlfriend, by the way?”

She said coldly, “That was dickish.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. But you hurt my feelings.”

“How?”

“You called me a sales dude.”

“See? That’s my point. You know the job sucks.”

“It doesn’t suck. And it won’t define me.”

“And it’s not a hustle, don’t forget.”

“And it’s not a hustle.”

Mel got up to go. “You’re lucky I like you, Poole.” She left, and I sat mulling for a bit. You sell a decent product at a decent price to people who want it and can afford it, I thought, that’s not a hustle, that’s just sales. And by the way, what’s so bad about sales? I had, I decided, nothing to apologize for, not to Mel or anyone.

Just the same, when I Xeroxed up fliers that Friday, I handed them out in dorms other than hers.

I started out way up-campus in Francoeur Hall, where I posted my flier on the dorm bulletin board and started knocking on doors.

Within fifteen minutes I was profoundly depressed.

Most everyone I talked to either already owned a stereo or didn’t want one. Pretty soon I started to feel like a jerk for intruding on strangers, disturbing their studies, trying to convince them that they needed something they hadn’t given two thoughts to before I showed up.

Then I made my first sale, to some kid with big birthday money and not a clue about hi-fi, and that made me feel good. The kid needed good gear and there I was to fix him up. Not the low spark, perhaps, but not nothing. I was performing a service at least.

I admit it didn’t occur to me that my service would extend to delivering the gear, but for that I just commandeered Donnie’s car, a green-on-other-green 1965 Dodge Dart Swinger with a coat hanger aerial and an ironically intended NIXON sticker, pasted upside down on the rear bumper to read NOXIN. “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am,” was the motto of the car known formally as Jean-Paul Dartre and informally as the Sphincter. Since I didn’t drive a manual transmission, I had to commandeer Donnie as well, but that was no problem. I just bribed him with weed.

We loaded the components into the car and delivered them back on campus. Funny thing, though, when I was setting up the kid’s system (didn’t realize I’d have to do that, too) I noticed that the tape deck wasn’t exactly the model Wayne had shown me in the store. It didn’t have those sweet solenoid controls for one thing, and for another it looked, I don’t know, kind of ticky-tack. I thought there must be some kind of mistake, so afterward I had Dawk drive me back to Hill’s to ask.

Wayne was just closing up shop for the day. When I told him about the deck, he said, “Oh, that, yeah. That was a lat-qual call.”

“A what now?” asked Dawkins.

“A judgment to substitute a product of lateral quality,” he in a sense recited. “Equal quality. Lat-qual. Just as good, but different.”

“But it’s not what he bought,” I said.

“Maybe it’s better.”

“It looked kind of cheesy.”

“Alex, Alex, listen to me: The work you’re doing now, it’s a craft. There’s nuance to it, lots of stuff you haven’t heard about yet. You Cort kids, you’re book smart, but not always people smart.” He got a faraway look in his eye, as if struck by an idea. “You know what?” he said, “You just closed your first deal, and that calls for a celebration. My treat.”

He headed off down Canal Street and we fell in beside him. When I saw where he was headed, though, to a dive called the Gunnison Inn, I pulled up short. “We can’t go in there,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Wayne. “You’re legal, right? Drinking age, eighteen?”

“It’s not that,” I said. “The Gunnison’s a townie joint.”

“So.”

“So Cort kids get hassled in there.”

“Yeah, well, working stiffs don’t,” said Wayne. “And that’s what you are now.” He threw his arms around us both and guided us inside. “Come on, ladies, no one’s getting hassled on my watch.”

It was just past five, and a thin after-work crowd sat in a lonely row at the bar, drinking shots and beers and paying no attention to the Hartford Whalers on TV. The place reeked of cigarettes and dishwater, but no one seemed the least inclined to harsh their mellow over us. They were stuck in the gloom, frozen, like statues. No, gargoyles.

Donnie and I found a four-top while Wayne went off to make a quick phone call. He came back with beer, long-neck Carling Black Labels. “First sale,” said Wayne. We toasted like the Three Musketeers. “You know why we do that?” he asked. “Clink bottles and such?”

“Superstition?” asked Dawk.

“No. It’s a sign of goodwill. Like shaking hands shows a stranger that you’re unarmed, when you touch bottles it’s as if to say, ‘I could, but choose not to, bash you over the head with this.’”

“Really?” asked Dawk.

Wayne fixed Dawk with his most sincere gaze. “Really,” he said. Then, a second later, he added, “Or not.”

“Wait? Which is it?”

“Why, it’s the truth. Or something I make sound like the truth. One or the other. Because, see, this is what I’m saying. This is the nuance. Master the nuance and you master the craft. In the case of the lat-call qual – ” He laughed self-consciously. “That’s hard to say. Maybe I should call it something else.”

“You made that up?” I asked. “It sounded official.”

“What, you mean like company policy or something? ‘In thus and such a circumstance you are authorized to make a lat-qual call’?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s nuance. The way I make it sound important is what makes it sound important. Then nobody questions it.”

“Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Exactly. Now you got it, man. You got the nuance.” I wasn’t entirely sure I did. “Dudes,” Wayne continued, “I’ll tell you a secret: If you can’t be right, be loud. If you’re loud enough long enough, you’ll appear to be right.”

“What, just by shouting your opinion?” asked Donnie.

“Stating it with conviction, yeah. Backing it up with authority. Fake authority if you have to. You guys write term papers?”

“Ugh, yes,” said Dawk.

“What’s the worst part?”

“Counting the words.”

Wayne said, “For me it was research. Such a waste of time, scouring the library to find scholarly authorities whose points of view matched mine. Bullshit, right? So I started making it up.”

“What?”

“Quotes, sources, authors, books, the whole nine yards. Fake footnotes, fake bibliography. Never got caught, not once.”

“That’s pretty ballsy,” I said.

“Not really,” said Wayne. “I ‘stated with conviction,’ so no one had any doubt. Which brings us back to nuance.” He turned to Dawk and asked, “What was your name again?”

“Donnie Dawkins.”

“No shit? My mother’s maiden name is Dawkins.”

“No it isn’t,” I said. “You told me it was Poole.”

“I did. And how did that make you feel?”

“I don’t know, like we had some kind of connection?”

“Exactamundo. And that’s what called nuance.”

“It’s kind of called lying,” I said. “Isn’t it?”

“If you want to look at it through that narrow a filter. But let me ask you this: When you’re out trying to sell a stereo, what stands in your way?”

“All kinds of stuff. They don’t have the dough. Their parents won’t let them. They already have one and don’t need a new one.”

“They think they don’t need a new one. And if you tell ‘em they do, are you lying or just voicing a different opinion?”

“Opinion, I guess.”

“Opinion indeed. Look, guys, sales is nothing more than persuading someone that your opinion is right. But so is a lot of life. Getting a job. Getting a raise. If you want to sleep with a girl, but she doesn’t want to sleep with you, that’s a difference of opinion. How you navigate that difference determines whether or not you get laid.”

Wayne was feeling pretty up himself just then, and I guess he had reason to, because what he said made a perverse sort of sense, at least if you wanted to justify lying. The situation changed in a hurry, though, when a barrel-chested voice boomed, “Hello, Wayne,” and we all looked up to see this incredible mountain of a man, easily 6’3” or 6’4”, and easily filling to capacity his XXXL overalls. He had a big pumpkin head, jug handle ears and Popeye forearms, minus the anchor tattoos. When he clapped his massive hand around Wayne’s neck, it looked about as welcome there as a boa boa.

“Hey, Mouse,” said Wayne in a voice that sounded like it didn’t want trouble. “This here is Alex and Don. Alex, Don, this is Mouse.”

“Donnie,” said Donnie. “Not Don.”

Mouse looked us over. “Cort kids?” he asked.

“We go to Cort, yeah.”

“My sister dated a Cort kid.” He cracked his knuckles expressively. “That ended.” Then he rapped Wayne on the top of his head, kind of a humiliating gesture that Wayne suffered in unhappy silence. “Tonight, yeah, asshole?”

“I don’t think it can be tonight.”

Mouse bent down and brought his mouth close to Wayne’s ear. I thought he might bite it off. “Kip says tonight.”

Wayne stared at the table top. “I’ll do what I can.”

“Yeah you will.” Mouse stood up. He feinted a fist at Dawk’s face and Dawk almost flinched off his chair. “Cort kids,” chuckled Mouse. He lumbered out of the bar, causing seismic disturbance.

No one said anything for a while. We just sipped our beers. At last Dawkins said, “That’s quite a big fellow. I suppose he got his name from his size. Ironic intent and all that?”

“No,” said Wayne distractedly. “He once ate a mouse.”

“Is this more nuance?” I asked.

“No, it’s true. He ate a mouse. A live one. On a dare. Then he kicked the shit out of the guy who dared him.”

“Who was that?” asked Dawk. “Kip?”

“No. Not Kip.”

“Well, who’s Kip?”

“Not your concern.” Wayne stood up,  looking pretty stressed. “And be glad for that.” All his airs about craft and authority seemed to have been moused right out of him. “I have to go.”

He left. And then it was just the two of us, drinking in a townie bar like a couple of regular raggies – that’s what townies call themselves, but if you’re a Cort kid who says it, watch out. In the event, no one bothered us with our beers, or even our boldly bought second round.

For sure there’s this big rivalry or disdain between townies and us, one that goes way back, but there in the Gunnison I got that probably most townies didn’t give a rat’s ass about us. Too busy with their shots and beers, you know? Too busy living their lives. Still, Cort kids got hassled and messed with generally, that’s a fact.

I took a matchbook on the way out: red, with a drawing of a drunk clinging to a lamppost. My big Townie treasure. I stuck it in the pocket of my army jacket and felt some percent cool.

We dropped in on Mel.  She was now keeping company with this Kim, a waiflike wonder with dark, sad eyes who sat on a futon in Mel’s apartment and said little. We told Mel of our grand adventure in the Gunnison and speculated avidly about what mysterioso business could bring together a hipster like Wayne and a mayonnaise badass like Mouse.

“It’s probably drugs,” offered Dawk. “What else could it be?”

“It could be other things,” I said. “Stolen stereo? Wayne’s a stereo guy.”

“What do you care?” interjected Mel.

“Huh?”

“It’s their concern, man, not yours. Leave it alone.”

Dawk said truculently, “What’s your problem, man?”

“You,” she said. “You two. The way you’re getting off on this. You’re all agog because you think shit’s going down.”

“Shit is going down,” Dawkins said. “It’s interesting.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s going down.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Christ, Mel,” said Dawk, “if Columbus had your attitude, he’d never have left Spain, and we’d all still be living in wigwams.”

“Your ignorance astounds me, fool.”

“Yeah? Well, for your information, the world doesn’t end at Campus East Gate. And townies don’t bite.” He snatched up his coat. “You coming, Poole?”

“I’ll be along.”

“Suit yourself.” He took off. I thought Mel was being unnecessarily harsh, but also she was right. We were agog; anyway, I was.

Mel, meanwhile, must’ve felt bad about going off on Dawk, for she said to me, “Guess I struck a nerve, huh?”

“We were just horsing around,” I said. “It’s fun to speculate.”

Mel looked at me and said sternly, “Poole, man, don’t be distracted by this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I see that light in your eye. You think this is exciting, this is that ‘real life’ you’re looking for.”

“I suppose. I admit it has my attention.”

“Well, that’s bullshit. You’ve got to stick your nose out of this right now. It’s bad enough you’re a salesman, now you want to be a thug?”

“I never said I wanted to be a thug.”

“I should hope not. You’re so much better than that.” She kissed my nose. “Go tell Donald I’m sorry. And stay out of trouble, you goof.” I guess that was my cue to leave, and also Kim’s cue to stand up and embrace Mel from behind. Mel turned to kiss her as they shut the door, and the sight of that unexpectedly floored me. I felt an ache I could barely contain, a desperate desire to be, like them, not alone.

Not fun.

Look, I knew Wayne was skeevy – you’d have to be a moron not to – but skeevy or not, wasn’t he still worth a look-see? And so what if he was a distraction? Couldn’t I use a distraction just then?

I felt like I could.

I walked myself into the night.

Poole’s Paradise is available now exclusively through Amazon.com

Excerpt: Lucy in the Sky

by John Vorhaus

THE ISNESS OF IT ALL…

A coming-of-age tale set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1969, Lucy in the Sky lightly touches on such weighty issues as the meaning of life, the purpose of art and the existence of God. For those interested in answers to The Big Questions or just keen to revisit a simpler time, Lucy in the Sky promises a fun and compelling trip – and that’s trip in every sense of the word!

Gene Steen is an earnest, intelligent, truth-seeking teen stuck in a suburban cultural wasteland. He wants to be a hippie in the worst way, but hippies are scarce on the ground in the forlorn Midwest of Gene’s 15th year. Then, propitiously on the Summer Solstice, his life is turned upside down by the arrival of his lively, lovely, long-lost cousin Lucy. She’s hip beyond Gene’s wildest dreams and immediately takes him under her wing. Lucy teaches Gene that being a hippie isn’t about love beads and peace signs, but about the choices you make and the stands you take. Yet for all her airy insights into religion, philosophy and “the isness of it all,” Lucy harbors dark secrets – secrets that will soon put her on the run, with Gene by her side.

Lucy in the Sky resonates of such classics as Summer of ’42 and Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and invites the reader into a richly detailed vision of the ‘60s, as realized by sure-handed prose and authentic sense of place and time. With frank talk about sex and drugs, Lucy pulls no punches about the realities of the era, yet delivers an uplifting message about personal power and the path to enlightenment. A rewarding read for young seekers and old geezers alike.

So here comes an excerpt, y’all.

oil and sterno more like

This story is about the summer my cousin Lucy came to visit, and since she’s the star of the show you should hear how she sounds.

“The space program, Gene? The space program? They’ve got a lot of nerve calling this dinky neighborhood we live in space. Say they do put a man on the moon, so what? That’s just one flyspeck next to another flyspeck, you know? You can’t touch the infinite with rockets. You gotta go inside your mind, Gene, all the way down to your soul. Look at it. Live it. You’ll find out. It’s big as everything. Now there’s your space program.”

And she looks…amazing. Copper is her favorite color. She has copper hair, copper hairpins, copper earrings, bracelets, finger rings, thumb rings, toe rings, copper, copper, copper. Go Lucy, go with your copper. Go with your peasant skirts which wherever you got them it sure wasn’t Sears. Go with your chunky heels and funky sandals. Go with your lace leggings, oh my God. Go with your ankh necklace, and the other one, the leaded red cut crystal octagon that gives me Lucy times eight when I look through it, her halter top times eight when I look through it, no bra times eight when I look through it, oh God, Lucy, you cripple me, you slay me, you do.

She tilts down her copper sunglasses and I feel her eyes burning into me. I know she’s reading my mind. She knows I lust for her bust. My cousin! But if I know Lucy, she’d just say something like, “They’re only secondary sex characteristics, Gene. If it gives you pleasure to look, look.” ‘Cause that’s how she talks. She doesn’t talk, she blurts. Blurts!

She and my dad, though, cats and dogs.

Oil and Sterno, more like.

You know how you know when you’re always right? Me neither, but my dad does, and Lucy does, too, but they can’t both be right, that’d be like matter touching anti-matter and blooey! So blooey it is on Nixon and Vietnam, and blooey on civil rights. Blooey on short skirts and long hair. Blooey on pot versus booze. Blooey on Andy Williams versus the Who. Blooey on whether she should call him Uncle Carl or just Carl because Lucy finds honorifics ageist and  classist, whatever those words mean. Blooey even on football versus baseball (barbaric versus boring and I say they’re both wrong). Blooey on everything because if she says black he says white, and that’s how the two of them are now. She’s under his skin. It’s really interesting to watch.

She’s under my skin. Been there since day one. Summer Solstice. Longest day of the year.

groovy discounts

I’m horsing around in my treehouse with Gilbert, who’s not as dorky as his name sounds, in fact he’s pretty cool. He kypes his brother Wade’s Playboys and Rolling Stones and brings them to the treehouse. He likes the cartoons in Playboy, like this one of a Girl Scout showing her cones and saying, “Well, if you don’t want any cookies, how about a nice set of cupcakes?” I like the music reviews in the Stone. Neil Young played last week at the Troubadour on the Sunset Strip. Man, what I wouldn’t give to be on the Sunset Strip. Or even anywhere, because everybody knows this is nowhere, this treehouse in Milwaukee or even anywhere in Milwaukee. And also nowhen because while it might be the 1960s where Mr. Neil Young lives, it sure as fudge isn’t here, not while I’m still getting my hair cut by Luigi the homuncular barber, and my clothes come from, yep, Sears, and a big night out for the Steen clan is eating at the Jolly Pop Drive-In and seeing Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.

(And not while I’m still saying fudge instead of fuck. You know?)

So it’s Saturday, June 21, 1969, here at the corner of nowhere and nowhen, the first day of summer and the first day of summer vacation and less than a week until I turn fifteen. “Hair” by the Cowsills is playing on WOKY, the Mighty 92, on the bulky brown transistor radio I keep up here in the treehouse. Being almost fifteen, I’m almost too old for a treehouse, but I’m kind of calling it a clubhouse now, or even a redoubt, which is a word I learned for hideout or lair. I know words. I like learning them. Plus geography, geology, biology, psychology. I’ve always been a pretty good student, not because I’m trying to earn Brownie points, but just because I dig it. Though more and more these days I can’t help feeling like I’m learning the wrong stuff, the stuff that doesn’t matter. Where’s the stuff that does?

So lair. I’m in my lair. Listening to “Hair,” “Hair” in my lair. But keeping the volume down though, because Dad’s down there mowing the lawn and Dad doesn’t like rock and roll, though how the Cowsills are rock and roll I don’t know. I mean, they’re not exactly radical, are they? They even wear the same clothes, and in my opinion, no one can really be rock and roll if they wear the same clothes, not since the Beatles cut it out. But this nicety is lost on my dad. If it isn’t anciently old, it isn’t music to his ears. And it’s nonsense, what he listens to. I mean, granted, “Hey Jude don’t make it bad” is hardly Walt Whitman or even e.e. cummings, but on the other hand, “Flat foot floogie with a floy floy?” What the hell’s a floy floy?

Rolling Stone has a thing on when Jim Morrison flashed his wiener at this concert in Miami last winter. I would like to’ve been there. Not that I’d want to see the Lizard King’s wiener, but still.

It’s already hot, summer hot, but not humid like it’ll get. Come August I’ll be totally broasting, sleeping naked in my bedroom in the ovenlike upstairs of our house, with the windows open and the sheets thrown back and the ceiling fan squeaking loudly on its cruddy ball bearings and me wishing it would at least have the decency to suck up a mosquito or two. Now, though, it’s still okay. Hot for sure, but not oppressive, and the maple and oak trees up and down both sides of the street make pools of cool shade on the concrete slab sidewalks and the lush green lawns that front all the cream colored brick two-story homes.

My lair looks almost straight down on the street. If you wanted, you could chunk water balloons on the roofs of passing cars. Or heave ones at Dad as he mows, an act of D’Artagnian rebellion that would never in a million years have crossed my mind during these last five minutes of my life before Lucy arrives. Right now I’m let’s face it quite a square, a rebel without a clue. I don’t smoke dope or even coffin nails, or curse or shoplift, and I even still enjoy Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, though I know it’s not cool to admit it. I’m not cool, I admit it. I even have a very not cool name. Gene. Eugene Montgomery Steen.

I mean, come on.

But there’s a streak in me. Iconoclast, I guess you’d call it, or maybe just weirdo. Anyway, I like to do dumb things if I get the chance. Like, here was my school science project from last year: “How Stupid Are Science Projects?” It was a joke, because actually I like science, but serious too, because I did it like you’re supposed to, all scientific method and such. I took a survey, correlated the results and reported my conclusions, supported by pie charts, bar graphs and good ol’ Venn diagrams. I even had control questions like, “How stupid is Gomer Pyle?” (A hundred percent stupid, hence the control.) Sixteen percent of adults surveyed thought science projects were stupid. Ninety-three percent of kids did. I should have called it, “How Stupid Are Adults?” but anyway.

So I’m up in the air in my lair when I notice this VW microbus coming down the street. “Hey, Gilbert,” I say, “check it out. Hippie van at six o’clock.” I don’t know if six o’clock is actually the direction I’m looking, but I know from the TV show Twelve O’Clock High that twelve o’clock high is straight ahead and up, so I know it can’t be that. Maybe it’s six o’clock. Maybe it’s 7:23. Anyway, here comes this big beater of a van with a bumblebee black and yellow yin yang painted on the front, and trust me, hippie vans don’t roll down streets like mine every day, or even any day ever. So this is news.

Gilbert slides over and we peer down through the redoubt’s redwood rails at the microbus, which is riding low on bald tires and belching sooty uncombusted gas, and just couldn’t look more out of place in this neighborhood of Dodge Darts and Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers. But it catches my eye because it looks hippie and anything that looks hippie catches my eye these days, even the ads in the Milwaukee Sentinel which have lately started sticking flowers and peace signs into the graphics and offering “groovy discounts” on dinette sets. I know it’s bogus, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. I’m like a moth to a flame with hippie stuff because this is Milwaukee and when I tell you that flowers and peace signs in newspaper ads are about as hip as this place gets, I’m not exaggerating all that much. But I’m so hungry for it, man. I mean, imagine you’re a caveman eating raw mastodon and you hear that some other guys somewhere have been farting around with something called fire. You don’t know what fire is, but you hear it does awesome things to meat. You’d naturally want to try it. You’d crave to. That’s the way I feel. I’m a caveman living in a cultural cave and I’m getting sick to death of eating raw mastodon, which, yuck.

Then the van does something I’d never expect it to do, not in a million lifetimes. It stops right in front of my house. No vans like this ever stop in front of houses like mine. It might as well be a spaceship.

Well, in a sense you could say it is. It surely contains an alien.

maryjane virgin

The van knocks and pings as the driver driving it shuts it off. This draws Dad’s attention. He looks over at the microbus, but keeps pushing the push-mower because he’s a dog with a bone with that lawn, it’s his joy and pride. Last year when Milwaukee was considering banning phosphate in fertilizers, Dad stocked up. On that and DDT, too, which he filled a whole back room of his hardware store with, because he feels about bugs like he feels about crabgrass: Enemy! Die! Now he’s got enough banned pesticides to keep his lawn going through Armageddon, and that makes him happy.

What doesn’t make him happy is hippie vans parked at his curb and though he’s still got the  push-mower going whiska-whiska, he’s got an eye on the van, too, possibly sizing it up for a good dose of DDT just in case. Then the side door slides open, squeaking on rusty rollers, and a big, metal-frame backpack flies out and thuds on what they call the parkway, the strip of city grass between the sidewalk and curb (which Dad tends grudgingly because its city property and they should care for it but he’ll be, and I’m quoting here, “good Goddamned” if he’ll let any part of his cherished domain be an eyesore, you betcha).

The science project I didn’t do last year was “Does Heat Really Rise?” which my teacher, the dreaded Miss Buchanan, rejected because of course heat rises and she said I could do better than that if only I Applied Myself, which led to “How Stupid Are Science Projects?” which she even had to give me a good grade on because after all I did do the work. But heat does rise, this we know, and smells rise with it, which is why I smelled burning oil and the reek of brakes and cooked anti-freeze coming off the van, and then when the door opened something else that the news magazines like to describe as “sickly sweet,” but I think is more like sage gone bad.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Gilbert who, so far as I know, is a maryjane virgin like me, but we both spent enough time in the boys’ room in junior high to know the difference between cigarettes, which everybody smokes, and dope, which only the Afro-Americans and the drama kids smoke. I shushed Gilbert and we crouched down lower, because between the hippie van and the pot smell and the backpack flattening Dad’s precious Perennial Ryegrass (even if it was city property), I sensed that the situation could get edgy. Dad took a couple of steps toward the street, stopped, put his hands on his hips and just radiated disapproval. It’s easy to know when Dad’s angry, his shoulders scrunch. And he hates hippies like a cat hates baths.

I saw a foot first, then another, both wrapped in strappy sandals that crisscrossed the calves all the way up to the knees. Then came the hem of a calico sundress fluttering in the June breeze, and then the rest of her, all willowy arms, jangling bracelets, suede leather handbag and  giganzo lavender floppy felt hat. In a voice kind of husky but also sort of lilty, she said, “Thanks for the lift, dudes,” and blew some kisses back into the van. She closed the door behind her and the van labored off. Then she took off her hat and shook out her gorgeous unstoppable copper colored hair, letting it fly free.

Can you fall in love with the top of a head? I kind of think you can.

Gilbert gawks. I gawk. Dad gawks, but not in a good way as it dawns on him that for some utterly inexplicable reason, this chick thinks that wherever she’s going, she’s there. He steps forward to disabuse her of that notion PDQ. “Can I help you?” he says, which doesn’t sound at all like can I help you except if he means can I help you go away?

“Uncle Carl?” she asks, but from the way she says it, almost a squeal, you know she doesn’t think it’s a question. She beams him a smile you can see from space.

“Yes, I’m Carl. Who are you?”

The girl acts surprised. “What do you mean who am I? I’m your niece, Lucy.”

At this point she kind of dances past him and pirouettes around on the lawn, just happy to be out of the cramped confines of the microbus, I guess. We already know how Dad feels about his lawn, so he’s not likely liking this very much, but he likes it a whole lot less when she dances back to him, throws her arms around him and gives him a big hug and a wet smooch on the cheek. He recoils like she’s wrapped hot snakes around his neck. He doesn’t like to be touched. “Where’s Aunt Betsy?” Dad mutters something I can’t hear, and the girl says, “Great! I can’t wait to meet her!”

She bends over to pick up her backpack. I can see right down her dress.

I swear I see a nipple.

not a girl who misses much

I didn’t come down from my treehouse clubhouse redoubt hideout right away, because when I saw Lucy humping her backpack right across Dad’s lawn, and Dad huffing after her, totally leaving the lawn mower where it was, which was totally unlike him because you never know, you know, lawnmower thieves, I thought there might be some fireworks and like the sign says, “Have a safe and sane Fourth,” so I figured I was safer and saner up a tree. But then curiosity got the best of me, because who was this chick – this hippie chick! – and what was she doing at our house? And since I didn’t hear shouting or see things flying out windows, I thought I might safely do some recon. Just nonchalant, like. Like I’m just coming in for a Fresca after a sweaty morning of goofing around outside. I stop off in the garage and grab my baseball glove, an Eddie Matthews model I got for a birthday present last year, surely on discount for what’s the market for genuine Milwaukee Braves baseball gloves when the Betraves have moved to Atlanta? That’s the joke they told that summer, “Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee move to Atlanta.” It’s funny if you know that Schlitz calls itself the beer that made Milwaukee famous. Or you know what? No, not even then. But anyway funnier than, “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of town.”

Gilbert doesn’t want to come with me, partly, I think, to be alone in the treehouse with Little Annie Fanny.

Gilbert spanks it. I know he does.

So I walk around to the side of the house and go in through the back door, and here’s what I see in the kitchen: Mom standing at the counter, mixing a pitcher of frozen Minute Made lemonade, working that big wooden spoon to beat the band; Dad leaning against the Frigidaire, arms crossed, looking considerably irritated; my kid sister Katy sitting at the kitchen table, drawing, her legs swinging back and forth just off the floor; and this Lucy person wearing a very puzzled look, like maybe she just found out that Lake Michigan was made of lime Jell-O. “That’s odd,” she says. “That’s really, really, really weird. Are you sure you didn’t get my mom’s letter? It would’ve come from France.”

“This family doesn’t get mail from France,” says Dad, seriously glowery. I can already tell he’s not this chick’s biggest fan, and not because she tromped on his grass but just because she looks and acts the way she looks and acts, which you could sum up in just one word, free, which is pretty opposite to my severiously uptight father who has been known to wear ties on weekends. It’s like he already knows somehow that she’s gonna upset apple carts around here, and it doesn’t exactly take a Magic 8 Ball to see that signs point to yes.

“Now, Carl,” says Mom, using her wife-calms-the-husband voice. To Lucy she says, “What would the letter have said, dear?”

“No, you know what?” says Lucy, “This is gonna be awkward. I should just go.” She pushes her hair off her face. Her dozen bracelets slide down to her elbow.

My sister looks up from her crayons. “Tinkly,” says Katy. She’s eight.

At this point, Lucy notices me, or I would say lets herself notice me, because I’ve already been standing there for half a minute and she strikes me as not a girl who misses much (do do do do do do, oh yeah). She comes over and gives me a big hug, bigger and longer than the one she gave Dad. “You must be Gene,” she says. “I’m Lucy.”

I instantly have a boner, which lasts exactly as long as it takes to remember she’s my cousin.

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Another Albuquerque Excerpt

5          HOW MANY SOLIPSISTS

If your father walked out on you when you were eight years old, how much of him would you remember? Of Woody I remembered much. The way he always smelled of Old Spice and the panatelas he smoked. The hand magic he could do, like making a quarter disappear (and then not giving it back, to teach me a lesson in credulity). The frequent, unexplained absences, which I realized long after the fact were either undercover stints on the snuke or time in jail. And then the final big disappearance, which he made worse, I think, by perpetrating the false hope of his imminent return. This he did with a string of postcards that, as a sort of running gag, bore portmanteau photographs of that mythical western critter, the jackalope, all furry haunches and grafted antlers. They often contained handwritten riddles like –

Q: How many solipsists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Who wants to know?

– and were all signed the same way, “Yours, Woody.” Not “love,” note. My father could lie the creases off a co-ed’s culottes, but the useful fiction of affection escaped him. He knew he couldn’t sell it, so he didn’t try. Nor had I any illusions. My mother and I were never more than appendages in his life, of that we were sure. And appendages break. The postcard flow dwindled over time, then petered altogether out.

Later, when I started on the snuke, word of his adventures occasionally reached me by roundabout means. I’d meet a grifter who knew a grifter who’d worked a government grants thing with him, or a Jake who’d note a resemblance and say, “You’re not that son of a bitch’s son, are you?” I often wondered if word of my exploits ever reached him. Was he proud that his son had followed in his roguish footsteps? Or could he not give a rat’s ass? I tried to track him down once, just for drill, but apart from the aggrieved screeds of several women who’d discovered themselves to be his coetaneous wives, I didn’t get close. When you’re a master of the vanishing act, it’s no trick to stay lost. As to how he’d found me, I didn’t bother to wonder. The way I’d been lighting up the media with my name and picture, I was practically on MapQuest.

“Ouch, shit!” That’s me savaging my thumb with a hammer instead of hitting the little wooden dowels that connect the kickboard bracket of the Reåd shelving system to the left and right support struts. And that’s because I’m thinking more about my father than about hammers and dowels – and lying to Allie with my silence, which is making me edgier than I let on.

I don’t know why I didn’t just come right out and tell her. Maybe I thought she wouldn’t believe me, would just tab the revelation as “intrigue for the sake of intrigue.” Or if she did believe me, what then? She’s supposed to welcome my biggest inspiration and worst influence with open arms, just when we’re clinging to so frail a valence of normalcy? She didn’t know my father. Okay, hell, I didn’t know my father, either, but it seemed unlikely that he’d pack a whole big mess of normal in his Gladstone. That’s not how he rolled.

Plus let’s not forget he was wearing a dress.

But the alternative, I realized as I sucked the sting out of my thumb, was to deny Allie critical information about the goings-on inside my head. Not quite in the class of an alcoholic sneaking a drink, but sneakiness of a sort just the same. I figured if I was so unwilling to clue in my beloved to the sudden strange appearance of my own flesh and blood, this in itself was a sign that I’d better come clean.

So I did. I was really afraid she’d see it as a setup of some kind, another Hoverlander effort to scrub Operation Citizen, but all she said was, “We’ll have to invite him to dinner.”

“Not a good idea,” I said.

“What, you don’t think he’ll like me?”

“Did you not hear the part about the dress?”

“So he’s trans. I’m not gonna hold that against him.”

“He’s not trans.”

“How do you know?”

How indeed? After all, after all these years, my dad could not have been much more than a shadow in my mind, the sum of my recollections and his reputation. Still, there are some things you know in your gut. I didn’t know Woody, but I knew him. Or let’s say that if the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, then the apple can learn much about the tree just by considering itself. Had I come to town looking for me, so garish a lady costume would not be transvestite plumage.

It would be camouflage.

Because the thing is, when most people look at you, they don’t really see you at all. They judge a book by its cover absolutely. Grifters know this, which is why you so often meet them in costumes of one sort or another. Business suits. Coveralls with nametags. Uniforms. Whatever helps them sell what they want you to buy. Most people looking at my dad in a dress would reach the cursory conclusion I’d first reached: this is one serious frump. Then they’d look away, which would be exactly his goal. How do you hide in plain sight? You thwart the urge to seek.

From this I surmised that Woody was being sought. Not so huge a leap. Even from my dim and distant childhood, I could remember instances of him working very hard to deflect the attention of one irate mark or another, which need will arise from time to time when a grift slides sideways. One whole summer he never ventured out of the house without carefully cloaking himself in the fatigues and demeanor of a disabled Vietnam veteran, right on down to the shrapnel limp and loud colloquies with the voices in his head. I thought it was cool: Daddy plays dress-up. But the strategy was sound, for whoever might be after him would take one look at the post-traumatic stress victim, think, well that sad casualty’s not him, and turn their searching eye elsewhere.

“So we’ve got dad on the lam,” I said. “From whom and for what we currently have no clue, but he’s working the shade and fade damn hard.”

“Why is he even on the street at all?” asked Allie. “Wouldn’t it be safer just to lie low?”

“Safer, sure, but a trap of a different sort. You know this, honey. Once you lose your freedom of movement, you lose your options. Holing up just puts you in a hole.”

“True,” she nodded. She settled down onto the living room couch and I paced nearby, each of us doing what a grifter does when presented with a puzzle like this, mentally teasing the pieces into place. Presently, Allie said, “Since he’s not lying low, he must really want to see you.”

“Not want. Stronger than want.”

“How so?”

“We’ve been estranged forever. Now he gets wind of me on the six o’clock news or wherever, and maybe this sparks some father/son nostalgia in his mind. He can’t know how I’ll react to seeing him. If he has the time, he tests the water first. Email, phone call, maybe a jackalope postcard.”

“What kind of postcard?”

“Nothing. Never mind. All I’m saying is, no test, ergo, no time.”

“Does he know how good you are?”

“Let’s say he does.”

“Then he needs help.”

“And rates me as the Red Cross.”

“So, how do you feel about that?”

“Allie, I don’t know. I know I’m supposed to be carrying all these abandonment resentments, and maybe I do and just don’t know it. But knowing what I know about him and about me, I figure that to hate him is to hate me. As far as I can tell, we’re chips off the same block.” Boy ambled in from the kitchen and taunted me with the tennis ball in his mouth. This particular slobbery brand of tug-of-war, where Boy chomped his ball in a death grip and Allie or I tried to pry it free, had emerged as one of his favorite games. He’d play it as long as our patience would last. He usually won, too, since the only way to get the ball out was misdirection, and Boy’s elemental brain did not respond too quickly to trickery. He was like a certain stripe of mook: too dumb to fool. I grabbed the ball and yanked to no particular avail. We growled at each other. It was fun. “Part of me is flattered,” I said. “My dad was always kind of legendary, you know? I mean, highly regarded in his circles. The two words you mostly heard were ‘creative’ and ‘fearless.’ I guess if he’s coming to me for help…”

“Then that’s acceptance.”

“Acceptance, yeah. But trouble, too.” Allie’s arched eyebrow encouraged me to continue. No doubt she’d already formed her own hypothesis about what kind of trouble a runaway Hoverlander could cause, but she wanted to hear it from me. “We’re supposed to be going straight, right? I have no idea what direction Woody is headed, but I’ll bet my bankroll that straight isn’t it.”

Allie mulled this for a moment, then asked, “What’s that stupid thing I’ve heard you say? ‘Make the latest possible decision based on the best available information?’”

“Oh, that’s stupid, is it?”

“A little, yeah. But why don’t we do that? Wait awhile. See what happens. After all, he may not even contact you. Maybe he just wanted you to know he’s out there.”

“Maybe he just wanted a bunk bed.”

I deked Boy with disinterest. He let down his guard, the ball came free in my hand, and I’d won another round of How Dumb is a Dog? This, however, left me holding a soggy tennis ball, so who’s to say who won? I threw the ball and Boy bolted after it with a dog’s abandon, scuttling across the hardwood floor and banging sidelong into the far wall. Then Allie took up the game and I returned to my Reåd. By midnight, I’d wrestled the bookshelf into shape, and it stood upright in the middle of the room. On a handiness scale of ten, I’d rate myself a six; there were pieces left over. But Allie cast approval on my effort. We were just discussing placement options when a knock at the door startled us both.

It was Vic, as nine and a half times out of ten it would be, and he waltzed in with no thought to the hour, for Mirplovian logic held that if he was awake, then everyone was.

“It’s not like I didn’t check the lights,” he said. “My only concern was you two randy rabbits might be screwing, and who wants to see that?” At this point he noticed the bookshelf. “I like it,” he said, appraising it critically. “Very nice. Very conceptual.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“The installation.”

“Vic, it’s a bookshelf.”

“Against the wall it’s a bookshelf. In the middle of the room it’s art. You should drape it. Drapes are big right now.” Then, executing a deft conversational pivot, he said, “Hey, check it out,” and rolled up his left shirt sleeve to reveal on his arm a paisley shaped teardrop with a hole in the middle, like the eye on a curvy sperm.

“Vic,” marveled Allie, “you got ink!”

“Yeah, I did,” he said proudly.

I didn’t bother asking why, for clearly this was the next iteration of his artist presentment. See what I mean about costumes? Meanwhile, I thought I recognized the image, but… “Vic,” I asked, “where’s the rest of it?”

“What rest? That’s it. A yin. Half a yin-yang. Totally conceptual.”

“Hurt that bad, huh?”

“Like a motherfuck. I couldn’t even finish. I thought I was gonna pass out.” He cast an admiring glance at his own shoulder. “It is conceptual, though.”

“It is,” I said. “I’ll grant you that. Have you named it?”

“Named? Ooh, no, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I suggest Half Wit.”

“Ha-ha,” drawled Vic, then pirouetted once again across topics. “By the way, who’s the dude?”

“What dude?”

“The guy across the street. If he’s trying to not be seen, he’s doing a lame-ass job.” Vic snickered. “About as lame as his drag.”

I didn’t bother looking out a window to confirm this, for even a Mirplo at his most conceptual couldn’t conjure a cross-dressing lurker out of thin imagination. Then again, just how off my game was I that Vic caught on to the gaff quicker than I had? This business of going straight had its downside in terms of staying sharp. I turned to Allie. “New information, doll. Now what?”

Before Allie could reply, the doorbell rang. Allie shrugged. “Now?” she said. “Now we answer the door.”

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The Albuquerque Turkey: Excerpt

The Albuquerque Turkey
by John Vorhaus

1      BOY

It all started with a dog, a biggish one loping down the sidewalk with that weird canter that some dogs have, the front legs syncopating and the rear legs slewing sidewise in tandem. He must’ve been running from something specific, because even while scampering forward he looked back, which resulted in him not seeing, and therefore barreling into, me. He hit me square in the knees and knocked me to the ground. This startled us equally, and for a second we both sat still, locked eye to eye down there at dog level.

I vibe dogs. I do. Or let’s say that I prize them: their unconditional love is a love you can trust. I’d rolled with one or two in my time, but the highly migratory life of a con artist didn’t really lend itself to long-term canine commitments, so I mostly just admired dogs from afar. Up close, this one was tough to admire, a mixed bag of black Lab and unknown provenance. One ear stood up like a German shepherd’s. The other… wasn’t there. Looking at the bitten-off stub, I couldn’t help wondering how a dog’s ear tastes to another dog. He bore other wounds as well, evidence of many fights – maybe not fair fights, for I thought I detected a human hand in some of his scars and mars. I saw it also in his eyes. He feared me. That made me sad. I reached out a hand to comfort him, and he flipped over in submission position, manifesting what every dog dreads and hopes when it submits: dread that it will be kicked; hope it’ll be scratched. I opted to scratch, and immediately made a (man’s best) friend.

“Get up, boy,” I said as I stood. “I’m not the boss of you.” The dog – in my mind I was already calling him Boy – obediently rose to his feet. I didn’t know if he was that well trained or just felt like following my lead. He wore no collar, only a weathered, knotted rope that trailed away to a frayed end. Something told me this was a dog in transition, and that whoever had been the boss of him was boss no more. Probably if I wanted to I could keep him, the thought of which tickled me. I pictured me presenting him to my girlfriend, Allie, who had lately shown such determination that we be normal. “Look what followed me home,” I’d tell her. “Can we keep it?” If that didn’t say normal, I don’t know what would.

First, though, there was the matter of making sure I was right. I mean, I couldn’t just kidnap him – dognap him – so I started back in the direction he’d come, determined to take a stab, at least, at finding his owner. The dog cowered, reluctant to follow. “It’s okay,” I said, “I got your back.” He still wouldn’t budge, so I knelt, rubbed his grizzled muzzle for a moment, then took the scraggly end of the rope and walked him down the street. I could tell he still wasn’t too keen on the idea, but now he was a dog on a leash, and they have no free will.

I had just turned the corner when I heard the first shouts.

I thought they came from the courtyard of some garden apartments just down the street, but with the way the sound bounced around off those Santa Fe adobe walls, I couldn’t be sure. There was a pickup truck parked in front of the courtyard, and its whole grungy aspect seemed linked to the courtyard noises. Bald tires, primer spots and dents, cracked windshield; a trailer trash ride, or I’m no judge of trucks. The tailgate was missing, and I could see in the cargo bed a litter of empty cans, both beer and oil, plus fast food wrappers and crumpled cigarette packs.

And, tethered to a tie-down, a severed rope, mate to the noose around Boy’s neck.

Boy recognized the truck. He whimpered fearfully as we approached, causing a picture to form in my mind: Enraged driver pulls up to the curb, anger burning so hot that he upsets his dog, who strains against his restraint – and snaps the tired line! Dog is off and running, but driver doesn’t care. All his anger’s focused on whoever’s in that courtyard.

More shouts now, and I could hear two voices, no, three: a man and a woman exchanging heated words, and a little girl playing hapless and ineffectual peacemaker. To me it added up to domestic dispute.

Boy wanted to leave and, boy, so did I. After all, there’s two kinds of problems in this world, right? My problem and not my problem. But there was a lot going on in my head. There was Allie’s need for the two of us to be citizens (and did not, in some sense, citizen equal Samaritan?) and also Boy, for if I left things like they were, he’d likely end up tied back up in that truck, the thought of which grieved me deeply. The kicker was the little girl’s voice. I could see the black hole of human trauma forming in the center of her universe. I knew that Allie came from such a troubled vortex, where mom and dad never got along and routinely inflicted horrible damage on anyone within range. I couldn’t go back in time and salve Allie’s pain. It was likewise probably too late to save the little girl from hers – these things start young – but maybe I could douse the present blaze.

And just perhaps talk my way into a dog.

I moved toward the courtyard. Boy resisted, but I patted his head in reassurance, trying to communicate that whatever I planned to sell, it wasn’t him out. I guess I got my point across, for he fell more comfortably in step beside me. I paused to gather myself before entering the courtyard. I didn’t know what, specifically, I was about to walk into, but it didn’t much matter. A top grifter gets good at improvising successfully across a wide variety of situations.

Even ones with guns.

I didn’t see the gun at first, just the man at the base of a short set of steps, looking dirty as his pickup truck in tired jeans and sneakers, a stained tank top, and a polyester cap with some kind of racing logo. The woman stood on the top step with the girl tucked in behind her. They wore matching mother/daughter flower print shifts. In other circumstances you’d say they looked cute. Now they just looked scared, but the mother was playing the defiance card hard – a card I could tell she didn’t really hold, but that’s what they call bluffing.

“Andy, now, clear out,” she said. “You know you’re not allowed here. The judge – ”

“Screw the judge,” said Andy. “I want Sophie. I want my little girl.”

“No, Andy. Not when you’ve been drinking and God knows what else.”

“Oh, and you’re such a saint?” Andy practically vibrated with rage.

“That’s not the point. I have custody.” The way she said custody damn near broke my heart. Like it had magic power, but I knew it would cast the opposite spell.

It did. It brought the gun up, a Browning MK II Hi Power. Some of them have hair triggers. Andy leveled it at – as I gathered from context – his ex-wife and child. “Sophie,” Andy told the girl, his voice gone cold, “go get in the truck. I swear if you don’t, I’ll shoot you both right now.”

The moment froze. I was afraid to speak. I didn’t want to spook Andy, not while he had the gun up. I guess Boy felt the same way. I could sense him repressing a growl. Then… the girl moved. She disengaged herself from her mother’s clutching hands and edged warily down the stairs. I knew what she was walking into, could foresee it in an instant. Let’s say she survived the next hour, day, week, month, year. Let’s say she made it all the way into womanhood. Where would that find her? Turning tricks at a truck stop? Up in some spike house with a needle in her arm? Living with a man who beat her just like daddy did? Talk about your human sacrifice. It may have been the bravest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

I couldn’t let it stand.

“Hey, mister,” I piped up, applying my most innocent bystander gloss, “do you know whose dog this is?” Three heads swiveled toward me. The gun swiveled, too, but I ignored it, for part of running a good con is shaping the reality around you. Or denying it, as the case may be. By disregarding the gun, I momentarily neutralized it, for what kind of fool doesn’t see the obvious? It’s destabilizing to people. They don’t know how to react, so mostly they just do nothing, which buys you some time to make your next move. At that point I don’t know if I felt supremely courageous or just dumb-ass dumb. Both, probably. But one thing you learn on the razzle is that once a con starts, the worst thing you can do is break it off. Then you’re just twisting in the wind. “Because, um, I found her down the street and she seems to be lost.”

“Ain’t a she,” said Andy.

“No? I didn’t look.” I bent down to check out Boy’s underside. “Hey, you’re right, it’s a boy. Anyway, used to be.” I smiled broadly and started walking Boy forward.

Andy aimed the gun. “Stop,” he said.

“Oh, look, I’m not trying to get in the middle of a thing here. I’m just trying to return this dog. Is he yours?”

“Just let him go.”

Well, I thought I knew what would happen if I did that. Boy would take off running, and probably none of us would ever see him again. I weighed my own selfishness – I wanted that dog – against his need and safety, and dropped the rope. Boy surprised me. He plopped down at my feet, content, apparently, to let me run the show to whatever outcome I could achieve. You gotta love that about dogs. When they trust you, they trust you all the way.

“Now clear out,” said Andy.

Here’s where my play got dicey. Make or break time. “Hang on,” I said, bleeding avid enthusiasm into my voice. “What kind of gun is that?”

“What?”

“Because it looks like a 1980s Hi Power. Is it?”

“The hell should I know?”

I squinted at the gun, straining to see detail, which I didn’t really need to do, since one of the many things you learn about in my line of work is guns, in detail. “Ambidextrous thumb safeties, nylon grip, three-dot sights. Yep, that’s a Mark II. Bet it’s got the throated barrel and everything.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“The thing is,” I said, “I’m kind of a collector. Any chance I could buy it off you?” This was the heart of my play, based explicitly on what the mother had said about drinking and God knows what else. I knew what else. Crank. Crystal meth. I could see it in Andy’s dilated pupils, his scrunge-brown teeth, and his generally tweaky demeanor. A guy like that’s not likely to be long on cash, and addiction is a voice that never shuts up. He might could want to quell it for a while. Very slowly, again not to spook him, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my bankroll.

Funny. For someone complicit with Allie in getting off the razzle, I still kept my cash in a grifter’s roll, big bills out the outside, small bills within. I held the roll lengthwise, between my thumb and first finger, so that Andy could see its Ben Franklin veneer. “I think I have a grand here,” I lied easily. “If that’s not enough, we could hit my ATM.”

Andy licked his lips, imperfectly processing my offer. “Maybe I’ll just take it,” he said.

Oops. I hadn’t considered that. “Sure, yeah, whatever,” I vamped. “You could do that. But what kind of example does that set for your little girl?” This was pure bafflegab – nonsense – and I knew it, but that didn’t halt my improv. “Look,” I continued, “like I said, I’m not trying to get in the middle of a thing, but it looks like you guys have a problem. If you take my money by force, the problem gets worse. If you start shooting, it gets way worse, right?” I looked at the mother for confirmation, silently encouraging her to nod, which she did. “On the other hand, you sell me your gun, you’ve got a little scratch, you can take your girl out for ice cream, come back later, everybody’s calm, you can all work out your business.” I knew he’d take take your girl out for ice cream to mean go score, and hoped his need was such that he’d opt for the line of least resistance.

He seemed to be leaning that way. I could see him mentally converting a thousand dollars into chunks of scud. “What’s in it for you?” he asked.

“I told you, I’m a collector. I’ve got the Mark I and the Mark III, but the Mark II, boy, those are rare.” (Well, measured in millions.) I dared a step forward, arm outstretched, dangling my bankroll like bait. “What do you say? Deal?”

The ladies and I held our breath. Maybe Boy did, too.

“I’m keeping the bullets,” said Andy at last.

“That’s fine,” I said. “Who collects bullets?”

Then, so slowly it made my teeth ache, Andy lowered the gun, pressed the slide release, and dropped the magazine into his hand. Still manifesting my goofy enthusiasm, I strode over and made the exchange, then stepped back quickly before he could change his mind. “Oh, man,” I said, “wait’ll the guys in the gun club see this.”

The next sound you hear will be Andy saying, “What the fuck?” when he finds out what a grifter’s roll is.

“What the fuck?” said Andy. He threw down the roll and took a menacing step toward me.

“Funny thing, though,” I said, raising the gun, “didn’t you chamber a round?” Andy stopped. I let my voice go hard. “Go on, get out of here.” He turned back to grab Sophie, but, “Oh, no,” I said. “No.” Then he looked at his dog. “Not him, either,” I said. “Get.”

Andy got.

Was there a round in the chamber? Did it matter? You can bluff with the best hand, too.

The truck rumbled off. I’d memorized the license plate, and would soon be dropping a dime, for there’s no way that guy wasn’t holding. Meantime, I encouraged Sophie and her mother to clear out to a shelter somewhere, which they thought was a pretty damn good idea. We agreed that Boy would stay with me.

So happy ending, right? Sure, except for one thing. Completely unbeknownst to us, someone in one of the adjacent apartments had cell-phone videoed the whole thing through a window. It was on YouTube by dusk.

It didn’t really matter that thousands of people saw Radar Hoverlander in action.

But it sure as hell mattered that one person did.

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The California Roll: Excerpt

The California Roll
by John Vorhaus

1      ON THE SNUKE

the california roll

The first person I ever scammed was my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and could never remember from one minute to the next whether she’d just given me ice cream or not. I’d polish off a bowl, drop it in the sink, walk out, walk back in, ask for another, and get it. Boom. They say you can get sick of ice cream if you eat too much. I found that was not the case.

They also say you can’t cheat an honest man, but I say you can. The honest ones never see it coming. (more…)

Under the Gun: Excerpt

Under the Gun
by John Vorhaus

Chapter 1: Apostrophe Catastrophe

under the gun little

The IM that Guy Harris sent Hal Harris that Friday told his brother to drop everything and come to Las Vegas right away. It didn’t say and bring money, but in Hal’s long experience with Guy that was pretty much a given. Hal ignored the message. He figured if it were truly urgent – or even if it weren’t, for Guy was no take no answer for an answer guy – there’d be a follow up phone call. Sure enough, ten minutes later the phone rang, and Guy’s manic voice came down the line, boasting how by dint of skill, native intelligence, and “balls the size of boxcars, Hal!” he had won something to do with some big deal poker tournament. This was, Guy assured his brother, an event of such cosmic consequence that it definitely required glorifying in high Vegas fashion, which for Guy Harris usually meant too much to eat, too much to drink, and a liberal application of strippers. (more…)

Three of a Kind: Excerpt

Three of a Kind
by John Vorhaus

2: www.scumbagfloorman.com

three of a kind

It’s a few minutes later.  Judi has gotten the rest off her chest.  I now know that Sam the bozo is the floorman tonight at Club Pismo, and that his hobby, if you want to call it that, is sexually harassing cute dealers like Judi.  “I don’t mind him hitting on me,” says Judi.  “That’s what men do.  But when they’re married, and they go but that doesn’t matter, and you go, like, yes it matters, and then their ego gets all bruised and they take it out on you in the workplace, well, that’s just not fair.” (more…)

World Series of Murder: Excerpt

World Series of Murder
by John Vorhaus

1.  Do Not Leave Your Cards Unattended

 

 

mbfrmnt1“Dealer, you’re killing me.”

Angry Pete Bonner threw his two cards away with a backhand sling and chomped hard down on a toothpick.  It splintered and poked him in the lip, ratcheting up his rage another degree.  He pushed his chair back from the poker table, giving room to his ample girth.  Pete had been sitting there playing Texas hold ’em for ten straight hours, and his hemorrhoids had been screaming for the past four, which did not do much improve his mood. (more…)

Surf Las Vegas (novella): Excerpt

by John Vorhaus

1: Yours Just For Playing

vegas

My name is Jim Rafferty and I surf Las Vegas. Not like you might think of, with waves and wax and boards and that. What I do, I move through this city collecting things that are free. Mostly I surf the Strip, all those casinos, all their giveaways: key chains, hats and mugs, dice and cards, t-shirts. (more…)