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The Burglar-Fiction by K. A. Williams
Bittersweet-Fiction by Jonathan Woods
Manny Dietrich's Adventure in the Blighted Kingdom-Fiction by Roger Johns
Extra Income-Fiction by M. A. De Neve
Interviewing a New Employee-Fiction by Roy Dorman
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The Lunch Box-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Swallow-Fiction by Don Stoll
The Volkers-Fiction by Logan McConnell
All for One, One for All-Fiction by Jan Christensen
He's Nobody-Fiction by Richard Martinez
Who's Going to Pray for Me Now?-Fiction by Niles M. Reddick
Priorities-Flash Fiction by Gary Clifton
Tell It to the Monkey-Flash Fiction by Bernard Onken
Why Are You Just Sitting There?-Flash Fiction by Robert Weibezahl
This Most Magical Season-Flash Fiction by Bernice Holtzman
A Short Poem for a Long Trip-Poem by Richard LeDue
Things Found in a Public Parking Lot-Poem by Hillary Lyon
Tables-Poem by Meg Baird
Duke-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Impending Death-Daniel G. Snethen
A Dispute over a Gambling Debt-Poem by Mark Young
Glockenspiel-Poem by Mark Young
Daredevils-Poem by John Tustin
The Trick Is-Poem by John Tustin
I'll Go to Hell When I Die for All My-Poem by Gale Acuff
I Don't Want to Die, Ever, Then I'd Miss-Poem by Gale Acuff
Sometimes you die when it's really not your-Poem by Gale Acuff
Lone Crow-Poem by Judith Nielsen
Losing Texas #1-Poem by Judith Nielsen
what is the cost-Poem by Judith Nielsen
Poignant Clouds (For Daryl)-Poem by Judith Nielsen
Cartoons by Cartwright
Hail, Tiger!
Angel of Manslaughter
Strange Gardens
Gutter Balls
Calpurnia's Window
No Place Like Home
ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Jonathan Woods—Bittersweet

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Art by Sean O'Keefe 2021

Bittersweet

 

by Jonathan Woods

 

 

Sugarloaf Key is a quiet place full of rich people who drink too much. It’s just a few miles outside Key West, so you can drive down for the day and hang at the bars, transvestite clubs and restaurants on and off Duval Street. Or go just for the evening (if you don’t mind the hazards of a midnight drive home). Or even stay overnight. There is always some wild party going on or some companionless guy with a doublewide bed.  

Philip, an old New York City pal of mine (we’d been lovers back in the day, when he had an apartment just off Christopher Street in the West Village) retired to Sugarloaf after making a fortune in import/export. When I called him from Miami in a panic after a drive-by shooting at my apartment, he told me I could live in his garden shed for as long as I wanted. All I had to do was mow the lawn regularly and trim the weeds around the mailbox and the white-painted rocks lining each side of the driveway. The main house was all glass and steel and hipness raised up on 12’ pylons in anticipation of the polar icecaps turning to slush and Category 5 hurricanes up the wazoo.

Ever since being bashed in the head with a two-by-four wielded by my associate in a smalltime bank robbery, Lady Luck had given me the finger. I also got headaches. Bad ones. Sometimes they lasted for a week or more. After she knocked me cuckoo, said associate ran off with the money from said bank robbery. By a miracle I managed to escape before the cops arrived. A horny gent (55, military crewcut, flat stomach, svelte—yoga, cardio and weight lifting) who lived in a small brick ranch in a neighborhood of small brick ranches behind the bank took me in. We were an item for about 4 months. Then one day, for no particular reason, I went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back.

Two years passed. I kept moving south.  Athens, Georgia, Jacksonville, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami. Now I was down in the Keys, down on Sugarloaf hiding in a toolshed from some psycho dudes in Miami who wanted me kaput.

Midweek (Wednesday) was my day to visit Key West. If I’d stayed up in Sugarloaf without a break, I’d have gone batshit, done a Hemingway with a shotgun. Two restaurants, a gas station and a convenience store don’t make for a very exciting existence. I spent a lot of time fishing from the local marina dock or out on open water with friends with benefits (i.e. power boats, maybe a pool boy). When I ventured into Key West, I wore a disguise: long, scraggly fake beard, a T-shirt that read ‘Naked works for me,’ a Goodwill cowboy duster, a black straw fedora pulled low in front and shades. I figured the badasses in Miami had eyes everywhere, but they’d never figure me for a ZZ Top wannabe. That Wednesday night I sat on a bench across the street from the Green Parrot Bar, sipping the warm half of a Tecate and listening to a cumbia rock band down from the big city lights.

Glancing down I saw a poem embedded in the sidewalk in front of me.

          Key West Afternoon

     Captain Tony’s &

     the Hogs Breath Saloon,

     ice-cold beer

     on a hot afternoon

 

     Pink shrimp with hot sauce,

     conch fritters too.

     & down at the Parrot

     They’re singin’ the blues.

 

Cute, I thought. But definitely not T.S. Eliot.

Across the street a crowd of revelers milled about in front of the Green Parrot. Suddenly there she was! Robin Banks! The wily bitch! The one who’d hit me with the 2x4 back in the day and ripped me off! My brain went into momentary cardiac arrest. Fuuuuuuuuuuck!

Black mini-skirted and lime green bandeau tube topped, she might as well have been naked, as she danced a little rock & roll two-step on the Parrot’s front pavement with some burned-out biker guy. After a few minutes the biker stumbled off and I decided she wasn’t really with him. Quickly I crossed the street, grabbed her arm, pinching it, and dragged her away from the crowded and well-lighted sidewalk in front of the bar.

“OW!”

“Well, if it isn’t little Miss Dirty Rat,” I hissed.

She starred at me. Did a double take.

“Holy shit! Bus stop Bill. You’re the last person I ever expected to see again.”

“Yeah, well, surprise, surprise.”

“I hardly recognized you with that beard. You a big ZZ Top fan?”

“I’m incognito,” I said. “Some bad people are after my ass.”

“Sounds like nothing’s changed from when I first met you,” she said. “You got a cigarette?”

As a matter of fact, I did. I gave her one; lit it with my cheap plastic lighter.

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“A loser then. A loser now.”

I slapped her. Her head jerked back.

“I robbed that bank, baby. You took advantage. We had a deal.”

“Deal? When did we make a deal? You told me what a hot shit bank robber you were. I dared you. Then I took the money. I never promised I wouldn’t. Anyway, it’s long gone.”

“You promised me spaghetti and meatballs,” I said, pushing her ahead of me into an alley. She was much thinner than I remembered. Almost emaciated. She leaned helplessly again the cement block wall of a building.

“My life is shit,” she said. “Absolute shit.”

She started to cry.

“Shall I just slap you around? Or cut you up into chum?”

“I’m broke. And sick. Chum works fine for me.”

I reeled back, suddenly cautious.

“What do you mean sick?”

“Asshole cancer, asshole. I had an operation, but it’s come back.”

A sudden sadness washed over me. Sadness for all the friends gone from HIV. Sadness for the bitter pill of mortality that Robin was forced to swallow. How did she always manage to get me into a three-hanky headlock? Put my nads in a melodramatic vice?

“Do you want to eat something? That’ll cheer you up. How about spaghetti?”

* * *

          I was staying in a men-only hotel, so we had to go to her place. On the way there we stopped at Fausto’s Food Store and bought tomato sauce, spaghetti, fresh and powdered garlic, French bread, olive oil, shredded Parmesan cheese and a Tecate twelve-pack. Robin rented half a room in a crash pad on Stock Island. Her roommate (from Prague) was out, working at one of her two jobs, waitressing and tourist fucking (cash only, no receipt, no refunds).

No one was using the kitchen, so I opened two beers, handed one to Robin and put the water on for the spaghetti. The tears had streaked her makeup. I tapped my beer can against hers.

“Here’s to fucked up lives,” I said.

She smiled a wee smile.

“Still robbing banks, sweetheart?” I asked.

“Nah. These days I fuck tourists and hustle tables. Pays the rent and the medical bills. The bank thing was strictly a one-off, spur of the moment thing. What about you, Bill?”

“I’m working as a gardener.”

“Ooooh. Sounds potentially lucrative. Scouting out the properties to hit in the dark of night. There’s a lot of money around here. Jewelry, paintings, objets d’art.”

I made a face like Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A person sitting in front of a stone wall

Description automatically generated with low confidence

“I’m strictly a horticulturalist. No hidden B&E agenda. Bit of a downward spiral from my glory days, but it’s super relaxing. I read a lot.”

On that note I noticed the water had started to boil. Backhanded, I tossed in the spaghetti. Robin laughed. Next, I cut the fresh garlic into paper-thin slices, dropped it into a pan with sizzling olive oil, stirring it back and forth with the knife blade until it turned golden brown. When the garlic was perfect, I added the tomato sauce. Meanwhile Robin sliced the French bread, slathered it with olive oil and a dusting of garlic powder and ran it under the broiler.

We ate like wolves.

“So good!” said Robin, smacking her lips. “You’re a swell spaghetti maker, Bill. Better than me by a mile. If it’d fulfilled my promise back in the day to cook you spaghetti and meatballs, you would have been seriously disappointed.

She cast me a salacious smile.  

“Too bad you’re not bi.”

          For a serious moment I avoided spewing garlic breadcrumbs across the table. I felt her hand squeeze my knee.

          “Then you’d be able to enjoy this,” said Robin. “You might even decide to ravish me.”

Next moment she lifted the lime green bandeau up and over her head. Caught in the bandeau’s uplift, her heavy breasts rose quiveringly. At the tipping point, they flopped back.

          “You expect me to be turned on by those?”

          Robin lit a jay.

          “What’s the difference? Male? Female? Flesh is flesh. Especially when the lights are out,” she said.

          “It’s just this thing I have.”

          Robin stood up. Her miniskirt fell to the floor. Naked as a jaybird she crossed the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer for a candle, lit it and fitted it into a brass candlestick, turned off the overhead kitchen light, came back to the table with two ice-cold Tecates and sat down. One of her feet pressed and wriggled against my privates.

          “Come on, Bill. I’m dying. Give a girl a break.”

* * *

          An oyster knife of light pried open my eyes.

          I sat up. A naked woman lay snoozing on either side of me. One was Robin. The other? Possibly her roommate. A ceiling fan rotated in low.

          I had no recollection of the night before after Robin lit the candle and returned to the kitchen table. Partial amnesia brought on by nerves? The early onset of Alzheimers?

          My plan. Tiptoe out. Dress in the kitchen. Slip away into the day.

          Robin’s eyes shot open.

          “Where are you going?”

          “Coffee?”

          “I’ll go with you.”

          We headed back into Key West, of which Stock Island was a suburb. On Southard Street I parked under the flaming boughs of a Royal Poinciana and we walked back to 5 Brothers for a coffee con leche. As my hand reached for the door, a sleek black BMW 750i exploded down the street. Came to a ragged stop directly in front of 5 Brothers. A darkly tinted window receded into the door. A pistol appeared. And a hand holding it. I hit the pavement.

Pop. Pop-pop.

           Robin, next to me, above me, cried out in pain.

          The car sped away.

          Robin slumped in my arms. Her mouth full of blood.

          “You were swell last night, Bill,” she said.

          “Yeah, right. I don’t remember a thing.”

          She gave a little choking laugh.

          “I guess this is payback for smacking you with the 2x4. Besides, who wants to die from a malignant asshole. Guaranteed to be nasty and painful.”

          Her head fell sideways. She was gone. She was with God, i.e., dead as a donut.

          It had to have been the Miami badasses. The ones I’d fucked over in a jewelry heist.

          Soon enough the gangbangers would learn they’d missed me. Shot an innocent bystander. I needed to get out of town. ASAP.

My Sugerloaf buddy knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who needed someone to help crew a 38-foot motorsailer yacht from Key West to Isla Mujeres, off the coast from Cancun. The owner, a retired corporate executive, hired me on the spot. I guess he liked my vague answers to his razor-edged questions. When we got to Isla Mujeres, I was on my own, but with five hundred dollars in my pocket. Seed money.

We shook hands. I’d never been to Mexico.

          We motored out of Key West harbor two days later.

          Thanks, Robin, for taking the bullet. I owe you.

          As for me, I was fucking alive. That’s all that counted.




Jonathan Woods writes his crime and horror tales in an 1896 house in Dallas, Texas. His books include two story collections Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem and Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned, and the novels A Death in MexicoKiss the Devil Goodnight, and the forthcoming pulp gothic western Hog Wild. His stories have appeared in 3:AM Magazine; Plots with Guns; Thug LitYellow Mama; Horror, Sleaze, Trash; Dallas Noir (Akashic Books), and other lit-zines and anthologies. He lives in the existential moment with his pals, Miss Pinky (a Shih Tzu) and Little Ruffy (a Lhasa Apso).  


Sean O’Keefe is an artist and writer living in Roselle Park, NJ. Sean attended Syracuse University where he earned his BFA in Illustration. After graduation, Sean moved to New York City where he spent time working in restaurants and galleries while pursuing various artistic opportunities. After the birth of his children, Sean and family move to Roselle Park in 2015. He actively participates in exhibitions and art fairs around  New Jersey, and is continuing to develop his voice as a writer. His work can be found online at www.justseanart.com and @justseanart on Instagram.



In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2021