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Story – Ain’t that America? Check it and See – Christopher Horton

by / 2 Comments / 09/09/2014

There was the highway sign, right where he recollected it would be.  Partly obscured by the thickening snow flurries and framed by the gunmetal grey of the low hanging clouds, it read, “Illinois 394, The Dixie Highway.”  Juking on the Dixie highway, as Tennessee Williams used to say.   It had been 78 degrees under a cloudless azure blue sky when he’d left LA in the morning.  But here, it was easy for the middle of March to be the middle of winter.  Tennessee Williams never had much positive to say about going home either.  That was probably why Jack had always liked him.  He channeled his general sourness into the gas petal and the rental Trans-Am jerked forward down the Dixie Highway.  He broke a tight smile as he felt the tires skid before grabbing hold of the slushy pavement.  Just like old times.  Except that it wasn’t at all.

 

In L.A., Jack wrote.  Back home in Indiana, he shoveled shit.  He supposed he spent time shoveling shit in L.A. too, since he was only a marginally successful writer.  One screen credit—way too many years ago.  Now, a rare polish, usually courtesy of an old friend, enlivened the usual run of dumb articles for cheesy magazines and sites.  Just enough to keep him off cat food and on vodka.

 

Jack shrugged his hair out of his eyes and peered harder through the snow flakes—he was looking for the third little county road—the Dixie Highway was open access here.  It had been a long day already.  A long wasted day, as days flying back east from L.A. always were.  A long, wasted, silent day, as Jack wasn’t much on talking to strangers.  He spotted the county road and gently eased the car into the left turn, as the pavement was freezing as the sun waned.  Now he was pretty much out in the country.  Fallow corn fields dusted in snow broken up by ramshackle barns that desperately needed a coat of paint and an occasional group of uninspired cows stupidly enduring the snow and raw wind.  Kinda like the crowd of theoretical writers and directors at the coffee shop on his corner that he often walked past and never entered.

 

As soon as Jack crossed the state line into Indiana, the quality of the road noticeably deteriorated.  Thank god for Mississippi.  Jack had heard or read somebody who said that Indiana was a southern state with crappier weather.  Word.  But there was his favorite sight.  That country liquor store that misspelled “Bourbon” on the red, hand painted ad that adorned the whitewashed front wall.  The really funny part was that “Amaretto” was spelled correctly.  Cheap cigarettes though, maybe he should start again.  Jack allowed himself a real smile as he passed it, an oasis in the otherwise flat, dismal landscape.  They had shot the scene where Cary Grant is chased by the crop duster not far from here, but it looked better that time of year.

 

It was going to be a silent night, too.  Jack was headed for his father’s house, the house that he’d grown up in.  But his father wouldn’t be there.  Nobody would be there.  He didn’t mind, at least in general.  He spent a lot of silent nights alone in L.A. too.  When he was younger, he spent a lot of nights in bars.  But now that he was forty-two, well, been there, done that.  Most of the time he’d rather sit at home in the dark by himself.  Just like good old Dad.  Dad had done some of his best brooding after forty-two.  Of course, when his Dad was his age, he’d been raising kids—well, sort of, as much as men did back then.  Nonetheless, enough that he’d gotten a late start on sitting in the dark brooding.  Just another way that not having kids got you ahead.  Jack did remember coming home in the middle of the night as a teenager and slipping quietly into the dark house only to see his father watching from the armchair.  Jack had an armchair now too.  And, if Jack liked, he could sit in it and drink alone, like a good WASP.  His Dad hadn’t been much of a drinker—he’d liked his brooding straight up.

 

Jack didn’t even have a wife, much less kids.  He had had one once, a long time ago.  Not for too long.  What had gone wrong with that?  Jack could hardly remember at this point, but he thought it had had something to do with him not being willing to sacrifice his aspirations in order to get with her program.  She was divorced from a doctor now, which seemed to be a more advantageous station in life than being divorced from him had been.  Jack didn’t blame Lynn particularly, and he wasn’t holding a grudge against her.  After Lynn, there’d only been girlfriends, all of whom were now gone with the wind.  In fact, the most recent one, a veteran of two years with him, had decamped just weeks before things had exploded.  Jack wasn’t holding a grudge against her either—aside from a mild one about her dumping him in general.  She couldn’t help it if she were lucky.  Maybe he was unlucky.  Or maybe he had not chosen wisely.  Maybe he’d rather be right than in a relationship.  Jack had been a tense teenager and had always wanted to be somebody who just didn’t give a fuck—funny the things that kids come up with, huh?  Of course, the fact that his father had been a Type A perfectionist might have had something to do with it.  Now, well, he felt like he was getting so close to realizing that life long dream.  He felt like he knew the material and all he had left to do was pass some sort of final exam.

 

If the truth be known, Jack didn’t often brood when he sat in the dark alone—he usually just free associated and thought great and often amusing thoughts.  Or mediocre and sometimes amusing ones.

 

There it was, like a beacon in the night.  The clock tower of the 1870 court house still reigned over the town square.  Back then, it must have been an awesome sight to the hicks and you could still see it from several miles of flat cornfields away.  Home was less than ten minutes away.  Well, his childhood home.  Well, a cold, dark house that had been unoccupied for two months.  His destination.

 

“And this could be the last time, maybe the last time, I don’t know.”

 

Jack didn’t sing very well.  Bu that didn’t always stop him.  Especially when he was alone.  Which was a lot.

 

The town square was pretty desolate as Jack wheeled the car around it.  The worn looking, almost failing local shops were all closed.  A couple of bearded, fat, long haired guys turned a corner into the teeth of the cold rain and snow, before disappearing into a bar two doors down.  That bar used to be a gun shop when Jack was a boy.  He and his friends would go in and admire the weapons, especially the Colt revolvers.  Tonight, he just kept going and headed up Ruffle Shirt Hill Road, so called because the Victorian swells had lived there.  As a kid, Jack had always thought it would’ve been very cool to live in one of those mansions with their turrets and cupolas.  No such luck.  They were not one of the old guard families.  His mother had more than once noted to him that in those circles they were still “newcomers”—his parents had been there close to twenty years at that point.  At the time, it had made him angry to see his mother dissed.  At sixteen, she‘d gone to affairs at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Jack had seen pictures.  Talk about, “My god, what have I done?”  Now, more than twenty years after he’d left, he could only grimace at the idea that those undistinguished clowns had put on airs because their gene pool had smugly rotted there for a century.

 

Jack felt that “rotted” was exactly the right word.  When Jack was a little boy, it was a little, close minded farm town of 4,000 people and at least half that many souls.  Jack liked that turn of phrase; he’d have to write it down in his book when he got to the house.  Good—or at least sellable—internet writing required a ready font of snark.  His parents had been among the first of an influx of more worldly, more educated people that tripled the population and nudged the place towards becoming a pastoral bedroom community for the steel mills farther north.   As if to illustrate the thought, Jack turned off Ruffle Shirt Hill Road onto a smaller street, Mary Ann Place.  Immediately, stately Victorian mansions were replaced by mid century ranch houses, as if to herald the infiltration of the meritocracy.  But that was just the surface impression.  Politically and culturally, the town was still run by the descendents of the original pioneers that hadn’t had the spunk to keep going.  Symbolically, Mary Ann Place was named for the daughter of one of the richest farmers, who had sold off a few hundred acres for this development.  Mary Ann Place dead ended at the wooden fence marking the new boundary of the farm.  So did Mary Ann.  She’d gone to high school with Jack, but they hadn’t been friends.  On summer nights, Jack as a child could hear the cows lowing at the end of the block, like they were a Greek chorus announcing who still ran this back water Thebes.

 

It wasn’t so much a question of money but it was a muted class war just the same.  Two largely divergent value systems overlay each other in a stony, laconic—it was the Midwest, after all—stand off.  And in the cracks, rot grew.  As teenagers, Jack and his posse smelled it even though they didn’t have the world view to understand it.  But they all wanted to shake the dust of that town off their feet.  Jack had later read this artistic treatise that argued that children have a pure sense of truth until society and the school system beat it out of them.  Of course, that’s a charitable description of Jack’s teenage crowd.  Instead, one could say they were spoiled, snotty, immature little assholes.  Jack hadn’t understood any of this as a teenager nor had he recognized that dichotomy in his high school class, but, in retrospect, all his real peeps were children of newcomers.  And they’d all shaken the dust of that town off their feet.  That was another reason it was going to be a solitary weekend.

 

Jack pulled into the cracked, oil stained driveway of a brick 1960 vintage ranch house.  His father, originally a city boy, had never completely accommodated the idea of rural/suburban living, at least far as aesthetic upkeep beyond the functional went.  Jack remembered his father wondering if the neighbors would form a lynch mob if he replaced the grass with green cement.  He turned off the ignition and just sat there, looking at the dark house.  Here we go.  But it could be the last time.

 

Jack winced as he shouldered his bag, then trudged up the half flight of concrete steps to the porch.  He was getting too old for this shit.  The light was off, of course, but Jack still saw pretty well in the dark.  The key that he’d been solemnly entrusted with when he was twelve still fit the lock if you wiggled it a little bit.  He’d had to wiggle it a little when he was twelve too—his father’s definition of functional hadn’t changed much over the years.

 

Inside, he surveyed the dark living room from the foyer and was almost surprised that his father wasn’t sitting and brooding in the armchair.  He flicked the light switch.  The Museum of Happier Times is open.

 

Jack walked through the house.  It really was a museum—the kitchen still had its original blonde wood cabinets, scorched near the built in electric oven and stove.  Not to mention the black, cast iron rotary phone.  Jack’s mother had died before the time came to renovate it, and it was plenty functional for his father.  Miraculously, the baby shit brown 1960 refrigerator resolutely hummed along.  And his first grade art project still hung over the kitchen sink window.  It was an apple made out of colored sands glued to plywood.  Good thing he could write.  Maybe the Smithsonian would pay a fortune for such Americana.  If he had it in L.A., he could rent it out as a set.

 

“June, I’m home.”

 

Jack’s bedroom and that of his younger brother Joe were largely unchanged, childhood board games, toy soldiers, model airplanes and books still adorned child style book cases.  Jack could point out minor differences but the impression, like that of the rest of the house, was frozen in time.  Just like the town.  He and his friends used to call it Brigadoon when they were in high school.  Yeah, well, maybe they were just little assholes instead of full of artistic truth.  He sat down in his father’s armchair.  That seemed creepy enough.  His father was eighty-one now.  Until Christmas, he’d lived there alone for twenty years.  Jack had always reckoned that his mother would have been a lot more work if she’d been the survivor.  He suspected that thinking that might make him a callous asshole. His Dad never considered remarrying for a second.  His vehemence on that point had seemed a little disconcerting because it had sprayed out from a vein of “so over it” rather than pining.  But now, that was a concept that was getting clearer to Jack every fucking day.  But, after Christmas, the bottom fell out.  Like that, his Dad’s mind became Swiss cheese.  Or maybe it just hit critical mass.  It’s not like Jack saw him that much.  But he’d flown out from LA and Joe had driven up from Indy.

 

The neurologist said he scored, what was it, twelve out of twenty?  Jack asked, “What does that mean?”  “Well, if he were a farmer, it would be okay.  But your father is an educated man. . .”  There was the Brigadoon dialectic again.  Aside from that, Jack was really amused by the neurologist’s way with words.  So he used it in an article.  Call it a midterm in learning to not give a fuck.  Jack and Joe both decided that you really haven’t lived until you’ve taken freedom away from a parent.  Jack ranked it as one of the worst experiences of his life, at least in terms of vague guilt and anguish.  Definitely worse than deflowering that girl in college.  Maybe as bad as that time in Tijuana.

 

Dad was now ensconced in an assisted living apartment in Indy.  It was less than half the price that it would’ve been in L.A.  So Joe had gotten the short end of that stick.  Jack reckoned that was modern American etiquette—the closet offspring takes the fall. So now they had to deal with the house so it could be sold to fund Dad through the slightly demented years.  It was the only financially viable option, although Joe had suggested that they run him for the Senate—excellent health care, y’know—as a strong, silent type: “Veteran.  Worker.  Father.”  Besides, Joe went on, “You heard the neurologist, ‘If he were a farmer, he’d be okay’.”  Jack thought it was pretty funny.  Maybe callous assholeness is a genetic trait.  But maybe it would’ve worked.  It was Indiana, after all.  Jack was very fond of this Lew Wallace—the guy who wrote Ben Hur—quote: “A lot of bright young men come out of Indiana, and the brighter they are, the quicker they come.”  Joe didn’t like it as much.  Jack smiled at that.  Anyway, that was the path that led him to this armchair tonight.  He would be alone this weekend.  Joe was doing plenty, but this weekend wasn’t happening for him; he was stuck not only with Dad, but also stuff to do with his wife and kid.  And Joe could handle the rest, because they were just going to have an auction once the personal stuff was gone.  So this could be it for this house.  And this town.

Jack found some thirty year old vodka in the kitchen and returned to the armchair.  It wasn’t good vodka, it had just been there for thirty years.  “Writers drink, hacks go into rehab.”  Jack tried to get comfortable in the chair. The chair was aging.  So was Jack.  It was a problem.

 

So this was his father’s view of life.  If he turned off the lights.  He did.  And ditched the vodka.  He didn’t.  What would his Dad have thought about?  Maybe “how did I get here?”  Or “this is not my beautiful house.”  It’s a long distance from the Waldorf to a ranch house in Bumfuck.  Of course, Jack had never thought he was going to live in L.A. indefinitely either.  Both his parents had grown up in New York City.  His father sometimes said out loud that he was sorry he’d raised his sons where they hadn’t really had a chance to get wise.  Thank the steel mills.  Of course, his breeder friends in L.A. were beginning to realize, to their horror, that they’d raised L.A. kids.  In some ways, the same story everywhere.

 

Except it was a different type of horror.  Jack remembered being in this room as a five year old, probably.  Both his parents were scrutinizing him, and his mother looked concerned.  It was one of Jack’s earliest memories because it had given him a cognitive breakthrough—it was the first time he’d thought of words as words.  No escaping destiny.  It happened when his apparently worried mother said, “Honey, that’s not a polite thing to say.  ‘Jew’ is not a verb.”  Boy, at that moment they must have been sorry they lived there.  Jack had heeded his mother but the interesting part then was the word thing—maybe because he hadn’t known anyone Jewish.

 

Jack always thought of that day when people at L.A. parties would burble about moving out to the pristine country and how idyllic it would be.  Jack would roll his eyes.  They were delusional.  They didn’t know what they were talking about.  Jack would tell them that the country was full of ignorant and bigoted people.  That people like them would be hunted down, killed, and eaten.  Maybe he wasn’t much fun at parties.  That would explain a lot.  And maybe preferring to spend time in the company of vacuous, self-absorbed people instead of ignorant, bigoted ones was just a matter of personal taste.  Or maybe, just maybe, he was getting old and bitter and passive-aggressive because he’d been shat on so many times.  Jack shrugged.  You buy the ticket, you take the ride.  Maybe this did qualify as full fledged brooding.  Maybe it was something about the chair.  It was probably something about being forty-two.

 

On a scale of one to ten, Jack rated the vodka as god awful.  But maybe he should have a leetle more.  That was funny, too, he mused as he headed back into the kitchen.  He said “leetle” sometimes.  Because his father had sometimes.  Because his grandmother had lived in Scotland as a teenager.  Jack had never met that grandmother.  But it was a lot more innocuous usage to pick up.  One more drink and then a lovely night on a single bed with, let’s see, a thirty-five year old mattress.

 

Jack bounded up the next morning bright and early.  A thirty-five year old mattress will do that for you when you’re forty-two.  He found the coffee pot—a heavy metal thing of beauty that perked on the stove top.  He’d always liked watching it perk as a child.  And apparently it remained functional.  Jack knew a prop grrl in L.A. that would give her left tit to rummage around this place.  Maybe he should have bought those cigarettes—they’d go with the coffee.  And the 1960 vibe.  Have a real writer’s breakfast before he began the archeological dig.  Jack’s goal was to go through the paper and effects.  Ship stuff that Dad would want to Joe and anything he wanted to himself.  And, of course, throw out as much as possible.  The next time someone complained about their folks selling their childhood home out from under them, Jack could explain in great detail why it was better than the alternative.  It probably wouldn’t help make him fun at parties though.

 

Jack started with his father’s closet—it was cleaner than the basement and there was less room for unpleasant surprises.  Jack was pretty sure that he already knew what was in there because it too seemed unchanged since adolescent Jack had rifled through it when home alone back in the day.  There were the then old, now ancient, Playboys, and a few other pretty soft porn things, all dating from Jack’s childhood.  The Playboys he set aside—gold in them thar hills on e-bay.  The rest he tossed into the garbage bag.  There was an ancient binder and metal strong box. Jack pulled them out.  And there was his prize—the Army trench knife.  He’d coveted it as a child and now it had come to him.  It meant a lot to his father, partly because he’d used it in anger during the war.  So it meant a lot to Jack.  Jack unsheathed it and felt the weight.  It was a good knife, still.  Powerful.  Jack remembered his father showing him how to handle it.  Jack sheathed it and tossed it on the bed.  He’d ship it to himself.

 

The binder was an amazing thing—it contained nicely hole-punched copies of every federal and state tax return since their marriage, some ten years before Jack had been born.  Damn, the old ones were simple.  Dad, you’re a special guy.  And a Type A perfectionist.  Joe would have to see this.  Besides, Dad will want it—these days, he’s a slightly wacked Type A perfectionist.  And an even more special guy.  In fact, he’d already asked for the knife—not that that was going to happen.  But Jack thought it showed a stunningly indomitable quality.  Jack admired that.

 

The strong box was also amazing  A lot of wills and death certificates, for Jack’s grandparents, great uncles and aunts, and great grandparents.  Was this a family tradition no one had told him about?  It’s cheery, at least.  What else?  Snapshots of Dad when he was a young man with various blondes.  He was pretty good looking—a lot better looking than either him or Joe although they both resembled him.  And the blondes all looked like Grace Kelly.  They were hot.  Then.  Dust thou wert and dust thou returneth.  No wonder Dad developed an aversion to having his picture taken.  Poor Dad.  He’d always said he’d rather eat the gun than go into assisted living.  But he waited too long.  It seems like people always do.  Must be a tough call.  Jack wondered if he’d be smarter.  And then there’s the losing your mind part.  Shit. . .what else is in here?  The discharge papers.  Dad said we should hang on to them and get our free grave marker.  Nice—“commanded groups of up to twenty-five enlisted and natives.”  That’s one way to put it.  Jack knew he was just wasting time.  This whole box should just go down to Dad.  And he’d probably had enough contemplation of his own mortality anyway.

 

Jack caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror.  His hair was long and still dark.  Jack figured it came in handy when posing as a writer on Montana Avenue.  The beard though was heavily flecked with grey.  It’s gonna have to go.  Jack felt he was too young to be a grey beard.  Obviously not.  What can ya do but beat your little boat against the tide?  He tied back his hair before descending into the basement.

 

Eight hours later, Jack permanently reemerged from the basement, bloodied but unbowed.  Well, covered in dust and soused in memories.  But he felt victorious.  Vast quantities of paper and assorted shit had been expelled from the bowels of the house.  He found his college papers.  This different person who had been him had written pretty well.  And the titles—one about the Virginia militia with General Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in the French and Indian War was called “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?”  He must have been pretty good if the stodgy history department professors let him get away with juvenile crap like that.  He threw them all out.  Time to put away childish things.  Some of them.  He’d ship the packet of letters from his college girlfriend.  Maybe he could use them in his work.  And some of the books—even though he’d let them stay there for twenty years.  Jack was almost enjoying himself.

 

But then there were the mountains of letters from his mother, still stuffed with the now yellowing newspaper clippings that she’d sent along.  That was more rending.  He read through some—her voice echoed back through the years and her concerns and admonitions came back to life in Jack’s head.  And her love.  He would have cried but he had no tears left.  Not for awhile.  Jack looked at the pile of letters for a long time.  Then he randomly selected a few for the L.A. box, for sometime when his life needed a jolt of human loss and sadness that he couldn’t generate by himself.  The rest he consigned to history.  A remembrance of things past and, in many ways, the very end of them.  He wasn’t sure whether it was better to be utterly alone or whether it would have been better if Joe had been there.  Both and neither probably.

 

Jack had dug down through a couple more layers of Troy in the ancient 1920s steamer trunk that his mother had inherited.  He found more of her things, from way before his time.  Match books from the Stork Club and El Morocco with dates written in them.  Nothing else.  Maybe just as well.  Jack claimed those.  There were pictures of a pretty young woman and of a hot young couple who had no idea what the future held and were thus unmarked by it.  And letters and cards between the two of them.  Reading them was cool and weird at the same time.  But Jack never really remembered seeing his parents in love.  Well, that’s not fair, when he was young.  But those days were mostly gone by the time he was old enough to understand.  He threw the letters away and kept the pictures.  And felt depressed.  What had happened to the couple in the pictures?  Or, if he was being honest, what about his youth?  What happened to it?  It was already the Prague Spring of his life and someday before too long the Russian tanks were gonna roll on in, one way or another. And what did he have to show for it?  For being forty-two?

 

Jack decided that that was a trick question.  Or that the right answer was “shut the fuck up and leather up.”  He threw himself back into the excavation, half holding his breath against the mustiness of the air in the depths of the trunk.  There was his first stuffed animal.  Well, that was nice.  If you skipped the sad part.  What did Paul Newman say? “My momma loved me.  But she died.”  On the other hand, lots of people would say, “Get over it.”  He was one of them, at least in theory.  Just the same, the teddy bear had a ticket to L.A.  And so did these massive and beautiful red and white candles.  They’d never been lit.  The town doctor gave them to his mother in honor of his birth.  Jack had gone to Doctor Schilling for years.  He’d also gone to his funeral.  Doctor Schilling had been an honorable and upright dude.  Jack felt that he should try to remember that, that at least one of the Old Guard had been worth a shit.

 

Praise the lord, he’d gotten to the last layer.  Table linens.  Exquisitely embroidered linens that his mother had gotten from her mother, so they must be a hundred years old.  They were works of art.  And probably worth money.  Since pawning his gold Phi Beta Kappa key would only translate into a fifth of decent vodka, Jack figured that he needed a fallback position.  Speaking of vodka, maybe, after packing the linens, it was time to declare “peace with honor” on the day’s labor.  In honor of the paper he’d just thrown out on Orwellian prose and Nixon.  He really could finish tomorrow.  Go to the post office Monday morning.  And really shake the dust of this town off his feet.  This could be the last time.

 

Jack stepped into the shower.  Washing away the dust of ages was more important than a drink.  And that was a healthy attitude. . .maybe he should start using this old fashioned Ivory soap.  Besides, he was going to have to go out.  There wasn’t any food in the house.  He was lucky there’d been coffee.  There hadn’t been that much food there even when his father lived there.  Part of his perfectionism involved maintaining his weight and, in his widowhood, he did so by following what Jack and Joe called the POW diet.  Jack had to either go to the store or risk the local cuisine.  Equally unappealing alternatives.  He tabled it and concentrated on luxuriating under the steaming water.   Once Jack was clean, he decided that the lesser evil was eating out.  Jack wasn’t feeling social—he just felt compelled to get out of the damn house.  Actually, Jack was suddenly in a bad mood.

 

“Drink down a bottle and I’m ready to kill.”

 

Too bad he couldn’t sing.  Maybe more like Tennessee Williams, “Just til I get that little click in my head.”  Either way.  He felt possessed by an inchoate, angry energy.  Too many hours living in the past today.  Too many losses revisited.  Too much mortality.  Good thing he was self-sufficient.  Just like Dad.  Great.  He really didn’t want to talk to anyone.  Especially given the likely profile of the other customers.  This occurred to him as he was getting dressed.  That it wasn’t L.A. and no way in hell would he run into anyone he needed to impress.  Too bad he’d already put his contacts in.

 

Jack decided to walk into town, even though drinking and driving was the sport of his people in L.A.  One last trip down memory lane.  Besides, his rental car had an Illinois plate.  An out of state plate used to be two strikes against you and Jack wasn’t so optimistic that things had changed that much.  Just like in Tennessee Williams.  And it was warmer today, a hoodie and a jean jacket would be enough.  As he was closing up the house, Jack saw the trench knife on his father’s bed.  Dad used to talk about wearing it strapped to his ankle.  It appealed to his mood.  And wasn’t he just like Dad?  It was an homage to his father—like in a Renoir film.  Talk about pretentious.  Maybe not ignorant but really pretentious.  And fundamentally full of shit.  Now that was a nice phrase, he’d have to write that down before he left.  Jack rolled up his jeans and strapped it on.  The hilt was just above the top of his boot.  Jack thought that one of the best things in L.A. was that a guy could go anywhere in jeans and cowboy boots.  Only the women had to dress up.  So it would be pretty funny if they refused to seat him in Bumfuck at the one supposedly nice restaurant.

 

Fresh air was good.  It wasn’t bad, it must still be in the forties.  At the end of the block, he noticed that they were building a house in the vacant lot.  So enough time has gone by.  When Jack was a boy, it had been a vacant lot.  It was the last parcel on the street.  Finally, it got bought and built up.  By a black family.  Except that just before they moved in, it burned to the ground.  Partly because it took the fire department a half hour to get there.  They didn’t rebuild.  That was his old hometown.  That’s what people in L.A. didn’t get—they think it’s all like Aspen.  And who knows how well they even know Aspen.  Jack knew this little town.  He knew that on a late spring day when he’d been a boy the Klan had marched around the town square.  In full regalia.  To what had seemed to young Jack like pretty tumultuous cheering from the locals.  Of course, it must have evolved some, like the rest of the country.  Even by the time he was in high school, there was a Jewish family.  Although they did live outside the city limits.  But in a nice house.  And it was still standing.  As far as Jack knew.

 

Jack was walking past the Victorian mansions now, towards the square.  He still liked looking at them.  There was the manse where the Right Reverend Gawd used to live.  That’s what they called him.  Now there was a pompous asshole, one who both looked and thought fifty years behind the times.  And that took some doing in Brigadoon.  His mother had made him take the confirmation class.  But he refused to join the church.  His mother took it like a man.  It’s not like it was going to make her an outcast from the local high society.  And she believed in free thought and free speech.  Jack reckoned that maybe it was just as well she wasn’t around anymore.  Aside from the fact that it would make her unhappy to see how his life had turned out.  Probably more unhappy than it made him.

 

Closer to the square, there was an alley that was a short cut home that Jack and his friends used to take in high school so they could smoke a joint.  They were an American band.  On the other side of the alley, the houses were smaller.  The mad old Latin teacher had lived in the first one.  She was ancient, and, when starting to teach translation, she used to say, “Troy a fruit.  A fuimos Trojani.”  Or at least that’s what it sounded like.  She said it meant, “Troy was.  We were Trojans.”  Then she’d say “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.”  And burst into tears.  Every year.  Jack hadn’t wanted to take Latin.  He should’ve taken Spanish—that would’ve done him some good.  People there weren’t even prejudiced against Latinos.  Of course, that’s because there weren’t any.  Back then.  He’d wanted to take German.  But they’d rid the schools of the Hun during one of the wars and hadn’t gotten around to bringing it back.  But you could use “Jew” as a verb.  Maybe it would’ve been fun to grow up some place you didn’t loath and might consider coming back to.  Thomas Wolfe was right but his title was wrong.  You could come home again, it was just a terrible mistake.

 

“It’s all over now, baby blue.”

 

Even Dylan sang better than he did.  Jack was suddenly ravenous—he hadn’t eaten much for the last two days.  That was harder at forty-two than it used to be too.  But here was The Terrace.  Supposedly the upscale alternative to fast food and the diner—a new addition since Jack left town.  It claimed to be Italian and looked beautiful, as it was housed in another Victorian.  Jack wondered if the newer newcomers knew that it used to be a funeral home.  Already having all that refrigeration equipment and counter space must have really cut the renovation cost.  Jack smiled.  For a second, his mood lifted.  So here goes nothing.

 

Fair to middlin’.  That’s an expression from these here parts that seemed to describe the meal Jack had eaten.  Ravenous had helped.  Vodka had helped.  Walking around the square, Jack wondered if anyone had ever ordered a third drink before from the sort of snotty, sort of middle-aged waitress.  Or maybe she just didn’t like bearded longhairs.  Even aging ones who tipped pretty well.  And he had tipped her well—and in cash because he’d found a reasonable number of twenties secreted around the house.   Good old Dad.  So there was no blood on his hands.  As for the food. . .there’s a place in L.A. called Vitello’s.  Where Robert Blake took his wife.  They raised the prices after that.  Apparently, enough people like the food there, but Jack had never heard any foodies call it too too very very.  And Jack knew one woman who really looked down her nose at the place.  It was fun to bait her—you’d mention the word “Vitello’s” and she’d go off on their “bland, Americanized blasphemies of Italian food.”  But she was more of an Italian food snot than Jack.  Anyway, that’s what the food was like.

 

Now fed and alert, Jack saw that the square actually was noticeably different.  There seemed to be something like a night club on the west side.  At least a building with fluorescent lights.  For a second, Jack felt like his little Bedford Falls had turned into Potter’s Field.  Then he dismissed it as a crazy feeling.  After all, the Klan didn’t march in Bedford Falls.  Or maybe they did and that scene just got left on the cutting room floor.  Jack headed for the club.  As he got closer, it didn’t quite look like the Sunset Strip.  For one, the bouncer/doorman was a huge, but mostly fat, white farm boy instead of an amazingly ripped black dude.

 

One thing was the same.  Every one seemed pretty young.  Which made Jack feel pretty old.  He slipped through the gaggles of early—really early—twenty-somethings and found what seemed like the last space at the bar.  The bartendrix came right over—a pretty hot red head who was mercifully a little older—she had a knowing look in her eyes and a dazzling smile that she favored Jack with.  It made him feel a lot better, even though it just meant that she was a good bartender.  It worked—when she brought his drink, he put down a big tip since he was made of twenties.  She gave him another smile.  Jack knew it wasn’t his charm—bartenders have to be nice to you if you’re not an utter asshole.  Say, that was a good sign.

 

Jack sucked on the vodka and glanced around at the crowd of youngsters.  Some of them were hotter than others.  Maybe it wasn’t that different from L.A.  And so what if they seemed a little vacuous.  Jack didn’t recollect ever meeting any of the best minds of his generation on the Sunset Strip.  Of course, these days it was hard to meet anybody from his generation in a club.  Jack suddenly realized that some of the youngsters were African-Americans.  Once he stepped into the strobe lights of the club, part of him forgot that he wasn’t in Cali so it seemed normal.  Well, there you go, maybe the times had finally changed and it was him that stubbornly remained a snotty little asshole after all.  Jack subtly raised his glass to that but before it reached his lips he was almost staggered by a blow to his left arm.  He almost put his front teeth into the glass.  That pissed him off—he’d put a lot of money into those teeth. As he set the glass down and flicked the wetness of his hand, he turned toward his unknown assailant.

 

A young woman.  Obviously, she’d hit him with her ridiculously large shoulder bag as she’d failed in an attempt to elbow up to the bar.  A cute little brunette.  But she didn’t have a knowing look.  In fact, there wasn’t much light behind her eyes.  And the look of disdain she shot at Jack more or less ruined her appeal.  Contemptuously, she turned away from him to her friends.

 

“I need to find my inner bitch.”

 

Jack was surprised that he heard it so clearly over the dance music blaring from many speakers.

 

“Maybe you can get some pointers from your outer bitch.”

 

Maybe if he hadn’t been surprised, that wouldn’t have popped out of his mouth.  Nah.  Things always popped out of his mouth.  Especially now that he’d almost mastered not giving a fuck.  Speaking of not being fun at parties.  But maybe it wouldn’t have come out loud enough for her to hear if it hadn’t been his fourth drink.  The girl tossed her hair angrily and stalked away, like a mannequin come to life.  Her friends followed her.  Jack turned back to his drink.  Maybe he really wasn’t fun at parties.  Except in L.A. people didn’t toss their hair and storm off.  Instead, they gave you a tight lipped smile and a short, brittle laugh, soon went off to the bar or the buffet, and never offered you more than a stony stare ever again.  On the plus side, this left Jack more time to write.  Or dick around on the internet.  And he could always get serious about brooding in the dark.  Now that Dad was losing his shit, there was room at the top.  Jack successfully toasted that thought.  In fact, he drained the glass.  Time to pee and blow this pop stand.

 

Jack threaded through the crowd toward the bathrooms in the rear.  He had just about reached the back hallway when he heard a shout of “Yo.”  Then he heard it again.  Jack turned around.  In the background, Jack could see the brunette and her friends hovering.

But the voice was closer and came from a burly local who looked like he’d been a high school linebacker six or seven years ago.  No neck.  Just starting to go to fat.  The kid was at the ready.  Young, dumb, and full of cum, as the old saying goes.

 

“You fucking with my girl?”

 

Tiny was itching for a fight.  Jack gave him a calm, steady look.

 

“No, dude.”

“Bullshit.  She said you did.  Who the fuck do you think you are?”

 

Why, ah’m jest a working man, like yerself.  No, that would be a bad choice.  Another bad choice would be to fight with someone twenty years younger and sixty pounds heavier.  Considering how much money he’d invested in his teeth.  Therefore, he should choose wisely—Jack figured he could do that since he was a smart guy and this didn’t involve picking a girlfriend.  But then he decided to go with the truth.  Despite his mother’s claims, it had hardly ever worked before but at least would make for a good story.  Jack told him exactly what she said and he said.

 

It was fascinating—Jack could see Tiny groping to process the words.  What ever happened to survival of the fittest?  Maybe the loons were right and Darwin was wrong.  Wait, a cognitive breakthrough—and Tiny started to laugh.  That was going to cost him, judging by the look on his girl’s face.  But he should get out while the getting was good.  He could pee somewhere else.

 

“Peace, out, dude.”

 

Jack braced himself once he had his back to Tiny but nothing happened.  Through the crowd and out the door, to grandmother’s house we go.  The fresh air and relative quiet of the street was a relief in a lot of ways.  What a town.  This could be the last time.  Keep saying it and maybe it’ll be true.  Jack couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a situation like that.  Ridiculous.  But he still had to pee.  He headed for the dive bar across the square.  The one that used to be a gun shop.  What the hell, complete the circle of life.

 

The other extreme.  The juke box played country rock pretty softly and two aging bikers were the only ones at the bar.  Even older than Jack.  How about that?  Same with the bartender, who had a leathery face with spectacular patterns of lines and crevices etched into it.  The place reeked of tobacco smoke.  Back home in Indiana.  Not that Jack really minded.  In fact it was a temptation.  He’d have to burn his clothes when he got home anyway.  There was a pool table in the back.  Jack saw the comforting colors of the Grey Goose bottle behind the bartender.  He asked for one as he hurried toward the men’s room in the back.

 

What a dump.  The layers of dirt in the basement paled in comparison.  Jack settled in front of the urinal.  Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you.  Jack didn’t say it out loud because he could hear grunts emitting from the wooden slatted stall.  Pretty distressed grunts actually.  There but by the grace of god, go I.  He didn’t say that out loud either.  Talk about a fate worse than death.  Looking at the faucets, Jack decided not touching anything was the healthy choice.  He knew where his dick had been.  In the mirror, he looked like just another bearded longhair—it fit in as well here as on Montana Avenue.  Funny that.  It didn’t seem like there was a lot of progress happening in the stall.  Poor bastard.  Jack bumped the door open with his shoulder and headed out.  Look, ma, no hands.

 

Now that would be a good scene in a movie.  He’d have to write it down when he got home.  Jack slapped a twenty on the bar and the bartender got him his change right way.  Wordless.  A beautiful thing.  Although not particularly welcoming.  Jack took his bucket of vodka and tonic over to the pool table.  He used to be pretty good—in the bar table sense—but it had been awhile.  He studied the balls that were out.  It was relaxing to think about vectors and angles instead of people.

 

“Do y’all wanna shoot a rack a eight ball?”

 

The voice was a startling interruption.  Not to mention hearing that almost southern twang that folks around there had.  Folks that weren’t newcomers, that is.  A wiry little guy, probably in his late twenties, with unkempt dirty blonde hair and a chipped front tooth.  The little mustache that wouldn’t really grow in made him look even more rat like.  Jack felt like it would be a dis to say no since he’d been caught eyeing the table.  And Jack could tell he was the kind of small town punk that took offense real easy.  And Jack felt like he’d had enough excitement for one night.  He decided to try to fit in and put out a peaceful, easy feeling.  Not that it had worked that well at L.A. parties.

 

“Sure.  Why not?”

 

Jack bent over and stuffed quarters into the slots.  The balls dropped with a satisfying roar.  The guy watched him rack—Jack could feel his eyes.  Jack actually screwed it up and it took him an extra few seconds to arrange the balls.  Too much vodka.  Or maybe he was getting as senile as Dad.

 

“Arlo.”

 

Arlo stood there with his hand out.  Arlo had to have been the guy that had been in the stall.  For just a millisecond, that made Jack hesitate.  Arlo caught it.  There was light in Arlo’s eyes but it was more like animal cunning.  Like a coyote.  Jack saw him ever so slightly stiffen.  Shit.  They shook hands.  Jack promised himself not to touch his mouth or his eyes for the rest of the night.

 

“Tom.”

 

Jack didn’t know why he did that but he felt good about it.  Couldn’t hurt.

 

“We generally play for twenty dollars here.”

 

Fuck.  Jack wondered if this was because he’d screwed up the rack.

 

“No, dude, I don’t like playing for money.”

“House rules, man.  Don’t be a pussy.”

 

Arlo was getting hostile fast.  Jack saw the bartender not looking but obviously all over it.  Arlo slapped a bill on the edge of the table.  Jack felt at a disadvantage, maybe if he hadn’t pissed him off on the handshake he could bail.  But he had.  What the hell.  He had the twenty, courtesy of Dad.  Jack put it down on top of Arlo’s, who then put a piece of chalk on them.  Jack looked for a stick with a decent tip.  The tip was more important than how crooked it was.

 

Arlo broke with a vicious stroke, the cue ball hopped.  A stripe dropped.  Arlo crouched over his next shot, a long but straight one.  Arlo drilled it home, his eye was true.  But he hit too hard and wasn’t thinking about controlling the cue ball.  So Jack knew he wasn’t that good.  Funny the way old skills pop up to the surface.  Maybe he wasn’t losing his mind yet.  Arlo put in a third and a fourth ball before missing.  That was fine.  A pro Jack used to play with had told him, “In eight ball, let them get their balls out of the way first.”  Arlo seemed a little happier, and sauntered back.  Jack looked at the table and chalked his cue.  He could have a lot of them if he didn’t fuck it up too badly.  Jack gently dissected the table, even on this crappy fast felt he was leaving the cue ball more or less where he wanted it.  He had five balls down before he spaced a little and missed.  Arlo was losing his good humor.  Maybe Jack should throw the game.  Jack rebelled against the idea.

 

When he was just starting school, his Dad would play Parcheesi and checkers with him.  And kick his ass.  His Dad would say if he was old enough to play, he didn’t need any slack.  Jack would get frustrated and his father would say, “Son, if you want to win, don’t make so many mistakes.”  So Jack didn’t believe in cutting slack.  But he should.

 

“Yer not from around here, are ya?”

“I grew up around here.”

 

Arlo looked at him in a challenging, chin up way.  Jack put out pleasant.  He felt like Arlo was waiting on him to say something.  Jack smiled—he’d seen enough actors do it in L.A. to know how to make it seem real.

 

“I was walking around the square.  Seems like it’s changed a lot.”

“Yeah? Well, they still don’t let niggers in here.”

 

Arlo stared at Jack.  Jack stayed deadpan.

 

“Yeah? . . .It’s your shot.”

 

This fucking town.  Well, he stood with Elvis Costello.  “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”  Jack knew he should try harder to be amused.  But he didn’t.  Instead, Jack decided not to cut him any slack.  He was going to kick his ass.  It was probably not choosing wisely but it was going to be fun.  And it was.  Jack ran out the table on his next shot and dropped the eight with a nice cross side bank shot just to be a shit.  Jack could see that Arlo was pissed.

 

“Good game.”

“Ya gotta give me a chance to get even.”

 

Jack knew he had to.

 

“Okay, but then I got to split, no matter what.  Cool?”

 

Arlo curtly nodded.  He’d picked up a shot from the bar, which he downed.  Jack drained his drink too.  Then he broke.  It went quick, but Jack left the eight on the edge of a corner pocket behind the line.  Arlo then sank the rest of his balls but scratched on the last one.  He was pretty puffed up, since the eight was behind the shooting line.  Jack stood there holding the cue ball.  Arlo smirked.

 

“Whatcha gonna call?”

“Around the world.”

 

That was the name of the shot.  For once, Jack stroked hard.  The cue ball shot diagonally down the table, hit the side rail short of that pocket, caromed into the back rail, bounced into the rail on the opposite side, and then diagonally skittered across the table until it tapped the eight into the pocket.  Pretty gratifying.  Happy birthday, motherfucker.

 

Jack picked up the pile of twenties and stuffed them into his jeans.  He held out his hand.  Arlo shook it, but hate shone in his feral eyes.  He was practically vibrating.  As fun as that had been, Jack knew he shouldn’t have.  It’s funny how parents, with the best of intentions, teach their kids things that end up biting them in the ass.

 

“Can I buy you a drink before I split?”

“Fuck off.”

 

Jack thought that was excellent advice under the circumstances.  So he did.  What a racist little shit.  This is what people in L.A. so didn’t get.  It was better, but it was still there.  And politicians pretended it didn’t exist anymore.  Even if they were just up the road a piece, having a shot and a beer with the locals.  Why was that?

 

The night breeze swirled around Jack’s face as he started to stride around the square.  It felt warmer.  Jack wondered if it was getting warmer or if it was just the vodka.  Either way, the hoodie was enough, he carried his jean jacket.  Take a good look at the damn court house and everything else.  He really did hate this town.  Because of shit like that.  And the rest of the evening, for that matter.  And everything else.  It made his skin crawl, whether that made him a snotty asshole or not.  But this was the last time.  He swore it.

 

Jack left the square behind and started up Ruffle Shirt Hill.  No one else was on the street, now that it was getting late.  No cars either.  That was nice.  He really should’ve started smoking again.  That would be perfect now.  Jack decided to cut down the alley and go the back way since it was the last time.  He could have a nightcap back at the house—too much of the vodka had worn off with all the excitement.  After he washed his hands.  And wrote down that bathroom scene.  He started to think about the moments as he walked.  The silence was punctuated by an old engine that was missing back on the street.  Then Jack saw the headlight gleam surround him.  An old pick up truck rumbled down the alley so he moved to the side to let it pass.

 

It got close and stopped.  Arlo hopped out of the cab and came around the front.  And he was hopped up.  This couldn’t be good.

 

“Motherfucking hustler!”

 

In fact, chances are, it was going to be beaucoup fucked up.  Jack just looked at him.  He’d always wanted to be thought of as a pool hustler.  Watch out for what you wish for.

 

“You jewed me outta forty dollars.”

 

Excellent.  Perfect, in fact.  The circle of life.

 

“Dude, I didn’t want to play for money.  What’s up with this?”

“Yeah, now you’re like that.”

“It’s what I said at the beginning.”

 

This was spitting into the wind.  Jack was starting to get pissed.  Arlo was smaller.  But he was a lot younger.  And saw better.  And obviously didn’t have crowned front teeth.  He could give him his money back but damned if he wanted to be the bitch in this relationship.  But there was that choosing wisely thing.  Fuck.

 

“Dude, if this is about the money. . .”

“Fuck the money!  You’ll need it, motherfucker when I’m done schooling your ass.”

 

Arlo drew a hunting knife from behind his back.  The blade gleamed in the headlights.  So did his eyes.  Arlo looked for fear in Jack.  Jack hid it.  But he knew he couldn’t outrun him.  Even though he hadn’t started smoking again.  Arlo was gathering it up to come at him.  Jack kicked his right foot back and up, his hand slapped at his ankle and came up with the trench knife in it.  Now Arlo wore a look of surprise with a touch of doubt.  Jack stayed still, holding the knife in one hand and his jacket in the other.  Jack’s father had told him that if you held a double edged knife backhanded, the backslash took people by surprise.  It was as good an idea as any.

 

“Dude, we don’t have to do this.”

 

Arlo’s nostrils flared.  Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say.  Maybe a sign of weakness?  Especially to a coyote.  Arlo reared back and rushed him.  Son, if you want to win, don’t make so many mistakes.

 

It went even quicker than the second pool game. Jack glimpsed Arlo’s blade scything up on his left.  Jack cloaked it with his jacket as he sliced across with his own.  Arlo, his knife hand tangled in the cloth, leaned back to avoid Jack’s knife.  But the backslash caught him flatfooted.  Jack’s blade bit into the flesh just above Arlo’s scrawny collarbone.  Jack pulled his arm back and Arlo gave his wound a puzzled look.

 

Jack really wanted to win.  Reversing his grip, he stepped forward and uppercut the blade into Arlo’s gut.  His Dad had always said the gut, not the ribs.  Jack felt the steel penetrate cloth, then skin, then muscle, then something squishy.  Arlo’s face was just inches from his.  Jack thrust deeper.  A flash of a grimace before Arlo’s jaw started to slacken.  Jack had never felt so happy in his life.  An unimaginable elation.  He jerked and twisted the hilt and ecstatically relished the quivers it sent through Arlo’s features.  The eyes were already unseeing. Jack jerked out the blade and stepped back.  Arlo crumbled.

 

Jack unlooped his jacket from the seemingly lifeless hand that still held a knife.  A rush of fierce, primal joy.  It was beautiful.  This was really winning.  This is what it really meant.  Everything else was just a game.  He felt an urge to stab someone else.  But there was no one around.  Bending over, he wiped his blade clean on Arlo’s pants.

 

“You fucked with the wrong cracker.”

 

No one around.  A different part of his mind recognized the importance of that fact.  What the fuck should he do now?  He saw blood pooling around the body but a panicky glance showed none on him.  But his primal joy was gone.  Now he couldn’t feel anything at all.  Like a state of shock.  But that made it easier to think.  So, you see, officer, the local guy, your friend, your bud’s son, jumped me.  And me, the stranger, the guy from Hollywood, just defended myself.  With an army knife that I just happened to have strapped to my ankle for shits and giggles.  So can I go now?  Would that fly?  Fuck.  Tennessee Williams had been pretty clear on this point.  Not to mention Rambo.  LOL.

 

Maybe he should run.  He’d still have the same defense if they caught him.  And maybe they wouldn’t catch him.  He didn’t live there.  He’d only talked to a couple of people.  And he’d paid cash.  He looked around.  Nobody.  He walked away.

 

Jack’s feet carried him along, leaving his mind free to race.  Unbelievable.  This really was the last time—if his luck held.  It would make a great screenplay.  But that was a bad idea.  He decided to think of nothing and concentrate on remaining unseen.  It seemed like he was alone and unobserved.  He tried to feel the night.

 

Jack was inside the house.  Still numb.  No one had seen him.  He thought.  He walked into the bathroom.  He still didn’t see any blood anywhere on him.  This was it.  His point of no return.  He could go call the cops.  He pulled his hair back into a pony tail.  He took a pair of scissors and cut it off.  The die was cast.  He began to shave his beard.

 

Two hours later, everything he’d worn was washed, he had showered and all the hair as well as his contact lens had disappeared down the toilet.  He looked at himself in the mirror. That kind of early Elvis Costello haircut could use help.  But he looked different.

 

“Clark Kent, what are you doing after the Super Bowl?”

 

He studied himself some more in the bathroom mirror.  He still felt nothing.  It was weird.  It was like a dream.  With any luck, it would be like that old joke. . .he looked accusingly at his reflection.

 

“You’re a killer.”

 

Jack assumed a blank air towards the mirror.

 

“You can’t prove it.”

 

So that’s the kind of guy he was now.

 

The next day, Sunday, passed.  Jack finished his business with the house, always waiting for the knock at the door.  But it never came.  He stayed home that night.  Never left the house.  He got a little hungry but polished off the vodka instead.  One thing surprised him.  He never felt a shred of guilt.  He just wanted to get away with it.  He hadn’t known he was capable of that.  Maybe most people are.  Maybe this would make him a better writer.  And, again, he marveled at where his thoughts went.  And what he was indifferent to.  All that not giving a fuck training is really paying off.  This was the final exam.

 

Monday morning.  Jack drove to the post office.  He felt frozen on the surface and marked underneath.  He was floating.  He floated up to the counter and shipped several boxes to Indy and two to L.A.  Nestled deep in one was the trench knife.  Then the ancient court house clock was in the rear view mirror.  But Jack felt like he saw a different man in the mirror.

 

“Well, I killed a man in Texas, broke jail and can’t go back.”

 

The new guy couldn’t sing either.  The only cop he passed didn’t hop on his tail.  Lots of murders are unsolved.  As long as people don’t write screenplays about them.  Even if it was the best idea he ever had.  A little more speed, I’m almost there.  And then the road got better.  He was in Illinois.

 

“Well, the sheriff couldn’t catch me, but his little girl, sure wish she would, uh-huh.”

 

But the new guy still liked singing, just like Jack.  Top of the world, Ma.  That night he was back in L.A.  And he read on the internet that a black man had been arrested for murder in Brigadoon.  That figured.  A wave of pain and uncertainty rose up in him, along with a cynical grimace.  The accused had a long and heinous rap sheet and the article implied that he’d, well, gotten away with murder before.  That was completely irrelevant, of course.  As was the discreet mention that the upstanding victim had had a small dalliance with crystal meth.  But it was good enough for Jack.  Because he’d passed his final exam.  He really didn’t give a fuck anymore.  And maybe he was a callous asshole.  But he understood himself better now.  And he understood life better.  And every day of the rest of his life was going to be better for that.  Although he still probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun at parties.

 

And, maybe, when the dust settled, he’d write that screenplay.

 

AIN’T THAT AMERICA?  CHECK IT AND SEE

 

A short fiction by Christopher Horton

 

 

 

 

There was the highway sign, right where he recollected it would be.  Partly obscured by the thickening snow flurries and framed by the gunmetal grey of the low hanging clouds, it read, “Illinois 394, The Dixie Highway.”  Juking on the Dixie highway, as Tennessee Williams used to say.   It had been 78 degrees under a cloudless azure blue sky when he’d left LA in the morning.  But here, it was easy for the middle of March to be the middle of winter.  Tennessee Williams never had much positive to say about going home either.  That was probably why Jack had always liked him.  He channeled his general sourness into the gas petal and the rental Trans-Am jerked forward down the Dixie Highway.  He broke a tight smile as he felt the tires skid before grabbing hold of the slushy pavement.  Just like old times.  Except that it wasn’t at all.

 

In L.A., Jack wrote.  Back home in Indiana, he shoveled shit.  He supposed he spent time shoveling shit in L.A. too, since he was only a marginally successful writer.  One screen credit—way too many years ago.  Now, a rare polish, usually courtesy of an old friend, enlivened the usual run of dumb articles for cheesy magazines and sites.  Just enough to keep him off cat food and on vodka.

 

Jack shrugged his hair out of his eyes and peered harder through the snow flakes—he was looking for the third little county road—the Dixie Highway was open access here.  It had been a long day already.  A long wasted day, as days flying back east from L.A. always were.  A long, wasted, silent day, as Jack wasn’t much on talking to strangers.  He spotted the county road and gently eased the car into the left turn, as the pavement was freezing as the sun waned.  Now he was pretty much out in the country.  Fallow corn fields dusted in snow broken up by ramshackle barns that desperately needed a coat of paint and an occasional group of uninspired cows stupidly enduring the snow and raw wind.  Kinda like the crowd of theoretical writers and directors at the coffee shop on his corner that he often walked past and never entered.

 

As soon as Jack crossed the state line into Indiana, the quality of the road noticeably deteriorated.  Thank god for Mississippi.  Jack had heard or read somebody who said that Indiana was a southern state with crappier weather.  Word.  But there was his favorite sight.  That country liquor store that misspelled “Bourbon” on the red, hand painted ad that adorned the whitewashed front wall.  The really funny part was that “Amaretto” was spelled correctly.  Cheap cigarettes though, maybe he should start again.  Jack allowed himself a real smile as he passed it, an oasis in the otherwise flat, dismal landscape.  They had shot the scene where Cary Grant is chased by the crop duster not far from here, but it looked better that time of year.

 

It was going to be a silent night, too.  Jack was headed for his father’s house, the house that he’d grown up in.  But his father wouldn’t be there.  Nobody would be there.  He didn’t mind, at least in general.  He spent a lot of silent nights alone in L.A. too.  When he was younger, he spent a lot of nights in bars.  But now that he was forty-two, well, been there, done that.  Most of the time he’d rather sit at home in the dark by himself.  Just like good old Dad.  Dad had done some of his best brooding after forty-two.  Of course, when his Dad was his age, he’d been raising kids—well, sort of, as much as men did back then.  Nonetheless, enough that he’d gotten a late start on sitting in the dark brooding.  Just another way that not having kids got you ahead.  Jack did remember coming home in the middle of the night as a teenager and slipping quietly into the dark house only to see his father watching from the armchair.  Jack had an armchair now too.  And, if Jack liked, he could sit in it and drink alone, like a good WASP.  His Dad hadn’t been much of a drinker—he’d liked his brooding straight up.

 

Jack didn’t even have a wife, much less kids.  He had had one once, a long time ago.  Not for too long.  What had gone wrong with that?  Jack could hardly remember at this point, but he thought it had had something to do with him not being willing to sacrifice his aspirations in order to get with her program.  She was divorced from a doctor now, which seemed to be a more advantageous station in life than being divorced from him had been.  Jack didn’t blame Lynn particularly, and he wasn’t holding a grudge against her.  After Lynn, there’d only been girlfriends, all of whom were now gone with the wind.  In fact, the most recent one, a veteran of two years with him, had decamped just weeks before things had exploded.  Jack wasn’t holding a grudge against her either—aside from a mild one about her dumping him in general.  She couldn’t help it if she were lucky.  Maybe he was unlucky.  Or maybe he had not chosen wisely.  Maybe he’d rather be right than in a relationship.  Jack had been a tense teenager and had always wanted to be somebody who just didn’t give a fuck—funny the things that kids come up with, huh?  Of course, the fact that his father had been a Type A perfectionist might have had something to do with it.  Now, well, he felt like he was getting so close to realizing that life long dream.  He felt like he knew the material and all he had left to do was pass some sort of final exam.

 

If the truth be known, Jack didn’t often brood when he sat in the dark alone—he usually just free associated and thought great and often amusing thoughts.  Or mediocre and sometimes amusing ones.

 

There it was, like a beacon in the night.  The clock tower of the 1870 court house still reigned over the town square.  Back then, it must have been an awesome sight to the hicks and you could still see it from several miles of flat cornfields away.  Home was less than ten minutes away.  Well, his childhood home.  Well, a cold, dark house that had been unoccupied for two months.  His destination.

 

“And this could be the last time, maybe the last time, I don’t know.”

 

Jack didn’t sing very well.  Bu that didn’t always stop him.  Especially when he was alone.  Which was a lot.

 

The town square was pretty desolate as Jack wheeled the car around it.  The worn looking, almost failing local shops were all closed.  A couple of bearded, fat, long haired guys turned a corner into the teeth of the cold rain and snow, before disappearing into a bar two doors down.  That bar used to be a gun shop when Jack was a boy.  He and his friends would go in and admire the weapons, especially the Colt revolvers.  Tonight, he just kept going and headed up Ruffle Shirt Hill Road, so called because the Victorian swells had lived there.  As a kid, Jack had always thought it would’ve been very cool to live in one of those mansions with their turrets and cupolas.  No such luck.  They were not one of the old guard families.  His mother had more than once noted to him that in those circles they were still “newcomers”—his parents had been there close to twenty years at that point.  At the time, it had made him angry to see his mother dissed.  At sixteen, she‘d gone to affairs at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Jack had seen pictures.  Talk about, “My god, what have I done?”  Now, more than twenty years after he’d left, he could only grimace at the idea that those undistinguished clowns had put on airs because their gene pool had smugly rotted there for a century.

 

Jack felt that “rotted” was exactly the right word.  When Jack was a little boy, it was a little, close minded farm town of 4,000 people and at least half that many souls.  Jack liked that turn of phrase; he’d have to write it down in his book when he got to the house.  Good—or at least sellable—internet writing required a ready font of snark.  His parents had been among the first of an influx of more worldly, more educated people that tripled the population and nudged the place towards becoming a pastoral bedroom community for the steel mills farther north.   As if to illustrate the thought, Jack turned off Ruffle Shirt Hill Road onto a smaller street, Mary Ann Place.  Immediately, stately Victorian mansions were replaced by mid century ranch houses, as if to herald the infiltration of the meritocracy.  But that was just the surface impression.  Politically and culturally, the town was still run by the descendents of the original pioneers that hadn’t had the spunk to keep going.  Symbolically, Mary Ann Place was named for the daughter of one of the richest farmers, who had sold off a few hundred acres for this development.  Mary Ann Place dead ended at the wooden fence marking the new boundary of the farm.  So did Mary Ann.  She’d gone to high school with Jack, but they hadn’t been friends.  On summer nights, Jack as a child could hear the cows lowing at the end of the block, like they were a Greek chorus announcing who still ran this back water Thebes.

 

It wasn’t so much a question of money but it was a muted class war just the same.  Two largely divergent value systems overlay each other in a stony, laconic—it was the Midwest, after all—stand off.  And in the cracks, rot grew.  As teenagers, Jack and his posse smelled it even though they didn’t have the world view to understand it.  But they all wanted to shake the dust of that town off their feet.  Jack had later read this artistic treatise that argued that children have a pure sense of truth until society and the school system beat it out of them.  Of course, that’s a charitable description of Jack’s teenage crowd.  Instead, one could say they were spoiled, snotty, immature little assholes.  Jack hadn’t understood any of this as a teenager nor had he recognized that dichotomy in his high school class, but, in retrospect, all his real peeps were children of newcomers.  And they’d all shaken the dust of that town off their feet.  That was another reason it was going to be a solitary weekend.

 

Jack pulled into the cracked, oil stained driveway of a brick 1960 vintage ranch house.  His father, originally a city boy, had never completely accommodated the idea of rural/suburban living, at least far as aesthetic upkeep beyond the functional went.  Jack remembered his father wondering if the neighbors would form a lynch mob if he replaced the grass with green cement.  He turned off the ignition and just sat there, looking at the dark house.  Here we go.  But it could be the last time.

 

Jack winced as he shouldered his bag, then trudged up the half flight of concrete steps to the porch.  He was getting too old for this shit.  The light was off, of course, but Jack still saw pretty well in the dark.  The key that he’d been solemnly entrusted with when he was twelve still fit the lock if you wiggled it a little bit.  He’d had to wiggle it a little when he was twelve too—his father’s definition of functional hadn’t changed much over the years.

 

Inside, he surveyed the dark living room from the foyer and was almost surprised that his father wasn’t sitting and brooding in the armchair.  He flicked the light switch.  The Museum of Happier Times is open.

 

Jack walked through the house.  It really was a museum—the kitchen still had its original blonde wood cabinets, scorched near the built in electric oven and stove.  Not to mention the black, cast iron rotary phone.  Jack’s mother had died before the time came to renovate it, and it was plenty functional for his father.  Miraculously, the baby shit brown 1960 refrigerator resolutely hummed along.  And his first grade art project still hung over the kitchen sink window.  It was an apple made out of colored sands glued to plywood.  Good thing he could write.  Maybe the Smithsonian would pay a fortune for such Americana.  If he had it in L.A., he could rent it out as a set.

 

“June, I’m home.”

 

Jack’s bedroom and that of his younger brother Joe were largely unchanged, childhood board games, toy soldiers, model airplanes and books still adorned child style book cases.  Jack could point out minor differences but the impression, like that of the rest of the house, was frozen in time.  Just like the town.  He and his friends used to call it Brigadoon when they were in high school.  Yeah, well, maybe they were just little assholes instead of full of artistic truth.  He sat down in his father’s armchair.  That seemed creepy enough.  His father was eighty-one now.  Until Christmas, he’d lived there alone for twenty years.  Jack had always reckoned that his mother would have been a lot more work if she’d been the survivor.  He suspected that thinking that might make him a callous asshole. His Dad never considered remarrying for a second.  His vehemence on that point had seemed a little disconcerting because it had sprayed out from a vein of “so over it” rather than pining.  But now, that was a concept that was getting clearer to Jack every fucking day.  But, after Christmas, the bottom fell out.  Like that, his Dad’s mind became Swiss cheese.  Or maybe it just hit critical mass.  It’s not like Jack saw him that much.  But he’d flown out from LA and Joe had driven up from Indy.

 

The neurologist said he scored, what was it, twelve out of twenty?  Jack asked, “What does that mean?”  “Well, if he were a farmer, it would be okay.  But your father is an educated man. . .”  There was the Brigadoon dialectic again.  Aside from that, Jack was really amused by the neurologist’s way with words.  So he used it in an article.  Call it a midterm in learning to not give a fuck.  Jack and Joe both decided that you really haven’t lived until you’ve taken freedom away from a parent.  Jack ranked it as one of the worst experiences of his life, at least in terms of vague guilt and anguish.  Definitely worse than deflowering that girl in college.  Maybe as bad as that time in Tijuana.

 

Dad was now ensconced in an assisted living apartment in Indy.  It was less than half the price that it would’ve been in L.A.  So Joe had gotten the short end of that stick.  Jack reckoned that was modern American etiquette—the closet offspring takes the fall. So now they had to deal with the house so it could be sold to fund Dad through the slightly demented years.  It was the only financially viable option, although Joe had suggested that they run him for the Senate—excellent health care, y’know—as a strong, silent type: “Veteran.  Worker.  Father.”  Besides, Joe went on, “You heard the neurologist, ‘If he were a farmer, he’d be okay’.”  Jack thought it was pretty funny.  Maybe callous assholeness is a genetic trait.  But maybe it would’ve worked.  It was Indiana, after all.  Jack was very fond of this Lew Wallace—the guy who wrote Ben Hur—quote: “A lot of bright young men come out of Indiana, and the brighter they are, the quicker they come.”  Joe didn’t like it as much.  Jack smiled at that.  Anyway, that was the path that led him to this armchair tonight.  He would be alone this weekend.  Joe was doing plenty, but this weekend wasn’t happening for him; he was stuck not only with Dad, but also stuff to do with his wife and kid.  And Joe could handle the rest, because they were just going to have an auction once the personal stuff was gone.  So this could be it for this house.  And this town.

Jack found some thirty year old vodka in the kitchen and returned to the armchair.  It wasn’t good vodka, it had just been there for thirty years.  “Writers drink, hacks go into rehab.”  Jack tried to get comfortable in the chair. The chair was aging.  So was Jack.  It was a problem.

 

So this was his father’s view of life.  If he turned off the lights.  He did.  And ditched the vodka.  He didn’t.  What would his Dad have thought about?  Maybe “how did I get here?”  Or “this is not my beautiful house.”  It’s a long distance from the Waldorf to a ranch house in Bumfuck.  Of course, Jack had never thought he was going to live in L.A. indefinitely either.  Both his parents had grown up in New York City.  His father sometimes said out loud that he was sorry he’d raised his sons where they hadn’t really had a chance to get wise.  Thank the steel mills.  Of course, his breeder friends in L.A. were beginning to realize, to their horror, that they’d raised L.A. kids.  In some ways, the same story everywhere.

 

Except it was a different type of horror.  Jack remembered being in this room as a five year old, probably.  Both his parents were scrutinizing him, and his mother looked concerned.  It was one of Jack’s earliest memories because it had given him a cognitive breakthrough—it was the first time he’d thought of words as words.  No escaping destiny.  It happened when his apparently worried mother said, “Honey, that’s not a polite thing to say.  ‘Jew’ is not a verb.”  Boy, at that moment they must have been sorry they lived there.  Jack had heeded his mother but the interesting part then was the word thing—maybe because he hadn’t known anyone Jewish.

 

Jack always thought of that day when people at L.A. parties would burble about moving out to the pristine country and how idyllic it would be.  Jack would roll his eyes.  They were delusional.  They didn’t know what they were talking about.  Jack would tell them that the country was full of ignorant and bigoted people.  That people like them would be hunted down, killed, and eaten.  Maybe he wasn’t much fun at parties.  That would explain a lot.  And maybe preferring to spend time in the company of vacuous, self-absorbed people instead of ignorant, bigoted ones was just a matter of personal taste.  Or maybe, just maybe, he was getting old and bitter and passive-aggressive because he’d been shat on so many times.  Jack shrugged.  You buy the ticket, you take the ride.  Maybe this did qualify as full fledged brooding.  Maybe it was something about the chair.  It was probably something about being forty-two.

 

On a scale of one to ten, Jack rated the vodka as god awful.  But maybe he should have a leetle more.  That was funny, too, he mused as he headed back into the kitchen.  He said “leetle” sometimes.  Because his father had sometimes.  Because his grandmother had lived in Scotland as a teenager.  Jack had never met that grandmother.  But it was a lot more innocuous usage to pick up.  One more drink and then a lovely night on a single bed with, let’s see, a thirty-five year old mattress.

 

Jack bounded up the next morning bright and early.  A thirty-five year old mattress will do that for you when you’re forty-two.  He found the coffee pot—a heavy metal thing of beauty that perked on the stove top.  He’d always liked watching it perk as a child.  And apparently it remained functional.  Jack knew a prop grrl in L.A. that would give her left tit to rummage around this place.  Maybe he should have bought those cigarettes—they’d go with the coffee.  And the 1960 vibe.  Have a real writer’s breakfast before he began the archeological dig.  Jack’s goal was to go through the paper and effects.  Ship stuff that Dad would want to Joe and anything he wanted to himself.  And, of course, throw out as much as possible.  The next time someone complained about their folks selling their childhood home out from under them, Jack could explain in great detail why it was better than the alternative.  It probably wouldn’t help make him fun at parties though.

 

Jack started with his father’s closet—it was cleaner than the basement and there was less room for unpleasant surprises.  Jack was pretty sure that he already knew what was in there because it too seemed unchanged since adolescent Jack had rifled through it when home alone back in the day.  There were the then old, now ancient, Playboys, and a few other pretty soft porn things, all dating from Jack’s childhood.  The Playboys he set aside—gold in them thar hills on e-bay.  The rest he tossed into the garbage bag.  There was an ancient binder and metal strong box. Jack pulled them out.  And there was his prize—the Army trench knife.  He’d coveted it as a child and now it had come to him.  It meant a lot to his father, partly because he’d used it in anger during the war.  So it meant a lot to Jack.  Jack unsheathed it and felt the weight.  It was a good knife, still.  Powerful.  Jack remembered his father showing him how to handle it.  Jack sheathed it and tossed it on the bed.  He’d ship it to himself.

 

The binder was an amazing thing—it contained nicely hole-punched copies of every federal and state tax return since their marriage, some ten years before Jack had been born.  Damn, the old ones were simple.  Dad, you’re a special guy.  And a Type A perfectionist.  Joe would have to see this.  Besides, Dad will want it—these days, he’s a slightly wacked Type A perfectionist.  And an even more special guy.  In fact, he’d already asked for the knife—not that that was going to happen.  But Jack thought it showed a stunningly indomitable quality.  Jack admired that.

 

The strong box was also amazing  A lot of wills and death certificates, for Jack’s grandparents, great uncles and aunts, and great grandparents.  Was this a family tradition no one had told him about?  It’s cheery, at least.  What else?  Snapshots of Dad when he was a young man with various blondes.  He was pretty good looking—a lot better looking than either him or Joe although they both resembled him.  And the blondes all looked like Grace Kelly.  They were hot.  Then.  Dust thou wert and dust thou returneth.  No wonder Dad developed an aversion to having his picture taken.  Poor Dad.  He’d always said he’d rather eat the gun than go into assisted living.  But he waited too long.  It seems like people always do.  Must be a tough call.  Jack wondered if he’d be smarter.  And then there’s the losing your mind part.  Shit. . .what else is in here?  The discharge papers.  Dad said we should hang on to them and get our free grave marker.  Nice—“commanded groups of up to twenty-five enlisted and natives.”  That’s one way to put it.  Jack knew he was just wasting time.  This whole box should just go down to Dad.  And he’d probably had enough contemplation of his own mortality anyway.

 

Jack caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror.  His hair was long and still dark.  Jack figured it came in handy when posing as a writer on Montana Avenue.  The beard though was heavily flecked with grey.  It’s gonna have to go.  Jack felt he was too young to be a grey beard.  Obviously not.  What can ya do but beat your little boat against the tide?  He tied back his hair before descending into the basement.

 

Eight hours later, Jack permanently reemerged from the basement, bloodied but unbowed.  Well, covered in dust and soused in memories.  But he felt victorious.  Vast quantities of paper and assorted shit had been expelled from the bowels of the house.  He found his college papers.  This different person who had been him had written pretty well.  And the titles—one about the Virginia militia with General Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in the French and Indian War was called “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?”  He must have been pretty good if the stodgy history department professors let him get away with juvenile crap like that.  He threw them all out.  Time to put away childish things.  Some of them.  He’d ship the packet of letters from his college girlfriend.  Maybe he could use them in his work.  And some of the books—even though he’d let them stay there for twenty years.  Jack was almost enjoying himself.

 

But then there were the mountains of letters from his mother, still stuffed with the now yellowing newspaper clippings that she’d sent along.  That was more rending.  He read through some—her voice echoed back through the years and her concerns and admonitions came back to life in Jack’s head.  And her love.  He would have cried but he had no tears left.  Not for awhile.  Jack looked at the pile of letters for a long time.  Then he randomly selected a few for the L.A. box, for sometime when his life needed a jolt of human loss and sadness that he couldn’t generate by himself.  The rest he consigned to history.  A remembrance of things past and, in many ways, the very end of them.  He wasn’t sure whether it was better to be utterly alone or whether it would have been better if Joe had been there.  Both and neither probably.

 

Jack had dug down through a couple more layers of Troy in the ancient 1920s steamer trunk that his mother had inherited.  He found more of her things, from way before his time.  Match books from the Stork Club and El Morocco with dates written in them.  Nothing else.  Maybe just as well.  Jack claimed those.  There were pictures of a pretty young woman and of a hot young couple who had no idea what the future held and were thus unmarked by it.  And letters and cards between the two of them.  Reading them was cool and weird at the same time.  But Jack never really remembered seeing his parents in love.  Well, that’s not fair, when he was young.  But those days were mostly gone by the time he was old enough to understand.  He threw the letters away and kept the pictures.  And felt depressed.  What had happened to the couple in the pictures?  Or, if he was being honest, what about his youth?  What happened to it?  It was already the Prague Spring of his life and someday before too long the Russian tanks were gonna roll on in, one way or another. And what did he have to show for it?  For being forty-two?

 

Jack decided that that was a trick question.  Or that the right answer was “shut the fuck up and leather up.”  He threw himself back into the excavation, half holding his breath against the mustiness of the air in the depths of the trunk.  There was his first stuffed animal.  Well, that was nice.  If you skipped the sad part.  What did Paul Newman say? “My momma loved me.  But she died.”  On the other hand, lots of people would say, “Get over it.”  He was one of them, at least in theory.  Just the same, the teddy bear had a ticket to L.A.  And so did these massive and beautiful red and white candles.  They’d never been lit.  The town doctor gave them to his mother in honor of his birth.  Jack had gone to Doctor Schilling for years.  He’d also gone to his funeral.  Doctor Schilling had been an honorable and upright dude.  Jack felt that he should try to remember that, that at least one of the Old Guard had been worth a shit.

 

Praise the lord, he’d gotten to the last layer.  Table linens.  Exquisitely embroidered linens that his mother had gotten from her mother, so they must be a hundred years old.  They were works of art.  And probably worth money.  Since pawning his gold Phi Beta Kappa key would only translate into a fifth of decent vodka, Jack figured that he needed a fallback position.  Speaking of vodka, maybe, after packing the linens, it was time to declare “peace with honor” on the day’s labor.  In honor of the paper he’d just thrown out on Orwellian prose and Nixon.  He really could finish tomorrow.  Go to the post office Monday morning.  And really shake the dust of this town off his feet.  This could be the last time.

 

Jack stepped into the shower.  Washing away the dust of ages was more important than a drink.  And that was a healthy attitude. . .maybe he should start using this old fashioned Ivory soap.  Besides, he was going to have to go out.  There wasn’t any food in the house.  He was lucky there’d been coffee.  There hadn’t been that much food there even when his father lived there.  Part of his perfectionism involved maintaining his weight and, in his widowhood, he did so by following what Jack and Joe called the POW diet.  Jack had to either go to the store or risk the local cuisine.  Equally unappealing alternatives.  He tabled it and concentrated on luxuriating under the steaming water.   Once Jack was clean, he decided that the lesser evil was eating out.  Jack wasn’t feeling social—he just felt compelled to get out of the damn house.  Actually, Jack was suddenly in a bad mood.

 

“Drink down a bottle and I’m ready to kill.”

 

Too bad he couldn’t sing.  Maybe more like Tennessee Williams, “Just til I get that little click in my head.”  Either way.  He felt possessed by an inchoate, angry energy.  Too many hours living in the past today.  Too many losses revisited.  Too much mortality.  Good thing he was self-sufficient.  Just like Dad.  Great.  He really didn’t want to talk to anyone.  Especially given the likely profile of the other customers.  This occurred to him as he was getting dressed.  That it wasn’t L.A. and no way in hell would he run into anyone he needed to impress.  Too bad he’d already put his contacts in.

 

Jack decided to walk into town, even though drinking and driving was the sport of his people in L.A.  One last trip down memory lane.  Besides, his rental car had an Illinois plate.  An out of state plate used to be two strikes against you and Jack wasn’t so optimistic that things had changed that much.  Just like in Tennessee Williams.  And it was warmer today, a hoodie and a jean jacket would be enough.  As he was closing up the house, Jack saw the trench knife on his father’s bed.  Dad used to talk about wearing it strapped to his ankle.  It appealed to his mood.  And wasn’t he just like Dad?  It was an homage to his father—like in a Renoir film.  Talk about pretentious.  Maybe not ignorant but really pretentious.  And fundamentally full of shit.  Now that was a nice phrase, he’d have to write that down before he left.  Jack rolled up his jeans and strapped it on.  The hilt was just above the top of his boot.  Jack thought that one of the best things in L.A. was that a guy could go anywhere in jeans and cowboy boots.  Only the women had to dress up.  So it would be pretty funny if they refused to seat him in Bumfuck at the one supposedly nice restaurant.

 

Fresh air was good.  It wasn’t bad, it must still be in the forties.  At the end of the block, he noticed that they were building a house in the vacant lot.  So enough time has gone by.  When Jack was a boy, it had been a vacant lot.  It was the last parcel on the street.  Finally, it got bought and built up.  By a black family.  Except that just before they moved in, it burned to the ground.  Partly because it took the fire department a half hour to get there.  They didn’t rebuild.  That was his old hometown.  That’s what people in L.A. didn’t get—they think it’s all like Aspen.  And who knows how well they even know Aspen.  Jack knew this little town.  He knew that on a late spring day when he’d been a boy the Klan had marched around the town square.  In full regalia.  To what had seemed to young Jack like pretty tumultuous cheering from the locals.  Of course, it must have evolved some, like the rest of the country.  Even by the time he was in high school, there was a Jewish family.  Although they did live outside the city limits.  But in a nice house.  And it was still standing.  As far as Jack knew.

 

Jack was walking past the Victorian mansions now, towards the square.  He still liked looking at them.  There was the manse where the Right Reverend Gawd used to live.  That’s what they called him.  Now there was a pompous asshole, one who both looked and thought fifty years behind the times.  And that took some doing in Brigadoon.  His mother had made him take the confirmation class.  But he refused to join the church.  His mother took it like a man.  It’s not like it was going to make her an outcast from the local high society.  And she believed in free thought and free speech.  Jack reckoned that maybe it was just as well she wasn’t around anymore.  Aside from the fact that it would make her unhappy to see how his life had turned out.  Probably more unhappy than it made him.

 

Closer to the square, there was an alley that was a short cut home that Jack and his friends used to take in high school so they could smoke a joint.  They were an American band.  On the other side of the alley, the houses were smaller.  The mad old Latin teacher had lived in the first one.  She was ancient, and, when starting to teach translation, she used to say, “Troy a fruit.  A fuimos Trojani.”  Or at least that’s what it sounded like.  She said it meant, “Troy was.  We were Trojans.”  Then she’d say “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.”  And burst into tears.  Every year.  Jack hadn’t wanted to take Latin.  He should’ve taken Spanish—that would’ve done him some good.  People there weren’t even prejudiced against Latinos.  Of course, that’s because there weren’t any.  Back then.  He’d wanted to take German.  But they’d rid the schools of the Hun during one of the wars and hadn’t gotten around to bringing it back.  But you could use “Jew” as a verb.  Maybe it would’ve been fun to grow up some place you didn’t loath and might consider coming back to.  Thomas Wolfe was right but his title was wrong.  You could come home again, it was just a terrible mistake.

 

“It’s all over now, baby blue.”

 

Even Dylan sang better than he did.  Jack was suddenly ravenous—he hadn’t eaten much for the last two days.  That was harder at forty-two than it used to be too.  But here was The Terrace.  Supposedly the upscale alternative to fast food and the diner—a new addition since Jack left town.  It claimed to be Italian and looked beautiful, as it was housed in another Victorian.  Jack wondered if the newer newcomers knew that it used to be a funeral home.  Already having all that refrigeration equipment and counter space must have really cut the renovation cost.  Jack smiled.  For a second, his mood lifted.  So here goes nothing.

 

Fair to middlin’.  That’s an expression from these here parts that seemed to describe the meal Jack had eaten.  Ravenous had helped.  Vodka had helped.  Walking around the square, Jack wondered if anyone had ever ordered a third drink before from the sort of snotty, sort of middle-aged waitress.  Or maybe she just didn’t like bearded longhairs.  Even aging ones who tipped pretty well.  And he had tipped her well—and in cash because he’d found a reasonable number of twenties secreted around the house.   Good old Dad.  So there was no blood on his hands.  As for the food. . .there’s a place in L.A. called Vitello’s.  Where Robert Blake took his wife.  They raised the prices after that.  Apparently, enough people like the food there, but Jack had never heard any foodies call it too too very very.  And Jack knew one woman who really looked down her nose at the place.  It was fun to bait her—you’d mention the word “Vitello’s” and she’d go off on their “bland, Americanized blasphemies of Italian food.”  But she was more of an Italian food snot than Jack.  Anyway, that’s what the food was like.

 

Now fed and alert, Jack saw that the square actually was noticeably different.  There seemed to be something like a night club on the west side.  At least a building with fluorescent lights.  For a second, Jack felt like his little Bedford Falls had turned into Potter’s Field.  Then he dismissed it as a crazy feeling.  After all, the Klan didn’t march in Bedford Falls.  Or maybe they did and that scene just got left on the cutting room floor.  Jack headed for the club.  As he got closer, it didn’t quite look like the Sunset Strip.  For one, the bouncer/doorman was a huge, but mostly fat, white farm boy instead of an amazingly ripped black dude.

 

One thing was the same.  Every one seemed pretty young.  Which made Jack feel pretty old.  He slipped through the gaggles of early—really early—twenty-somethings and found what seemed like the last space at the bar.  The bartendrix came right over—a pretty hot red head who was mercifully a little older—she had a knowing look in her eyes and a dazzling smile that she favored Jack with.  It made him feel a lot better, even though it just meant that she was a good bartender.  It worked—when she brought his drink, he put down a big tip since he was made of twenties.  She gave him another smile.  Jack knew it wasn’t his charm—bartenders have to be nice to you if you’re not an utter asshole.  Say, that was a good sign.

 

Jack sucked on the vodka and glanced around at the crowd of youngsters.  Some of them were hotter than others.  Maybe it wasn’t that different from L.A.  And so what if they seemed a little vacuous.  Jack didn’t recollect ever meeting any of the best minds of his generation on the Sunset Strip.  Of course, these days it was hard to meet anybody from his generation in a club.  Jack suddenly realized that some of the youngsters were African-Americans.  Once he stepped into the strobe lights of the club, part of him forgot that he wasn’t in Cali so it seemed normal.  Well, there you go, maybe the times had finally changed and it was him that stubbornly remained a snotty little asshole after all.  Jack subtly raised his glass to that but before it reached his lips he was almost staggered by a blow to his left arm.  He almost put his front teeth into the glass.  That pissed him off—he’d put a lot of money into those teeth. As he set the glass down and flicked the wetness of his hand, he turned toward his unknown assailant.

 

A young woman.  Obviously, she’d hit him with her ridiculously large shoulder bag as she’d failed in an attempt to elbow up to the bar.  A cute little brunette.  But she didn’t have a knowing look.  In fact, there wasn’t much light behind her eyes.  And the look of disdain she shot at Jack more or less ruined her appeal.  Contemptuously, she turned away from him to her friends.

 

“I need to find my inner bitch.”

 

Jack was surprised that he heard it so clearly over the dance music blaring from many speakers.

 

“Maybe you can get some pointers from your outer bitch.”

 

Maybe if he hadn’t been surprised, that wouldn’t have popped out of his mouth.  Nah.  Things always popped out of his mouth.  Especially now that he’d almost mastered not giving a fuck.  Speaking of not being fun at parties.  But maybe it wouldn’t have come out loud enough for her to hear if it hadn’t been his fourth drink.  The girl tossed her hair angrily and stalked away, like a mannequin come to life.  Her friends followed her.  Jack turned back to his drink.  Maybe he really wasn’t fun at parties.  Except in L.A. people didn’t toss their hair and storm off.  Instead, they gave you a tight lipped smile and a short, brittle laugh, soon went off to the bar or the buffet, and never offered you more than a stony stare ever again.  On the plus side, this left Jack more time to write.  Or dick around on the internet.  And he could always get serious about brooding in the dark.  Now that Dad was losing his shit, there was room at the top.  Jack successfully toasted that thought.  In fact, he drained the glass.  Time to pee and blow this pop stand.

 

Jack threaded through the crowd toward the bathrooms in the rear.  He had just about reached the back hallway when he heard a shout of “Yo.”  Then he heard it again.  Jack turned around.  In the background, Jack could see the brunette and her friends hovering.

But the voice was closer and came from a burly local who looked like he’d been a high school linebacker six or seven years ago.  No neck.  Just starting to go to fat.  The kid was at the ready.  Young, dumb, and full of cum, as the old saying goes.

 

“You fucking with my girl?”

 

Tiny was itching for a fight.  Jack gave him a calm, steady look.

 

“No, dude.”

“Bullshit.  She said you did.  Who the fuck do you think you are?”

 

Why, ah’m jest a working man, like yerself.  No, that would be a bad choice.  Another bad choice would be to fight with someone twenty years younger and sixty pounds heavier.  Considering how much money he’d invested in his teeth.  Therefore, he should choose wisely—Jack figured he could do that since he was a smart guy and this didn’t involve picking a girlfriend.  But then he decided to go with the truth.  Despite his mother’s claims, it had hardly ever worked before but at least would make for a good story.  Jack told him exactly what she said and he said.

 

It was fascinating—Jack could see Tiny groping to process the words.  What ever happened to survival of the fittest?  Maybe the loons were right and Darwin was wrong.  Wait, a cognitive breakthrough—and Tiny started to laugh.  That was going to cost him, judging by the look on his girl’s face.  But he should get out while the getting was good.  He could pee somewhere else.

 

“Peace, out, dude.”

 

Jack braced himself once he had his back to Tiny but nothing happened.  Through the crowd and out the door, to grandmother’s house we go.  The fresh air and relative quiet of the street was a relief in a lot of ways.  What a town.  This could be the last time.  Keep saying it and maybe it’ll be true.  Jack couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a situation like that.  Ridiculous.  But he still had to pee.  He headed for the dive bar across the square.  The one that used to be a gun shop.  What the hell, complete the circle of life.

 

The other extreme.  The juke box played country rock pretty softly and two aging bikers were the only ones at the bar.  Even older than Jack.  How about that?  Same with the bartender, who had a leathery face with spectacular patterns of lines and crevices etched into it.  The place reeked of tobacco smoke.  Back home in Indiana.  Not that Jack really minded.  In fact it was a temptation.  He’d have to burn his clothes when he got home anyway.  There was a pool table in the back.  Jack saw the comforting colors of the Grey Goose bottle behind the bartender.  He asked for one as he hurried toward the men’s room in the back.

 

What a dump.  The layers of dirt in the basement paled in comparison.  Jack settled in front of the urinal.  Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you.  Jack didn’t say it out loud because he could hear grunts emitting from the wooden slatted stall.  Pretty distressed grunts actually.  There but by the grace of god, go I.  He didn’t say that out loud either.  Talk about a fate worse than death.  Looking at the faucets, Jack decided not touching anything was the healthy choice.  He knew where his dick had been.  In the mirror, he looked like just another bearded longhair—it fit in as well here as on Montana Avenue.  Funny that.  It didn’t seem like there was a lot of progress happening in the stall.  Poor bastard.  Jack bumped the door open with his shoulder and headed out.  Look, ma, no hands.

 

Now that would be a good scene in a movie.  He’d have to write it down when he got home.  Jack slapped a twenty on the bar and the bartender got him his change right way.  Wordless.  A beautiful thing.  Although not particularly welcoming.  Jack took his bucket of vodka and tonic over to the pool table.  He used to be pretty good—in the bar table sense—but it had been awhile.  He studied the balls that were out.  It was relaxing to think about vectors and angles instead of people.

 

“Do y’all wanna shoot a rack a eight ball?”

 

The voice was a startling interruption.  Not to mention hearing that almost southern twang that folks around there had.  Folks that weren’t newcomers, that is.  A wiry little guy, probably in his late twenties, with unkempt dirty blonde hair and a chipped front tooth.  The little mustache that wouldn’t really grow in made him look even more rat like.  Jack felt like it would be a dis to say no since he’d been caught eyeing the table.  And Jack could tell he was the kind of small town punk that took offense real easy.  And Jack felt like he’d had enough excitement for one night.  He decided to try to fit in and put out a peaceful, easy feeling.  Not that it had worked that well at L.A. parties.

 

“Sure.  Why not?”

 

Jack bent over and stuffed quarters into the slots.  The balls dropped with a satisfying roar.  The guy watched him rack—Jack could feel his eyes.  Jack actually screwed it up and it took him an extra few seconds to arrange the balls.  Too much vodka.  Or maybe he was getting as senile as Dad.

 

“Arlo.”

 

Arlo stood there with his hand out.  Arlo had to have been the guy that had been in the stall.  For just a millisecond, that made Jack hesitate.  Arlo caught it.  There was light in Arlo’s eyes but it was more like animal cunning.  Like a coyote.  Jack saw him ever so slightly stiffen.  Shit.  They shook hands.  Jack promised himself not to touch his mouth or his eyes for the rest of the night.

 

“Tom.”

 

Jack didn’t know why he did that but he felt good about it.  Couldn’t hurt.

 

“We generally play for twenty dollars here.”

 

Fuck.  Jack wondered if this was because he’d screwed up the rack.

 

“No, dude, I don’t like playing for money.”

“House rules, man.  Don’t be a pussy.”

 

Arlo was getting hostile fast.  Jack saw the bartender not looking but obviously all over it.  Arlo slapped a bill on the edge of the table.  Jack felt at a disadvantage, maybe if he hadn’t pissed him off on the handshake he could bail.  But he had.  What the hell.  He had the twenty, courtesy of Dad.  Jack put it down on top of Arlo’s, who then put a piece of chalk on them.  Jack looked for a stick with a decent tip.  The tip was more important than how crooked it was.

 

Arlo broke with a vicious stroke, the cue ball hopped.  A stripe dropped.  Arlo crouched over his next shot, a long but straight one.  Arlo drilled it home, his eye was true.  But he hit too hard and wasn’t thinking about controlling the cue ball.  So Jack knew he wasn’t that good.  Funny the way old skills pop up to the surface.  Maybe he wasn’t losing his mind yet.  Arlo put in a third and a fourth ball before missing.  That was fine.  A pro Jack used to play with had told him, “In eight ball, let them get their balls out of the way first.”  Arlo seemed a little happier, and sauntered back.  Jack looked at the table and chalked his cue.  He could have a lot of them if he didn’t fuck it up too badly.  Jack gently dissected the table, even on this crappy fast felt he was leaving the cue ball more or less where he wanted it.  He had five balls down before he spaced a little and missed.  Arlo was losing his good humor.  Maybe Jack should throw the game.  Jack rebelled against the idea.

 

When he was just starting school, his Dad would play Parcheesi and checkers with him.  And kick his ass.  His Dad would say if he was old enough to play, he didn’t need any slack.  Jack would get frustrated and his father would say, “Son, if you want to win, don’t make so many mistakes.”  So Jack didn’t believe in cutting slack.  But he should.

 

“Yer not from around here, are ya?”

“I grew up around here.”

 

Arlo looked at him in a challenging, chin up way.  Jack put out pleasant.  He felt like Arlo was waiting on him to say something.  Jack smiled—he’d seen enough actors do it in L.A. to know how to make it seem real.

 

“I was walking around the square.  Seems like it’s changed a lot.”

“Yeah? Well, they still don’t let niggers in here.”

 

Arlo stared at Jack.  Jack stayed deadpan.

 

“Yeah? . . .It’s your shot.”

 

This fucking town.  Well, he stood with Elvis Costello.  “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”  Jack knew he should try harder to be amused.  But he didn’t.  Instead, Jack decided not to cut him any slack.  He was going to kick his ass.  It was probably not choosing wisely but it was going to be fun.  And it was.  Jack ran out the table on his next shot and dropped the eight with a nice cross side bank shot just to be a shit.  Jack could see that Arlo was pissed.

 

“Good game.”

“Ya gotta give me a chance to get even.”

 

Jack knew he had to.

 

“Okay, but then I got to split, no matter what.  Cool?”

 

Arlo curtly nodded.  He’d picked up a shot from the bar, which he downed.  Jack drained his drink too.  Then he broke.  It went quick, but Jack left the eight on the edge of a corner pocket behind the line.  Arlo then sank the rest of his balls but scratched on the last one.  He was pretty puffed up, since the eight was behind the shooting line.  Jack stood there holding the cue ball.  Arlo smirked.

 

“Whatcha gonna call?”

“Around the world.”

 

That was the name of the shot.  For once, Jack stroked hard.  The cue ball shot diagonally down the table, hit the side rail short of that pocket, caromed into the back rail, bounced into the rail on the opposite side, and then diagonally skittered across the table until it tapped the eight into the pocket.  Pretty gratifying.  Happy birthday, motherfucker.

 

Jack picked up the pile of twenties and stuffed them into his jeans.  He held out his hand.  Arlo shook it, but hate shone in his feral eyes.  He was practically vibrating.  As fun as that had been, Jack knew he shouldn’t have.  It’s funny how parents, with the best of intentions, teach their kids things that end up biting them in the ass.

 

“Can I buy you a drink before I split?”

“Fuck off.”

 

Jack thought that was excellent advice under the circumstances.  So he did.  What a racist little shit.  This is what people in L.A. so didn’t get.  It was better, but it was still there.  And politicians pretended it didn’t exist anymore.  Even if they were just up the road a piece, having a shot and a beer with the locals.  Why was that?

 

The night breeze swirled around Jack’s face as he started to stride around the square.  It felt warmer.  Jack wondered if it was getting warmer or if it was just the vodka.  Either way, the hoodie was enough, he carried his jean jacket.  Take a good look at the damn court house and everything else.  He really did hate this town.  Because of shit like that.  And the rest of the evening, for that matter.  And everything else.  It made his skin crawl, whether that made him a snotty asshole or not.  But this was the last time.  He swore it.

 

Jack left the square behind and started up Ruffle Shirt Hill.  No one else was on the street, now that it was getting late.  No cars either.  That was nice.  He really should’ve started smoking again.  That would be perfect now.  Jack decided to cut down the alley and go the back way since it was the last time.  He could have a nightcap back at the house—too much of the vodka had worn off with all the excitement.  After he washed his hands.  And wrote down that bathroom scene.  He started to think about the moments as he walked.  The silence was punctuated by an old engine that was missing back on the street.  Then Jack saw the headlight gleam surround him.  An old pick up truck rumbled down the alley so he moved to the side to let it pass.

 

It got close and stopped.  Arlo hopped out of the cab and came around the front.  And he was hopped up.  This couldn’t be good.

 

“Motherfucking hustler!”

 

In fact, chances are, it was going to be beaucoup fucked up.  Jack just looked at him.  He’d always wanted to be thought of as a pool hustler.  Watch out for what you wish for.

 

“You jewed me outta forty dollars.”

 

Excellent.  Perfect, in fact.  The circle of life.

 

“Dude, I didn’t want to play for money.  What’s up with this?”

“Yeah, now you’re like that.”

“It’s what I said at the beginning.”

 

This was spitting into the wind.  Jack was starting to get pissed.  Arlo was smaller.  But he was a lot younger.  And saw better.  And obviously didn’t have crowned front teeth.  He could give him his money back but damned if he wanted to be the bitch in this relationship.  But there was that choosing wisely thing.  Fuck.

 

“Dude, if this is about the money. . .”

“Fuck the money!  You’ll need it, motherfucker when I’m done schooling your ass.”

 

Arlo drew a hunting knife from behind his back.  The blade gleamed in the headlights.  So did his eyes.  Arlo looked for fear in Jack.  Jack hid it.  But he knew he couldn’t outrun him.  Even though he hadn’t started smoking again.  Arlo was gathering it up to come at him.  Jack kicked his right foot back and up, his hand slapped at his ankle and came up with the trench knife in it.  Now Arlo wore a look of surprise with a touch of doubt.  Jack stayed still, holding the knife in one hand and his jacket in the other.  Jack’s father had told him that if you held a double edged knife backhanded, the backslash took people by surprise.  It was as good an idea as any.

 

“Dude, we don’t have to do this.”

 

Arlo’s nostrils flared.  Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say.  Maybe a sign of weakness?  Especially to a coyote.  Arlo reared back and rushed him.  Son, if you want to win, don’t make so many mistakes.

 

It went even quicker than the second pool game. Jack glimpsed Arlo’s blade scything up on his left.  Jack cloaked it with his jacket as he sliced across with his own.  Arlo, his knife hand tangled in the cloth, leaned back to avoid Jack’s knife.  But the backslash caught him flatfooted.  Jack’s blade bit into the flesh just above Arlo’s scrawny collarbone.  Jack pulled his arm back and Arlo gave his wound a puzzled look.

 

Jack really wanted to win.  Reversing his grip, he stepped forward and uppercut the blade into Arlo’s gut.  His Dad had always said the gut, not the ribs.  Jack felt the steel penetrate cloth, then skin, then muscle, then something squishy.  Arlo’s face was just inches from his.  Jack thrust deeper.  A flash of a grimace before Arlo’s jaw started to slacken.  Jack had never felt so happy in his life.  An unimaginable elation.  He jerked and twisted the hilt and ecstatically relished the quivers it sent through Arlo’s features.  The eyes were already unseeing. Jack jerked out the blade and stepped back.  Arlo crumbled.

 

Jack unlooped his jacket from the seemingly lifeless hand that still held a knife.  A rush of fierce, primal joy.  It was beautiful.  This was really winning.  This is what it really meant.  Everything else was just a game.  He felt an urge to stab someone else.  But there was no one around.  Bending over, he wiped his blade clean on Arlo’s pants.

 

“You fucked with the wrong cracker.”

 

No one around.  A different part of his mind recognized the importance of that fact.  What the fuck should he do now?  He saw blood pooling around the body but a panicky glance showed none on him.  But his primal joy was gone.  Now he couldn’t feel anything at all.  Like a state of shock.  But that made it easier to think.  So, you see, officer, the local guy, your friend, your bud’s son, jumped me.  And me, the stranger, the guy from Hollywood, just defended myself.  With an army knife that I just happened to have strapped to my ankle for shits and giggles.  So can I go now?  Would that fly?  Fuck.  Tennessee Williams had been pretty clear on this point.  Not to mention Rambo.  LOL.

 

Maybe he should run.  He’d still have the same defense if they caught him.  And maybe they wouldn’t catch him.  He didn’t live there.  He’d only talked to a couple of people.  And he’d paid cash.  He looked around.  Nobody.  He walked away.

 

Jack’s feet carried him along, leaving his mind free to race.  Unbelievable.  This really was the last time—if his luck held.  It would make a great screenplay.  But that was a bad idea.  He decided to think of nothing and concentrate on remaining unseen.  It seemed like he was alone and unobserved.  He tried to feel the night.

 

Jack was inside the house.  Still numb.  No one had seen him.  He thought.  He walked into the bathroom.  He still didn’t see any blood anywhere on him.  This was it.  His point of no return.  He could go call the cops.  He pulled his hair back into a pony tail.  He took a pair of scissors and cut it off.  The die was cast.  He began to shave his beard.

 

Two hours later, everything he’d worn was washed, he had showered and all the hair as well as his contact lens had disappeared down the toilet.  He looked at himself in the mirror. That kind of early Elvis Costello haircut could use help.  But he looked different.

 

“Clark Kent, what are you doing after the Super Bowl?”

 

He studied himself some more in the bathroom mirror.  He still felt nothing.  It was weird.  It was like a dream.  With any luck, it would be like that old joke. . .he looked accusingly at his reflection.

 

“You’re a killer.”

 

Jack assumed a blank air towards the mirror.

 

“You can’t prove it.”

 

So that’s the kind of guy he was now.

 

The next day, Sunday, passed.  Jack finished his business with the house, always waiting for the knock at the door.  But it never came.  He stayed home that night.  Never left the house.  He got a little hungry but polished off the vodka instead.  One thing surprised him.  He never felt a shred of guilt.  He just wanted to get away with it.  He hadn’t known he was capable of that.  Maybe most people are.  Maybe this would make him a better writer.  And, again, he marveled at where his thoughts went.  And what he was indifferent to.  All that not giving a fuck training is really paying off.  This was the final exam.

 

Monday morning.  Jack drove to the post office.  He felt frozen on the surface and marked underneath.  He was floating.  He floated up to the counter and shipped several boxes to Indy and two to L.A.  Nestled deep in one was the trench knife.  Then the ancient court house clock was in the rear view mirror.  But Jack felt like he saw a different man in the mirror.

 

“Well, I killed a man in Texas, broke jail and can’t go back.”

 

The new guy couldn’t sing either.  The only cop he passed didn’t hop on his tail.  Lots of murders are unsolved.  As long as people don’t write screenplays about them.  Even if it was the best idea he ever had.  A little more speed, I’m almost there.  And then the road got better.  He was in Illinois.

 

“Well, the sheriff couldn’t catch me, but his little girl, sure wish she would, uh-huh.”

 

But the new guy still liked singing, just like Jack.  Top of the world, Ma.  That night he was back in L.A.  And he read on the internet that a black man had been arrested for murder in Brigadoon.  That figured.  A wave of pain and uncertainty rose up in him, along with a cynical grimace.  The accused had a long and heinous rap sheet and the article implied that he’d, well, gotten away with murder before.  That was completely irrelevant, of course.  As was the discreet mention that the upstanding victim had had a small dalliance with crystal meth.  But it was good enough for Jack.  Because he’d passed his final exam.  He really didn’t give a fuck anymore.  And maybe he was a callous asshole.  But he understood himself better now.  And he understood life better.  And every day of the rest of his life was going to be better for that.  Although he still probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun at parties.

 

And, maybe, when the dust settled, he’d write that screenplay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ali is a Law undergraduate at the University of Portsmouth with an especial interest in Constitutional Law. He is a keen musician playing mandolin, guitar, drums and keyboards. He also enjoys writing music and poetry.