Sunday, October 22, 2017

Mississippi Queen by Bill Baber

Mississippi Queen
She called herself a dancer. She worked in a seedy little dive down the road from the dumpy motel where I was staying on the outskirts of Vicksburg. I had been out for a month and was trying to stay clean and out of trouble. My brother –in- law had gotten me on down at the docks, loading and unloading barges that used the Mississippi River like big rigs use an interstate.
The first time I saw her at the club was on a Friday night when the cable went out in my room. Quickly becoming fidgety, I decided a couple of beers sounded like a good idea and ogling some eye candy would be a great way to pass a little time. I hadn’t been laid in three years, you see. Not that I had any notion of taking home a stripper, just figured I might come up with an image to jack off to later that night.
Salty’s was a shithole, even for a titty bar. The girls who worked there were skanks and meth heads who had reached the end of the line. They kept the stage lights down making it difficult to see the scabs, needle marks, and overall sag that afflicted the club’s sad crew of strippers. And the clientele was worse. If you were looking for guns, stepped on drugs or played out hookers, Salty’s was the place.  I had seen plenty of dives like it. Having at least one felony conviction seemed to be the only cover charge so I had no trouble getting in. The place stank of sour sweat, stale beer, and too many cigarettes.
Yeah, my instincts told me to turn around as soon as I got inside. But if I had ever paid attention to instincts, I wouldn’t be in the position I was in- an ex- con hanging out in a strip club. I did, however, sometimes listen to little voices that always seemed to get me in trouble. So I had a beer. Then a second.  I was about to order a third when one of those voices told me a shot of Makers would taste good right about then. So I listened.
Around 10:30 the place went almost dark. Then the stage lights came up a little brighter than before. I noticed the club had filled up some. The thunderous riff that opens “Mississippi Queen” filled the room.  I mean the place was shaking. That’s when everything changed. She looked like a queen, like some modern day Cleopatra, tall, dark and exotic, perfect in every way. Unlike the others, she had no tattoos or piercings. Her tits were high and firm with large nipples, a neatly trimmed bush and a lovely round, tight ass. All the other girls had just kind of shimmied and shook; she did a seductive, sultry waltz. I was transfixed. And I immediately fell madly in lust.
For the half hour that she was on stage, she held court over a room full of jesters.  A couple of them foolish enough to think they might be her Prince Charming showered her with bills .When she  finished about two thirds of the guys that were in the club left.  A few minutes later, the bright lights faded and the sad parade resumed.
Something didn’t fit. Her. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing there. Of course, I was there the next night but she wasn’t, nor was she the following night. I guessed that maybe she was just passing through, like a porn star on tour.  By Wednesday, when I had finished work and headed back to my sorry little room, I figured I would never see her again. I stopped to put twenty bucks worth in the tank of my old Chevy truck at a combo gas station and convenience store half a mile from the motel. I had just finished when a late-model Beemer pulled up to the pumps. The windows were tinted and I couldn’t see who was behind the wheel. But I did see her when she exited the passenger door. The driver honked his horn and a moment later an attendant came from inside.
 Figuring I could use a pack of smokes, I followed her into the store. She proceeded to the bathroom so I loitered by the magazine rack, glancing at a copy of People or some damn thing. When she came out, she walked close enough to me that I noticed she’d been crying. Even with red eyes and no makeup, she looked more beautiful in the hard fluorescent light of that mini mart than she had been dancing in the buff on a stage.
“Hey, you okay?” I asked.
She looked at me and offered a smile weaker than the store coffee, mouthing “Yes” with barely a nod.
 “You in some kind of trouble?”  Christ, I couldn’t help myself.
That stopped her. I could feel her eyes on me, could almost hear her thinking. “I might be,” she said.
Just then, the door chime sounded. I heard footsteps, the sound of leather souls on dirty linoleum. Then a hand on my left shoulder gave me a short, hard shove.
“Beat it pal.”Then, to her, “What the hell’s the hold up? Let’s move it, Charlie’s waiting.”
The guy was 5’10” or so. Dressed like a pimp. Silk shirt, expensive slacks, shoes that looked Italian. He was beefy, like he spent time in the gym. Had dark, curly hair that glistened with oil and a gold chain around his neck, exactly the kind of bastard I hated on sight. The kind who thought their mere presence could intimidate and invoke fear.
He grabbed her by the arm.
 “Let’s go.” He said gruffly.
I stepped in front of him.” “Maybe she doesn’t want to.”
He puffed his chest at the challenge.” You must be fuckin’ nuts man; you don’t want any of this.”
I grinned. “Maybe I do.”
I knew what would come next. The first thing that always came from guys like him. He let go of her and threw a big slow, looping overhand punch, kind of like a Clayton Kershaw curveball.  I blocked the punch with my left arm and caught him flush on the point of the chin with a short right. He dropped like he’d been shot. One of my cowboy boots caught him just behind the left temple as he lay on the floor. He wouldn’t be moving for a while.
“Damn,” she said. “We gotta get out of here, I’m not sure that was a smart thing to do.”
I puffed my chest out a bit, kind of like a peacock in heat.
“Guy like that, all bark, no bite.”
“He’s got friends,” she said.
I smiled, “Yeah, well so do you. Where are we going?”
She just shrugged.
My ratty old truck seemed like a better option than the shithole of a room I was renting so we started with that. We got in and after I turned the ignition I asked again if there was anywhere she wanted to go. She sniffed back tears and said there was nowhere she could go.
I got on I-20 and headed west toward Louisiana. It was a beautiful spring day, the countryside in bloom. I missed days like this when I was in the joint. I didn’t know where we would go and the twenty bucks I’d put in the tank guaranteed it wouldn’t be far. Her orange blossom perfume made me swoon in the confined space of the cab.
She broke the silence by asking, “So what’s your story?”I glanced at her for a minute, deciding what to say. Then, I hit her with the whole thing.
“I was selling coke down in Biloxi. A guy ripped me off; I caught him and messed him up pretty good. He had a narc with him who either didn’t know the shit was mine or couldn’t prove it. I didn’t know he was a cop so I worked him over too. Got five years for Aggravated Assault on a peace officer. Went to the farm in Parchman and got paroled after three. I’ve been out just over a month, my sister’s husband is a Teamster’s rep and got me on down at the docks. I’m living in the shitty motel just down the road from the place where you dance. Now, tell me about you. “
I looked at her to see what kind of reaction I’d gotten.  Guess I should have noticed the total lack of emotion along with the dead look in her eyes. Emptier than a bottle of Jack on Saturday night. Maybe she was just upset, too wrapped up in whatever her troubles were to give a shit about mine. She sat there silently for a few minutes before I pressed her.
“So, what about you?” She started to sob again. Looking back I wonder if it wasn’t all an act. That and everything that came after. She looked at me with those empty, red rimmed eyes.
“I’m just one of those girls that could never catch a break. My dreams were always like a runaway train I could never quite catch. Bad choices, bad men and listening to too many lies I believed would come true.”
In other words, she hadn’t told me shit. There’s an old jail house adage about not falling in love with the first girl you fuck after getting out, but here I was, rolling down a Mississippi highway on the nicest spring afternoon you ever saw with a beautiful woman sitting in my truck. I hadn’t even kissed her but what else could I do but fall in love?
We headed back toward Vicksburg. For the third time, I asked if she had somewhere to go. She said she had a little one –bedroom, but it wouldn’t be safe to go back there. Not after everything that’d happened at the store. I took her to my place, which was the only alternative. As we were parking, she told me some of the other dancers lived in her apartments. I felt like I was doing her a favor.
“Excuse the mess,” I told her as I slid the key card in the lock. Some of my clothes were draped over furniture and scattered over one half of the bed along with an assortment of beer bottles and fast food containers strewn about. I did a hasty job of cleaning off a chair. A small fridge in the room held the remains of a six pack of Pearl.
“Beer?” I offered.
“Sure.” Then she started to cry again.
 I grinned. “Hey, it’s okay. I feel like crying every time I come in here too.” That made her smile a little.
“The guy that owns that place? Charlie Mazzoli? He started to get rough with me, trying to get me to sleep with him. He hasn’t paid me in two weeks so I’m stuck here. He doesn’t pay any of the girls. They might get away with some of their tips but he pays them with meth or crack. They use some and sell the rest. I’m not into that,” she said.” I just wanna get paid. That’s all.”
Then the faucets opened up. I put an arm around her and she melted into me. For a while, we just sat on the bed like that. It was late in the afternoon and a storm had drifted up from the gulf. Bolts of lightning cut the sky and thunder shook the windows. It reminded me of the song she had danced to.  She began to kiss me when the rain started, taking more than my flesh when I put my cock inside her. I felt something break away; a piece of me she could use at her whim.
It had grown dark by the time we finished. Lightning still flickered in the distance and the earlier downpour had turned into a gentle shower.  The sound of the rain, the smell of washed earth and her naked body next to mine made that crappy room almost pleasant.
She spoke first. “I really need that money he owes me. Could you help me get it?”
I had no idea what she might be getting me into. But I envisioned myself as her knight and she my queen. Chivalry and all that, full steam ahead.
“Got a cigarette? “She asked?
I lit one for each of us, cracked the last beer. I took a deep drag and a long pull on the bottle. They both tasted good.
 For a moment I mulled it over. “What’s it gonna take to get it?” I asked.
She studied me for a moment in the dim light.  For an instant, I wondered if she thought she could trust me. “He leaves through the back door between three and three-thirty.  And he always has the night’s take with him.”
“What’s he pay you a week? I’m guessing he walks out that door with a little more than that.”
“Let’s just say he owes me interest, “she said coldly.
 We slept for awhile and fucked again. About quarter to three I left the room with a dirty tube sock. When I got to the truck I removed a padlock from my metal tool box and placed it in the sock, tying a double knot and shoved it in my back pocket for the walk to Salty’s.
The denim jacket I had on was having a hard time staving off the cold, an early morning chill passing through the thin material like water leaching through sand. No cars passed me but I could hear plenty from the Interstate.  I wondered just what the hell I had gotten myself into. What would I get from it, besides a piece of ass?
 I chuckled to myself knowing that one way or another you always have to pay for it.
The building was a windowless rectangle made of white washed cinder block, an old Chevy parked in the gravel so long it looked like it died there. Mazzoli had parked his Benz behind the club. The locked double doors up front held no interest for me. I decided to see what the place looked like from the rear.
I didn’t wait long. The door creaked open and I pulled the sock n’ lock from my pocket. The gravel would expose me no matter what I did, so I took a run at him. When Mazzoli heard me coming, he dropped the bank bag that he carried in his right hand and turned. I swung and he threw up his right arm in an attempt to block. His wrist sounded like a gunshot when it broke. He tried clawing for something with his good hand and I swung again. The lock caught him just under his right eye and he dropped like a duck on opening day.  I slammed a foot on his gun as it skidded across the gravel.
He laughed like he was in on a private joke “You must be the brave boy who rescued that miserable bitch. You got no idea who you’re fucking with, man. You’re dead and she ain’t even worth it.”
 His cruel laughter was annoying. I raised the pistol and emptied it into him.
I’m not the brightest guy in the world but I can put two and two together. Mazzoli and the guy I had clocked in the store were mobbed up.
That didn’t excuse what I had done. Now I was a killer. I had been a criminal for much of my life. Never thought I would murder someone. I grew up being afraid of God and later thought there might be forgiveness for some of the sins I’d committed. But not this. I knew I had just reserved a seat on the express train to hell. I again questioned what the hell I had gotten myself into.
Scooping up the bag, I threw the gun into thick kudzu growing along the road. When I got back to the motel, I looked in the satchel before going into the room. It contained over three grand and something I hadn’t counted on- a couple of hundred Oxycontin tabs. I tossed the bag on the bed. She hurriedly grabbed it, pulled out the cash then the drugs.  She palmed two of the pills and headed for the can. So that was it, blow and meth for the used up tramps and Oxy for the queen.
I took a couple of hundred bucks from the bag, threw my shit together and left before she came out. Got in my truck. And as I pulled away saw two sets of headlights behind me. When I sped up so did they. I’d seen this movie before and knew how it ended. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself thinking how stupid I had been.
 And the bitch never even said thanks.
Bio Bill Baber's crime fiction and poetry have appeared widely online and in numerous anthologies. His writing has earned Derringer Prize and best of the Net consideration. A book of his poetry, Where the Wind Comes to Play was published by Berberis Press in 2011. He lives in Tucson with his wife and a spoiled dog and has been known to cross the border for a cold beer. He is working on his first novel.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Music Review: Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights by The White Buffalo

On October 6, 2017 I thought I heard a voice counting from the heavens. It was a raspy baritone saying, “1 2 1 2 3,” followed by the most angelic honky tonk music I’ve ever heard. It was actually a song called Hide and Seek by White Buffalo. I'm totally over exaggerating but that’s seriously almost exactly how the centerfold of this review, Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights, begins. You’ve probably heard White Buffalo before if you watched Sons of Anarchy or Californication. I never have time to watch tv so this was an all new discovery for me. Someone had recommended their music to me once before but it wasn’t my cup of tea at the time. Listening to this new album made me wonder how I could’ve been so closed minded.

As I said earlier, it starts out with a wonderful barroom symphony that could get any square out on the dance floor. The song is lead by some top shelf boogie woogie piano with some stellar guitar work providing a nice undercurrent. This band is super tight because they never get in each other’s way. From the barroom we get an uptempo story called Avalon. It’s an open ended narrative about a kid named Billy struggling with sobriety. My personal suggestion is not to listen to this one while you’re driving like I was because I was going 70 in a 55! I dare you not to get the chorus to this one stuck in your head. The storytelling continues with Robbery, another cool story that has the typical imagery of a couple robbers cloaked in darkness while attempting to take the money and run. The Brian Setzer style guitar solo in the middle of the song adds a nice touch. This one is a real finger snapper. I really enjoyed how this album flows.

Four songs in we get our first ballad, The Observatory. I don’t want to give anything away with this one. You should really camp out on this song in particular though because, in my opinion, the true testament to a great songwriter is how well they can write a ballad. Make sure to give an attentive ear to the lyrics. I thought this song in particular really spoke to what a true artist Jake Smith is because he did a great job strategically placing this ballad on the album where he did. The harmonica in Nightstalker Blues took me right back to when I was 18 years old riding around Greenville, South Carolina in my Ford Bronco II listening to Social Distortion’s self titled album on my cassette player. I love it when a song has the ability to throw me into a nostalgic fit. This song has a really cool ending to listen for too.

The western tinged track Border Town/Bury Me In Baja adds a nice touch of variety to the album but doesn’t disrupt the flow at all. If I had to describe Jake Smith as a songwriter to someone who’s never heard White Buffalo I would say listening to one of his albums is like reading a compilation of an author’s short stories. He’s such a great storyteller and somehow has perfected the craft of making sure the music sits nicely underneath each particular tale. The Heart and Soul of the Night is another nice feel-good rocker that’s very upbeat. The thing that makes this album so great is you can easily listen to it from start to finish and never get bored. I try really hard not to say what my favorite songs are when I’m reviewing an album so that readers can listen with no preconceived notions which I could be held accountable for but I’m going to break my rule and say this song held up to the rest of the album for me.

I Am The Moon closes out the album on a somber note. I found it to be an intriguing closer because of how mellow it is. You have to be very crafty to close out your record with a slow song and this one proves what a seasoned songwriter Jake Smith is. As I conclude this review I have to digress back to my original epiphany about White Buffalo. Listening to this album made me wonder how I could’ve been so closed minded when someone tried to introduce me to their music a couple years ago. Don’t deprive yourself the same way I did! Go listen to it on Spotify, download it on iTunes, or take it a step further and buy the album at one of White Buffalo’s shows. Tell Jake Smith Story and Grit sent you! He’ll probably ask who the hell Story and Grit is but it would still be funny. Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights guys! Stop reading and go listen…..

Bio Matthew Westmoreland (or Matty, as his friends call him) was born in South Carolina, grew up in Georgia, and rambled everywhere in between. Currently located in Mendocino, California with his wife and two sons, he spends his days writing songs and his evenings listening to & reviewing albums for Story & Grit before gigs. Look for his debut album in late 2017 and keep up with him in the meantime at