Tess Gets a Taste by Andy Henion

  1. Garbage men don’t roll empty carts up to the stoop like that. Peer in the front window, give a little wave. They just don’t do it. I yank the Chihuahua’s leash mid-squat and hustle him up the long driveway, tiny turds falling freely. They’ve found us, and they’re three houses away.
  2. “JACK AND JILL!” I yell. Code. From upstairs I hear bedsprings, a dresser drawer. I tuck Kevin the Chihuahua in his ventilated backpack and grab the go-bag. Hustle out the back door, Tess on my heels. This is no drill and she knows it. The truck is perpetually packed and fueled, the two-track leading out through the woods recently cleared. Knobby tires spit mud.
  3. Fifty miles an hour through rows of soybeans, across the ditch, a hard turn onto the interstate. Vehicles swerve and honk, but luckily no impact. “They knew the right area,” I say, “but thankfully not the house. How?” Her silence confirms my suspicion. A teenage girl isn’t meant to live like this. Still. “No more social broadcasting,” I tell her. “No more.” Her solemn nod gives way to the billion-watt smile. “Social broadcasting,” she mocks in her Southie accent. “Not a thing.” Kevin whines from the backpack.
  4. His gaunt face appears at the rest area. Sitting in the dull black Charger, window open, grinning as we drive by. “It’s him,” I say. “Angelo.” She tenses in the seat, recalling the gruesome scene from five years ago. Angelo standing over her father’s body gripping the bloody stiletto. It was her mother’s weekend. The girl wasn’t supposed to be there. I had done the research myself, yet in she walked, eyes wide, lip starting to tremble, this heavily pierced little goth who thought she was troubled but didn’t have a clue. Angelo spun, fingers tightening on the knife, and in that moment I became a changed man.
  5. The Charger falls in behind us, Angelo driving, his apprentice riding shotgun. Big Ray mandates the second man for accountability purposes. Angelo was mine. He’s the old man’s nephew, med school dropout, takes solace in screams. Our last job together was my third hit in twenty-plus years for Big Ray. It’s time to send a message, the old man said, knowing I’d disapprove but yet, ultimately, obey. Angelo promptly donned his scrubs, a gleam in his eye. Twelve-year-old Tess wondered in to find her father gagged and eviscerated. I clipped my sadistic partner and stole her out of there. Would have killed him, except for the girl. Never too late to salvage your conscience, I suppose.
  6. I keep to the speed limit. Pass a state cop in the median. “Michigan’s finest thumb-suckers,” says Tess, checking her Beretta. Two more muscle cars have joined the parade. “See them?” I ask, and Tess nods. She absorbed all the training I could throw at her, mental and physical, once we came to an understanding: 1) Your father, like it or not, was a very bad man. 2) So am I, but I’m all you got. 3) Big Ray will never stop coming after us, meaning … 4) Your life, as you know it, is officially over. 5) If you listen to me—If you do. What. I. Do.— you could live to see eighteen, twenty-one on the outside. Her lone crying jag was countered with a disclosure. I’ve got a nineteen-year-old son, an ex-wife I happen to adore, a mother with Parkinson’s. And yet here I am.
  7. The wingmen make their move, Angelo remaining to our rear. We’ll never outrun them. I look over at Tess. She’s a striking young woman, wise beyond her years, gritty. She’d break hearts given the chance. If she weren’t paying for a man’s mistakes. The first vehicle veers in front of us while the second pulls even, gun barrel extended. “You know, I never had a daughter,” I say, swerving at them as a shot goes wide. Tess rolls her dark eyes. “Don’t start that,” she says, and slides open the rear window. Levels her weapon at the Charger and sends off two quick rounds. I watch in the rearview as Angelo veers hard left, corrects right, and then loses it, the Charger spinning violently into a stand of hardwood. I punch the accelerator, closing on the lead man’s bumper, as Tess hangs out the side window, ponytail bobbing in the wind. “Steady!” she yells, and I smile, and do as I’m told.
  8. Twenty miles down the road Tess removes a shivering Kevin from his carrier and brings him to her chest. It’s decision time. I picked Michigan, so the next one’s her call, yet I know our destination without asking. The girl just got a taste of the life and something’s changed in her posture, in her eyes. Stroking the dog’s tiny head, she says, as casually as suggesting a trip to the park, “Let’s go see Big Ray.” I nod. Keep the rig pointed east.

Suicide Watch by Andy Henion

After a hot day throwing trash I report to county lockup. Sun-whipped and salty, I’m ready for some hours of self-reflection but instead get groaning and muttering from the adjoining cell. It comes from a man with a pencil neck and eyes the color of fresh concrete.

“No reason,” he says.

“I’m sorry?”

“To live,” he says.

“Right,” I say. “What’s your name?”

After a hot day throwing trash I report to county lockup. Sun-whipped and salty, I’m ready for some hours of self-reflection but instead get groaning and muttering from the adjoining cell. It comes from a man with a pencil neck and eyes the color of fresh concrete.

“No reason,” he says.

“I’m sorry?”

“To live,” he says.

“Right,” I say. “What’s your name?”

More groaning.

“Your name.”

“Merr,” says the new man. Huddled in the corner, he’s stripped of his shoes and outfitted in a baggy orange jumpsuit.

I try again. The man despairs incoherently.

“Merr,” he says.

“Enough,” I say.

***

The next day is Day 173 of my work release, and the jailor, a former high school classmate, cracks wise for the 173rd day in a row. I was once voted most likely to conquer Wall Street. Now I throw trash for a living and serve time for suburban malfeasance.

I laugh along at my expense. I ridicule myself with vigor. Then, during a break in the derision, I ask about the new man.

Doctor gone wild, the jailor explains. Nine months for writing bogus scripts. Wife bolted for Key West with her art instructor. Suicide watch.

I cluck my tongue and shake my head. I mention the jailor’s prowess on the gridiron, such as it was, and his chest puffs visibly. I use this momentum to inquire about the possibility of an extra pillow.

The jailor barks and slaps me on the back with enough force to damage a vertebra.

“In your fuckin’ dreams, garbage man.”

***

The man gets a plastic spoon with dinner. When the jailor has gone, he snaps it in half and puts a jagged piece in his wrist.

Repeatedly he jabs. Blood shimmies about, but not enough to matter.

Still, I scream for the jailor. This strikes me as good behavior.

The jailor lumbers in growling and cursing. He hammers the new man to the floor with a massive forearm and thumbs his radio.

“Man down,” he says.

***

The man comes back three days later, at dinner time. I’m contemplating a rubbery meatball and enjoying the silence.

“Help me,” he says, shivering.

I’m ready this time. I set the tray aside and remove the laces from my boots, toss them over. The man looks at me wide-eyed and then stands on the plastic chair and goes about tying the thick black laces together and attaching the single piece to the overhead sprinkler. He does this frantically, as if I might realize my mistake and summon the jailor.

The man fashions the loose end into a makeshift noose and wraps it around his slender neck. He steps off the chair. The cord goes taut, causing an opening of jaws and a silent gagging. He grabs at the laces as he twirls around, feet inches from the floor, but is unable to pull himself to safety. He attempts to stand on the chair but instead kicks it away in his agitated state.

His eyes meet mine, bulging. I stand pat, silent.

The man’s neck is compressed to the point that I could enclose it in one hand. His face is a vibrant shade of purple. He begins snapping back and forth, like a fish in a net, and after five or six of these spasms the laces break and he falls to the floor.

The man gasps and coughs. When he sits up, he looks at me briefly before settling his gray eyes on the bars. He stays that way for minutes, hours, just sitting and staring, moving only to rub his neck. What he doesn’t know is that I cut notches into the laces, dozens of razor-thin slits to weaken the fabric. I return to my meatball, now cold, and leave him to his self-reflection. This is more what I had in mind.

Stuck by Andy Henion

The dogs are stuck together, ass to ass, the much bigger bitch clearly upset and swinging her suitor against the oaks in a vicious pendulum. The male, a Boston terrier, yelps with each blow but this only seems to encourage his aggressor, a hundred-pound Doberman with ears like black horns. Wade’s sister-in-law Jeanne watches from her lawn chair, cigarette in one hand, vodka-Squirt in the other.

“Teach you to come sniffin’ ’round here, you little shit. Get ’em, Ella!”

The two men across from her, boys really, laugh into their plastic cups, humoring Jeanne as any man would. Each visit to the trailer house brings with it a new cast of supporting characters, yet Jeanne, at forty, remains the one constant, the raven-haired queen of the roost. It’s hard to believe this woman is his wife’s sister.

“Gonna be some messed up puppies,” says one of the guests, stick figure thin with a half-dozen facial piercings. Wade guesses him at twenty, twenty-two tops.

“We’ll see,” says Jeanne, blowing smoke Wade’s way. She’s wearing a black miniskirt and a tight white tank top with nothing underneath. Wade has to fight to keep his eyes on hers.

“So, Wade-man, right now you’re thinking how the hell …”

“Not here to judge,” he says, hands stuffed in his khakis. “Just the deliveryman.”

“Ah, yes,” says Jeanne, crossing her long legs. “Another hand-me-down piece of furniture from my yuppie sister.”

“Hey, we don’t—”

“Whatever,” she says, waving him off. “Can you white trash knights kindly unload the fucking armoire?”

The young guests rise as one, yet their attention stays fixed on the yard. There, the terrier hangs limply from the Doberman, its bloody snout bouncing off the earth as the bigger dog darts around, bug-eyed and whining from the dead weight she’s carrying. Then, suddenly, a nasty pop as they come apart and the Doberman drops into a ball and commences licking herself. The terrier twitches once, twice, and just like that rises and limps off without looking back.

“Some funky shit, hey Dockers?” says Stick Figure, passing by in a wave of pot funk. He feigns a punch to the midsection and Wade flinches, silently cursing himself for his reaction.

The other guest follows behind laughing. Wade gives Jeanne a final look and is about to join them when another man, an older, thicker version of Stick Figure, emerges from the trailer.

“Thought you were my parole officer,” he says, rubbing Wade’s lower back almost sensually. Wade has encountered plenty of beaus at the trailer, but never this one. The new beau struts up to Jeanne, pulls her up and puts his tongue in her mouth, moving his hands down around her ass. Wade looks away.

“How about some quesadillas?” he says. “You like quesadillas, Brother-in-Law?”

Jeanne starts for the kitchen. Wade hikes his eyebrows; he’s never seen her act the homemaker. He’s reminded of his wife Joanne baking casseroles and rum cakes and shopping in the maternity aisle. Joanne is fond of her calling her younger sister the Whore of Wixom. And Wade? Wade is fond of conjuring the Whore of Wixom every time he lies with his wife.

From the corner of his eye, he catches movement from the back property line: a man in black slinking along with a pistol. And two more to the right. Cops? he thinks. Criminals? He can’t be sure. The new beau pulls out his own handgun and orders Wade to get her inside, now.

Jeanne knows where to go. The closet floor opens to reveal a modest grow house amid dirt walls. She hops down and Wade follows, pulling the trap door shut. There’s barely room for one, let alone two, and she has to lean over the table to get comfortable. From above, a gunshot and a yelp.

“Ella,” she says softly. “Motherfuckers.”

Wade stands behind his sister-in-law, pelvis pressing into her backside as they listen to the taunting from the yard. It’s clear now that these aren’t cops, that the new beau is in serious trouble.

The explosion of gunfire is broken only by screaming and laughing. Wade has the sudden realization he won’t make it out of this alive. Jeanne must realize it too because she’s looking back at him, and now she’s reaching between her legs, and before he knows it she’s squeezing him hard enough to make him grunt.

“Teach you to come sniffin’ ’round here,” she snarls, and Wade, despite himself, smiles through clenched teeth like a dog.