John Strausbaugh, Stories




Bullet to the Moon





Chapter Six






I was half asleep when the Clipper stopped. Smith pulled the blindfold off.

It was still night outside, and a lot quieter and darker than it gets in the city even with the blackout. We was somewheres way out in nowheres. We was parked outside a big shack that looked like Dogpatch city hall. It was all stuck together tin and wood a day or two short of falling down. A wooden sign said it was the Antlers Lodge & Grille. Blackout curtains was tight in the windows, but you could hear a jukebox. A few beat-up old cars and trucks stood around us. A little life left in the countryside.

O'Grady was still up front, but Brown was nowhere to see.

"Where is this?" I asked.

"The country," Smith said.

"What country?"

She grinned. Even in the dark I could see it was kind of a girly little grin for such a big mug.

"What time is it?"

She hiked up the sleeve of her trenchcoat and showed a man's watch big as a dinnerplate. "Little after two."

"Didn't know the hicks stay up this late."

"They don't. Defense plant up the road that goes 'round the clock. This place stays open for them until the wee hours."

"Why we here? O'Grady need a refill?"

"Keep squeakin," O'Grady grunted without turning his big sack of a head.

Brown came around from the side of the shack. I could see him stepping careful and quiet, carrying his fedora in his hand. He eased open the driver door and slid in. He leaned around at me. With his hat off I was surprised to see how young he was. Young and clean cut and All American, like last year's hero quarterback. You didn't see many guys that young and fit anymore. They was all out in the world somewheres getting their boolah boolahs shot off. It made me wonder what this kid's story was. Why wasn't he out getting chopped up with all the other All Americans?

"We go?" Smith asked him.

Brown nodded and looked at me.

"A fellow's sitting alone at the bar," he said, sounding all serious like he was calling a end run in the huddle. "Tall, skinny, no hat, khaki Eisenhower jacket with elbow patches."

"Nice work, Fosdick," I said. "What you want me to take off of him?"    

"Nothing." He held a little piece of paper at me. "Slip this on him."

"What is it?"

"What you care? We'll give you exactly ten minutes. We'll come in and take it from there. Act like you don't know us."

"That'll be a cinch," I said. "Say, ain't it gonna look funny me waltzing in there this hour?"

"They're used to strangers lately," Smith said. "They'll just think you're night crew from up the road."

"Okey doke." I reached for the paper. I thought it was daffy the way Seymour Spitz pulled such a song and dance just to have me do a gaff even O'Grady could manage. But us minnows got used to not knowing what the sharks and whales was thinking. If this little grift got me off the hook with him, I was all for it. Just the memory of watching Lemmy Fazool try to eat a plate of soup made my teeth ache. Maybe I could even get back in time for work and Miss Abbondando would never know I was gone.

The paper was folded once. I folded it two more times so it fit in my palm. I got little hands.

"Gimme a fin," I told Brown.


"Let me hold a buck or two for the bar."

Brown scowled and patted himself down and fished out two dollar bills he reluctantly reached at me like they was gold leafs.

"Ten minutes," he said. Smith checked her giant watch.

The Antlers Lodge was about as beat as any joint I ever stepped in. It looked like the boss couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to run a diner, a roadhouse or a rumpus room. It was one big, wide room with some tables tossed around. The bar was in the back. Behind it a window to the kitchen. A chalkboard said I could buy a cup of mud for a nickel and a ham sandwich for twelve cents and a shot of whiskey for a quarter. I could see where the dump got its name. Antlers, horns, hoofs and other animal parts was all over the walls. Back in the dry season I knew a taxidermist named Scruples Fontaine who stuffed bears and deers with hooch to ship across borough lines. Otherwise I never saw the point of it.

Counting me there was exactly three people in the joint. A dame was dancing alone to a Tommy Dorsey record on the jukebox. She was a blonde who looked like Daisy May from the Dogpatch comic strip if you doubled her age and the size of her caboose. I could smell her flowery stink water from across the room. A tall scarecrow in a tan Eisenhower jacket sat alone at the bar with a bottle and a stack of change.

The dame spun a little on the floor. She shook her blonde curls out of her eyes when I come in. Her eyes was blue and full a mischief.

"Dance, squirt?"

I waved her off. "Gave it up for the duration."

I walked back to the bar and stood four feet from the scarecrow. He was staring into his glass.

"Barkeep on duty?" I asked.

He didn't look up. "Theldy," he said.

"Yeah, hold yer water," Theldy said, twirling some more.

"Nice to see a gal enjoy herself," I said.

"She's musically inclined," the guy said to his glass.

"Oh I'm inclined all sorts a ways, sugar," Theldy said.

The song ended. Theldy put her hand on her hip and flipped her curls at me.

"Got a buffalo?"

I fished one out of my pants and flipped it across the air. She reached up a chubby hand and snatched it.

"Thanks, little bit." She bent over the jukebox and did some wig-wagging of her caboose as she picked a song. This gal had more life in her than all the women in New York City put together. Maybe the war didn't hit as hard out here in Dogpatch as it did in the city, though I couldn't see how it wouldn't.

A old old Crosby weeper came on. With the war dragging on they wasn't making any new records. Theldy danced her way behind the bar. She stood across from me and laid her bosom on it. Her ody colony stank like a funeral parlor's worth of old flowers. I took a step back.

"What's your brand a mouthwash, big spender?"

"Joe hot?"

"You like it hot you in the right place, sonny."

The scarecrow jerked his face up at Theldy. He had a face thin as two profiles glued together and a adams apple like a baby's fist punching its way out his neck. He give her a mean look.

She lifted a eyebrow at me. "Jealous type."

He grunted and went back to moping at his glass.

Theldy flounced her way back into the kitchen. She snapped on a light back there. Crosby crooned. You could feel the night dragging itself by one tired footstep at a time. I figured I already wasted three minutes trading barbs with the broad. I fished out Gus' Luckies, stuck one in my mouth and patted myself down.

"Say pal, gotta light?"

He pointed his face at me and stared with eyes so close together he could of been a cyclops. He reached in his trousers. I saw the Eisenhower jacket didn't have no pockets. I was going to have to reach into his pants to drop that note on him. He came up with a book of matches. I stepped over to him before he could toss it at me and shook the Luckies at him. His eyebrows went up at the sight of a whole deck of machine mades.

"I got a cousin in the war department," I said.

He shrugged his lips and pulled out a rail. I leaned near him and lit us both up.

"Funny joint," I said, looking around at all the animals. "Who's the big game hunter?"

"Her fella," he said. "Went off hunting big game in the Pacific. Big game shot back."

"Say that's tough," I said, looking around some more. "Always this lively?"

"Nah," he said. "Sometimes it's dead in here."

"Here ya go, sport." Theldy flounced back out with a thick mug and slid it near me. She dipped her pinky in it. "Sweet enough?"

"You dive in if I said it wasn't?" I asked.

She grinned. "You up from the city, squirt? You talk like it."

Scarecrow shoved two nickels across the bar at her. "Make some more whoopee," he growled.

"Golly, it's raining moolah. A girl could have herself a swell time in here tonight," Theldy said. She slid a paper napkin at me and give me a wink. Then she headed back toward the jukebox with a whole lot of rotating caboose action.

"You from up the plant?" I asked Scarecrow.

He narrowed his eyes at me.

"If I was I wouldn't go gassing about it."

"Sure sure. Just batting the air."

"Guy get himself in a fix doing that."

"Sure," I said again.

He ran his skinny eyes up and down me. "Where'd you say you from?"

I blew smoke at his eyes. "Buffalo."

A swing orchestra came busting out of the jukebox, lots of horns having a gay old time. The ruckus sounded like Friday night in Harlem.

"Hey look at me, fellas," Theldy said. "I'm dancing the hula hula like they do in Honalula."

Scarecrow turned his head to mope at her. He was looking over one shoulder away from me. He turned a bit on the stool to do it. The back pockets of his trousers was both facing me. I could see he had a billfold in one and a hankercheef in the other. I thumbed the little square of paper from my palm up to my fingertips. I leaned toward him and slipped the note in with the hankercheef. Easy as pie. I got a feather touch.

I turned away and leaned over my coffee. It wasn't hot and it tasted like it looked, like a oil spill on the floor of a auto repair shop.

When the song ended Theldy staggered over toward Scarecrow. Her face was glowing and her bosoms heaving. She fanned her face with one of her plump hands.

"Phew, is it hot in here?"

I saw Scarecrow begin to reach behind him for the hankercheef. I grabbed up the paper napkin and held it out to her.

"What a gent."

Scarecrow grunted some more. If his jaw was any tighter he could bite a cinder block in two.

The next song began, a Sinatra crooner from the old days. Him I liked all right. He was a runt like me and look how the dames fell for him.

Theldy tapped the napkin to her neck a few times. She held it back at me and looked at Scarecrow and said, "Dance with me, stretch."

He unwound himself from his stool. He was twice as tall as me or Theldy and weighed half as much as she did. When they started to dance together they looked like a fat, juicy pear hanging from a twig. They say it takes all kinds. I guess they're right once in a while.

I was just wondering how long ten minutes was when the door opened. Brown and Smith came in with their trenchcoat collars up and their hat brims down and their mitts jammed in their pockets. O'Grady came in behind them, closed the door and leaned against it.

"Well come on in, kids," Theldy said, still yanking Scarecrow around the floor. "The party's just startin."

Brown and Smith pointed their square chins around the room like they was casing all the dead animals. Scarecrow stopped dancing and yanked Theldy still. Sinatra kept crooning but no one was paying him any mind anymore.

"Frank Beemerman?" Brown said.

"What's it to ya?" Scarecrow scowled. "What is this?"

"Like a word with you," Brown said.

"Nuts," Scarecrow said. "That the one you lookin for?"

"In private," Brown said. "Miss, can we use your kitchen for a moment?"

"What's the gag?" Theldy said.

"This won't take long," Brown said.

Him and Smith crossed the floor and stood on either side of Scarecrow.

"Say, now just a minute," Theldy said.

"Or should we shut the whole joint down for violating curfew?" Brown said.

"It's okay, Theldy, " Scarecrow said. "These birds ain't got nothin on me. I done nothin wrong. Man's allowed a drink end of his shift."

Smith turned her jaw at me. "Scram."

I put both of Brown's bills on the bar.

"Thanks for the mud," I said to Theldy. "Keep the change."

O'Grady stood at the door looking down his mountain at me like he wasn't going to let me by.

"Scuse me there, Rushmore," I said. "Got a bus to catch."

Outside I leaned on the Clipper and lit a Lucky. It sure was dark and quiet out there in the country. Some crickets that shut down when I walked out started up again. Otherwise not a sound. For a city boy that racket of quiet was pretty creepy.

I couldn't hear anything inside the joint either. I felt a little raw for Theldy and the Scarecrow. I wondered what kind of con Seymour Spitz was running. Then I told myself to stop wondering. Better not to know or even guess. I done my part. Him and me was square. Them palookas would come back out anytime now and haul me back to Brooklyn. Catch some shuteye in the Clipper and go back in the Pierrepont shed breathing fumes like none of this ever happened.

The door opened and threw a little yellow light on the ground. O'Grady stood in it and give me a high sign. I dumped the smoke and O'Grady waited for me to get into the car before he stepped out. The three of them marched toward the car. Through the car window I could see Theldy and Scarecrow lit up inside the joint. He looked rung out and she hugged him around the waist and looked frazzled. I felt bad for them some more.

The big uns folded themselves into the Clipper. Smith dented my shoulder with her bandaged mitt.

"You done good, Jeepers."

"Sure I did," I said. "What I do?"

"What you care?" Brown said, cranking the motor.

"You planted incriminating evidence on him for us to find and squeeze him about," Smith said.

"Squeezed good," O'Grady rumbled.

"Swell," I said. "We go home now?"    

Nobody answered. Smith held the blindfold at me. I guessed I wasn't done paying Seymour Spitz back. We drove and drove some more.





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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh

All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh