BTS: Mistakes by the Lake

Mistakes by the Lake—Behind the Story

Really, the collection, before I knew it’d be a collection, all started with this piece. The characters and the voice and the setting—and the conceit of using Shakespeare’s Henry IV—hit me on a flight in 2008 as I returned from a teaching conference (such spontaneous muse-like inspiration is rare, I’ve since learned). I pulled out some paper and wrote five pages; and those pages felt good, like there might be something there. But teaching full-time and grading thousands of papers kept the piece at bay, though the idea still barked. In 2010, I cranked out twenty more pages for the hoped-for novel—Foul and Ugly Mists became its working title—in order to enroll in Eckerd’s Writers in Paradise workshop. Feedback was mixed, but the kind encouragement of John Dufresne spurred me on. (And I always kept in mind his mild caution of what I was up against: creating a character that could somehow match up to one of the two or three greatest characters in literature, Falstaff. A tall order; I’m sure I didn’t meet it, but I did my best in that regard.)

In 2011, living and teaching in Costa Rica, I told my creative writing students to write every day, a habit in which I, myself, was deficient. So, recognizing my own hypocrisy, I began getting up at 5:00 a.m.—practice what you teach and all that—to work on the long-abandoned Foul and Ugly Mists. The characters were still fresh to me, the writing came. Ultimately, though, I needed deadlines. The MFA at University of Tampa provided deadlines. Now, I had to write. Under the guidance of Jeff Parker and Tibor Fischer, among others (including my fellow writers-in-workshop), I worked it and worked it and worked it. My goal: to finish this novel. But I realized the narrative (and the voice) couldn’t sustain a novel and its stripped-down novella form was born.

Throughout working on the novella, I continually read and re-read Henry IV. While I knew I wanted to diverge in numerous key ways from the play, it served as a great compass. And, I’ve been a huge fan of Orson Welles since college, so watching and re-watching Chimes at Midnight was crucial to my writing, too.

But, in the process of researching Cleveland and the Stockyards, boy, did I find much more than I expected. And more stories I wanted to write.

Mistakes by the Lake, 2013—Excerpt

The Indians are on. I don’t watch, can’t watch, not since The Donor. And if I change the channel, Pepe senses it somehow, comes out, yells at me to turn it back on.

My back’s to the TV. I’m fucking around with the game of chance. I try for and miss a miniature Browns helmet several times, the crane’s claws hooking the facemask on the last try before slipping free. Behind the counter, I put my head down and wait for someone to call, something to deliver. Our recent successes have allowed me to consider quitting the pizza business, but I just don’t feel secure yet. In fact, I’m straight-up unsettled for reasons I can’t explain. Maybe a rich fuck will walk in, leave me a ten-thousand-dollar tip. I hear that kind of shit happens. Not to me, but it happens. So, I wait. For something, someone, anything, anyone to deliver me.

All I get is Fal.

“Bres.” He steps back and forth through the doorway, ringing and re-ringing the bell of a customer’s entrance.

Pepe yells from his office. “Hal, if that’s your fat comemierda friend, you get him the fuck out my restaurant.”

Fal stops dead in the middle of the doorway.

“Fuck you want?” I am more than a little mad at Fal.

He steps through all the way, rings the bell one last time. “Bres, relax. Just stopping. To say, you know, hi. And shit.” He glances at the TV, checks the score. Game’s been in rain delay, just getting going again. But Fal’s eyes keep moving, never settle on anything. He makes a short air-escaping-from-a-bike-tire sound. Pepe comes out, glares at Fal, announces he’s leaving, that I have to close.

Fal sits at a table in a tiny alcove in the front. He barely fits, looks like squeezing a pig into a mouse hole. He somehow manages to put his foot up. A toe pokes through the sole of his light blue-trimmed J’s. He tries to look relaxed, fails, takes his foot down. He keeps looking from the door to the kitchen and back to the door. He clears his throat. “Bres.”

“Well?”

“C’mon, bres, this ain’t about, you know, Tina. It’s—” He checks the door again. “I saved you.” His eyes sweep to the game. “From her.”

I come around the counter, the stool crashing to the floor in my wake. He covers his face, his wounded eye. “Wait, wait, wait.” I grab his arms, try to pull him up, but he’s wedged tight. “Look, bres, look. Help. I need help.” His crotch bears a faded stain. He smells like piss.

I push him one last time, turn away, fumble a dollar to the crane. “Kidding, right?”

“My life, bres.”

“Your life.” I work the joystick, angling for the helmet. Miss.

“Please, bres. Icepick is coming. For me. If I don’t come up with seven. Large.”

Fal tells me about the last week, how he’d tried to become a pimp. He’d started with Tina, but she’d walked before turning a single trick. Then he’d decided the best way wasn’t to develop his own stable, no, but to recruit someone else’s, start small, just win over one. Then two. Icepick, their actual pimp, caught up with Fal a few hours ago. Pressed him. Fal in a panic—an icepick to the throat will cause panic—said he’d get Icepick seven to make nice, just don’t hurt him. Fal didn’t have seven.

“You—why would you say that?”

“Bres, bres, it’s not like that. I stood up to—”

“Kneeled, more like. Sucked his—”

“I’m no coward, bres. But when that, that, icepick came out …”

Seven?”

“The, the, the icepick!” He wipes a drop of saliva from the corner of his mouth. “Look, if he doesn’t get the money by midnight, he’ll kill my sis.”

“You don’t have a sister.”

“So? It’s my fictional sis. She always—” Fal checks the door again. “I mean, I had to give up someone.”

I laugh. A funny man even when he isn’t trying. “He’s coming here, isn’t he.”

“I told him I’d buy him dinner, bres, a pizza.”

“You fat fuck.” I take out what little I have on me and slap it into his chest.

“What about the rest?”

“You’re on your own.”

“Bres. Hal. Me. Please.” Then, “My sis.”

“You don’t—! I’m working, Fal.” I go behind the counter, set up the stool, sit. I start assembling boxes.

“Working?” He looks around the restaurant, holds his arms out wide. “All these people, bres?”

“You’re killing me, Fal.”

He checks the game. “Fuckers are blowing it.” The Indians are tied, the Royals have the bases loaded, two outs. A few pitches miss the zone. Then the batter gets beaned, losing run crosses the plate, a walk-off hit-by-pitch.

I pick up the phone, call G, tell him what’s what. It takes some convincing, but they each give what they have. On his way over, Packy stops by my house, picks up the rest of mine.

“G’s pissed,” Packy says.

“He ain’t the only one,” I say.

Packy and Fal get into a shouting match. Fal loses. He knows he’s wrong, knows he just knocked us all back to square one.

A few minutes before midnight, a scrawny big-nosed guy rolls in. He can’t weigh more than 120. Fal could’ve sat on him, ended his life in eight seconds flat. His oversized Cleveland State shorts hang below his waist, the bottoms hitting him mid-shin. He wears a white T-shirt under an unbuttoned short-sleeved dress shirt. It opens and floats behind him when he walks. Tucked in one hip of his underwear’s waistband is the wood handle of what could only be the icepick; the handle of a gun pokes out of the other hip. He sees Fal in that tiny alcove, laughs. He nods in my direction. “You da man?”

I put a pizza box on the counter. Icepick opens it, sees the cash, closes it. “You are da man,” he says. “I trust you’ll keep your fat man on a leash, meng? Now on?”

Icepick grabs the box, heads for the door. I wait for Fal to say something stupid, but Packy appears ready to kick him if he tries. Instead, Icepick turns back, his eyes narrow. “I know you.”

“I don’t—” I say.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Give me a sec.” He sits, the pizza box of money in his lap. He puts one hand over his eyes like a psychic, like he can conjure me up in front of him.

None of us knows what the fuck he’s talking about. I didn’t know him.

“You’re dat, you’re dat Boland kid, right?” He stands, comes to the counter. “Yeah, yeah, I thought I knew you. Saw your ass on da news.” His right hand smacks the counter as if to emphasize his memory. “You haven’t fucking changed, meng.”

I nod, uncomprehending.

He laughs. It starts low, ends high. Ha-ha-ha-HA. “Yeah, meng. I knew it.” He takes a toothpick from the dispenser on the counter, sticks it in his mouth. He looks over at Fal, at Packy. “What you—? Naw, naw. You know, I felt sorry for you. Meng, your sister and all? I gave my girls the night off when we saw it. Shit. Dat was, what, four, five years ago?”

“Eight.”

Eight?” He shakes his head. “Your father, meng.” He sets the box on the counter, turns to the others, takes them into his confidence. “This guy’s father? He makes you,” he points at Fal, “look like a fucking genius.” With his back to me, he casts another look at Fal who squirms a little in his tight seat. Icepick shakes his head again.

I think about taking some of the money back but can’t figure how to open the box even an inch without him knowing.

He turns back, his tongue flicks the toothpick from right to left, left to right. He squeezes his eyes shut, waves his hand toward himself. I lean in. Icepick says, low, “What you doing, meng, with these clowns? I mean, I don’t even know dat other one, but if he’s anything, anything, like da big one? Fuck, meng. This your crew?”

I am getting lectured by a scrawny-ass pimp. “Who said I had a ‘crew’?”

Icepick scoffs. “With what your father was into? You got a crew, you’re doing shit. I know.” He pulls the toothpick out of his mouth, sets it on the counter. “It’s da natural fucking order. My dad? Numbers. Dat’s how I started, working for him. Then I graduated. You?” He holds his arms out, takes in all of Pepe’s.

I move around the counter, brush past Icepick. I click the flashing O-P-E-N window sign, the one above Fal, to off. I flip the door sign, hold the door open. “Time to go.”

“Look, look, all I’m saying, meng,” Icepick says, “is you need to get your shit straight. Moving in on me?” He pulls the icepick from his waistband, runs his thumb up one side, pricks a small drop of blood with the tip, sticks the thumb in his mouth and sucks.

Even with the door held open the room feels airless. The nighttime summer breeze kicks through the door and, redistributed by the rattling and rotating fan that stood beneath the TV, becomes stale. I see Packy exhale deeply; he takes a few steps toward the counter, toward Icepick. I shake my head. He stops.

The pick still in his hand, Icepick grabs the box. “And if you can’t do it on your own,” he says, “there’s always Ed. Even I pay tribute to ol’ Early.” Icepick moves past me and out the door. “Pleasure doing business, meng.”

I close and lock the door behind him, run a shaking hand through my hair. I try to slow my breathing, get a hold of myself.

“Bres, that went well.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Packy says. 

“I could’ve been a good pimp.” Fal rubs his beard, tries to stand, discovers he’s still stuck. He holds his arms up. “Bres?”

I swipe Icepick’s toothpick off the counter. “Enough’s enough.” My fingers tattoo the counter. “No more deconstructing, no more funeral jobs. No more small time.”

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