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Trigger Man is a superb collection of stories capturing the gritty spirit of Detroit and the sometimes grim circumstances of the characters shaped by its industry and economics. Grounded on the bleak streets of the Motor City, these stories also explore the mythical “Up North,” the idealized country of many Detroit workers’ fantasy—an escape from the concrete and metal reality of their daily lives. Daniels’ characters are resilient and defiant, inhabiting a world that has often placed them on the margins of ...
Trigger Man is a superb collection of stories capturing the gritty spirit of Detroit and the sometimes grim circumstances of the characters shaped by its industry and economics. Grounded on the bleak streets of the Motor City, these stories also explore the mythical “Up North,” the idealized country of many Detroit workers’ fantasy—an escape from the concrete and metal reality of their daily lives. Daniels’ characters are resilient and defiant, inhabiting a world that has often placed them on the margins of society, scouring a declining region for spiritual providence. Building on Daniels’ earlier collections of stories, Trigger Man brings vivid life to individuals struggling both to remain in and to flee the city that once sustained them.
—Laura Kasischke, author of In a Perfect World and The Raising
Jim Ray Daniels’ characters in Trigger Man inhabit an emotional demolition derby, where even the “winners” do as much damage to themselves as they do to others. Stories as close to desperation as the city they’re set in.
Shelley bit another hard, tasteless bead off of her candy necklace. A yellow one. It tasted just like a green or red one. The flimsy elastic holding it together stretched across her mouth. Then, she bit off a red one—pink, really—and pulled the necklace back down over her neck. Sticky where other beads had gotten wet with spit.
Her mother, Ginger, sat next to her on the orange plastic waiting room bench in the emergency room at Mercy. Shelley pressed a huge bloody mess of towels against Ginger's arm as they waited to be called—so much blood dripping onto the floor Shelley thought maybe they'd have to cut the damn arm off, and then her mother could never hit her again, at least with her strong arm.
Candy had to look like itself to taste good, Shelley thought. Like candy bars. They were just bars. That was the perfect shape for chocolate. A rectangle you could wrap a hand around. Bite into. Candy that was supposed to look like something else always tasted bad: Candy cigarettes. Wax lips. Licorice shoelaces. Swedish fish—What made them Swedish? Did they swim with an accent? Sweden—what did she know about Sweden? Her brother, Randy, said they made porn there. He was seventeen and imagined pornography in his sleep. Shelley called him Porno Boy until their mother slapped her across the face. Randy had left home. No one had heard from Porno Boy in six months. Ginger told the school he dropped out, though he'd made no such official declaration on his way out the door. He'd stolen at least one car, apparently, so there was some interest in his whereabouts on the part of the authorities. Shelley's father, Stoney, was mad, because in his line of work, any attention from the authorities was not good for business. Stoney was a truck driver who delivered product.
Ginger—Gin, her friends called her, though Shelley didn't know how many people fessed up to being her friend these days—had an accident with a half-gallon bottle of whiskey. Ginger had let her drive to the hospital, though she was only fourteen. Her mother stretched across the seat and operated the pedals, groaning through Shelley's wide turns. Gin Ginny, she wears her tight dress. Gin Ginny, her hand is a mess. Shelley had never been in an emergency room before, though even she found that hard to believe.
"How come we're just sitting here? They should have a long sink for everybody to bleed in while they wait." Shelley chomped down hard and bit a few more beads off her necklace.
She was a smartass fourteen, which meant she was sixteen in certain states. She thought this might be an occasion to pull out her harmonica and wail some blues, but she thought wrong. Ginger couldn't hit her without taking pressure off her wound and risking another blood spurt, but she growled at Shelley so viciously that Shelley just blew one loud defiant note and put the harmonica away in the breast pocket of her shirt. The breast pocket—her breasts were a sore spot. Two sore spots—sore, and that was supposed to be a good sign. Something happening there that had already happened to ten or more of her best and worst friends, and it was time it happened to her.
"Don't you think it's time you stopped eating candy?" Ginger said.
"Since when is there an age limit on candy?" Shelley said.
Her mother hesitated—it looked like she was going to say something but then lost whatever it was in the fog of pain. Or, maybe she was just still drunk.
"You look like you're going to pass out," Shelley said evenly. She'd witnessed her mother pass out on numerous occasions, though never from loss of blood or shock or whatever her mother was experiencing at the moment that made her pale face wobble and sweat.
"What's it take to get attention around here? My mom's bleeding to death. What's it take to get some stitches!" She shouted the last part at the fat slouched nurse whose uniform buttons were pulling apart to reveal a limegreen bra beneath the white polyester.
Shelley would never wear a lime-green bra, she knew that much. Odd, lumpy vegetables. The green showed right through the uniform, like the nurse was some superhero with her costume on underneath. If only, Shelley thought. Then, her mother slumped in her seat and tumbled over, her head hitting the tile floor with a disconcerting clunk. At home they had wall-to-wall carpeting, her mother's drunken falls cushioned into incidental pauses in the angry static electricity of their daily lives. Lives in which Stoney made infrequent cameo appearances to either drop off some cash or hock some easily movable item, depending on the state of the nation.
"I saw a woman with two bras on today," her sister, Tina, said matter-of-factly. Tina could report on a gruesome car accident or the details of her bowel movements with the same voice—a reporter's voice, distant and authoritative. Tina was sixteen, and Shelley needed her to do more than report. Shelley worried that Tina was becoming an alien, or at least part of some other family—she didn't seem affected by the clichéd but intense drama of their daily lives: alcoholic mother, absent brother, absent father. Stoney was awol again, supposedly on a run to Florida to pick up some product. Tina and Shelley knew better than to ask about product. They took the cash when it was available and shut up about it. Stoney was a truck driver. That much was true, and they held onto that much.
"Two bras, huh?" Ginger said, a mouthful of tough chicken wedged into her cheek. "Maybe I should try that. For a new look. Maybe I'll get bigger tips. One for the price of two."
Shelley laughed. Tina laughed. Ginger laughed. But none of them were on the same page of laughter. None of them were in the same book. The dinner table had gotten stranger and stranger since Randy's disappearance and Stoney's extended wanderings. Most of the time, Tina seemed to be putting her mother on. Ginger was often so drunk, she didn't pick up on it, or, if she did, overreacted, overturning the table, lunging at Tina. It wasn't doing much for Shelley's appetite. For a while, she'd tried to put on weight, thinking that would help her figure develop, but she was thin and getting thinner. She was on a candy diet—lots of chocolate. Chocolate and cigarettes. She stole the candy from the drugstore at the corner, then bought her cigarettes there when she had the money. The clerks worked behind thick glass, and they weren't about to come out and try to bust someone for shoplifting candy. They put the cigarettes on the little bulletproof carousel, and Shelley put her money on it and twirled it around, and no one asked how old she was or why that candy bar was sticking out of her pocket. It was all part of the math of their gritty neighborhood. The old math, where you carried the one, and anything in parentheses was not big enough to be part of the equation.
"Two bras. One for each boob?" Shelley asked.
Her mother laughed so hard she sprayed pieces of chicken across the table. Tina didn't laugh. She should have at least smiled, but she didn't.
"No, one on top of the other. One was red and the other black."
"Hmmm," Ginger said. "Nice combo. I like it." She took a swig of wine from her jelly glass to regain her equilibrium, or to lose it again.
Shelley wanted to ask why someone would do that, but she didn't want to risk sounding like a child.
"She was standing in that tiny A1 Used Car office," Tina said. "The blinds were open. She didn't have a shirt on. Just two bras. A man was sitting at a desk watching her."
"Then what happened?" Shelley asked.
"I don't know. I guess she was putting a down payment on one of those junky cars in the lot. The light changed, and I walked home," Tina said.
The chicken was from the Colonel. Ginger worked part time at the Colonel's, a place where she did not get tipped. Shelley felt vaguely ill. The two empty chairs at the table were beginning to mess with her equilibrium.
"Mom, are you and Dad still married?" Shelley asked.
"Who told you that?"
"That your father and I are divorced?"
Shelley gave Tina a look. Tina shook her head angrily.
"Somebody at school," Shelley mumbled.
Ginger took a long swallow, then poured herself another glass from the industrial-sized bottle she kept on the floor beside her chair like a cherished pet. She was taking too long to answer, so whatever she said, Shelley knew it'd be a lie. Ginger was not a good liar, though Shelley wished that she were just a little better at it. Sometimes she needed to believe a lie or two to get through a bad day.
"People shouldn't be spreading rumors like that," Ginger said. "Your father and I ..." She closed her eyes for a long time. Shelley thought she might be on the verge of passing out, though it was too early in the day for that. She opened her eyes again, finally. "We don't have what you'd call a traditional marriage."
"No shit," Shelley said and instinctively ducked. Ginger just closed her eyes again, and this time her face fell to the side and into the open carton of mashed potatoes.
"This is happening way too often," Shelley said.
"It's becoming an unfortunate talent," Tina said. "A parlor trick, but we don't have a parlor. Pick her head up out of those potatoes, will ya?"
They looked at each other again, eye to eye. "My sources don't lie," Tina said. Shelley picked up her mother's head and rested it on one of those cheap Colonel napkins. "Pass me the chicken," Tina said. Shelley passed the bucket over.
After Ginger got her attention by clunking her head on the floor, the big nurse finally took her back behind one of the curtained examination areas. Shelley stepped outside and lit up a cigarette near a couple of young smokers in scrubs.
"Hey," one of them said to her. "Aren't you a little young for that?"
"Nah, this is a tough one," the other guy said. "Just look at her."
Shelley blinked through her thick mascara. "Fuck you guys."
"Whoa, and she's got a mouth on her too. What are you doing here? One of your friends OD? Or try to give herself an abortion?"
"C'mon, Gil, lighten up," the other guy said. "She's just a kid."
Shelley pulled down her tight top to cover her exposed belly.
"You guys aren't even doctors," she said.
The guy named Gil put out his cigarette and shook his head. "Kids aren't supposed to smoke. Stunts your growth." He stepped through the automatic doors and back into the hospital.
The other guy stayed. "We're nurses, actually," he said.
"My mother is getting stitches, actually," Shelley said. Cold outside, and she hadn't worn a jacket. Tina wasn't answering her phone. Shelley had school in the morning, and she didn't want to have to explain yet another missed day.
"Too bad. Is your dad in there with her?"
Shelley laughed. "My father is out on the road with a truck full of product."
The guy didn't say anything. He was squat and muscular, like someone who had wrestled in high school but was too short for football. His small movements on the concrete apron of the ER were graceful and fluid—confident. He had a tattoo on one forearm. Shelley couldn't tell what it was. She edged closer to him.
"I drove her here," she said proudly. "I'm hoping my sister shows up to drive us home."
"Your sister's old enough to drive?"
"Yeah. But she don't have a car. The car's here. What's your tattoo?"
"Can't you tell? It's Jesus and Gandhi. They're giving each other high fives."
Shelley'd been hoping the figures were in some band together. Some hip band she didn't know about. She took a step away from him. "I'd better go check on her," she said.
"If you need help, have them page me," he said. "I'm Mike Torres." He extended his hand.
"Shelley," she said and took his hand awkwardly. She rarely shook hands with anyone. She rarely touched anyone. Her cigarette had gone out. She quickly slipped it back in the pack and headed inside. She was shivering.
"I don't understand why you don't have boobs yet," Tina said. "You've got your period going and everything. Things should be changing."
"I think they're changing," Shelley said. They were getting dressed for school. "What are we going to do without Dad?"
"What we've been doing all along. How much is he ever here? And even when he is here, how much is he here?"
"I wish Mom was a little more here too."
"You can wish on that all you want," Tina said. Tina had a couple of hickies on her neck, Shelley noticed. She turned her back to Tina to put on her training bra. It was training nothing but air, but she'd insisted on getting a couple of bras just to be ready. Maybe if she put them both on at once. She laughed to herself and quickly pulled one of Tina's old T-shirts over her head. It was too small for her, but she liked things tight against her skin—nothing loose, nothing that could get caught, snagged.
"It's just me and you, Sis," Tina continued.
"Doesn't that mean we're fucked then?" Shelley said. Shoplifting and cigarettes. Cigarettes and swearing. Tina had been teaching her the fine points.
"Not necessarily," Tina said. "But probably."
Shelley wanted to hug Tina, but they didn't hug in their family. She wanted to embrace something solid. She wanted to hold onto the safety bar on the roller coaster and scream and scream. But Tina was out the door, so Shelley hurried behind her. Tina had a boy driving her to school some days, and some days he gave Shelley a ride too.
Ginger worked part time at two different restaurants. She had no benefits. Stoney's work did not come with any benefits written down anywhere. They were bogged down in antiseptic limbo. The ER had to take them, though the paperwork was immense. They wouldn't let Ginger go until she filled out a stack of forms about income and being uninsured. Shelley sat with her mother in a tiny cubicle as a man explained the forms and showed her where to sign.
Ginger was groggy and simply signed by the Xs. Shelley took their copies of the documents and looked them over quickly. She felt a flash of time spinning its wheels, doing donuts in a parking lot until it was facing the other direction and suddenly she was her mother's mother. It was almost tangible—a red buzz in her face. No way would they ever be able to dig themselves out of whatever debt they'd just committed to, Stoney or no Stoney. She shoved the papers into her purse.
"What can they do to us, eh?" Ginger laughed in an odd, forced way that led to a coughing fit.
The man behind the desk said nothing.
"Can we leave now, or are you going to lock me up?" Ginger asked.
"This is a hospital," the man said. "We don't lock anyone up."
Ginger's arm was wrapped in gauze and tape. Shelley didn't want to look at what was under there. She knew Ginger wouldn't be able to work for awhile.
On their way out, a doctor intercepted them, putting his hand up in front of Ginger in a preemptive gesture, as if to fend off a drunken tirade.
"Remember, you can't drive," the doctor said. Then, turning to Shelley, "She can't drive."
"We'll—we'll call a cab," Shelley said.
"Now, you remember, Mrs. Reed, what we talked about," the doctor said. "You've got this lovely young woman to take care of."
Ginger lowered her head. Shelley blushed with shame. The doctor turned quickly away from them.
They walked through the waiting room filled with the hurt and the scared and the angry. "What did you and that doctor talk about?" Shelley asked. "The weather? Sports? Politics?"
"Shut up," Ginger said. She sounded both defeated and smoldering with rage. "How the hell we going to pay for a cab?"
"I thought I'd drive home, since I did such a good job getting us here."
"I can drive one-handed better than you."
"Mom, your voice sounds like it's dipped in syrup or something. You sound worse—worse than usual." Shelley sighed. "I think they have a service we can use," she said vaguely. She rushed away to the receptionist before her mother could respond. "Please page Mike Torres," she said. She looked over at her mother, who had fallen back into one of the plastic chairs.
"Only doctors and nurses can ask for pages," the woman said.
"It's an emergency. This is an emergency room, right? He's a nurse. Just call and reverse the charges." Shelley felt a surge of power. Like she was holding the remote for the TV at last and would never let go.
"Is that your mother over there?" the woman asked.
Shelley waved to her mother, and her mother struggled to give her the finger with her undamaged hand.
Excerpted from TRIGGER MAN by Jim Ray Daniels Copyright © 2011 by Jim Ray Daniels. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Candy Necklace 1
Trigger Man 15
Clown, Drown 39
Hurting a Fly 47
Held Back 67
Scenic Outlooks 79
Shocks and Struts 91
Separated at Birth 121