Monday, March 26, 2018

Welcome Home, Sandy by Wendy Davis


Welcome Home, Sandy

The heat shimmered off the tarmac as the plane crawled to a stop. I grabbed my bag, lowered my shades, and hustled through the airport. I chuckled to myself thinking about OJ hurdling over the gates as I reached the Hertz counter. I was running, too.

My rental car was a Dodge Challenger: it looked like an undercover cop car and started with a satisfying roar. As promised, a loaded 9 mm pistol was in the glove box. I gunned it towards the interstate, heading towards Knoxville, anxious to set eyes on my old stomping ground.

A fluttering from the overpass caught my attention and I thought I saw my name. My real name. I shook it off, looked in the rear-view mirror, and startled at my reflection. It still caught me off guard. I didn't resemble the person that left here two years ago. My once-shaved head was now covered in straight brown hair. My piercings had grown back. I wore long sleeves, even in the summer, to cover the tattoos that weren't lasered off. It was a long process, erasing the scars of my past.

And then I saw it again. My real name. And his.

Sandy, I love you. Donnie.

The sign hung from a bridge crossing the interstate. "What the fuck?" I muttered, and picked up my phone. I dialed my lifeline, Raymond.


"Raymond, what the fuck is going on? I just saw a sign with my real name. And Donnie's."

"What are you talking about?"

"Someone's leaked my…what the fuck?" I yelled, as another sign waved at me from the bridge.

Welcome home Sandy. Love, Donnie

"There's another one, Raymond. Someone knows I'm here!"

"Just keep driving. I'll find out what's going on and call you back."

I hung up the phone and studied the rearview mirror; a black truck tailed me. The driver wore a hoodie and mirrored glasses. His jaw was clenched and he sped up and passed me.

My eyes darted from the mirror to the phone. It waited in the cup holder, blank and silent. Against Raymond's advice, I exited onto Central Pike, cluttered with pawn shops and legalized loan sharks. I turned by a bricked-up drug store and pulled into the parking lot of the Magnolia Inn. The derelict motel was a two-story building with a tired beige facade. Room doors stood open and dirty children ran along the sidewalk. I parked around back and stuffed the gun into my waistband.

Nell was at the front desk looking at her phone. She was a shadow of what she once was, but the shadow had a louche allure. She shot me an indifferent look. And then she slowly looked at me again. "Holy shit girl. Come here," she said. We scurried to the back office and she closed the door.
"What in the hell are you doing here?"

"Granny's dying and I'm being relocated. I have a three-hour layover, so I was granted permission to visit her." I chewed my lip and crossed my arms.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"This sounds crazy, but when I got on the road, there were signs hanging over the interstate saying, Welcome home Sandy, love Donnie."

"What? From Donnie Rowe?" She furrowed her brow.

"I know, I know… I have no idea how anyone would know I'm here. Unless there is a rat in the program."

"Or, it is Donnie."

"I don't believe in that Donnie nonsense."

"He said he'd haunt you forever."

"Yeah, well, in some ways he's right. I'll never get past what happened. Killing that girl was the final nail in his coffin."

"It wouldn't have been if you hadn't turned state's evidence."

"I was trying to do the right thing."

"Bullshit. You were saving your own ass. Doing the right thing means you fess up and accept the consequences. Not ratting everyone out and leaving town to start a new life."

I touched the silver scar on my inner wrist. "I know why I did it. I don't have to explain it to you."

"Fair enough. How much time do you have?"

"I'm down to two hours now."

"Well, what are we waiting for?"

"Raymond said to wait for his call."

"Fuck Raymond. Let's go," she said, and tucked a .45 into her waistband. We slipped outside and climbed into the Challenger. The engine rumbled and I peeled out, leaving the Magnolia Inn behind. We drove past country slums-tattered yards piled with wreckage and worn-out mobile homes. Mangy dogs barked at the car as we powered towards Sunny Meade Hospice. The russet brick building slumped on the hill, smothering the life from all that entered.

The frigid lobby was suffused with a lemon disinfectant. "Can I help you?" a young girl asked, chomping on a piece of gum. She wore ear buds and clicked her black fingernails on her iPhone.

"Yes, we are here to see Elizabeth Wright."

"I see. Are you family?"

"Yes. What room is she in?"

"I need to verify who you are before I…"

I lunged over the desk and snatched her earbuds. Gripping her cheeks in my hand I snarled, "Give me the room number. I don't have time to waste."

She gulped and said 207. We pushed through the lobby and ran up the stairs. Making a hard right at the corner, Nell pulled me back.

"Something's not right."

"What do you mean?"

"We're being followed. I can feel it." She frowned and touched her gun. We strode to 207 and pushed open the door.

The dim light filtered through sheers, casting a pall on my grandmother. Her withered lips pulled away from her teeth; her breath was a faint wheeze. The skin on her arms crinkled around her fragile bones. She was a 3D x-ray.

"Granny," I whispered.  Her eyes fluttered open and struggled to focus.

"Sandy, darling. Donnie told me you were coming," she said weakly.

"Granny, Donnie's dead."

 "Donnie loves you, Sandy," she whispered.

"Granny, I don't know what to say, except..."

The curtain fluttered and there was a trembling in the room. A prickle ran up my spine as I watched Granny's body slacken. I closed my eyes and hot tears spilled down my cheeks. I opened them to see her suspended in the air, her gown billowing around her gangling legs. Her grisly smile frightened me and I was blinded with a white light.  In the next instant, the light was sucked from the room and the space resumed its dull illuminance. Granny lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling with bulging fish-eyes.

I looked at Nell, watching out the window as if nothing had happened. "What's going on?" I whispered. She looked at me and then my grandmother. "At least you got to see her before she passed. We best get out of here."

***

The phone was rattling in the cup holder.

"Fuck, it's Raymond," I said.

"Want me to answer it?" Nell asked.

"Hand it here." She handed me the phone and I tossed it out the window. "I'm done with Raymond." I heaved a sigh. "I need a drink."

"Let's got to the Crow's Nest in the Sheraton."

"I thought our crowd was banned from there."

"Most of them are, but Percy's washing dishes there now. He vouched for me."

"Sounds good."

We purled along the highway until the half-hearted Knoxville skyline interrupted the horizon.

"You can park by the loading dock. After six, the security guard doesn't give a fuck," Nell said.

I parked by the dumpster and Nell waved at the bored guard. We ambled into the greasy alley. The heat vaporized the beer, urine, and garbage and so that it hung in the humid air. Downtown stunk.

In the lobby, a ragged clerk with eyes like billiard balls scowled at us. A crooked neck tie hung around the collar of her stained white shirt. We caught the glass elevator and peered at the city. Fluorescent rectangles glowed from the building next door; some poor chump hunched over his desk, staring at a computer screen, slowly drowning in the minutiae of his desk job.

The doors opened and we entered the lounge. Men with thickened bellies and red faces sat at the bar, watching the news and licking their fat lips. The bartender absently nodded at their dialogue. Nell caught his eye and he strutted over. "Whattaya say, Nell?" he asked in a graveled voice.

"Two Jack and Cokes, Al," she said.

He gave me a smile which I returned. Nell looked at me and said, "So, what are you going to do next?"

"I'm tired of living like this. I don't think a new identity is better than living as myself. Either way, I still worry about getting whacked."

"If you stay, Donnie's people are going to get you. They hold grudges."

"Have you seen them since the funeral?"

"Yeah, I went to the funeral. Everyone was tore up. They hate you, Sandy. Donna swore to kill you."

"I knew that already." Al set down the drinks and I fished out some cash to pay him.

"Thanks," said Nell.

"I'll never escape Donnie Rowe, will I?" I asked.

"I doubt it."

"I wish I had never met him."

"There is one thing you could try," Nell said, and gave me side look. "Annie might be able to give you some protection."

"I told you, I don't believe in all of that shit. Donnie used that black magic ruse to intimidate people, but he didn't practice it. Hell, he could barely read, much less study the dark arts."

"That stuff doesn't require a degree, Sandy. People learn it in their soul, and Donnie, his soul was black with it." The lights flickered in the bar; everyone startled.

"They're working on the AC," Al announced to the guests as the lights came back on. I sipped the whiskey and looked straight ahead.

"So, why did you leave Florida? Did you get identified? You don't look nothing like you used to."

"I didn't get identified. I got caught stealing credit card numbers from the customers at my job."

"What? What the hell, Sandy?" she cried.

"Stupid, I know."

"I thought you were given an allowance, like, I didn't know you had to work."

"I get a stipend, but I still have to be a citizen of the community. And that means I have to get a job. But the manager was a dick, he didn't know I was in the program, and was always hitting on me. I refused his proposals, but then he caught me copying the credit cards. He threatened to turn me in unless I, well, you can guess."

"So, what happened?"

"The guy ended up dead. Sliced to ribbons."

"Oh my God. Did you do it?"

"Fuck no, Nell. I don't know what happened."

"I believe you do know. Donnie Rowe happened." Nell killed her drink. "We should get to Annie's place. I don't see any other way."

***

Annie lived in Seymour, right outside of Knoxville. The idyllic landscape made it feel like the country, yet the place was ten minutes from downtown. The cottage was shadowed by overgrown wildflowers and a wrought iron fence bordered the yard. Yellow light spilled from the windows. We walked up to the dark porch where the sound of a New Age flute lilted from inside.

Nell knocked on the door. "Annie, it's Nell," she called softly. The door opened slightly and Annie poked out her frizzy head. Two beady eyes sized me up and she stepped back.

"Who do you have with you?" she asked.

"You know who it is. It's Sandy."

"Come in. Hurry." She ushered us inside, closed the door, and dropped the bamboo shades. The front room was covered in rugs and anchored by a futon decked with an orange and purple afghan. Large floor pillows were scattered on the floor. Sandalwood incense fogged the air.

"You're here about Donnie Rowe."

"Nell says I've got no other choice."

"She's right. But I'm not sure I can help you, either. He's still with you?"

"Things are happening that are like to the things he did. But I'm not convinced it's his ghost. I think someone who is loyal to him is trying to scare the hell out of me."

"Could be. His people hate you."

My face flushed. "I know. They have good reason."

"So, what do you want?"

Nell interrupted, "Can you give her a reading?"

"I can. It will cost you."

Nell looked at me and raised her eyebrow.

"I've got money," I said. We sat down at a table draped in a tapestry and she took out a large deck of tarot cards.  She shuffled the cards and fanned them out on the table. "Pick six and stack them in order."

I chose my cards and placed them in front of her. She laid them out in a pattern in front of me, clicking her tongue the entire time. A scowl remained on her face.

"The Fool," she said. "You are on a journey." She continued to study the next card for a minute before speaking. "The Wheel of Fortune. How this will end up depends on the next card." She revealed the card: Death's Grim Reaper bared his teeth at us.

"The death card is just representation. It doesn't mean you will die; it is only a change or transition to something else."

She continued to turn over all of the cards and study the entire display. After a few long minutes, she said, "You are being protected, but it's not by a benevolent spirit. What loves you may kill you."

"You're not telling me anything I don't know, Annie," I snapped.

***

We left Annie's and stopped at a convenience store to get a six-pack. When we returned to the car, the tires were slashed.

"Fuck me." I kicked the tire. I looked to see if someone was waiting to ambush us.

"I don't think that was random, Sandy," Nell said.

"Maybe it's his family," I said.

"I haven't noticed anyone following us. They would have to be quick. We were in there for less than five minutes."

I walked around the car and looked past the parking lot. Lonely cars puttered down the dark highway.

"What are we going to do about the car?" Nell asked.

"I need to ditch it anyway."

"Want me to call Harry to pick us up?"

"I think the fewer people that know I'm here, the better," I said.

"It's a little late for that, Sandy." She was right. Someone had anticipated my arrival. I was already fucked.

"Your place isn't far, let's just walk. I need to clear my head."

"Maybe you could talk to Donna. She knew what an animal her twin brother was," Nell said.

"You said yourself she hates me. I always thought she was jealous of us…"

"Well, you know twins have a strange connection."

We walked on the shoulder of the road. The sad song of crickets filled the air; fireflies blinked in the thick dark blanketing the woods. A black truck passed us and made the bend. I froze.

"That's the second time I've seen that truck." As we rounded the curve, the truck was parked on the side; the lights were off, but the motor was running.

"Fuck, what should we do?" Nell asked.

I placed my hand on the butt of the gun. "Keep walking." We approached the truck and the door swung open. A man stepped out and greeted me with a nasty smile.

"Raymond," I said.

"What the fuck are you doing, Sandy? Why haven't you called me back?"

"I lost the phone."

"Bullshit. You had no intention of coming back. You're going to get kicked out of the program."

"In case you haven't noticed, the program isn't working. Someone keeps finding me."

"Well, coming to the place where it all went down isn't helping."

"It wasn't working in Florida, either."

"Look, if you would cooperate, we'd figure out how they're finding you. It would help us and you."

"I just want my life back, Raymond."

"You can't have your life back. You have to make a new one."

"Why can't I just be me? Not another Chelsey Fisher with a story that's impossible to stick to."

"You can do that, but you won't be in the program. And you won't get an allowance. Participation is voluntary-you're free to leave at any time."

"I know."

"Get in. I'll take you somewhere safe for the night."

***

Raymond stopped at a liquor store and picked up some Seagram's Seven and Sprite. We drove to a three-star hotel in the center of downtown.

"The US Marshal Service must have a lenient travel budget," I said. Raymond glared at me and geared down, steering the truck into the garage.

"No one is going to look for you in a place like this."

"Thanks, Raymond. You know how to make a girl feel good," I snapped.

He grunted and cut the engine. We caught the elevator to his room, furnished with two double beds with fluffy white comforters. It smelled clean, the kind of clean that wasn't faking. I would have slept on the carpet.

We broke into the Seagram's and Sprite and watched TV. The Seagram's got the best of me and I fell asleep.

***

I heard a phone buzzing; confused, I jumped and realized I was in the hotel room. Nell and Raymond were asleep in the same bed; I would ask later. Raymond groggily picked up the phone. "This is Raymond." He rubbed his temple as the caller babbled into the phone.

"I'll look into it right away," he said, and ended the call. He looked at me, "It's a good thing I followed you, because I'm your alibi."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"Donnie's twin sister, Donna, is dead. She was found about five miles away from your rental car. Stabbed to death. It was the same knife that slashed your tires."

"What the fuck?" I gripped my head with my hands. "Raymond, I've got to get out of here," I said.

"Sandy, if you had gotten on that plane as scheduled, we wouldn't be here now. I get to explain that to the powers that be."

"Aren't you going to tell them I went to see my dying grandmother? And then all of this other crazy shit happened."

He picked up the near-empty bottle on the nightstand and finished it off. Nell was still sleeping, softly snoring.

"I'll do what I can."

***

We walked to the downtown courthouse where I was to be held in custody until arrangements could be made for a safe departure. Raymond accompanied me into the cell to make sure I was comfortable.
"This OK until we get you out of here?"

I looked around at my bare cell with white walls, a sink, and a toilet. A twin bed stood in the corner.

"I'd rather be at a hotel. Can't you get me protection there?"

"It's more secure here and you know we're cheap."

"What's the story with Donna?"

"I know a little more than I did this morning. The only prints on the knife belonged to her. She was spotted leaving the Crow's Nest and followed you to Seymour. From there, she camped out and waited for you to make your next move. She probably slashed your tires so that you would be on foot. I'm guessing she was close when I picked you up."

"How did you know where I was?"

"You think I would give you a car without a tracking device on it?"

My face flushed, "No, I guess not."

"So, she probably saw me pick you up and turned around. From there, the story gets a little murky…" he hesitated.

"You're not telling me something."

Raymond pinched his lips and looked me in the eye. "The good news is investigators found signs in her trunk painted with Donnie loves Sandy. She's definitely the one who hung those up. The bad news is, her body was flayed, like Donnie's last victim. As of now, we don't know who did it."

I wrinkled my brow and whispered, "Donnie loves Sandy."

***

Raymond smuggled me a Xanax. I lay on the rumpled mattress, staring at the ceiling until I became lost in the blinding white wall. I swiped at the empty air and turned on my side, staring at the small rectangular window in the metal door. I was trapped on the edge of sleep and dreamed that Donnie Rowe was sliding under the crack in the door. I tried to run, but the ground melted under my feet. I was choking. I opened my eyes with a gasp. Donnie Rowe was in my face, his sharp teeth bared at me. His hands around my throat.

"Donnie," I whispered.

"Sandy. Why did you betray me? Don't you know I love you?"

"I was ashamed, Donnie. The family of that girl…"

"You didn't give a shit about that girl. Stop pretending you're better than me. I know you haven't forgotten the barn. You led those people there."

"You said you were just going to scare them. I didn't know you'd…"

"Bullshit, Sandy. You knew exactly what I would do."  He licked my face and I winced. "You're a mess without me. You're still fucking everything up and I have to come in for the rescue."

A clanging noise resounded outside the door and I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping that I'd open them and he'd be gone. He disappeared, but my neck still burned from the grip of his fingers.

***

The next morning, or afternoon, I couldn't tell, the chaplain came to visit me.

"I heard you had a rough night. Guards said you screamed in your sleep."

"Yeah, I was having nightmares." My voice was hoarse.

"Want to talk about it?"

I touched my throat and looked at him. "Can the dead come back and haunt us?"

He cleared his throat and sat back. "Some people believe that souls can be restless. Do you think you're being haunted?"

"Donnie Rowe has been haunting me since I was a teen. He killed himself so he could fuck with me for eternity."

"You really think his ghost is visiting you?" He wrote in a black Moleskine.

"I need some sort of exorcism or prayer to get him off my back."

"Sandy, are you sure it's a ghost and not your conscience? Sometimes guilt brings on hallucinations.
You need redemption, not a séance."

"Look at my neck. Are there marks on it?" He scooted over and examined my throat.

"Yes, did you do that?"

"Hell no! Donnie was here. He wants to control me. Just like he did when he was alive."

"Are you under psychiatric evaluation? Intense stress can cause severe anxiety with debilitating side effects."

"Fuck yeah, I'm stressed out. It's one thing to be running from people, but from a goddamned ghost? There's nowhere to hide."

I got up and paced in the cell. "They're going to relocate me, but it doesn't matter. I'll never be free."
"Few people are truly free, Sandy." He handed a me tract and said, "Read this and I'll check on you later." He signaled the guard and was escorted out. The closing door boomed in the hallway and fear pressed on my chest.

***

Raymond sauntered in my cell as if he hadn't a care in the world.

"Did you find out who did it?" I asked.

"No, but I've arranged for you to leave tonight."

"Where am I going?"

"The plane will land in Reno. From there, someone will give you instructions to the next destination."

"Where's that?"

"I can't tell you."

"Bullshit, Raymond. I'm going to find out soon enough."

"Quincy, California. You'll have a cabin at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. It's a little slice of heaven on earth."

"I'll never get out of the hell I'm in."

"You can try. The National Forest Service needs a clerk for the fire stations. I think your personality will blend in well there."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a quirky little town. Artsy and independent, but not a big tourist destination. It's the Plumas County seat, population is about 10,000."

"Please tell me it's not a dry town."

"Of course not. There's plenty of weed, too. But you didn't hear that from me."

"I leave tonight?"

"Yep."

"What about Donna?"

"I don't think she'll haunt you."

"Fuck you, Raymond. I'm losing my mind."

"Listen, kid.  Your mind is just playing tricks on you. Here are the facts. Sunny Meade Hospice identified Donna. When your Granny's health plummeted, Donna hung those signs over the interstate, assuming that you would visit, and she was right. The receptionist was buying dope from her, and she tipped her off when you arrived. From there, she followed you, slashed your tires, and met with an unfortunate end. We are still investigating that piece, but she had plenty of enemies, just like the rest of her family. You should feel safe in going to a new place. No one is going to haunt you there."

***

The drive from Reno took about two hours. I recited my new name, Crystal Shipley, in the car and it was rolling off my tongue like honey. The parched hills were dotted with shrubs and thorny cacti; it was like a stark planet devoid of life. The topography shifted when I entered Plumas National Forest. Fragrant ponderosa pines lined Highway 70 all the way to Quincy. Main Street was the heartbeat of town, pulsing with eateries and pubs, a theater, and New Age shops. Off the main drag, homes were planted on ample parcels of land lining the base of the Sierra Nevadas. The view was breathtaking; the town was tiny.

I passed by a natural foods store as I navigated to the address programmed in my phone. The cabin was small, but it looked solid. I hopped out of the car and breathed in the pure air and for the moment, I had an ounce of hope. I opened the door and peered inside; the low light gave the stagnant room a creepy vibe. I walked over and pushed back the dusty drapes. Clear light poured in the room and I smiled at the majestic mountain view.

I turned around and frowned as I noticed the scrawling red letters on the mirror over the mantle, "Welcome home, Sandy."

-End-

Bio Wendy Davis was raised in East Tennessee and graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She currently lives in Nashville with her husband and two boys. She enjoys reading, hiking, yoga, and attending her children’s ballgames. Her husband, John, is an accomplished musician and together they share a love for all things David Lynch. She also meditates, but is not convinced it’s working.

Twitter: @zeewendyd

Instagram: @zeewendyd
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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Ink-Quisitions With Steve W. Lauden, part 2


Welcome back to the Rack, Steve. So let’s crank—and spill some Ink. Like your co-contributor Terri Lynn Coop in the Johnny Cash tribute anthology JUST TO WATCH THEM DIE, you happen to be someone who’s achieved success in one profession, then maneuvered into book writing. But whereas Terri worked as a criminal defense attorney, you spent many years as a drummer for various California bands. Can you tell us about a few of the bands you played with?

A. I played drums pretty consistently for about twenty years, but only did it “professionally” for a decade—and even then I usually had to wait tables or write freelance articles to pay the rent. I played with a couple of South Bay punk and surf bands in the early 90s that released songs with Theologian Records. Then I started playing with a Hollywood pop punk band called Ridel High. We recorded an album for Joey Cape’s My Records that later got picked up by A&M Records. The last full-time band I recorded and toured with was called Tsar, a power pop group signed to Hollywood Records. None of my bands ever sold many records, but I had some truly interesting experiences. That was over a decade ago. I still dust off my drums to record with friends or play an occasional show, but it’s definitely more of a hobby now. 

Q. Now according to Urban Legend, you became embalmed in Punk rock culture at the impressionable age of thirteen. But at what age did you start playing drums—and how old were you when you joined your first band?

A. I think I got my first drum set when I was 12 or 13. Prior to that I took accordion lessons, which might explain my fascination with pirates. My first “real” high school band was a straight up hardcore 4-piece called Six Feet Under. My mom used to cart me and my drums around to the lead singer's house once or twice a week for the month or two we were together.

So, the roots of my musical independence are in punk, but my tastes developed pretty quickly from there. I never left punk behind—I still listen to bands like Black Flag, X, Social Distortion, Gun Club and Descendents—but my friends and I moved backwards to Velvet Underground, Big Star and David Bowie by the time we graduated high school. I also kept listening to hard rock and metal like Guns 'n Roses, and even old country by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. We were primed and ready when college rock became alternative rock thanks to The Replacements, Husker Du and The Pixies. I even got into grunge and Brit Pop, but drew the line at Nu Metal. It’s important to set boundaries.

The methods to my madness are rarely evident. Not even to me. But you’ve written a trilogy that started with BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You next followed with GRIZZLY SEASON. The series recently concluded in January with your well-received novel HANG TIME. And, drum roll please—your central character in this trilogy somehow chances to be an aging punk rocker named Greg Salem. (Who, like most of us, has also worked various day jobs.)

Q. Throughout the series you’ve colored Greg as guy who struggles with the notion of growing up. And eventually he’s beset by a full-scale mid-life crisis. Without discussing plot, as someone who’s lived a musician’s life, can you give us some psychological insights into Greg Salem? And if there are parallels between Greg’s life and your metamorphosis, perhaps you will share some with us.

A. Greg Salem definitely isn't modeled on my own life, but I'm in there along with dozens of other people that I knew, met in passing or idolized. The concept for BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION was actually born of two things—watching the area around my hometown get swallowed up by a tidal wave of money, and seeing how some of my old friends and acquaintances continued to live a blue-collar beach life despite being squeezed out. It got me wondering what my life would have been like if I never moved away. The result is the three books in the trilogy. Not sure what it says about me that I imagine a really dark existence for my parallel universe self, but that's the way the story unfolded.

Ultimately, Greg can't get out of his own way. He's got just about everything in life a guy could want, but he's weighed down by anger and resentment that fuel his self-destruction. A lot of that character development came from basing Greg on the psychotic energy and over-the-top lyrics of bands I grew up listening to, some of which borders on the cartoonish. Of all Greg's character flaws, his alcohol addiction and struggles with sobriety are probably most closely related to my own experience. I don't drink any more, but I do remember what it was like to want to quit way before I actually did. In that respect, I have a much happier life than what I've created for Greg.

Q. You told Authors on the Air host Pam Stack in January that you’d already written your first Greg Salem novel BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION and your crime caper novella CROSSWISE before "arriving" on the Indie crime writing scene. When did you start and finish these works? And once finished, how did you go about trying to get them published?

A. I finished an early draft of BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION before I started poking around the crime-publishing universe. I was lucky to have some guidance and support from a talented LA writer named Travis Richardson. He introduced me to a few people and I quickly realized that many of the other new writers were busy publishing short fiction with magazines and websites, so I dove in. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out what to do with my first Greg Salem novel. I sent query letters and sample chapters to countless agents and publishers, but nothing ever came of it. The endless flow of rejections and non-responses got pretty exhausting, so I started looking into established Indie publishers. I met Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Books through another publisher and he eventually acquired the Greg Salem trilogy. Tyson’s a rocker too, so it’s a good fit.

At the same time, I was having moderate success with short story placements. One piece I wrote was about a disgraced NYPD cop who becomes head of security at a Florida retirement home filled with septuagenarian gangsters. A short-lived e-publisher encouraged me to expand it into a novella, but they soon went out of business. By then I was working with my editor, Elaine Ash. She encouraged me to submit CROSSWISE to Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books. If I have the timing correct, he agreed to publish it before BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION hit the streets. I've been working with Rare Bird and Down & Out ever since. Good people, one and all.

Q. I understand you have new feature character that you’re hoping to launch through your Agent. Since the topic of Agents mystifies many of us, how did you go about finding and landing one? And how long did this process take you?

A. After that initial flurry of rejections prior to BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION being published, I pretty much stopped actively looking for representation. Then a writer friend told me about an agent named Amy Moore-Benson a couple of years ago. She ended up signing a few other authors I'm connected with. One thing led to another and Amy and I started working together after Bouchercon in New Orleans. I really enjoy working with Amy and the team at Meridian Artists. As with my publishers and editor, I've found that having qualified people in your corner helps to keep the persistent imposter syndrome in check.

Q. I’d like to end with another question that’s likely to spark more controversy: What are some of the best taco trucks in LA? 

A. In reality, the LA publishing community already has a resident taco expert named Ryan Gattis. He also happens to be one of my favorite modern crime writers (read ALL INVOLVED). Anything I suggest taco-wise would pale in comparison to his recommendations. That said, you can't go wrong with La Estrella in Highland Park.

Thank you kindly Steve for paradiddling with Story and Grit. All my best to you. And congratulations not only on your writing accomplishments—but also for achieving a long run as a musician. I sometimes wish I could’ve done likewise. Instead I scarf burritos. And drink a load of bourbon. Unfortunately there ain’t no taco trucks back here in Parts Unknown.

The Johnny Cash tribute anthology Just To Watch Them Die—which includes Steve's story "25 Minutes to Go"—is available at Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Just-Watch-Gutter-Books-Anthologies-ebook/dp/B075KKGT7H/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8


You can find Steve on his websites: http://swlauden.com/ and https://badcitizencorporation.com/


Or y’all can visit him below on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009914612410
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Monday, March 19, 2018

Ink-Quisitions With Steve W. Lauden, part 1


Hi Steve. Welcome to Ink-Quisitions. My first question is always a softball: All set to spill some Ink?

A. I'm ready as I'll ever be. Thanks for having me. 

Q. I'm guessing that like most of us Indie writers, you work for an employer. Without placing you under duress—for the moment anyway—are you willing to give us a quick glimpse into your workdays? And are there any particular facets of your job that impact your "writing life?"

A. I work in sales and marketing, so everything is pretty data-driven these days. I try to turn that off before I sit down to write for fear that I'll fall into the trap of writing for the market instead of writing the stories I want to tell. It's a balancing act, for sure, but certainly not unique to me.

I'm excited about your third Greg Salem novel Hang Time, as well as your growing evolution as a podcaster. But since you spent twenty years as a drummer on the California music scene, let's start with your 2017 appearance in the Johnny Cash tribute anthology Just to Watch Them Die.

Q. As a musician—and a writer—how did you feel when Editor Joe Clifford asked you to submit a story for this collection?

A. Joe and Tom Pitts were the editors at Out of the Gutter/Flash Fiction Offensive when I first started dipping my toe into publishing. They are two of the most talented miscreants I’ve ever met. The first story they accepted from me was "Dead Beats," about a murderous rock band on the road. The three of us went on to form a rock band of our own along with Eric Beetner and Mike Creeden. Sadly, we broke up over artistic differences before our first rehearsal. You can thank REO Speedwagon for that.

Since then, I've had the good fortune to publish in some of the same anthologies as Joe and Tom. So when I heard Joe was curating a Johnny Cash anthology, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Johnny Cash is a musical hero of mine and “At Folsom Prison,” which includes “25 Minutes to Go,” is an all time favorite record.

Q. "25 Minutes to Go" struck me as a classic case of S.W. Lauden misdirection, akin to the style you used in your Spelk Fiction story "Secondary." But let's avoid talking plot. Does this particular Cash song bear any personal significance to you? And what influenced your decision to make one of your central characters a country music guitarist?

A. Thanks. It's interesting to think that "misdirection" is a calling card in some of my short fiction—I'll have to look into that. Also, thank you for reading “Secondary.” I really like that story, but it’s a deep cut for sure.

For “25 Minutes to Go,” the concept for the story came before I found out about the anthology. I'm somebody who reads a lot of rock biographies and autobiographies. I find the lives of successful musicians endlessly fascinating. In reading those kinds of "tell all" books, I often wonder what the artist is holding back. That’s probably how I arrived at this concept. As far as picking a country artist, I think it fit better with the, ahem, culinary theme that runs throughout the story.

Q. Shortly after Gutter Books released this kick-ass anthology, I chanced upon an interview you conducted with fellow contributor Jen Conley. Jen indicated that writing her story, "God's Gonna Cut You Down" impacted her emotionally for some time. While you live in Los Angeles, Jen lives in New Jersey. So what circumstances led to this interview? And have you experienced anything similar in regards to any of your characters?

A. Up until very recently, I interviewed a different author or publishing industry professional on my blog every week for over two years. I'm still doing those interviews, but not as frequently right now (podcasting takes a lot of time). That interview with Jen was part of a special feature I did to showcase some of the contributors featured in the Johnny Cash anthology. Jen and I got to know each other through conventions like Bouchercon, and the greater crime community on Facebook and Twitter. She's a very talented writer.

When it comes to the characters I write, I think you always have to have some kind of emotional connection or the story will fall flat. It's one thing to conceive of a character, to build out their skeleton and put skin on their bones with colorful descriptions—but it's quite another to breathe life into them and give them a soul. I find it very hard to do, which is probably why I'm so focused on it when I'm writing. If you’re successful at it, the characters definitely can make decisions that surprise you. That happened a lot for me with Greg Salem as I got deeper into the trilogy, especially in the final book, Hang Time. It also happened with Shayna in my crime caper novellas, Crosswise and Crossed Bones. She really took on a life of her own. It doesn't happen for me all the time, but it's pretty incredible when it does.

Q. Setting your writing aside, besides rock music and recreational reading, you recently added a third obsession to your repertoire: podcasts. How did your podcast addiction start? And how did you and Eric Beetner eventually team up to host the podcast Writer Types?

A. I got into writing because I love reading. I got into podcastng because I love listening to them. I've been a big public radio fan since my twenties, especially "Somewhere Out There with Joe Frank," "This American Life" and "Radiolab." When those shows pushed more into podcasting, I followed them and discovered a whole new world to explore. I got into "WTF with Marc Maron," "Snap Judgement," “Hardcore History” and "Serial" and, most recently, "Desert Oracle Radio," "Kurt Vonneguys" and "The Hilarious World of Depression." I also really like "The Tim Ferris Show," "Recode Media with Peter Kafka" and "Re:sound."

Eric and I got to know each other through the LA crime scene and booked an event together at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego. On the ride down, we got to taking about our favorite podcasts. By the time we arrived at the event, we had already sketched out the kind of crime and mystery podcast we would want to hear. We put pen to paper on the ride home and launched the first episode two months later.

There are a lot of amazing things that have come out doing "Writer Types," but the most consistent has been the ability to connect with other writers at various stages of their publishing career. We've interviewed established authors like Sara Paretsky, William Kent Krueger, Attica Locke, Joe R. Lansdale and Blake Crouch (among many others), and gotten to know some very talented newer authors like Aimee Hix, C.J. Tudor, Chuck Caruso, Sheena Kamal and Michael Pool (among many others). We've talked to Big 5 authors, Indie authors and self-published authors, and the conversations are always fascinating and fun. As a reader, I never get tired of it. As an author, I have already learned more than I ever could have imagined.

To collectively feed your obsessions you craftily launched and completed a solo five-part podcast you dubbed "Books on the Bus." In these sessions you chewed the fat with five different musicians from five West Coast bands—

1. Marko DeSantis of Sugarcult
2. Jim Lindberg of Pennywise
3. Jeff Whalen of Tsar
4. Joey Cape of Lagwagon
5. Todd Pasternack of Ominous Seapods

Q. So what prompted you to hook-up with these particular musicians? And what kind of smack did you guys talk about?

A. “Books on the Bus” really is a passion project. The idea came out of considering my character Greg Salem, a punk musician in his early forties who gets his old band Bad Citizen Corporation back together and hits the road in Hang Time. It got me thinking about how many books I read when I was still touring in bands. I wondered if other musicians had the same experience. I was thrilled when so many of the guests I approached were excited to be part of the conversation about books and music. I guess it didn't hurt that I had some kind of connection with each of my five guests.

Q. So anyone who wants can visit your Bad Citizen Corporation website at the Link below can listen to any and all these Books on the Bus episodes for free, correct?

A. One hundred percent free. I hope you guys dig it. All I ask is that if you like what you hear, please help me spread the word.

Q. Meanwhile, congrats to you and Eric on producing 17 Episodes of Writer Types to date. How can folks listen to these podcasts?

A. Thanks! It's been a blast and we've already got some amazing guests lined up for 2018. 

The episodes live in three places: 
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/writer-types-podcast/id1197101086?mt=2
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/user-910265603
Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/writer-types

Q. Before we talk again later, do you have any school-of-hard-knocks advice for folks who've considered taking a shot at producing their own podcasts? 

A. I'm still a podcast novice, so I'll point you instead to a couple of masters. Tim Ferris recently did a whole show about "How To Build Popular Podcasts and Blogs." And Marc Maron has always had great advice to offer in articles like this one from Spin.

The main thing that I've learned is to let the conversation unfold naturally. When we first started Writer Types, Eric and I always had a long list of questions, but we pretty quickly realized that the best moments happened in-between those questions. It's important to let the guests lead the conversation and share what they want to share with listeners, with just a little guidance from us. And it never hurts to share a few laughs with somebody when you’re getting to know them. 

Q. Meanwhile, what are the 3 best places to scarf down burritos in Los Angeles—and what kinds would Steve W. Lauden order?

A. This might be the toughest question you’ve asked me. Burrito talk can get very, um, heated. We have so many fabulous places to choose from in LA, but here are three that jumped into my head:

El Tarasco in Manhattan Beach—The Jr. Super Deluxe wet burrito with ground beef has been a favorite since high school.
Tacos Villa Corona in Atwater Village—The potato and egg breakfast burrito with spinach is fantastic.
El Gran Burrito in East Hollywood—Get an old school carne asada burrito and load up on spicy red salsa.

When Steve and I return on Thursday, we’ll devle into is his most recent novel Hang Time—which completes the trilogy in his Greg Salem series.

Folks who’ve got a hankering to check out Steve’s “Books on the Bus” podcasts can find them here: https://badcitizencorporation.com/2018/02/03/books-on-the-bus-complete-podcast-mini-series/

Anyone with an interest can also read Steve’s 2017 story, “Secondary” on Spelk Fiction for free.

The Johnny Cash tribute anthology Just To Watch Them Die—which includes Steve's story "25 Minutes to Go"—is available at Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Just-Watch-Gutter-Books-Anthologies-ebook/dp/B075KKGT7H/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

You can find Steve on his websites: http://swlauden.com/ and https://badcitizencorporation.com/

Or y’all can visit him below on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009914612410


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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The McReynolds Trade Was a Bad Idea by Mike Lee


The McReynolds Trade Was a Bad Idea

I.

In April of 1988, two workers arrived to clean out apartment 3G. After several hours of scraping and scrubbing, and bagging up the uncollected belongings of the previous tenants, they took a break for lunch. One of the workers, weary of back-to-back twelve hour shifts, despite the overtime pay, was a little upset. He would have rather been picked for a different apartment. This place gave him the creeps, because of what he read about what had happened here in the tabloids several days ago.

He put a mask on it all. "Hey, how'd you think the Mets are doin'?" He did care how the Mets were doing, and it was, by asking that question, the wall he used to shield himself from his surroundings. These walls take precision in construction, and he was learning.

The other worker mumbled a reply, mentioning the latest trade, adding that everything went to shit ever since they got McReynolds for Mitchell. "Fucking dumbfuck deal," he said, munching on his ham and egg sandwich, mopping up his face with one of the wipes they used to scrub the tile work in the kitchen with.

The Mets fan was worried about a lot, and confused. He had a thing for guys, but was too afraid to act on it. Instead, he bought battered used porno off the street at the thieves' market on St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue, and when he got home jerked off to the pictures of nude men and shemales. That was as far as it went. He was afraid to go to the bars, and more so of the bookstores. You could catch something bad in those filthy booths and he was also scared of running into someone he knew. This didn't stop him from thinking about it, and he looked forward to coming home. He also disagreed with the other worker about McReynolds, but he only answered by nodding.

"After lunch, we have to do the bedroom and then call for the garbage crew to take this stuff away," said the other worker, wiping mayonnaise from his moustache." He pointed to the red vintage telephone on the floor, cord still attached to the outlet. "The telephone is still on. I checked it when we came in. We have to wrap this up by two."

"That's good news. Us getting off early." The Mets fan was happy. He can come home early to play.

"We have to. The cops won't let us go into the bathroom and the hall closet. That's why they are still taped."

After lunch, they finished the job and got out early.

II.

By the end of the spring, the Mets fan had eventually lost his fear. He woke up one day, and said, let's do this. All went well for his newfound summer flings and was progressing quickly until one night it was one popper too many and he had a seizure in a booth at the Vault, dying on the floor.

McReynolds hit a three-run homer that night.

The other worker was working doubles to save for the fall semester at Borough of Manhattan Community College. After moving on to City College to finish his degree in Social Work, he found employment at the city's Department of Human Resources and transferred over to Housing while getting his masters at Brooklyn College. It was fulfilling, but a layoff spree did him in, and though he was encouraged to continue, his spot on the furlough list was too low for redeployment so he dropped out and went briefly into construction. There was time to come back, he believed.

III.

The apartment they had cleaned had been rented to a young woman, a student at NYU. What she had for looks and brains was crowded out by poor taste in men. Her name was Linda. The last bad boyfriend was named Bill. He was also an NYU student, and sort of kind of moved in with her, which despite her misgivings, she relented to.

Things were never very healthy between the two of them. One night Bill bashed Linda's head into the porcelain sink until it shattered into large pieces and he fled the apartment. When the super finally got into the apartment with NYPD in tow, there was nothing they could do.

Linda was too messed up for an open casket, but the framed high school graduation picture on the stand sufficed, and it was printed in Newsday, The Post and The Daily News. A story about the case also made The Times, and was picked up by wire services. The parents created a scholarship in her honor and a shelter for at-risk women was named for Linda in her hometown in southern New Jersey. Despite an extensive search, which included one of the most-watched episodes of America's Most Wanted, Bill was never found.

IV.

Bill had taken the coward's way out. After murdering his girlfriend, he ran into the night and eventually jumped off the Williamsburg Bridge. A cab driver crossing in from Brooklyn saw him do it, but only saw a flash while driving by so he did not report it when he arrived at the garage or to the police, though he suspected it was the madman who murdered the student. He had recently emigrated from the West Bank, and hated anyone in a uniform. While in the Middle Eastern cafes on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, or in Bay Ridge, the cabbie kept up with the story of the search of the madman named Bill, but as time passed, the night faded to a moment added to others he wished to forget.

V.

Bill's family were horrified about the situation that their crazy son had forced them into. His mother appeared on television pleading for her son to turn himself in. It was bootlegged and inserted into an underground compilation of murder porn. For a time, the video was circulating for $29.95 for the audience who wanted to be bad, and those with the morals of insects.

Bill's end was as a corpse floating face-up and bloating in the East River. The current gently carried him close to the shore; passing Governor's Island and was moving toward the abandoned docks in Brooklyn's Red Hook district. Two punks sitting on the dock spotted something in the water.

"What the fuck. Looks like a body."

"Nah. That doesn't look dead," said his companion. To prove his point, he picked up a broken half of a brick and got up. He went into a wind-up and threw a sidearm at the floating body, striking Bill's corpse in the back so hard, his body turned over.

"Got the motherfucker!"

"Wow, a perfect fuckin' pitch, dude." They had scored some rock before coming over, and pulled out a pipe to finish it off as Bill, faced the eternal deep.

By dusk, Bill floated into Inner New York Harbor. In the darkness, he was unseen, and so when he was caught in the wake of an empty container ship leaving from Bayonne, no one witnessed him being pulled into the propeller, grinding him into unrecognizable bits. Fragments of Bill washed up on the Rockaways, his lesser-rotted remains eaten by seagulls.

VI.

Apartment 3-G was rented briefly to a couple. They broke the lease immediately after discovering who the previous tenant was. After a sublet in the Flatiron District, the husband was transferred to San Francisco. Less than a year later, their home was destroyed in the fire after the 1989 earthquake. They swore they had been cursed until they received the insurance check. In the meantime, the cab driver saved enough to bring two brothers over, and they opened a dry goods store in South Brooklyn. They rented from an Orthodox Jew, and neither had any problems with the arraignment. The landlord had a brother who built car bombs for the Irgun in 1947 until he crossed the wrong wire. There is a small street named for him in Tel-Aviv. The brothers sometimes wire money to a cousin in Syria, who belongs to a group that put car bombs into jam boxes. He listens to Madonna and has a poster of her on his bedroom wall.

VII.

The workers leave apartment 3G. One listens to the Mets on WFAN on his Sony Walkman and goes home to masturbate while wearing his mother's old dress and a pair of women's shoes he found during another apartment cleaning. The high heels are a size too small and hurt his feet. After an orgasm, he feels a twinge in his chest, but he thinks he pulled a muscle. He feels very tired.

VIII.

The other worker gets on the train home to Brooklyn, reading a Jim Thompson novel on the way. He looks up to see a pretty Ukrainian girl, blond and dark eyelashes, looking she came off the plane from Kiev. He thinks about her at home while listening to jazz. He wished he were a poet so he could write about her, and vowed that maybe someday he shall be.

IX.

That year, the Mets won the division.

-End-

Bio Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. His fiction is published and forthcoming in West Trade Review, The Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, The Roaring Muse, The Airgonaut, Sensitive Skin, Reservoir, The Avenue, Easy Street, The Corvus Review and others. His photographs are currently on exhibit at Art Thou Gallery in Berkeley, California. Website is www.mleephotoart.com.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Music Review: Sleepwalkers by Brian Fallon



By purposefully pulling at the emotions of his listeners, by tapping their hearts with music sublimely orchestrated, musician Brain Fallon knows he's doing something right. The Gaslight Anthem frontman, is a poet, first and foremost, he's also a man who keeps his heart on his sleeve proudly. His words are beautiful but somber, they're original and fundamental to the progression of his wholesome contributions. 

The man is a God amongst his band's faithful. The Gaslight Anthem may be on a hiatus or even defunct, but the flock are still absorbing everything Fallon does musically. He's respected and his muse is never-ending, his compassion and passion endless. It may only be solo missions that Brian Fallon is embarking on nowadays, but his talent is still rooted, his admirable heart still beating to the sound of a million guitars. 

As a solo musician, Fallon excels, pushing his talent to colossal heights, using his voice as a string for people to hang onto. They go by his every word. Yes the sadness rubs off, the words resonate, and they burn brightly over a base of darkness. But, we expect gut-wrenching poetry, we expect stories of hardship and despair. 

Fallon sings about pain and misfortune, shattered love, bulldozed intentions, on his new LP Sleepwalkers. The record is a collection of songs which are masterful in their delivery, but are also Fallon's most darkened notes. He describes pain as a vessel leading to destruction, he conveys love as a broken crutch.

Dreams are also explored, explosive nightmares a constant trait. But, Fallon is a master at creating tracks which point precisely at his brutalized mind. He isn't doomed for evermore, but he is a man clinging to his integrity and morals. 

Sleepwalkers is filled with many poignant heart-pullers. Forget Me Not is wonderful, guitar driven track. Fallon describes playing melancholic songs which may make the world feel better. He truly striving for peace here. Proof Of Life is a subtle note to a girl Fallon seems to adore. His words are wasting away, he's trapped by a demon, and he's contemplating ending it all. The little acoustic melody behind these heavy poetic strands is majestic. See You On The Other-Side showcases Fallon's sharp vocals and brilliant wordplay. He sings about a disenchanted lover, he bellows about the inevitability of death. 

Sleepwalkers is a revelation. It bursts with emotion, it tells us fables of heartache and the real life. 

Bio Mark McConville is a freelance music journalist from Scotland. His work has appeared online and in print. He also dabbles in flash fiction, short stories, and poetry. His flash fiction has appeared on Out Of The Gutter Online.



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