Into the Old Testament

I’ve published a new short story in Eclectica 19, 4 (Oct./Nov. 2015). “Into the Old Testament” is about a young man who must decide on which side of the law he stands. This is my third story with Eclectica, one of the oldest online literary magazines in the country. It was founded in 1996 by Tom Dooley, the present editor, and Chris Lott, and has published stories by nominees for the Pulitzer Prize, the Nebula Award, and the Pushcart Prize. My story has gone through a number of iterations and benefited greatly from feedback I received from fellow-writers Rebecca Anderson-Brown, Charity Eleson, Curt Hanke, Will Lewis, and Paul Waldhart.  I include the introduction to the story along with a link to the magazine at the bottom of the post.  

They’d let me out of state prison three months before—one of several stays I’d had thanks to the generosity of Michigan taxpayers. Prison was no vacation, but the first few days on the outside were even scarier. In prison, I had respect. I had credentials. I was a veteran after all—not from the military, the military was in another galaxy from where I stood—but from the streets. I was short, dark like a Serbian should be, wiry as General Electric. People knew they couldn’t mess with me. What they didn’t know was I just wanted to mind my own business, get on with my life. When I got out, I took a good long breath, got drunk, found a woman to spend the night with. Then I tried to figure out what the hell to do next. My skills were specialized—armed robbery, extortion, credit card fraud. That was my official resume. The less said about the unofficial part the better. I was determined not to go back to the pen. Even if prison gave me a little security, I knew if I got sent away again, I’d be there till I was a rusted-out old man.

It was spring, 1975. I went back to my hometown, Benton Harbor, down by Lake Michigan just north of the Indiana state line, and along came Dimitri. He needed a driver. Would I be interested? I wouldn’t be involved in the rough stuff, he promised. I would have what politicians and CEOs called “plausible deniability.” I would just be a chauffeur. I wouldn’t know what went on at three in the morning in a boarded-up house on the southeast side. Gunshots? What gunshots? Nobody could demonstrate what they call “my willful association with a crime”—which was a line I got out of one of the law books I read in prison. I did a lot of reading in prison. That was how I got so damned smart. That’s why the guys started calling me The Prof, which was rich seeing that my educational attainments were on the lean side. But I was fine being called “Prof” this and “Prof” that. Had a ring to it. And it seemed to fit too once the prison eye doctor told me I needed glasses and so I got a pair of wire rims on the state’s dime. I looked like a real brain, and I grew a goatee ’cause I thought it fit the part. Looked sharp, I have to say.

“Nothin’ to worry about, kid,” said Dimitri, who called everyone “kid” even if they were called Prof on the inside, and even if they were his age, which I was, or almost. Dimitri and I had gone to Benton Harbor High School in the late ‘50s and we’d stayed in semi-regular contact since then. I admired him when I was a repeat freshman and he was a senior. He was tall, and if my hair was black, his was so much blacker I swear I could see blue in it when the light was right. Reminded me of a grackle’s head. Dimitri got along with everyone. Race, religion, the kind of clothes a man wore—hell, it didn’t matter to him. You name it, Dimitri would talk about it with you. The girls liked him, the rich ones above all. Those chicks knew that later in life they’d marry Boring, so this was their only chance to run with Danger for a while. So Dimitri ended up in the back seat of some fancy cars.

Dimitri went on to big things, while I made it to my sophomore year, spent a half-year in a reformatory where the food didn’t taste like food, and then decided it wasn’t worth it, fuck high school, and fuck anyone who tried to make me stay. I got traction down in the minor leagues running stolen goods between Benton Harbor and Chicago, while Dimitri played in the majors, at least for a while. By the time he asked me to be his driver, people said he’d lost his touch. He was doing jobs below his pay grade.

Some of it may have been connected to the mess my hometown was in. Back when we were growing up, Benton Harbor was hopping. Lots of stores, two movie theaters, wise guys from the South Side of Chicago, sometimes from Flint or Detroit too. Decades before, Al Capone thought of southwestern Michigan as his playground, and he would stay at the Hotel Vincent in Benton Harbor and the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph, across the river. He and his people would go boating on Lake Michigan, lay around on the beach, maybe play a little golf. That was the Golden Age for local gangsters, and there was still something of all that, like submachine gun smoke hanging in the air, when Dimitri and I hit the market.

Then things went to hell in a hand basket. By ’67 and ’68, everyone had a gripe about something—Viet Nam, civil rights, the environment. Most white folks abandoned the city, and soon there were too few jobs, too many drugs, and too many politicians milking the issues. Benton Harbor’s glory days were over. A man had to deal in the lowest of the low stuff to make ends meet. I figured Dimitri had just adjusted to his market, like any good businessman. But I didn’t really care if Dimitri was feeding off the bottom a little more than he used to. I thought of him as my friend, and he had something to offer. I was no youngster anymore; it was time I settled down with a fixed occupation and started saving some money. Working for Dimitri was a very mature thing to do for a man who’d done time.

“You get to drive a nice car or two, right? You keep your mouth shut, which I know you will—I know you’re a standup guy—and I’ll see to it some things come your way in due time. Meanwhile, it’ll look like you’re staying out of trouble, and you got a regular job. What’s not to like, huh, kid?”

“Sounds okay to me, D.”

So I drove for him. It was as easy as he said. The work was steady, four or five nights a week, depending on what was going down. It was mostly straightforward stuff. Dimitri would lean on some chump in Paw Paw over gambling debts, or police his crystal meth operation in Coloma, where the farm boys couldn’t get enough of the stuff, the dumb shits. There was only one time when Dimitri had to rub out somebody who’d gotten in his way. But I don’t think Dimitri actually did that one because when it happened his gun was still in the glove compartment of the car I drove. Course he may have had another gun with him, or he took one from Vlad, a dangerous goon who usually rode with us. Vlad was a born killer, and he picked his nose a lot. I always hated that habit.

Dimitri followed through on his promise that I’d be paid well. I had more money than when I was out on my own. I had nice clothes, a little bit of savings, books I could actually buy instead of always going to the library, where the dried up old witch at the checkout didn’t like a man who had a naked lady tattoo on his neck. Driving for Dimitri taught me an important lesson. I once thought I could muscle the world by myself. I was a real romantic, a dreamer. I thought I was an anarchist, or a traditional hajduk, a Balkan bandit. I’d read about those guys in L. S. Stavrianos’s The Balkans Since 1453 my first time in the pen. That was one of the best books in the prison library, and the hajduks, man, those guys were straight-shot heroes to me. My strut was a little stronger and my hair a little blacker when I imagined I might have Balkan-fucking-hajduk blood flowing through my Slavic veins. But when it came down to it, I realized even a bad-ass hajduk needed to eat. That’s another lesson I learned in the prison library. Some whacked-out German poet once wrote, “first comes the grub, then morality,” or whatever. I needed to hook up with a good solid business enterprise like Dimitri’s. As Dimitri always said: “Small business, it’s the heart of America.” I was in the heart of America working with Dimitri, and it felt as natural as broken glass in an empty lot.