When two cars collide at an intersection in a leafy Chicago suburb, Hartley Nolan is not the person police expect to find behind the wheel. After all, he barely drinks; everyone knows it’s his wife who’s the alcoholic. But the bigger question on people’s minds is what brought Sonia Senn, dead at the scene, back to her hometown in such a hurry that night?
In eleven tightly linked stories, Red Light Run pulls us into the inner lives of Hartley, Sonia, and a host of other characters to untangle the mounting forces that carry them to their fates. Among the ensemble in this prismatic collection are a real estate agent who seeks gossip on the market rather than houses, a trailer park developer whose entire livelihood is laid to waste by a single cigarette, a divorced mother battling her daughter-in-law for hegemony over her kitchen, a widower hell-bent on destroying the invasive species of beetle that’s wiping out his oak trees, and a down-and-out handyman with a desperate plan for revenge. And then there’s Sonia Senn, with a dark secret of her own, and Hartley Nolan, who has risen above his roots to become a commodities trader in Chicago only to end up sentenced to eight years at Grassland State Prison. With infectiously grim humor and wry insight, these characters contemplate their realities in relation to one tragic moment, propelling us toward a startling revelation about the long and sometimes crooked arc of justice.
A brilliant feat of storytelling, Red Light Run is the radiant and stunning debut from Best New American Voices writer Baird Harper.
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Baird Harper’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Tin House, StoryQuarterly, and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications, and has been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest, 2015; 40 Years of CutBank, Stories; and twice in Best New American Voices. The recipient of the 2014 Raymond Carver Award for Short Fiction, the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award, and the James Jones Short Story Award, Harper lives in Oak Park with his wife and two kids, and he teaches creative writing at Loyola University and the University of Chicago. Red Light Run is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Red Light Run
It’s only an hour’s train ride to Wicklow from downtown Chicago, but Bello tries to sleep anyway. If he doesn’t get enough rest his hands shake, his conviction frays. But every time he closes his eyes it feels as if he’s slipping underwater, cold and claustrophobic, a preamble to the chronic nightmare.
Bello reaches into his shirt pocket and takes the gold ring out, slips it into his mouth. He tongues it backward and pinches it gently between his molars. Warmly metallic, it pacifies.
A woman in a puffy coat in the seat beside him holds forth to the nun across the aisle. “Well, I happen to think,” she says, “that original sin starts us off at a real disadvantage.” She motions flippantly to the old prison sliding by outside the train’s windows. “Speaking of sinners.”
The decommissioned penitentiary looks like old prisons do, sober and monumental, a fortress of soap-colored limestone and barbed wire. Fingers of dying ivy keep wind-shivered clutch on the walls. The rust-stained sills below the barred windows stand out like swollen lower lips. Above the overgrowth and broken fencing a skeletal watchtower leans into the wind.
The woman in the puffy coat turns to Bello. “You know,” she says, winking as she sips a blue sports drink from a plastic bottle, “the Soyfield Strangler did time there.”
Bello has been advised by Virgil not to talk to anyone. He’s been warned to be as unmemorable as possible. It’ll keep his alibi secure. Virgil and the guys will tell the cops he was with them all day—“playing cards,” they’ll say—but if people start claiming otherwise, then the guys aren’t going to let Bello take them down too.
“When they built the new prison up the road in Triton,” the woman continues, “the Strangler went with it, along with all the jobs.” She’s younger than Bello, middle-aged yet somehow still in school. She’s been talking constantly since they left Union Station, announcing again and again that she’s a graduate student at Middle-Western. She’s writing a thesis about the beetle that’s killing all the oak trees. “Someone should’ve intervened by now,” she says, her saccharine blue breath washing over Bello’s face. “But now, of course, it’s too late. Now it’s just a tragedy.”
I’ll show you what tragedy is, Bello wants to tell her. But instead he waits for her attention to drift away again so he can spit out the ring and stow it safely back in his chest pocket. Then he puts his glasses on and says, “This is my stop.” He gets off the train and walks north. The air, too cold for October, puts an ache in his chest. His hands feel bloodless. While he waits for a crosswalk signal to change, a woman comes up alongside him. It’s the same woman from the train, except she has a purple jacket now.
She smiles, then stops smiling, reaches for him. “Are you all right, sir?”
Bello pulls away as she touches his shoulder. “Are you following me?”
“Why would I be following you?” she asks.
He can’t smell her sports drink breath anymore, and her hair is a different color in the flat light. The walk signal illuminates. Bello stands in place as she turns and moves ahead of him. He walks behind her for a block before she takes a seat at a money-colored bus stop bench advertising a riverboat casino up the road in Triton.
Bello turns down an alley to get off the street, glancing over his shoulder as he rounds the corner. Alone again. The alley dumps him into an empty gravel lot with a view of the train line. He steps over a downed section of fence and walks along the tracks, eventually reaching the used car dealership owned by Virgil’s half brother. It’s called Woody’s Hot Rods, but all the cars in the lot are used compacts with thin paint jobs and low tires. Grass grows through the pavement. The cinder-block building sports a pealing mural of a cartoon bird in a pin-striped suit. The sagging chain-link wants to guard something else.
“I’m looking for Durwood,” Bello tells the receptionist inside.
The woman’s desk is a car hood set on legs. The molded warp of the metal holds everything—her computer and stapler and pen cups—at tenuous angles. She points to the office behind her and says, “He’s waiting for you.”
“Come in,” says a man in a padded swivel chair, not kindly. “Close the door.” Durwood doesn’t look anything like Virgil. This man wears a red tan on his face and neck. He sits behind a messy glass desk twirling a pencil with long delicate fingers. “You’re older than I expected.”
“I was told this is the place to get a cheap throwaway car,” Bello tells him.
“Actually, that’s not what this place is.” The pencil flips up onto the desk. Durwood smothers it, brings it back into his hand, and resumes twirling. “It’s a car lot. I sell cars here. I report my earnings. I keep my permits up to date. Once in a while, yes, I get a dope from the city who shows up because some wiseguy can’t keep his mouth shut.” He flicks the pencil back onto the desk, but doesn’t retrieve it. “What I gotta know is, whatever you’re into, whatever you’re gonna do after you leave here, that it isn’t gonna find its way back to me.”
“I have cash.” Bello pulls a wad of hundred-dollar bills from his coat pocket, the last of his worth, not counting the little extra in his wallet.
Durwood takes the money, puts each bill up to the light. “Okay,” he finally says. “Fine. Go wait by the garage.”
Around the side of the building, Bello finds the big segmented door. He sits on a stack of tires. He feels his age today, a peeling sensation on his heart. The big door grinds up into the garage ceiling to reveal a gray Ford compact, a mechanic in oily coveralls waiting beside it with his hand out.
“I already gave the money to Durwood,” Bello tells him.
“I’m shaking your hand here.” The mechanic’s eyes are too close together, like two tarnished dimes pressed into the center of his face. “It’s awful what happened to that lady. Was she your daughter or something?”
Bello shakes his head. “But I was like family.”
“Well, I’m glad someone’s doing something about it, if the family isn’t.”
Durwood bursts in. “Don’t say anything to this guy, you dumbshit. Not a word.”
“I was just shaking his hand, boss.” The mechanic winks at Bello. In a sly new voice, he adds, “It is in the glove box.”
“Didn’t I say ‘shut up’ already?” Durwood shoves the mechanic aside and turns to Bello. “Keys are in the ignition, old man. Now get the fuck out of here.”
The gray compact has no radio or heat controls, no dampers on the vents. The speakers are missing, the center console, the seat belts. There’s an open cavity in the center of the steering wheel where an air bag once stowed. When he turns the key, the engine rattles to life and the cabin fills with the smell of burning motor oil.
Down the road, he pulls over in front of a locked gate, a shuttered mill cowering beyond. In the glove box, wrapped in a piece of newsprint, he finds the pistol. At first glance he mistakes it for a toy, it’s so small. When he closes his hand around it, the hunk of metal practically disappears. He removes one bullet, tiny, like a filling from a child’s mouth. An ancient memory rises, of the time he put his finger into the girl’s mouth, her loose tooth tipping back, a thread of blood sliding into the wet canal behind her lip.
The gun is a sensible size after all, he decides, pointing it at the passenger seat, imagining what he might say before pulling the trigger. Vengeance, he’ll say, is served.
He lays the pistol on the rumpled paper in his lap. Front-page news in Wicklow, Illinois, is a corn maze in the shape of the grim reaper. He wonders if the newspapers will understand that his need for vengeance was set forth by an original sin.
Bello tries to drive unmemorably, but people in Wicklow seem to have nothing better to do than stand around taking note of him, so he gets on the highway. After a few miles of corn and soy, a glittering billboard for the riverboat casino welcomes him to Triton. He has a while before it will be time, so he goes down to the riverfront where derelict shipping piers give way to a stretch of park space. The river is the color of green paint gone foul in the can. Across the way, the riverboat casino sits in dock, a massive pink hotel looming on the shore beyond.
Bello sits down on a bench beside a man with a duffel bag at his feet, a chain saw peeking out the open zipper. He wears a red sweatshirt with a logo of flames embroidered on the chest. Not far off, a midlife tree lies in pieces beside a hollow stump surrounded by an apron of sawdust.
“Nice day,” the stranger remarks, a broad grin slicing through his face. “Tomorrow it’s going to storm, but today? Today is nice.”
Bello prefers not to talk to people anyway, but on this day his silence feels like a kind of rust forming on the brain. He tries to remember who he’s spoken to today. There was a woman on the train, and again on the sidewalk. As he digs for their faces, though, he decides they couldn’t have been the same person. And now this man is different too. Bello takes his glasses off and sets them in his lap. The world around falls into a lenient blur. “It is a nice day,” he finally agrees. “I’ve been waiting for this day for years.”
The stranger’s smile turns dubious. “That’s a bit dramatic.”
Be unmemorable, Bello thinks, turning away. Without his glasses on, the nearest piece of the tree’s hollowed trunk looks like a giant’s ring. “These beetles,” he says. “Someone should’ve intervened by now.”
“Agrilus quercata,” the stranger says with an embellished accent.
“Oak slayers.” The man coughs into his fist and spits on the ground in front of them. “They’re here.”
Bello knows he should stop talking, but his blood is finally warming and his tongue feels loose. Somewhere a crane keeps dropping its freight and the concussions feel like a second heart beating to life inside his chest. “There was an infested tree in our yard too,” he says. “Or, it wasn’t my yard really, but it was home.” He stops, letting the silence take over again. In the distance, a barge the size of a football field churns upriver. “I was a handyman for a family in the suburbs. I lived in an apartment over their garage.” Bello brings his hand over his shirt pocket, the gold ring thumping through the fabric. “I didn’t have a family of my own, you see, so I was part of theirs.” He pauses to work a knot from his throat. “But now I’ve lost everything.”
The stranger nods as if this story is somehow familiar. He crosses his arms over his chest and the embroidery of flames flattens out into a picture of a tree holding bright autumn leaves. Below it are the words Long-Lived Removal Services.
“In life,” the stranger says, “we don’t usually get to see the trouble coming.”
Bello isn’t sure what to make of this statement. He wants to say, That’s a bit dramatic, in the stranger’s own mordant tone, but this day has room for only one confrontation. Instead he says, “Can I ask, do you know who the Soyfield Strangler is?”
The man’s face turns suddenly restless with anticipation, his colorless eyes trembling, as if he’s waiting for the punch line to a joke. He’s delicately built, Bello realizes, beneath the thick lumberjack clothes, gaunt in the face, flesh drawn tight over the tendons in his neck.
“I’m asking,” Bello adds. “I don’t know myself.”
The stranger’s face washes over with something like disappointment, or relief, like a waking person throwing off the misgiven facts of a dream. He coughs into his fist again. “Sounds like a professional wrestler,” he says, the smile slithering back into his jaw. He extends his hand and Bello takes it. The man’s grasp is dry and stiff, a bundle of hard slender fingers. But when their handshake ends the stranger doesn’t get up. His pale gaze moves to the dismembered tree on the ground, then to a copse of other oaks with red Xs on their trunks, then up into the sky. Bello looks up too. Large dark birds wheel a hundred feet above them against a backdrop of dim brown clouds, a faint smell of tar on the air, freight pounding the earth.
Bello stands up. His eyeglasses fall to the cement and shatter.
On the drive to the prison, the nerves come on. A tingling in his arms and legs as though termites have gotten into the marrow. He stops at a quick mart for aspirin because he’s heard it can prevent a heart attack. He opens the packet and swallows the pills before the kid at the register can even ring it up.
“Are you okay, mister?”
In the car again, his shaking hand pulls out the slip of paper with the killer’s name on it. The pills lend no calm. He swallows a long drink of air and resolves that this is supposed to be the end, that it is finally time to surrender to this gathered fate. He looks at his hands, reads their palm-creased history, remembers again the feel of Sonia’s loose tooth against the tip of his finger.
The town of Triton falls away in the rearview and Bello finds himself cruising through a wide collar of empty acreage—all prairie scrub and meandering ditch work. Outer fences guard inner fences. P.A. announcements on the wind. Bello’s hands are so cold they can barely keep the wheel. He’s afraid of losing control of the car, hurting the wrong person. A sign announces, GRASSLAND STATE PRISON.
A prison guard comes out of the hut at the main gate. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here for Hartley Nolan.”
“Is he a prisoner?”
“He’s being released today.”
“I’m afraid there aren’t any releases scheduled,” the guard says.
“He got eight years,” Bello says.
The guard leans back into his hut for a clipboard. “Nothing today.”
“He gets out in four,” Bello insists. “Today is four exactly.”
“What’s the name? Nolan?” The guard flips through more pages. “Hartley Nolan. Yep. I see the problem He’s getting out tomorrow.”
As Bello drives away, he can feel the aspirin eating through the wall of his gut, the stomach acids leaking out and welling up around his heart. This, he understands, is the sour creature he’s become.
He parks in an empty lot near the river and closes his eyes, but sleep doesn’t approach. Cold air blows through the door seams and somewhere a garbage truck wrestles endlessly with a dumpster. He draws the ring from his pocket and puts it in his mouth again, holds it carefully between his fillings. Metal against metal. He thinks back to the cozy little apartment over the garage. His heartbeat slows and he locates a full breath. The panic recedes. The familiar dread runs in.
Long before becoming a handyman, Bello spent years skimming product off shipping barges on the Calumet River south of Chicago, but he was always too careful about getting caught to make a real living at it. He didn’t want his name in the paper. He was in love with a college girl back then, or a girl bound for college, still living under her father’s roof. Virgil and the guys know all about it, his days as a crook. They call him Smalltime.
Before that, he was a harbor welder, which is how he still imagines himself, a strong young tradesman with a turned-up mask and a blowtorch in hand. Back then, all the ships in the harbor had women’s names and they needed him. He made their anchors right, fixed their propellers. When he thinks back on it, there was a girl then too, a brat with a loose wet mouth and knee-high work boots the harbormaster brought in so they could all have turns behind the boathouse. Bello remembers hating her for some reason, for not disappearing after they’d used her up. Or perhaps it was that she had hated him, for his cold hands or his small pecker, or just for being last in line.
Once, he dove into Lake Michigan in January to repair the hull of a leaking freighter. He had to break up the ice just to get into the water, and this girl had been the one tasked with stirring the hole with an iron gaff while he worked below. It is the coldest thing he can imagine, those minutes underneath. Often, he dreams of this and the break in the surface has frozen over and the brat stands over him smiling down. He swims in circles batting the ice with his hands. The oxygen keeps running into his lungs, his blood turning to slush. It is the nightmare he goes to bed praying not to have.
At the pink hotel near the river, he gets himself a room. After putting down the deposit, he has forty dollars left to his name. The riverboat casino on the other side of the parking lot is free to enter, but they check IDs. Bello tries not to show his—be unmemorable, he thinks—but the rules are the rules. When he’s through the gate, he takes out the money and throws his wallet in the trash.
The casino is exactly like others he’s been to except this one is long and narrow and once in a while he swears he can feel the ship pitch in its moorings. Slot machines line the outer walls, and the open center offers blackjack, keno, craps, roulette. The din is monstrous, though in the middle of the afternoon there aren’t very many people. Most of the tables are being kept empty, and the blackjack players have all been herded to the far end, near the bar.
Bello waits for a spot to open up at the five-dollar table. The dealer is a skinny kid with hair as red as his vest who wears the uniform like a costume. He’s bored and courteous the way dealers are, but without the cold air coming off his chin. Something sparks in his eyes when a fat lady hits on a hard sixteen, and Bello can see how smart the kid is. He wants to know why the kid isn’t in school.
“I wanted to ride the high seas,” the young dealer replies.
A man in a Sox cap laughs hard at this to show everyone he understands a joke.
“Actually,” the dealer adds more sincerely, “I dropped out.” He pulls an ace of hearts off the pile and lays it on top of Bello’s ten. Blackjack.
It goes like this for forty minutes, a run of luck like he’s never had before. Bello plays it soft and wins two of every three hands. He plays reckless and takes three of four. He gets dumb and still breaks even. His forty turns into five hundred before the kid is replaced by a gray-haired woman who beats Bello seven times in a row.
The bar is separated from the gambling floor by tall glass panes that muffle the chimes of the slots. Horses race on the TVs. Bello takes a seat and watches the blackjack tables. He lays his hands on the bar top. They’ve finally quit shaking.
“Those hands hot today, sir?” the bartender asks.
Bello orders a whiskey on the rocks. As the bartender makes his drink, he thinks of those terrible minutes underneath the ice, the memory as fresh as last night’s dream. And now this extra day demands that he endure it yet again, once more before it’s all over.
“Before what’s all over?” the bartender asks, setting the drink down.
Bello looks up, trying to retrieve his bearings. He can feel the ship tilt just so. “Someone I know is getting out of jail,” he explains. “Early. For good behavior.” Bello gulps his drink, feeling the liquor seep out the hole in his gut, his entire torso growing swamped. “I went up there today and waited for him, and do you know what they said to me?”
The bartender wags his head.
“He’s getting out tomorrow!” It feels like he’s delivering the punch line that the man on the park bench had been waiting for. But no part of this is funny. “What do you suppose that one extra day could be about?”
A grim smile creeps onto the bartender’s face. “Maybe, for one day, the guy’s behavior wasn’t so good.”
Bello sees the red-haired kid replace a dark-skinned dealer near the buffet. From the distance, without his glasses, they’re just shapes and colors. But with the young dealer, Bello can feel the luck. He carries his drink out to the table, makes a quick stack of his chips, and pushes in.
“It’s ten here, sir,” the kid says.
Bello looks around. The other faces wait for him to understand.
“Ten dollars,” says a man in a cowboy hat.
The kid’s eyes study Bello, a quick scrutinizing glance like he thinks this bumpkin act is Bello’s way toward the upper hand. But this isn’t poker. There’s no value in duping the rest of the table. Everyone’s luck is his own. He pushes in five more dollar chips and the winning wave picks up again. The kid drops double face cards on him four hands in a row. When he finally loses, the cowboy screams, “I didn’t think that happened to you, old-timer!” A large pockmarked goon with a name badge comes over to see if everything’s all right. The cowboy grumbles that everything is just perfect. When the pit boss slides away, the young dealer resumes. The cowboy busts. Bello hits blackjack.
When the kid gets replaced, Bello leaves the table immediately. His forty is now over two thousand. He leans against a slot machine, finishing his drink. He watches the red-haired kid take over at a twenty-dollar table. There are only three other people willing to put twenty dollars down at a time—two men in gray suits and a greasy-haired mobster with reflective sunglasses. Bello sits and pushes in. He loses on a nineteen, then wins four of five. His stacks look absurd. He accidentally hits when he means to stay, and the five of diamonds makes his sixteen into twenty-one. The good fortune is overwhelming. It’s as though he’s left his own life and wandered into someone else’s. He feels warm and buoyant and new, like a born-again believer stripped down to only his original sins. He separates three hundred dollars from one wing of his chip pile and pushes it to the kid’s elbow.
“This is for your college fund,” Bello says.
The dealer’s face whitens. “I can’t accept that, sir.”
The mobster across the table pulls his sunglasses down his nose. “Take it, kid. This old man’s senility isn’t your problem.”
Bello turns to the mobster, his hand settling on the lump of steel beneath the fabric of his pants. “You think I care what you say? I don’t care at all. I’ve got nothing to lose here.” He can see himself in the man’s lenses—two withered twins skulking behind piles of wealth.
The pit boss checks in again. “Is there a problem here?”
“Everything’s fine,” the young dealer insists.
The mobster points to Bello. “This amateur’s showing up the rest of the table.”
A small crowd has gathered. Some young men in fraternity sweatshirts, a group of women in workout clothing, and standing near the dealer, Bello recognizes the removal services man from the park bench, his wide grin, his red sweatshirt. From across the table, without his eyeglasses, the autumn tree on the man’s chest looks like flames again. The stranger’s pale eyes lift and meet his own.
This, Bello thinks, is not being unmemorable.
The pit boss leans over the table, his neck folds biting a gold chain, his doughy hands spreading out over the felt. “Congratulations on your good luck today, sir. We’d like to invite you to join a table in the high rollers’ club.” He slides a gold-embossed ticket to Bello.
The pit boss sends the kid on break and calls in a new dealer. The disputed markers go back into Bello’s stacks. A woman with a headset helps him carry his winnings to the window where the man behind the glass pushes a much smaller stack of chips into the metal tray. The markers are all glossy gray except for three stray yellow chips.
“What’s this?” Bello asks. “Where’s the cash?”
The woman with the headset smiles. “Don’t you want to keep going?”
Bello takes the gray chips into his hands—each one worth five hundred dollars—and counts sixteen of them. They’re a color he’s never seen before, with greater heft, it seems, and a thick glassy varnish. A new class of wealth to attend the uncanny run of luck. “Keep going?”
“Keep playing,” the woman says. “Or, if you’re finished, you can cash out.”
All around him the evening has brought on a horde of fresh faces, the shrill clanging of the slots overtaken by the lower, fuller sound of so many voices begging after luck. “Just these for now.” Bello drops the three yellow markers back into the metal tray, and the man behind the glass replaces them with a stack of twenty-dollar bills. Bello fans them out, the smooth virgin bills. This was supposed to be the last day of his life, but now it feels like the beginning of something, the thrill of luck and money and the savory reek of the all-you-can-eat buffet making vengeance seem a distant, unlikely task.
The woman with the headset steps closer, touching his elbow. “Is something wrong, sir?”
“I could use a little fresh air,” he says. “All this excitement, it’s got me feeling . . .” The woman’s eyes go dim waiting for him to finish. She seems familiar to him in this moment—her weary gaze and glossed lips—but the headset interrupts this impression, making her someone from the present after all.
Outside, the night has come on. Droves of gamblers pour past him at the entrance. Beyond them, the homeless shake their cups. He quickens his pace across the parking lot, hands palming the chips in his pockets, the pistol. He looks up after several minutes and realizes he’s somehow missed the lighted concourse leading to the hotel. The big pink building floats in the sky behind him now, but when he walks directly toward it, he comes to a high fence between the two parking lots. He turns and shuffles along the fence, unsure now where he is in relation to the casino. Now and again, voices pop up and he wheels frantically to wait for a pair of old ladies to pass, then a bunch of college boys, a transvestite in heels. Each time, he finds his hand sweating on the pistol. He tells himself he’s not supposed to care about the money, or about his life, but then there are steps behind him again, and he worries about losing his luck.
He steps up onto the narrow band of grass between the curb and the fence so his own footfalls don’t obscure the sound of approaching footsteps, until he reaches a gap in the fence where a tree has recently been cut down. In the hollowed center of the stump, a hoard of shining coins glints dimly in the shadows. He reaches for them, then stops short, realizing that the pile of silver is actually a roiling mass of beetles.
He climbs over the stump to the other side, ducking behind a parked car to watch the gap in the fence, the black sky divvied into a thousand chain-link plots. His heart sprints. The wind carries the murmur of a distant bingo caller. Then a sound of footsteps again, a cough. A silhouette climbs over the stump, a thin figure in khaki pants and a dark sweatshirt with the hood drawn up. Bello presses himself against the car, palms the gun inside his pocket. The figure approaches, so close now that his mint gum is in the air.
Bello lunges from the shadows. “Why are you following me?”
Familiar hands push back the hood and the young dealer’s face materializes, then his bright red hair, tousled now and wild.
Bello leaves the gun in his pocket. “What do you want?”
“You really blew it in there.” The kid glances over his shoulder. “We could’ve gone on till the end of my shift if you hadn’t dropped all that cash on me. You think the pit boss isn’t gonna raise an eyebrow at that kind of tip?”
“So, you want the money after all?” Bello says. “Is that what this is?”
“I was thinking more like fifty-fifty.” The kid shakes his head. “If you hadn’t dropped that tip, we could’ve made even more than—how much?”
“I won eight thousand dollars,” Bello says.
The kid puts out his hand. “Well, half of that is still something.”
Bello stares at the open palm. “You think I was cheating in there?”
The dealer squints back curiously, as if he’s trying to discern a joke.
“Is something funny to you?” Bello asks.
“You didn’t see it, did you?”
The kid makes a flourish with his long fingers, as though sprinkling dust over his fist, then throws open the hand to show an ace of hearts in the palm.
Bello rips the gun out of his pocket, puts it under the dealer’s chin. “I was riding luck in there, not some shady arrangement.”
The kid raises his hands. “Okay, pops,” he says, still smirking as he tips his head back. “Okay. I guess it’s your luck even though I’m the one doling it out.”
Bello touches the gun to the kid’s throat for good measure, then turns and staggers through the lot. He pauses on the running board of a van to let his heart settle, every breath a taste of asphalt, car exhaust. A sedan trolls by on its way out into the world, its occupants still wearing their glassy gambling stares. He shakes the bullets out of the chamber and pockets them. He does not want to kill the wrong person.
Inside the hotel, he asks the desk for aspirin, but they only have Tylenol, so he goes to the bar and orders a whiskey. He pours it into his riddled stomach, and summons again the sour, vengeful man.
After he sets the tumbler on the bar top, he watches the vaporous outline of his clutch vanish from the side of the glass. “These hands were hot today,” he insists. And for a moment he thinks he should go find the young dealer and tell him what luck really is. Shaking down an armed vigilante in a dark parking lot and coming out alive—that’s luck. Or the removal services man in the park with his unsolicited advice. In life, he’d said, we don’t usually get to see the trouble coming. But hadn’t the trouble already come? Years ago?
A middle-aged woman on the next stool watches him swallow and breathe. She stinks of hair spray and vodka, so much perfume it holds a shine to her neck. She leans a bit closer and asks, “You win tonight, honey?”
Bello looks up, studying her blurred shape in the mirror behind the bar. “Tomorrow,” he mutters, “is my day.”
She swivels toward him, her knee-high boots connecting with his thigh. “Well, I’m more of a tonight kind of girl, myself.”
She looks almost familiar, her tired eyes lolling in the sockets.
“It’s always about tomorrow with you gamblers.” She tips back an empty drink. “But what would you be doing right now if there was no tomorrow?”
“Can you stop that?” Bello asks. “It’s embarrassing, for both of us.” In the mirror, he watches her absorb these words, her eyes narrowing, her mouth dropping open.
“This is when I throw a drink in your face,” she says, “if I had a drink.”
He digs into his pocket and drops the wad of twenty-dollar bills on the bar top. “Whatever she’s drinking.”
The bartender brings over a tall clear cocktail.
“That’s better,” the woman says, stirring her icy drink. “Now tell me all about your big plans for tomorrow.”
Bello feels his heart peeling again, a textured sensation, as if the surrounding muscles are losing their grip, the chambers dividing. “I was going to kill someone today,” he says, “but now I have to wait.”
The woman’s eyelids flutter sleepily. “You don’t have to try to scare me, honey. I find the cash way more impressive.”
Bello puts his hands on his thighs, feeling the contents of his pockets, the muted shapes of luck and vengeance. But there is room for only one confrontation. “Tell me something,” he says, trying to sound benign. “Do you know who the Soyfield Strangler is?”
Her knee lifts off his thigh. “Okay, now you’re scaring me.”
“I mean it,” he says. “Who is he? I want you to tell me.”
She puts her drink down and backs off the far side of the stool. “I bet you think you’re funny,” she says. “But you’re not. You’re really just sick.”
He watches her gather her things and leave, wonders if she’s getting the police. Someone should, because a man who drowns in his dreams has too little to lose. Tomorrow, the people he met today will ask what they could have done to save a life, but their answers will be the same as his: You cannot stop the past.
The bartender looks up. “Pardon?”
Bello palms his tumbler, but his grip leaves no fog on the glass. He slides off the stool, all his cash still on the bar top. “For your college fund,” Bello says. But the bartender is someone else of course, a big Irishman with a beard who twists his brow and says, “Are you all right, sir?”
Then the woman comes back into the bar, already having found a new companion, a big fellow in a blazer she leads across the room by the hand. They sit at a table by the window, the fat man’s frame a dark blur in the foreground, the woman’s neck shining open every time she throws her head back to laugh. From this distance, Bello can’t tell if she’s paying any attention to him. So he walks across the room and stands right behind the fat man, staring at her, waiting for eye contact. When the woman finally meets his gaze, her throat constricts.
Upstairs in his room, he undresses to his T-shirt and boxers. Loading the bullets feels like putting a thing back together, an easy repair, metal back with metal. He sets the gun on the nightstand and stacks the chips beside, pulls the chain on the bedside lamp. Sitting in the dark, he tongues the ring from its nestle between cheek and gum, slides it forward and spits it gently onto his palm. The wet hoop sparkles in the heavy dark. When he throws back the comforter and climbs into the sheets the bed is so cold he can already feel himself slipping under the water. His hands grow icy, his luck running away. He is unmemorable. He is Smalltime. He thinks: There is still tomorrow.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After spending four years in prison for vehicular manslaughter, Hartley Nolan is released and back at home with his parents and his wife. Supposedly he was driving drunk when involved in a car accident and where the wife of a prominent resident was killed. But she had been racing from another town to get to her hometown in the middle of the night. This is basically a story that is written in a series of short stories showing how if you pull one thread, the sweater unravels. This one action touched many different people in one way or another. Each of the voices has a story to tell, from their own viewpoint. This was an interesting reading experience. The idea of writing a story within a set of short stories has never occurred to me. The beginning (or first short story) drew me in. But the middle is bit jarring, not evenly paced. The ending put everything in place. I have to confess, there were few characters that I actually liked or felt empathy for. The main characters were cleverly written, secondary characters not so much. Many thanks to the author / Scribner / Netgalley for the digital copy. Opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.