Art of Silence by Fitz Benwalla

“Cutty!” The room erupted in cheers as the man walked into Davy’s Locker Bar and Restaurant, arms in the air like he’d just won the middleweight belt and hadn’t just been released from Bridgewater State after two years. His father gave him a huge tearful hug. His fiancée—who was only his girlfriend when he went in—wept openly.

“Oh fuck, ” said Elbert on the barstool to my left. “You wanna get out of here?”

“Nah,” I said.

“I don’t like how you said that,” Elbert said.

“How did I say it?”

“Like you don’t give a fuck.”

“Cutty!” The room erupted in cheers as the man walked into Davy’s Locker Bar and Restaurant, arms in the air like he’d just won the middleweight belt and hadn’t just been released from Bridgewater State after two years. His father gave him a huge tearful hug. His fiancée—who was only his girlfriend when he went in—wept openly.

“Oh fuck, ” said Elbert on the barstool to my left. “You wanna get out of here?”

“Nah,” I said.

“I don’t like how you said that,” Elbert said.

“How did I say it?”

“Like you don’t give a fuck.”

I shrugged, and tipped my tallboy to my lips. Nobody seemed to care that I was in the bar. Why should I give a shit that he was?

One of the reasons that Elbert and I made good drinking buddies was that we were both losers without much to say. We drank together, because it was less pathetic than drinking alone. Elbert had a hairlip that he tried to hide under a thin ginger moustache. He was self-conscious about the way his mouth moved when he spoke ever since he was a kid.

My mouth was fucked up similarly from my pop’s wedding ring tearing through the tender flesh of my lip.

I didn’t care how it looked when I spoke. Mostly because I didn’t have anything I wanted to say.

 

I never said the words to nobody.

My father never said them to my mother or to me. My mother never said them to me or him. I never said them to either one. First of all, they would have been a lie. My mother let my drunk fuck of a father terrorize the both of us, herself weakened by the beatings my father put on her, stale beer-breathed on the good nights. On the bad nights, the air he exhaled stank of cheap Irish whiskey, bathing me in it under the exertions of his raining fists.

My mother was the first teacher I had in the Art of Silence, no doubt afraid that a word in my defense would turn into a kick to her stomach.

The fat drunk fuck died when I was six, an aneurism one night in the bathroom, pants down, copy of Swank in his greasy hand. I had to see that. I had to see my father on the floor, his other hand clutched tight over his balls, a trickle of blood worming down his ear.

My mother killed herself with sleeping pills three weeks later. I guess she couldn’t live without him—without the abuses which comprised the only world she knew, or knew how to exist in. Either way.

I found her body, too.

I bopped through foster care, juvie, all that bullshit. They were all better than the place that was supposed to be my home.

Words have always meant nothing to me, hollow sounds, vibrations on the air. I know some words were supposed to have importance, weight. But not to me. Lot of people talk to fill a silence, their conversations just noise to comfort from the fear of silence. Mostly, I just kept my mouth shut. I’m the most comfortable in the silence. Silence was the absence of heavy work boots coming up the stairs.

Then Courtney made me realize what words could mean. Something about her cut through me. Don’t know what she saw in me in the first place. I’ve spent my life in everyone’s blind spot. Everyone except for the man who did his best to end me before I was in second grade.

But Courtney saw me.

She.

Saw.

Me.

And don’t think I didn’t try to hide.

 

“You okay?” Elbert asked.

“Yup,” I said.

Elbert then went back to his drinking, and I went to mine.

Another cheer erupted from the dining area, the Welcome Home sign drooping above the entrance.

When Elbert went to take a piss, I stole a glance into the dining area. Cutty’s girlfriend fed him a huge stuffed shrimp, butter dripping down his chin. Everybody laughed.

I don’t laugh much either.

The DJ began playing “Happy” way louder than was the norm at Davy’s Locker. Everybody in the place just sort of shrugged and smiled. Who wanted to ruin what was so obviously a joyous occasion

Elbert came out of the bathroom, wincing at the blaring music. “Well, that does it for me. You leaving soon?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah.”

“See you at the garage tomorrow.”

I nodded.

 

I always struggled with words, much less important ones. My struggle got cut short three years ago by vehicular manslaughter.

Cutty ran a red light, t-boning Courtney’s tiny Neon with his old man’s Caddy. The impact cut the car in half. Courtney, too.

At her funeral, I stood off to the side, looking at her grieving family. None of them knew who I was. None of them ever would. She wanted me to. She wanted them to get to know me like she did.

What she never got was that I didn’t want people to know me. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about her knowing me.

But I was getting there.

I never got to that destination, just like Courtney didn’t the night she was on her way to my apartment to tell me she was pregnant.

Cutty’s old man was a cop. Now he’s retired.

Cutty got two years.

Two years.

Sit in your own quiet for a moment and let that sink in…

 

After twenty minutes, Cutty stumble-stepped into the bathroom. I followed him. I tried the door handle. Drunk as he was, he still remembered to lock the single occupancy stall.

Didn’t matter.

“Occupado,” he yelled through the door. I barely heard him over the music.

I waited.

A flush sounded, barely audible over the cheerful music vibrating off the walls.

The door opened.

I shoved the screwdriver right through his throat and pushed him back in.

I guess I pushed too hard, since the tip went out the other side, severing something in his spinal cord along the way. His whole body went limp as he crumpled on top of the toilet seat.

I left the screwdriver in, as it seemed to stem the tide of blood pouring down his chest, blossoming on his white shirt.

I also didn’t want him to bleed out too soon.

I leaned over and looked into his blue, blue eyes. They were filled with terror. I wondered whether those were the same eyes my father looked into when he beat me. I didn’t feel anything as I did so.

Guess I got a little of my old man in me.

His head jerked ever so slightly from side to side, his mouth working, but unable to make a sound due to the torrent of blood that dribbled out every time he opened his mouth.

That, and the Craftman poking through his throat.

I wiped my hands on his pants, and left him there. I popped the lock button on the doorknob and closed it behind me. The knob stayed locked. It would take a few minutes before anybody sensed that Cutty had been gone too long. Take them a couple more to get the door unlocked from the outside.

 

I drove down to Oak Grove Cemetery and parked by the maintenance shed that I’d hidden behind three years before. I sat on the cool grass, Indian-style and plucked the longer blades off of the tombstone that read:

 

Courtney Anne Doyle
Beloved Daughter
February 29 1980 — June 09 2012

 

“I love you,” was all I said.

Then I just listened to the wind, and in that quiet, I found home again.

Interview: Todd Robinson

robinson

When I first came into this crazy crime addled community I scoped out the alpha dogs, the guys running the show. There weren’t any bigger than Big Daddy Thug, Todd Robinson, founder of THUGLIT and launcher of more than one career. Looking at his magazine, I decided at the moment I was going to be part of that action. As soon as I made that decision, Todd put the magazine on hiatus to focus on what he does best, write. The magazine is back with a vengeance and Todd’s book THE HARD BOUNCE is one of my must haves for 2013 (available for pre-order). Let’s just hope the Mayans were wrong.

So, are we ready for some Thug?

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

I was about 24 years old and working the door at Boston’s legendary Rathskellar in Kenmore Square when I picked up Andrew Vachss’s BLOSSOM and Elmore Leonard’s GLITZ. At the time, I was. It was the first fiction that I’d read where the characters spoke to the world I lived in, that reflected the nature of life at street level without judgment, that accepted those character’s struggles with as much humanity. When I read those novels, my reaction was, “Hey! I know stories like these. I know people like these.” For the record (and since I’ve been asked multiple times already) The Cellar in THE HARD BOUNCE is a not-so-veiled doppelganger for The Rathskellar. Anybody who knew that scene back in the day might even recognize some of the (also not-so-thinly-veiled) characters in the novel.

Job experiences are great to pull from for writing, especially ones that put you face to face with people of all walks. Before we jump into the writing, tell us about your greatest contribution to the writing community? How did Thuglit come about?

thugpirateIn 2004, I was looking at the markets for short fiction, but couldn’t find anybody who was publishing the kind of gritty fiction that I liked to read—that I wanted to write.

By the time I was pointed at Plots With Guns, they had already stopped taking submissions. There wasn’t much of anything else

At the Toronto Bouchercon, I got into a couple of heated discussions with the long-time AARP members that held a stranglehold on the most prominent short fiction markets. They kept complaining that their sales shrank every year; I told them that their audience was dying of old age. I kept questioning them about publishing material that spoke to an audience that wasn’t of my grandmother’s sensibilities, maybe loosening their restrictions on language and sexuality—in other words, adapting for a younger market. Needless to say, they didn’t take my suggestions civilly. And neither did much of the audience, which consisted of mostly residents of what I could only assume was the same nursing home, and cozy aficionados. Basically, by the end, I was told that there was no market for edgy fiction, and if I didn’t like what they did, I should go start my own magazine. I did.

And I think the number of literary awards and accolades that THUGLIT has garnered over the last seven years, side-by-side with what they’ve achieved, speaks for itself.

Reminds me of a conversation I had with a cozy writer on the way home from the St. Louis Bouchercon, a definite generational divide. Not to rehash too much history, but a lot of readers like myself missed the Thuglit the first go around, so give us the highlight reel, the behind the scenes of becoming Big Daddy Thug.

I already had the domain name, which served as a half-assed blog. THUGLIT was my answer to Chick Lit. And a “thuglit” is also a term in the urban dictionary for “a little thug”—a tem I thought was perfect for short fiction in our vein. I just opened it up for submissions on writer forums, Craigslist, and the such. It amazed me how many writers and readers, right off the bat, were so grateful that somebody was publishing their kind of fiction. Two issues in, and we had Derringer nominations and a story in Best American Mystery. It just kinda snowballed from there.

As far as Big Daddy Thug is concerned, it started as a joke. One night at the bar, this drunken bimbo was complaining that I didn’t buy her a round. The owner of the bar, eager to move the screeching harpy away from earshot, waved an okay to me to comp her one. I found a middle ground. I told said Bimbo, that I would buy her a round if she said “Thank you, Big Daddy.” Much to my surprise, she did, resulting in a spit-take from my boss, and a free shit-brand rum-and-coke for Bimbo. Everybody wins! After that, Big Daddy became the nickname for my nasty side, and the nickname has followed me through three different bars now.

So when we started the mag, I thought it would be fun to have noir alter-egos and to have an alternate universe for the editors to play in. Over the years, the core group of our editorial knuckle-headery consisted of Lady Detroit (Allison Glasgow) and Johnny Kneecaps (John Moore); and our guest editors were Caesar Black (Robert S.P. Lee), The Pope of St. Louis (Jordan Harper), Roadhouse (Justin Porter) El Feo (Alejandro Peña), and now, we’ve just added The Blue Dahlia (Julie McCarron) to the core.

A bunch of little thugs showing what you could do. I dig. You and I have some common ground where we both entered as writers and let circumstance evolve us into more. I can’t imagine you expected to be approaching 10 years as a publisher and purveyor of other writers’ works?

I had no intention of being on this side of the desk at ALL, much less for nearly a decade. If you’ve ever enjoyed anything out of THUGLIT, you owe a strange debt of gratitude to the cozy biddies who issued a challenge to a guy that doesn’t take challenge lightly.

Are you a hat wearer? You seem to wear a few of them as publisher, writer, family man and working stiff. How do you manage that balancing act?

Like the old saying goes; “Want to know how to get something done? Ask a busy man.”

I read submissions on my subway ride to work. I’m answering this question while the kid naps (he’s three-years-old) and the wife is at school. I’m working seven bar shifts next week. When the kid goes to bed tonight, I’m designing the cover for the third issue of Thuglit and editing a story. I always feel like I’m behind on something (and I usually am). If I take any time off, even one night, I get anxiety attacks. Oh, and I told my agent that I’d have a new novel in her hands by the end of January.

I may have psychological issues…

You didn’t leave any room write? I get what you’re laying down, every scrap of time is an opportunity. All those stolen opportunities have resulted in your first novel, The Hard Bounce being released from Tyrus Books. You touched on it at the top of the interview, give us the pitch!

thehardbounceI’m a binge writer. I need larger blocks of time to write, but when I do, I fly. I recently got into a conversation with kid who was in the Creative Writing program at The New School and he was curious about my process. God bless the kid—head full of flights of fancy, but also wedged firmly in his own ass. He said that he could maybe get two or three good paragraphs out in a week. I replied that I stitched together three good hours the week before, wrote a 12 page short story, and had it placed in a magazine before the weekend was over. My personal best was 223 pages written in 8 days. I almost had to be hospitalized after, but I did it.

The Hard Bounce…man. Been ten years of rough road on that baby, but it’s finally seeing the light of day. The fucker has been with four publishers, five agents, and has seen more edits than I care to count any more. But I’ve always believed in the book and loved the characters. I still can’t believe most days that the journey with it is almost over (it comes out in January 2013). My only concern is over-hype. I mean, this book has been on some people’s radar for a decade, been so close so many times, and so many people have (God bless ’em) been waiting to see it. But you know what? Honestly? I wrote what I hope is a fresh take in a genre I love. I really hope that people love the ride and feel with the characters as deeply as I do. But I live in fear of that over-hype. I’m not a literary writer. I’m a storyteller. Some people talk to me about it like they’re expecting some ten-year opus of literature. I just want people to have fun with the read. Hope they walk away wanting more of it.

I’m terrible with “the pitch” aren’t I?

Buy the book. I’m pretty sure you’ll dig it.

I really, really suck at the pitch…

Ten years is a long road, ten years of being passed through so many hands and coming so close to publication. During any of that time did you think, I’ve got this brand, Thuglit, maybe I should just do this on my own? Especially with the changes in the marketplace in recent years?

I have considered it. The problem was, years ago, to self-publish was tantamount to career suicide. You couldn’t get reviewed, you couldn’t get in bookstores. Most products that came out of print-on-demand publishers was shoddy. Kindle and E-books were in their infancies and didn’t have the market share that they’ve achieved in only the last three or four years.

Another issue with self-publication is promotion. And when I say promotion—let’s face it—we’re talking money here. If you look at the numbers, a very, very, low percentile of self-published authors reach any kind of success. And those that do, have either invested immense amounts of money in their promotions, or have benefited from publishing the traditional route first—benefited previously from having the stamp of “legitimacy” awarded to their work and had their names churned in front of audiences through the marketing machines of the industry. It really pisses me off to see these “self-publishing gurus”, who have had thousands of dollars spent on publicity by their previous publishers, shit on writers who want the same benefits that the “gurus” enjoyed by starting out on the traditional route—also with editors who helped them refine their craft over the years. Then these fuckwits walk around like they’re self-made and did it all themselves, and everyone else is a pack of idiots for attempting to do it the way THEY did. Pisses me off even more to see their acolytes blindly cheer these egomaniacal jerkoffs on by buying into their bullshit. And I don’t know if anybody else has noticed, but a HUGE number of these loudmouthed “successful” self-published authors jump onto the next “legitimate” publisher that sails by when the opportunity arises. That should say something right there about the problems with doing it yourself.

I still believe that an institutional stigma exists against self-published works, it’s just not as severe. Hell, I have prejudices against self-published work. When I tell people that my novel is coming out, their first question is, “Who’s publishing it?” Most of these people asking the question don’t know Random House from Full House. They just want to know whether it’s self-published or not, since I’m sure that the majority of the time they ask the question nowadays, the answer is going to be “self-published.” Comparably, I self-published a collection of short stories earlier this year, and when I tell people that it’s self-published, I can almost hear the muscles straining under their eyelids as they fight the urge to roll their eyes. The eyes roll a little less when I rattle off the magazines that previously published the stories. The problem is this—when you’re a writer thinking about self-publishing, your opinion is not enough. It really isn’t. While it’s nice to enjoy a self-actualized sense of quality in your writing…you WROTE the fucking thing. If you get an entire industry telling you that something is not up to par in your work, you might want to pay attention, try another angle. A real problem with the relative ease and product quality of the self-published market is that so many of the books writing-wise just aren’t that fucking good. I like to think that the last ten years have taught me a lot, both by giving me room to grow as a writer AND to implement that in my novel as I went along. Looking at the earliest drafts of my novel, I want to fucking puke—and it was almost published. If it had been, either by myself or someone else, it would be in that state forever. NOW, will I look back at The Hard Bounce in another decade and want to puke? I sure hope so. I hope I continue to learn and grow in the craft to that point until every decade makes me want to projectile vomit all over my prior work.

If you want to be a writer…a real writer…then you should learn something from every rejection you receive, try to grow, rather than stomp your feet and just publish it yourself. Being a writer is a fuckload more than just being published.

Are there any new voices come up through Thuglit or other short story venues readers should keep an eye on? Some rising stars?

There are other short story venues???

With the THUGLIT reboot only two issues in, it’s too small a sample size to really determine who’s a rising star just yet. We’ve already published a couple of tales from powerhouse regulars such as Jason Duke, Matt Funk, Mike Wilkerson, Katherine Tomlinson and Pat Lambe. Any one of them could blow up at any time.

Jordan Harper, Hilary Davidson and Mike MacLean and Johnny Shaw are already superstars in their own right, so they get a DQ from “rising star” status.

Justin Porter, whom we’ve published multiple times over the years, just sent off his first novel— which I’m willing to throw money on as being something to watch out for.

But the name that’s already setting off my radar is Terrence McCauley. The guy has submitted only two stories and he’s already got two stories accepted. Even though there’s crossover within the narratives, each story reads at such different emotional/perspective levels that I was legitimately surprised when I realized that both stories were written by the same person. That punk can write his ass off.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

Tell your story. That’s it. Just tell your story.

Fucking Cold by Todd Robinson

A wave of frigid air blasted into Moe as he stepped out of the diner.  He quickly closed his leather jacket against the Maine winds.  Fuck, New England was cold.

He slumped onto the unfinished bench, next to the yutz in the ridiculously poofy fleece jacket.  Moe pulled out his Camels, patted his coat pockets for some matches.

The yutz smiled at him, struck a wooden match, cupping his hands around it.

“Thanks.”

“No problem,” said the yutz.

Seriously.  What was up with that jacket?  Guy looked like an overfed deer tick.  Moe may have been banished up here into the sticks, but he’d die a slow hypothermic death before he abandoned his New York style.  A sharp wind gave Moe a huge shudder, that hypothermic death less of a hypothetical suddenly.

Moe sucked in a drag, warming the air in his lungs.  It was all perspective, and Moe knew that he had a lot more blessings to count, than fates to curse.

Sure, Maine was cold, but New York was hit with eight inches of snow the morning he left.  At least in Maine, the snow was still white, pretty.  Not the slushy Hershey-squirt brown that Manhattan snow morphed into an hour later.

Moe thought he’d miss it more than he did.

After forty years, Moe was finally out from under the Bass family.  Wasn’t so bad when he was just a pup, running numbers for old man Vinnie Bassichi, but since Johnnie took over…  Jesus.  Nobody got nicknamed “Butcher” as a compliment unless you were good with a pork chop.  Johnnie Bass wasn’t gonna be working at a steakhouse any time soon, though depending on who you asked, maybe he should, considering the talent that the man supposedly wielded with a cleaver.

No, Moe made the right decision.  It was time.  So, he sent a little UPS package to his cousin in ME, called the F.B.I., and made himself a D-E-A-L.  He didn’t feel the slightest guilt over it, either.  Moe’d been running numbers in the West Village for forty…forty fucking years!  And how did that punk Johnnie treat him?  By slowly squeezing him out with the niggers and spics that Johnny loved to use so much, those little pack animals that roamed the streets, terrorizing the old ladies.  Tell you what, Vinnie would have sooner stuck his spaghetti fork into his own eye than work with any of those animals.

But times changed.  Vinnie was long dead.  Johnnie was boss, and Moe was too old to be putting up with that shit any more.

A woman with a stroller walked along the parking lot towards the diner.  In an unexpected flash of self-consciousness, Moe waved the smoke away from the door.

Moe smiled.  A week out here, and already his demeanor was softening.  In New York, he didn’t give two shits if a pregnant woman with asthma passed through the acrid clouds of smoke he left in his wake.  But that was New-Fucking-York.  Bad enough they made him smoke outside.  The hell with you if you couldn’t take it.

But he wasn’t in New York any more.  And he wasn’t going back.  He was done.

No, all things considered, Maine wasn’t going to be so bad.  Maybe he’d even quit smoking, now that he had reasons to live a long life, now that the constant pressure of Johnnie’s thumb was off the back of his neck.

Moe took another drag, hacked a long one as he opened his phone.  Moe couldn’t tell how much of his cough was smoke, or the air freezing out of his lungs.

“Jeez, buddy, that doesn’t sound healthy,” said the smiling yutz.

Moe curled his own smile, dropping the Camel into the sand-filled ashtray.  “Might be my last one anyway.”

Moe dialed his cousin.  The phone rang until voicemail picked up.  Goddamn it, Harry.  He was supposed to be at the diner with the package twenty minutes ago.  The Fibbies warned him against contacting family, but fuck it.  Harry was his aunt’s second husbands’ kid from a previous marriage.  Not only was he the only person close to family Moe had left, but he doubted that even Homeland Security could successfully establish a link between them, much less Johnnie Bass’s Mutt Mafia.

“Harry running late?”

“Yeah.  Goddamned old man’s gonna be late for his own…”  Moe trailed off, the Maine air feeling that much colder.

The yutz saw the question, unasked on Moe’s face.  The guy who was outside on the smoking bench, but never lit a cigarette other than Moe’s.  Sitting in the freezing air alone, for no good reason—apparently.

The guy smiled gently, an apologetic look in his eyes as he answered the question that Moe didn’t ask.

“Same way I know that was your last cigarette, Moe…”