New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample story from Nocturne for Madness

Winter, Jefferson-on-the-Lake, Northern Ohio
Thomas Haftmann dreamed all night of ortolans. Those delicate birds like sparrows that French gourmands cooked in their own grease and were eaten whole, the birds’ feet sticking out of the eaters’ mouths. The tiny bills being spat onto expensive plates. He had seen it once like that in New Orleans. They wore sheets over their heads to keep blood and hot juices spattering anyone nearby.
The ortolans were held by tiny strings to their feet and were gently nibbling cracked corn from his hand. One by one he ate them, indifferent to the gore jetting from his mouth as he clamped his jaws around each bird. He could not get enough of them; they were sticky and sweet. In the logic of dreams their feathers would fall away before he ate them so that he tasted nothing but flesh.
He awoke with the taste lingering and his mouth full of saliva. He remembered fragments of his dream and wondered if the juncos and titmice he threw seed and bread scraps to all winter long were playing into his subconscious.
He thought: I may die in this hellhole. He cranked himself off the sofa, a red velour job he’d picked up on the cheap at the Goodwill store, went into the kitchen and, out of some masochistic whim, microwaved stale coffee.
Shower, shave, work—another morning’s uninspiring routine beckoned. Being self-employed, so long out of harness from Cleveland homicide, had lost its joy. He knew he had to see a woman about her son. How his thirteen-year-old corpse had come to be sprawled across her kitchen floor with most of his brain matter excavated from his skull. Haftmann had an uneasy relationship with the Lake cops and their cranky chief. He was allowed him to poach on their territory from time to time as long as he remembered he was no longer a cop and was (he would say) merely mortal; some in the precinct would say much, much less than mortal. “Gumshoe” and “shamus” weren’t altogether passé as slang references to his private investigation career, but “window peeper” and “snoop” were more common among the Lake cops he encountered. Like the crow’s-feet around his one good eye or the gray spreading outward and spilling downward from his crown, he was aware that time was passing faster with each birthday. Unfortunately, he wasn’t growing a thicker skin with each passing season. His concern that life was shortening as he aged was borne out by science and by the fear that he would never have enough money to live decently in retirement because he intended to jettison his second career as soon as he was able to. Haftmann was forced to define “decently” as having sufficient beer money because he had re-acquired a bad habit from the early years of his marriage to a woman who had decided he was the particular baggage she needed to jettison in middle age.
Haftmann, a self-styled existentialist, wasn’t comforted by physicists who say there might exist subatomic particles in the brain released after death and these alone comprise human consciousness. Bright lights, a tunnel, one’s kith and kin, not to mention a flaxen-haired Jesus pointing the way to the pearly gates was a construct of our culture, nothing more. The body’s last twitch, a gift to the dying, and a little squirt of endorphins to ease the way to death.
Most of what he learned late in life annoyed him, in fact, so he resolved that, that when the time came for him to go into the great blackness of oblivion, he might as well go out as he had come into the world and remain as obtusely stupid to whatever new knowledge the smart ones might try to pour into his head. In my end is my beginning, he mused, thinking of his long-ago catechism days, and blew on the steaming coffee. He set about facing the day ahead.
~ ~ ~
Jefferson-on-the-Lake in the wintertime is an eyesore: scabby paint blistered raw by arctic winds roaring down from Canada, desolate and boarded up, the hordes of tourists long gone to jobs and warmer climates, empty lots. The locals brooded during long winter nights waiting for spring, for the lights, the return of the tourists, and, mostly, the money. When America made steel in the Mahoning Valley near Youngstown and the big mills of what is now a tourist stop in the Steel Valley Trail of Pittsburgh, middle-class families, hard-drinking fraternity boys, dope-dealing bike trash from Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo and points west – even south to West Virginia – all mingled along the one thoroughfare near the Strip.
Three million people passing through the strip every summer, or so the Chamber of Commerce liked to brag. No one knew how much money stayed afterwards because the few people who owned anything weren’t about to tell. Everyone skimmed off the top. Just like the 1950s when the swing bands came to town. Only now there were skinheads, the girls had Kool-Aid-colored hair and lip rings, and the music was rock and techno dance, and there was dope.
And crime. Even in the winter, the man who dreamed of ortolans had plenty to do, if, as Haftmann knew too well, you weren’t born a child of privilege. Haftmann was nearly always broke, and not only had he doubled-down on his drinking but he had caught the gambling bug. Like most drivers who aren’t afraid of snow, he clipped a few stop signs that were meant for summer traffic and cut a swathe through the snow on Route 531. The lake was frozen to the farthest point of his vision, where its blue sheen intersected the gray planes of sky and water. Erie, being the shallowest of the Great Lakes, locked up soonest.