Ken Wohlrob's Blog

October 7, 2014

No Tears for Old Scratch by Ken WohlrobPresented for your reading pleasure, the first three chapters from my new novel, No Tears For Old Scratch . Scroll down to read the chapters. And you can pick up a copy for yourself via these links:
Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Indie Bookstores | Greenlight Bookstore | The Word

 

DAY ONE

1.

6:00 PM

 

Biff was the dead man in seat 10C. Eyes shot wide open. Yet he saw nothing as the shadows moved past. One arm, dangling into the aisle, swung with each sway and surge of the bus. An old, crumpled fedora lay in his lap.

There was the grit of sand in his gums. He licked at it with a lazy tongue, tasting the desert.

That bloody desert…

It haunted him.

Turning to his right, Biff stared out the window past ol’ Snore and Snot. The old codger in the window seat smelled like medicated powder. Somewhere around West Haverstraw, his nose had become a leaky faucet. Despite being fast asleep, he would snort several times, sucking the bile back into his nose, and then return to snoring loudly.

Clouds coalesced into denser forms, choking the sunlight. It gave the air a heaviness, that feeling of a drawn-in breath unable to be released.

…and this bloody sand!

The sand was always there when he thought of the desert. It felt as if pins and needles had been jammed in his gums. Hiding in the nooks and crannies between his blackened teeth. He scraped at them with a long fingernail.

If only Biff could sleep and forget it all. But sleep never came. Instead there was a fog. The past few hours were a haze. It was a millennium, but it was a second. Somewhere in the haze came the dream.

That was vivid, exact, and bright, down to the grit of sand in his gums. Always the same setup. Setup indeed! The desert, that single crag of a tree. The dark-skinned man waiting for him. That disgusting smile and those blue eyes. Bright blue, pure. The son of a bitch always smiled, like he was expecting him. As if all of this had happened a million times over and he was just being led by a chain. Like a dog, a bloody mongrel! Walking up, stone in hand, and that bearded son of a bitch would just smile at him.

He always woke up from the dream with the same feeling of defeat. A slap to the face that left a tingling sensation in the cheek.

The interior of the bus had grown darker. When did this happen? Five, maybe ten minutes ago? An October sunset with bloodred clouds hanging low and heavy. Trees flew past the window in a blur, the leaves adding to the canvas of orange and crimson.

As the bus hummed along the highway, white porch lights sprang to life, illuminating the isolated homes off in the distance. Here and there, the soft blue glow of a television lit up dark rooms.

For an October evening it was unusually warm. Cars drove past, windows down, the drivers’ hair flapping in the wind. Clad in a blue sweater, the bus driver was oblivious to the weather shift. With the cabin sealed shut, the bus was a sauna. Heat spewed from the vents, blasting the passengers who tried desperately to fend it off, wiping sweat from their faces and necks with McDonald’s napkins, shirtsleeves, socks, and circulation cards ripped from between pages of Entertainment Weekly.

Most of the overhead lights were off. As the sun continued its descent, the features of the passengers toward the front became less distinct, a series of silent shadows. In the rows closest to him, the passengers were more defined. They appeared as if a dark tint had been laid over a film.

The burly old man in 10B had been masturbating for the past five minutes. Beneath the New York Post lying across his lap, the right hand rubbed continuously against the texture of his jeans, creating a repetitive swishing sound. Rivulets of sweat ran down his ears. The shirt absorbed the wetness, giving the USA across his chest an ever-expanding oil slick.

Watching this spectacle, Biff had the old man pegged.

Married young, met her at a CYO dance. They’ve been together over forty years. Last bit he got from her was a handjob in a heart-shaped bathtub in the Poconos back in ’72. No doubt he’ll buy some porno magazines when he gets off the bus, Latino girls I bet, and the old wife will find them at the bottom of the sweater drawer a few weeks later, pulling apart the sticky pages as she flips through images of young women doing all sorts of nasty things to one another.

In 11A and 11B sat the newly engaged couple. He was dead asleep, leaning against the window, belly spilling over his khakis. Everything she owned—the handbag, the phone, her top, her earrings—was covered with some form of faux gold. Sitting in her lap was a mountain of Italian cookies, covered in transparent plastic wrap and tied off with a curled gold ribbon. She clutched at the tray as if it were a life preserver. The only time she would release the cookies was to rotate the gold-plated engagement ring on her left hand.

She knows they hate her. The cookies are a peace offering, a wretchedly fake show of class to the future in-laws.

A solitary woman sat in 9B. She wore a long, tan sweater. Stains could be seen in the armpits and just above the bulging front pockets filled with used tissues. Yellow stains on the tips of her fingernails. Her salt-and-pepper hair was strung up in a wretched concoction that left strands hanging around her face like tentacles. Round glasses covered her eyes as she read an old book, scratching nervously at each page six times before she turned it with a single finger. OCD. A Catholic-school graduate, no doubt. They did a hell of a job on this one.

Highway-exit towns flew past as ten-second postcards of gas stations, family restaurants, and convenience stores. Dotting the landscape, new housing developments rose like pimples in select enclaves. Most of the homes were unoccupied. Dark, empty forms standing lifeless in the mud.

The old man snorted, a burst of snot leaking onto his plaid short-sleeved dress shirt. Biff turned away.

His stomach made a loud croaking noise. Food, like his journey here, seemed more of a distant memory.

Man shall not live on bread alone.

Biff smiled at this thought. One knew life had hit the skids when you couldn’t remember your last meal. Then again, the passengers around him didn’t seem to have that problem, and from all appearances, he was no worse off than them.

The desert appeared in his mind again. That stone in his hand. The specter of what used to be a tree, the last remnant of an ex-forest. At his feet, the dark-skinned man with the blue eyes looked hungry. Biff held the stone, thinking…

Long rows of overgrown weeds and wild grass along the shoulder flew past the window. Plastic bags and fast-food wrappers were trapped in the thicket, unable to wrestle themselves free in spite of the onrush of wind from the traffic.

In the seats around him, Biff heard people moaning and shuffling, struggling against the small space. He could remember seeing things like this, under much worse conditions, in train cars and dank cells, the people then nowhere near as overstuffed as these. A vision flooded his brain of that light from above, a mere pinhole really, shining into a cargo hold. Swaying with the movements of the ship, it reflected off the dark, oily skin of the women and children who spoke only in whispers. And never to l’étranger. They always watched him, staring with that defeated look in their glowing eyes.

Maybe we were all doomed from the start?

Another mile marker went past. The headlights of the bus lit up the number 237 on its small sign.

Thwack!

Through the gap in the seats he could see the pregnant woman asleep against the window. Wearing a pink tracksuit, her bulbous stomach an oversized kickball. A large gold cross hung from her neck, resting in her cleavage. Next to her, a two-year-old was slumped down in the seat like a surly drunk, kicking the back of Biff’s chair.

Thwack!

Biff rose from his seat. “Miss?”

Thwack!

Look here, you little bastard…!

Thwack!

“MISS?!”

Nothing. He flicked on the overhead light above her. The pregnant woman stirred in her seat, rubbing her eyes, looking annoyed, scowling as she absorbed his presence.

“It’s Mrs.,” she replied in a hoarse voice, flashing the back of her hand with an oversized rock on the ring finger.

“Yes, I’m so sorry. By the way your child was trying to reorganize the very molecules of my seat by beating them into a pulp with his sneakers, I’d assumed that the Neanderthal who had squirted his seed inside you had long since jumped ship and left you a Miss with a pair of bastards.”

The woman stared at him, fully awake, bloodshot eyes wide, her mouth agape. Biff heard the pile of Italian cookies hit the floor a few rows back.

“Would it be possible for you to discipline the child and prevent him from kicking my seat?”

“He’s two.”

“Pardon?”

“He’s two. Do you get it?”

“He could be thirty-bloody-seven for all I care. Please stop him from kicking my seat.”

A glassy look washed over her. She turned toward the child.

“Truman?”

Thwack!

She swallowed, head cocking sideways, showing Biff an uncomfortable “can’t you see I’m trying?” look.

“Truman?”

Thwack!

“Truman, stop kicking the seat.”

Thwack!

“Truman, the man doesn’t want you kicking the seat. So please stop. Do you want a time-out?”

A gurgling roar escaped the child, its mouth contorting into a grimace normally made by raccoons. It was a gun going off; the entire bus was caught off guard by the ruckus. The child poured it on, giving his all in a final assault.

Thwack!

Thwack!

Thwack!

“Congratulations, madam, he’ll make a wonderful gas station attendant someday.”

Biff sat back down in his seat, unfolding the newspaper that was stuffed in the seat pocket. Behind him, he heard a mutter of “English prick!” from the mother. He turned around, staring through the seat at the child, arching an eyebrow.

Right, you little bastard, are we finished?

The kid smiled. Biff turned forward and rested his head softly against the seat. He unfolded the newspaper.

Thwack!

Truman giggled behind him.

Biff closed his eyes, breathing in deeply. Forms danced behind his eyelids, amorphous, blending in and out of one another. He could see the desert again. And the dark-skinned, blue-eyed man. And the miserable tree. And that warm stone in his hand, feeling its heat in his palm. His tongue licking at the sand in his gums. The blue-eyed man smiled at him, warm and open. Biff leaned down and whispered something to the blue-eyed man, whose eyes widened for a moment then grew soft again. He shook his head in response. Biff felt the warmth of the stone in his palm. A yellow-toothed grin grew on his face. The blue-eyed man kept smiling back at him.

Slowly, Biff’s eyes opened. For once, that feeling of defeat wasn’t there. He resigned himself to keep quiet the rest of the trip.

 


2.


A thin two-lane highway snaked its way through a dense forest of maple and beech trees. The bus humped the s-curves, nailing potholes and bouncing the passengers out of their seats. Sleeping heads ricocheted off windows, coffee cups spilled their contents, and parents scrambled to catch their children’s toys in flight.

To the right, Biff saw a dirt road, full of large, waterlogged potholes, leading off into the darkness of the woods at a ninety-degree angle. As if on impulse, the bus swerved like a humpback whale to the left, aiming toward a new housing development that was barely concealed by a row of newly planted trees. They formed a stick-figure platoon on guard duty at the front of the grounds. Brand-new lampposts lined the paved streets of the development. A few had been shattered, the globes now bowls with jagged teeth, leaving pockets of darkness in the luminescent glow. The houses—still unfinished, the crossbeams forming rib cages—stood vacant. Oversized cement pipes lay about, unconnected, next to piles of 4-by-6s and particleboard. Bent fingers of rebar reached out of the mud at odd angles.

Jerking back to the right, the bus hit a hard angle, barely making it through the small cyclone fence as it pulled into the parking lot of the Knob’s End bus station. It squeezed underneath the aluminum awning of the entrance, the motion causing the structure to rock back and forth from the displacement of air.

Before the driver had slid the lever all the way into position, passengers shoved their way out, fighting for fresh air. Leaping out the door, they gasped, breathing in rapidly like inept swimmers who almost drowned after being smothered by a wave.

Biff stepped down from the bus, the newspaper folded neatly beneath his arm. He frowned slightly.

Alas, the color of life has faded away.

Knob’s End presented itself as a series of dark shadows and cold buildings. They were all constructed of light gray stone and dark slate roofs. Black, ornate streetlights lit up the front facades, giving them the appearance of solemn ghosts watching in the night. Turning back around, he looked up at the front of the bus station, seeing the snow-white banner that shone like a beacon in the glare of the spotlights.

“Welcome to Knob’s End—The Holiest Town in America.”

Grabbing the folded newspaper, he slapped it against his suit, knocking off bits of dust and dead skin. In spite of the heat on the bus, the ratty gray suit had remained dry. If he were honest, Biff would admit to feeling a constant chill throughout the trip.

There were small rips in the material. It was that goddamn plastic chair at the Port Authority in ’97 that caught the back of the left leg. And the razor wire of a car lot that caught the right sleeve back in ’03. Mishaps and miscalculations throughout the years rendered its now unsplendid state.

He glanced down at his shoes, following the wrinkles in the leather as if surveying a topographical map.

How many miles, old man?

Lifting the right foot, he flexed his toe, revealing the small cracks in the sole that allowed water to seep in and drench his socks. The skeletal fingers rose up and scratched at the white stubble on his chin. Little flakes of snow etched off the skin. His eyes seemed to glass over, the fingers moving mechanically, back and forth, as they made a sound like heavy grit sandpaper rubbing against wood.

This mental drifting was thwarted by the sight of the obese passengers filing into the station, their shirts covered in patches of sweat. A breeze kicked up, a sudden gust of wind that swept them quickly indoors. It also knocked Biff’s fedora off the top of his head, revealing a pale dome and strings of hair on the sides.

The fedora blew toward the herd, rolling, swooping upward, then suddenly changing direction, rapidly moving away from the station, before sharply dive-bombing into the back of the Catholic-school graduate in the stained tan sweater who had left the pack, now headed toward the center of town. Her head shot around, tossing the mop of salt-and-pepper hair back and forth, the knot at the top threatening to come undone. Finally, she looked down at her feet and picked up the fedora. In the lamplight, her yellow fingernails stood out against the dark gray material. She stared at the fedora, a puzzled look on her face, as if the hat had somehow materialized from a netherworld of space and time. Then her eyes shifted, aiming toward Biff.

He raised a single finger in the air.

The woman smiled nervously and walked toward him.

“Yours?” she asked.

“Indeed.”

She held out the fedora, holding it at the tips of her fingers in the same manner as someone about to feed a stray dog. Biff took it gently from her and placed it on his head with a slight bow.

“Thank you, madam.”

“You’re welcome.”

Her voice was scratchy, tired. Red rings circled her eyes. The left thumb scratched nervously at the corner of the nail on the right thumb.

“Do you live here?” Biff asked.

“If you call it that.”

He stared at her, chewing on the answer.

Lips folding in on each other, eyebrows raised slightly, she turned away and walked off into the night, the knot of hair on her head drooping to the side.

Smiling a yellow-toothed grin, Biff strutted inside the station.

 


3.


Hello, 1950s!

The walls were made of light tan industrial brick. Biff had seen it in enough bus stations, small factories, school gymnasiums, church event halls, and strip malls to recognize it as a mark of American expansion during the fifties.

They thought it would protect them from the A-bomb.

On the northern wall, the clock read 7:05 PM. Beneath it, a row of ticket windows stood empty, except for the bald, round fellow in Window #8 who was holding a small, tattered Bible, the lips moving as he read. Biff watched the passengers flee to the exit at the front of the station. Some met waiting relatives who waved unexcitedly. Others shuffled off alone, dragging their feet across the stained floor tiles. There was no board of any sort announcing the arrival and departure times. Biff stepped up to Window #8.

“Excuse me…”

A single finger shot up, cutting Biff off. The lips kept moving, the bald head bouncing slightly now.

“Do you have…”

The finger jerked forward in a sharp burst, coming closer to the glass that separated the two men.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”

Biff gave up the ghost and walked away.

An old, brown-skinned man stood in the northwest corner. He watched the zombies walking past, staring at their shoes. Next to him were two shoddy chairs resting on top of a platform made of new particleboard. The chairs looked as if they were rescued from a diner fire. Originally, the vinyl covering had been red, but a blackish soot—perhaps shoe polish, or maybe years of grime—had ruined the vibrant color.

Biff walked up, stepping onto the platform as the boards creaked, and sat down slowly.

The brown-skinned man didn't speak. He snapped a towel, nodded at Biff, and then started roughly applying polish.

“¿Mexicano?”

The man nodded.

“¿De dónde usted consiguió el particleboard?”

The Mexican shrugged.

“¿Encontrado le?”

The man looked up. An eyebrow raised. He glanced back down at Biff's shoes. The Mexican smiled.

"Dios encuentra una manera."

Biff smiled. "I guess he does."

It was then that Truman appeared. The small child was standing in front of a solitary newsstand at the center of the station. His pregnant mother chatted away into a cell phone.

Truman was dismantling neat stacks of the Albany Times-Union. As the newspapers slid to the floor, the headline "Spending Stalls and Businesses Slash US Jobs" appeared over and over again. Behind the counter, an old man was fast asleep. On a shelf above his head, an ancient portable television with a coat-hanger antenna was turned all the way up, an announcer shouting so everyone in the station could follow the play-by-play of a Yankees game.

The mother kept gabbing, occasionally turning to make sure Truman was still within her sight, but not bothering to put a halt to his sacking of the newspaper stand. Truman grabbed copies of People and Time, smiling like a maniacal despot before flinging the periodicals in the air. They sailed downward, wounded bats flapping their pages.

As the mayhem continued, Biff spotted a figure several yards away from the newsstand. A janitor, sweeping the floor, but keeping a close watch. He pushed the broom a little bit to the right, but looked back, seeing Truman charge the stacks of the Knob's End Spectator. Push, push. He glanced back. As the broom slid forward, feet shuffling behind it, the janitor seemed infatuated with the boy's ransacking.

The old man had a face like a mole, the nose an oblong piece of pie hovering over a pencil-thin mustache. His left eye twitched, drawing Biff's attention to the fogged glassiness of his cataracts. His back was hunched, the legs stiff, the arms more rubber than skin and bone.

Biff's fingers closed around his chin, scratching slowly at the coarse hairs.

You're supposed to be on holiday, old boy. Remember that.

Truman grabbed a container of beef jerky off a lower shelf, twisted the lid open, and dumped the contents on the floor.

Thwack!

The shoe shiner snapped the stained towel loudly. A ghost of a sensation hit Biff in the back, that feeling of small feet kicking a chair.

"Tu habla español muy mal," the Mexican said.

Stretching the towel into a straight line over Biff's left shoe, he began dragging it horizontally back and forth, a luster forming in spite of the wrinkles.

Thwack!

Jumping slightly to the left, the Mexican worked on the right shoe until it reflected his face.

"Terminado, señor."

Biff stood up and removed the worn leather wallet from the inside pocket of his coat. Along with the bus ticket, an OTB betting slip, and a photograph—black-and-white, a young couple from the 1950s—he found the last three singles. Pulling them out, he examined Washington's old face. George didn't smile. He just looked back, kind of sad and bored.

"¿Cuánto?"

"Dos, señor."

He handed all three bills to the Mexican and stepped off the platform.

"Gracias. Vaya con dios, señor."

Biff stopped, one foot resting on the ground. He tilted his head down, lifted the fedora slightly, staring straight into the eyes of the Mexican.

"Don't get smart. ¿Entiende?"

The Mexican stared back at him. They were going down a strange road, Biff taking the lead. He raised a skeletal finger at the Mexican, jabbed it at his chest, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. Biff's uncut fingernail made an indentation in the skin of the man's upper chest. Then the pressure was released.

In the middle of the station, Truman pulled at the plastic holding copies of the Spectator in a neat bundle.

Biff lowered his finger and then patted the man on the shoulder before walking away. The Mexican watched him over his shoulder.

Standing a few feet from the newsstand, the janitor was transfixed by Truman. Biff took a wide arc and came up behind him. Tapping the janitor on the shoulder, Biff whispered in his ear. He was one of those guys who wore his past like a dirty smock. Biff could see him on the navy boats in the South Pacific. Or in the local bars, drinking all alone, trying not to remember too many things. Cramped in some dingy basement apartment with a Virgin Mary statue, fast-food wrappers, and empty beer bottles. He couldn't afford a hearing aid, nor the cataract surgery he really needed. But he could hear Biff. The words were crisp and clear, even spoken so lightly. They cut through to the eardrums, a pair of crash cymbals reverberating off the membrane.

Biff smiled as he spoke to the janitor.

The mole man didn't look at Biff. He just nodded.

Biff patted him on the back and walked away toward the center of the room. He stopped for a moment to scoop something off the floor before continuing past Truman. The boy threw copies of the Spectator in the air. Smiling, the janitor walked toward the newsstand, picked up a piece of beef jerky, and offered it to Truman.

Snaking his way softly across the floor, Biff came up behind the mother. She didn't turn, continuing the conversation, screeching into the mouthpiece.

"Madam?"

Her conversation continued, flinging out phrases: "British asshole…homeless bum."

Biff cleared his throat. The woman turned, lowering the phone.

Biff smiled. The woman didn't.

"What is it?"

"My name is Biff [*-----------]."

The name came out unintelligible. Maybe Czech or Romanian. It had too many consonants for her ear to grasp. She made a face like someone had presented a dead rodent to her.

"I'm sorry, I didn't get that."

"Well, it is not so important. You can call me Biff. And your name is?"

"Claire."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Claire."

He held his hand out to her. She stared at it for a moment, then looked back up at him.

The pause was long, so Biff continued.

"I was hoping that you had the time."

"Are you an idiot?"

"Pardon?"

"There's a clock on the wall right behind you."

She pointed toward the location of the large clock bolted to the northern wall. A switch flicked in her head. Staring around the room, gravity pulled her mouth open, but no words escaped.

Following the line of her eyesight, Biff turned, smiling at the sight of the clock.

"Of course, how absolutely daft of me. I do see the clock now."

"Truman?"

She was looking past him, staring over Biff's shoulder.

"I really should be on my way. Thank you ever so much for your assistance, Claire."

"Truuuumaaann."

Biff walked south toward the main exit.

"Truuuummmaaannn! Truman, where are you!"

The woman bounded toward the newsstand, sliding forward as she hit the scattered pages of the Times-Union. Beef jerky flew in all directions.

Biff whistled as he headed toward the exit.

"Truuummmaannn! Truuummmaaannn!! Has anyone seen my child?!"

The old man in the newsstand snapped awake.

"Keep it down, lady!"

"TRRRRUUUMMMMAAAANNNNNN!"

Biff pushed the door open, breathing as a rush of air blasted through the terminal. He turned slightly, looking out the corner of his left eye. Both the janitor and Truman were gone.

"Someone help me! My child! Has anyone seen my child! TRRRUUUMMMMAAANNNNNN!!!!!"

A grin slowly carved its way into Biff's long jawline. He took a small bite out of a stick of beef jerky.

Let the holiday begin.

 
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Published on October 07, 2014 12:28 • 14 views • Tags: chapters, devil, free, literature, no-tears-for-old-scratch, novels, satan, suspense

Presented for your reading pleasure, the first three chapters from my new novel, No Tears For Old Scratch. Scroll down to read the chapters. And you can pick up a copy for yourself via these links:

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Indie Bookstores | Greenlight Bookstore | The Word


 


DAY ONE


1.


6:00 PM


 


Biff was the dead man in seat 10C. Eyes shot wide open. Yet he saw nothing as the shadows moved past. One arm, dangling into the aisle, swung with each sway and surge of the bus. An old, crumpled fedora lay in his lap.


There was the grit of sand in his gums. He licked at it with a lazy tongue, tasting the desert.


That bloody desert…


It haunted him.


Turning to his right, Biff stared out the window past ol’ Snore and Snot. The old codger in the window seat smelled like medicated powder. Somewhere around West Haverstraw, his nose had become a leaky faucet. Despite being fast asleep, he would snort several times, sucking the bile back into his nose, and then return to snoring loudly.


Clouds coalesced into denser forms, choking the sunlight. It gave the air a heaviness, that feeling of a drawn-in breath unable to be released.


…and this bloody sand!


The sand was always there when he thought of the desert. It felt as if pins and needles had been jammed in his gums. Hiding in the nooks and crannies between his blackened teeth. He scraped at them with a long fingernail.


If only Biff could sleep and forget it all. But sleep never came. Instead there was a fog. The past few hours were a haze. It was a millennium, but it was a second. Somewhere in the haze came the dream.



That was vivid, exact, and bright, down to the grit of sand in his gums. Always the same setup. Setup indeed! The desert, that single crag of a tree. The dark-skinned man waiting for him. That disgusting smile and those blue eyes. Bright blue, pure. The son of a bitch always smiled, like he was expecting him. As if all of this had happened a million times over and he was just being led by a chain. Like a dog, a bloody mongrel! Walking up, stone in hand, and that bearded son of a bitch would just smile at him.


He always woke up from the dream with the same feeling of defeat. A slap to the face that left a tingling sensation in the cheek.


The interior of the bus had grown darker. When did this happen? Five, maybe ten minutes ago? An October sunset with bloodred clouds hanging low and heavy. Trees flew past the window in a blur, the leaves adding to the canvas of orange and crimson.


As the bus hummed along the highway, white porch lights sprang to life, illuminating the isolated homes off in the distance. Here and there, the soft blue glow of a television lit up dark rooms.


For an October evening it was unusually warm. Cars drove past, windows down, the drivers’ hair flapping in the wind. Clad in a blue sweater, the bus driver was oblivious to the weather shift. With the cabin sealed shut, the bus was a sauna. Heat spewed from the vents, blasting the passengers who tried desperately to fend it off, wiping sweat from their faces and necks with McDonald’s napkins, shirtsleeves, socks, and circulation cards ripped from between pages of Entertainment Weekly.


Most of the overhead lights were off. As the sun continued its descent, the features of the passengers toward the front became less distinct, a series of silent shadows. In the rows closest to him, the passengers were more defined. They appeared as if a dark tint had been laid over a film.


The burly old man in 10B had been masturbating for the past five minutes. Beneath the New York Post lying across his lap, the right hand rubbed continuously against the texture of his jeans, creating a repetitive swishing sound. Rivulets of sweat ran down his ears. The shirt absorbed the wetness, giving the USA across his chest an ever-expanding oil slick.


Watching this spectacle, Biff had the old man pegged.


Married young, met her at a CYO dance. They’ve been together over forty years. Last bit he got from her was a handjob in a heart-shaped bathtub in the Poconos back in ’72. No doubt he’ll buy some porno magazines when he gets off the bus, Latino girls I bet, and the old wife will find them at the bottom of the sweater drawer a few weeks later, pulling apart the sticky pages as she flips through images of young women doing all sorts of nasty things to one another.


In 11A and 11B sat the newly engaged couple. He was dead asleep, leaning against the window, belly spilling over his khakis. Everything she owned—the handbag, the phone, her top, her earrings—was covered with some form of faux gold. Sitting in her lap was a mountain of Italian cookies, covered in transparent plastic wrap and tied off with a curled gold ribbon. She clutched at the tray as if it were a life preserver. The only time she would release the cookies was to rotate the gold-plated engagement ring on her left hand.


She knows they hate her. The cookies are a peace offering, a wretchedly fake show of class to the future in-laws.


A solitary woman sat in 9B. She wore a long, tan sweater. Stains could be seen in the armpits and just above the bulging front pockets filled with used tissues. Yellow stains on the tips of her fingernails. Her salt-and-pepper hair was strung up in a wretched concoction that left strands hanging around her face like tentacles. Round glasses covered her eyes as she read an old book, scratching nervously at each page six times before she turned it with a single finger. OCD. A Catholic-school graduate, no doubt. They did a hell of a job on this one.


Highway-exit towns flew past as ten-second postcards of gas stations, family restaurants, and convenience stores. Dotting the landscape, new housing developments rose like pimples in select enclaves. Most of the homes were unoccupied. Dark, empty forms standing lifeless in the mud.


The old man snorted, a burst of snot leaking onto his plaid short-sleeved dress shirt. Biff turned away.


His stomach made a loud croaking noise. Food, like his journey here, seemed more of a distant memory.


Man shall not live on bread alone.


Biff smiled at this thought. One knew life had hit the skids when you couldn’t remember your last meal. Then again, the passengers around him didn’t seem to have that problem, and from all appearances, he was no worse off than them.


The desert appeared in his mind again. That stone in his hand. The specter of what used to be a tree, the last remnant of an ex-forest. At his feet, the dark-skinned man with the blue eyes looked hungry. Biff held the stone, thinking…


Long rows of overgrown weeds and wild grass along the shoulder flew past the window. Plastic bags and fast-food wrappers were trapped in the thicket, unable to wrestle themselves free in spite of the onrush of wind from the traffic.


In the seats around him, Biff heard people moaning and shuffling, struggling against the small space. He could remember seeing things like this, under much worse conditions, in train cars and dank cells, the people then nowhere near as overstuffed as these. A vision flooded his brain of that light from above, a mere pinhole really, shining into a cargo hold. Swaying with the movements of the ship, it reflected off the dark, oily skin of the women and children who spoke only in whispers. And never to l’étranger. They always watched him, staring with that defeated look in their glowing eyes.


Maybe we were all doomed from the start?


Another mile marker went past. The headlights of the bus lit up the number 237 on its small sign.


Thwack!


Through the gap in the seats he could see the pregnant woman asleep against the window. Wearing a pink tracksuit, her bulbous stomach an oversized kickball. A large gold cross hung from her neck, resting in her cleavage. Next to her, a two-year-old was slumped down in the seat like a surly drunk, kicking the back of Biff’s chair.


Thwack!


Biff rose from his seat. “Miss?”


Thwack!


Look here, you little bastard…!


Thwack!


“MISS?!”


Nothing. He flicked on the overhead light above her. The pregnant woman stirred in her seat, rubbing her eyes, looking annoyed, scowling as she absorbed his presence.


“It’s Mrs.,” she replied in a hoarse voice, flashing the back of her hand with an oversized rock on the ring finger.


“Yes, I’m so sorry. By the way your child was trying to reorganize the very molecules of my seat by beating them into a pulp with his sneakers, I’d assumed that the Neanderthal who had squirted his seed inside you had long since jumped ship and left you a Miss with a pair of bastards.”


The woman stared at him, fully awake, bloodshot eyes wide, her mouth agape. Biff heard the pile of Italian cookies hit the floor a few rows back.


“Would it be possible for you to discipline the child and prevent him from kicking my seat?”


“He’s two.”


“Pardon?”


“He’s two. Do you get it?”


“He could be thirty-bloody-seven for all I care. Please stop him from kicking my seat.”


A glassy look washed over her. She turned toward the child.


“Truman?”


Thwack!


She swallowed, head cocking sideways, showing Biff an uncomfortable “can’t you see I’m trying?” look.


“Truman?”


Thwack!


“Truman, stop kicking the seat.”


Thwack!


“Truman, the man doesn’t want you kicking the seat. So please stop. Do you want a time-out?”


A gurgling roar escaped the child, its mouth contorting into a grimace normally made by raccoons. It was a gun going off; the entire bus was caught off guard by the ruckus. The child poured it on, giving his all in a final assault.


Thwack!


Thwack!


Thwack!


“Congratulations, madam, he’ll make a wonderful gas station attendant someday.”


Biff sat back down in his seat, unfolding the newspaper that was stuffed in the seat pocket. Behind him, he heard a mutter of “English prick!” from the mother. He turned around, staring through the seat at the child, arching an eyebrow.


Right, you little bastard, are we finished?


The kid smiled. Biff turned forward and rested his head softly against the seat. He unfolded the newspaper.


Thwack!


Truman giggled behind him.


Biff closed his eyes, breathing in deeply. Forms danced behind his eyelids, amorphous, blending in and out of one another. He could see the desert again. And the dark-skinned, blue-eyed man. And the miserable tree. And that warm stone in his hand, feeling its heat in his palm. His tongue licking at the sand in his gums. The blue-eyed man smiled at him, warm and open. Biff leaned down and whispered something to the blue-eyed man, whose eyes widened for a moment then grew soft again. He shook his head in response. Biff felt the warmth of the stone in his palm. A yellow-toothed grin grew on his face. The blue-eyed man kept smiling back at him.


Slowly, Biff’s eyes opened. For once, that feeling of defeat wasn’t there. He resigned himself to keep quiet the rest of the trip.


 


2.


A thin two-lane highway snaked its way through a dense forest of maple and beech trees. The bus humped the s-curves, nailing potholes and bouncing the passengers out of their seats. Sleeping heads ricocheted off windows, coffee cups spilled their contents, and parents scrambled to catch their children’s toys in flight.


To the right, Biff saw a dirt road, full of large, waterlogged potholes, leading off into the darkness of the woods at a ninety-degree angle. As if on impulse, the bus swerved like a humpback whale to the left, aiming toward a new housing development that was barely concealed by a row of newly planted trees. They formed a stick-figure platoon on guard duty at the front of the grounds. Brand-new lampposts lined the paved streets of the development. A few had been shattered, the globes now bowls with jagged teeth, leaving pockets of darkness in the luminescent glow. The houses—still unfinished, the crossbeams forming rib cages—stood vacant. Oversized cement pipes lay about, unconnected, next to piles of 4-by-6s and particleboard. Bent fingers of rebar reached out of the mud at odd angles.


Jerking back to the right, the bus hit a hard angle, barely making it through the small cyclone fence as it pulled into the parking lot of the Knob’s End bus station. It squeezed underneath the aluminum awning of the entrance, the motion causing the structure to rock back and forth from the displacement of air.


Before the driver had slid the lever all the way into position, passengers shoved their way out, fighting for fresh air. Leaping out the door, they gasped, breathing in rapidly like inept swimmers who almost drowned after being smothered by a wave.


Biff stepped down from the bus, the newspaper folded neatly beneath his arm. He frowned slightly.


Alas, the color of life has faded away.


Knob’s End presented itself as a series of dark shadows and cold buildings. They were all constructed of light gray stone and dark slate roofs. Black, ornate streetlights lit up the front facades, giving them the appearance of solemn ghosts watching in the night. Turning back around, he looked up at the front of the bus station, seeing the snow-white banner that shone like a beacon in the glare of the spotlights.


“Welcome to Knob’s End—The Holiest Town in America.”


Grabbing the folded newspaper, he slapped it against his suit, knocking off bits of dust and dead skin. In spite of the heat on the bus, the ratty gray suit had remained dry. If he were honest, Biff would admit to feeling a constant chill throughout the trip.


There were small rips in the material. It was that goddamn plastic chair at the Port Authority in ’97 that caught the back of the left leg. And the razor wire of a car lot that caught the right sleeve back in ’03. Mishaps and miscalculations throughout the years rendered its now unsplendid state.


He glanced down at his shoes, following the wrinkles in the leather as if surveying a topographical map.


How many miles, old man?


Lifting the right foot, he flexed his toe, revealing the small cracks in the sole that allowed water to seep in and drench his socks. The skeletal fingers rose up and scratched at the white stubble on his chin. Little flakes of snow etched off the skin. His eyes seemed to glass over, the fingers moving mechanically, back and forth, as they made a sound like heavy grit sandpaper rubbing against wood.


This mental drifting was thwarted by the sight of the obese passengers filing into the station, their shirts covered in patches of sweat. A breeze kicked up, a sudden gust of wind that swept them quickly indoors. It also knocked Biff’s fedora off the top of his head, revealing a pale dome and strings of hair on the sides.


The fedora blew toward the herd, rolling, swooping upward, then suddenly changing direction, rapidly moving away from the station, before sharply dive-bombing into the back of the Catholic-school graduate in the stained tan sweater who had left the pack, now headed toward the center of town. Her head shot around, tossing the mop of salt-and-pepper hair back and forth, the knot at the top threatening to come undone. Finally, she looked down at her feet and picked up the fedora. In the lamplight, her yellow fingernails stood out against the dark gray material. She stared at the fedora, a puzzled look on her face, as if the hat had somehow materialized from a netherworld of space and time. Then her eyes shifted, aiming toward Biff.


He raised a single finger in the air.


The woman smiled nervously and walked toward him.


“Yours?” she asked.


“Indeed.”


She held out the fedora, holding it at the tips of her fingers in the same manner as someone about to feed a stray dog. Biff took it gently from her and placed it on his head with a slight bow.


“Thank you, madam.”


“You’re welcome.”


Her voice was scratchy, tired. Red rings circled her eyes. The left thumb scratched nervously at the corner of the nail on the right thumb.


“Do you live here?” Biff asked.


“If you call it that.”


He stared at her, chewing on the answer.


Lips folding in on each other, eyebrows raised slightly, she turned away and walked off into the night, the knot of hair on her head drooping to the side.


Smiling a yellow-toothed grin, Biff strutted inside the station.


 


3.


Hello, 1950s!


The walls were made of light tan industrial brick. Biff had seen it in enough bus stations, small factories, school gymnasiums, church event halls, and strip malls to recognize it as a mark of American expansion during the fifties.


They thought it would protect them from the A-bomb.


On the northern wall, the clock read 7:05 PM. Beneath it, a row of ticket windows stood empty, except for the bald, round fellow in Window #8 who was holding a small, tattered Bible, the lips moving as he read. Biff watched the passengers flee to the exit at the front of the station. Some met waiting relatives who waved unexcitedly. Others shuffled off alone, dragging their feet across the stained floor tiles. There was no board of any sort announcing the arrival and departure times. Biff stepped up to Window #8.


“Excuse me…”


A single finger shot up, cutting Biff off. The lips kept moving, the bald head bouncing slightly now.


“Do you have…”


The finger jerked forward in a sharp burst, coming closer to the glass that separated the two men.


“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”


Biff gave up the ghost and walked away.


An old, brown-skinned man stood in the northwest corner. He watched the zombies walking past, staring at their shoes. Next to him were two shoddy chairs resting on top of a platform made of new particleboard. The chairs looked as if they were rescued from a diner fire. Originally, the vinyl covering had been red, but a blackish soot—perhaps shoe polish, or maybe years of grime—had ruined the vibrant color.


Biff walked up, stepping onto the platform as the boards creaked, and sat down slowly.


The brown-skinned man didn’t speak. He snapped a towel, nodded at Biff, and then started roughly applying polish.


“¿Mexicano?”


The man nodded.


“¿De dónde usted consiguió el particleboard?”


The Mexican shrugged.


“¿Encontrado le?”


The man looked up. An eyebrow raised. He glanced back down at Biff’s shoes. The Mexican smiled.


“Dios encuentra una manera.”


Biff smiled. “I guess he does.”


It was then that Truman appeared. The small child was standing in front of a solitary newsstand at the center of the station. His pregnant mother chatted away into a cell phone.


Truman was dismantling neat stacks of the Albany Times-Union. As the newspapers slid to the floor, the headline “Spending Stalls and Businesses Slash US Jobs” appeared over and over again. Behind the counter, an old man was fast asleep. On a shelf above his head, an ancient portable television with a coat-hanger antenna was turned all the way up, an announcer shouting so everyone in the station could follow the play-by-play of a Yankees game.


The mother kept gabbing, occasionally turning to make sure Truman was still within her sight, but not bothering to put a halt to his sacking of the newspaper stand. Truman grabbed copies of People and Time, smiling like a maniacal despot before flinging the periodicals in the air. They sailed downward, wounded bats flapping their pages.


As the mayhem continued, Biff spotted a figure several yards away from the newsstand. A janitor, sweeping the floor, but keeping a close watch. He pushed the broom a little bit to the right, but looked back, seeing Truman charge the stacks of the Knob’s End Spectator. Push, push. He glanced back. As the broom slid forward, feet shuffling behind it, the janitor seemed infatuated with the boy’s ransacking.


The old man had a face like a mole, the nose an oblong piece of pie hovering over a pencil-thin mustache. His left eye twitched, drawing Biff’s attention to the fogged glassiness of his cataracts. His back was hunched, the legs stiff, the arms more rubber than skin and bone.


Biff’s fingers closed around his chin, scratching slowly at the coarse hairs.


You’re supposed to be on holiday, old boy. Remember that.


Truman grabbed a container of beef jerky off a lower shelf, twisted the lid open, and dumped the contents on the floor.


Thwack!


The shoe shiner snapped the stained towel loudly. A ghost of a sensation hit Biff in the back, that feeling of small feet kicking a chair.


“Tu habla español muy mal,” the Mexican said.


Stretching the towel into a straight line over Biff’s left shoe, he began dragging it horizontally back and forth, a luster forming in spite of the wrinkles.


Thwack!


Jumping slightly to the left, the Mexican worked on the right shoe until it reflected his face.


“Terminado, señor.”


Biff stood up and removed the worn leather wallet from the inside pocket of his coat. Along with the bus ticket, an OTB betting slip, and a photograph—black-and-white, a young couple from the 1950s—he found the last three singles. Pulling them out, he examined Washington’s old face. George didn’t smile. He just looked back, kind of sad and bored.


“¿Cuánto?”


“Dos, señor.”


He handed all three bills to the Mexican and stepped off the platform.


“Gracias. Vaya con dios, señor.”


Biff stopped, one foot resting on the ground. He tilted his head down, lifted the fedora slightly, staring straight into the eyes of the Mexican.


“Don’t get smart. ¿Entiende?


The Mexican stared back at him. They were going down a strange road, Biff taking the lead. He raised a skeletal finger at the Mexican, jabbed it at his chest, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. Biff’s uncut fingernail made an indentation in the skin of the man’s upper chest. Then the pressure was released.


In the middle of the station, Truman pulled at the plastic holding copies of the Spectator in a neat bundle.


Biff lowered his finger and then patted the man on the shoulder before walking away. The Mexican watched him over his shoulder.


Standing a few feet from the newsstand, the janitor was transfixed by Truman. Biff took a wide arc and came up behind him. Tapping the janitor on the shoulder, Biff whispered in his ear. He was one of those guys who wore his past like a dirty smock. Biff could see him on the navy boats in the South Pacific. Or in the local bars, drinking all alone, trying not to remember too many things. Cramped in some dingy basement apartment with a Virgin Mary statue, fast-food wrappers, and empty beer bottles. He couldn’t afford a hearing aid, nor the cataract surgery he really needed. But he could hear Biff. The words were crisp and clear, even spoken so lightly. They cut through to the eardrums, a pair of crash cymbals reverberating off the membrane.


Biff smiled as he spoke to the janitor.


The mole man didn’t look at Biff. He just nodded.


Biff patted him on the back and walked away toward the center of the room. He stopped for a moment to scoop something off the floor before continuing past Truman. The boy threw copies of the Spectator in the air. Smiling, the janitor walked toward the newsstand, picked up a piece of beef jerky, and offered it to Truman.


Snaking his way softly across the floor, Biff came up behind the mother. She didn’t turn, continuing the conversation, screeching into the mouthpiece.


“Madam?”


Her conversation continued, flinging out phrases: “British asshole…homeless bum.”


Biff cleared his throat. The woman turned, lowering the phone.


Biff smiled. The woman didn’t.


“What is it?”


“My name is Biff [*-----------].”


The name came out unintelligible. Maybe Czech or Romanian. It had too many consonants for her ear to grasp. She made a face like someone had presented a dead rodent to her.


“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”


“Well, it is not so important. You can call me Biff. And your name is?”


“Claire.”


“It is a pleasure to meet you, Claire.”


He held his hand out to her. She stared at it for a moment, then looked back up at him.


The pause was long, so Biff continued.


“I was hoping that you had the time.”


“Are you an idiot?”


“Pardon?”


“There’s a clock on the wall right behind you.”


She pointed toward the location of the large clock bolted to the northern wall. A switch flicked in her head. Staring around the room, gravity pulled her mouth open, but no words escaped.


Following the line of her eyesight, Biff turned, smiling at the sight of the clock.


“Of course, how absolutely daft of me. I do see the clock now.”


“Truman?”


She was looking past him, staring over Biff’s shoulder.


“I really should be on my way. Thank you ever so much for your assistance, Claire.”


“Truuuumaaann.”


Biff walked south toward the main exit.


“Truuuummmaaannn! Truman, where are you!”


The woman bounded toward the newsstand, sliding forward as she hit the scattered pages of the Times-Union. Beef jerky flew in all directions.


Biff whistled as he headed toward the exit.


“Truuummmaannn! Truuummmaaannn!! Has anyone seen my child?!”


The old man in the newsstand snapped awake.


“Keep it down, lady!”


“TRRRRUUUMMMMAAAANNNNNN!”


Biff pushed the door open, breathing as a rush of air blasted through the terminal. He turned slightly, looking out the corner of his left eye. Both the janitor and Truman were gone.


“Someone help me! My child! Has anyone seen my child! TRRRUUUMMMMAAANNNNNN!!!!!”


A grin slowly carved its way into Biff’s long jawline. He took a small bite out of a stick of beef jerky.


Let the holiday begin.


 

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Published on October 07, 2014 12:17 • 4 views

September 24, 2014

As you may or may not know, I've got a new book out called No Tears For Old Scratch . If you have not picked it up yet, here's an extra push: you can get it for FREE as an eBook at this link (for a very limited time).


And of course if you're still an analog-minded person, you can grab a print copy at any bookstore ( links here )
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Published on September 24, 2014 11:52 • 22 views • Tags: ebooks, free, no-tears-for-old-scratch

August 5, 2014

No Tears For Old Scratch by Ken Wohlrob
Devil Music, Part 6: An ongoing soundtrack to celebrate the release of my new book, No Tears For Old Scratch ( you can grab it here or just about anywhere)

Today's gem, "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC, live on German TV from 1979..

Click image to play the video





















"Hey satan
Payin' my dues
Playin' in a rockin' band
Hey mumma
Look at me
I'm on the way to the promised land"
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Published on August 05, 2014 08:24 • 11 views • Tags: acdc, books, devil, highway-to-hell, literature, no-tears-for-old-scratch, novels, rock-and-roll, satan

July 24, 2014

July 21, 2014

"Restocking a Personal Library," a short documentary from fellow writer/photographer and friend Kristin Fouquet. Keep an eye out for books from Tim Hall, Karen Lillis, Ben Tanzer, Caleb Ross, and yours truly.

Click image to play the video
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Published on July 21, 2014 11:51 • 16 views • Tags: ben-tanzer, books, caleb-ross, hurricane-katrina, karen-lillis, kristin-fouquet, libraries, tim-hall

July 9, 2014

Elvis and I are sending out signed copies of No Tears For Old Scratch to the #Goodreads giveaway winners today.

You can grab your copy of my new book here .

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Published on July 09, 2014 04:49 • 22 views • Tags: books, devil, elvis, giveaways, literature, no-tears-for-old-scratch, novels, satan, signed-copies

July 2, 2014

No Tears For Old Scratch by Ken Wohlrob
Devil Music, Part 5: An ongoing soundtrack to celebrate the release of my new book, No Tears For Old Scratch ( you can grab it here )

Today's gem, "Race With the Devil" by Gene Vincent.





















"Well thought I was smart, the race was won
A-hear come the devil doin' a-hundred and one
Move, hot-rod, move man!
Move, hot-rod, move man!
Move hot-rod, move me on down the the line (Let's drag again)"
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Published on July 02, 2014 13:12 • 11 views • Tags: books, devil, gene-vincent, literature, music, no-tears-for-old-scratch, novels, race-with-the-devil, rock-n-roll, satan

July 1, 2014

A big congratulations to winners of the No Tears For Old Scratch giveaway. Each person will be receiving a signed copy of my latest novel.



Tasha L. from Dallas, TX

Ruth K. from Sacramento, CA

Zara B. from Ventura, CA

Michelle S. from Rockport, TX

Valerie M. from Bourget, ON


Of course, you can grab your copy at any local bookstore or online retailer.

Amazon

B&N

iBooks

Indie Bookstores

Greenlight Bookstore

The Word

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Published on July 01, 2014 09:38 • 3 views

June 30, 2014

No Tears For Old Scratch by Ken WohlrobA big congratulations to winners of the No Tears For Old Scratch giveaway . Each person will be receiving a signed copy of my latest novel.

Tasha L. from Dallas, TX
Ruth K. from Sacramento, CA
Zara B. from Ventura, CA
Michelle S. from Rockport, TX
Valerie M. from Bourget, ON

Of course, you can grab your copy at any local bookstore or online retailer.
Amazon: http://amzn.to/1oua3YJ
B&N: http://bit.ly/1oTnBAQ
iBooks: http://bit.ly/1kAURdl
Indie Bookstores: http://bit.ly/1knwG2N
Greenlight Bookstore: http://bit.ly/1kvMBqk
The Word: http://bit.ly/1val3P0
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Published on June 30, 2014 19:23 • 1 view • Tags: books, free-books, giveaways, no-tears-for-old-scratch, winners