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Good Times

The 1970s was a golden era, marked by the institution of the sitcom. 

Their fictional stars became demigods to us. And some, rightly so, remained as such. 

Good Times by Beau Johnson



Peter Brady is exactly who you think he is.  He’s older now, sure, and likes to go by Pete instead of Peter, but damn if he didn’t always have something interesting to say.  Not that I minded, him being such a big part of my growing up and all.
         
“And by no means was it ever my idea.  I want that known.  I was part of it, you bet, and some of it was fun, but if I had my choice to go back and do it over again, no sir, I can’t say that I would.” 

We’re outside, the both of us smoking, the both of us leaning against the back end of the liquor store’s half-dumpster.  What Pete’s on about is what I’d brought up, the fabled Secret Episode: the one purported to house every proclivity created by man—the one where all the shit goes down.  True or not, it was touted to take place towards the end of the show’s run, once everyone had grown, but I’d never known, not for sure, not until Pete Brady formed a habit and our worlds collided because of it. This happened three years ago, over an eight ball, two chicks and one very pissed-off Chinaman.  We’ve since corrected the slight, but during such times is when me and the Pete-man came to find each other, as junkies often do.  That Pete was now a little off-center, well, that’s what coming off the good stuff and taking to a lesser product can do to you.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but chances, yeah, they are in fact the things we come to take.
       

“Don’t get me wrong, it was fun doing Marsha but it would always be better doing Jan.  Preferably from behind, but hey, what do I know?  Little Cindy though—that chick, I’m tellin’ you, that chick could chug cock.” 

I loved it, every word.  The best parts were coming though, and I pretty much knew most of them by heart; that Mrs. Brady goes down on Alice as Alice begins to take on Greg.  Gagging, she instead calls forth Bobby, the smaller brother, and him she can fit into her mouth.
          
“But Mr. Brady,” Pete says, and I know where he’s going with this—the place he always went.  His hands up, palms out: “Who’d have thunk?  I mean, now that I have hindsight, sure, you can see him checking out more of the guys than the woman, so yeah, there’s that, but my actual point is this: how were we to know?”  And the face he ends his question with: priceless.  Made me want to hear the whole shebang again, especially the after party parts, so secret that Pete said for years that even he never knew they existed.  The five minute scenario is what people today call Easter eggs.  It contained Florence Henderson, Sam the Butcher, and what I’m told was just buckets of Wesson Oil.
          

“Damn, what it must have been like,” I say, saying it as I always do, with reverence.  Made me more than smile too, there as I took out my mask.  Allowed me to reimagine my youth into more than what I remember it being; that the good times the Brady Bunch brought me could continue to quash the bad, twisting them into an even better pretzel for me to recall.  And that I was lucky enough to get it from the horse’s mouth of all things, oh man, that’s what made things so much sweeter.  Also made what we were about to commit a little easier to digest.  Because who in their right mind would ever want to hold up a liquor store when they were in something of a bad mood.  Pete and his stories—they’ve always been a good counter to this.  Not as good as the high we were working towards, no, but every little bit helped.
     

“You ready?”  I say and Pete immediately looks me in the eye, his one brow raised.  This is followed by a smile, one which is fast becoming filled with teeth like my own.
        
 “As ready as the Fonz that time he jumped that shark.” 

I try not to lose my game face as I pull my piece.  It doesn’t work, not totally, and beneath the ski-mask I can do nothing but smirk and shake my head.        

Pete Brady.  Fucking guy.  Who knew?

In Canada, with his wife and three boys, Beau Johnson lives, writes and breathes. He has been published before, on the darker side of town. Such places might include Underground Voices, the Molotov Cocktail, and Shotgun Honey. He would like it to be known that it is an honor to be here, down in the Gutter

Joe Ithaca

What’s in a name? Well, depends who’s asking, don’t it? 

Actually, around here, not really. In the Gutter, a name is only the stale bread around a “you're fucked”  sandwich.

Joe Ithaca by George Masters




The sun went away when Janet hung up the phone. She said, “That was my brother, he just got a call. He thinks they’re coming for Dad.”

Twenty minutes later Janet and I loaded the old man and his walker into the car. I brought out two suitcases.

Her father said, “You don’t have to stay here, Tom. Come with us.”

I said, “Someone’s got to take care of the pups.”

“It’s not your fight, kid.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “This should finish it, Mr. Romero.” 

He touched my hand and I felt him tremble. In his gruff old voice he said, “Jesus, you jarheads are stubborn bastards.” 

Breathing rapidly, her eyes wide open, Janet said, “Please, just call the police—now.”

I said, “They’ll be time for that.”

Biting her bottom lip, she kept her shoulders squared.  “You going to be all right?” 

Sounding more confident than I felt, I said, “I’ll be fine, go.”

“Call me,” she said and leaned in with a kiss. 

Out the open window, the old man waved an arm as they drove away.

Wherever the two men came from, it took them five hours to find the apartment. When they arrived, I was sitting on the screened in porch with a beer and listening to the thunder get closer. No rain yet, the afternoon warm and still, the sky grey as a battleship.

One dog in my lap, one at my feet, I was enjoying the beer and the red and purple flowers beginning to blossom. The thunder rumbled like artillery. If you’ve heard the big guns in person, you don’t forget.

I didn’t recognize the white Suburban that pulled up in front. It didn’t park in one of the parking spaces, but just stopped in the middle of the driveway. Two men got out and looked up and down at the apartments. The driver pointed to the number on Mr. Romero’s door. 

The driver stood by the car, the other man came up the walk and knocked. A damp wind began moving through the tops of the trees.

I set the dog in my lap on the floor and walked to the edge of the porch. I said to the guy at the door, “May I help you?” The screen was black, and with the afternoon getting dark, he hadn’t seen me. Looking surprised he leaned forward to see who had spoken. When he took a couple of steps across the grass both dogs started barking.

He said, “Excuse me, do you live here?”

I said, “Who are you?”

He turned and waved to the driver. Leaving the Suburban running, the driver joined his partner. Both came a couple steps closer. The dogs barked harder and louder.

I gave them pats on the head and told them everything was fine.

The first one said, “I’m sorry, friend, an acquaintance of ours used to live here and we thought maybe he still did.” 

I said, “My uncle lives here.”

The driver said, “If you don’t mind, could you tell us if Mr. Romero has moved to another apartment?”

“I don’t know a Mr. Romero.”

“Has your uncle lived here a while?” asked the first man, and he took another step closer.

I said over the racket of two dogs barking, “You’ve got the wrong apartment.”

The driver said, “Would you mind telling us your uncle’s name?”

I said, “No, I don’t mind.” They waited and I waited. While we both waited, the sky opened up and the wind strengthened. 

“Is your uncle here?”

I said, “He’s in bed.”

With the rain running off their noses and chins, the driver said, “Would it be all right if we came in?”

“My uncle’s taking a nap and he’s not feeling well.”

The other one said, “And what’s your uncle’s name?”

I said, “Ithaca, Joe Ithaca.”

Getting drenched, they glanced at each other. The driver said, “Larry, why don’t you park the car?” Larry trotted over to the car; the driver stepped close so his nose was only a couple feet from the screen. He grinned. “Getting kind of wet out here, friend.”

“Why don’t you get in your car until it stops?”

“I was hoping you’d invite us in. I’d like to ask your uncle a few questions.”

“About what?”

“Maybe your uncle knew our friend, the previous tenant.”

“He might but he’s sleeping. I wake him, he’s going to be upset.”

“Joe Ithaca,” said the man trying out the name.

I said, “Right.”

Larry came back from parking the car to join his friend. His friend’s voice took on an edge. He said, “Listen, can we come in? We won’t take much of your uncle’s time. You’d be doing us a favor, just a couple quick questions.”

Their trousers and windbreakers were shining wet. Somewhere in their mid-forties, both men had size and height. Their confidence gave them the look of former professional football players or cops. Larry had a shaved head. The drivers black hair was getting plastered.

It grew cooler; the wind dropped off and the rain fell straight as nails. I picked up the barking dogs and said, “Tell you what, hold on and let me go ask my uncle.” 

Leaving them both in the rain, I went into the guest bedroom and deposited the dogs. I picked up the shotgun and closed the door behind me.

Heading back toward the darkened living room, I saw the two men climbing over the porch railing, coming through a big section of cut-out screening. Each one carried a large automatic pistol. Taking cover behind a leather recliner, I dropped into the prone position, thumbed off the safety and allowed them to take two maybe three steps into the living room.

*

Police cars, ambulances and a fire truck filled the parking spaces and the driveway. It was still raining. Neighbors stood in doorways and leaned out of windows.  

Mostly I told the police the truth. I made up the part where I said they were looking for a guy named Ralph Snyder.

“Who’s Ralph Snyder?” said the head cop.

“I have no idea.”

He said, “Do you live here?”

“My girlfriend’s father. He’s away on a trip and I’m babysitting the dogs.”

The cop pointed to the shotgun. “Whose Ithaca?”

I said, “Mr. Romero’s, I’m sure.”

“He kept it loaded?”

“And a good thing, I didn’t have much time.”

“Double ought buck. Was he expecting anyone?”

“You mean, why’d he keep it loaded? Probably the same reason you do.”

The cop scowled. He said, “Any more guns in the house?”

I looked at parts of Larry and the driver on the walls and across the living room floor. I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “If you don’t mind, we’ll take a look around.”

I said, “Please do.”


George Masters served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam and after the war attended Georgetown. His crime novel, Concerto for Harp, is hunting for an agent/publisher.

Coffee Breath

Many folks think that a woman stranded on the roadside in the rain is a vulnerable thing. 

However, Daniel Moses Luft thinks otherwise ...

Coffee Breath by Daniel Moses Luft



Shit now it’s raining, could this get any fucking worse?  Lynda’s right hand slipped off the  lug wrench and onto the wet ground. She held up her hand and looked at her muddy knuckles as they began to bleed. Yeah, it’s worse.
              
Her black hose caught on a sharp twig and ripped as she stood up.  Sonofabitch this just isn’t going well. She steadied herself with a hand on the car and pressed her foot down on the wrench. Why did I have to wear heels tonight? Of all the stupid nights. She bobbed her foot down a few times before she lifted herself off the ground to stand on it. The lug nut finally turned and she fell back onto the ground, down on her butt this time. She reached for the wrench again but stopped when she heard footsteps in the leaves. She sat very still and ignored the mud that seeped into her pumps.
              
Lynda heard it again. The sound was coming from the road ahead. She wiped a rope of brown hair out of he eyes and saw the large shadow ooze out of the rain.
              
“Need some help?” his voice rasped, dryer than anything else on the road. He was still 20 yards away, approaching slowly, looking around.
              

“Think I’ve got it,” Lynda called back. “What are you even doing out here?”
              
“I passed by a minute ago.” He spoke slowly, confidently. “Tried to call 911 for you but I didn’t get any reception. Call just dropped.”
              
Lynda remembered the single car passing and had been thankful it hadn’t stopped.
              
“And when I saw the phone wouldn’t work out here I knew you were, well, stuck.”
              
He didn’t stop walking until he was right next to her. Looming over her.
              
“Can I help?” he said as he crouched down. “I’m David.”
              
Lynda could see him smiling at her in the last minutes of rainy daylight. She could smell the coffee on his breath.
              
“You don’t have to help David. I’ve got it.”
              
His hand was next to hers on the wrench and he slipped it away from her before she could react.
              
“Let me do it for you,” he leaned closer as he spoke in nearly a whisper.  “Pretty lady like you getting her soft hands all muddy.” He ran a hand slowly down the back of her coat getting a feel for her. “You’re a soaking mess. Bet you’d rather be out of those clothes. Are you supposed to be somewhere?”
              
“Yes, yes a party. I’m late. My husband will wonder what’s taking me so long. Everyone will wonder.”
              
“You’re not wearing a ring.”
              
He began to effortlessly remove the lug nuts from the wheel that had barely budged for her. “Don’t worry. I won’t take very long. I’ve done this before.”
              
He was leaning into her as he worked. Lynda could smell sweat mingled with his overwhelming coffee breath.
              
“Lemme show you what I can do. You’ll be surprised.  You might even tell your friends someday.”
              
Lynda stood up and backed away.
              
“Nice heels. I like heels, especially tall ones like you’ve got on. Lousy for running though. Hell, with mud like this I bet you could barely even walk in them.”
              
He had the tire loose and the wrench between his feet. He jacked up the car as Lynda stared down at him, feeling cold in her wet clothing, her hair falling into her eyes again. When he removed the tire she reached for her phone and sure enough there were no bars. David had the spare on quickly and began to reattach the lug nuts.
              
“Told you I was good.” He rose and walked closer to her. “And, no, there’s never any reception out here. Lots of flat tires but never any reception. Besides, you’re already late.”
              
Lynda shivered as she wiped the hair out of her face again. She made eye contact with David for the first time as she slowly leaned forward and kissed him. She was shivering as she forced her tongue deep into  his mouth. Her hands wrapped around him and pulled on his sweaty, wet hair. He bit her lip, nearly drawing blood.
              
“What changed your mind you little, horny bitch?” he whispered.
              
“You remind me of someone,” she whispered as she handed him the keys.
              
“Who?”
              
“My husband.”
              
“And where is he tonight?”
              
“Well he’s not waiting for me at any party if that’s what you’re asking.”
              
David smiled. Lynda wondered when the last time he’d brushed those teeth. He reached for her face and ran a wet hand along her chin then slapped her hard. She nearly fell over but when she looked at him again she was smiling.
              
“Never mind about about my husband, now let’s put all this stuff in the trunk and get in the back seat.”               
              
Together they walked to the back of the car. He unlocked the trunk and the little light inside gave off a dull orange glow.
              
He saw the chainsaw first, then he saw the arms piled next to it. There was a grey-haired head nearby which was still attached to the body but there was no way it was still attached to the legs on the other side of the trunk.
              
“What the fuck?”
              
David didn’t notice as Lynda slipped the jack handle out of his wet hand and embedded in the back of his skull. He fell down without a sound.
              
That, Coffee Breath, is my husband.
              
She removed the jack handle and dropped it into the trunk. The flat tire slipped a bit and bounced off David’s back before she placed it also inside the trunk. Then she reached down and rolled David off the highway and down the slight embankment. The daylight was almost gone and the rain was picking up. She watched it bounce off the car’s back bumper as it washed away the blood into the mud.


Daniel Moses Luft has had fiction published by Beat to a Pulp, Spinetingler and in the anthology Action: Pulse-Pounding Tales. His story "Icing on the Cake" appeared in Out of the Gutter last year. He has also published criticism on the websites Thrilling Detective, The Violent World of Parker and in Mystery Scene Magazine.

Stairs to Heaven

Life imitates art. Art imitates life. Who gives a shit?

In the Gutter, the picture still colors the same shade of bleak. You're looking for hope, try the next corner.

Stairs to Heaven by Nikki Palomino




“You’ll let me know when I can come home, Mom?” 

Nervous, I twirled a strand of blonde hair. I needed her. “Found that Zeppelin record, ‘Stair-something to Heaven.’ At my job. I work at Ginger’s Vinyl. Remember?” Mom grunted. I leaned into the payphone. Id started tricking at fourteen. I was sixteen now. I felt beyond tired. You know the record I broke when I was little?” She never forgave me. Lies, suicide notes, razors, shitty childhood. I never forgave her. Lies, suicide notes, boyfriends drunk.

Scary split to scarier streets.

Spotted Flora on the corner with foot traffic in combat rhythm heading toward me. Click. Never great with goodbyes.

Flora had a plan to get us off the streets. She held up the papers.

“Like melting butter in a skillet.” A falling star, she’d been rough trade longer.

She pulled me from the crowd, gave the details. Her devoted trick, she had straddled, knocked off his glasses, pushed the driver’s seat back and crunch.

“He believes he signed a reference for an apartment rental.” We knew better. Twenty grand insurance policy. I looked leery. Flora laughed, “I promised to fry him a burger and wash his feet in our new place.”

We no longer belonged to life, just a crappy series on an analog TV. Peat, repeat. Other girls bugged Flora because she was favored, but she could bust their balls for kicks. She liked me. I never cut in. I was a blur behind her shoulder.

Flora tapped my canvas bag. “Ginger find you the record?”

“Never opened.” A high-five.

“Gotta be tonight with the bomber on the loose.”

“Too many cops, Flora.”

She became aware of her surroundings, trying desperately to think on what I’d said, but any image of death and destruction was irrevocably gone for now. Survival.

“W-h-a-t?”  

“I’ve never shot anyone. I might be no good.”

“Backing out is not an option.”

Flora believed normality would arrive with the money.

Wet night, chilly. The street around the corner from an escape alley, she’d parked at the curb. I came up the driver’s side, window lowered, with the gun. I had no choice but to carry my canvas bag with Mom’s record. We were homeless. No safe place to stash. An unopened Zeppelin would score a solid buzz for any junkie.

Flora was good, leaning back on the steering wheel, her dark hair flowing across the dash. She straddled him, the trick lost to passion against the worn seat. Gave me enough room to hit his chest. My eyes half-closed, I aimed, fired multiple rounds. Hadn’t expected the trick to pull her to him when he came.

I eased toward the sedan, expected a word from Flora, but she was slumped onto his chest. That’s when I noticed the blood seeping through her long, stringy hair. Shocked, my eyes skipped to his bugged, lifeless, like a flat poem, an instrument without music. I touched Flora, jumped when she slid down onto the stick shift. Crying, I tried to piece together the scraps.

I took off down the alley, pitched the gun into a dumpster, and ran until I reached another street. Saw Ginger closing the record shop. Tossed her my canvas bag with Mom’s vinyl and address. I didn’t need to explain.

“I’ll send the package first thing in the morning.” 

I took off again even as Ginger yelled, “You can still have the job if you want?”

But I was gone, three streets over and slamming straight into vice.

“Why you in such a hurry?”

He knew Flora and me. She should have listened. Every cop in the city rocked the streets. Each wanted a collar that could set him up for a higher rank. The bomber had hit hard. Ten industrial buildings, strip mall, a closed public pool. Only a matter of time before someone other than a security guard was killed by the blast.

“Let me see your arms, Summer.” My name always sounded so harsh when a cop trashed it.

“I’m clean.”

“And I’m Kojack.”

Before the sleeve of my leather jacket reached my elbow, a distant cop yelled something official-sounding, and vice took off running back toward the sedan. I was left alone under a circle of white raining down from a streetlight.

I bolted a few blocks over. I hit dead-center into a hairy guy in a dark jumpsuit. His body jerked involuntarily, and his work boot knocked into a silver, half-opened case set against the brick apartment building. I blinked a millisecond to rid the tear smarting, and my vision narrowed to one thing, his hand dropping the cigarette butt and grabbing me by the throat. There were no mysteries, no walls hiding us from the world. His throat pulsated against my head. He wasn’t sucking air between his teeth. He lost track as the next second clipped by. I heard a cutting scream from an opened window two flights up, and then the weakened boom done right that could have secured his reputation.

Only I had changed both our lives just by being there.

Thrown to the sidewalk, I marveled at the thunder rumbling and the apartment dwellers above the quivering light raying ethereal through the smoke. I was not surprised at the momentary gilded stairway jutting skyward. But I did startle when a bronze lord under the far fixed stars scooped me up. I had never known anything except lies, suicide notes, razors and my shitty childhood.

My mom believed in no more.

Had I not been so stunned in photographic memory of a time when Mom and I held each other tight, I would have recognized the face above me not as God but as vice. His shaven head blazed, his eyes with punchy determination were the same ones that had stared Flora and me down when tricking. In the midst of a botched bombing and successful capture, “Kojack” smiled sympathetically, knowing that to have winners, there must be losers.   


Nikki Palomino is the author of the Dazed series (The Story of a Grunge Rocker). Her writing has been featured in L.A. Examiner, Houston Chronicle, and more. Named Best Genre Short Story Writer of 2003 by Writer's Digest, Palomino is also a rock journalist for Punk Globe Magazine and the host of Nikki Palomino's DAZED on irockradio103.com.