Shotgun Lullaby (Conway Sax Series #3)by Steve Ulfelder
From critically acclaimed, Edgar-nominated author Steve Ulfelder-Conway Sax is back in a thrilling and heart-wrenching story of how far a father will go to save his son
Conway Sax is a man seeking redemption. A man with a deeply checkered past currently paying for his sins by helping Gus Biletnikov stay sober. Wise-ass Gus, son of a wealthy investment/b>… See more details below
From critically acclaimed, Edgar-nominated author Steve Ulfelder-Conway Sax is back in a thrilling and heart-wrenching story of how far a father will go to save his son
Conway Sax is a man seeking redemption. A man with a deeply checkered past currently paying for his sins by helping Gus Biletnikov stay sober. Wise-ass Gus, son of a wealthy investment banker, drives Conway nuts. But he also reminds him of his own estranged son, and so Conway finds himself deeply invested in his wellbeing.
When a brutal triple-murder takes place in Gus's halfway house, Conway suspects Gus was the intended victim, and resolves to find the killer in his usual full-tilt, no-holds-barred fashion. The list of suspects soon includes the longtime organized-crime warlord of Springfield, Massachusetts; Gus's own father, who's a bundle of insecurity despite his fortune; the father's second wife, a stunning beauty webbed in ugly motives; and a Houston con man who'll swipe your gold fillings but crack you up while he does so. But the case is no laughing matter to Conway when somebody close to him is murdered. To find the killer and prevent yet more senseless death, he needs help from both an ambitious Brazilian-American state cop, and an unlikely criminal source. Along the way, Conway's personal responsibilities clash with his vow to help fellow alcoholics, forcing him to make his toughest decision yet in this unforgettable page-turner reminiscent of Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane.
Praise for Shotgun Lullaby
"This action-packed story moves lightning fast, and Sax makes an appealingly damaged protagonist. Dennis Lehane and Robert B. Parker fans will enjoy Ulfelder." --Booklist
"Gritty, intense, completely original. Ulfelder nails the voice, nails the story, and pushes Conway Sax, his unforgettable main character, beyond his breaking point. Shotgun Lullaby is more than just a page-turner of a mystery-it's a masterful study of a good guy gone bad, and his heart-breaking struggle to be good again." --Hank Phillippi Ryan Agatha, Anthony & Macavity winning author of The Other Woman
"Steve Ulfelder is one of the most street-smart authors writing crime fiction today. Shotgun Lullaby is a thrill ride that hits the gas hard on page one and races all the way to a heart-pounding finish." -Paul Doiron, author of Bad Little Falls
"Shotgun Lullaby is exactly as tough, and exactly as full of heart, as the title suggests. Steve Ulfelder is a major talent." -Timothy Hallinan, author of The Fear Artist
“A bloody good yarn, one infused with the blood that binds and the blood that spills. Ulfelder, an amateur race driver and co-owner of a company that builds racecars, once again takes the checkered flag in this gripping and addictive novel.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A real page turner.” –Dayton Daily News
“Outstanding… Ulfelder has constructed the persona of his hard-edged but sympathetic lead carefully enough to ensure a long series run.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Ulfelder’s hardscrabble central Massachusetts is a fully realized, unusual setting, and Conway Sax is one of the most interesting, complicated protagonists in the contemporary mystery arena. Exceptional characterization and a quickly zigzagging plot make this a must-read for anyone who loves modern noir. This series is a natural choice for Dennis Lehane fans or for readers who like their antiheroes with a heart of gold.” Library Journal, starred review
“Ulfelder creates interesting, sometimes flawed characters and this is no more evident than with Sax… Ulfelder gives us several well-placed twists. Don’t bet the bank you know whodunnit and what’s going to happen next in this book. Chances are you don’t.” –Mystery Scene
“This action-packed story moves lightning fast, and Sax makes an appealingly damaged protagonist. Dennis Lehane and Robert B. Parker fans will enjoy Ulfelder.” Booklist
“Ulfelder hits hard and fast, sometimes below the belt, with his fantastic third Conway Sax novel. Sax is an original: flawed, self-aware and undisciplined. He leads the reader on a merry chase through a maze of suspects until he narrows it down to the real perpetrator.” –RT BOOK Reviews, 4 ½ stars
“Dark, soulful and violent.” Kirkus
“Shotgun Lullaby… [is] Ulfelder’s best, most tightly written story so far, following on the successful heels of his first two books, Purgatory Chasm and The Whole Lie…. The book is riveting because Ulfelder knows how to write: His prose is uncluttered, the dialog matches real-life talk and the humor is actually funny, with a welcome absence of wisecracks. Sax is riveting because he’s struggling, and we can recognize some of his failings as ours…. In Lullaby, a final harrowing scene brings all of Sax’s messy contradictions to bear in one breath-holding moment readers won’t soon forget. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that we keep hoping Sax will pull things together. We want him to slow down and breathe deeply, and we’re still on his side. Shotgun Lullaby will make an indelible impression on all readers up for a great ride.” BookPage
“Gritty, intense, completely original. Ulfelder nails the voice, nails the story, and pushes Conway Sax, his unforgettable main character, beyond his breaking point. Shotgun Lullaby Y is more than just a page-turner of a mystery—it’s a masterful study of a good guy gone bad, and his heart-breaking struggle to be good again.” Hank Phillippi Ryan Agatha, Anthony & Macavity winning author of The Other Woman
“Steve Ulfelder is one of the most street-smart authors writing crime fiction today. Shotgun Lullaby is a thrill ride that hits the gas hard on page one and races all the way to a heart-pounding finish.” –Paul Doiron, author of Bad Little Falls
“Shotgun Lullaby is exactly as tough, and exactly as full of heart, as the title suggests. Steve Ulfelder is a major talent.” –Timothy Hallinan, author of The Fear Artist
Praise for The Whole Lie
“The Massachusetts gubernatorial race forms the backdrop for Ulfelder’s excellent sequel to his Edgar-finalist debut, Purgatory Chasm… Readers will want to see more of Ulfelder’s tough but vulnerable lead, whose narration offers a warts-and-all view of his multifaceted character.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review
Praise for Purgatory Chasm
*** Nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery 2012 ***
*** Nominated for RT Book Review’s Best First Mystery of 2011 ***
“Conway Sax is a has-been racing driver, an ace auto mechanic, a recovering alcoholic and a refreshing new character solving hardcore crimes….Non-racing and non-car fans will appreciate his hero as well as his crisp plotting, hard-boiled style and realistic dialogue. In his debut novel, Ulfelder deftly solves a mystery, and explores how family ties are established and what they mean.” –Associated Press
“The redemption that every flawed person tries to find in life enhances the complex plot that percolates in former journalist Steve Ulfelder's exciting mystery fiction debut. And Purgatory Chasm is certainly loaded with myriad flawed characters and their avenues to redemption, starting with Conway Sax… Purgatory Chasm moves at a brisk clip as Ulfelder smoothly steers his plot from one hairpin twist to the next. Ulfelder… adds just enough automobiles lore to spice Purgatory Chasm, but not overwhelm it. Ulfelder brings a gritty, uncompromising view to his hard-boiled debut. At the same time, the author makes Conway both tough and vulnerable, a man who has made too many mistakes in his life and, unfortunately, will make even more. Purgatory Chasm is a superb beginning for an author who shows much promise.” –South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“Ulfelder's debut combines elements of the thriller with tales of tangled families. Violence runs through the novel, but Ulfelder tempers it with compassion — and evocative prose. Purgatory Chasm may be hardboiled, but it's heart-wrenching, too.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Working throughout is the edgy, self-effacing voice of a flawed main character, a good guy with plenty of baggage who’s just trying stay alive and to get it right this time.” –The Boston Globe
“A surprising and satifying hard-boiled crime novel, the author’s first, and both grimly realistic and exciting… If the author can sustain this level of invention and vivid writing, this is a great career a-borning.” –The Sullivan County Democrat
“A gritty razor sharp new voice in crime fiction.” –The Keene Sentinel
“Ulfelder couples precise, evocative prose with an original private investigator in his compelling hard-boiled debut…. Ulfelder smoothly navigates the many plot twists, and effortlessly introduces wrinkles in his protagonist's backstory that enhance the character. Fans of Michael Koryta's PI crime novels will find a lot to like.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Conway is one of those tough but tender, emotionally damaged protagonists that calls out to certain mystery readers.... Ulfelder’s first novel gets a thumbs up." Booklist
“A promising debut… with one of the funniest, punchiest, most memorable and for this paper unprintable first sentences in recent murder mysteries.” –MetroWest Daily News
“Steve Ulfelder's debut novel weaves a gritty tale of justice and redemption.” –Fall River Herald News
“Ulfelder’s debut grabs you from its wryly hilarious opening line and keeps going full throttle till the finale. His characters are deep and realistically rendered – sometimes painfully so – and the broken family dynamics are right on the money. Ulfelder writes so well that even non-NASCAR fanatics will get something out of the car talk and racing scenes. Can’t wait for book two!” – RT Book Reviews, Top pick, 4 ½ stars
“This outstanding debut by a former journalist and racing enthusiast is gritty and fast-paced, with an intriguing plot and believable characters. Ulfelder has introduced a solid new protagonist, and the many race car anecdotes add to the novel’s allure. It will appeal strongly to readers of Loren D. Estleman and Ross MacDonald and those who enjoy hard-boiled detective mysteries.” –Library Journal, starred review
“Fathers and sons, American style…. The protagonist is… strong, engaging and fully realized… A promising debut.” Kirkus
“The tough, working class setting and the no-nonsense, wisecrack-free tone will get under your fingernails, and fans of George Pelecanos will dig the eye for workingman, hands-on detail that race car driver and first-time novelist Ulfelder exhibits—whether Conway is drywalling a house, stumbling through a murder investigation, or simply trying to do the right thing, there’s a veracity and empathy that shows the author himself isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty; or apply a little elbow grease when it comes to plotting… More, please.” –Mystery Scene
"Genuine characters and intense actiona serious crime novel with serious edge." – Patrick Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Breach
“Purgatory Chasm grabs you at the gate and doesn’t let go, careening through a top-notch whodunit to an ending you don’t see coming. A debut this good makes you wonder what Ulfelder’s holding back for the next race.” –Sophie Littlefield, Edgar Award-nominated author of A Bad Day for Sorry
"Like the cars of which Steve Ulfelder writes with such knowledge and grace, this story holds a hot, ominous idle just until Ulfelder engages gears and hits the gas, pinning you back against the seat, helpless to leave before the end of the ride. One of those rare debuts that leaves you immediately eager to see what is next." Michael Koryta, award-winning author of The Silent Hour and The Cypress House
“A thrilling new talent in crime fiction, Steve Ulfelder has written a debut that crackles with hard-boiled wit and white-knuckled action. Conway Sax will stay with you long after the final page releases you from its grip.” –Norb Vonnegut, author of The Gods of Greenwich
“Purgatory Chasm is the dark sometimes despairing story of Conway Sax’s Barnburner promise to a fellow alcoholic, and Ulfelder’s voice makes the tale as powerful and true as rocketing down the back straight at Martinsville Speedway. He’s given us living proof that scars are sometimes the only legacy we can pass down from one generation to the next.” Louise Ure, Shamus Award winning author of Liar’s Anonymous
“An indelible voice, a rich but simply rendered plot, and a protagonist with enormous heart make Purgatory Chasm a great read and the announcement of a promising new author in Steve Ulfelder.” –Bryan Gruley, author of Starvation Lake and The Hanging Tree
“The story is suspenseful and original, the characters are well-drawn, and the dialogue crackles. The fact is, Steve Ulfelder can really write, and Purgatory Chasm is a remarkably strong debut. I look forward to his next book.” – Bruce DeSilva, Edgar Award-winning author of Rogue Island
“If Chuck Norris had a problem, he’d call Conway Sax.” bestdamncreativewritingblog.com
“[A] superlative debut… one of the best mystery debuts I've read in a long time. Steve Ulfelder is definitely a new voice to be heard in the noir genre. Unlike most bloody, shoot-'em-up crime dramas, Purgatory Chasm is a great whodunit.…[It’s] a very unique mystery with memorable characters and a gripping, whodunit plot that involves a serial killer. On several occasions, I became teary eyed, especially when reading about the crushed hopes and dreams of some of the novel's tragic characters. The ending itself was quite sad. I won't be able to shake myself free of it for a long time.” gumshoereview.com
“Purgatory Chasm is one of those books I had a hard time putting down. It grabbed me with the first line and I had to keep reading to find out what kind of trouble Conway was going to get into next. And there was plenty of trouble. There were loads of twists and turns and an ending I didn’t see coming. I thought about it long after I finished the book. Every character was well-drawn and compelling. Conway is a guy you just have to root for. His friend, Randall—an Iraq war veteran with a prosthetic leg—is Conway’s conscience and tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. Charlene is Conway’s on-and-off girlfriend. She’s been disappointed by him several times, but somehow their relationship survives. I especially liked the relationship between Charlene’s daughter and Conway. Even minor characters who only make one-time appearances are interesting. If you like P.I. novels with lots of action, compelling characters, and an ending that will blow you away, Purgatory Chasm is definitely a book you need to pick up.” workingstiffs.blogspot.com
“A highly enjoyable journey of one man’s quest to hold his end of the bargain – with the help of a few friends. The narrative is slick and Purgatory Chasm is a very quick read, one thing it certainly did was hold my attention effortlessly throughout.” –milorambles.com
“If you enjoy novels about bad boy anti-heroes, Purgatory Chasm is well-written, richly plotted and a lot of fun. Recommended.” –Libdrone.info
“A mystery that brings readers through a whodunit to an ending people don’t see coming.” –Hingham Journal
“Steve Ulfelder makes an impressive debut with a most unusual protagonist in Purgatory Chasm…. Once you open Purgatory Chasm, you will find it very hard to put down. Steve Ulfelder is a new author to watch and I hope he will give us more of Conway Sax and his close-knit Barnburners.” www.bookloons.com
Verdict This series is a natural choice for Dennis Lehane fans or for readers who like their antiheroes with a heart of gold.Stephanie Klose, Library Journal
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Read an Excerpt
If Walmart is too swank for your taste, maybe a little pricey, you shop at Ocean State Job Lot.
Me and Gus Biletnikov were parked outside one, waiting for a thief to get off work.
Marlborough, Massachusetts. Strip mall on Route 20, a busy east-west road that’ll take you all the way across the state if you’re not in a hurry. The strip mall had grown without any real plan—only locals knew which half-assed access roads led to what. An off-brand supermarket, an off-brand clothing store, a rental center, a good barbecue joint, a CVS.
An Ocean State Job Lot.
I spotted the guy leaving the store for the night. Whipping off his blue smock before he was three steps out the door, balling it in a fist. He headed for a black early-nineties Mustang. The Mustang: immaculate, maybe the nicest car in the lot.
I said, “That Andrade?”
Gus nodded. “The one and only. Should I duck?”
“You mind if I just wet my pants then?”
I started my truck, dropped it in drive. Turned off the dome light, unlatched my door, held it ajar. Slow-rolled toward Andrade, angling up behind him.
I was on him before he looked. With my dome light off, he couldn’t see inside the truck. So the first he knew of me was when I slammed my door into him.
Andrade grabbed his right elbow and went down. I stopped, hopped out, stepped on his chest. “Gus Biletnikov does not owe you any money,” I said.
“I sold that little prick a Focus,” Andrade said. “I gave him a break, took half up front even though I doubted he was good for the rest. He still owes me six-fifty.”
I leaned into the boot on his chest. “You sold Roy a piece of shit.”
Confusion flashed in Andrade’s eyes. I ignored it.
“You rolled back the odometer,” I said. “You cooked up the inspection sticker yourself. The six-fifty might make the car roadworthy. He doesn’t owe you a goddamn nickel.”
Andrade looked at the sodium light above us, waited for his breath to come back. A car slowed to watch. I stared. It rolled on past.
“Fucking junkie owes me six-fifty,” Andrade finally said. “I know who you are. I got friends too, tough guy.”
Give him credit for guts.
I sighed. Took his right hand, raised it, pistoned his elbow into the busted tarmac.
The first time, it made a ball-bat sound. The second time, it made a crunchy sound.
I dropped his arm. “Gus Biletnikov does not owe you any money.”
Andrade passed out. It was the first smart thing he’d done.
Then I drove Gus back to Framingham.
He was speechless for a while.
But only for a while.
“I’ve seen some shit,” he finally said, “but that was … Conway, you are the man!”
He said, “My roommate and I had a few encounters with these heavy gangster types. Did I ever tell you about that?”
He said, “You ever hear the term ‘noble savage’? You are primitive, man. You are … pure!”
He said, “Who’s Roy?”
“My son,” I said. “Why?”
“Aha what?” I said. “How do you know Roy?”
A few miles later, replaying the parking-lot scene in my head, I figured out how Gus had picked up Roy’s name. I felt stupid and simple and easy to read. My face went hot.
When we hit downtown Framingham, Gus said, “I live here, over the sub shop.”
It was a halfway house called Almost Home. I know a bunch of guys who’ve spent time there. A couple are still sober, far as I know.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow at six thirty,” I said as he climbed out. “We’ll hit a meeting in Milford. You can get up and speak. You’re good at that.”
I started to pull away, happy for the silence. But stopped, waved Gus to the open passenger window. “I don’t know anything about this Andrade,” I said. “Watch yourself.”
“Will do. Now here’s the thing about that meeting tomorrow…”
I pulled away.
The kid could run his mouth. I liked him anyway.
* * *
Gus Biletnikov had stood out from the second he banister-slid into the church basement for the weekly meeting of the Barnburners, the AA group that saved my life. The Barnburners are semifamous in the tight world of AA. Judges, cops, and counselors send us drunks and addicts who are teetering. Who are set to die or live or go to prison forever, with much depending on how their next few weeks turn out.
The judges, cops, and counselors know we’re a hardcore group, so they warn the fresh fish that when they hit the basement of Saint Anne’s, they’d best keep their ears open and their mouths shut.
The addicts are usually intimidated enough to take the advice.
He truly had hopped on the banister and slid sidesaddle to the bottom, hollering “Whee!” like a seven-year-old. Then he’d bopped through the double doors into the big room, causing enough commotion that I stopped fiddling with the microphone and stared.
And opened my mouth.
He looked just like my son.
It was so obvious that a couple of Barnburners I knew well looked from Gus to me and back. They’d seen pictures. They thought the lippy, skinny kid tossing his bangs from his eyes was Roy.
Except in looks, though, he wasn’t anything like Roy.
Roy’s suspicious of the world. He hides behind his bangs, staring out at the world like a stray dog that knows it’s going to get hit—but doesn’t know who by.
This kid, on the other hand … he knew he’d created a commotion. And he loved it. Took three giant strides forward, navigating the aisle between the folding chairs. Put both hands over his heart like a hambone actor and said, “Ah am here! Ah am here! Ah am here, Lord, to be saved by the mighty, mighty Barnburners!”
Then he dropped to a knee like Elvis Presley, made a big show of crossing himself, sidestepped over to a chair, and plopped down next to a fiftyish woman who looked at him like he was from Mars.
Gus never did learn how close he came to getting an old-fashioned bum’s rush that night. Skinny Dennis and Pablo, bikers from Medway who would’ve lassoed a freight train for me, raised their eyebrows in the back of the room. If I nodded, they would take the kid by his armpits and jeans pockets, quickstep him up the stairs, and see how far they could toss him into the parking lot. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I damn near nodded.
But the kid had figured out instinctively that in this room, I had some juice.
He was meeting my eyes.
He was not afraid.
And he looked like my son.
I shook my head at Skinny Dennis and Pablo. They went back to their conversation.
We Barnburners set up Saint Anne’s our own way. Most of the folding chairs face the podium, of course. But there’s a little bump-out in the room’s northwest corner, and for as long as I’ve been around, somebody sets a dozen or so chairs at an angle that lets the leaders and old-timers keep an eye on the entire joint.
To newcomers, they look like seats for a jury. And that’s about right.
They’re reserved for the Meeting After the Meeting crowd.
I’m part of that crowd, so throughout that night’s meeting, I got an eyeful of the kid who turned out to be Gus Biletnikov. He mugged and made exaggerated nods and got a big kick out of himself. Once, while a black woman spoke, he said, “Testify, sister!”
I knew Skinny Dennis and Pablo were itching to toss the kid. Truth be told, I was with them. After the meeting, I figured, I would nod once to the bikers. They would escort the punk to the parking lot and explain that we Barnburners specialized in serious AA for serious people and he’d best find himself another meeting.
But something happened at the end.
As always, we closed by joining hands and saying the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s hard to explain, but during the prayer, I always feel like I’ve done something. Like I’ve risen above myself, maybe even done something to be proud of—if sitting on your ass for an hour can fit that description. The prayer is the best part of the meeting. Sometimes it’s the best part of my week.
Instinct made me open one eye during that evening’s prayer.
I looked at the wiseass kid.
He wasn’t being a wiseass.
His hands gripped those of the folks on either side of him. His lips moved as he prayed. His eyes were shut tight.
And he was crying honest tears.
And that meant he wasn’t all bad.
So there was no bum’s rush. Instead, twenty minutes later, my Meeting After the Meeting pals assigned me to connect with the new kid, to see what he was all about.
I didn’t mind.
And that didn’t have anything to do with the fact that the kid looked just like Roy.
The assignment led me to ask around among counselors and parole officers and rehab operators. Which led me to Almost Home and to Gus Biletnikov. Who, it turned out, had a problem with a shitbox car he’d bought from Andrade.
* * *
The morning after I pulped Andrade’s elbow, I had an Infiniti on the lift for its 125,000-mile service when a cruiser pulled into my small parking lot. White Crown Vic, FRAMINGHAM in blue filling its flank.
Matt Bogardis climbed from the cruiser. Matt’s a good guy, a big guy. The cop gear on his belt jangled and clanked as he came and stood behind the Infiniti. He watched me put on the differential cover with a fourteen-millimeter hand socket.
Matt said, “Wouldn’t the job go faster if you used the air gun?”
“The gun’s for taking things off. Hand tools are for putting things back together. Ram a bolt in with an air gun, you can strip the threads.”
“I’ve seen a lot of mechanics put things together with air guns.”
“Dealerships, Jiffy Lubes, Midas Mufflers,” I said. “Those aren’t mechanics. They’re trained chimpanzees. Only they’re not trained.”
“Picky bastard, huh?” Matt said it to Floriano Mendes, my partner. Floriano was kicking support arms beneath a Civic at the next lift over.
“Tell me about it,” Floriano said.
Matt watched us work.
“Marlborough cops are wondering were you out that way last night,” he said after a while. “Route 20? The Ocean State Job Lot?”
“Reason they’re wondering,” he said, “some guy got the shit kicked out of him. Kid named Andrade, works at the Job Lot.”
“Don’t know him.”
“Parking lot security cam caught an F-250 like yours. Light in color, like yours. Partial plate that kinda-sorta-maybe starts the way yours does.”
I snugged up the last bolt. “Kinda-sorta-maybe, huh?”
I said, “What’s Andrade say?”
“Not a damn word. He was pissed the hospital called us in the first place. Said he’d take care of it himself.”
I wiped the differential cover with a shop rag. “Can’t help you, Matt.”
“Thought so.” He paused. “Andrade sells used cars on the side. Shitboxes, nothing over fifteen hundred bucks. He bootlegs the inspection stickers and sells to people who can’t afford anything better. Illegals, mostly. They get pulled over and the cop notices the sticker, they’re shit outta luck.”
“Marlborough cops all bummed out because he got beat up?”
“I didn’t get that feeling. But Conway”—he waited until I looked at him—“one of these days, you’ll beat up the wrong guy. He’ll have a gun, or a bunch of shitfaced buddies. There’s only so much I can do. I’m a cop who you know, but I’m not your friend the cop. See the difference?”
I nodded and watched Matt jangle and clank back to his cruiser. Good guy.
* * *
A soft spring rain was starting as I pulled over for Gus. He waited under the sub shop’s green awning, finishing off a bag of potato chips. Didn’t notice me for a few seconds. Under the light brown hair, longish, that fell across his forehead with no real part, he had round brown eyes. Looked even younger than he was, with a peach-fuzz face and a chin that made him look a little like an elf. When you spoke with him, he had a presence, but looking at him there on the sidewalk, I realized he was shorter and skinnier than Roy.
He spotted me. Wiped hands on pants, climbed in. “Anybody else coming?”
“Charlene’ll meet us there with a carload of Barnburners.”
Gus lip-puffed hair from his eyes. “As I was saying last night, I’m not sure this is the ideal time for me to lose my AA virginity. I’d feel more comfortable doing a little recon, get my drift? Observing and absorbing. I mean, if I speak tonight, doesn’t that rob an AA veteran, somebody like yourself, of a chance to lay some wisdom on the flock?”
“You’ll speak tonight.”
“Jesus!” He pounded a fist on his thigh, then folded his arms in a five-year-old’s pout. Which is identical to a junkie’s pout.
“The Barnburners asked me to show you the ropes,” I said after a while. “These are the ropes. You want me off your back? Then find a sponsor, get a job, show some progress. Until then, I’m it. Barnburner-appointed.”
“The Barnburners this, the Barnburners that. You talk like they’re the C-I-fucking-A. As far as I can see, they’re a bunch of cliquey old alkies.”
Without taking my eyes off the road, I grabbed a handful of his button-down shirt. “The Barnburners saved my life. I do what they ask me to do. Sometimes I throw a scare into shitbirds like Andrade. Sometimes I slap some sense into bigmouth college boys fresh out of rehab.” I let go of his shirt all at once, feeling like a jerk. “You’ll speak tonight.”
He shut up for the rest of the ride. I glanced at him a lot. Wanted to say I was sorry, but couldn’t. And couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t.
* * *
I chaired the Milford meeting. Gymnasium, Catholic school next to a Wendy’s. Through the gym’s open windows, you could hear tires hiss on wet pavement. You could smell french fries.
Usually, the chairman doesn’t do much except introduce speakers and pull the raffle ticket. But most of Charlene’s promised Barnburners had crapped out, and the ones who did show kept their stories short.
I finally introduced Gus. He rose, dragged himself to the podium, faced the room.
Then he opened his mouth, and he did damn well. Better than any first-timer had a right to. I’d known he would, natural-born bullshitter that he was. He told his drunk log and his drug log, made everybody laugh a few times, pumped out clichés about learning from old-timers like me, and sat to genuine applause.
As I returned to the podium, I shook Gus’s hand. Whispered that I was proud of him. Meant it. Hoped he knew I was sorry for roughing him up.
I was fresh out of speakers and had fifteen minutes to fill.
I looked at Charlene. She batted her eyes at me, laughing inside, knowing I didn’t like to speak but was trapped.
Deep breath. “I’m Conway,” I said. “I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict.”
I squared up and told my story.
Copyright © 2013 by Steve Ulfelder
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