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Gregory E. Lucas
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okpalb.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2014

YOU OKAY, PAL?


BY


GREGORY E. LUCAS


Big Jack drove his battered Fairmont on Delaware Route Thirteen South, rolled down his window, and stuck his head into the midnight deluge.  Rain dampened the sweat jersey covering his blubbery torso, but he felt too excited about the next kill to care about anything else.

Still can’t see, he thought. 

Told you to get new wiper blades, Little Jack, his friend the jackknife said— that voice so real sounding in Big Jack's schizophrenic head that he never suspected or even cared if it was an illusion.

Little Jack—always right, about everything.

The garish mix of lights—greens and yellows from staggered traffic lights, red tail lights, headlights from approaching traffic—smeared in the rain smacking his windshield. 

Told you to fill up, too, before we left, Little Jack said.

The needle hovered near the E.

He slowed down. Several cars passed by while he leaned forward, so far that his nose almost touched the glass, so that he could see better and spot an open gas station. Glowing electric signs—Molla’s Psychic Readings, Adult Book World, and Danny’s All Night Diner—appeared among darkened storefronts and empty parking lots that lined the highway. Valero—the gas station’s logo glowed, but everything inside looked dark. Texaco—closed too. 

Howling wind shot rain diagonally across a yellow Sunoco sign glowing above a parking lot decorated with shattered glass and newspapers sopping in puddles. Two people, so bundled up in hoods and coats that he couldn’t tell if they were men or women, sprinted from the lit station’s doorway through the deluge to a Corolla, then drove off. He drove up to a pump and draped the hood of his sweat jersey over his damp hair. 

Get the gas first, Little Jack said. And if he ain’t right—let it pass.

Big Jack patted Little Jack’s handle in the jersey’s pouch to give his friend reassurance. He hung his head so that the hood concealed more of his face. He didn’t often smile before he got ready to kill, but everything, even the weather—who wouldn’t pull a hood over his head in such an awful storm?—kept working out to his advantage.

Big Jack swung open the heavy glass door and glanced down at the wrinkled redheaded man who got his skinny ass off the stool behind the cash register. The man puffed on a cigar, and smoke filled the air of the tiny office. Another break—he avoided revealing to any hidden security camera even the little bit of his face that the hood failed to cover by keeping his head turned down and away as he faked coughing. 

He crumpled the twenty in his left jeans pocket and he felt Little Jack’s ebony handle. 

Pay him, he heard Little Jack whisper, but instead Big Jack kept up the fake coughing. He tore the twenty in his pocket and rage sent tremors into his arms and legs.

“You okay, pal?”

Big Jack shifted his eyes to scrutinize the man. Red hair—just like the one Little Jack said they’d kill on this trip. 

Little Jack spoke in a scratchy voice in Big Jack’s head: He ain’t right.

He’s right, Big Jack thought. 

Too old, Little Jack insisted.

“The smoke,” Big Jack said to the man.

“Want gas?”

Big Jack kept his head down, his face averted, and coughed as he stepped toward the register. He flexed his hand on Little Jack’s handle.

Little Jack wouldn’t shut up in his head—Told you to gas up first.

“Twenty on pump three.”

The man held out his hand.

Big Jack took out the twenty dollar bill.  He opened and closed his fist, mangling the bill further, and eased Little Jack to the edge of the pouch.

“Well, you payin’?”

He placed the balled-up twenty in the man’s hand. 

“It’s like spit,” Big Jack told his pal as soon as the rain blew into his face on his way to the pump. He took the pump off the hook and squeezed the handle. He still squeezed the pump’s handle even after the dial showed he’d pumped his twenty dollars’ worth. “Like the spit that redheaded kid did on me way back,” he told Little Jack. 

Big Jack hung the pump handle back on the hook. He headed back to the station’s office. We made a deal, Little Jack said on the way. We head south and don’t kill no one tonight unless he looks just like the kid from back then. 

Big Jack fidgeted with Little Jack as he stood in front of the man. He kept his head down, but he could still see the man.

“Somethin’ else?”

Through the swirling smoke the face of the boy who’d spit on him showed on the man’s wrinkled face.

“Somethin’ else?” the man said again.

Big Jack forced his fingers to stop trembling in his pocket by squeezing the cash. 

“Pack of Camels—unfiltered.”

“Thought smoke bothered you.”

It’ll be easy, Big Jack thought. Grab his arm when he takes the cash, lunge, stab, and split.

He took out a wad of cash and turned his back to the man while he withdrew a crushed five-dollar bill. 

 Big Jack brought Little Jack to the edge of his jersey’s pouch. He spun around and handed the man his cash. 

“There you go,” the man said, and he put the cigarettes on the narrow counter.

Big Jack swung open the door.

“Your cigs,” the man said.

The rain spit in Big Jack’s face again. The man’s footsteps behind him made loud splashes. 

“You paid for ‘em.”

Big Jack got in his car. The man tapped the window and kept his face there.  The rain smeared all the likenesses it had to the boy’s face—the spitter’s face.

Big Jack turned the key.

Patience, Little Jack said when they left the lot. We’ll find the right one.

“Yeah, we’ll find him,” he told Little Jack, and he drove the Fairmont south through the relentless northeaster. 


THE END







silentrevenge.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright 2016

SILENT REVENGE

Gregory E. Lucas

 

Eddie Sax finds it astounding that the crime he witnessed on a long-ago winter evening fell so neatly into his plan for revenge against his parents.  Whenever he passes the music shop where everything happened when he was nine years old, he imagines the experience as a wicked tale in a book.

Once upon a snowy day he shivered in the driveway, next to his mother. She scraped ice off the Bentley’s windshield and pointed to the front passenger door.

“Open it. Get in,” she said.

“What?” Making her repeat herself fit the plan— anything to annoy her.

“Like it or not, you’re going to this music lesson.”

Instead of opening the front door, like she’d wanted, he opened the back door of the sedan, slid the guitar in its black case across the tan seat, and sat down next to it.

 “Where’s your coat?” she said. “Can’t you see it’s snowing?”

Rather freeze, he thought, than put on a coat like she wants me to.

“Get it. Now.”

Pretend you don’t hear her, he told himself.

He wouldn’t budge. She huffed and started the car. She backed the Bentley down the long driveway and she drove onto the street of their upscale neighborhood. It was a Tuesday evening, a week before Christmas. If only there were no such days as Tuesdays. Tuesday evenings meant music lessons. The bright lights, the tinsel, the Santas in the malls, the decorated wreaths on doors and all those jingles—what good were they if his mother demanded that he to go into the city of Wilmington, Delaware for his lessons? And all that forced practice—hours every day. Scales—the most boring music foisted onto him.

They passed the park where kids sled down a big hill. No fun for him tonight. He must take his lesson and become a prodigy.

His mother leaned toward the windshield. The wiper blades swatted the snow, hopelessly.

“It’s a blizzard, almost,” she said.

“You can’t see. Go home.”

The car swerved on a slick patch as she left the neighborhood and turned onto the main road. As they neared the city, traffic thickened. Minutes passed without traffic moving. Horns tooted. 

“We can’t be late,” she said.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

He messed-up his hair.

“And stop doing that to your hair.”

He rubbed his head again and shook it to annoy her further. An ambulance with a siren and flashing lights fought its way through the traffic and passed their car.

She tapped the wheel and fidgeted with her hands for ten minutes. The line of cars advanced, but only at a walker’s speed. After every few feet the cars in front of them stopped for a moment, and then started forward again. Two smashed cars clogged one side of the road. Police cars and ambulances with flashing lights surrounded the area. Flares burned close to a policeman who blew his whistle and directed traffic.

“My God,” she said.

“Why does everyone stop and look?”

She didn’t answer and observed the rescue workers hoisting a man on a stretcher into an ambulance.

Eddie leaned across the seat, toward his mother. “Do people like to see other people get hurt?”  

“How could you ask such a thing?” she said.

“Because everyone stops and checks out the gore.”

A shrill whistle caught her attention. The policeman motioned for her to proceed. She drove up, even with the accident, and stopped.

“The policeman wants you to go.”

She scrutinized the accident scene once more before forging ahead.

***

His mother dropped him off at the front of the music shop, an old three story brownstone building.

“Going shopping. Pick you up in an hour,” she said.

He let his guitar case bang on three slippery steps. As he reached for the brass doorknob, the door swung open. He collided with a man in a dark coat and ski mask. Eddie fell and brushed the snow off the seat of his pants. Without paying attention to the man’s extended hand, he got up, entered the shop, and walked up the staircase at the end of the hall.

He stepped inside the dark bathroom on the second floor. Only faint light came from the big window next to the urinals. Eddie searched along the wall for the light switch. He only tapped it. I’ll hide in the dark, he thought. If the teacher searches for me here, I’ll duck into a stall.

Ten minutes he’d kept Mr. Jashen waiting. He unzipped his fly at the urinal and glanced out the window while he urinated. A pretty young woman hurried down the sidewalk—her waist-length red hair streaming behind her. She leaned into the howling wind. He zipped up, stepped away from the urinal, and pressed his face against the rattling glass.

After she passed the street lamp, he noticed a huge shadow. She ran, but the shadow overtook her—Santa Clause’s shadow. His belly, white beard, and red suit resembled every other Santa.

But Santa wouldn’t grab anyone by the neck, would he? The man covered her mouth. The woman cringed. The man forced her off the sidewalk, into the backyard below the music shop’s bathroom window.

The music store’s wall and deserted brick warehouses surrounded the yard.  Only a weak yellowish light from a street lamp shone into a small section of the gloom. No one could view the yard from the sidewalk or street. Only from the vantage point of the music shop’s bathroom window could anyone see the yard.

The man grabbed her, slammed her into the snow. From side to side she rolled. Her hair fanned out. No cap. No coat. She wore only an old blue sweater and faded blue jeans with patches across her skinny rear. No boots either, just untied sneakers. She wore one glove. It flew off and landed in a drift as the man threw her to the ground. She slid on her back, away from the man in the shadows of the buildings that enclosed them.

Santa tore off his beard and hat, straddled her, and yanked her hair. He forced her up again. Slap. Her fair skin, alluring, like the faces of princesses in the fantasy stories Eddie watched on TV, flashed red.

“Sorry,” she said, her voice barely audible.

 “Who is he?” the man said, his voice more distinct than hers.

“Nobody.  Just a guy who sells tickets at the movie theater, like me.”

Santa punched her face and blood oozed from her nose. Her legs collapsed, but she didn’t fall because Santa twisted her hair.

Get help, Eddie thought. Santa threw her and unbuttoned his coat. The pillow that’d fattened him slipped out. He flung the coat and the pillow and kicked the woman’s ribs.

Go now, Eddie said to himself, but despite the urgency of his inner voice, he remained at the window. Like everyone at the car wreck, horror absorbed his attention.

“Sorry,” he thought he heard her say. He couldn’t hear her, but he’d watched her swollen lips form the word.

“Slut.”

Santa was young, with dark curly hair and a shaved face.  He took off his wide black belt.

The door—open it. Get someone, Eddie told himself. The brass buckle glistened. Why’s the man waving it around like that? Eddie asked himself. And look: he’s backing away from her, and he’s scratching his face. It looks like he’s . . . he’s almost crying.

The man wiped the snot from his nose with his flannel sleeve. He swirled the belt buckle an inch above the woman’s bloody face. She slid on her back, saying that she was sorry. Instead of putting her hands up to protect herself, she made the sign of the cross over her heart.

The buckle struck her cheek. Enough. Eddie dashed toward the door and opened it. Tapping on the window froze him. He closed the door and ran back. The wind rattled the pane with greater vehemence. The woman—her eyes, narrow slits among bruises and blood, fixed on Eddie—pleaded for help.

He wondered when she’d noticed him. Only I can help her, he thought. Cold blasted through the window’s edges. Goose bumps covered his arms underneath the sleeves of his sweat jersey. The man below fixed his cold black eyes on Eddie, dug into his gaunt cheeks, and wiped snot from his nose again. A black cat knocked off a trashcan lid in a dark corner. The woman shrieked and the cat scampered across the yard. A slap. A kick. She lay still in the snow. Dead? And why did the man start crying? 

“You get him high before you—”

She stirred.

“We didn’t—”

“Whore.”

Eddie pictured what might’ve happened before she’d run down the sidewalk; he pictured her dashing from one of the nearby row-homes, fleeing from the man— no time to tie her shoes, put on a coat and a cap, or to look for both of her gloves.

She slid further from the man who paced and pulled his hair. The man clawed his cheeks; blood streaked them. 

Again the sign of the cross—her last gesture before she slid closer to the wall Eddie stood by.  She lay almost directly below him, her body out of view except for her long legs.  Her feet must’ve felt so cold, especially the one without a sneaker. There it was—the missing sneaker appeared, half -buried in snow, near her missing glove, far out of her reach.

Santa picked up his suit top and pillow and thrashed the air with them.  He breathed hard and fast. More of her disappeared into the shadows directly below the bathroom window, all but her ankles and feet. Santa left parts of his suit behind and zigzagged, like a tired-out boxer or a drunkard, away from the yard, down the sidewalk. Eddie headed down the hall, toward his teacher’s room.

“Where’ve you been?” his teacher said.

Not answering him, Eddie sat on the armless wooden chair in front of the music stand.

“Fifty minutes late,” Mr. Jashen said. “Why?” Mr. Jashen pointed toward the street-side wall. “I glimpsed your mother’s car. She dropped you off on time.”

Eddie removed his guitar from its case and put his sheet music on the stand.

“I was in the bathroom.”

“Not for fifty minutes.”

Eddie plucked a few strings. Mr. Jashen interrupted.

“The check. Full payment.”

The check was in the front right pocket of Eddie’s pants, but he fumbled in his left pants pocket and checked the two back pockets.

“Can’t find it.”

Mr. Jashen cleared his throat and his big ears reddened. He paced.

“Oh, here,” Eddie said.

Mr. Jashen snatched the check from him.

“Only seven minutes left. Play the first few measures.”

The worse the better, Eddie thought, and three measures into the piece that he’d practiced so much that he could play it flawlessly, he hit three consecutive wrong notes.

Mr. Jashen winced.

Mistakes like that, Eddie knew, would provoke Mr. Jashen beyond his tolerance; he’d spring from his chair and pace by the window and mutter in breathy tones. Eddie deliberately held the next note two beats too long and struck a wrong chord.

“Stop.”

Mr. Jashen almost toppled off his chair. He circled Eddie.

“You know how to play this piece.”

“I didn’t practice.”

Silence lingered before Mr. Jashen said, “The bathroom? No, I don’t believe you. What’s the true story?”

But if I tell him, Eddie thought, he might make me talk to a policeman. And what will the policeman do to me when I tell him how long I watched? What will everyone say if they know I let the woman get hit and kicked? None of them will understand, he told himself.

“I don’t want to take guitar lessons anymore.”

“Where were you?”

“I hate playing guitar. I want to play at the park with my friends.”

Mr. Jashen glanced at his watch.

“Your mother’ll be here any minute. She’ll help me get to the bottom of this.”

Eddie blushed.

“I hid in the bathroom because I don’t want to take guitar lessons.”

“Put your instrument away. We’re out of time.”

“Why don’t you believe me?”

Mr. Jashen buttoned the sleeves of his dark blue shirt and paced in front of the window.

“Your mother’s here.”

I’ll never, ever, tell them what happened, he promised himself. The grown-ups, they’re always forcing me to do things I don’t want, but they can’t make me tell what happened in the yard if I don’t want to, he thought.

Mr. Jashen gestured with his finger for Eddie to follow him out of the room.  Eddie stayed put.

He could hear Mr. Jashen calling him from the top of the staircase.

He pictured the woman, lying unconscious, pelted by the harsh weather.  Was it right, he wondered, to keep this secret, to punish them by not giving them the explanation they demanded when she might suffer more—even die if he remained silent?

Eddie approached Mr. Jashen at the top of the stairs. Bells jingled on the front door; his mother entered the music shop.

“We’re going to get the full story from you yet,” Mr. Jashen said to Eddie.

Eddie followed the guitar teacher down the staircase.

The power of secrecy—on the bottom step Eddie relished his advantageous position.

“Almost the entire lesson, for all but the last ten minutes, he hid in the bathroom. That’s what he claims,” Mr. Jashen said to Mrs. Sax.

 “Is this true?” Mrs. Sax said to her son.

“Oh it’s true all right,” Mr. Jashen said before Eddie attempted to answer.

Eddie wandered toward the front door.

“You’ll get punished for this.”

“I suspect there’s more to this story than what he’s told,” Mr. Jashen said.

Eddie remained silent.

“He doesn’t want to take guitar lessons, Mrs. Sax. Other kids want his slot in my schedule.”

“He must.”

“I won’t tolerate his behavior.”

She stamped her foot.

Look how she’s dressed, Eddie thought. Gold and silver always—either a gold dress with silver jewelry, or silver clothes and gold jewelry. And that hair, piled high on top of her head, as if that could fool people into believing that she’s not puny. And Mr. Jashen—dressed head to toe in dark blue, always the same color, like a cop in uniform.

Mr. Jashen raised his hand, a signal for her to stop talking. But she wouldn’t shut-up, Eddie knew.

Eddie pulled her sleeve.

 “Can we leave?” Eddie said.

She ignored him. Like always, Eddie said to himself. What I want never matters.   

She argued with his teacher again, insisting that she’d change Eddie’s attitude and that Eddie must continue with the lessons.

“Mom.”

“To the car.”

Going at last, he thought. He dashed to the door and opened it. The snow—how could the sky dump so much at once? But even more wonderful than the snow was his teacher’s declaration.

“His lessons are discontinued. That’s final.”

No more lessons. Is it possible? Eddie wondered.

To Eddie: “I told you—go to the car.” Then to Mr. Jashen, “We’ve got to leave before this storm worsens, but we will come back next week.”

“Mrs. Sax.”

Decide now, Eddie told himself. Keep the beating a secret or help the woman. He pictured the woman out back—her bare hands, her patched jeans, and her foot without a shoe—imagined the snow that was obliterating the city, burying her.

A solitary wanderer staggered on the sidewalk, her princess hair mangled, streaming across her bludgeoned face. She folded her bleeding arms tight into her shivering body, limped into clouds of swirling snow, and disappeared. A gust chilled the doorway while flurries swarmed around the streetlight. 

Thirty years later it’s still a secret—the crime he witnessed on his night of silent revenge.

 

THE END



NO ONE EVER ASKED WINSLOW THIS

(Inspired by Winslow Homer’s painting Boy Fishing.)

by Gregory E. Lucas

 

Are we to bear in mind the agony,

the tragic fate of the netted rainbow trout,   

frantic in a desperate struggle to survive,

thrashing its dark fanned caudal fin in bursts

against the rim so low above the stream

and tilted just enough to spark illusions  

of springing free from the entangling mesh

its captor trails through the cold subtle current

that flows through this Adirondack wilderness?

 

Should we consider at all the fish’s plight

while green and brown and blue ripples spread out

at mid-morning toward a gently sloping fall?

While a sky shines the brightest gold and tints

likewise, the farthest granite mountain peaks?

While the nearby forest—blurred, black, and green—

beguiles us with its depth and mysteries?  

 

Are we to set all unpleasant thoughts aside,

savor the full sweet joy of this teenage boy

—his head covered by a floppy straw hat,

seated at the canoe’s stern, the bow tipped high

to catch the sun’s warm glow on the gunwale’s ribs—

as he casts his line in a broad arc downstream,

the rod almost aligned with one suspender

stretched across his long-sleeved flannel shirt

colored the same as a perfect summer sky?

 

Or, when he tucks his chin behind a shoulder,

deepening the shadows lingering on his face, 

are we to marvel that pain and boyhood thrills,

commingling as they do here with rare ease,

evoke such charm in this remarkable scene?

THE ADIRONDACK GUIDE

(Inspired by a Winslow Homer’s painting The Adirondack Guide.)

by Gregory E. Lucas

 Floating in dreams as much as in his boat,

forgetful of his task to lead a group

along the Ausable’s beguiling route

through secret depths of wilderness remote

as any hermit’s home might ever be,

a far-off call clashes with his reveries.

But too late the Adirondack guide looks back;

no longer are his followers in view,

and in wavelets, dappled with shadows blue

from barren trees, his extended oars refract

in the silver stream that mirrors autumn’s charms

with shimmering pools of yellow, red, and gold

gathered by a birch submerged in cold

scum nearby, while his eyes flash with alarm.



WHY BACK TO GLOUCESTER, BOYS?

(Based on Winslow Homer’s painting Breezing Up.)

by Gregory E. Lucas

 

Why back to Gloucester, boys? The breeze kicks up.

This is an afternoon that mustn’t end.

We lean. Our sail puffs full as we gain more speed

and the splash across the port’s side freshens up 

our catch—a dozen bass flapping in our hull.

This is an afternoon that mustn’t end.

Never mind those dense gray clouds. The rest are fair

against soft blue, disproving threats of storms.

The sunlight brightens, warms your shoulders,

deepens the mast’s and tackle’s shadows, spreads

a trail of pretty glitter on our wake.

It’s breezing up boys, breezing up some more.

Relax but grip the starboard gunwale tight.

This is an afternoon that mustn’t end.

Gloucester can wait awhile for you and me.

It’s breezing up, breezing up yet more,

And a day like this might never come again.

 

 

 

 

Gregory Lucas writes poetry and fiction. His fiction has appeared in previous issues of Yellow Mama, Pif, Blueline, The Horror Zine, Dark Dossier, The New Press, and other magazines. His poems have been in The Lyric, Scarlet Leaf, Blueline, Literary Juice, Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine, and other magazines.









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