I kill’t my first boy when I were fifteen year old, my stomach hurt so bad.

His name was Charlie and he was showin’ off his ’61 T-Bird. I could make out the evenin’ star – Venus was her name – and everything looked like a photograph, with the soft blanket of twilight descendin’ ‘pon us.

Charlie was drinkin’ a Pabst out of the can and I was buggin’ him for a sip so’s to rinse the taste of Dr. Pepper out of my mouth. Charlie stood there like he was Bruce Springsteen — whiskers creepin’ up his cheeks, dark green shirt unbuttoned to his belly, worn Levis tucked inside engineer boots — lookin’ at me like I was a bug, or a Chevy. He stood maybe six feet, but he looked shorter on account he was always slouchin’.

Cronic, I swear your mamma would kick my ass if I gave you any beer. She could smell it on you from here to creekside.” You never knew if he was jokin’ or being dead serious. He had that reform school look in his eyes, like he could out-punk anyone in shop class. You couldn’t tell what was goin’ on in his head unless it was about his ‘Bird. She was a candy-apple red four-door, a chopped and channeled 429.

Charlie worked in a garage part-time. He spent most a’ the time workin’ on his ‘Bird. He found it in an auto wrecker’s yard while makin’ a parts-run for his boss Johnny Clifford. More like it was a beer-and-parts run, since Johnny liked his beer more than he liked his wife, or even his dog.

There stood the ‘Bird, said Charlie, crouched between an AMC Pacer and a Ford Fairlane, covered with about a hundred years worth of rust and dirt. She was lookin’ sad but not too hurt, tattooed with rust and faded pink body-fill. She was a honey even though she was busted up. Charlie just had to have her, so he dropped a few bills and ran some dope for Johnny so’s he could restore her. That was last year, and now the ‘Bird was cherry. He wanted it restored to original, not custom, mostly ‘cause he was dirt lazy and had no imagination.

We were at the fork of Milk Road and the dirt swatch that everybody called O’Connor’s Corduroy, me on my Mustang bike (banana seat, ape handlebars), Charlie slouchin’ by his ‘Bird waitin’ on his hoodlum friends, Junior, Gabe and Ducky. I kind of admired Charlie for the right reasons: the whiskers, the macho slouch, and the ‘Bird, of course.

But if you say the word “Mamma” to me, I get skittery. My stomach does funny things, churnin’ and burstin’ up into my chest. I always had a sour stomach, something that blooms inside like a poisoned flower, blossomin’ ‘til I can’t hardly stand it.

That woman was not my Mamma. She was just a sallow, whisp’ry thing imitating my Mamma, not much more than a common whore who got paid with food stamps and a twenty dollar gov’ment assistance check. She fed us and clothed us, more or less, but we were something that paid for her bingos and Jim Beam. Five of us, brothers and sisters by address only; three boys and two girls who shared the same toilet and discount hotdogs.

That whore’d feed me Beam from the nipple if she thought I’d piss it back in her glass,” I said.

Charlie laughed. “Whoa, little man. You got big balls if’n you call your own mamma a whore. Mine’s a fine piece o’ work, but I’d never call her a whore. Not to her face.”

She ain’t my Mamma,” I hollered. I felt my face burnin’, and my stomach was churnin’, like it was made out of oily rags smokin’ on a woodstove. “My Mamma’s a famous actress livin’ in California, Dee-Dee Martella, and she make three pitchers last year.”

An’ I’m Steve-fuckin’-McQueen. So why don’t you get your skinny white ass and your big floppin’ balls outta here ‘fore God strikes you down for lyin’.” He grinned and it was nasty and dirty. “He’d prob’ly miss you and hit my fuckin’ ‘Bird. Then I’d have to kill you and maybe even your whore mamma.”

I kill’t him in a red blur, a darker red even than the candy-apple color of his Thunderbird, smoky purple clouds barely hiding my anger. I don’t remember what I done, but I knew my stomach felt better after I finished.

***

I drank tap water and she drank straight from the neck of the bottle. She just finished blonding her hair and there weren’t nothing to do but count the money – a few stray fives and tens, some rolls of quarters, and packets of twenties – fourteen hundred and forty, all told. I spit some nicotine into the sink and scrubbed my face with cold water.

Debbie-Ann said she was tired of her face as she rubbed cold cream on her cheeks. She asked if I’d do her with the shotgun again, rub the barrel against her nub. It didn’t turn me on like it did her.

I used to dream ‘bout robbin’ liquor stores until I finally did it, walked right in and pointed my snub at the lady workin’ the register. I stuffed all the money in my pockets and boots. One of the twenties had “Happy B’day JRC from Momma Mary” scrawled in pencil ‘cross Andrew Jackson’s face. Jesus Robert Christ. I still got it in my pocket.

I need to do something,” said Debbie-Ann, “but I don’t know what.”

We’d just driven two hundred miles through rural Pennsylvania, staring at cows and corn and sky the color of bruises, airplane ribbons in ev’ry direction, sometimes drawin’ tic-tac-toe boards, sometimes stretchin’ out like a crucifix. The clouds looked like bones. The night was coverin’ us up, getting us ready for sleep. I wanted to scrub the dirt off my face and eat some fried chicken and drink gallons of watered-down whisky. Debbie-Ann wanted to drink tequila and shoot fat girls for the hell of it. We’d been together for five days.

I don’t even know where we are anymore,” I said. Too far north for my liking, not enough west, but Debbie-Ann said she knew the area and we could make some quick money without anyone even knowing we were there.

Pottstown,” she said, and poured the rest of a can of Budweiser down her throat. “We wanna stay away from Philly for awhile. Hard traffic.”

We was in a Comfort Inn off Route 100, but that didn’t mean a thing to me. I wanted to get back on track and head west. We weren’t making any good time on the road. She had a way of throwing me off course.

Debbie-Ann weren’t nothing to look at. Chicken-bone skinny, with limp, reddish hair when she weren’t busy dyein’ it, and long spindly legs. She had the devil in her eyes and a fuck-you smile that tore a man’s nuts out from under him. She liked to drink hard, and when she did, she got mean, and not just bitch-mean, but shootin’-mean, like she’d clean you out with a sawed-off and a Bowie knife. There was a craziness there that scared me and excited me both. I was seventeen and she was twenty-three and we were openin’ up the world like it was a can of dog food.

She cracked open the bar fridge and found a couple of airplane bottles of gin and some Wild Turkey. “We should think about tradin’ in your car, buddy. It’s too red and it’s too old. It’s like dressin’ up a whore. You gotta be more subdued, and that old ‘Bird ain’t subdued. We need a workin’ class automobile, some dumpy old Chevy or Plymouth we can knock around in.”

I could smell the beer on her breath, and the cold cream smeared on her face reminded me of bingo parlors. “She just needs some new plates,” I said. “I ain’t tradin’ her in. She’s my good luck charm.” Later, after the rest of the Comfort Inn folk were dreamin’ their hotel dreams, I’d take my screwdriver and peel the plates from some shitmobile and exchange them with the ‘Bird’s. We were already on our fourth set of tags since West Virginia. The poor bastards who owned the shitmobile probably wouldn’t even know until troopers set up some hardware on their front porches, telling them to drop their pants and put up their hands.

Whatever.” She snorted. “Hell, there ain’t enough in these little bottles to put out a matchstick. We should go and get us some real liquor. I feel like I’m goin’ to waste just sittin’ around.” She moistened her lips with her tongue, then sucked on her index finger, rotatin’ it in her mouth till it was wet as her breath.

Jesus Robert Christ.

***

Somewhere, she collected the idea we were like Bonnie and Clyde, ‘cept she was the brains and I was the turd behind the wheel. I didn’t try to change her mind ‘bout that, since it didn’t matter. We weren’t a long-term deal, not really, just a partnership of convenience. I had to get somewhere where she weren’t goin’, so it was just a matter of who got bored with the other first. And I was near there already.

She liked corner stores and I liked liquor stores. It’s kinda funny that she wouldn’t rob liquor stores. Guess she was afraid she’d stay too long and we’d get caught, me with a paper sack full of twenties, her with a box of Old Milwaukee under one arm, her mouth workin’ a quart of Jack.

But I knew what she meant about bein’ bored. I been like that my whole life, feelin’ like a coyote chasin’ rabbits that weren’t there, goin’ in circles ‘til there weren’t nothin’ to eat but yourself.

Debbie-Ann didn’t think about rabbits. She just ate every goddamn thing that was put in front of her, and hunted anything that hid in the shadows.

***

We were cousins Becky and Charlie from Tennessee when we checked into the Comfort, and Julie and Billy from Philly when we pulled out, fresh plates on the ‘Bird. You wouldn’t think it could be that easy, but it was.

***

We found a mom-and-pop in a little town called Ephrata, Pennsylvania, ‘bout a 20 minute drive south of the Comfort Inn. I juiced the ‘Bird to the limit and Debbie-Ann was knocked asleep in the passenger side. It was just after 5:30 in the mornin’, and she was snorin’, sometimes twitchin’ her left arm and bumpin’ me.

Ephrata, it were an old-fashioned kinda town, the kind they print up on postcards, with nothin’ out of place ‘cept the century it kept. Even the front of the store was picture neat. Hell, not even any bars on the windows or door, but there was a planter box full of tulips set up out front.

I saw the shape and shadow of an old man propped against the side of the building. Maybe he was sleepin’ off a drunk like Debbie-Ann. He didn’t move when I walked up to him. I gave him a nudge with my boot, and he didn’t move, just snorted something out of his thick nostrils. I almost felt some kinda pity for him, but I bit down on that as I kicked in his head. Once, twice, then a third time to make sure. The sound of his head hittin’ the pavement gave me a hard feeling. I stood there for a second while the blood and snot drained from his nose onto his whiskered cheek. I was half-hopin’ Debbie-Ann saw me do it, half-hopin’ she would still be asleep, but mostly I just wanted to get in and get gone.

The door weren’t nothing fancy, just pine and glass and a store-bought lock. Didn’t take no more’n a couple minutes to get inside. The liquor and cigarettes were locked up, of course, so I said hell with it and shot the locks off. Most people’d still be asleep, I figured. I was wrong.

I didn’t see the store owner ‘til he yelled at me. He was a fat little man, maybe five and a half feet tall and half that wide. He was wearin’ black boxers, a rumpled T-shirt and gray huntin’ socks, one pulled up almost to the knee, the other limp around a hairy ankle. He yelled something at me in German and was pointin’ a handgun at me, wavin’ it like a soldier. He had a big rascally mustache that drooped onto his jowls, thick and bushy like something out of a Bullwinkle cartoon. Even though the light was weak, his face was slick with sweat and he smelled like old bratwurst. I don’t usually remember details all that good, but I still remember him: all fat and slick and half-awake, scrubbin’ the sleep out of his eyes with his free hand. I must’ve looked like something that fell out of the sky, or crawled up through the dirt.

His gun hand was steady for that time of the mornin’, but mine was like ice. I don’t know if he expected me to shoot, but I guess he did. There wasn’t much expression on his face when I shot him, and there wasn’t much of anything left of his face when I finished.

For my trouble, I got six cartons of smokes, three bottles of vermouth and a quart of Canadian whisky, plus one hundred and eighteen dollars from the till.

I gave Debbie-Ann a hard shove and told her to drive. My hands weren’t ice no more, they shook so bad. I don’t know that she said two words for the next hundred miles, and I ain’t sure if she saw the body beside the store with his head all stove in.

We were goin’ west now, my west, into Ohio and all places after that.

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Cronic Copyright © 2015 by Steven Mark Baird. All Rights Reserved.

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