Black Petals Issue #95 Spring, 2021

Dark Alleyways
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Blue Meet-Fiction by George Aitch
Dark Alleyways-Fiction by Adam Phillips
Iris' Vanity-Fiction by Tristan Miller
Scalp Cleanse-Fiction by Kajetan Kwiatkowski
The Muscus-Fiction by Alice Stone
The Wrong Place-Fiction by Ante Caleta
Things That Happen-Fiction by Guido Eekhaut
Tidal Horror-Fiction by Sal Braden
Two Martinis In-Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Vampire-Fiction by Gene Lass
Hypnic Jerk-Flash Fiction by Vismay Harani
Speed Dating-Flash Fiction by Alexander Condie
Step Out-Flash Fiction by Ed Nobody
The Packing Bay-Flash Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Trophy Kill-Flash Fiction by Eddie D. Moore
Occupational Hazard-Flash Fiction by Doug Hawley
The Definition of Crash-Poems by Paul David Adkins
Ghost: A Working Definition-Poem by Carl E. Reed
Vampiric Threnody-Poem by Carl E. Reed
Leelanau Lake Monster-Poems by Richard Stevenson
Ballast-2 Poems by Angelo Letizia
Pit Bull-3 Poems by Pete Mladinic
Shadow of Sleep-Poem by Teresa Ann Frazee
Microcosmus-3 Poems by Daniel Snethen
The Higher Dimensions-Poem by David C. Kopaska- Merkel

95_bp_darkalleyways_kcwalker.jpg
Art by Keith Coates Walker © 2021

Dark Alleyways

 

Adam Phillips

 

     Sam Mills traded the pen for a cigarette, waving goodbye to the paper pinned to the desk.  “Adios, Leland.  It’s been a wild ride.  We hardly knew ye…”

     Reading the four-panel strip, he bobbed his head noncommittally.  Mildly amusing.  He didn’t tend to go for the self-referential, which usually struck him as pretentious and lazy, but it worked okay, here.  He’d considered the Lyman / Charlotte Braun / Chuck Cunningham route of inexplicably excising the character, and then denying it had ever existed, but he knew his type A personality could never handle leaving that loose thread lamely dangling.  He’d spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, worried that someone was creeping up to ask him “What the hell ever happened to Leland?”   

     It had seemed like a promising supporting character…Part Sluggo, part Reggie Mantle, part Frank Begbie.  A bad influence from the wrong side of the tracks, sweeping in every so often to corrupt Silas, Dorothy’s eggheaded, goody-two-shoes grandson. 

     Sam got up, stretching his kinked spine and rolling his neck as he crossed the studio to Hamelin’s desk.  Yes, there it is…A bottle of Crown Royal poorly stashed in an empty Kettle Chips sack.  This hiding place struck him as exceptionally stupid and he laughed, taking a deep swig.  Hamelin probably had the bottle booby trapped, and would be bitching about the theft tomorrow, but screw it…all of the cartoonists who shared the studio would already be complaining about his stale cigarette smoke, so…

     He went back to the strip he’d just finished.  The boys are playing hooky in an arcade when suddenly Leland pulls a suitcase from behind a game, and announces he’s leaving.  Silas asks him where he’s going, and Leland answers “Oakland or Auckland, or somewhere in between…I can’t remember.”  The final panel shows Leland dramatically fading into a sunset.  The suitcase has transformed into a bandana bulging at the end of a stick, ala Great Depression hobo. 

     Walking home through the first chill of autumn, Sam considered all of the reasons Leland had to go.  First of all, Silas already had a bad influence in his beer-swilling, cigar-smoking, junk food-eating, fun-loving grandmother, the titular Dorothy.  Anything Leland might talk him into could just as easily come from the old lady.   

     Far more problematic, the kid brought up a ton of questions Sam didn’t even want to touch in a goofy little comic strip.  Why was Leland poor, and tough, and mean?  What about his shitty home life?  Where were his parents?  Did he live in a shitty house?  And so on.  Leave the awkward moralizing to Family fucking Circus…

     But maybe all of this, Sam knew, was just justification for the real reason the kid had to go. 

      Sam didn’t like to draw him.   

      After working with Leland, with his unkempt hair and unibrow, his too small eyes and too big mouth, stains on his tattered denim jacket and jeans, Sam would leave the studio anxious, vaguely unhappy.  Whatever plans he’d been pleasantly anticipating all day would invariably strike him as depressing and stupid.  It was the same feeling he’d carry after hearing something ominous developing on the news, some ignorant remark by the president that might start a war or tank the economy. 

     At the end of the day, I just don’t like being around that little son of a bitch.    

     Yeah, getting rid of the brat felt like an emancipation.  Like breaking up with a shitty girlfriend. 

     He took a deep breath of the hard autumn air, lit a cigarette, and ducked into Callahan’s for a few beers and the last couple innings of the Mariners game. 

 

 

     It was noon by the time he got back into the studio, having let the night before completely get away from him.  Sam crossed the bright, open room in sunglasses, grimacing at the smell of ink and chemicals.  He’d submit the strip he finished last night, bang out some rough sketches and notes for an upcoming sequence where Dorothy considers moving to Jamaica, and get home, back into bed, by early evening.  

     Sighing, he sat heavily, took off the glasses, and saw the vandalism that had been perpetrated upon his comic strip. 

     “Goddammit.  You pricks are lucky I can crop that out.  I’m supposed to be passing this on in less than an hour.”

    The other cartoonists looked up mildly from their work. 

    Hamelin said “Maybe if you hadn’t gotten so shitfaced on other people’s booze, you’d have an easier time making your deadlines.”

    Bentley added “Now what are you bitching about?  I can’t hear you through the wall of cigarette smoke in here…”

    Bastards.  Although they did have a point.  Two points, really. 

     And he did have to admit, whoever had done the defacing had absolutely nailed the character.  Must have been Kathy.  Not only was she the best artist among them, but she was acting like she couldn’t hear them bickering.  The girl doth protest too little…

    A bonus fifth panel had been added.  The same sunset, with Leland framed in the middle, now looking straight back at you.  “But don’t fool yourself, dickface, thinking I’m gone.  I’ll always be out here, somewhere, trying to get back.  And when I do…”

     Goddamn.  Kathy hadn’t just nailed the character, she’d rendered it truer, somehow, than Sam himself.  It’s like she’d coaxed out some deep, inherent, existential shittiness in the kid.  Something around the eyes, which Sam realized he’d never drawn looking straight out at you, like that.  Something in the curl and bow of the thin, cracked lips…

    I don’t exactly get the joke, but…good drawing.   

     With an Exacto-knife and a shaky hand, he cut away the fifth panel, and lowered it ceremoniously into the trash.   

 

 

     Sam had known, of course, that it couldn’t last forever, the four of them sharing the studio, collaborating on one another’s strips, caravanning down to conferences and book fairs and camping trips like some gypsy crew, some circus train.  And while it certainly came as no surprise that he had been the one to break up the group, no one could have guessed in a million years that he would do so by getting famous. 

     While “Dorothy” had provided a perfectly adequate living, considering Sam’s lifestyle and expectations (a decent apartment downtown, beer to drink, the occasional steak dinner or weekend blowout in Vegas…), a situation that only about .001% of working cartoonists could claim, within a year of his new strip “Dark Alleyways” debuting, the thing had taken off like a rocket, propelling him out of Portland to L.A., and into the type of life he would have been embarrassed to even fantasize about. 

    Overnight, Sam had become Jim Davis, Matt Groening, R. Crumb.  He lived in the same building downtown as Ryu and Adam Levine.  He appeared on Conan O’ Brien.  The strip had been syndicated in nearly a thousand newspapers in a hundred countries, contracted to be made into a movie, and the merchandise…

     Merchandise everywhere.  T-shirts and mugs.  Dolls and pencils and refrigerator magnets.  There was already talk of a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  And although there were a dozen recurring characters in the strip, Sam was referred to, more often than not, as “The guy that draws ‘Renaldo.’”

     Fucking Renaldo.  Dicey little bastard.  Hair slicked back, grimy mustache, blue jeans pegged above his leather factory boots and a flannel shirt.  Equal parts greaser, soccer thug, and cholo.  If “Dark Alleys” were a graphic novel instead of a comic strip, Renaldo would carry a pistol, and hurt people for money, and slap prostitutes.  Within the limitations of the funnies, he had to settle for popping balloons and breaking windows with his trusty slingshot, jumping his skateboard over a police car, coercing the school mascot into shitting (off camera, of course) in the principal’s desk drawer, and so on. 

     As the years passed, Sam’s time in Portland began to seem like a former life, like a hazily remembered dream.  Which was fine…

     With one exception.  Kathy. 

     Right before he’d won the cartoon lottery, they’d fallen in love.  He’d called it other things over the years, but knew he was lying to himself, and that really there was only one way to describe it.  Fallen in fucking love…And then he’d struck gold, and left.  He’d asked her to come, and she’d said no, and he’d left and never asked again.  For years, he’d been expecting her to finally call, finally consent to moving to Los Angeles.      

     Which is why he tended to avoid thinking about that former life.  Ancient history.  He’d cinched it up and buried it, forgotten like an irrelevant dream. 

     Until the unexpected visit that brought it all back.

    

 

     He’d finished the background, a cheering mob in the bleachers as Renaldo disrupts a pep assembly by setting off the emergency sprinklers and whipping out a giant slip n’ slide, at the same moment that he’d finished his sixth glass of whiskey.  He nodded, leaning back in the chair, firing up a cigarette.  It was good.  Good enough.  People loved Renaldo…And the little bastard is such a stock character, so clichéd, I can keep writing these hackneyed jokes forever.  I’ve literally got a million of ‘em, as they say…

     He went to sign his name at the bottom of the strip…and stopped.  He leaned closer.  The student body…

     Sitting in the bleachers between a howling chest-pounding boy in an Indian headdress and a girl who looked like Wednesday Addams, staring straight ahead, stone-faced in a crowd of bouncing shrieking lunatics, was Leland. 

     Sam laughed.  Didn’t even realize I’d resurrected the little prick.  Although…he smiled at the empty glass, can’t say as how I really remember drawing most of this crowd…He continued looking, the smile gradually dropping from his face, and went to bed. 

 

 

     A week later, Sam came into his new studio, a monstrous glass and burnished steel affair constituting the entire fifth floor of a new building in Sherman Oaks.  No more sharing with other cartoonists; this place was entirely his, although it was often bustling with lesser entities: couriers and interns and assistants and pages for the screenwriters.  He sat down at his deck, and stood back up as quickly as if he’d sat on a tack. 

     There, in deep dark angry-looking lines, was Leland, drawn from the chest up, thin lips sprouting a speech bubble proclaiming “Renaldo is just a cheap knockoff of me, dickhead.”     

     Sam’s breath stopped and his spine went ice cold.  He’d taken two steps straight back towards the door when he noticed the scrawled message at the bottom of the page, and burst out laughing. 

     “Even though this is true, and you are a fucking hack, I still want to see you next time I’m in town.  Had a flight diverted, then a layover, with an hour to kill.  Knew it was way too early for your sorry ass to be working today, but I’ll be back for a couple of days next week (business!), with some time…I’ll come back here Friday evening, let’s say five-ish.  Big news.  I want to tell you everything in person.  Don’t be too drunk!  (There’s plenty of time for that after I get here!)  -Kathy 

     Sam said “Oh my fucking God,” out loud to the empty room.  His head swam and his chest closed up.  He couldn’t believe it.  Kathy.   

     Leaning closer, he recognized her stylistic touches on Leland, the same she’d used when ruining his strip five years earlier.  He was touched that she’d remembered.   

     The tighter lips, the deader eyes.  Little sucker scared me for a second…

     Big news.  Had to be moving here, to L.A.  Must finally be having some luck.  Me too, I guess.  I’d officially given up hope of ever seeing her again, just a couple of months ago. 

     Shit, he thought, laughing, sliding his hand into his desk for the bottle of Sinatra Select, maybe I’ll suggest she start working Leland into her strip.  She’s a helluva lot better with him than I ever was. 

 

 

     The week passed in a pleasant dream.  Sam went to the gym every night, ate healthy, avoided booze…Can’t rewind five years in a week, but looking a little less red and bloated won’t hurt.  He scoured the apartment, throwing out every trace of ex-girlfriends and one-night stands.   

      When Friday finally arrived, Sam went into the studio early but couldn’t work; he was too antsy.  He shuffled papers across his desk, went for a walk, rearranged the minimalist décor.  Mostly, he reread Kathy’s illustrated note about a thousand times.  Finally, five o’clock rolled around.  He had a bottle of Perignon in a bucket of ice, jazz piping through the surround sound, and a couple of candles burning.  He gave himself a final look in the mirror…”It’ll do…”

     Since he didn’t want her to spot him from the street, lurking in the window watching for her arrival, he sat at his desk and went through the motions of drawing.  Five-thirty…Six…Six-thirty…

     As Sam’s irritation progressed into concern, he dialed her number for the first time in five years. 

     “…Sam.  Is something wrong?”

     It wasn’t the response he’d expected.  “What do you mean?”

    “I mean why are you calling me?”  Her tone was cold. 

     “Because…you’re two hours late.  Did something happen?”

    “What the hell are you talking about?”

     Sam’s mind lurched and he squinted with concentration.  What the fuck was happening?  “Were you in L.A. last week?”

     “Listen, I don’t know what this is…but whatever this is, we’re not doing this.  Don’t call me Sam.  And definitely don’t call me when you’re drunk and spouting a bunch of weird bullshit.”  The line clicked and went dead.  Numb, Sam sat grasping at threads.  Who’d set him up for this?  Who’d come into his studio and left the forged note…

     Glancing at the note in his hands he froze, breath catching and blood going ice cold…

     Next to Kathy’s supposed writing was another Leland.  A new one.  Coming from his mouth was a speech bubble…

      “Got you motherfucker.”

     Slowly, every muscle pulled tight as a piano wire, he set the paper down and turned around, facing the cavernous studio behind him…

     He rose.  “Who’s in here?”  No answer. 

     Slowly at first, trying to watch every direction at once, then nearly running, he left the studio.  There was no one in the hall.  He crossed the parking lot to his Mercedes, looking over his shoulder, pausing to look into the backseat of his own car before opening the door.  From the car, he watched the window of his studio.  No movement.  He pulled out of the deserted parking lot, heading towards home with his hands trembling and his thoughts spiraling like paint in draining water.

 

 

     The lobby of his building was equipped with a dozen cameras, an elevator code, a “no exceptions” guest list, and never fewer than two ex-USC football players with bulges under their jackets that could only be guns.  Sam stopped in the entryway, casing the lobby.  Although hadn’t some nut job just waltzed in and ridden an elevator in the White House with Obama before they’d figured out he didn’t belong?  Shit happens. 

     Twenty-seventh floor.  The elevator opened, and he stepped into his living room slowly, carefully.  Canvassing the apartment he saw that it had been cleaned, groceries delivered, all in preparation of Kathy’s visit, but nothing out of the ordinary…

     Then he noticed the charcoal pencil on the floor, beneath his desk…Could have just rolled off…

     He approached the desk slowly, on numb feet, warily as if coming up on a dead body, a vicious animal. 

     That morning, he’d left a half-finished “Dark Alleyways” strip.  A first panel shows Renaldo watching the thick snowfall through his bedroom window, slouching and gloomily clinging to his baseball mitt and bat, which would obviously now go unused.  On the wall behind him is a flyer for an outdoor hitting clinic.  In the second panel, he suddenly brightens, standing straight up, a huge lightbulb forming above his head.  Sam wasn’t entirely sure where things were going to go from there, but it would involve some variation of Renaldo tossing and hitting snowballs with his bat, drilling disliked classmates in the neighborhood…It seemed like maybe the expression “Two birds with one stone” could come into play…

     In his absence, the remaining panels had been filled in.  The lines were thick and dark, much different than Sam’s trademark feathery etching.  A lone figure, face buried in collar and scarf, makes its way through the blowing tundra and cosmic desolation.  Finally, the figure reaches a looming building, vaguely defined through the snow, and throws itself inside.  In the final panel, the lone figure is revealed as Leland, now inside and stripped to his underwear, trembling by a fire, feet dark and frostbitten.  Through clenched teeth, within a frigid-looking thought bubble formed of jagged lines, he says “It wasn’t easy, motherfucker, but I fought my way back.”

     With growing horror Sam recognized the bookcases and furniture, the fireplace, and realized that Leland was inside his apartment.  Hands trembling, ears ringing, he seized a gum eraser off the desk and began viciously hacking at the picture of the boy. 

     As Sam stabbed and smeared with the eraser, as violent as a knife attack, another speech bubble rose up into sight.  Frantic, scrawled letters “PLEASE NO!!!  DON’T SEND ME BACK!!!”

     He continued erasing, attacking the faintest impression of the figure, as words began to pop up all over the page “YOU”RE KILLING ME!!!  I’LL DO ANYTHING PLEA—

     And then he was gone.  Entirely gone.  Sam collapsed against the desk, dripping sweat, breath rasping, heart smashing in his chest. 

     He’d just caught his breath when the voice sounded behind him, very close. 

     “Just kidding.  Reverse psychology.  Thanks for letting me out.  It’s fucking cold out there.  Cold and dark.  It didn’t have to be like that, Sammo…”  Sam found he couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. 

    “You could have killed me off.  That would have been better.  Or, god forbid, you could have actually given the delinquent somewhere to go, a grandmother in Des Moines or some shit…Would that have been so fucking hard?  But just pushing me out into nothing like that…for five years.  While here you are, living like this?  And all of it on my coattails, you hack son of a bitch…”

     “I think you messed me up, a little bit, Sammy.”

     Sam heard the click of the switchblade, the same switchblade he’d been picturing in Leland’s pocket for years.

 

 

     After that strange phone call, asking whether or not she’d been to L.A., Kathy had started reading “Dark Alleyways.”  A couple of months later, Sam’s name had started popping up in the news as an item of minor interest.  He’d backed out of the “Alleyways” film project.  He’d announced the popular strip was finished. 

      Then he’d come out with a new strip.  “Art of Darkness.”  It followed the tawdry exploits of a cartoonist as he struggled to make ends meet, periodically bringing his characters to life, always with intentions to involve them in some scheme that invariably blew up in his face. 

     Sam Mills, it was immediately announced, is a genius.  A bona fide, Berkeley Breathed, Gary Larson, Alan fucking Moore-level genius. 

     When he’d started texting, asking Kathy to come out and see him…

     What am I, she’d responded, some type of star fucker?

    Although, she’d realized shortly thereafter, what else do I have to do?

     Getting out of the cab, she saw the dark shape of a man, obscured by the curtains, watching from the window.  She smiled, knowing that Sam would have wanted to play it cool, but that he must have just been too anxious to see her…

 

 

Adam Phillips currently splits his time between Idaho, where he teaches, and coastal Oregon, where he does not.  He has long been a fan of Black Petals, and is absolutely thrilled to be included!  His recently published novel Manifest is available from Montag Press, or signed copies can be purchased from him directly, at adam.mendax@gmail.com.  



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