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The Spoils Stories by Casey Pycior

Read Online The Spoils Stories by Casey Pycior Fiction Book

Overview: Deep in the landlocked heart of the Midwest, the characters in The Spoils are drowning under the weight of masculinity, paralyzed in the grip of things left unsaid. These men are broken and breaking, struggling to reckon with the decisions they’ve made and those they have yet to face. Set mostly in and around Kansas, the stories in this powerful collection explore how men perform, in their jobs and personal lives, and investigate the gray area between doing what’s best for oneself and acting a part to make others happy.

A man questions whether he should leave his drug-addicted girlfriend and her son or stay, sacrificing his own well-being to be the boy’s father. Fed up with the role of the stooge, a Washington Generals player takes his A-game to the Harlem Globetrotters and has to face the unforeseen consequences. A rookie prison guard sent to procure a death row inmate’s final meal commits a small, subversive act of humanity.

In a world where the line between right and wrong is constantly shifting, some struggle to do the right thing, while others eschew the line altogether and deal with the sometimes violent repercussions. The Spoils examines these difficult choices and will appeal to readers of literary fiction and short stories, especially readers of fiction based in the Midwest.


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The Spoils Stories by Casey Pycior

Read Online The Spoils Stories by Casey Pycior Book Chapter One

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Few, if any, writers are self-made, and I perhaps more than others owe a debt of gratitude to all the people who helped me to get here. There are too many people to name, but I’ll try . . .
First I want to thank my parents, Steve and Debbie, for being there for me always; without them I wouldn’t have become the person am I and therefore wouldn’t have been able to write these stories.
Thanks, as well, to the rest of my family and to Larry and Marlyn Mohme for their support.
I was in school a long, long time (just ask my wife), and had the great fortune to be taught by amazing professors at every step of the way. My very first English professor, Tyler Blake, deserves mention here because if it weren’t for his encouragement early on, there is no way I’m doing what I am today, so thank you. Though I hadn’t yet admitted (or committed) to writing stories while a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, it was there that I first witnessed up close what it means to be a working writer, and the examples those writers, namely Michael Pritchett, Whitney Terrell, Michelle Boisseau, and Christie Hodgen, set have stuck with me to this day. Working on my MFA at Wichita State University was far and away the most formative experience in my writing career. The atmosphere and my professors, Margaret Dawe, Richard Spilman, the late Stephen Hathaway, and Darren DeFrain, were exactly what I needed when I needed them. The germs for a few of the stories in this book began there, and I cannot thank each of you enough for your expertise and generosity. An extra-special thanks to Darren DeFrain for not just being  a mentor to me but a good friend. This book first came together while I was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Many thanks to Jonis Agee for having unwavering belief in this book and my writing, and to Timothy Schaffert, Joy Castro, and Ted Kooser for being the brilliant writers and teachers you are. To all my former professors, I hope I’m able to impact students’ lives the way each of you have impacted mine.
To the fine editors of the literary journals who originally published these stories, your acceptance and encouragement nurtured my confidence and nourished my resolve to keep sending stories out. Thank you.
A huge thank you to Patterson Hood and the rest of the guys in the Drive-By Truckers for granting me permission to use their lyrics in “Disaster Carpenter” . . . and for being arguably the best band America.
A number of classmates and colleagues read, commented, or otherwise supported the writing of the stories in this book (some of them multiple times): Jennifer Bryan, Jordan Farmer, Megan Gannon, Chris Harding-Thornton, Gabe Houck, and Ryan Oberhelman, great writers each. Thank you. Others have offered friendship and encouragement along the way: Connie May Fowler, Stephen Amidon, Scott Blackwood, Dan and Sarah Hoyt, Melinda DeFrain, Sean Doolittle, Charles Dodd White, Marcus Meade, and very old friends, Scott Lero and Travis Elmer. Thanks to all of you.
To my literary brothers, Matt Mulienburg and Brian Seemann: my name is on the cover of this book, but the best of the stories inside it exist in large part to your sharp insights and feedback. I quite literally couldn’t have done it without the two of you. No one knows my writing like you guys, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sharing work with you is what makes writing fun. Let’s not stop anytime soon, okay?
Thank you to Linda Manning for taking a chance on this book and championing it; for that I’m forever grateful. And thanks to Nathan Holmes, Lori Propheter, Amy Farranto, Yuni Dorr (for the  amazing cover design), and everyone at Switchgrass for all your hard work on my behalf; it means the world to me.
To my son, Carver: this book, like everything else, is for you. You’ve changed my life in every way, and I’m a better person and a better writer because of you. I hope that when you are old enough to read and understand these stories, you’ll be proud that your dad wrote them.
Finally, to Janell . . . honestly, there’s not space enough here or in any ten acknowledgments pages to sufficiently thank you for going on this journey with me and making the sacrifices my career has asked of us the last ten years. I hope this book in some way tips the scales. I couldn’t—wouldn’t—have done any of it without you.
I gratefully acknowledge the publications where many of these stories first appeared (some in slightly different form): “Outing” in Wigleaf; “Disaster Carpenter” in Stuck in the Middle: Writing that Holds You in Suspense, Main Street Rag; “Home Shopping” in REAL 35.2, reprinted in Redux; “Preservation” in Crab Orchard Review 21; “Absolution” (originally titled “The Video”) in Flash in the Attic 2, Fiction Attic Press; “If There Could’ve Been Another Way, I Wish That’s How It’d Been” in Wisconsin Review 49.2; “Pinchbeck” in Pear Noir! 10; “Luck” in Beloit Fiction Journal 27; “Chasing a Leak” in The MacGuffin 32.3; “The Current” in Big Muddy 12.2; “De Facto Romance” in Storyglossia 48; “Cashing In” in Yalobusha Review 23; “Through the Gears” in Midwestern Gothic 13; “As Much as One Deserves” (originally titled “Where I Am and Where I Need to Go”) in Harpur Palate 14.1; and “The Spoils” in Front Porch Journal 23.

 OUTING

Once, years ago, I spent the day with a woman in a small town outside Kansas City. We hadn’t been dating long and didn’t know each other well, but we’d just had a scare and somehow thought this outing would be a kind of litmus test for our relationship, or whatever it was we were doing.
At a kitschy winery we sampled every wine they had and, feeling guilty, bought a bottle called “Twister” and took it with us to a (regionally) famous writer’s house we learned about from a brochure. Neither of us had read any of the author’s work, so much of the self-guided tour of the shabby Victorian was lost on us. We spent an hour beneath a large sycamore behind the house,  drinking the sweet wine and joking about a photo of the author reading in the bathtub, his knees, head, and smooth belly poking from the water like that famous photo of the Loch Ness Monster.
As we were leaving, we came to a four-way stop in a neighborhood not far from the author’s house. Just as I was about to accelerate, a young boy, no more than two years old and naked from the waist down, wandered out into the street in front of us. I looked at the woman I was with, and her face, rosy from the wine, went slack and her mouth hung open. There was no one in any of the yards on the corners, no one walking on the sidewalk, and no one in any cars on the street. We were alone, together. The boy toddled past the front of the car, smiling the whole time. When he made it across, the woman and I looked at each other again. She reached for my hand resting on the console and squeezed it. I gunned it through the intersection, tires chirping on the pavement.
In the rearview mirror, the boy stopped and turned in our direction. I watched as he got smaller and smaller until I could no longer see him. Later, still gripping my hand, the woman cried as I drove.
I wonder sometimes, when it’s late at night and she’s in a lover’s bed, does she tell this story the same as I do?

DISASTER CARPENTER

Of all the places in the world, I had to go and cut my finger off in Wahoo-fucking-Nebraska.
I’d been working on a crew rebuilding part of a suburb south of Omaha that got tornadoed. I’ve been all over: Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, even down on the Gulf rebuilding after Hurricane Whoever happened to roll through. I guess you could say I’m a disaster carpenter. It’s a good life for me. No permanent address, no taxes, and I get to move around and see different parts of the country.
After we finished the job, Steve asked if I wanted to stick with his crew for the next one, a small old-folks home on the outskirts  of Wahoo, a town of a couple thousand people, thirty miles west of Omaha. “Six-fifty a week,” Steve had said. “Cash money.” I usually make a point of not working for the same guy on more than one job, but Steve paid good, at least for someone like me, and he didn’t ask questions. Hell, if he asked questions of every guy he hired, he wouldn’t have anyone working for him. Sure, for the kind of work I was doing, I could’ve probably gotten more if it hadn’t been under the table. I’m a good carpenter, but not so good I can’t be replaced, and Steve, or any other foreman, knows I know this. I’m not qualified for anything else, and it’s not as if I could just leave and get some other kind of job, especially not one where I’d make this much. Plus, I don’t want anyone to know where I am. If I work on the books, then I have to provide an address, pay taxes, what-have-you, and I can’t do that right now. I know what you’re thinking, Oooh, he must be a bad guy. I’m not—well, at least not that bad, not bad like you’re probably thinking. I owe some money, okay. To the courts. For child support. I know, I know, I’m a dick, dodging my responsibilities as a father and all that. I get it, trust me. But if I’d have stuck around, man, the way her mom and I used to go at it, my daughter’d be all sorts of fucked up. She might not ever know it, but I did her a favor. Sounds like bullshit, I’m sure, but I think about her every day. I do. I send money when I can, too, but the real shit of it is, my ex won’t let me off the hook and marry the guy she’s been with for years and let him adopt our daughter. I just can’t stand some judge telling me when and how much I have to pay, garnishing my wages and shit.
I took Steve up on his offer to stick with his crew, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. That was four weeks ago. I got a room at the Big Chief Motel, a real shit-hole of a place for transients and life-on-the-road/running-from-the-law types: seven stand-alone huts barely big enough for a rock-hard twin mattress and a pressboard dresser/TV stand combo. I only stayed there because it’s cheap: $25 a day or $150 a week. It’s right on the edge of Wahoo, about a mile from the center of the little Main Street. The sign is  a Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo logo rip-off. I’m sure the owner is committing some kind of crime, copyright infringement or something, but who the hell’s going to do anything? There were a couple of other guys on the crew that needed to lay low like me, some with bench warrants, but they commuted from Omaha every morning, so at the end of the workday, I was all by myself out here.
It was one of those guys, Chad, who owes me a goddamn finger. We were laying the sheeting on the roof of one of the units, and I was working on cutting the plywood to fit one of the two dormers when the wind picked up. Out here on the plains it’s windy like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Even when it seems calm, the wind can come up out of nowhere. Still one moment, then windier than all get-out the next. It was like that that morning, still. Chad was a doughy little fucker who thought he was hard ’cause of a short stint in juvie when he was fifteen, but he didn’t have any experience roughing-in houses, so he was doomed to carrying lumber, stringing cords and air hoses, and fetching tools, cleaning up, whatever grunt work needed to be done. He was carrying plywood up the pitch above me for the other guys to nail down, and when he got close to the top, a wind came up. It blew over the top of the roof and caught the 4 x 8 sheet he was carrying. I was in the middle of a long cut, and out of the corner of my eye I saw him fighting it. I should have just taken my finger off the trigger, left the saw where it was, but I didn’t. I was sure he had enough sense to just let go of the plywood, let the wind take it, but that was my mistake. The dumb sonofabitch hung on, I’ll give him that, but damn if he didn’t ride it out all the way down the roof and into me. It’s amazing he didn’t knock us both off. I don’t know how, but in the collision, I managed to get the saw through the wood and, even with the guard working, into my left hand. The blade only bumped against the first knuckle of my index finger, and as I gathered myself up amidst the tangle of Chad’s arms and legs, the plywood leaning against the top of the dormer above us, I thought  maybe I’d gotten lucky and only nicked myself. You have those kinds of close calls all the time, so often that if you do the job long enough, they don’t even really spook you anymore. I knew I’d gotten myself, but I’d hoped it wasn’t bad—a few stitches, maybe. I pushed the plywood out of the way and looked at my left hand. It was like one of those brain teasers where there are two identical pictures, only in one there is some little difference. It’s hard to find at first, but once you see it, you can’t take your eyes off it. That’s how it was for a split second before I realized my finger was gone. The blood didn’t squirt like you see in the movies. A steady drip, more like. And it didn’t hurt as bad as I would have imagined, either. Not yet.
“Shit, Coleman, you cut your finger off,” Chad said nonchalantly when he sat up, as if it were something as minor as a stain on my shirt.
I wanted to beat his ass right then, but I had more important things to do, like find my finger.
“Give me your T-shirt,” I said, and Chad looked at me like he couldn’t figure out why I wanted it. “To wrap my fuckin’ hand! C’mon, take it off!”
When I stepped toward Chad to take his shirt, I noticed out of the corner of my eye something rolling down the roof, and just when it went over the edge I recognized what it was—my finger. It must’ve been up against my boot, and when I moved, gravity took over. Once I’d wrapped Chad’s shirt around my hand, I climbed as quickly down through the house as I could. Chad yelled behind me: “Hey! Coleman cut off his finger!”
A couple of the guys must’ve seen what happened or heard Chad yell because by the time I got out of the house, two of them, Doug and Rob, a couple real dipshits, were waiting for me. As I searched the ground for my finger, Doug, this punk kid who thought he knew everything, said, “What’d you do, Coleman, scratch yourself?” Since the bloodstained shirt around my hand apparently wasn’t enough, I stepped to him and pulled the T-shirt  back from my finger-stump. The color in his face drained, and he looked like he might pass out.
“Fuck, man, you really did it, didn’t you?” Rob said. “We thought—Jesus, you got the whole fuckin’ thing.”
I rewrapped my hand. “You see my finger anywhere?”
Rob looked at me like I’d asked him some deep philosophical question. “Didn’t think to look,” he said.
Doug had stepped away to lean on a sawhorse, so Rob helped me take up the search. It had only been a few minutes, but the shock must’ve been wearing off because my hand was throbbing, though still not as bad as it would. The blood had soaked through the shirt and was dripping onto the ground. Cradling my hand to my chest, I looked all over. But the dirt and the sawdust and the scrap pieces of wood made for good finger-hiding.
At the time I wasn’t even thinking about trying to find my finger so that it could be reattached; I just wanted to find it. It was my finger.
About that time, Steve came around the corner of the house and said, “What the hell you guys standing around fuckin’ Shep for?”
“We’re looking for Coleman’s finger,” Rob said, and then, as if that needed further explanation, “He cut it off.”
“Jesus,” Steve said and came over to me. “Let me see.” When I pulled back the blood-soaked T-shirt to show him, he said, “Shit yeah, you did. How’d—”
“Found it!” Rob looked almost giddy, like a kid who found the prize in a scavenger hunt. He brought my finger to me, holding it like a catsup-smeared French fry, before placing it in the palm of my right hand. It looked small, and it felt much lighter than I would have expected.
“All right,” Steve said, sighing. “Let’s get you to the hospital.”
I didn’t like the feel of carrying my severed digit, so I dropped it in the pocket of my shirt, figured that was as good a place as any.
The small hospital was just a little south of town, and we were there in less than ten minutes. Steve didn’t say anything on the ride  over, but he kept sighing and shaking his head. Somehow it made me feel like I’d disappointed him. He pulled his truck around the circle drive at the emergency room entrance and said, “This is as far as I go. Give me your keys, and I’ll have one of the boys bring your truck by later.” I handed him my keys. “You’re a good worker, but . . .” he gestured to my bloody T-shirt–wrapped hand. He reached into his wallet and handed me a full week’s pay though it was only Wednesday and said, “We’re done here, okay.”
“I know,” I said and got out of his truck. I knew there was nothing he could do for me, and so I didn’t expect anything else. All told, he was an all right boss.
Luckily there was no one else in the emergency room when I checked in, under a different name, so they got to me quickly. I could tell they didn’t believe me when I told them I’d chopped off my finger building a birdhouse for my kid, but it wasn’t any of their business how I’d managed it, only that I had. They asked where my finger was, and when I pulled it out of my pocket, the nurse almost laughed. “You should’ve had that on ice,” she said as she put on rubber gloves and took my finger. I thought that was just something from bad hospital TV shows and I told her so. “You got here quickly enough, we might be able to save it.”
Long story short, I’m now a nine-fingered man, not because I didn’t keep my severed finger on ice, but because I don’t have insurance. Since cutting off my finger wasn’t “life threatening,” and reattaching it was not considered “medically necessary” and therefore an “elective procedure,” they wouldn’t call in the orthopedic surgeon from Omaha to reattach it. Bullshit, but what was I supposed to do? The kicker? I don’t even know where my finger is. I’m not sure what I would’ve done with it, but the sonofabitch was mine and I would’ve liked to have had a say in where it ended up.
The doctor had me on some pretty heavy-duty shit, and he probably shouldn’t have released me under my own power, but I think the hospital was more than happy to get rid of a charity case like me.
Walking through the parking lot, I knew the drive back was going to be pretty hairy. If I turned my head, everything went blurry before slowly coming back into focus. I’ve driven drunk more times than I care to admit, but this was something in a class by itself. There weren’t that many cars in the lot, so I found my truck easily enough. It was unlocked and the keys hung from the ignition—who’s going to steal a rusted-out S-10 pickup? I hadn’t really thought about how difficult driving was going to be until I started my truck. My hand was wrapped up like a boxing glove with only the tips of my remaining fingers poking out of the wrap. Normally, I’d steer with my left hand while I shifted with my right, but I couldn’t really do that with my hand. Getting out of the parking lot wasn’t easy; not only was I stoned on some premium medical-grade painkillers, I had to crank hard on the wheel with only my right hand to make the sharp turns. Once I was out on the road, I could balance the steering wheel with the tips of the three fingers of my left hand while I shifted with my right, but every time I touched the wheel a jolt of pain shot through my hand and up my arm. I was groggy, and everything felt the way it does when you’re underwater. I took it slow to the Wahoo Pharmacy—the last thing I needed was to wreck my only means of getting out of this town—and I nosed up to the curb in front of the store.
The cowbell clanked above the door, announcing I’d come in, and I took my prescription straight to the back. The place smelled like a Band-Aid. The kid working the counter looked at me like I was some kind of zombie, which wasn’t far off from how I felt. “Just a minute, sir,” he said and walked to the back. I put my hand on the counter to steady the room. A woman in a white coat came from the back. “It’ll be a few minutes, sir. If you’ll just have a seat.”
I staggered to the row of hard-backed plastic chairs against the wall. Everything still seemed in slow motion, but whatever they gave me at the hospital was wearing off. My scalp was tingling, and  my hand started throbbing—really throbbing. It was finally feeling like I’d cut my finger off. Every heartbeat was like a hammer coming down on my hand, so I tried holding my breath to slow my pulse, but that only made it worse. I closed my eyes and tried thinking of something, anything, to keep my mind occupied, but nothing worked. The pain overwhelmed my thoughts. I started to sweat, and I couldn’t stop squirming in my seat like some little kid with a case of ADD who’d gone off his meds.
Though I was coming down, I was still stoned enough to think I could actually hear the pain, so in my head I tried singing some song one of the rednecks on the crew had blasted over and over during lunch break a couple weeks ago. I didn’t know the title—I don’t pay attention to that stuff—or even much of the song, but a couple guys stood in the bed of a pickup caroling out a catchy part: Bulldozers and dirt, bulldozers and dirt, behind the trailer my dessert, I don’t mean no harm, I just like to flirt, but most of all I like bulldozers and dirt. It had been stuck in my head ever since, and now I was more than happy to sing it to myself. On my third time through, it seemed to be working a bit to quiet the sound of my pain, but then the cowbell clanked and got me off track, and I couldn’t get the song back.
I opened my eyes to the sound of flip-flops slapping the bottom of someone’s feet. A small town like this one, I half expected it to be some pigtailed little girl coming in to buy candy or something, but the woman who appeared at the mouth of the aisle in cutoff jean shorts and a white tank top was no little girl. I didn’t know her name, but I recognized her from the Stardust up the road in Colon. She was blond and thin, too thin if you ask me, but in a place like the Stardust she was something to look at. I saw her a few times with the same guy, but she was always a flirt and a lush, making the local old-timers uncomfortable with the way she moved on the dance floor. I’d tipped a longneck her way a few times and got a wink or two in return. Thought of asking her to dance once or twice—there was only old danceable country music  on the juke—but she had a wild look about her, and I never got deep enough into the bottle to do it.
At the counter the kid asked if he could help her, gesturing to the prescription slip she clutched tightly in her hand. “I want to talk to Marcy,” she said, and when he told her he could take the prescription to Ms. Miller, she replied, “Goddamn it, just get Marcy.” After the kid went to the back, she jutted out her hip, put her hands flat on the counter, and looked over in my direction. I nodded at her, thinking she might recognize me, but it was as if she didn’t even see me.
This woman provided some distraction from the pain, but it was steadily creeping up my arm, past my elbow now, so when the kid came back to tell the woman Marcy would be right with her, I blurted out: “Hey, man, how long’s it take to count out some friggin’ pills?”
“We’re working on it, sir,” the kid said. I wondered if they were trying to check me out, if they were running the name I’d given the hospital, or if that was even something they were capable of doing.
When the pharmacist came back out, I pushed myself up in my chair, but before I could stand, she said to me, “I’ll be right with you.” I slumped back down, mumbling something about being there first. It might have just been the drugs making me paranoid, but I was seriously worried that they were somehow onto me and just stalling until the cops came.
In the meantime, the woman and the pharmacist had both leaned their heads close together. “I didn’t get word,” the pharmacist said, barely loud enough for me to hear. “It’s a week early.”
“I know, but Tommy, he said to just tell you he’d sent me. Said a week early wouldn’t matter.”
“I gotta—”
“C’mon, Marcy.”
“Let me call Tommy and—”
“Marcy, I need this,” the woman said. “Bad. I’ll clear it with Tommy. Please.”
I’m no expert, but it looked like she was trying to screw somebody out of something. It didn’t much matter to me as long as I got mine.
“Even if I could, I can’t. I don’t have enough yet,” the pharmacist said.
The woman pushed herself away from the counter. “Fuck you, Marcy.” She turned and looked at me, this time like she actually saw me, before stomping down the aisle and out the door, the cowbell clanking after her.
The kid came from the back and handed the pharmacist a large bottle, a tube of ointment, and a box of sterile bandages. She motioned for me, and when I stood, whatever I was on had worn off enough that the floor didn’t swing out from under me, but my whole arm felt like death.
The pharmacist was short with me and only gave the basics: change the dressing twice a day, apply the ointment, and take the Percocet with food and only as needed, but don’t drink or operate any vehicles or machinery. I nodded along with her instructions, paid, and left.
So there I was sitting in my truck, out of a job, my hand bandaged up like a boxing glove, less one finger than I’d rolled into this silly-named town with. And, to top it all off, I couldn’t even get the goddamn bottle of pills opened with only one hand. I had it squeezed between my knees, fighting like hell to get the lid off. I was on the verge of smashing it against the steering wheel or getting out and stomping on it, when someone said, “Need some help with that?”
“Fuck!” I said and nearly jumped out of my seat, the pill bottle clattering to the floorboard. I felt like I’d been caught with my dick in my hand. My heart was pounding, which made my hand throb harder. When I looked up, I saw it was the woman who’d come into the pharmacy. “Jesus. You scared the piss out of me.”
“Just saw you were having some troubles. Thought I’d see if I could help.”
A light breeze kicked up and carried the overly sweet smell of her perfume into the cab of my truck. It was fruity, like something a high school girl wears. I’d never seen her this close before. Outside of the forgiving glow of bar lighting, I could see her blond was from a bottle, and where I’d pegged her as early thirties, now I wasn’t so sure. She had the deep lines around her mouth and at the corners of her eyes that come from forced smiles during unkind times. It was obvious up close that she was pretty once; it was there, but you had to look hard.
“Name’s Jolene,” she said and stuck her hand though the open window.
I reached across my body and took her hand. It was soft and moist, but my hand came away dry. “Jolene? Like that old country song?”
“Sure, sweetie.”
“Ray,” I said, though it was as much my real name as Jolene was hers. I didn’t know where this was going, and after what I’d seen her try to pull in the pharmacy, my real name wasn’t any of her business.
“What happened to your hand?” She crossed her arms and rested them on my door. Her breasts were small, but with the way she was leaning forward, I saw quite a bit of her black bra and the faded blue smudge of a tattoo looking like it was trying to climb out.
I spared her the whole story and just told her I’d cut my finger off at work. If I’d been looking for sympathy, Jolene was the wrong place. She didn’t seem bothered at all by what I told her. She said matter-of-factly, “So, need some help?”
Before I could answer, she opened my door and, laying her head directly in my lap, reached under the pedals where the pill bottle had settled. Those slippery hands must’ve made it hard for her to grab the bottle because she was down there quite a while.
“Found it,” she said as she came up, and she smiled as I adjusted myself. She twisted off the cap, fished out a pill, and held it in her palm. “Here.”
I took the pill and placed it between my teeth and grabbed an old bottle of water that was on the bench seat. After I swallowed the pill, I looked at her. She was smiling at me in a way I’d seen plenty of times before. She wanted something. My pills, most likely. “Take one if you want. I got the whole bottle.”
“Maybe later,” she said and looked over the top of the cab. “Look, you’re probably going to need some help tonight, right?” She looked back at me. “I mean, how’s a man supposed to wash himself with one hand, let alone take care of his other needs?”
Though I’d never paid for it in a strict sense, I’d been with a couple women where a kind of unspoken arrangement was in place—they needed something: a place to crash for a weekend, a ride out of town, help moving out of their ex’s, some work on their house, whatever—where it probably would have just been easier to have paid them outright. So even in my condition, I was under no illusion about what Jolene was getting at. She’d just had her head buried in my crotch, after all. I didn’t know what she wanted in return for her help, but at that moment I wasn’t opposed to letting the line out a little.
“You can drive,” I said as I slid across the seat, careful to keep my hand elevated.
She chuckled when I told her where I was staying. “So that’s where this is happening?”
“I don’t know what’s happening, but that’s where I’m staying.” I wasn’t too worried about her knowing; I was paid through the end of the week at the Big Chief, and after that, I was gone.
She looked at me across the cab, as if surveying some kind of damage, and for just a moment her face relaxed into what I think was a real smile. But it was gone as quickly as it came.
The sun was setting when we pulled into the Big Chief. I told her which unit was mine, and she parked in front. I got out of the truck without bumping my hand on anything, but at my door I realized my room key was in my left front pocket. I started to reach in with my right hand, but Jolene stopped me. “See, that’s  what I’m here for,” she said and plunged her hand far past the key in my pocket. The way her hand roamed around you’d think she didn’t know what a key felt like. I braced myself against the door-jamb with my right hand and let Jolene do her thing. As I stood enjoying her search, I happened to look over at my neighbor, some old-timer sitting in a green-and-yellow aluminum folding chair in front of his open door, the light from the thirteen-inch TV flickering behind him. He raised his paper bag–wrapped bottle and showed me a few of his remaining teeth.
“Mind your business, old man,” Jolene said when she saw he was looking. She took the key from my pocket, and the old man let out a wheezing “hee-heee.”
Inside, Jolene took a quick look around the room and walked past the bed to the bathroom at the back and closed the door. The pipes groaned, and I heard the water running in the tub. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned the knob of the ancient TV. One of those ’90s sitcoms played across the screen. I kept the volume low and sat on the edge of the bed and watched the beautiful young people joke their way through their weekly crisis in their oversized New York City apartment. “You got anything to drink?” Jolene called over the noise of the water in the bathroom.
I took my bottle of Wild Turkey from the dresser drawer below the TV. I didn’t have any cups, but Jolene didn’t seem to be a woman who needed that kind of luxury. I tapped on the hollow-core door with the toe of my boot. The water stopped running, and she said, “C’mon in.” I pushed open the door, and through the steam I saw Jolene lying back in the tub, her hair piled atop her head, her nipples poking out of the water. The blue smudge I saw earlier was a faded rose, its stem extending down and curling under the inside of her left breast. The water distorted the darkness of her closely trimmed pubic hair.
“You gonna just stand there? Told you I was gonna help you get clean.”
I wasn’t sure how this was going to work, the bathroom was barely big enough for one person to turn around in, but at that point I was more than willing to give it a shot. I sat on her clothes piled on the toilet seat and put the bottle on the floor by the tub. I started untying my boots, but with one hand it was slow going. “Here,” Jolene said and leaned over the edge of the tub. She got my boots off and then told me to stand so she could work on my belt and the front of my pants. I got my shirt off and stood there naked. I’d put in almost a full day’s work, and the smell of dirt and sawdust and sweat filled the tiny space. I raised my arm and made as if to sniff my armpit. “Damn, I’m ripe.”
“Well, get in here, then.”
There wasn’t really room for two, and it wasn’t easy lowering myself into the water with only one hand. We were tangled and uncomfortable facing each other, so Jolene got behind me. It was still a tight fit, and plenty of water slopped out of the tub, but she seemed willing to make it work and I wasn’t going to argue.
She took her time getting me clean, us passing the bottle back and forth, and it wasn’t long before I’d settled back against her. I hadn’t soaked in a tub like this in a long time. Jolene was working an angle, I knew, and I wanted to confront her, ask her outright what she wanted before I got myself into something, but it felt so good in the water, I decided to let those thoughts go, just for a while. It didn’t hurt that the booze and the Percocet were doing their voodoo on me.
After we’d been in the water long enough for my toes to get pruney, she asked, “How’s your hand?”
I had my left elbow resting on the edge of the tub, my hand pointing straight up. “Still throbbing some.”
“Another pill?”
I nodded, probably against my better judgment, and she got out of the tub, dripping water on the curling linoleum. I looked over my shoulder and watched her ass waggle as she left the bathroom. I heard the pill bottle rattle in the other room, and  when she came back in and put the pill between my lips, I had a fleeting thought that she was trying to get me fucked up enough that she could rob me. She had to’ve figured if I was staying at the Big Chief, I probably didn’t have a bank account in town, so there had to be cash in the room. There was, though not as much as she might’ve thought. I’d worked out a deal with a cousin of mine in Kansas City; I wired most of my cash to him and he held it for me.
But all that didn’t stop me from swallowing the pill with the whiskey she put to my lips.
“And one for Mama,” she said, and I saw she had a pill between her teeth. She took a drink and it was gone. “I think you’re clean enough.” She offered me a hand to help me out of the tub. “Let’s go.”
After drying me off, she took the bottle and my good hand, led me into the other room, and sat me on the unmade bed. She pushed my chest back, and as she straddled me, I saw her look around the room. The Big Chief didn’t have a cleaning staff, so the room wasn’t near clean, but I always keep my shit organized and in my bag so I can get the hell out of Dodge quickly if I need to. I wondered if she was scouting the room, trying to find where I might keep my money. The bit of cash I kept here wasn’t anywhere she’d find.
She started to grind on me, but with the combination of the pills and booze, nothing was happening. It felt good, sure, but I couldn’t concentrate. That didn’t seem to keep her from trying, though. She had the porno-thing down, with the moaning and the lip biting and the hair swinging. I knew that there wasn’t much time; the second pill was beginning to work. Everything at the edge of my vision was turning murky, and I could feel myself losing control. It was only a matter of time before I was too fucked up to keep Jolene from doing whatever it was she was going to do.
I grabbed her hip with my right hand to slow her down. “So, what do you want?”
“I want you to fuck me,” she said, and the way she had her hands in her hair and was swinging her head around was starting to freak me out.
“No,” I said and squeezed her hip tighter. “For this. It can’t just be the pills.”
She swung her head forward and pushed her hands hard against my chest. “You think I’m some kind of fuckin’ whore?”
“Not any more than me. Or anyone else out there.” I looked at her above me, but focusing was becoming a problem. “So?” She looked off toward the door. “Just the pills?”
“I don’t want any more of your fucking pills. If that was all I wanted, I would’ve had them already. Besides, asshole, you need them.”
“But at the pharmacy—”
“You don’t know anything. That was—Jesus, forget it.”
“So it’s money?”
“God,” she said and slumped over onto the bed next to me. “Of course it’s money. It’s always money. You should know that. But you don’t have enough, and—I’m fucked.”
I didn’t know how much she needed, but however much it was, it wasn’t worth a night of sex—if I could even get it up—and I wasn’t interested in charity.
“Okay,” she said and pushed her hair back from her forehead. “I got pulled over. A fucking broken taillight, but when the cop ran my license it must’ve come up that I was on paper, so he asked to search the car. Sure, got nothing to hide, I said. Besides, it was my mom’s van. ’Course I didn’t know she had an unregistered .38 stashed under the front seat from before, when one of her old men had made some threats. Been there so long she’d forgotten about it. Now I got a court date in a couple days, and it’s real this time. I’m looking at five years.”
“Shit,” I said. She was fucked. And, considering the circumstances and what she’d tried to pull at the pharmacy, she was desperate. I should have left it at that, but I had to ask. “What’s the money for?”
“What money?” She looked at me.
“The money you said you need. If you’re going away, why do you need it?”
“My kids. They’re going to live with my mom in Council Bluffs, but her disability money, it isn’t enough.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel bad for her, but her kids weren’t my problem. “Look,” I said, “I’d like to help you and all, but—”
“I told you I don’t want your money.”
“Then what’s all this?” I said and nodded my head at her naked body.
“I need a favor.”
“If it’s got anything to do with that shit at the pharmacy, I’m out.”
“No. That’s on me. I just need to buy some time.”
“I sold out yesterday,” I said and laughed, and I knew I was completely stoned because I’m not usually that quick.
“What?”
“Huh?” I said, still laughing.
“I need a few more days before my court date to get some more money together.”
“So,” I said, calming down. “What’s that got to do with me?”
“I want you to stab me.”
“What? You want me to—are you fucking nuts?”
“I’m in the hospital a couple two, three days, my date gets postponed.”
She climbed out of bed and went to her purse. My mind lurched and stumbled as I tried to make sense of it all. I squeezed my eyes shut, and when I opened them, she was on my lap again and in her hand was a comically large pocketknife. Closed, it was easily seven or eight inches. It was a knife made to be engraved and displayed.
“It’s my son’s. He won it at the carnival.”
“I know you’re in a bind, but this is—I can’t stab you.”
“Just in the leg, or here in my side. But deep enough to lay me up.”
“Nah, you gotta go. I can’t,” I said and arched my back so she would let me up.
“I’m not going anywhere. You’re doing this.” She looked right at me, right into my eyes, and I realized that was the first time we’d made real eye contact all night.
“The fuck I am,” I said and shoved her off me. “Get your ass outta here.”
“No! I can’t—look,” she said. “Do it, or I tell Tommy you put me up to that shit at the pharmacy.”
I didn’t know who Tommy was, and it took me a second to realize what she meant. “The fuck I care about Tommy?”
“Oh boy, you better.”
I had a hard time believing anyone with the name Tommy was that dangerous, especially in Wahoo, Nebraska.
“And all I gotta do is say you made me try to steal his shit. He knows I’d never pull anything like that.”
“Except you did.”
She rolled off the side of the bed, went to her purse, and pulled out her cell phone. “Do it, or I’ll call him right-fuckin’-now. Don’t believe me, just see what happens.”
I had options: I could call her bluff and wait and see, or I could pack my shit and leave. I was on the road in a couple days anyway, but the last thing I needed was some drug dealer, small-time or not, looking for me. I honestly didn’t think I was in any real danger, but I didn’t want to be looking over my shoulder for the next few weeks, either. Or I could just do what she wanted, as fucked as it was, and then blow.
“Give me the knife,” I said. It was bat-shit crazy, and I just wanted to be done with it.
She kept her cell phone in her hand and brought the knife to me. We traded places on the bed. I couldn’t open the blade with one hand, so she opened it for me. The blade was shiny, but it didn’t look very sharp; it was more novelty than knife. “So how’re we doing this?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to watch.” She sat up on her knees, pushed her hair back, and took a deep breath. “I’ll close my eyes and you just do it.”
I weighed the knife in my hand and took a few practice jabbing motions. I’d never stabbed anyone before, and besides, I was using my off-hand. And the drugs didn’t help. “Where do you want it?”
She shook her head. “Just do it.”
I stood before her, still naked—we both were—and searched her body for the right spot. The longer I stood there, the more the weirdness of the situation settled in.
“C’mon, goddammit, just do it!” she yelled at me, and when she did, I thrust the knife into the spot I happened to be looking at—her upper leg, where her thigh met her hip. The knife kind of bounced off; the tip broke the skin, but only just barely. She let out a guttural scream from somewhere deep inside. “Motherfuck!” Then she flipped out and started swinging at me. I turned and raised my right shoulder to try to deflect some of her blows, but one of them glanced off and hit my left hand. Even with the pills, white starbursts lit up behind my eyelids, and before I could even catch my breath enough to yell out, I’d plunged the knife into the fleshy side of her stomach. Her eyes went wide and her face drained of all the tightness, and strangely, she looked disturbingly younger. The noise she made was less a scream than a whining moan. This time the knife didn’t bounce off, and I had to pull it from her. My stomach turned and I heaved, vomiting whiskey and bile onto the floor. She grabbed where I stabbed her and fell back onto the bed, curling her legs to her body. Blood poured from between her fingers and ran down her stomach, pooling on the mattress. She squirmed around, spreading blood all over the bedsheets, making noises I didn’t know a human could make in between her Oh God, Oh Gods.
I took a step back and stared at her. Then the adrenaline kicked in, and I stumbled over the corner of the bed and reached down to the baseboard where I had my money stashed and pulled the cut piece of wood away from the wall. The angle was awkward with my right hand, but I dug the roll of money out of the hole. I tore off five or six bills and tossed them on the bed and grabbed Jolene’s cell phone. I saw the terror in her eyes as I pried it from her grip.
In the bathroom, I collected my clothes and shoved them with the rest of my stuff in my bag. After awkwardly stepping into my boots, I grabbed the knife off the floor where I’d dropped it. I wiped the blade on the comforter and put the knife in my bag. I grabbed the bottle of pills off the TV stand and slung my bag over my shoulder and opened the front door. My neighbor was gone and the parking lot was clear. I ran, naked, to my truck and tossed my bag into the cab. I got it started and in gear before I dialed 911. I told the dispatcher that I’d heard screaming coming from a unit in the Big Chief. When she asked my name, I ended the call and smashed the back of the phone against the shift knob until the battery came out.
I pulled out of the lot as calmly as possible and hit Highway 77 south. I wasn’t too worried about being naked; it was dark, and as long as I didn’t get pulled over, it wouldn’t be a problem. I thought I heard sirens in the distance, but I couldn’t be sure. Though the adrenaline had sobered me up considerably, it wasn’t easy keeping the truck between the lines. I had to keep squeezing my eyes closed and opening them so my vision stayed clear. As I drove, the ambient light of Omaha reflected off the clouds, lighting the eastern edge of the sky. I thought about my fingerprints in the room, if I’d been seen driving away, and what Jolene would tell the cops—if they got there in time.
I got off 77 before Lincoln, cut through Waverly, and stuck to county roads, jogging east toward Highway 67 and then south. After I’d driven for close to an hour, passing only a handful of cars, I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway where it passed over Weeping Water Creek. In just the dome light, I struggled getting on my jeans in the small cab of the truck, and though I couldn’t get them buttoned, at least I wasn’t naked anymore. Putting on a shirt was a little easier. Dressed, I took the knife and Jolene’s cell phone and battery and stood at the rail of the bridge. Weeping Water was more a wet, tree-lined gulch gouged between two cornfields than  an actual creek, but it would do. I chucked all three off the bridge as best I could with my right hand. I couldn’t see, but I heard them splash in the water.
I continued south through the rolling hills into Kansas. I made Topeka by midnight, and I didn’t look back once.

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