Skip to content

Short Story: Downstate

Basic Storyline: A spree of bank robberies in flyover country goes awry. This story first appeared in The Mississippi Review literary magazine in 2009.

##

Yummy, Jerry, and Braces met in jail.

Jerry went down on an extortion rap, which seemed much more impressive than it actually was. He wasn’t made or anything. He extorted old women he met carrying their groceries home from the Jewel. The charge would have been something more modest if he hadn’t been so good at it. He never asked for too much, and he was particularly good at finding (and scaring) old ladies without anyone else in the world. A lot of them warmed up with him, though. Jerry would always insist – and part of Yummy believed him – that some of them got more out of the deal than he did.

Yummy did straight Armed Robbery. Six years on two counts, one of which was somebody else. Right after the conviction, the fat cop that busted him came right up and was shaking his hand before Yummy even realized it was him.

The cop said, “Congratulations, Harold, ya fucking shithead. You’re finally in jail. You shoulda been born in jail.”

As if Yummy was a born crook.

Braces went down on a GTA, Conspiracy to Distribute, Possession of an Unlicensed Firearm, and Assaulting a Police Officer. He was pulled over with 50 pounds of meth amphetamine in the trunk of his car. Then, with the state patrolman at his door, Braces waved around a gun he’d been too afraid to even touch five minutes before.

“It was like he won the anti-lottery,” Jerry once said.

Braces should have been born in jail, Yummy thought. He didn’t make sense anywhere else.

They worked out their plans during their last few months together downstate. Jerry had always wanted to rob banks. He convinced Yummy and Braces that they’d be back inside no matter what they did on the outside, so they might as well try a big score.

“Are you two a couple a rockheads? You want to come back here because you boosted a fucking VCR? People do this. People rob banks. You ever seen a bank robber come through here?”

Then he read them an article from the Wall Street Journal about a series of unsolved bank robberies in the Southwest over the past decade. He’d printed it off the library computer. Then he lit it on fire.

Yummy watched him. He knew he didn’t have a lot of other options. Now that King was dead, these were the only people he had in the world.

Yummy thought about robbing banks a minute, then said, “I’d like to go straight.”

Jerry dropped the burning sheet in the sand and stepped it out. He waved away a guard.

“Yeah, well,” Jerry answered. “Braces and I will come find you. See how you’re enjoying your straight life packing groceries with a bunch of morons.”

Yummy never packed groceries. He cleaned up the food court in a has-been mall. The letter he sent Braces made it easy for them to find him when they got out.

##

Download my entire short story, Downstate, here.

 

Short Story: Hoover’s Dad

Basic storyline: A short-trip down short-con memory lane. This originally appeared in The Mississippi Review literary magazine and was listed in The Best Short Stories of 2004.

##

Pete knew how to do this trick where it looks like you catch a bullet in your teeth. It required two people, obviously–one to shoot and one to catch. He used to do it with his friend Hoover’s dad, who had a farm six miles away from his own. Hoover’s Dad had been a magician for a while in the seventies. A magician and a gun nut, which Pete – even from the day he met him – always thought was a wretched combination. Later he thought differently. He felt for magicians. It was a calling as much as anything was, he thought. And the fact that you could stick to it, even when it was really no better than being a birthday clown, meant something. Anyway the point is that Pete always thought of the gun trick before he practiced his trade, which was graft. You could get cold feet, if you had half a conscience. But when you remember you’ve pointed a gun at a man’s head and pulled the trigger, it’s remarkable how unimportant everything else suddenly seems.

Pete was talking to one Larry Fischer. Larry Fischer, Esq. They were negotiating terms. Larry was a lank, charming, fruitcake lawyer, tall for the trade. There were few tall lawyers, Pete had discovered. Larry wasn’t a colleague or client, though. He was a sucker.

“I can only afford half that,” Larry pleaded, sotto voce.

He still had a tremor of shame in his voice, but mostly he glowed with the relief of the guilty.

“Make the check out for as much as you can afford. I’ll go back, look up a few things, and if there’s a problem with what you’re giving me, I’ll get in touch with you.”

Pete had sidled up to Larry as he got off the shuttle from La Guardia. They walked together for a moment while Pete showed Larry the pictures he’d taken. Larry’d tripped and nearly wiped out, stumbling a few feet with his briefcase in one hand, overnight bag in the other, holding them out like he was riding a motorcycle. Pete had grabbed a handful of Larry’s suit coat, righted him, then steered him over to a WH Smith. They now stood very close together behind an armpit-high rack of mugs and refrigerator magnets.

“I want your watch, as well,” Pete said.

“She gave me the watch.”

“Did she?”

They exchanged a look. Pete didn’t really have a range of expressions. Usually this meant that people just forgot about him. Unless of course he was looking right at you and wanting money. Pete knew that people
would read all kinds of things into his face then.

An instant, awkward smile fell across Larry’s face. The muscles in his neck twitched like a bird.

“I guess I … I think …” Larry stammered.

Pete pulled a hardcover book from a shelf and handed it to Larry: “You can write the check on this. Does that sound good?”

“I need a pen. I mean, I’ve got a pen. It’s …”

Larry started to open his briefcase when his hands went wild. Pete was reminded of the leaves of an aspen pine. Then the briefcase threw up all over the place, and Larry scrambled to the floor.

Pete sighed and pulled him back up by the arm.

“C’mon, Larry. It’s Larry? C’mon, pull yourself together, huh?”

##

Download my entire short story, Hoover’s Dad, here.

 

Novel: Happy?

Basic Storyline: A young ad writer romances a chilling super vixen. Ennui and, alas, hilarity ensue.

##

CHAPTER ONE
This is how I prefer to remember my friend, Grant “GG” Goldstein.

It’s winter 1976, his fifth birthday party. About twenty of us are in his living room. The atmosphere holds that spoiled stuffiness of running children and oil heat.

Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein have herded us together underneath a piñata, the focal point of a broader, politically conscientious party theme. Grant wears a napkin blindfold. He wears it proudly and helplessly, as if awaiting a firing squad. He holds a yardstick on his hip.

Mr. Goldstein’s big hands rest on his son’s narrow shoulders. He’s actually lecturing us on Daniel Ortega or something, as if we could possibly be distracted from the piñata, this beacon of radical joy in the sky.

Eventually, he finishes his commentary. He flicks on a tape of authentic Mexican music. As I remember it, it’s always too fast, too loud, and too happy. You can practically hear the tequila bottles shatter.

A number of events occur simultaneously, in a kind of Hitchcock pan. Jimmy Quintas punches Jimmy Reilly in the stomach. In the kitchen, Mrs. Goldstein drops a wine glass. Back in the living room, Mr. Goldstein barks “Wait!” as Grant shrugs out from under his dad’s hand. He steps past me in one long stride of his cuffed up jeans and gashes open the piñata. He does so with a kind of reverse golf swing that spins him around 390 degrees. He stumbles across to the other side of the pile and drops on his ass.

A shower of glittering hard candy. A volley of screams. Instantly there’s a little wiggling pile of hyena children. I can’t get in though. I’m too slow, and I actually have to reel back to avoid Grant, who’s already up and swinging wildly, at about shoulder-level, blindfold still on. The yardstick seems twice as tall as he is.

He pauses. His head tilts back and around to get his bearings. He sees me, his Dad, the carcass of the piñata. He looks down. His little hips wobble in all the action underfoot.

Now he argues with somebody below him, someone who won’t or can’t move. Suddenly, mid-sentence, he brings the stick over his head. There’s an arcing whistling blur, followed by a shag-muffled shriek.

Apparently this has its desired effect because he’s now free, swatting and kicking his way through the crowd. There are yelps and smacks. He seems to be trying to clear a path, and he’s heading straight for me. He keeps looking up but I can’t see his eyes. He’s just a napkin head and turtleneck body. He steps on Jeff Mercy. He saddles over Jenny Smythe.

My feet pull at the floor. I turn to Mr. Goldstein, but he’s fiddling around with his stereo. I turn back to find Grant and I suddenly face-to-face. I catch his eye under the blindfold. He’s startled briefly, like an animal caught in a shadow. His fat lips glisten. I reach for the yardstick, but his arms come to life like a jack-in-the box. He takes a broad, cross-cut swipe that pings the tip of my funnybone. It sings with fizzing pain as I stumble away.

There’s a tonal difference to the screaming now, and Mr. Goldstein tunes in and turns around. He’s turning left to right. Grant is swinging right to left. It’s the same stroke that came at me, but flat-edged this time. Mr. Goldstein’s glasses ricochet off his head, bouncing, spinning into the air.

“Jesus Christ!” he cries, with one hand groping for his glasses, the other trying to hold his eye together. Two rivulets of blood split fast around the knuckle of his index finger. I hear a yell from behind me and twist around, away from Grant, who’s brought the yardstick over his head again, like an axe.

Now I see Mrs. Goldstein, her hair in a handkerchief, running from the kitchen with both hands in front of her. I hear Mr. Goldstein cry out, and a slight diminishing of the kid riot.

Mrs. Goldstein shoves me into an armchair. I bounce off that, sting my other elbow on the windowsill, and twist to my knees. As I do so, I watch her hook an arm around Grant’s mid-section, yanking him away.

Mr. Goldstein is doubled over like an Arab in prayer. Some of the children, oblivious, still writhe all over the floor. Others just stare.

Grant nails him one last time, as his mother heaves, landing his little right heel hard on his Dad’s head. I remember our eyes again meeting as she hauls him into the air, his chin over his shoulder, that small dark face and heavy curve of hair.

After that, I remember station wagons, like squad cars, hurtling into the driveway.

I take two lessons from this. The first is that most of us live only to get back at our parents. The second, that life is ultimately a comedy.

Anyway, this is how I will remember my friend, GG.

##

 

Download my entire novel, Happy?, here.

Why you may be here

I’m just a guy trying to write fiction that feels like reality – fiction that’s funny, grave, romantic, ugly, exhilarating and even predictable when and where it should be.

I like Shakespeare, but not really the comedies (except for As You Like It and Twelfth Night). I like Nabokov, but really only Lolita, though I think it probably should be illegal in some fashion. I sometimes try to make a point – usually after having been woefully overserved – that Western Literature ended with two books, Lolita and Ulysses.  I can’t recall the details, but it’s something about how simultaneously grand and vulgar they both are. In any event, had you been there on one of those occasions when I made that point, I’m confident you would have been really impressed.

I consider Hemingway’s short stories the great achievement in American literature; not sure what that says about me and/or American literature. I don’t really like his novels. I love Martin Amis. I love Elmore Leonard. I read P.G. Wodehouse probably every week and advise everyone to do the same.

I hope that gives you a sense for my perspective and doesn’t seem too obnoxious. I sincerely thank you for however much time you spend reading what I’ve written. That act, after all, is really just the two of us trying to tell one another that we’re not alone and not without a little grace.

Home

Drop me a line. I’d love to hear your take on my various literary canoodlings.

I’m around and waiting for your thoughts at jack@jackhowland.com.