Here’s another of my essays for class. This one, I kind of dug a little bit. It’s a short story, set in a bar, with a couple of guys talking. I slam the Cubs once, but, hey, it was in the well-intended service of historical accuracy, baby!
I don’t think I’m very good at writing short stories — for starters, this is 3,462 words, which is roughly 2000 more than the assignment called for. So I missed on the “short” part, but it is technically still a story. Though I’m not convinced it’s much of one. But that’s okay, I’m not very practiced at writing fiction. As a matter of fact, I think the last time I wrote any fiction was one time like eight years ago I was goofing off and a friend was refusing to tell me why he dropped out of college, so I started writing this epic tale of battles on the quads with vicious squirrels terrorizing undergrads, and fires and explosions and, you know, all those good things that pretty much never actually happen in real life at the University of Chicago, except for the squirrels. I kind of wish I still had a copy of that one, actually, I remember it fairly fondly. Stupid jerkface transient medium of e-mail. SQUIRRELS ARE FUNNY! GIVE ME MY STORY BACK, MAGIC INTARWEBS!
…Ahem. Anyways. Without Further Ado, I present: “The Strange Case of the Goat and the Paperboy.”
“I heard it was a paperboy.” Bill reached under the bar and pulled a brown bottle out of the cooler, then slid it in my general direction.
I’d just come into the Billy Goat Tavern after kicking off from work a few minutes early. It was early May, raining out, and pretty chilly, and I’d felt like an alley rat, dripping and miserable-looking from just my short walk over from across the street. My coat and umbrella were dripping, from the seat on one side of mine. On the other side, my buddy Rick pulled up the stool next to me and plopped his enormous, awe-inspiring ass down on it. My mom always said if I ate my vegetables I’d grow up big and strong, but I don’t think she meant I should aim for that. Still, he managed to not look like he’d just been pulled out of the lake, and we’d walked over the same way, so maybe he did have something I didn’t. And that was when Bill decided to kick off the evening’s entertainment with his opening salvo.
I picked up the bottle and took a sip. The tavern was relatively quiet, just a few people in this early. I thought maybe I’d go get a cheeseburger, but Bill was still hanging out by us expectantly. He was wearing his little white apron and sitting there behind the bar, bracketed by all those bottles of booze, looking a little more inquisitive than normal – but then again, it was still early afternoon, before most people came through here to fill up the empty space with smoke and conversation. But I do my part, so I pulled out a pack of smokes and stuck one in my mouth, lit it before answering. “You did, huh?”
“My byline, front page, above the fold. Bill, that calls for a celebration,” Rick said, stretching his arms out over the bar in triumph. “No beer today, I think you’d better pour me a Scotch.” He pulled out a cheap cigar from the pocket of his ratty old sport coat, and started fighting the plastic wrapper. I sighed, and held out my hand. “Give it here.”
He passed me the cigar. “Above the fold,” he said again, admiringly. “You know how long it’s been since I got something like that? Been a long goddamn time.” I returned the cigar, having shimmied it free from the wrapper, and Bill slid over a ratty old trimmer along with a rocks glass with two fingers of whiskey straight up. Maybe it has been a long goddamn time since Rick’s gotten a good scoop, but it’s been an even longer time Bill’s been putting up with him, and they’ve got the after-work routine down to an art. Rick puffed out an enormous cloud of blue smoke, and as it settled into a haze, he settled in to the role of victorious storyteller. He cleared his throat, the clear sign that the night’s tale was kicking off.
“Two weeks ago, Sunday, a desk sergeant over at District 8 takes this call, from a woman, real distraught. Scared out her mind, can’t hardly string ten words together to make a sentence makes any sense. Says she went to see her neighbor and found her on the floor. Nothing obviously wrong, just an old lady dead on the floor, but this broad is off her rocker on the phone. So the sergeant gets a patrol car to swing over.”
Rick paused for thought, puffing cigar smoke like a steam engine. “Well, they didn’t know it for sure just then, but this was the third recent unexplained death in West Lawn. That was yestday. The patrol car gets over there and goes up to check it out. Nice little subdivision over by Midway, on South Kenneth, single family houses with little yards and garages and kids playing outside. First thing they notice is there’s a pile of papers at the door, nobody took ‘em in. Nice maintained place like that, they don’t leave the papers outside to get rained on. Second thing they notice is, they go inside and the table’s all set for a nice little tea party! She’s got this china teapot with flowers on it, and a sugar bowl and two cups with saucers out on the table, even a little plate of cookies. One cup’s fulla tea, the other one’s tipped over and spilt all over the tablecloth. Little old lady, nice lace tablecloth. Sugar bowl with a little silver spoon sticking out.
“So they call it in to the station to get the coroner over, and when he gets there, the guy notices that she didn’t just fall off her chair, like the patrol cop thought. You know, he thought she had a heart attack and fell over, knocked over the tea cup and the chair on her way down, right? But the coroner, he says no. He says she went into convulsions, he can tell ‘cos of the way she’s got her arms and fingers, and the way the chair’s moved over like she was kickin’ it. And he says she puked, only she just hadn’t eaten so there wasn’t nothing real obvious for the patrol cop to see. So now he’s thinking it looks like murder, not just a little old lady expired from natural causes. Like maybe somebody brought some arsenic to go with her old lace.” Bill groaned.
I had drunk most of my beer while Rick was getting warmed up, and finished off the bottle, which is about the only thing that can explain my tilting at this particular windmill. “You know ‘wasn’t nothing’ is a double negative, right? And ‘arsenic and old lace’? Grammar school kids speak better than that, and they’re not writing for the Tribune.” I always was a lightweight.
Rick smirked at me over his Scotch, as another bottle of beer replaced my empty one on the scuffed bar, and his cigar trailed a lazy line of smoke toward the ceiling as he gestured vaguely through the air with it. “That’s what copyeditors are for. That, and coming up with stupid headlines.” He frowned, and the enormous caterpillars of his eyebrows squeezed together to emphasize his disapproval, as he continued, “‘Death by Delivery,’ that’s what they said was going on my piece. It’s like it’s the friggin’ National Enquirer, is what that sounds like.” He stuffed the cigar back into his mouth and puffed irritably.
The tavern was starting to get a few more people trickling in, since the deadlines were 6 for tomorrow’s edition, and about everybody had their pieces turned in by now or had given up on them, and the noise levels were going up just as the air’s transparency was going down. I thought some more about that cheeseburger, but I knew if I got up, Rick would just keep spinning his story, to thin air if no one else, and I’d miss it. The grease could wait. I reached for another cigarette instead. Outside, some jokers were exercising their anger through free and liberal use of car horns, out on Lower Michigan. All things considered, it was still quieter in the Goat. As long as Rick wasn’t talking, but then he put the cigar back in the ashtray.
“So, anyways. This coroner, he got called out a few months back, same neighborhood, two blocks over, on Kostner at 57th, just north of that park they got over there. Now this one was different. They got the call from a neighbor, hadn’t seen this guy leave his house for a few days, but he left all his curtains open. ‘Parently he always closed them at night, always, ‘cos he was kinda paranoid. So the curtains was open, but no lights was on, at night, so the neighbors got suspicious and called in the cops to investigate. Patrol went over and found him dead in the front room, just by the entryway. Couldn’t see him from the front window. Door was locked from the inside, so they thought it was a heart attack. Only thing was weird, was they couldn’t find his wallet.”
Bill stepped back up over to us from where he’d been pulling beers for other folks, and because Rick’s not the only person who he’s used to having around, he brought me a glass of Coke rather than another beer. He fumbled under the bar for a straw and said, as he slid it in the glass, “What was that ruled, natural causes?”
I stared at him. “You run a bar, listen to us jerks every day, and you don’t have anything better to do than egg this guy on?”
“Like you said, I listen to you jerks every day. What else have I got to do, other than notice you being cranky tonight?” Bill shrugged, and topped off Rick’s Scotch. He eyed me for a second, and then shouted over to the grill, “Double double!” The cook shouted “double double!” back, then Bill tipped me a wink and said, “You shoulda told me you were hungry. I’d've cut this guy off ’til you had a minute to get a burger.”
“Yeah, right,” Rick said. “You’d never cut me off, it’d cut into your tips.” He re-lit his cigar and puffed away some more.
“Okay, so, go on. Old man, heart attack in West Lawn, followed by old lady, apparent foul play, also in West Lawn.” I half turned in my chair to keep an eye out over to the grill, because now that they’d been ordered I was suddenly obsessed with all things cheeseburger. I could practically taste the pickles.
“Well, so two unexplained deaths of old folks in a two block radius is something that makes people talk. Much like we’re doing here.” Rick snorted at his own joke, and turned to eye the grill too. “One of them doubles is mine, right?”
I laughed. “Sure, Scheherazade.” Bill rolled his eyes.
Rick picked up his drink, and gestured with it, almost splashing Scotch on Bill, who glared and wiped down the bar with a rag that’d seen better days. Rick kept on talking. “So this policewoman hears all this talk round the station, and she comes up to the guy, my buddy’s buddy who was investigating the old lady’s death. She tells him, there was a third weird death in the area. This one wasn’t an elderly person though, this was this young married couple, both of them only in their thirties, but no kids. The wife died. The husband called the police one Sunday morning and said she just konked out while reading the paper. That was about a year before the old man died, though, and it was over on Kildare, up by 56th Street. The policewoman said she remembered it ‘cos her partner had been cracking up about it because the lady had been reading the sports section, and apparently the Cubs were in first place. So her partner kept joking about how he knew it was the Cubs and all, but it shouldn’t make nobody die of shock!
“So now we’ve got three weird deaths, in this tiny area, in the span of just under two years. The dead folks didn’t know each other, on account of they all lived on different streets. One was a recluse, one was a working woman, and the other was a retired lady. Two sudden heart attacks and one suspicious…something. So somebody started trying to connect the dots.
“Turns out they had brought out the forensics boys to the old guy’s place, just because, although they didn’t do much more than take fingerprints of the door and right around where the body was found. They only found two sets of fingerprints, the dead guy’s, and some unknown person. Didn’t turn up on any searches at the time. But when they took the fingerprints from the old lady’s place and ran them, they had a match on the unknowns from the dead guy’s place. Still unknown, but it was a lead, at least.
“Now, they all went back over the notes from the dead guy’s case. In the entryway, where the body was found, they didn’t find much. They never did find the guy’s wallet, but there was his keys and some mail on a little table by the door. The mail was a bill from ComEd, and a note about his newspaper subscription, saying someone’d be by for the weekly fee, a couple days before the concerned neighbors raised the alarm. So nothing real int’resting there. Except there was also a receipt for the newspaper subscription – you know, one of those little dated tabs the paperboy gives you, tears it off the sheet when you pay? So that was dated the day that the coroner figured he kicked the bucket, which was a Sunday, incidentally. So they went back to the coroner who’d been on duty for that one and got him to look at his notes, and turns out he saw something with the guy’s eyes, during the post mortem. Apparently there was signs that he maybe didn’t really have a heart attack but got smothered instead, like with a pillow. But the coroner couldn’t find any evidence to back that up so he ruled it a coronary and called it a day.”
The cook shouted over by the grill and I was off the bar stool like a shot. I could smell that cheeseburger from across the room, and all this talk of heart attacks or not, I was going to inhale it as soon as humanly possible. I paid the guy for both burgers and added a couple bags of chips, salt and vinegar, then went to load mine up with mustard and pickles. It was sitting on a piece of plain wax paper like a beautiful piece of art waiting to be framed, and it smelled like the best burger man had ever crafted. By the time Rick lumbered past me to pick his burger up at the grill, I was halfway back to the bar, and by the time he got back to his stool, I was half done with the burger and well into the chips. Bill raised his eyebrows, so I swallowed my mouthful, and said thanks. “Good burger, Bill.”
“Brown-noser,” Rick muttered. I just waved my hand at him, mouth full again.
“Anyways. That woman who died reading the paper? Turns out her husband was so broken up about it he left the dining room alone, didn’t go in it anymore after they took her away. Real tragic. Everything was exactly the same, when they went back to talk to him again. So the forensics boys had a field day with that. They came in and looked for prints and even checked out the drinks on the table and the newspaper. Which is when one of the forensics boys broke out in hives, right there in their dining room. The newspaper had something in it. But it was only the sports section, the rest of the paper was fine. They even sent it off to the state guys and the FBI to see if they could figure out what it was, but they couldn’t identify it, probably on account of it being two years old, and covered in dust, or something. And the guy with the hives, he’s allergic to everything except air, ‘parently, so that’s no help. But that was enough to reclassify the death as a homicide and reopen the case. So now that’s one murder, and two suspicious deaths.”
“And what linked the murder up with those other two,” I said, “other than it all happening in a two-block stretch of West Lawn, unless you’re going to tell me they found the same fingerprints at that scene that they did the other two?”
Rick made a pistol gesture with his hand, and pointed it at me. “You got it. They found the fingerprints. But not just that, they found the fingerprints on the murder weapon.”
“What, the newspaper?” Bill asked, in that gently skeptical way all barkeepers learned, from humoring drunks and their stories over the years. “I didn’t think you could get fingerprints off newsprint.”
“Well,” Rick said, “you prob’ly can’t, off newsprint. But cardstock you can. And guess what those newspaper subscription receipts are printed on? Cardstock.” He sat back and crossed his arms triumphantly.
I put the last bite of my cheeseburger down and stared at him. “So you have fingerprints on newspaper receipts at two of the scenes, which proves, what? They have the same paperboy? Not really a stretch there.”
Rick looked contemplatively at his cheeseburger, and ripped open his bag of chips instead. He ate chips for a good two minutes while Bill and I watched, and I broke first. “C’mon, Rick, finish the story.”
“I dunno if I wanna waste the rest of my story on you,” he answered primly, tone at odds with poking through the bag for the last of the chips. He crunched one last chip and dropped the bag down on the bar. “Okay.
“This is almost anti-climactic considering it’s been almost two years that these people have been dying in. They called up the subscription office and got them to give them the name of who was the paperboy for those houses, and it was definitely the same guy. So they get his information, and a patrol car goes over to knock on his door. He answers the doorbell, and just kinda stands there while the cops are asking him if he knows these first two victims. He’s all polite, right? And he goes, ‘Yes, I knew them. Yes, I knew him.’ The cop goes, ‘And did you know Mrs. Such-and-such,’ the old lady, and the kid’s face falls – he can’t be much older than 17 – and he goes, ‘Yes, she was making me tea, but I didn’t want tea, I wanted her to pay her paper bill!’
“They pulled him in to District 8 headquarters and got a full confession out of him, even after the court-appointed lawyer turned up. It turns out, this kid was some kinda nutjob, living in a fantasy world. He thought he was in this arcade game, where you go deliver newspapers but you have to hit bystanders with papers or they’ll come beat you up, or bees come attack you, some such BS. So he was thinking that everybody was out to get him and if he lost subscriptions, he’d lose all his lives. Like, three lives and then that’s it, you know, ‘game over.’ The one guy was talking about canceling, so the kid poisoned the sports section, only it turned out the wife liked baseball too so he got the wrong one of ‘em. The old guy was two weeks behind and that was almost an automatic cancellation. And the old lady had decided to take the Sun-Times instead. Anyways, it was some kinda wacko thing. I don’t play video games so I don’t know what the story was, but my kid plays that paperboy game too down the arcade. So he knocked off all those people just to keep ‘em from canceling the paper.”
Bill picked his wet rag up again, dumped out the ashtray, took Rick’s Scotch glass away, and refilled my Coke glass. He looked like he was thinking. Finally, he wiped off the bar in front of us, and said, reflectively, and in the most sincere voice I have ever heard from anyone outside of a nun sitting in the chapel during Sunday services telling me I would go to hell if I didn’t stop kicking the kneeler on her pew, “Rick, that is the biggest cockamamie horseshit story I have ever heard you try to sell anybody, and I have heard you shovel a lot of horseshit in this bar over the years.” He put another glass on the bar and filled it up with ice, then with Coke, then he slid a straw in it, and put it in front of Rick. Then he crossed his arms and looked at him.
Rick tried to look serious for a minute, but then he broke, and his whole body shook with his glee. “Yeah. I guess it was pretty obvious. Nobody would have made that arsenic and old lace joke unless they was jerking your chain, not even me.” He elbowed me. “But it was good way to spend a couple hours keeping out of the rain, right?”
I looked at him, and I looked at Bill. And I just shook my head at him. “Rick, if you’re not going to eat that cheeseburger before it gets cold, I am!”
~~ THE END ~~
I did have some worries, while writing this.
First, Rick’s dialogue is written quasi-phonetically (e.g., “yestday” instead of “yesterday”), which is something that irritates me a lot when an author does it excessively, but I thought it was important to convey the conversational tone as well as the type of character we’re listening to. It’s hard for me to break up the subject-verb agreement thing, and leave various words out wholesale, as well. I think I may have started out with more dialect and tapered off toward the end, but OTOH, maybe it’s OK to taper, like once you make da point at da biginnin dat dat guy tawks like dis, den you go back to normal. So. Consistency may be a virtue, or not writing really annoyingly may be. Not sure, there. (Also, Word’s grammar checker about had a heart attack over the dialogue. Poor tortured Word.)
Second, there was way too much dialogue. If I were better at finding plots I could have probably written something more succinct, but I had come up with this idea of the crazy paperboy killing his customers, and that was the best plot I’d come up with so far at that point, and the two guys bullshitting each other after work was how I wanted to convey that story-within-a-story. So, Rick the revered storyteller perches on a chair, our narrator is consumed with lust for the fabled Billy Goat cheezburger (no fries, cheeps!), and the background bartender (yes, named Bill after Bill Sianis, though no historical accuracy was intended at all in putting him there) humors them patiently, as he doubtlessly does night after night after Our Heroes put in another hard day’s toil at our city’s answer to the Grey Lady.
And last, the story was supposed to be set in a particular place, and the place was supposed to drive the story. That was sort of why I talked about West Lawn so much, but really the place I wanted the story to be about was the Goat. But while writing, I was having trouble putting in details about the Goat without it sounding overbearing or irrelevant. (“Bill listened patiently, as the bottles of liquor glistened dully in the dim overhead light, perched on the wood shelves on the mirrored wall.” Which bit is important, the back wall or the bartender? It’s the Goat, so it’s not the furnishings, okay? I love the Goat, but I don’t go there for the architectural significance.)
Anyways. It felt kind of nice to write a short story, which is one of those things that I have basically no confidence in my ability to do, because I never ever write fiction. I’m just not that sort of person. I like to blather about my life. (Hey look, ma, my short story was in the first person!) As the emergency backup, I’ll write something instructional or informational. But I think I did OK with this. Not great, it’ll never go down in the annals of great bar-related murder mystery fakeouts, but I think it was readable.
Oh, and last: credit goes to Kim, for the idea of the Atari “Paperboy” game. Yes, you really get attacked by bees if you screw up in the game. It was the 80s, man, don’t ask me.