Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Book I Would Have Killed to Have Written by James Lee Burke

A few years ago I wrote a story about war that I thought was going to be the first of many, maybe enough for a collection (finding a publisher for said collection would be a different issue). The story was called Elena Speaks of the City, Under Siege and Crimespree published it. It was a good story, and if you scroll down far enough, you'll find it on this blog in its entirety. The collection I was planning would be of war stories and they would be devastating. Of course, no one thinks of writing dull stories...

Anyway. Elena was as far as I got except for a few snippets here and there. Certainly no collection, no devastation. But of course, my conceit remained. That always dies hard. Ah well.

But then I picked up Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke recently. I've only read a few of the stories, but great googally-moogally. Approaching what I've read from the POV of a writer it's like Mr. Burke got tired of listening to me prattle on, stood up and punched me in the gut. Then he stoops over me as I'm on all fours trying to get air back into my lungs and he asks whether I'd like more. And for the life of me I can't help but say yes.

This is exactly the collection I wanted to write. I'll have more to say later and I'll save it for Nasty. Burtish. Short. but let me just hint that a story called The Village is as chilling a piece as I've read in some while and I read a lot of chilling things.

My hat's off to you Mr. Burke. But you knew that. You're the one that knocked it off my head.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Van der Flieder is coming...

If you haven't heard, Shred of Evidence is back in business with a new format and a new lineup of stories. One of those stories, many thanks to the inimitable Megan Powell, is my story, Taking Van der Flieder’s Star.

In it, three friends from New York take a trip into the woods. If you've ever been with a New Yorker in the woods, then you know this can't end well. In any event, the story is a take on a Bogart movie that I can't for the life of me recall the name of. You'll have to wait until September to find out.

I should say that the story is one of the longer short stories I've written at about 7,300 words. Not sure why that's important, but there it is.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The inside story on The Devil in Jackson County

If you scroll down a bit, you'll see a story about the devil which has never before been published. There are reasons why this is so, but I first want to dispell two possibilities.

Myth #1 - Maybe it was never published because Torres never sent it out or sent it to the wrong places. This is false. I sent the story out to a handful of magazines. Rejections tendd toward personalized, "good writing, but the story is not for us." I also try to do a bit of market research before sending out a story so that I'll know if it is in general a good fit. My research led me to believe I was sending the story to the right places.

Myth #2 - Maybe it was never published because it was a bad story. Well, to that I can say "read it yourself." I don't think it is a particularly bad story, but then neither is it a partiicularly good story and that remark brings me to the reasons I think publication eluded the Devil.

Reason #1 - The story doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it humor? Can't be. There's a lynching. Is it, then, serious? Not quite. The devil has a few good lines. Is it religious? Well... there is a conversion, but then the Devil comes off as sympathetic. That might be someone's religion, but not mine, so...shall we call it mainstream, literary, fantasy? Or maybe hodge-podge? Strangely, not many publishers looking for hodge-podge.

Reason #2 - While it is a decent story, it's not a great one. The concept of the devil being bested in a bargain is not new. The wager he proposes doesn't really gel as one put forward by a worldly wise negotiator, more like a high schooler. There are some good lines, but really the story was constructed for the punch line and could have been half as long, I think.

I've certainly seen worse stories in print (this was the basis for my starting my first novel - I could do better) but that's no reason to think the story deserves publication. File that under "two wrongs don't make a right."

If you have other reasons why the story struck out (over and over) let me know. If you're a publisher who would like to contact me about publishing stories of a similar quality, let me know also. I've got loads of them.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

What he said...

Allan Guthrie, author of HARD MAN, has said some nice things about my latest effort, which, of course, I want to share. A bit of disclosure here first. I've recently interviewed Al for Crimespree Magazine. (Look for that interview in the upcoming issue.) I've read his last two books including the aforementioned title and KISS HER GOODBYE put out by Hard Case Crime last year. Wonderful, hard boiled books the both of them. But enough about him...

I sent Al an advanced copy of THE CONCRETE MAZE. He liked it, for which I am grateful. Here, then, a blurb: ""Tremendous novel. As tough as it is heartbreaking. Beautifully written -- controlled, poised and confident throughout. You have a new fan."

Now that's what I like to hear...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A gift from Donna Moore...

The inimitable Donna Moore, author of Go to Helena Handbasket, has sent me a book (free of charge and postage paid). What did I get? Saturday's Child by Ray Banks. Now, I've never read Mr. Banks (my fault) but on her recommendation, it is the book I'll start reading today.

Still, the strangest thing... the front cover blurb proclaims that Banks is "part of the post-Rankin generation." Here I was thinking that Rankin might still have some life in him yet. Apparently The Guardian, a well respected news outlet, believes differently. Thank you for your services, Mr. Rankin. We hardly knew you.

Monday, June 18, 2007

If you scroll down a little...

You'll see a story I first published at Firefox News, which is not related either to Fox News or the Firefox browser.

The story had been rejected at a couple of places - most stories are - and one of them gave me what I thought was a pretty good rejection: personalized and with a bit of information that I thought I could use. One of the best rejections, I think. Anyway, the bit of information was something like "Though the story is well written, we just published a patient zero story a few months ago." I didn't, at the time, know what a "patient zero" story was. I looked it up. I hadn't known that was what I was writing, but it was. Seems like I fell into a cliche - a named one at that - So I went about changing the story, reworking the last couple of pages so that it was no longer a "patient zero" story.

Big mistake. Well, two of them actually. First, I didn't save a copy of the original. Then, it turned out that the change caused a ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. It still made sense, but it wasn't any fun now. So I reconstructed the last couple of pages (yet again) and produced the story you see below. I think it is fun again and I hope it provides a twist (however slight) on the cliche. You'll let me know.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Sunday Story

A Smile for the End of the World
Steven Torres

She smiled at me, and I knew I would do anything she asked. She flipped a lock of her soft brown hair behind an ear and smiled still more radiantly, more beautifully than I had imagined possible, and I knew that what she was about to ask would be, at the very least, distasteful. But how was I supposed to know that what she wanted from me was an act that would ultimately lead to this sickness I have and maybe to the end of my life and the entire world?

“What?” I asked innocently. We were sitting on her couch. I was there by her invitation, but when I had leaned in closer, she had leaned away and given me her smile instead of a kiss.

“Oh, I don’t know if I should ask…” she started.

“What?” I repeated. Looking back, I think my eagerness must have been plain enough. Could she have been innocent at that point?

“I need a favor, but we’ve only known each other this short time, and I…” Again she trailed off. I knew I was being led to declare that I would do anything for her, and I still couldn’t avoid telling her just that.

“Well,” was her response. “I inherited this cabin in the woods…They call it lakefront property, but really it’s just an overgrown pond. Anyway, the cabin is falling to pieces – I mean literally, there are pieces of it on the ground all around it – Anyway, the property is really nice, quiet; I guess I would call it serene. I had a contractor up there a week or two ago, and he said he could easily build a new cabin in the same spot.”

She stopped there, and I let myself think about living in a cabin by the lake with her surrounded by no neighbors and in the midst of only tranquility.

“But knocking over the old cabin – it would really be just knocking it over – would cost me thirteen thousand dollars extra, and I can’t afford that, not any time soon, at least…”

I tried to think what was being asked of me but the image of a cherubic girl toddler running towards us in a clearing of the lakeside forest clouded my mind for a moment.

She reached out a hand to tap my shoulder with her forefinger playfully.

“If you help me, I’m sure we can knock that cabin down in a weekend. We can save all that money,” she said.

Now the idea of saving money always sounds good, and there was no way I was going to pass up a weekend in the woods with her; she must have seen that already. Still, one does want to do things properly and so I felt compelled to ask some serious questions.

“How big is the place?”

She must have smelled the utter annihilation of my defenses because her smile and eyes widened, and she leaned forward to give me a peck on the cheek.

“It’s two small rooms. The whole thing is wood. It’s rotting. Really, I think we could use your pickup, tie the cabin up and tug it down, it’s that dilapidated. It’s a shame really. I remember going there every summer with my parents. In fact, I even stayed there – let me see – maybe two years ago. Grandpa had always kept it up nice. It was a great place to stay.”

“What happened to it?” I asked.

“Well, Grandpa died and part of the roof was caved in, and the last couple of winters the snow has fallen straight in, not to mention rain and such.”

“A tree fell?” I asked.


“And caved in the roof?”

“Oh, no not at all, well, I mean, kind of, but that’s not what caved in the roof. You’ll never guess what happened.” She paused and clapped her hands together as though actually waiting for me to play a guessing game. I shrugged.

“It got hit by a meteor. It crashed through some treetops and right into the roof – caved in most of it. One of the walls is leaning quite a bit too –”

At this point, the doctor, I forget his name, tapped me on the forehead with his pen.

“I’ve heard all of this already, Mr. Keegan. I heard about the smile, the cabin, the lake. What I asked you was whether you could remember her name. Her name, Mr. Keegan. This could be very important.”

I sneezed.

“I’m sorry, what were you asking about?”

“You remember the woman with the smile?”

“Yes. I’ll never forget that smile. She smiled at me and…”

“No, no. I need to know her name, Mr. Keegan.”

“Well it wasn’t Mrs. Keegan, I know that much. I wanted it to be, though. She had a smile on her. She smiled at me and…”

“Yes, I know the rest, excuse me Mr. Keegan. Stay right here. I’m just going to step out and get a nurse. I’ll be back in a minute.”

The doctor went out the door, and as it closed behind him, I could see he was headed down the hallway. My memory has been slipping on me for the past few days…I think. I do remember some things. There’s the smile, the most radiant smile you’ve ever seen. I could get lost in that smile for days, but I won’t.

I went to the cabin. I know that much. She didn’t. Instead, I got a phone call at six in the morning the day I was supposed to pick her up to go out to the cabin. I knew what she was going to say even before I picked up the phone. She was feeling under the weather and could I go on my own and tear down the cabin. As she said the words, I knew she was smiling and, of course, I said yes. What else could I have said? “No, I’m not man enough to do this alone. I need your help.” Besides, I was sure she was smiling, and I was not the man to resist that.

I remember being on the road that Saturday – I think it was last Saturday – alone. Not only was there no one in the passenger seat, there was no one else on the roads the full one hundred miles to the turnoff that led to the cabin. I remember that the way to the cabin quickly turned into a dirt road, which quickly became overgrown and narrow, and a minute or two after leaving the highway, my brand new SUV was scratched by branches on either side and dirt was kicking up each time I drove into a hole. I remember being angry at that and driving faster to get it over with. This made things worse.

Anyway, I remember finding the cabin. It was like she said. There was a huge hole in the roof and part of a wall had already come down. When I went in, there was an inch of dust on everything and a giant boulder sitting in the middle of the room, broken planks that used to be the flooring sticking every which way out from under it. The place was a bit bigger than I had thought it would be, but the main structural feature was a stone fireplace and between the planks levering it up and the timbers falling down from the roof on top of it, that was ready to give way. Piece of cake. I couldn’t figure out how a contractor could dare to charge anything for knocking the place down. It wouldn’t take me and my SUV more than a day.

Before demolishing anything, I took a look at the meteor. It looked like a rock. Nothing special. It didn’t glow, or hum, or speak to me. It wasn’t warm. I tried to move it, but it was as big as a sofa and it wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t think the SUV was going to have any luck, but then the smiling lady had told me, and this I remember, that I didn’t have to move anything, I just had to tear the house down and that was it. I took one of my gloves off and touched the rock. I guess I was thinking about how it had traveled millions of miles and maybe millions of years, and here it was where I could touch it. Serendipity.

I lassoed the chimney, tied it to the tow-knob of my SUV, put it in reverse and brought the whole thing down along with most of what was left of the roof and most of the wall it was attached to. The dust cloud that raised was enormous and hung in the air for about five minutes, but I sat in my vehicle with the windows up.

I pulled down another wall the same way. Two walls, the fireplace, and most of the roof took me less than an hour. The other two walls and the bit of roof that was left didn’t want to budge. They were locked in together snug. It was time for me to get out the sledgehammer I had brought with me. For the next hour or more I pounded on the walls at strategic spots. Then I roped them to the SUV and reversed. It did no good.

The bits of roof that remained held the walls together, so up I went. I climbed on top with the hammer and smashed away for fifteen minutes – I remember checking my watch. Then I heard the walls begin to creak and the part of the roof I was standing on became wobbly and I could tell I had a second or two to get off before I came down with the roof and walls and everything. That’s when – the man in the white lab coat (a doctor I think) is back. There’s a woman in white with him, but she’s not smiling.

“Mr. Keegan. We’ve spoken to Mary, Mary Henderson. That’s her name. Anyway, she told us all about what happened. If it’s any comfort to you, Mr. Keegan, she’s sorry she didn’t call you, and she’s sorry you got sick. She hopes you’re feeling better soon.”
The doctor put on a face mask and latex gloves as he spoke, then he started shining a little flashlight into my eyes and poked a q-tip into one of my nostrils.

“That’s when I jumped and fell next to the meteor and all the stuff fell on top of me,” I told him.

“When was this?” the doctor asked me, and I started to wonder who had the memory problem.

“When I was demolishing the cabin. I was on the roof a while, but I had to jump off and the roof and part of a wall fell on top of me, and I got this.” I held up my hand.

“You injured yourself with the meteor?” the doctor asked. He removed the bandaging I had put on my right hand.

“I got this gigantic splinter stuck in my hand, but I didn’t notice for ten minutes because I was sneezing so hard. The dust from everything collapsing. It was like I was in a dust storm. I don’t know how much of this stuff I inhaled. I…” The doctor put a thermometer in my mouth and started examining the place where I had used my pliers to take out the splinter. It was a six-inch piece of wood from a plank sticking out from under the meteor – I think.

“You have a very serious fever, Mr. Keegan. One hundred and four point six. That is very high,” the doctor said, but I don’t remember him taking the thermometer from my mouth.

“You also have what looks like a very severe rash around your nose, mouth and eyes. Infected, I would say. Probably from you rubbing your face during this dust storm you talked about. And you still have some bits of the splinter imbedded in your hand…” The doctor was looking at my hand with a magnifying glass that was on a mechanical arm attached to the wall.

“Yes. You definitely have an infection here. Pretty severe. And a rash.”

“And animals,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“And animals. Don’t forget the animals.”

“You came into contact with an animal?”

“You did too.” It was clear he had no idea what I was talking about.

“On my hand. Little red animals. They’re from the meteor – I think. Take a closer look.”

He looked again with the magnifying glass but looked up and shook his head.

“I don’t see any bugs or…”

“Look close and wait a second or two. You can’t see them individually. You can only see the fact that the red mark moves around a little.”

I didn’t know how else to explain this to him. After all, he’s the doctor. He looked again.

“You might be right,” the doctor said. Then he turned the magnifying glass on his own hand and studied the latex glove.

“You’re certainly correct about this infestation, Mr. Keegan.” He turned to the nurse. “Can you take this swab to the lab and… On second thought, let’s just step out for a minute.” The doctor snapped off his gloves and tossed them in a little wastebasket after putting the swab and the thermometer on an examination tray along with the stethoscope he had used. The two of them hurried out of the room like I had told them I had the cooties, or something. I guess I did.

I don’t remember how I got to the examining room. I remember calling the woman with the smile. I called her the next morning. I felt so bad – I couldn’t breathe, I had a ringing headache, every joint hurt – I would’ve wished I were dead, but I was too close to death to joke around like that. Still, I wanted to hear her voice. Her smile carries through on her voice. You can tell when she’s smiling even if she’s only talking to you on the phone. I called, but it wasn’t her that answered.

“Yes, Mr. Keegan, we know. It was her boyfriend, the one who’s a contractor. The one she will marry.”

I don’t know who this guy is. He’s not the guy I was talking to a minute ago. This one can read my mind.

“I’m not reading your mind, Mr. Keegan. You’re talking aloud. Mary Henderson and the contractor went to the woods to neck. They never went inside the cabin. They stayed in their car and went skinny dipping in the lake. The meteor was infested with some kind of microbe…”

“Are you my doctor?”

“I am now. Doctor Weeks was taken ill. So was Nurse Macmillan.”

“Where are they?”

“That’s not important, Mr. Keegan. Your co-workers have also gotten sick. You remember Thomas Kline? He brought you to the infirmary at work last Monday? Anyway, this is pointless.”

“Come closer.” I reached out my hand to touch my new doctor, and he took a step back. There was a plastic bubble around me. I touched it.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“You’re in the intensive care unit in Saint Elizabeth’s. Does that ring any bells?”

“No. Yes. Wait a minute. Ah, no. Sorry. Who are you?”

“I’m Clarence Reilly. I work for the Center for Disease Control. I’ll be staying with you for the next few hours.”

“Then what happens?”

“Well, I’ll be perfectly blunt with you, Mr. Keegan because I know you’ll forget what I say in a few minutes, probably as soon as you sneeze again. I’m here to do your autopsy and oversee the transport and incineration of your corpse.”

“Disease control?”

“Those little animals you brought back from the cabin have been a bit of trouble, Mr. Keegan.”

“Have other people gotten sick too?”

“Ah, yes. I guess that’s a fair assessment.”

“Who got sick?” I could tell I was bugging him, but nobody gives me information. You know how doctors are.

“Well, your co-workers, for starters. Then their families. Then the children and staff at about a dozen schools, Mr. Keegan. Then their families. Then the children and staff at several dozen other schools and some colleges locally.”

“Not too bad, though, right? I mean, they got the flu like me?”

“Well, they got whatever you have, but I can tell you it’s not the flu, Mr. Keegan.”

“I feel bad about all this. How many have gotten sick?”

“Over two thousand so far. It’s about as bad as a contamination can get. I heard an hour ago that even incineration might not be enough; that maybe the buggers are going airborne in the ash. They can’t even be studied – every researcher has come down with the things regardless of the precautions. I’m here on what might well be a suicide mission. But you won’t care about that. These microbes or whatever they are have eaten through your sinuses and the membrane surrounding your brain. They’ve chewed up part of your brain, Mr. Keegan, and a little bit dribbles out every time you sneeze. Contributes to the memory loss I suppose.”

“This sounds bad.” There comes a point when there isn’t all that much else one can say. “Is everyone else like this?”

“Not at all. Most of them are dead already.”

“Oh. And the others? What are you going to give them?”

“Well, Mr. Keegan, so far nothing has worked. Really it’s been a question of watching people die quickly. We’ll study you. Frankly, you’re a marvel. Everyone else has died within three days of contact; sometimes four. You’ve gone nine days and haven’t kicked off yet. I’m here to find out why, Mr. Keegan. Maybe something inside of you can be refined to help others.”

“So I might end up saving the world, right?”

“Or you might have doomed it.”

The doctor from… wherever he said he was from… smiled at me. Then I remembered everything, everything that was important at least. I remembered her smile and how she smiled at me, and I knew I would do anything she asked. She smiled and flipped a lock of her soft brown hair back over her left ear, and I knew I would do what she asked whether I wanted to or not.

The End.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Bronx Noir

Got my contributor copies of the long awaited Bronx Noir. Never been anthologized before. Hope this is the first of many. Can't help but think that the book is a wonderful book. Stories by Ed Dee, SJ Rozan, and Lawrence Block are in there alongside of mine. I'm honored of course. Also can't wait to dig in. Would it be unethical of me to review other people's short stories over at Nasty. Brutish. Short.?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Concrete Maze, Chapter One

I wasn't actually planning to do this until a few weeks from now, but my publisher has recently posted the first chapter of my latest book, THE CONCRETE MAZE. If you want to take a look, you can find it HERE. I should say that it is a hradboiled noir novel set in NYC in the early 1990s.

Enjoy and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

John Rickards - WINNER!

A while back I posted about my reading. I had pitted John Rickards and his novel Winter's End against George V. Higgins and his novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I was reading both at the same time (not unusual for me to be reading several books at a time). Back then, I noted that Rickards was holding my attention and Higgins was losing it. In fact, soon after that post, I became totally engrossed in Rickards' novel and finished it off in a few days which is pretty good timing for me as I am a slow reader.

Higgins spent the first twenty or thirty pages in setting something up. I've no idea what he was setting up. I lost the book - somewhere in my house, behind behind something larger. Now you might say, "Well, Rickards just won by default," but that would be wrong. For one thing, since I had the Rickards book firmly in hand, I didn't feel a need to find the Higgins at all. In fact, Rickards' book was very good, with plenty of tension to keep me reading, a well developed plot, a great main character and a satisfying conclusion.

Next time I read a Rickards novel, I'll be sure to pit him against some other classic novel - maybe a Hammett? James Cain? - Rickards can fight cage matches until he can't no more... Wonderful idea - pitting living authors against the classics in a sort of battle royale. Of course, the living authors have the advantage of...well...being alive. Still, the dead authors have the weight of tradition on their side. Could be interesting. There could be tag teams. There could be grudge matches. Like the World Cup, we could have nations pitted against each other. I could apply the science of bracketology...

Okay, that went on long enough.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Inside Scoop on The Inspector

If you scroll down a bit you can read my short story, The Inspector, first published in Shred of Evidence a year or more ago. The story is a good one, but there's a problem that I can't help thinking it has. I'll get to that in a minute. First, the background of where the story came from.

WhenI was young, my family and I attended a church on Manida Street in the Bronx. It was a storefront church and the pastor had to have a full-time secular job to support his family. He worked as a meat inspector for the USDA. Sometimes, he came to church for an evening service still in his uniform - looked kind of like a mailman's uniform except with a sidearm. I wondered, even back then, why he would need to carry a gun in order to inspect meat. A magnifi=ying glass, maybe, but a gun?

It turns out that the job had its dangers and there were two ways of dealing with them. Imagine this, you inspect a meat processing plant and find roaches or rats or some other major infraction. If you shut the place down, the company loses tens of thousands of dollars if not hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions. Those company owners might want to kill you. Well, you can either have a gun to make them think twice or you can tell them the problem will go away if they give you a small bag filled with cash. My pastor was not a bribe taker.

Still, I could easily imagine how this enormous power could be used to hurt people. That's what my inspector does.

The problem I have with the story is with the ending. I wanted the hero to not recognize herself as such. I wanted the ending to be low-key. I wanted understatement at the end, and I think I got that, but I'm worried. The ending sounds a little like a punchline to my ear. That wasn't my intention. Not sure if any readers have ever thought that. Anyway, it's been published, so it's a bit late to complain. Oh well.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Short Story Woes...

Over at Criminal Brief, the question has been raised as to why so many seem to avoid the short story. The argument is made (I hope to get it right) that working in the short story form helps a writer focus on what is important. Many student writers (a lot is directed at student writers, I think) want to work on novels.

In the comments, I mention that it is not cost efficient for anyone who can sell a novel to spend the time writing short stories. It certainly isn't cost efficient for Laura Lippman or Ken Bruen. It isn't even cost efficient for me. The time spent writing short stories would be more profitably spent writing novels, etc.

I also point out my biggest problem recently - I've got a drawer full of short stories that I know to be good, but I can't even give them away. Some are too long for SHOTS, Crimespree and Shred are closed to new submissions. What's a boy to do? Yes, yes, there is Demolition, but they are already publishing one of my stories this July.

Over on Crimespace, Daniel Hatadi mentions that writing short stories is good exercise for writers - we need to play, he says. But then, couldn't we do something else just as profitably? For me, my play includes reading, for instance, or just watching movies.

In the words of the immortal Randy Jackson: "I dunno dawg. Whatchu tink?"

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Scoop on Rolling Rivera

Like a lot of my stories, Rolling Rivera (scroll down) had its genesis in fact. The viciousness of drunks (nor the fact that they will sometimes sleep in strange places) is nothing new, but other parts of the story may need some explaining.

When I was finishing up the Fifth grade in the Bronx, my parents surprised us all (themselves included I think) by moving us to Puerto Rico. I didn't know Spanish, but I learned. The town we moved to was very small. The school had separate buildings - concrete floors, wooden walls, corrugated zinc roofs - for each grade. A lot of things happened but one of the things connected to the story below happened on the last few days of classes.

I assumed, as I finished the sixth grade, that everyone would be doing something with themselves for the summer. I didn't expect that several of the girls were going to be getting married. Straight out of the sixth grade. Of course, a couple of them had been entered into school late in order to go in with their younger siblings - a practice that doesn't happen anymore in Puerto Rico - so they were about fourteen years old. Past due, apparently.

One of the fifth grade girls was going to be getting married as well. That was even more shocking to me. Apparently, the man she was going to marry was in his forties or fifties, but he had a house and a farm - she pointed it out on the hilltop across from the school, and he had paid her father a certain amount, she didn't know how much. Her parents would sign the papers and so would she, then she'd be married. Kind of like signing a deed over - all fair, square, and legal. The idea was to put out a few children before hitting their twenties, I gathered.

As a twelve year old, I thought a lot of this was strange, but I knew that things like this were legal. Jerry Lee Lewis married a twleve or thirteen year old, didn't he? And I supposed as long as there was a commitment of marriage, it couldn't be all that bad. I mean, a man wouldn't pay good money just to treat a girl badly would he?

Interestingly, my across the road neighbors were a large family where the mother was so wrinkled, I thought for sure she was eighty. My grandmother helped her carry a bag of groceries only to find out she was twenty years younger than her. The woman -43 years old - was the mother of one of the best looking twelve year olds around at the time - Bianca. One day, after Bianca and I came home from school, my mother and the woman across the way were in conversation as we walked up to them. Bianca's mother started talking marriage. At the end of the semester. Me and Bianca. Since I hadn't yet heard the stories, I thought it was a joke. My mother hadn't heard the stories either, and she thought it was a joke. Bianca was horrified and I figured she just thought I was defective in some way. She protested loudly. Said she wanted to go to school.

We didn't marry. Her older brother, fifteen, got married a few months later. He also had shared the sixth grade with me - his mother had held him back so he could go with his sister. In the middle of the seventh grade, he hadn't gotten married yet, but money had passed and the engagement was definite. He took me to meet his betrothed. We rode bicycles. His plan, as marked out for him by his parents, was to marry at the end of the seventh grade, go to live with his wife's family (they had a concrete home while his parents lived in a wooden shack) and go to work for "La Tun" which was the Starkist tunafish packing plant.

I met him again years later. He had followed the plan, but the wife and he had not stayed together for more than a couple of years and a couple of babies. Haven't seen him since.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Sunday Short story

If you scroll down a little, you'll see my short story "Rolling Rivera" which was published in SHOTS a couple of years ago. Many thanks to the wondrous Sarah Weinman for accepting it in the first place. The story is one of my Precinct Puerto Rico stories. I'll run a commentary on the story tomorrow. For now, enjoy.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Another Sunday, Another Story

Rolling Rivera
Steven Torres

Sheriff Luis Gonzalo was working the night shift. In Angustias in the late seventies, this meant taking a drive or two through town, settling in for a few hours of solitaire or a nap at the stationhouse, then taking another drive before dawn. He was between drives and sound asleep, his head resting on crossed arms when the phone rang. A hysterical voice cut him off before he had a chance to announce who he was and ask how he could help.

“Rivera’s dead!” The lady screamed. “A truck hit him!”

Gonzalo stood up and reached for a pen.

“Okay, ma’am. Which Rivera is this?”

In Puerto Rico, the Rivera last name is as common as Wong or Smith is in other parts of the world. Angustias was a small town, but there were at least five or six Rivera families.

“Which Rivera?” the lady asked, annoyed. “My Rivera!” She yelled. “He’s dead!”

The longer voice sample allowed Gonzalo to figure out who was calling and who was dead.

“Are you in your house Laura?” he asked firmly, trying to cut through her sobbing.

“Where else should I be?” she asked back.

“Okay. Stay there and stay calm. I’ll be there in two minutes.”

He hung up the phone not waiting for her response, grabbed his car keys and his gunbelt, thought about waking his only deputy at home with a quick call, decided against it, and left.

Abraham Rivera’s house was well known to the sheriff. Rivera was a mean drunk. He was mean when sober too, but he was meaner when drunk which was bad for Laura, his wife, and for his two children since drunk was his natural state.

Early in their marriage, Laura had fought back and held her own when Abraham attacked, but he had broken her spirit and her nose a couple of times, and for many years, Gonzalo knew, she had simply not even complained of his abuse. When the children came, they were fair game also for Abraham’s violence, but they had been spared his full physical fury for the last half dozen years. One night he had drunken himself to sleep in the middle of the lonely road near his house, a practice he had indulged in previously. Drivers normally stopped short of running him over, but one driver didn’t. The driver didn’t stop after running him over either.

The accident left Abraham paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair bound. Doctors had offered the hope that extensive rehab would get him walking again with the help of crutches, but when he found that Social Security would send him checks to stay in a wheelchair and never work again, he laughed at the rehab notion. He talked like paralysis was the best thing that could happen to any man and those who still walked and worked and didn’t get the government’s free money were all suckers.

Gonzalo came to a screeching halt in front of the squished body of Abraham Rivera. He left his car’s roof rack of blue and red lights running, got a flashlight and got out to inspect the body.

Rivera’s house was on a side road, steeply inclined and perpendicular to one of the main arterials that cut through the hills and valleys that made up Angustias. Gonzalo tried to draw a quick mental picture of what had happened.

The body was in the middle of the arterial; the wheelchair was in the tall grass across the road. The simple explanation was that, in drunkenness (Gonzalo could smell the alcohol) Rivera had lost control of his chair, rolled down the hill in front of his house, fallen where he lay, and gotten crushed. The wheelchair had just kept rolling. Gonzalo knelt to examine the corpse though it had been plain even from the car that Rivera was beyond help.

On close inspection, Rivera’s eyes were open and bulging, his nose and mouth had bled profusely. A close set of wide wheels, tractor-trailer wheels, had gone over an arm and across Rivera’s chest. Gonzalo lifted the shirt to see if tire tracks were imprinted onto the skin, but the man was just a bloodied and bruised mess. The medical examiner might find something useful, but he doubted it. He would try to find the trucker, but there were several who used this road late nights because it was so quiet. In any event, no jury in Puerto Rico would convict on even the most watered down charge. On a lonely country road a body laying across the road might be an innocent drunk or part of a hijack team. Truckers were warned against falling for the ploy. “Keep going,” union leaders said. Hell, even the police said it sometimes.

Besides, the trucker would have been going downhill and finishing a curve when he first saw the body, and braking hard would have meant jackknifing at best and rolling over at worst, and even at that nothing short of the mighty hand of God could have stopped a truck doing fifty or even forty from going over Rivera anyway.

Laura, in front of her house at the top of the sidestreet, called out to Gonzalo and waved her arm over her head. Gonzalo motioned for her to come down, and he started to go up the hill. He wanted to meet her halfway. He wanted to talk to her apart from her children.

“It’s terrible, no?” she asked. Over the phone, Laura had sounded hysterical; now, her voice and her eyes said nervous. She scratched lightly at her neck, then her forearm, then she put her hands behind her back.

Gonzalo nodded and looked back towards the body. He tried to put together words for the moment. He and Laura were the same age and had gone to school together until he graduated and went to college and she graduated to marry Abraham. Abraham had been a few years older, and Gonzalo never really got to know him except professionally. The sheriff suffered a moment of anxiety – he wanted to spare Laura any further pain, but he felt certain he would need to arrest her for murder.

“Tell me what happened,” he started.

“What do you mean ‘what happened’?” she held her hands out, palms up in classic question pose. “He’s dead. A truck ran over him.”

“You saw this? You saw the truck?” He pulled a pen and small pad from his shirt pocket as though he were going to write down a description or license plate number.

“No,” Laura said, crossing her arms on her chest. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it.”

“What did you hear?”

She rolled her eyes and shifted her weight from left foot to right.

“I heard a truck horn, maybe a half an hour ago. I didn’t think about it until I called for Abraham to come inside and he didn’t answer. That’s when I came out. I didn’t find him. I came down the hill and saw his body there, right where you see him.”

“What was he doing outside?”

“Waiting for his dinner.”

“You were making dinner at this time of night?”

“Abraham spent the night getting drunk by himself in the living room, then he woke me up after one to cook for him.”

Gonzalo squinted, showing he found the story hard to believe; Laura took a defensive tone.

“You think because you arrested him twice that you know him? Let me tell you, you know nothing about Abraham. When he wants dinner he’s going to get it. The doctor gave him a cane when he left the hospital. He laughed. He said, ‘What do I want this for?’ The doctor said, ‘Keep it, maybe one day you’ll do rehab, and you’ll use it.’ Well, he never did rehab, but he’s used that cane almost everyday for the last six years.”

“He hits you with the cane?”

Laura wiped away tears from both eyes.

“You don’t know, Gonzalo. He traps me in a corner and whips me. His arms are stronger now than they used to be. He’s quick. When I eat, I eat with a fork in one hand and the other hand is a fist. I used to leave it flat on the table but he broke my fingers twice with that cane. Look.” Laura put out her right hand and showed the sheriff a crooked pinky and a crooked ring finger. Then she raised her skirt a few inches and showed a freshly stitched cut on her thigh.

“He did that. He grabbed a steak knife and jabbed me,” she said.


“Why?” Laura repeated with a laugh. “Why? You don’t know Abraham, Gonzalo. That little man is the meanest thing on the whole island.”


“Was what?” Laura asked.

“He was the meanest. Now he’s dead.”

“Yeah, well I can’t say I’m completely sorry.”

“Did you kill him?”

Laura’s eyes opened wide and her head jerked back in surprise. From the reaction, Gonzalo could tell she hadn’t killed her husband. Still, he was pretty sure someone had.

“Did I kill him?” Laura repeated, checking what she thought she had heard.

“I have to ask, Laura.”

“You have to? Well, you don’t know me either, Gonzalo. I wish I… If I had killed him, I would have stabbed him a thousand times. Then I would have gone to the precinct with bloody hands and the bloody knife, and I would have begged you to shoot me.”

“Okay.” Gonzalo put an arm around her. She was crying and breathing hard. He thought she was nearing hysteria when she would be no good to his investigation. He would admit later that he was also thinking of their school days’ friendship. “One doesn’t like to hurt a friend,” he would say. “Even if it is necessary for an investigation.”

“Look, Laura. Let me tell you the truth,” he said. “There is definitely going to be some kind of investigation – it looks like the body was moved, and the medical examiner and the district attorney are going to demand information to clear up what happened here.”


“Abraham’s body is face up. If he had fallen from his chair when he rolled downhill, he would have fallen face down…”

“Who says he fell out?”

“His chair is across the road in perfect condition. He certainly wasn’t sitting in it when he got hit.”

“What if he just wheeled himself down to the road then got out of the chair and lay down to take a nap like he used to? Or maybe he fell off the chair face down, but he turned over in his sleep. I’ve seen him do it before Gonzalo. I’ve seen him do it a thousand times.”

The only problem with these very plausible lines of reasoning was exactly how plausible they were. He knew that Laura hadn’t killed her husband, but she had a ready alibi. He hated to do it, but he would have to dig deeper.

“Let’s go talk to your children.”

“About what?” Laura asked. “I can tell them that Abraham is dead.”

“Yeah, but I have to check what they have to say against what you say. It’s procedure.” He added the last part quietly when Laura gave him a look that told him she was no longer a friend.

“Only Elisa is home,” she said as she walked up the hill.

“Where’s Miguelito?”

“With my sister in Aguada for the past week,” Laura answered. The boy, sixteen, would have been Gonzalo’s second suspect, but he was seventy miles away.

“Isn’t he supposed to be in school?”

“He was getting into fights with Abraham lately. More than usual. I sent him away so he wouldn’t do something stupid like kill his father.”

Gonzalo made a mental note to check on the Aguada alibi.

“Why were they getting into more fights?”

Laura looked at him with a wan smile. He knew she wanted to say “You didn’t know Abraham” but refrained because she had worn out the phrase.

“Because of Elisa,” Laura said as they climbed the steps onto the front porch. Laura called for her daughter; the girl came out of her bedroom rubbing sleep from her eyes.

Elisa Rivera was thirteen and beautiful. Her smile was radiant and her hair long and dark. Gonzalo thought to himself as the girl walked to the living room, that if Abraham Rivera had been degenerate enough to molest his own child, he would stop asking questions, call the death accidental, and let the Rivera’s go on with their lives as best they could.

“Why were Miguel and your father fighting?” Laura asked her daughter.

Elisa opened her eyes wide, taken aback by the question. She looked to her mother as though confirming what she had heard. Apparently, confirmation was given.

“Papi sold me,” the girl said simply and quietly.

It was Gonzalo’s turn to be taken aback. Laura smiled at him as he finally understood that he had not known Abraham Rivera at all.

“What do you mean?” Gonzalo asked the girl.

“I’m supposed to marry Juan Flores from Comerio. Mister Flores gave papi three thousand dollars. He says it was a gift, but really it was for me.”

Gonzalo had heard of the practice before – parents once routinely gave underaged daughters into marriage. As long as they signed the right documents, it was perfectly legal on the island as it is throughout much of the United States. But it was an increasingly rare practice and the exchange of money Elisa mentioned was completely illegal.

Gonzalo shifted his weight and rubbed the dull ache forming at the back of his neck.

“Elisa, I need to ask you a very important question, and you have to answer me with the truth, do you understand me?”

The girl nodded.

“Elisa, has Mister Flores ever touched you in a way he shouldn’t? Do you understand what I mean?”

“I understand, but he never touched me. I’ve never even seen Mister Flores.”

“Okay, good. Now. Has your father ever touched you that way?”

“Papi? Never. He just hits. Sometimes he uses the cane.”

“Okay,” Gonzalo said aloud. Internally, he shouted “Hallelujah!” Abuse is never good, but some, in Gonzalo’s mind, were worse than others.

“Let me just use your phone to call Miguelito and confirm his whereabouts,” Gonzalo said. Laura looked up at a wall clock before answering.

“It’s kind of late,” she said. It was nearing three in the morning.

“Good, then he should be in bed and easy to find.”

Laura led Gonzalo to the phone and had trouble finding her sister’s number. Finally, she handed it over with some hesitation.

Laura’s sister confirmed that Miguel was spending time with her, but told Gonzalo that he had borrowed the car in the evening and wasn’t back yet. Where had he gone? With friends was all she knew. What friends could he possibly have in a town seventy miles from his home and school. “Who knows?” was the response. “Teenagers.”

Two days later, when Gonzalo had matched the fingerprints on the wheelchair to everyone in the Rivera home including Miguel and had met with the young man who said he could not name his Aguada friends or even find them again if he had to, he typed out a detailed report and hand delivered it to an assistant district attorney in San Juan. The man read the report carefully, then turned to the sheriff.

“What would you like me to do?” he asked with a smile that told Gonzalo he was inclined to do nothing.

“Pick up Miguel,” Gonzalo said though he too would have preferred to do nothing.
“And charge him with what?”

“You see in the report…”

“I see what, sheriff? I see I can charge him with having pushed his father’s wheelchair once. Or I can charge him with not being too picky about who his friends are. Not really crimes, sheriff.”

Gonzalo sat back.

“What about Flores?”

“No crime there either. I’ll call him myself and let him know that the Rivera family appreciates his financial gift and that Elisa won’t be marrying him. I’ll tell him to stay away from the girl. Heck, I might even get the other three thousand for the family. He won’t be a problem.”

Gonzalo sat thinking over the case and closing it in his mind.

“Go home, Gonzalo,” the attorney said. “Go home and take care of your people.”

And that’s exactly what he did.

The End.