A HELL OF A GIRL: THE EXTENDED DANCE MIX
Today, my flash-fiction tale of hardboiled crime, A HELL OF A GIRL, was published at the Shotgun Honey website. It's a small story but represents a huge leap forward in my rejuvenation as a fiction writer.
I last published a story in 2011. Since then, I've been ... not blocked, exactly, but jammed up. I've written a lot but couldn't seem to push anything across the finish line. That seems to be changing in several ways:
One, I'd submitted five previous short stories to Shotgun Honey, which has a tough editorial process and a prestigious reputation to match. Those stories were rejected, all with thoughtful editor's notes, and I studied them and learned from them. Kept reading and kept writing. Got better. Revised rigorously. Finally made it. That represents a level of stick-to-it-iveness that had been in short supply for a long time. Call it developed craft. Call it growing up. Or call it fear — the sense that at age 52, there's no more time to fuck around.
Two, the muse, as Stephen King once put it, seems to be evacuating its bowels all over my head these days. I seem to find workable new ideas everywhere. Lately I've been riffing on scenes in the TV shows I admire — A HELL OF A GIRL owes its spore of inspiration to an episode from Season 2 of FARGO; and a longer piece I just submitted to another hardboiled-crime-fiction site was inspired by a scene in BREAKING BAD. I like to think these stories aren't ripoffs — I took what I saw and found a way to make it all my own, I think.
Three, I seem to be fired up by the possibilities for writing that are presented by live-reading my material. I recently presented a moderately extended version of A HELL OF A GIRL at a July 13 edition of the Nori At The Bar Seattle live-reading series, punching it up for maximum punchline-itude, and it seemed to go over well, hitting the sweet sport for a lightly oiled audience at a lean and mean five and a half minutes. Following the advice of Noir At The Bat rock stars Rob Hart and Johnny Shaw
And I've got another in the works for the next Noir At The Bar Seattle — Aug. 5, this coming Saturday — in which I'll be reading alongside some LA hardboiled-crime writers I deeply admire.
Here's the "director's cut" version of A HELL OF A GIRL (1,018 words, as opposed to 700 words) for Shotgun Honey):
“Well, well. If it isn’t Harry Ledbetter, the heroin king of Western Nebraska.” The man greeted my dad as he and I walked into the back office of the Corn Star tavern.
The man lowered his glare to me.
“What’s this, Harry? Take Your Daughter To Work Day? Does she help you shake corn sugar into those shitty eight-balls you’ve been selling in my territory?”
In the dimly lit office, the man looked to me like a refrigerator with a bowling ball on top of it. All I really saw was a long black beard and a longer black leather coat. And two yellow eyes. They made me think of the coyotes that prowled the farm outside my window after bedtime, after Daddy read me a story from my favorite book and gave me a kiss on the forehead and turned off the light.
I wondered what the man’s howl would sound like.
Now Daddy didn’t usually take guff from anyone. I once saw him break the nose of a guy who worked for him after the guy had broken off the side window on one of Daddy’s delivery trucks and then tried to say that it wasn’t his fault.
But all Daddy said this time was this: “Sweetie, I’m going to talk with Mr. Constantine. Go sit in the corner and quietly read a book, OK?”
I knew what that meant.
“Sure, Daddy,” I said and skipped behind Mr. Constantine, whose coyote eyes seemed to track me as if I were a small animal. Which I guess I was. I sat on a swivel chair that smelled like beer farts and French fries, and I fished out my favorite book from my Hello Kitty! backpack.
It was then that I saw another man in the room, a slightly smaller version of Mr. Constantine in the room’s other shadowy corner.
Mr. Constantine shook his head and turned back to Daddy.
“Ledbetter, if you think bringing her is a guarantee that you’ll walk out of here, let me assure you that you’re badly mistaken,” he said. “You underestimate me if you think I’ll hesitate. But you’ve underestimated me from the beginning, haven’t you?”
Daddy dropped his head. “I know, Mr. Constantine. And I’m here to make things right.” He swept his Children Of The Corn hat off his head and held it in both of his hands as if he were at Sunday meeting. Only we didn’t go to Sunday meeting, not since Mommy ran off with the Sinaloa Cartel guy. “I didn’t know my boys were selling in your town, I swear. They were freelancing. And I’m more than happy to hand out discipline.”
“Well now, we might be on the same page after all,” Mr. Constantine said. “Because I too am more than happy to hand out discipline.” He reached into his black coat and pulled out a knife with a long blade. Its jagged edges made flashes like coyote eyes in the low light.
“I’ll need you to put your hand on that table,” Mr. Constantine said to Daddy. He nodded at a surface half-covered with liquor crates, then turned toward me. “Or I’ll have to ask your adorable little Sweetie Poop here to do it.”
“No, it’s OK,” Daddy said. He said it like he was agreeing to turn on the hall light after putting me to bed. Like it was no problem. He stepped over to the table, laid down his hand, and gave me a nod.
I ran a finger along the edge of my book.
Mr. Constantine gave me a funny look, like I was supposed to cry or scream or beg or something. He shook his head, then advanced on Daddy.
I opened my book. The smaller man looked my way, then stepped forward, right up next to Mr. Constantine, and slid a shotgun out from under his coat.
Just like Daddy said he would.
A few seconds later the top of the smaller man’s head blew apart. It looked like one of my birthday piñatas after I gave it a good bashing with Daddy’s baseball bat. Only this was a piñata full of blood and brains and bits of bone instead of butterscotch pops and Butterfingers and Bit-O-Honeys. The blast was still hammering hot knitting needles all the way into my ears as I swung the little Glock 26 onto Mr. Constantine, who looked at me like, well, he’d gotten his own birthday surprise.
Daddy stepped aside.
Mr. Constantine dropped the knife and scrabbled under his coat.
I emptied the magazine.
Daddy waited for the thunder to stop rolling and for Mr. Constantine to stop moving before he swept me up in his arms and checked my wrists. “You OK, Sweetie?”
I nodded and managed not to say, “Duh.” Daddy was so silly sometimes. As if he didn’t know that I’d mastered small-caliber recoil by the start of second grade.
Daddy took the gun from my hand and replaced it into the hollow opening we had carved together out of the book, which he had given me as a birthday present. I closed the cover, which read: Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s.
“What do you say we get some ice cream, Sweetie?” Daddy said as we walked hand in hand out of the Corn Star. “I’d say you earned two scoops today.”
“Cherry? Like last time?”
Daddy nodded. “And the time before that.”
“And you’ll read me two chapters of The Killer Inside Me?” I asked as I pulled out my other copy of my favorite book and turned to my favorite story by Jim Thompson, who if you ask me was the greatest writer ever, even more than Raymond Chandler or Dr. Seuss.
“Anything for you, Sweetie.”
I wrapped my arms around Daddy’s waist and breathed in my favorite Daddy scent of eight-balls and butter brickle and blood spatter.
“Anything for you, Daddy.”
And I meant it. And he knew I meant it. Even if he didn’t know how much. But someday, I would tell him what I did to the Sinaloa Cartel guy. And to Mommy.