Story Excerpts

Art by
Hank Blaustein

Los Cantantes De Karaoke

by Tom Larsen

“Wilson! Oye, Wilson Salinas!”

The voice that called out to me sounded like dried leaves being raked across concrete. I looked for the caller as I crossed Calle Antonio Vallejo and located him sitting at a plastic table in the tiny courtyard of a neighborhood tienda, down where the steep, pockmarked street dead-ended into Del Chorro. He was about my age and size—mid thirties, five six, a hundred and forty pounds—and he looked vaguely familiar. Since my recent return to my hometown of Cuenca, Ecuador, after nearly fifteen years in Seattle, I was constantly running into someone who looked vaguely familiar.

“Come on.” He made a beckoning motion with his free hand, the other one grasping a big sweaty bottle of Pilsener. “I’ll buy you a beer.”

I recognized him then. Emilio Marza. I had gone to secondary school with him. We weren’t exactly friends, but we knew a lot of the same people.

“I don’t drink,” I told him. It’s crazy when you think about it—all the jobs I’d held over the years—I even drove a taxi drunk, but the one thing I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid—become a private detective—the drinking got in the way. So, I had quit.

“I’m sorry.” Emilio clutched his beer, looking around as if searching for a place to hide it. “Juan said that . . .”

I shook his hand and sat down. I hadn’t seen Juan Sanchez since I got sober, and if Emilio had talked to him he’d probably heard some pretty wild stories about my drinking days. Juan was a good friend, but he was a gossip.

“It’s okay,” I said, “drink your beer. It won’t bother me.” Of course, it would bother me—I was only two-and-a-half-weeks sober.

“Let me get you something. Water?” Emilio stood up, bumping the table in his nervousness.

“I’ll take a Fanta.”

He hurried to the counter and came back with a bottle of the sweet orange soda that had become my substitute for beer and wine.

I remembered him as a good-looking kid—an athlete. He had retained his good looks and his trim athleticism, although he seemed to be doing everything he could to disguise them both. He had on stained, loose-fitting khaki pants and a faded, red Deportivo Cuenca T-shirt. He wore his dark hair in a bowl cut, making him look a little like that dude who’s the president of Bolivia.

“Juan said that you might be able to help me.” He took a big swallow of beer, the chords in his neck tightened, and he grimaced in pain.

“If you don’t mind me asking . . .” I leaned my head back and tapped my throat, in lieu of actually asking the question.

“Oh, this.” He massaged his throat absently. “I had two polyps removed a few weeks ago. It’s still a little raw.” He took a small sip of beer and swallowed without grimacing as much. READ MORE



Art by Tim Foley

High Explosive

by Martin Limón

Why is it that pretty girls always show up unexpectedly at the worst possible time? Is it some natural law, like Newton’s rule about apples bonking you on the noggin with an equal and opposite force in the opposite direction? (Which, frankly, I never really understood either.) Or is it the ancient Curse of the Cramburys, of which we never speak? Although if I were to expect a pretty girl unexpectedly at the worst possible time, it would have to be Nola Channing, who never bothers to knock in the first place. She just swings the door open, her dark wavy hair bouncing and her agate eyes gleaming, and proclaims her presence like a fearless goddess descending from Olympus. Usually with words along the lines of, “It’s Nola! Where are you, parasite?”

Only this time, she said:

“Benjamin! Why are you trying to wrap a tea towel around your head?”

“My name,” I replied, struggling with the towel, “isn’t Benjamin.”

“Then why does everybody call you Bennie?” she asked, her perfect heart-shaped face shining with dubiousness or dubiety or whatever it’s called. “Benedict? Benson? Surely not Benvenuto.”

“None of the above,” I replied, suppressing a sneer.

“But don’t you sign your checks, when you have enough money in the bank to actually write checks, ‘B. Cowes Crambury’?”

“No, I sign them ‘E. Cowes Crambury.’” This was pronounced with my signature soupçon of savoir faire.

“E? Are you sure? What’s it stand for?”

“I’ll never tell,” I said. And I never will, because it stands for Ebenezer.

“Of course you won’t. But you still haven’t explained the towel.”

“You’ve hardly given me a ch—”

“Whatever it is, it’s bound to be ridiculous.” She plopped down on the sofa next to me. “I had a bear of a day at the studio. Rewrites for ‘Bells on Her Toes,’ our latest screwball comedy, ugh. I wish they’d assign me something with a little more oomph. Now. The towel.”

“The thing is, it’s a secret. Life and death. You understand.”

“Yeah, I understand that everybody at the party tonight is going to hear about how I found you wrapping a tea towel around your head, unless you spill the beans.”

“Party?” I sat up straight.

“At the big house. The one your aunt is throwing in honor of Dante Quintana for starring in The Burglar of Basra. Remember?”

This was Oakes Bros. Pictures’ latest big box-office costumer, which I had seen four times.

“Um, I forgot.”

“Anne Standish will be there,” Nola teased, knowing that like every other red-blooded American male, I had a mad crush on Quintana’s costar.

Then I was suddenly struck by lightning, although now that I think about it, it must be very unusual to be gradually struck by lightning. READ MORE

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