A Mother’s Day story: Tiger Mother

Made-up holiday or not, today we honor all the good mothers who raised us. This story was originally written for Patti Abbott’s charity challenge, and was inspired by a 1930’s Harlem painting by Reginald Marsh. (Incidentally, Marsh lived in an artist colony in my hometown of Nutley). Happy mother’s day, here’s a real mother for ya.

Tiger Mother
by Thomas Pluck

When her boy Lewis didn’t come home that evening, Caldonia Peele prayed he wouldn’t break her heart. When he didn’t slink in weary-eyed in his slept-in clothes that morning, her chest fluttered with worry. But when he didn’t tiptoe into church, her heart went cold.

* * *

“He’s at the age, Callie,” Mabel said. They both worked at the Harlem post office. Seen each other through three husbands, four children, a riot, and a burst appendix.

Caldonia and Mabel navigated the Convent Avenue throngs after church. Had to get to Sylvia’s quick if you wanted a table. Their children walked behind them in their Sunday best. Jerome, Mabel’s second husband, walked alongside.

“I’m not about to lose my Lewis like his no-account father.”

Lewis Senior was gone five years now, same as Mabel’s first husband. Hard times drove men to gambling and drink, made them quick with their hands.

When they came to the corner Jerome said, “I didn’t think much of it, but I saw your boy with Cat Ferris. I hear he rolls dice behind Netty’s place. I can go ask for him, you like.”

“Thank you kindly, but I’ll handle my own business. Mabe. Will you watch Tara while I’m gone?”

Mabel scrunched up her nose as if offended to be asked. “Course I will.”

Caldonia turned on her heel, yellow taffeta a-twirl, and bent to stroke her daughter’s braids. Tara smiled. Going on five, cute as the buttons on her hand-sewn dress. “I’ll be good, Mama.”

“I know you will.”

“Netty’s can be rough,” Jerome said. “You should leave your purse.”

Caldonia smirked and tapped her carnelian hat pin. “Let ’em try.”

* * *

Nettie’s was by the Hudson, tucked behind a mechanic shop that had sold black market tires during the big war. Caldonia walked with purpose, face firm and lip curled. Angry her boy had been lured astray.

Soon as her boy turned thirteen, his eyes were tugged to their corners by the sight of rough men on stoops, calling out to women walking by, whistling at the fancy cars rolling down Broadway. Looking for a man to fill the hole his father left. Maybe Lewis missed the hard knuckles and cruel smiles.

The jukebox shook the clapboard walls outside Nettie’s. A fat man perched on a stool by the door, like a stout mushroom after September rain. One wooden leg and two mismatched shoes. Alf Nettis shook his head as Caldonia strutted to the door.

“Your man ain’t here, and if he was, he’s gone now.”

“I’m here for my boy Lewis. I’m told he’s with Cat Ferris, one of your regular customers.”

“Where’d you hear that nonsense?”

“Everyone knows he rolls dice in back of your place.”

“Anyone knows that, they’re lying. Don’t serve boys, only men.”

“A churchgoing man told me otherwise,” she said. “His word’s worth a damn sight more than yours.”

The alleyway was filled with bald tires and trash. Only way in was through the door. Or maybe the car shop. Caldonia pointed her chin that way.

“Maybe you prayed, your boy’ll be home when you get there,” Alf called.

Caldonia felt her slender fingers turn to fists. She spun and stomped to an inch from his face.

“Alfred Nettis, unless you want me to burn up every disability check you get from now on, you will stand aside.”

His sleepy eyes had skin tags around them like flies, swatted by his girlish lashes. They blinked.

“You have a cruel soul, Caldonia Peele,” Alf whispered. “What your Jesus think about that?”

“He says the Lord helps those that help themselves,” she said, and sashayed past.

* * *

The joint was crammed with hunched-over men nursing dirty glasses, a low buzz of mutter and chuckle muddling the ears like the scent of unwashed bodies and whiskey did the nose.

There was a brief silence as drinkers assured themselves their wife wasn’t the one invading the place. The bartender, lean as his brother was fat, sneered and wiped out a dirty glass with a dirtier rag.

She paid them no mind and ducked out the back door.

* * *

The caged-in yard was a mess of lawn beaten down by feet. Cat Ferris sprawled in a Chrysler’s leather bench seat planted in the grass, resplendent in his turquoise suit. Before him, Lewis ran dice for three men huddled over a slab of slate. Lewis wore his Sunday shirt and shoes, suit coat folded beside him.

Caldonia cocked her hips and planted a fist on each. “Hope you ain’t betting that suit of yours,” she said. “That’s my property.”

“Mama,” Lewis gasped.

The dice men laughed, and Ferris leaned back, baring golden fangs. “Your boy’s a man now, Mrs. Peele. He’s about to run off like his father did. Man can’t take a six-foot hellion telling him what to do.” He took a long pull at his can of Rheingold.

Caldonia’s cheeks went to stone as she saw her boy blush.

“My boy was a man, he wouldn’t be fawning over a coward in a silk shirt.”

“Who you callin’ a coward, woman?”

She slipped the .32 from her purse and fired, punching a ragged hole in the seat by Ferris’s crotch. Ferris kicked and squirmed into himself, spraying himself with beer foam. A dark stain spread across his slacks. Before the report was done echoing off the tin roof, the dice men had snatched their bills and scattered.

Lewis huddled in the grass, hands covering his head.

“Get your suit on, son. We’re going to supper.”

Lewis threw on his jacket, straightened his tie.

Caldonia offered him her arm, and they walked out primly.


Here’s the painting, by Reginald Marsh:

reginald marsh_high_yaller_print_1200

Mystery or Crime Fiction? Less Filling.

Both Patti Abbott and Spinetingler editor Brian Lindemuth (at Do Some Damage) have asked whether you prefer Mysteries or Crime Fiction, both as a reader, and a writer, when it comes to labeling books.
It used to be that Crime Fiction was a subset to Mystery, and now the tables seem to be turning somewhat. Here is my long comment at DSD.

Almost every story has an element of mystery. What happens next? Parker is on a bridge and he tells a guy off. I like this guy. What’s he gonna do next? But that’s not a story of deduction. Is Tana French’s excellent Faithful Place allowed to be crime fiction? There’s a murder and we don’t know who did it. But her depiction of Dublin and her excellent characters are right out of Hammett or Chandler.

I like both mysteries and crime fiction. I consider Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” mysteries to be cozies. I can never keep up with the classifications that nerds keep narrowing down, whether it’s in music (no dude, that’s not shoegaze, it’s um, darkwave fartsniff dubstep!) or books or whatever. I can’t be bothered.

Let’s face it, Mystery and Crime Fiction are labels to sell a book. If it bothers you to see “Mystery” on a book you like, is it because you imagine Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher and don’t want to be associated with fans of those stories?
Mystery lovers likely get the same shiver when they see Crime Fiction or Noir on a label, they know there may be foul language and testicles (probably severed ones).
It’s a marketing construct. I don’t like either label. “Crime Fiction” can certainly drive away readers who assume it’s all about serial killers and gumshoes wearing fedoras and talking like Bogart, just like “Mystery” may be dismissed as a puzzler to keep you occupied in the waiting room for the gastroenterologist.

What about “Suspense”? I hope your story has suspense, even if it’s “literary fiction.” But heavens forfend it be labeled a “thriller,” those are for reading on airplanes, right? Speaking of thrills, I’m thrilled when an author I like is in the good old Fiction section. Megan Abbott, Pete Dexter, Scott Phillips are all recent sightings. But I don’t mind wandering to the Mystery corner, like the “Adult” section of the video store (if you remember those) to get my kicks.

Like Colson Whitehead says about those who call genre fiction a guilty pleasure:

“Other people’s labels. Other people’s hang-ups.”

Acapulcolypse, and more in NIGHTFALLS: Notes from the End of the World

Katherine Tomlinson’s new anthology, NIGHTFALLS: Notes from the End of the World  is now available from Dark Valentine Press. It includes my story “ACAPULCOLYPSE,” about a nebbish mass murderer with biological weapons on a cruise ship set to view the world’s final solar eclipse. It’s a comedy.

plus stories of armageddon from Patti Nase Abbott, Nigel Bird, Col Bury, Chris Rhatigan, Matthew C Funk, Richard Godwin, Sandra Seamans, Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw, AJ Hayes, Allan Leverone, Jimmy Callaway and more.

If you read it before 12/21/12, you can say “I’ve got Mayan, where’s yours?” and be all smug before the sky bursts into flame.

nightfalls cover

We Wrote a Zoo

Patti Abbott put forth a challenge last month- 1200 words, set at the zoo. More than a dozen writers, including Patti and myself, responded. Albert Tucher, Sandra Seamans, Todd Mason… check them out. Patti’s was hilarious, and I hope, historically accurate…

Zoo Stories

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

The Ten Thousand Pound Banana

This story was written for Patti Nase Abbott‘s A Day at the Zoo challenge:

The Ten Thousand Pound Banana (featuring Candle)
Me and Nige were in the shop talking about potassium when Cy told us we had to break a bloke’s legs.
That’s code for rough him up. If you break a man’s legs he can’t work. He can’t work he can’t pay. Which works cross purposes to the whole point of smacking him around.
I’m good at that and not much else. Cy don’t let me drive no more on account of losing the battery on a bank job.
Codgers. Don’t trust them.
It’s a long story.

Nigel sat on the counter eating a banana. He’s a wee bastard, but he’s not a dwarf. He carries a cosh for fellas who joke about his height.
So don’t do it, if you know what’s good for your kneecaps.
“You ought to eat more fruit, Candle,” he says. “Nothing better for you. You need your vitamins, you know.”
I prefer to get mine from a porterhouse and a pint. Two of the former and a dozen of the latter, but I don’t say so. Nigel usually holds a conversation better by himself, but he’s looking at me to say my piece, start an argument over it, break the afternoon monotony.
Thank heaven Cy roars in and saves me the trouble.
Cyrus is a whiskey barrel with legs, and a mouth like a train whistle. He rushes in the door, slapping his newspaper on the dusty shelves.
He sells novelties. Of an adult nature. But no one comes here, they get it all on the Internet now. It’s all cover for his less than legal activities, and I like it better without the perverts wandering the aisles. We had to sell them the odd item to look legitimate, and I didn’t like taking the bills from their grubby hands. I kept a pair of tweezers for it.
“Candle, get your pet monkey off the countertop, he’s scaring off customers.”
If someone else said that, Nigel would cosh him for certain, but not the boss.
“Cyrus, I was telling Candle here he ought to eat more fruit.”
“What, you think it will stunt his growth? Look at him. He barely fits in the door as it is.”
Cy swats the banana out his hand with the newspapers.
Nigel looks down at the severed bit of banana. “That’s a waste of good food.”
“You’re a waste of food, you idjit. Take the bananas out of your ears and listen. You’re going to break this fella’s legs. He’s two weeks behind, and Calloway tells me he just spotted him at the dog track.”

The fellow’s name is Ellis and he’s a haberdasher. When he wanted to expand, he approached Cy for a loan. Which is all fine and good. When he’s late on a payment we all get new hats.
On the drive, Nigel crunches away at an apple he found under his seat. “They keep the doctor away, you know.”
The dog track’s across from the zoo. I wonder if sniffing the lions makes them run faster. I haven’t been to a zoo since my father took me. Good man, he was. He liked the apes. Said they reminded him of people.
Nigel takes a harsh turn into the car park and his apples careen off my ankles like billiards. He picks a fedora from the pile in the boot, a green one with a purple feather, and we shoulder our way in.
It’s between races. Some are buying for the next, rest are cashing in.
“I’ll take the seats, you look by the ticket counter,” Nigel says.
I’m a head above the crowd. But I don’t see nothing but a positively rotund child cracking candies between his teeth. His piggy eyes follow Nigel’s hat.
I know what he’s thinking. Nige looks like a leprechaun. A leprechaun eating a banana at the dog races. That’s pretty funny, but I’ve got other things to worry about.
I remember Ellis when he measured me for my suit. You don’t find my size on the rack. He reminded me of a squirrel, how he darted around the shop. With stubby little fingers. Wondered how he held onto the pins.
It was those fingers I saw first, shuffling notes at the payment window. Then I noticed the whole squirrel. Bouncing on the toes of his shoes, the fancy kind with tassels on.

I’ve have trouble hiding behind a giraffe, but Ellis was all caught up in his winnings. He bounced right past. I followed him toward the exit and figured I’d pick him up by his little neck until he passed out, and deliver the goods to Cyrus. Get on his good side. Maybe get to drive again.
Then Nigel goes and ruins it. When he spots Ellis, he drops his banana peel. Then he slips on it. Right on his arse. Knocks his hat off, which rolls on its brim in a circle.
The fat kid runs up and grabs his cuff. “Give me your pot of gold!”
The crowd laughs and points, and my father’s right. They do look like monkeys.
Then Ellis spots me, leaps three feet straight up, and bolts for the car park.

The crowd slows me but I manage to spot him fumbling with his keys. I shout a few choice words and charge. He drops his keys and runs cross the road, dodging traffic. Right for the Zoo. He hops the turnstile, and I nearly get flattened by a bus.
Nigel catches up to me, his little legs pumping. We meet at the turnstile. The ticket lady is out of her booth, having none of it.
Nigel pays for us both with a tenner. “Don’t tell Cy about the banana.”

The place is near empty but Ellis has a head start. I find myself looking up the trees, like he’s a real squirrel. Then Nigel sees a family pointing, and we run over.
It’s by the monkey house.
The apes have a pit, real nice down there. Lots of grass and a playground to climb and swing around on. The gorillas are all riled up. Pounding on their chests, like two blokes over a bird.
And Ellis, squatting in the middle of them. His suit’s all torn up, and he’s clutching his winnings like his favorite acorn.
Me and Nige look down, then at each other. What was our boy thinking?
“Job well done then?” Nigel says.
“What if they tear him limb from limb, what do we tell Cyrus then?”
“Well, you go in. They’re practically relations.”
Right then, I get an idea. Not often that happens. I pat Nigel’s pocket. “Hand it over.”
“It’s my last one, Candle.”
“Don’t be a prat.”
I climb over the meager fence and hang down, waving the banana at our little squirrel among the apes. “Nice fat envelope you have, Ellis. Care to trade?”

And that’s why I drive the car, now. Still smells like a fruit stand, though.


© 2012 Thomas Pluck

I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Two to Tango in Spinetingler

I am honored to appear in Spinetingler Magazine’s first Kindle issue, Winter 2012. My illustrious company includes Patti Nase Abbott, Mike Miner, Court Merrigan and Albert Tucher. Spinetingler has been around for ten years online and is a Mystery Writers of America approved venue. I highly doubt “Two to Tango” will be to the MWA’s taste, but here’s hoping that a few of them read it.

It’s one of my most polarizing stories, and while the characters are all adults, the title comes from the true closing statement of a judge who gave a child rapist a soft sentence. I learned of this judge through Alice Vachss’s eye-opening book Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, where she details how difficult it is to prosecute sex offenders in the D.A.’s office. It is out of print, but I urge you to hunt it down if you think SVU is how things play out in court.

It is a revenge story, but not a straightforward one. I’d like to hear what you think. You can’t comment on a Kindle, but you can here, and in the Amazon reviews for the magazine. I’d appreciate your feedback.


© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Denny returns in Plots with Guns

If you’ve read my stories about Denny the Dent such as “Rain Dog” in Crimespree Mag issue 43, and “Legacy of Brutality” in Pulp Modern #1 (links at the right) you know he doesn’t need a gun to get the job done. He’s 350 pounds of muscle and rage against those who hurt the weak.

In his latest rampage, he’s a junkman working with a new partner who finds a little pit bull … that dogfighters have other plans for. Denny’s pit fighting past crosses with the ugly world of modern dogfighting, and you know it won’t end well… for the bad guys.

PLOTS WITH GUNS is in my opinion the best designed crime fiction site on the web, and this issue has stories by Matt C. Funk my Louisiana transplant homeboy, Patti Abbott the mama tiger of noir, and seven other hard-hitting tales that readers of PWG know to expect…

© 2011 Thomas Pluck