CISI Contest Winner: False Promises by Ken Fish

So, that’s what it feels like to pretend, he thought, as he laid in bed staring at the water-stained ceiling, trying to fall asleep for what felt like the millionth time in his fifteen years of living. It had been a normal day. It had been a rough day. In Abel McIntyre Junior’s family, there was no difference. In his family, in the trailer park with the neighbors that surrounded him like ghouls from a house of horrors, the best days for him would likely kill any other kid, he always thought.

Abel knew how other kids lived, and it wasn’t like him. He could see their houses on the soft, rounded hills across the Mystic River through the loose glass slats of the crank-open windows in his tiny wood-paneled bedroom. They had yards with grass and swing sets in them where children played all summer, and mounds of colorful flowers that gleamed in the most carefree way from mid-spring to mid-autumn. Even in the winter when those same hills were just grey mounds spiked with the craggy skeletons of oaks and maples, the houses glowed golden and warmly, twinkling on the coldest of days when there was ice in the air and the river looked as if it was frozen solid.

They lived in actual houses, and those houses they lived in didn’t have wheels under them. This fact alone seemed to provide those kids with some sense of permanence and security that Abel never knew. This fact alone, Abel sometimes caught himself believing, raised them up above him and his ever-toiling Ma, Ethel, and drunkard Da, Abel Senior, and their house with the wheels underneath it just in case they needed to make a run for it again.

“Pretending,” his mother always said “is much better than reality.” For Abel, there was always a certain disconnect between that mantra of hers and how he thought he lived his life. He never thought what he was doing was pretend, it felt more like protection. It was what he did to make do as the poor kid who lived in the trailer park that was essentially used as a halfway-housing complex for the underfunded and understaffed loony bin on the edge of this otherwise rich white town. For Abel, it was survival.

* * *

“Don’t you ever change your pants?” taunted Fred, the super-popular star of the soccer team at school. “I can smell those filthy things from here.” The reality of it was, Abel rarely did change his pants. In fact, he only owned three pairs; one for every day, one for Sunday, and one for the rare occasion when Ethel would sneak their dirty laundry into the laundry room of the loony bin where she and her sorry excuse for a husband, Abel Sr., worked.

Abel always loved laundry day. He relished the brief moment when the few clothes he had were stiff and crisp and smelled like the industrial detergent they used to kill off every biting, burrowing, stinging, blood-sucking creepy-crawly he imagined inhabiting the flesh of all those crazies where his parents worked. Every time he slipped into a clean pair of trousers or a fresh shirt he felt, if only for a second, reborn.

Abel could feel his face redden as he froze from a sickening mix of anger, humiliation and disenchantment. He’d been caught out again. He’d been targeted by yet another wicked prick who had nothing better to do than pick on the one kid in school who did everything in his power to be invisible to all those around him. Abel always kept quiet. He always kept to himself. He never did anything to anyone. He never did anything to deserve the sort of treatment he got over and over again.

Sometimes he thought he was cursed. When Abel was little, back before he started going to school, he fantasized about what it would be like to be able to get away from his Da every day. He thought it would be some sort of safety-zone, a cinder block oasis where there would be kids just like him, a place beyond the reach of his Da’s roaming hands, or worse yet, drunken fists. It didn’t take Abel long to discover the difference between fantasy and reality. To Abel, school seemed like the place people like his Da went to learn how to curse, fight, and in general, grow up to be an asshole.

“My gawd!” Fred hollered across the crowded cafeteria. “Didja shit yer pants, or what, Abel?”

Just then, at the very moment Fred called Abel by his first name, the name his worthless father burdened him with, everything else he said, could say, or would ever say again, meant nothing. At that moment, he could hear nothing but the blood rushing in his ears like the roar of the hurricane that crushed the crazy gay twins under the huge choke cherry tree that set their ragged pack of scabby, inbred cats free through the torn sheet-metal of their old 12’ by 40’ two lots down from the McIntyre’s.

At that moment, all Abel could see was Fred, his mouth flapping mutely before him. After that, all he could see was red — red from the mouth of that nasty boy Fred where Abel’s first punch landed with a stomach-churning crack, mashing Fred’s thin, pale upper lip into hanging shreds of gore. Fred’s mouth kept moving, but his face no longer read as arrogant. He looked truly shocked, and under that, truly terrified.

Abel couldn’t hear if Fred was trying to backpedal his way out of the suddenly desperate situation his mean mouth got him into. He couldn’t hear if Fred was screaming for help. Abel landed another punch, this time, to Fred’s jaw. He could feel himself smiling as his now torn knuckles made their impact, and the bone of Fred’s jaw gave way with a pop, down and to the left; a deformity deserved.

Abel could see the teeth swimming in Fred’s mouth, and his left eye instantly swollen, the indentations of Abel’s fist at its rim like the dimples on a fat lady’s ass. It looked as if Fred was shaking his head in a frantic NO gesture, but there wasn’t
any NO left in this. There was only GO left in this.

Abel heard later that he was growling and grunting like some sort of rabid animal when he was on top of him, that is, when he wasn’t laughing like one of those fellas from the fenced-in gravel lot in front of the nut house. Despite being one of the smallest boys in his ninth grade class, it took three middle-aged teachers and a Puerto Rican dishwasher to get him off of that poor boy. Abel was expelled that day, and day later, he was sent to juvenile hall.

* * *

A week after he got out, Abel saw Fred with his mother at the local grocery store. He was shattered. Fred acted like he didn’t see him, but Abel knew he did.

Abel didn’t know what happened that day at school. He relived it in flashes that provided neither context nor explanation. What he did know, is that it was like a dream coming true. All the times he’d been picked on, and all the times he’d been beaten up, had been erased by latching onto that smart-ass, Fred, and beating him to within an inch of his life.

Abel pretended to be sorry in front of the judge. He pretended to be sorry in front his so-called anger management counselor in juvenile hall. He even tried to pretend to be sorry in front of his Ma after his month of being locked up behind a tall chain link fence and those thick concrete walls, but she could see right through him.

“You don’t have to pretend to be sorry in front of me, mister,” she said smiling wryly.

Abel said nothing in response. He just smiled and thought about how everything was gonna be alright from that point forward. He had no idea if he believed that, or if he was just fooling himself, and to be perfectly honest, he didn’t care either way.

Crimes In Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

From the day we are brought into the world until the day we are unceremoniously kicked out, we are marked by each passing moment. We are carved like soapstone into our ever growing imperfection by intrinsic, personal events. A map of personal history. We are but the lives we live.

As a toddler, my family lived outside Covington, KY on a horse farm. My memories of that time are most likely manifest from stories told and pictures seen, though some seem so crystal clear when I think upon them.  Too clear not to be my own. I don’t know, I wasn’t much taller than a knot on a log.

What does this have to do with CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA? Nothing and everything.

My folks split when I was three and through out my childhood, bolstered by mom’s venomous hate towards my absent father, it marked me more than it should have. It grew from a scratch to gash to near abscessed pain and anger. By the time I was 15, I didn’t much like either of my parents.

Frank Bill‘s book CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA is chock full of wonderful stories about people marred by experience, circumstance and isolation. Most have little vindication or happy resolve, but each carves a dark image of life in southern Indiana.

I was 25 when I met my father again for the first time. At the insistence of my young bride, I called him from a hotel room just outside of Cincinnati. I half expected him to have horns and a tail or eyes pitch coal black and filled with evil. I was awash of emotions, all including hate, disgust and anger. That all but melted away when I opened the hotel room door. He was my blood.

I had gotten about halfway through CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA when I read “The Old Mechanic” which depicted a young Frank meeting his estranged grandfather for the first time. It immediately pulled at those old scars. The memories of a fatherless youth and reconnecting with a past I never really had. It reminded me that we are very much the definition of our past, but our past doesn’t have to define our future.

CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA is rich with local experience and setting, but the characters’ lives are very much the stitches of an unraveling patchwork Americana. For better or worse we are the lives we live.

Run Away Home with Frank and Donald

Have I mentioned I got a chance to read Frank Bill‘s debut book, CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA? I wasn’t sure if I had?

Might as well get used to it. I’m going to be talking about it all month and I plan on it being a busy month down here on the blog.

I’ve been re-reading CRIMES this last week because I want to do a slam dunk review of it next week to post around. I don’t do reviews much. I give them a shot, but I tend to be so damn casual about it. All my structured English education just flies out the door. That’s alright though, because I never believe anything that reads scripted or not from the heart. And if I didn’t like CRIMES I’d kindly thank Frank for the opportunity and move on to the next book. I don’t believe in negative reviews.

But I did like CRIMES so there will be a review in a weeks time.

As reviews go, I recently read a lot of good things about Donald Ray Pollock — some bad too, but those read of personal opinion and not capable review — so he hit my radar. Last week Amazon had a ridiculously good deal on his first novel, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. I couldn’t pass up the discount on top of my free shipping. Only a chapter into it and I ordered KNOCKEMSTIFF — Pollock’s first book, a short story collection — for my Kindle.

I don’t have a vast library of crime fiction. Only what I’ve engulfed myself in over the last couple years. So I’m not deeply familiar with  Harry Crews or Larry Brown, though I have a book or two of each to read, but I understand that in their time they were the voice of southern noir. Neither Pollock or Bill are what I’d call southern, rather two country boys living in the mid-west. One in Ohio and the other in, well, Southern Indiana.

They both have a similar voice developed from what they know, where they grew up, and the lessons life have taught them. Reading their bios about and interviews with them, and of course the words they’ve both written, though their styles may differ I connect with the heart of what they write about, as well as some odd parallels.

Growing up a West Virginia boy, I so desperately wanted to be gone from country. As soon as I could stand I swore I’d run the first chance I got and never look back. I made it to Colorado, but rough times and bad decisions had me tail tucking it home with a new wife and baby on the way. Back to family, back to home.

It’s strange that it’s taken me nearly two decades of struggling with work, with writing, with life, to realize it’s not about where you live. And realize the experience of those two decades if honed with my natural predilections could tell stories people want to read.

So to writers, who I now admire, like Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock, thank you for showing me my stories don’t have to go far. They only need to run away home.

Don’t forget the deadline for the Frank Bill and Write Where You’re At challenge ends August 25th. 2000 word story about where you grew up.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Women are weak.

Powerless. Defenseless. Victims.

Right?

In fiction their only purpose is to act as a catalyst for our strong male protagonist to either save or avenge. They are props that get killed, raped and mutilated. Titillating pieces of  meat, flesh, that are vapid set decorations to high testosterone storytelling.

Right?

I’m co-editor of an online flash fiction magazine called Shotgun Honey. We specialize in short crime, hardboiled, noir fiction. Talking about gender roles or submissions in general puts me front stage, breaking the fourth wall. But, I think it needs to be done.

It is easy to make women the victims. Most atrocious crimes committed by men are against women, generally acts of passion, rarely pre-meditated. I am not opposed to reading or receiving  stories that harm, maim or kill women. What I find appalling are stories whose only purpose is to glorify the act(s) and make no attempt to tell a story. The act itself cannot be the story.

Horrific violence happens in real life. Yes. Crime fiction for the most part is violent volatile fiction. Often to an extreme. Good crime fiction takes the foibles and tells a story.

I can’t speak completely for my co-editors, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a story where the typical gender roles are reversed. Yes, at Shotgun Honey we’ve published stories with female protagonists in the past from Matt Funk’s Det. Jari Jurgis and Fiona Johnson’s undercover cop Gemma.

We’ve also published John Rector’s “Folded Blue.” The ultimate culmination of degradation and depravity towards a woman, so it sounds hypocritical to call out stories who parade such violence. Rector’s story stands alone, it tells a story of depression and rejection. It burns slow until the reveal. The story isn’t about the act, the murder or the post-mortem interaction. It’s about the character, not the victim.

The question as a writer that has to be asked: Is the violence for the sake of the story or the story for the sake of the violence?

I’m not asking for a spate of stories where women who dole out some desperately needed comeuppance. Variety is the name of the game. And on that note, as a writer considering to submit to Shotgun Honey or one of the other many venues, think about how broad crime fiction can be? Violence is easy, telling a good story is harder.