Thomas Weedman has a BA in English from Notre Dame and an MFA from Lindenwood. He’s been a seminarian, a forklift operator, barista, and a professional gambler. His short stories have appeared in print at the Acorn Review Literary Journal, Constellations, Running Wild Press, and online at TheWriteLaunch, The Paragon Journal, The Penman Review, Marathon Literary Review, Limit Experience Journal, Bridge Eight, SoFloPoJo, The Antonym, and forthcoming at DLG Publishing, Drunk Monkeys, OxMag, and Abstract Elephant.
Ears & Frass
You are just a barista. But a man missing an ear is leaving you business cards. This makes you think of Uncle Roy. When you’re told the man is FBI, that makes you feel on the lam.
You find the first eerie card in your tip bag at the cafe on Monday. Mottled with coffee, the moniker is thick as a freemartin’s leathery ear and embossed with a gold government emblem. Professional looking, the raised blue print spelling FBI makes an impression on your espresso-stained fingers. The name says Malchus, like the slave of the high-priest come to arrest Jesus – you know the authorities and their version of things. But you’ve never been a threat with your John-the-Baptist beard. Even when you quit God and left the seminary for the flesh and other vices. You find the last card with a note on Friday from the afternoon ristretto maker. It starts Psalm-like in the vocative but turns invective:
O bearded one. I don’t know if he’s FBI or mob, but this guy is missing an ear. An ear! You hear me, O Dude!? Someone cut his ear off. Are you in trouble with horse racing? Or did you forget to pay your last ho date?
You have never hired a date. Not like hookers or whores, though you were tempted as a nine-year-old after Little-League Coach Earl pedophiled you like a catamite. You even slaved over chores, scraping together eight wrinkled allowance dollars for payment. To a Catholic soliciting prostitutes is a sin, but you try getting your sodomizer interested in someone else. And there was that time when more than eight bucks changed hands. But your current co-workers wouldn’t know that, nor Uncle Roy who knew horses and cattle. Hookers, too. The high-end kind, he joked way back, that took Master Charge via manual imprinter and carbon slips – not that whores wore slips.
Decades ago, at summer’s end, Roy sent you home from the ranch with a rucksack of calves’ ears the size of credit and business cards after cropping, branding, and castrating a herd. “Put these in your brothers’ lunch bags,” he said.
That summer, Uncle Roy planted an apple tree in your bed. Scared the bejesus out of you and your bedbugs when you rolled over in the middle of the night – the Devil’s hour is what Aunt Doreen called that time of day. You rapid-fired a Hail Mary, then dragged the sapling to the breakfast table, threading a trail of root soil on the parquet hallway. A light paled in the kitchen. You couldn’t see the illegals through the bay windows working the orchards like thieves in the night. Uncle Roy drank from a white diner mug, coffee black as his credit-card hookers.
“What’s got there, Jimmy boy?” he said, smoking a cigarette, sated with his feat.
You held the five-foot tree carcass upside down, hollowed by beetle borers. It looked like a stir stick and not the makings of the hallowed Cross. You rubbed the sooty stalk with your thumb, then nearly put the trunk in his mug. You lisped, “Did you put this in my bed?”
“Your aunt said you knocked it over when you was diggin’ furrows. Figured you’d want it.”
Aunt Doreen shuffled down the hallway, her slippers scuffing slatted wood tiles and soil. Roy looked over your shoulder, then back at you. Right in the eye. He said, “So now you got bed bugs and frass.”
You said, “Didn’t you say that was beetle poop?”
He said, “Lazy boy, get your boots on; you got furrows to dig. Little League’s done and you’re here now. Maybe for good, now that you’re Father’s passed on. Your mom said work ya.”
You said, “But it’s four in the morning.”
“Sugar,” his Okie helpmeet said, “at least it ain’t th-a-ree.”
It’s just after the Devil’s hour when you find the FBI cards, the start of your west-coast cafe shift on east-coast Wall Street time. You put the cards in your wallet and hope to forget, like Earl in your behind but can’t.
The call comes that afternoon. You don’t pick up the home phone anymore: too many solicitors, creditors, and cons. You listen to the answering machine. The FBI agent, Bob Smith, leaves a message about race-fixing at the horse track. The call makes you feel like a guilty traitor; his voice reaches back, sounds like Earl’s, makes your gut knot and sink. He asks if you know about a drug cartel bribing the stewards and veterinarians and if you’ve profited from it. He leaves a number where he can be reached.
You write it down but don’t call. You drink beer and brandy until the phone cord resembles a snake. Then you rip the tail from the jack.
On Saturday, you take a bus stuffed with gamblers and stale air to Golden Gate Fields. It’s a clear day, hotter than the hobs of hell. Even the blades of grass on the turf course seem ready to go ablaze. You hit the bar first, hair-of-the-dog as a rachitic geezer sets his Racing Form on fire with a magnifying glassnear the paddock. The smoke whips up memories of branding cattle and burning hide. You dry heave as he tamps the flaming newspaper with his stubby cigar, no fatter than a sapling bole or Earl’s chubby penis. You head inside for more cold tap beer and brandy.
The Form inks your coffee-stained fingers as you page through, study multiple tracks across the country. At the Hollywood Park entries, you have an equine epiphany. It’s like the AWOL Paraclete – the Holy Spirit, God’s hardly-seen helper – says pick that one. The horse is out of a Holy Mary mare.
So, you see the teller, bet two hundred on #6. On the TV monitors, they’re loading in the gate, the
horses like prisoners waiting to escape, convicts with a conviction to run.
You get your ticket – the size of a business card – pucker, kiss it. Then you blow a smooch to
the old-lady teller.
“Oh, go on.” She smiles pretty teeth like Aunt Doreen. “Good luck.”
You watch the TV broadcast from the Los Angeles track. The #6 starts well, a gray colt named Kizmet. Ears pricked and unhurried at thirty miles an hour, he is forth after three furlongs – a half-mile to go. He gains into the turn, and coming out, he’s in second place. Mid-stretch, hand-ridden with no whip, he sidles up, eyeing the leader like kin. Your blood roils with hope. They ding-dong shoulder to shoulder, huffing and puffing, hooves and fetlocks digging into harrowed silt and clay. Finally, at the wire, #6 pokes a soft nostril in front at 20 to 1.
After the prices come up, you go to collect four grand from your teller.
Winking like Aunt Doreen, she puts the ticket in the machine and says, “The race hasn’t run yet, sweetheart. Not your time.” She hands the ticket back.
“Golden Gate is off,” she says, looking at her sun-dial watch, “in 5 minutes.”
“This ticket was for the race just run at Hollywood.”
“No, honey. The ticket says Golden Gate.”
You say you said Hollywood when making the bet. You even show her the Racing Form page where you circled the horse’s name in red.
“No way! You are no help!” You roll up the newspaper, slap it on the counter, make a decapitating clap. “Get your manager!”
A woman, mealy muzzled as a church mouse, comes out of the office. She bines vibrissae
whiskers and looks like she’d rather be chewing her dirty nails. “What is it?” she says, rolling her vile
eyes. She once-overs you twice with a look of distrust. Then she stares at your beard as though
comparing her bristles to yours.
After you explain, she says, “I hear tellers repeating the track all the time.”
“This one repeated Hollywood but she gave me the wrong track.”
“Even so, there’s nothing we can do. No way to fix it. Always check your ticket.” “Goddamn it! That’s bullshit!”
Everything stops. People stare.
“That’s enough!” she squeaks. “End of discussion.” She weasels back to the office.
You go for a beer. And a shot. “The good stuff,” you say to the insouciant bartender who doesn’t seem to need or want your business.
You are still calming down over the bet mess when two cops waddle up in knee-high boots. One is adipose, pear-shaped, and holds a baton. The other is bow-legged and long fingers his holster flap. The gun is a .38 or some number. Their hats look Gestapo. Their name tags say Malchus. Then they don’t. You’re either already drunk or dyslexic. Or both.
“Whiskers send you?” you say.
They look confused.
Then you suggest brandy. Maybe whiskey. “Top shelf?”
The one with the long fingers says, “What’s the problem?”
You tell him. He cares as much as the bartender – he has his own bets.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Stop making a commotion.”
“Oh shit!” you yell.
“I said keep it down!” He reaches for handcuffs; Adipose, his baton.
“No,” you say, “look at the TV monitor, the six horse is winning.”
A roar erupts from the Golden Gate grandstand as the horses approach the finish line. The #6,
another Holy Mary gray, holds on to win at 10 to 1! You forgot to cancel the original bet ticket and net
You say, “You sure you don’t want a beer?”
“Just keep it down,” Adipose says.
Bow-legged points a finger, long as a tendril, and says, “Cash out and go home. Don’t make us drag you to jail.”
Beers and bets later, you’re alive for a windfall. You’ve hit the first three races in the late pick-four. It’s like the lottery and you have the first three numbers. Normally, you wait for the last one to be revealed like the final act of a play. But the thing is you have all the horses in the finale. All the pretty horses. So, you win before the last leg even starts. You count what’s coming. The will-pays are huge, even for the favorite, ThyWillBeDone, whoat the end of the race, coming down the stretch with the lead,snaps a cannon bone and somersaults before the wire. The jockey rag dolls under the rail. Coping Mechanism, coming wide and late in a fury, lucks toavoid the fallen and winsat 99 to1 – the highest the infield tote goes.
On the track, within minutes, the vet syringes ThyWillBeDone and you wish it were only an ear taken. The carcass is winched and dragged into the equine ambulance. As the thrown jockey hobbles off, you go to cash out, and get mouse boss. You say you checked your ticket this time.
She stares at your beard again. Then she tickets the machine, says, “Hold on,” like she doesn’t
care now either. She calls into the office. The two cops doughnut out, wiping their civic, overseer mouths.
“What now?” you say.
She says, “He’s got a signer. Would you guys escort him to the IRS room?”
You say you have to stop meeting this way.
Adipose says, “I thought we told you to go home.”
You say you are behaving.
“Let’s go,” Long Fingers says, tendrils growing.
They lead you to the IRS room. It could be FBI with the two-way mirror if not for Wells Fargo behind the brass bars and banker’s lamp with a green shade and pull chain. He’s wearing a black visor and scalloped garters over white sleeves. Bent wire-framed specs with cable-bow temples on both ears but no name tag. You hand over the ticket; he inserts it, and five or six digits register in a blur.
“Okay, sonny,” he says. “License and social security card.”
You spill them on the counter with one of the FBI cards by accident. The blue emblem beacons. The cops notice. They stare, then look at each other like they smell bacon. Or like you’re pulling their chains. You put the FBI card back in your wallet.
Wells fills out the carbon-papered triplicate form like Roy’s hookers, says, “Sign here.”
You almost pen Earl.
“How do you want it?”
Like a catamite, you want to sass. “However you want to give it.”
He axes thousands in taxes, who knows how many. He then counts out twenty $100 bills, a few 50s and a hundred 20s. Then fives and tens. A bundle of limp ones. You’re sure thirty pieces of silver are to follow. Who are you, Judas? Then Wells scribes a check for fifty grand too. You awkwardly stuff your wallet and pockets with cops watching. It’s like robbing a bank with permission. You almost tip them, leave a Grant for Fargo instead.
Then you find Doreen’s doppelganger, slip her a C-note. “Sorry for yelling,” you say. “You’re
On Sunday, the mother of hangovers. You take a knee – no gambling. Best keep the money a day, at least, before blowing it all. You watch football games at a sports bar instead. Kick off’s 10 am, the same time you should be kneeling at church.
The place swells with hope-filled bodies in jerseys like celebrants in chasubles at Mass. Televisions line the walls like the Stations of the Cross, showing all the passion games. Hope-filled, you used to ask The Blessed Mother to pray for you at Mass. But you wonder what she looks like in football garb. Does it drape or comport to her heavenly breasts, if she has them? You expect so, like the pretty blond waitress with a ponytail and charcoal slap dashes of football eye black. You ask her for a bloody Mary, which she brings with a leafy piece of celery big as a dwarf apple tree. The stalk doesn’t feel like the trunk Roy stuck in your bed, but you check the floating black specks for frass. It’s only ground pepper, you decide. You sip as if the Blood of Christ, but it oozes like The Virgin’s menstruation. Or the spots on your underwear when you thought you had syphilis sores as a boy. Then you ask the waitress for a dark beer and don’t feel better until the second quarter, though your team’s getting sacrificial lambed.
She makes for a tip with another bock without asking. Or maybe she’s trying to make you tipsy. She has acumen and hour-glass hips. She’s removed her jersey in favor of a wife-beater a size too small. “When’s the last time you shaved?” she says, then glances at your blotted fingers. They’re not as inked as her face or the evocative tattoo of the sacred cross on her sternum. It’s the color of money with a medieval font and flare. You almost feel evil, stealing a glance. But her tatted cleavage evokes Vera, a gorgeous, busty barista you trained long ago, who claimed to have hidden symbolic body art. You never saw any, though you talked a lot. Even confided. A criminology major, Vera wanted to be a cop. But you never copped a feel in the café or frisked. Couldn’t even if wanted; her decolletage got in the way. Plus, her father was a prison warden.
Smiling behind your beard like a handkerchiefed bandit, you tell the waitress that you are a ZZ-Top zealot. But she looks you in the eye. Or maybe it’s the Cross looking.
“You John the Baptist or just in a band?” she says.
“On the run.”
“Or on the nun?”
She has the playful quality of a confidant. You ask for a shot of whiskey. “Ristretto.”
“That’s coffee talk. You mean neat?”
You admit you do.
“Leave out the frozen baptismal water?”
“That’s icy New Testament talk.”
“O Mister, I’m on to you,” she says in the vocative.
“You used to study Latin or be a nun?”
She giggles discretely as a novice and walks off. You recall when you shaved last – a year ago for dear Aunt Doreen’s funeral. You used Roy’s straight razor and bled like a hemophiliac and a fatted calf. It was the first time you’d been back to the mountain ranch in thirty years. But don’t think it was any prodigal son crap, though he did want to adopt you as a boy.
At the end of regulation, you’re disgusted with your team’s play and brood you’ll never watch
another game. You settle up, tip a few extra Franklin’s, and the waitress says, “See you for tomorrow night’s game? Maybe after we could nightcap?”
You notice the omission of “get a.” You are no grammarian or editor; you sucked at Latin and
always at English, but still, nightcap as a verb? You like it in a vulgar way; maybe it’s a euphemism. In a surreal way, you picture her putting on a stocking nightcap and nothing else in your bed or hers. Best not. You go through women like beer. No need to stockpile more empties. Your dates want to know what’s inside your head and heart but not how Earl haunts you and won’t go away. So, the dates go away, and you don’t blame them. Some suggest you seek help. But a therapist is no better than a hooker – just somebody you’d pay. You brush the hair from your eyes and joke, “See what parole says.”
She says, “He a barber too?”
It’s loud in the bar. The afternoon games start, new fans with new jerseys arrive. The waitress says, “Earl isn’t your overseer, you know.” But you can’t be sure. Then she matter-of-facts, “See you tomorrow.” Hips command and you cope. She holds up two clean fingers, offering a peace sign, and disappears like an apparition behind the bar.
While leaving, someone hooks your arm from behind and pushes you through the rabble crowd and padded door.
Outside, it’s bright, hot, and you squint. Your arm is released by a man pock-faced as Earl. He’s clean-shaven with vulpine eyes. You feel ambushed in perpetuity.
“What the hell? You the waitress’ pimp?”
He flashes a gold FBI badge and says, “License, ID.”
“Do it!” He lifts the front of his purple football jersey; a stubby Glock handles out of the front of his jeans.
Everything stops, people stare, rubberneck on the sidewalk.
You reach for your wallet. He has both ears, but you ask anyway, and proffer the card. “Did you
“That’s not your license.”
“Guess that means no.”
You dig among the thicket of bills and he says, “You usually carry that much cash around?”
“Just knocked over a money tree.”
“An apple cart?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Big tipper,” you say and hand over your license.
Pock-faced studies it, says, “Sorry, wrong guy. You look like someone I’m chasing, a corporate thief on the lam.”
You say you were in the bar for three hours. “Why now?”
“I was waiting for you to use the payphone.”
“For a bombing?” You ask if you look like Ted Kaczynski.
You say you were getting bombed alone. “No wonder you government idiots can’t find Bin Laden.”
Monday hangover, a doozy. You’re thankful for no business cards in your tip bag.
After the morning rush of a thousand customers, a man in sunglasses and a black suit approaches. You know he’s the one – heavy as a bull and missing an ear, as though fresh from the calf
cage and country doc’s Chert knife. Or maybe Simon Peter’s sword. When he flashes an FBI badge,
you see the name Malchus.
“You from the Bible?”
“That’s a first.” He sighs like a yoked draft animal.
You ask if he’s here to arrest you.
“You’re not Jesus.”
“You need to borrow a tie? Special Agent Mulder wears a tie.”
He ignores, says, “You’re a tough one to track down. I got the runaround all week. The guy in the afternoon kept saying come back the next day.”
You say you work mornings.
“I gather. You’ve got a loyal friend. You guys in a beard contest? And did he say I was looking for you?”
“Yeah. At least he isn’t Judas.”
“What is wrong with you besides needing a shave? By the way, his beard is better.”
“You here to judge or arrest?” You say the police at the races let you go. Same as the agent yesterday. You declare that you give unto Caesar.
You say you paid the IRS taxes.
“I’m not here about that.”
“Nope. You must get around.”
“Something like that.”
With a thick index finger, he scratches where his right ear used to be. There’s no bandage or
colored cattle tag with a number – white for boys, yellow for girls. Just tragus and sewn skin. You wonder if it hurt and how it happened – somebody do a Mike Tyson, bite it off? He rubs finger and thumb together, investigating a buggy texture. Then he waves the finger, but not the bird. “No, no,” he says. “Girl used to work here – ”
O Lord, it’s always the past sneaking up like a thief in the night. Your crozzled scalp floods with sweat.
“She applied for the FBI. Vera Morgan’s her name. She cited you as a character reference. Can we talk?”
“That crazy girl?” you say. “She was fired for stealing money, the thief.”
“Just kidding.” You say she owes you ten bucks.
“Tell her twenty, and you keep half.”
The agent laughs, his shoulders bob. Then he says seriously, “She told me you once paid for a friend’s hooker.”
You hesitate from the reveal. “He borrowed cash,” you say. “He said his client had to get paid.” Thinking of Uncle Roy, you even offered a credit card. “And Vera swore to secrecy.”
“I know she swore and still swears. Like a sailor. And your secret is safe. She said you wouldn’t lie. So, can we get this character reference over with?”
“Yeah, we can talk. By the way, you want your business cards back?”
“Na. I’ll just use them for coasters. By the way, I want to hear your version of the hooker story.”
“Same as Vera’s.”
That afternoon, another message blinks red on the answering machine. You should just leave the phone unplugged.
“Uncle Roy has a new girlfriend!” your sister Rachel says. “I knew it! Remember Aunt
Doreen’s funeral? It was the woman in pearls. She’s living with him already. He wants to introduce her to the family next month. I told him I’d call you, but I gave him your number, too. Can’t wait to see you. You’d better come! Or I’ll drag your ass there. Oh, and here’s his number…”
Niggled, you want to say forget that. But, best make peace, though you don’t want to after Doreen’s funeral when Roy asked if you figured out the difference between boys and girls, and he wasn’t talking cattle or chattel. You might as well have been chatting with Earl. You couldn’t cope and walked away. Seems that’s what you do: walk away. What would you do? Reluctantly, you write Roy’s number next to the FBI agent’s who called about the drug cartel.
You dial the FBI first, and nearly rotary off a fingertip.
“Hello?” It’s an older woman’s voice, throaty as a smoker’s, pleasant but not official.
“Bob Smith,” you say. Your spine shivers like you’re calling Earl. You’d rather have an ear severed.
You say you’re calling about the drug cartel and your voice cracks.
“Hold on, sugar.”
Sugar? She doesn’t say, “Hold, please.” Or put you on hold – there is no on-hold music or FBI message. She puts the phone down, presumably, on its side like a fallen horse, because you can hear through the receiver: “Roy, it’s for you.”
Did you misdial? You compare the FBI and Roy’s numbers and realize they’re the same. How
did you miss the signs and symbols? Just like old times. Just like Uncle Roy making stuff up, pulling a gag. FBI, your ass. Forget supine; he’s not Earl. This time, you feel like you should say something, do something, prove something.
“Hello?” guts an old voice.
“Sir,” you lisp like way back, holding the receiver with one hand and rubbing your earlobe with the other. You forefinger and thumb, feel if anything’s worthwhile and what could come of it. Or just blow it up or cut it off like an ear.
You pause, say you’re calling from the FBI. “It’s believed the undocumented aliens working your land are trafficking frass across county lines.”
“Jim? That you?” he says and chuckles. “You lazy dog! Them illegals send you a package?”
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