Excerpt: Now entering Polk Canyon

For the second time in her life, Lucky Ellis found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were buttoning the back of Lucky’s dress, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to robbing the rails, which meant he had ultimately influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or shoot him in the gut.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said. 

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.” 

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt odd to be wearing trousers underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take. 

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay tangling themselves into giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked. 

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker. 

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up. 

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open. 

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her suede workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that Lucky had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist, exposing the Dragoon at her hip.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in her ebefore the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

For the second time in her life, Lucky found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were finishing putting Lucky together, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to the rails. In some ways, he had influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or hit him in the mouth.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said.

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.”

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt weird to be wearing her pants underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take.

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay collecting in giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked.

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker.

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up.

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back a little in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open.

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her sued workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that she had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in here before the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

Found Fiction: Patricia in the Sunstorm

This is a new thing I’m starting: I have a bunch of writing in notebooks from high school and college, sloppily named Google Docs that haven’t been opened since 2016, and saved email drafts. Every so often I’ll post an excerpt that I find with little-to-no editing.

Written: Nov. 3, 2015
Gmail Email Draft

The first time I saw Patricia, I was in love. She was standing, soaked, at the bus stop. Her hair was plastered to her neck and face, her bag was dripping, and she looked like a raccoon from the way her mascara was smeared around her eyes. And yet it was beautifully sunny outside, like someone had just plopped her at Jackson and Clark after removing her from one of Houdini’s water tanks.  

But what was so weird about her was the fact she was smiling. People were staring, but she was smiling. I don’t know why people weren’t smiling at her; just seeing those cheeks and beautiful teeth made me smile, too. It was infectious.

Excerpt: “No stars. Sky’s Still Pretty, Though.”

Spoiler alert: This is a character death scene from my National Novel Writing Month 2020 project. I cried twice — once while writing it, once while editing it for this post — which is either a sign of good writing or total exhaustion.

They stepped out into the spring night, the breeze pulling the sound of piano through the saloon’s closed windows to where they stood across the street. It must have drizzled — the ground had that smell of barely-wet dirt that made Lucky think of green leaves and damp socks. Far-off lightening lit up the sky with a soft glow accompanied by low rumbles of thunder. 

To the right of the hotel’s opulent porch, Trent had the horses, but there was still no sign of Elton coming out of the saloon. Squinting into the distance, Lucky couldn’t even make his figure out in the window, and hadn’t Job said he was keeping watch from across the street?

“Something’s wrong,” she said, pulling away from the group and marching across the street toward the saloon. A gunshot cracked, and a small stone five feet to her right jumped ten feet ahead: with no one else on the street at this early morning hour, there was no doubt who the shot was meant for, and from the way the rock moved, the gunman was shooting from behind and above her.

She turned at the moment another streak of lightening crossed the sky. The flash in the clouds and the lamplight illuminating the hotel’s sign glared off a wide-brimmed white hat perched atop Jeremiah Bose, Jr.’s, head. One of the guests had probably cut him free, and he now stood in a dark second-floor room with a rifle aimed straight at Lucky’s feet.

“You’re going to shoot me now?” she yelled up at the pointed gun. “You can’t save me, so you’d rather kill me?” 

Back toward the hotel, Job had stepped out from under the awning of the porch to see where the shot had come from. Wade still stood there, arms crossed, staring daggers at Lucky. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have thought he was enjoying watching her get what he thought she deserved. Trent’s hand was still clutching the reins of three of their horses, but his gun hand was at his belt, ready to draw.

She raised a hand to them to signal for them to stay where they were. Jeremiah wouldn’t kill her, she knew, but he was likely hungry to sink a bullet into one of the Higgs Boys who had (in his rendition of the story) likely defiled her.

“Fine,” Lucky said. “I’ll come back, if that’s what you want.”

She turned and began to walk toward the hotel, but another shot landed at her feet, just a foot from her toes. She leapt back, tripped on a jagged stone, and the ground came up to meet her as she landed on her back.

She picked herself up quickly and took another step toward the hotel but was met with a fourth bullet, this time just two feet to her left. She turned back to Jeremiah at the window, threw a rude hand gesture his way, and turned back to the saloon. He’d shot twice — she’d have some time while he reloaded. She’d get there to warn Elton, even if it took a bullet in the leg. Her foot didn’t land its next step before another shot rang out and hit another rock just feet from where Lucky stood.

“What kind of gun is that?” she yelled. From this distance, she couldn’t see Jeremiah’s face, but she could imagine that he was smiling that mischievous grin he’d unironically flash when explaining some new technique he had learned in one of the new books on undertaking. Another crack of lightening and thunder answered her, spaced closer together as the storm moved closer and closer. To hell with what he wants, she thought. If he thought she’d walk closer to his fire, he had gone madder than she thought.

Another step, and another bullet landed next to her. This time Jeremiah was either not as precise with his aim, or was growing impatient. The bullet grazed Lucky’s shoulder, ripping through the tan leather sleeve of her jacket and white linen shirt underneath. It was a mere flesh wound, but the pain and shock at Jeremiah’s persistence made her stumble. She looked behind her and saw Job had stepped out a few more feet from the awning, aiming his gun upward and inching backward until he just had Jeremiah in his sights. Two more steps, and he was ready to shoot.

Jeremiah saw him first and pulled the trigger. The bullet missed, but it was enough to send Job scrambling back under the protection of the awning. Meanwhile, Lucky saw Squirrel starting to slide down the hotel drainpipe, his own gun lifted. If he could get level with Jeremiah, he could surprise him. Lucky turned back as to not give away Squirrel’s position and refocused on her target.

Another step, another crack. This one hit the wooden hitching post next to the saloon’s porch, splintering the wood. Any minute now someone should step out of the saloon, Lucky thought. The piano would stop playing; Jeremiah would shoot; and everyone inside would hear the crack of the bullet and come out looking for what all the fuss was about — unless they assumed it was thunder from the approaching storm.

This close, Lucky could see in the windows. The bartender was cleaning glasses, though he kept eying her suspiciously through the glass. The tables in the window were empty, though one still had a beer glass on it and a gray coat slung over the chair. If Elton was in there, he wasn’t by the window anymore. 

She knew that she couldn’t put a foot on the saloon porch stairs without Jeremiah potentially taking off the other one, so she stopped inches from the steps. 

“Elton!” she yelled just as another clap of sharp thunder rattled the saloon windows. The piano kept playing inside. She yelled his name again.

It all happened in a second. Elton appeared in the window, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and turned out of view as he neared the door. Lucky was sent back to Roachie’s saloon in Clarkstown — how she had snatched Trent’s jacket from the chair before heading out to meet him before the marshal could catch them, just as he vowed he would, if one of them stepped foot in his path.

Jeremiah hadn’t been shooting at her to make her stand still or come back to the hotel. He was shooting at her to make her walk toward the saloon, where she would coax out Elton into the open and he’d have a clear shot.

The saloon doors swung open, and time slowed. Elton stood with his arms spread wide as they pushed the panels wide. He turned back to shout his good nights to whatever barkeeps and barmaids he had commiserate with throughout the evening, then turned back to Lucky.

“Fine night, isn’t it, m’lady?” he asked, taking a step onto the porch, beer tripping his tongue and sending it sprawling over the syllables. 

“Elton, go back inside,” Lucky said, but he couldn’t hear her over the thunder overhead. He took another step out from under the awning and into the line of fire.

“I was hoping you’d stop for a drink with me,” he smiled. “Guess we’ll have to try again tomorr–”

The bullet hit him in the chest. Bright red blossomed like a carnation in his buttonhole. He staggered on the steps, gripping the railing to keep himself standing. The gray jacket landed on the stair and slid off its edge into the dirt, but he paid no mind. On his face was the look of a man who’s known exactly what has happened to him, but who refuses to believe its seriousness. 

“Dear god,” he said, looking at Lucky with half a laugh stuck in his throat. “I do believe I’ve been shot, Lucky.”

Another crack, and a second carnation bloomed on the left side of his stomach. A third, a fourth — he was a garden of red flowers blossoming before her eyes. She caught him in her open arms as he tumbled down the step, coughing a spray of blood that she felt hit her face. Now that she had wrapped him in her arms, she hoped Jeremiah would stop shooting long enough so she could get Elton back to the horses. 

“I thought I heard shots,” Elton sputtered into her ear. The heat of his breath and his blood seared more than the bullet to her arm. “But the barkeep said it was just the thunder.”

“We’ll get out of here,” Lucky said, starting to pull him forward, her back still to the hotel. She counted one, two, three steps without a shot. “We’ll get you taken care of.”

“Who’s going to do that, Lucky?” he asked, feet starting to lag behind. “I’m the only one who knows a single iota about the human body. Can’t very much operate on myself.”

“We’ll find a way,” Lucky said, feeling another burning. Her vision was getting blurry as her eyes began to fill with tears. Elton was growing heavier as the life was starting to leave his body. She recognized the signs from when she had to help her father up the stairs of their ranch house the night before she left: Every step seemed to shake a bit more consciousness out of him.

“Lucky,” Elton said her name quietly. “We’re not going to make it.”

Like hell, they wouldn’t. wouldn’t. She didn’t care if her ankles snapped — she was going to get Elton back to the cover of the hotel where his cousins could at least say goodbye. The shooting had continued behind her, filling the quiet night air with pops and explosions, but no one had screamed in pain yet: It was as if they were doing it all for show, like bucks beating against each other with their horns. Everyone was shooting, but no one was aiming to kill.

If only someone would just get Jeremiah already so she could lie Elton down on a soft feather bed in the hotel, where he’d pass in peace.

“Lucky,” Elton said again. “You need to stop.”

“I won’t,” she cried, a bubble of phlegm catching the words as they fought from her throat. 

“You have to,” he said. “Just lie me down so I can see the stars one last time.”

One last time. Lucky stopped pulling him toward the hotel. Her knees buckled, and down along with her came Elton, crashing to the ground with a thud. The wind knocked out of his lungs and took a blood clot with it, spraying Lucky again. She felt the warmth trickle down her face but wasn’t sure if was Elton’s blood or her tears.

To Lucky, and Lucky only, the shooting had stopped. The hotel and saloon disappeared. The horses stopped bucking and whinnying, and the thunder above dulled. The burn in her arm from where Jeremiah’s bullet grazed her cooled, and the only sensation she had anymore was the tight grip Elton had of her hand in his as he stared up at the sky.

“No stars,” he sighed as lightning illuminated the edges of the clouds roiling above. “Sky’s still pretty, though.”

“I’ll get you back to your family,” Lucky said.

“Don’t bother,” he wheezed. “What good will it do for Aunt Mary to have something else to bury in her field?”

“I’ll get your cousins,” Lucky said, twisting around. In this blank slate of space, she could still make out Job, Trent and Wade standing outside the hotel, little flashes and pops glinting off their guns as they shot away at the man who had wounded their cousin. Squirrel was hanging by one arm off the drainpipe, trying to get good aim. No one seemed to notice that their friend was bleeding out in the street.

Lucky called their names, hoping to get at least one of them to sit with Elton as he passed. Later on she would have many quiet nights to wonder if this was because she thought it was right, or if it was because she didn’t want to be alone with him when he died. Her own father had asked her to close the door on her way to bed that night: He knew she had no interest in being witness to death. 

“They’re not coming,” she cried to Elton.

“No matter,” he said, his voice even hoarser now. “You should go to them so you can get out of here alive.” 

“Not without you,” Lucky said.

“You won’t make it any other way,” Elton said. “Thank you, Lucky.”

“For what?”

“For finally cooking us a decent meal,” he smiled. “And for being a friend. All of them have to be friendly because I’m kin. It’s been that way since I landed on their doorstep as a kid with two dead parents and too soft a heart for their nefarious games. You always made me feel like you liked me for me. And I appreciate that. Don’t think anyone ever made me feel that way before.”

“Truth be told,” she said, bending inward. “You’re my favorite Higgs Boy, Elton Walters.”

Elton’s face broke into a broad smile that showed his bloody teeth. 

“Now that is a nice thing,” he said, and grew still.

Writespiration: The Top 5 Tracks of NaNoWriMo 2020

This year for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I’ve been working on my book about a woman who joins a train robbery gang to avoid having to marry an undertaker’s son. Of course, in the words of Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “it’s a lot more nuanced than that,” with key intersectional feminist themes, critiques of wealth hoarding, etc. It also comes with an ever-growing 60-song-plus playlist, though I keep gravitating toward five key tracks that fit the characters, story and message. Here they are:

“Giant” by ZZ Ward

I trekked through a Chicago blizzard to see ZZ Ward play the House of Blues in 2018, and not once have I regretted my it. This track dropped earlier this year when I first started thinking about Lucinda “Lucky” Ellis, and it helped form how she perceives her new-found power once she leaves life as a rancher’s invisible daughter to become a force that baffles the marshals and locomotive companies.

“Song for Bob” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

I listened to the entire soundtrack from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for years before finally seeing the film this summer. Regardless of your feelings about the film (it took me four sittings to finish, but I found a weird peace in it during our crazy COVID times), the fact is that Lucky Ellis was born from that movie — particularly the musing of what would happen if one person on one of the trains that Jesse James robbed had stood up and said “Take me with you.” “Song for Bob” has been on repeat since then as I try to paint the picture of the Higgs Boys’ camp on the page using Times New Roman size 12.

“Rooted” by Ciara and Ester Dean

To know Ciara and Ester Dean’s “Rooted” is to know Ester Roth, the HBIC (head bandit in charge) of the gang that eventually adopts Lucky as their own. Ester is a modern humanist in the body of an 1870s descendent of free Black people living in the West. If that sounds far fetched, do some research: A quarter of cowboys on the Western side of the continent were Black.

“Pretty Waste” by BONES UK

What’s a playlist for one of my projects without a sardonic needle drop? BONES UK’s work has a special place in my heart as one of my top favorite sludge bands these days, but “Pretty Waste” is a fitting soundtrack for both train robberies and bodice rippings — both of which take a prominent place in Lucky’s story.

“Run Baby Run” by 2Wei and Ali Christenhusz

Another writing playlist staple: If it’s not the theme to season one of True Detective, it’s a 2Wei track (and usually more than one at that). This time it’s a toss-up between this piece from their album Emergence, which has echoed through the theater of the mind while plotting out train robbery action scenes, and their take on “Hit the Road, Jack.”

There’s plenty more music, and the list keeps growing. Check the full playlist out here, and follow it to get updates on when I add more (which is pretty much every other day).

Dottie’s Plot for Revenge

Yvette and her brother Mark sat across from the cemetery director, flipping through the pamphlets and doing the math in their heads of how much the endless fees would probably add up to, and whether it would be worth it.

“I suppose it’s odd,” Yvette said, tapping her toe nervously. “Most people who come here want to bury someone, and here we are, wanting to, to—”

“Exhume,” her brother finished for her.

“It’s really not that strange,” the cemetery director said. “We move people around all the time. Last month we had a couple remove both their sets of parents so they could be cremated and relocated to Georgia.”

“Well, we’re just hoping to move her a few plots over,” Mark said.

About fifty yards over, as she’d specified when she shattered the mirror over his fireplace, blasted them with Frank Sinatra and threw their Thanksgiving turkey out the window. The dead know what they want, but they have to resort to dramatic measures for anyone to notice.

~

This is a soap opera.

This is a soap opera starring nothing but people who are dead.

The setting: Somewhere on a different plane from here.

When Dottie Truman died, she knew her husband still had enough years ahead of him that he would need to find another companion. So rather than curse him to another two decades of lonely nights in front of late night television, she used her dying breath to tell Peter Truman to fall in love again.

Which he did, to a lovely woman named Beatrice Harper. And Peter and Beatrice were very much married and in love for fifteen years before they passed just weeks apart at the ages of 97 and 91, respectively.

Dottie watched all of this from her little ethereal plot of the afterlife. She cried with a mix of joy and sentimentality at their sweet little wedding at the Beech Tree Shoals Retirement Home. When Peter went first, she prepared to meet him with one eye on his funeral, where Beatrice had to be helped by her son Tyrone and stepson Mark across the rolling field of the cemetery. Dottie was so busy checking her face and straightening her dress that she didn’t notice right away that instead of in the grave next to hers, he was being interred half a football field away, surrounded by gravestones marked “Harper.”

But when she did finally notice? Had anyone been near her own grave, they would have noticed the dirt above her coffin roil like the angry sea. Later on the groundskeeper would think that the black bear rumored to roam the woods around the perimeter of the cemetery had gotten in and started foraging.

“Trying to do my job for me?” He muttered as he set about seeding the grass in the disturbed dirt. “Wrong plot — no one’s due to be buried here anytime soon.”

See, Dottie was buried with the Trumans in a double plot that her husband was supposed to return to once he died. But that bitch Beatrice either didn’t know or didn’t care, and now she had absconded with Dottie’s husband of 49 years to her own plot.

As far as the logistics of the afterlife went, the location of someone’s grave didn’t affect where they could or couldn’t go in the next plane of existence. But that didn’t matter to Dottie: She was confident that being buried with his second wife, away from the Truman family plot and away from Dottie, was doing nothing to coax him back to his first love and the mother of his children.

And anyway, the Trumans had always been a stuffy bunch, and Dottie hated being buried alone with them for all these years. The least Peter could have done, if he had known he’d be buried with some Boca Raton bimbo named Beatrice (which, of course, he didn’t, but try telling Dottie that), was put Dottie in the ground with her own family.

So after five years of waiting, and waiting, and waiting in the afterlife for her husband to come back to her, she decided to get her childrens’ ever-divided attention. It started with turning their TVs at random times, to random channels, but she was so appalled at what she saw across the channels that she decided that was causing more harm to her sense of the world than good. So she resorted to other poltergeist-inspired chicanery: She would tip over a coatrack (which would be blamed on the dog), turn on lights during the night (which would be blamed on the house’s electrician), explode soda cans (which would be blamed on PepsiCo) and burn food in the oven within minutes of it getting hot (which would be blamed on whoever was cooking). Eventually she decided that Thanksgiving would give her the biggest and best audience, so she went nuts: Shattered a mirror, changed the stereo to her favorite Frank Sinatra tune and blasted it, and even threw the half-cooked turkey out the window before using the grease and drippings in the pan to write on the walls “BURY ME WITH YOUR FATHER. LOVE, MOM.”

Dottie wanted to add “AND MOVE THAT BITCH BEATRICE TO THE PLOT NEXT TO THE BATHROOMS” but ran out of grease.

Unfortunately, now that she was watching Mark and Yvette sit with the cemetery director, that wasn’t quite a possibility. Peter Truman, it turned out, had been buried with his second wife on one side, and an empty plot on the other. And that plot was saved for Beatrice’s son, Tyrone.

Who was far from dying.

And who had moved off the grid, never to be heard from again.

At least, not until Dottie decided she had to pay someone a visit. It was time to introduce someone to Old Blue Eyes, backed by a full orchestra, belting out “Strangers in the Night” at top volume around 3 a.m.

Excerpt from “Stet:” Agatha comes home

I walk back across the street to my apartment after two more beers. The summer days have started stretching into evening, so when I roll into bed I sink my face into the pillow against the orange sunlight streaking the wall through the slatted blinds.

A phone rings in the distance, getting louder. When I lift my face off the pillowcase in desperate need of a wash, I see that the orange has brightened into synthetic white as city lights replace the setting sun. Somehow I find my phone woven into my cocoon of sheets.

“This is Mary from Moundsville Mental Hospital,” says a voice on the other end, too happy with itself for conveniently holding a name alliterative with her place of employment. “We’ve got a Miss Agatha Lydecker here, and she needs to be taken home. You’re on her list of emergency contacts, so we thought you might be available to pick her up?”

We arrive back at my apartment in what seemed like no time at all, and I tuck her onto the couch in the living room. She falls asleep quickly, and I return to my room, this time flopping onto my back. I close my eyes and try to let my breathing drop into the same rhythm as the humming icemaker in the kitchen.

But I can’t fall into sync. I’m too busy listening to the silence coming from the living room, which screams that something’s not right. I get up and pad down the hall to the couch. Agatha hasn’t moved. I go back to my bed, assuring myself that she’ll be fine, at least until she wakes up in a stranger’s apartment in hospital scrubs, the only clothes they had for her. I don’t know why they couldn’t dress her in what she wore when she was admitted.

I’m finally an exhale away from icemaker meditation when I hear a creak in the living room. With a sigh I lift myself out of bed, but I don’t make it down the hall. Instead, I’m frozen at my bedroom door, looking down the ten feet of empty space at where the living room is, only to find that I’m not looking at empty space — I’m watching Agatha pirouetting on the other side.

Before I can call out to her, she stops spinning, facing the kitchen like a statue. She slowly pivots to face me, and a shaft of midnight city light slices across her face to illuminate her eyes, narrowed in concentration. Or is it anger? The pupils reflect the light like a cat’s, and there’s no other word for what I’m seeing:

Ghostly.

I back away, unsettled but refusing fear. Agatha continues to watch me, the light framing her scowling eyes before she starts to pirouette again, turning a few times, then stepping forward into another turn, slowly coming down the hall toward me. I hear panicked breathing and think it’s her. It’s me.

I inch backward into the bedroom, about to close the door, but decide to have one more peek. She’s just standing there, scrubs hanging off her slight frame like rags off a scarecrow’s frame.

I close the door anyway and get onto the bed, contemplating my options. My phone is on the kitchen table, where I left it after putting Agatha to bed. Below the window is a 30-foot drop. My walk-in closet is better defined as a gaze-in closet because it’s so full of boxes, clips and dirty laundry. As I sit among the sheets reeking from sweat spent on nightmares about what happened to Agatha, I realize that now that I’ve learned what happened to her, I’m terrified of her.

Then I hear her call my name. The voice is so faint that it must be coming from the couch. I hear it again. Part of me wants to answer — is sure that I must have just been seeing things, letting her recounts of ghost-hunting get to me, or letting guilt invade — but I can’t move. I try, but I can’t. This isn’t the sleep paralysis I usually have the night before going to press. This is being literally too scared to move.

She calls my name again. I can’t budge. Maybe she’ll roll over and go back to sleep, wiped out from her ballet interlude in the hallway. Maybe she’ll be confused and leave the apartment altogether. Either would be a win at this point, I think, but the Good Person inside slaps my conscience on the wrist. I’d answer her, but I can’t form words. My mouth is locked shut.

There’s my name again. It’s louder, but still a whisper. It’s right in my ear, and I feel breath on my face and eyelashes against my temple as I hear it. I gain the ability to blink, and I take the opportunity to crush my eyes shut against the sound, the feeling, the smell of sweat-rotted sheets steeped in insomnia. The knowledge that somehow, Agatha is right next to me, and I won’t be able to fight her off or even talk her down because I don’t know how I got this way. She got this way, I mean.

My fault, I whisper again in my head.

“Yes, it is,” I hear Agatha’s voice say, clear as day. My eyes explode open, and I see her illuminated by the light intruding through the windows, her face maniacal as she laughs at me, frozen on my bed. Dense smoke curls up the walls, creeping out from under her feet as it shrouds both of us but doesn’t stifle the sound of her laugh, which turns into angry screams, then just screams.

It’s me screaming. I’m screaming as I wake up in my apartment. The city lights illuminate stripes of the past tenant’s wallpaper dotted with wallflowers that refuse to dance to the icemaker’s hum. I’m drenched in sweat.

Telling myself it was a dream, I step into the hall. No pirouetting reporter at the end. I creep forward. No Agatha on the couch, either. My keys are still on the hook next to the door, and I take my phone from the kitchen table. Satisfied, I return to bed, trying to convince myself that I must have left the phone there when I walked in from the bar, even though I haven’t slept without it next to me in five years.

Excerpt: Lucinda Ellis meets the Higgs Boys

She opened her carpetbag and dumped it onto the dirt, shaking loose every pocketwatch, coin, ring, necklace, money clip, eyeglass, and paper money she had collected from the passengers on the second car. The Higgs Boys scrambled to stomp their foot on the bills before the wind could carry them away. Wade Higgs crouched down to inspect a delicate ruby ring Lucinda had taken from her talkative seatmate.

“Ma’am, I mean no offense,” he said, mesmerized by the light flashing off the red stone. “But we’re called the Higgs Boys for a reason. We don’t usually, er, have the pleasure of doing business with matrons such as yourself.”

“Not unless you count that old whore you bedded down in Ludslow last week,” one of the boys interjected.

“Mr. Higgs,” Lucinda said, ignoring the chuckles of the men around her. “I don’t believe you’re looking at the situation holistically. You might not have worked with a woman before, but doubt you’ve ever picked this much treasure off a train car before, either. So my question for you is, don’t you think it might be worth including me in future endeavors?”

Wade rubbed his mouth as he stared at the ruby he still clutched between pinched fingers, as if the answer was in the jewel. Lucinda certainly thought it was — of all the things she had read about the Higgs Boys, they never if rarely held up the first-class passengers on the trains they robbed. Looking at the tiny group of five men, she had a sense it was a lack of manpower, rather than will.

“She’s right, Wade,” said the man who had been wearing the paisley kerchief. Job was his name, if Lucinda remembered the Wanted posters well enough. “There wasn’t much in that safe today, and there wasn’t much in the one last week, either. If we can take a walk down those first-class cars, could be more than enough to tide us over.”

“Yeah, so why don’t we just do that ourselves?” Asked the Higgs Boy who had referred to Wade Higgs’ recent conquest. “Why’s she got to do it?”

Lucinda was prepared for this question because she had asked it herself when planning her escape. “Because they don’t expect a lady passenger to be carrying an empty carpetbag with a plan to fill it,” she said. “Or a Colt with the ability to use it, for that matter.”

She removed the gun from the lining of the bag where she kept it, spinning it around a finger as she drew it, just like her father had taught her.

In a reflex, the four standing Higgs Boys drew their own revolvers, poised to shoot. Lucinda’s whole body clenched in anticipation, but her mind didn’t lose focus. She spun her Dragoon back to her side, placing it in the carpetbag and raising her arms up in surrender.

“I said ability, not intention,” she said. The Higgs boys still refused to lower their weapons. Lucinda tried to cover up her fearful trembling by shrugging and returning her gaze to Wade, who was now counting a stash of bills secured in a brass money clip.

“The way I see it, Wade Higgs, you’ve got two enemies: Time and men,” she continued. “If you have me ride that train every week as a passenger, I can case the car — determine who’s got the best goods while we’re on our way out of town and know exactly who to stick the gun at once you and the Boys board. I can make quick work of it while you crack the safe, and we can both disembark together to split the goods.”

“You may have a point,” Wade said, finishing the count and tossing the clip back in the dirt with the rest of the loot. “Must be the wisdom of your years.” The Boys laughed. Lucinda joined in this time.

“Speaking of which,” he continued. “If you forgive me saying so, aren’t you a little old to start a career in train robbing?”

Lucinda smirked and lowered her arms so she could unpin her hat. Through the veil she could see the four guns simultaneously lift higher, more threateningly, as their wielders tried to determine what she was going to do next.

Both hatpin and hairpin came out easily. Lucinda shook her head, a cloud of talcum powder catching on the wind as her dark locks freed themselves from their tight twists. Once her hair was loose, she chanced a glance at the four gunmen. Job’s mouth was agape, unlike his counterparts, who had all tried different methods of concealing their surprise to varying degrees of success. But Wade Higgs wasn’t coy.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said, chuckling. “You’re a real pretty lady, you know.”

“So I’ve been told,” Lucinda said, cheeks warming. By her parents, yes, but never a man with the kind of smile and reputation bared by one Wade Higgs.

“What a waste of a pretty face,” Wade said. “And there’s no dress shops or sundry shops out in the woods where we camp. No real soap, either, come to think of it.”

“I think I’ll manage.”

Wade Higgs turned to his boys now.

“Well, gents? Oh for all that is green in God’s good wallet, put your guns down!”

All four guns were holstered immediately. As Job’s gun lowered, his voice rose.

“I don’t like it, Wade. We’ve got a good thing here. Inviting someone new — lady or not — is like adding too much salt to the soup. It’ll ruin it, and there’ll be no way of fixing it without throwing the whole thing out.”

“Was that a remark on dinner last night?” asked the broadest of the men. “I told you it was Elton who put the extra salt in the soup, not me.”

“And I said I didn’t know you’d already done that, Trent,” Elton, presumably, said, gripping the brown sack he had worn over his head on the train and shaking the burlap at his cousin.

“I take it the food could improve?” Lucinda asked Wade.

“Ma’am, you have no idea,” said Job. “We ate hearty last night, but we were up all night guzzling from the water skins.”

“And delayed this morning from pissing it all out,” said the final man who hadn’t spoken — the wiry, clean-shaven one with a scar cutting through the hair on the side of his head.

“I’m a decent cook,” Lucinda shrugged. “If you let me join your crew, I’ll make sure you never dine on salty soup again. Daddy always said I made the best venison stew this side of the Mississippi, with biscuits to match.”

“Biscuits?” Elton asked.

“Venison?” Job asked, subconsciously licking his lips.

“Whatever meat’s available, really,” Lucinda said. “Mushrooms, too, if meat isn’t an option.”

“Wade,” said the clean-shaven man. “I think we’d be fools to pass up at least this woman cooking us dinner tonight, don’t you? Because there’s no way I’m having one more spoonful of that salty slop Trent forced down our gullets last night.”

Trent looked ready to grab his gun, but stopped short when Wade barked, “Fine.”

He walked up close to Lucinda, so close that his coffee-tinged breath heated her face. She stood up straighter. He wasn’t much taller than her — maybe a few inches — and on the uneven ground, their eyes were level with each other. Wade shifted to the side a little so he’d be taller than her again.

“You’ll cook dinner starting tonight,” he said. “We usually take a week or two between robberies. See if you can last that long—”

He paused, and Lucinda realized he didn’t know her name.

“Lucinda,” she said. “Lucinda Ellis.”

“Wade Higgs,” he said. “That there is my brother Job, and the big fella is my brother Trent. The redhead is our cousin Elton Walters, and the baby faced bast— I mean, man — is Jimmy Clearwater, but we just call him The Squirrel on account of how fast he climbs trees.”

The Squirrel gave a mock salute.

“Well, don’t just stand there, boys,” Wade said with a sigh. “Let’s put this loot back in the bag and get back to camp. Lucinda here is going to cook us dinner.” He raised his eyebrows at her before turning on a heel and walking deeper into the forest.

Maybe the old adage her mother had spouted was true, after all: It certainly seemed like the way into mens’ train robbery gang was through their stomachs.

Excerpt: A stop at Sy’s dad’s place

Dad’s eyes look Raff up and down before nodding at him to sit on the couch. Behind the brown irises I can see him rereading his memories of the texts I sent him — both those written as I beamed in the back of a taxi after our dates, and those sloppily typed while crying over how this man broke my heart — and he’s trying to piece together exactly why I’ve brought him home for dinner.

“Should I be nice?” He asks me.

“Yeah, you can be nice,” I say, taking my usual seat in the overstuffed armchair that gives both him and Mom back pain.

“OK, then,” Dad says tepidly. “You’ve had a long day on the road. How does a drink sound?” 

“I’ll take the darkest beer you have in the fridge,” I say.

“Chewable brew for Sy,” Dad says, “And how about you, Raff? I’ve got beer, cider, wine, whiskey — actually, I just got this new 12-year scotch—“

“Not that nice, Dad,” I say.

“Beers all around, got it,” Dad nods, bending down into the small fridge hidden inside one of the entertainment center cabinets. If I had my way, it would be lukewarm tap water for the non-Harris in the room, but Dad’s kinder than me.

~

“I’m heading to bed,” I say. “Thanks for having us, Dad.” I give him a hug and make my way to the door, expecting Raff to rise and follow, presumably give Dad one of those hearty, endearing handshakes. 

But he doesn’t move.

“You going to bed, too, Raff?” I ask. It’s hard seeking clarity on this, as we’re not even staying on the same floor of the house.

“Yeah, in a minute.”

“We have another long drive tomorrow,” I say.

“I know. Don’t worry.” He smiles one of those disarming smirks that makes me do nothing but worry. “I just want to talk to Mr. Harris a bit longer.”

I shrug and walk out of the room, closing the French doors behind me and heading upstairs.

When I was 15 and got my first potion book from Mom, I concocted an amplifying polish that I then applied to the doorframe of those very same French doors, which allowed me to hear whatever was going on inside all the way up in my room, where I kept the jar containing the other half of the polish. Once the doors shut behind me, I race up the stairs to the back of my old closet where, embedded in a box of magazine clippings meant for some decoupage project that never got finished, I find the polish and dipped an ear close to the contents.

“—but I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Raff is saying. “I need you to hear that, because I think you might be the only one who could possibly believe it.”

“Why, because I also fell in love with a witch?” Dad asks calmly, understandingly. The way he’d listen to my excuses about failing a math test because Jason Werth was trying to copy me and got us both in trouble.

“How did you know you were actually in love with her and not under some kind of hex or something?” Raff blurts out. 

“I believe it’s a little thing called trust,” Dad says. “And faith. It seems you need a little of both.”

“Raff, I am very happy with my wife. We’ve been in love with each other for three decades. We have a beautiful, smart daughter. I have never tasted anything weird in my food or felt any strange pricks in my sleep — not that I ever expected to.

“I’m not saying that you and my daughter are meant to be and your suspicions and paranoia have deprived you of true happiness. In fact, I believe she could be a lot happier with someone who has more faith in her integrity as a person. But take this advice from one grisled old man to a young one: Stop thinking you’re such hot shit that a woman like Sy would need use an ounce of her power to bewitch you, let alone elect to.”

Raff mumbled a “Yes, sir,” thanked Dad for the hospitality, and the French doors creaked open as he left the room and his footsteps faded in the direction of the first floor guest room. 

I put the lid back on the jar and hid it away in the box again. As I stepped out of my room and into the hallway to wash up before bed, Dad came up the stairs. He passed me without a word — just a wink.

Excerpt from “Stet:” Hibiscus blossoms

It was like when you think you smell smoke in one inhale, but then never catch a whiff of it again — but you’re sure you smelled it, and now you’re looking for fire.

I find the fire: She’s dressed in all black, form-fitting and intimidating. Her dark hair is exactly as Agatha had described it, cropped in the back and dangling long in the front, stick-straight and glossy.

As she steps up on the porch, heeled boots clump-clumping on the soft wood, something in the corner of my eye hooks my attention. The blossoms on the large potted hibiscus bush have puckered like raisins, wilting down under the weight of whatever demon she’s brought with her.

“You must be Agatha’s editor,” she says, dark cherry lips lifting, as Agatha said they did, to reveal perfect white teeth. “She spoke very highly of you.”

“Only one of those things are true,” I say, settling for a tight smirk that won’t betray my coffee-yellowed smile. “From what Agatha told me, you must be Maeve.”

“I’m certainly not Handel,” she smiles. “He’s finishing a call in the car. Another client needs our help, and rather desperately, so we won’t take up much of your time today.”

I wonder if the client actually exists or is their escape route when I start asking harder-hitting questions than Agatha ever posed. I’ve listened to all the interview recordings, remember: I know the softballs she lobbed about whether they believed in an afterlife (obviously) and what their most challenging house was to purge (“They’re all challenges, but they’re all learning opportunities”). I prefer to play fast-pitch without a catcher’s mit.

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about that,” I say.

“No, I don’t suppose we will,” Maeve said. “Unless, of course, you want to come with us to this client?”

Now I understand how Agatha fell under her spell, as I feel a strange pull around my shoulder, as if Maeve has put her arm around me to gently guide me toward their car, even though she’s still standing three feet in front of me. I have no doubt now that the client is fake; that I’m being tricked into my own abduction; that Handel is in the car, ready to drive me to an undisclosed location where I’ll either die or be driven mad as Agatha was; and that all of this is exactly as it should be, exactly as I want it to be.

“Good? Good,” Maeve said, turning on a heel. “We’ll take you with us. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

As we walk down the steps, I feel something crunch under my foot. It’s one of the hibiscus blossoms, just moments before a Tropicana pink saucer, and now a shriveled, veiny ball of tissue player crumpled beneath my heel. A puff of black smoke seems to cough out of it as my shoe grinds it into the floor.

#CampNaNoWriMo Vignette: “Homo sapien bitterus”

The first thing I see when I walk in is two construction workers sitting and chatting with Kris, the bartender. Shortly after I silently slip onto the stool, Kris approaches with an empty pint glass in hand, detouring briefly at the tap to pour the darkest stout on the menu before placing it in front of me.

“You’re a little early today,” she says.

“You’re a little heady today,” I reply, eying the two inches of foam filling the top of the glass.

One of the construction workers spins a pack of cigarettes between two fingers like a hyperactive watermill, and I feel my mouth itch. It’s been two years, seven month and nine days since my last cigarette, and although I can now run a mile without keeling over, the cravings haven’t gotten better.

The construction worker’s pal notices me trying not to stare at the pack of cigarettes.

“What do you want?” he asks, as if he doesn’t know.

“I quit, and I’m regretting it,” I say, nodding to the Marlboroughs once they’re face down on the bar.

“Sorry,” the smoker says, picking up the pack as if hiding it from me will make me forget how much my lips itch. “I tried a while ago, and I couldn’t do it. Girlfriend even threatened to leave, and I couldn’t stop.”

“She was a bitch,” shrugs his friend, sipping his bear. “A black lung is better than blue balls.”

His friend laughs, but it’s fake. I can tell that he’s still hurting from his girlfriend leaving, and he blames himself, his parents, his friend, the tobacco industry, even Marlborough Man Tom fucking Selleck himself, judging from the way he manhandles the crinkled box of cigarettes as he pushes them back into his workpants pocket.

The two of them go back to talking about something a guy named Ed did while sitting in his pansy-ass air conditioned trailer, and I go back to contemplating the now-thinned head on my beer. Behind the bar is a mirror hazed with time and tobacco, but I can see people walking past the bar and looking in at the urban zoo exhibit and its inhabitants. Morgan’s should have a plaque outside the door: “Species: Homo sapien bitterus. Diet: Alcohol, tobacco, regret. Habitat: Dive bars, construction sites, newsrooms. Thrive best in climates of sarcasm, self-pity and loathing.”