New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample story from The Invisible Hand

Two beers later, the bartender in front of the Confederate flag decides I’ve been silent long enough.
“Got somewhere to be, Wil? Don’t seem interested in being here,” he says. Checks his watch.
He’s no rebel. A Yankee through and through. Just a businessman. The other bar on the far side of town, it’s called the Union. That’s what passes for clever around here.
“Yeah, I’ll have another one. Just thinking about…stuff,” I say. Such as getting off the dot of a barstool seat in a pin of a central North Dakota prairie town, Betrug. And killing my neighbor’s sick wife.
“I didn’t offer another one,” the bartender says.
“You are now,” I say.
A wet mug materializes next to my parched hands.
“Plenty to think about these days,” the bartender says. Nods to the radio.
The news report says something about a murder in the Bakken. No surprises there.
Bakken. That’s the name for the oil patch. It’s where hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – sparked the NoDak oil boom a few years back. Suicide with a paycheck.
“Good to know the trouble is staying out there,” I say. I hate competition.
Betrug, nestled inside Sheridan County, is still an hour or so from the boom. Close enough to inherit its problems. Too far away to reap any benefits.
“Hard to keep it that way,” the bartender says. Calls out to the man in jeans behind me. He’s been watching me drink from the far side of the bar. “Ain’t that right, sheriff?”
The sheriff sighs. Nods. Goes back to his sandwich and newspaper. Working on hour three of lunch.
“You’re young enough,” the bartender says. “Still got a strong back. Go and make your oil money. It’s a wonder why you sit in here all day.”
“Who says I’m not making money?” I say. Pay for the drinks.
The bartender looks over the $100 bill.
“I guess you are. You want change?” he says.
“Keep it.”
“You been back at your family’s farm? Started working again?” the bartender says.
“Nope. Not since the accident,” I say.
The sheriff clears his throat behind me. I keep staring straight ahead.
“Think you’ll get back into farming?” the bartender says.
The bartender hesitates before putting the $100 bill in the register. Thumbs a corner like he’s testing for a fake.
“OK. I won’t ask again,” he says. Not the first time he’s seen a $100.
Don’t give me this bleeding heart bullshit about the “poor farmers” out here. There aren’t any. Every one of them is a millionaire times 10. Even more so now that the oil boom hit.
They don’t clear a couple million in a year, the feds give it to them for nothing. But they still dress like prairie dogs. Flannel shirts. Shitty trucks. Dirty hair.
It ain’t like it used to be. Now you’ve got GPS tractors. Remote-controlled everythings. Crops that do the thinking for you. Insurance, subsidies, trade protection and shit-knows-what-else ag programs. All greased with PR straight out of the Dustbowl.
Means there’s plenty of time to sit and think out here. Sort of like what I’m doing now in this bar. That’s all there is to do. Think too long, you come up with solutions to problems that don’t exist.
Good thing. Keeps me employed.
Farmers, they want to keep a certain image. Like the smiling cows on the milk cartons. Or the elves on cereal boxes full of what they grow here.
Bullshit. They move more money in a day than a drug lord. Got the temper to match. I’m just the part of the equation that’s honest about it.
Things get dirty. Fifty-foot manure pile dirty. So they turn to me. Shovel their shit. Bust some noses. Break some laws. Get it together.
Which is about what my dad said the day before he died in that grain bin. The “accident.”
“Get yourself together,” he had said. “For the sake of your mother. You’re 22. Been kicking around the prairie since you graduated high school. Find something you’re good at. Then do it every day.”
Yeah, I found something. She’s sitting right next to me. With long hair of amber bubbles. She’s always in the mood. Goes down real nice. Especially with one of those fresh-off-the-farm burgers they serve here. Shit, even in this prairie dog bar, you can’t get off the fucking farm.
But that’s just how it goes. I was too fucked up to work hay and heads. Never went east to Minneapolis like anyone with a brain. Never went west to the oil boom a county over like anyone with muscle.
Nope. Just slid right into this seat and took my dad’s advice. “Find something you’re good at. Then do it every day.”
Sure thing, pa. Cheers. Drink up. Oh, and fuck your self-righteous work ethic. As if everyone will fit into one of three options out here. Farm, frack or get the fuck out. But I’m stuck like everyone else in this jar of flies.
Oh, and rest in peace, pa. Which is damn near impossible considering the way you died in that bin. Crushed to death under a frozen chunk of grain.
Anyway, it ain’t a thing no more. It’s done. I’m here. Got some money. Got some drink. And, in about 30 seconds, a job.
I know what’s coming. What I’ll be asked to do. A bubble of panic crawls into my chest.
I pull an eyelash out. Stoke the pain with the sharp edge of a fingernail against my eyelid. A quick jolt runs from my eyelid into my chest. Pops the panic bubble. The feeling of it dissipating is worth it, even if my eyelids are going bald.
I’d normally check to see if the lash has a gooey root at the end. Maybe even eat it. But my appointment just walked through the door.
“You Wil?” the big guy says.
“If you say so,” I say.
The parts of his face not coated in two fat inches of whisker bramble show the scars of the wind. It finds a crease when you’re young. Pulls hard on it the rest of your life. Slices away until your face looks like the Badlands.
“How about I call you Buy Me a Drink?” the big guy says.
“How about not. Beer’s cheap here. Buy it yourself,” I say between a sip.
“Don’t look like you got anything better to do,” the big guy says. Uses a tone I don’t appreciate.
“I’m doing exactly what I need to do,” I say.
“Come on. Just one,” the big guy says.
“Fine. You owe me two,” I say.
I motion the bartender over. He pours a mug of glorified piss water. I get a buck poorer.
We drink in silence. He takes the beer down like it’s medicine.
Then he says, “Sorry to be a bother just then. You know how we Gideons are. Can’t be seen buying alcohol.”
Oh, yeah. I know the Gideons. Those motel night stand missionaries. Bible-thumping, prairie-humping hypocrites. Take Exhibit A, for example.
“So why’d you want to meet with me, Joe?” I say. Order another round. Forget to ask if he wants one.
“Ah, so you remember me,” Joe says. “When we talked on the phone yesterday, I couldn’t tell if you did.”
“You taught my math class in grade school. Up until they shut the district down. Not enough kids. Not even after the consolidation. Wound up being home-schooled. Maybe that’s why I’m getting shit-faced in a bar right now. What’s your excuse?” I say.
“It’s a shame things went the way they did. You learned how to count to 10. Then they sent you home,” he says.
I down my beer. Order another one.
“Counting to 10 is all I needed. This beer is number nine. Two more to go before I’m back at one. Then I’m good to drive again. I’m pretty busy. What do you want from me?” I say.
I already know the answer. This is just part of the dance. An attempt at looking like two regular people having a conversation.