the following is an excerpt from Letting Out the Devils, available for purchase via Broken River.
Ari swears he could cut my face off with this shiv he fashioned out of a soup can. Jagged arrow-shaped aluminum with duct tape around the handle, “m’m! m’m! good!” scrawled along the sharp tip. He stabs at the glass between us. I tell him lemme see it real quick, nodding down at the money tray for him to slide it through, but he shakes his head, says, “You ain’t no killer.”
Squints his yellowed glaucoma eyes, pointing at me with the shiv. In a crushed gravel whisper: “You wouldn’t even know how to hold it.”
Danielle brings a couple 40s to the counter and Ari wraps an arm around her neck, presses the sharp point of the shiv just beneath her vitiligo-spotted eye. She asks for a pack of Newports. Ari sings an old love tune, Sinatra or something, swaying side to side with Danielle in a choke hold. She cracks the slightest smile. Says to Ari, “You’re so dumb.”
I slide the pack through the tray and scan the beers through the glass. Danielle pays in all coins. She’s got that can money.
The schizo vagrant love birds are cracking their 40s and lighting their cigarettes before they make it out the door.
I check the clock on the wall. Last hour of the night shift is always the longest.
Men in fire retardant overalls buy cases of Lone Star and dollar scratch-offs. They try their luck right there at the counter and slide the tickets back for me to toss in the trash.
Some Mexican niggas spill out of a blue candy-painted Charger. They’re filming a music video. The camera man follows the rapper inside the store. I pretend to stock the cigarettes to avoid looking at the camera. The rapper mouths the words to the song playing on the phone in his pocket. He throws a rapid succession of sign language at the camera. Grabs a Sprite from one of the coolers. He cheeses real big at the end of a verse so the camera man can zoom in on his diamond grill.
The driver of the Charger dumps coins from a Crown Royal bag, says, “Aye, boss, lemme get however much this is on pump one.”
I kill the neon OPEN sign and run through all the closing shit: sweep the linoleum, wipe the sticky syrup off the drink counters, spray the restrooms so the mildew smell is more like synthetic flowers on top of mildew, snake the thick-ass chain through the iron bars over the front door, clip the padlock.
Only lights on the block are the fluorescents over the gas pumps and the blood red moon.
It’s a couple-mile walk home with Dillinger Escape Plan in the earbuds.
Rain-slick streets littered with whippets and bright yellow Whataburger wrappers. Dogs barking behind chain-link fences. Reflective orange barrels posted around a long stretch of crushed-up asphalt that will eventually be part of the road again. I stop at the tracks and watch the graffiti’d train cars rattle by, whistle blaring louder than the spastic drumming and warbled distortion in my head.
The flames billowing from the towers at the plant tonight could burn God’s retina, but the other side of the tracks is only dimly lit by amber street lamps and the flashing reds and blues of an occasional cop car. In the neighborhood where I live, there’s a 24-hour pharmacy that sells cigarettes and a small cemetery behind a used tire shop. A few friends are buried there.
Home is a shotgun house on a lawn that’s been uncut for a minute. I hop over the missing porch step and unlock the dead bolt. It’s a cave inside. Candle light at the kitchen table where Kira hovers over a canvas, head bobbing to the music in her ears, her back to the door. I slide a hand down the back of her sweatpants and squeeze her butt cheek. She jumps. She punches me in the arm. I wrap her up in a bear hug and bite her ear. She tries not to smile until she can’t help it. This is my superpower: being a jackass and getting away with it.
Her kiss tastes like raw honey.
She drops the brush on the floor and I grab her ass and scoop her up in the air. Her fingernails in my scalp, her legs around my waist. I carry her to the bedroom, guided by memory with my eyes closed.
Kira pulls my hair and squeezes my head between her thighs. She bites her lip and moans. Hits that high note.
I kiss her forehead before washing my face in the bathroom sink.
Smell of bleach wafting out of the faucet. I try not to think of brain-eating amoebas.
She’s still naked when I walk back in the room. Arms crossed over her head. That playful smirk. I grab the twisted sheet she’s lying on top of and pull her to the edge of the bed. Run my tongue in circles over her nipples as she reaches down to unzip my jeans. She grips my cock and pulls me closer.
There’s a shrill scream from the other room.
It takes forever to get Emery calmed down. Baby girl is eighteen months old and she wails on and on until the walls of the house fall over, until we turn into skeletons and then into dust.
Kira says, “Poor baby is cutting teeth.”
I say, “Again?”
I mean, is she a shark? How many teeth can fit in that little mouth?
Four A.M. Toys scattered across the living room floor. Some violent and colorful late-night anime on TV. Emery walks around hammering on the walls and furniture with a toy horse, singing in high-pitched gibberish.
Kira has her feet in my lap and I’m half-assed massaging them, zoned out, staring at the painting now perched to dry in the window sill. Thick, vertical strokes obscure spiraling patterns of every color. A dripping constellation dots the canvas. The whole thing is more texture than definable shape. Acrylic scar tissue.
“It’s something different every time,” I say. “Why not pick up a new canvas, call this one good?”
Kira squishes my face between her feet so I puffer-fish my lips. She says, “Did you always look like this? Even as a baby?”
I say, “Yup. Came out the womb with a face full of shitty tattoos.”
She sits up and kisses the blue-gray dagger on my cheek. “I’m DJing at 8 Ball tonight.”
“You getting paid up front?”
“Drink vouchers and a cut of ticket sales. Steph’s boyfriend is performing too. She said I could ride with them.”
“Didn’t 8 Ball throw a Halloween party with Mike Jones? What, are they broke now?”
“Yeah, they’re still bouncing back from that. Nobody went.”
I check the time on my phone. Next shift is in four hours. I ask if I can take the car.
“And what,” Kira says, “leave me stuck here with this little monster?”
Emery is a growling silhouette stomping her feet in the glow of the TV. It’s the part of the anime where the opposing kaiju are now battling each other and the pedestrians of the city below have succumbed to car-crashing hysterics. The giant gator with the lotus flower head drools acid and people melt. Emery bares her new baby teeth and roars. A tank opens fire on the lava dragon. The beast eats it like it’s nothing. Emery pounces in her mom’s lap and grabs fistfuls of her hair and headbutts her on the nose. The titans rush at each other, trampling over the broken and bloodied bodies of the innocent. Kira lifts the little monster’s shirt and blows raspberries on her stomach. Emery kicks her feet and laughs. I’ll feel differently when the morning shift comes around, but right now, I’m okay trading sleep for this moment.
Emery is asleep in her car seat. Head lolled to one side, arm wrapped around the neck of a plush sloth she calls Puppy. She’s snoring, blowing drool bubbles. Kira tells me to stop glaring at her. I’m too tired to control my expression. Too tired to scream in her adorable face. Lucky little shit.
Preacher Man is already posted on the corner with his megaphone when we pull up to the corner store. Same dirty suit he wears every day. Sun-cracked face dripping sweat. Bible clutched to his chest. He’ll be shouting the word of god at cars all day. The word is “repent.” Repent and get a gun.
I ask Kira to trade places with me today but she’s not going for it. She rubs my chin and says, “Looove yooou.” She drops me off at the barred glass doors, the LED window signs flashing lies about how many people have won the lottery here.
“REPENT! REPENT! REPENT AND GET A GUN!”
This nigga I work with, Ahmed, he’s like the Pakistani Paul Wall, always wearing too-big t-shirts that touch his knees and elbows, neck draped in cubit zirconia chains.
I ask Ahmed if his dad’s around. His dad owns the place.
“Should be safe,” he says, not looking up from his phone. “Old man’s got court today. Fighting a DUI.”
I crack a Monster from the cooler. “How do you fight a DUI?”
“Old man says he knows people. Bro, check this shit out.”
Ahmed shows me a video of this kid, maybe five or six, smoking a cigarette and vibing to the new NBA YoungBoy. The kid keeps looking off-camera, watching out for his mom or whoever he stole the cigarette from. Every punchline YoungBoy hits, the kid holds a fist over his mouth and goes Ooooh, then continues puffing on the cig and bouncing his shoulders. “This shit fire,” the kid says.
Ari and Danielle are outside at the pumps. Danielle is going through the trash bins in search of aluminum cans to crush flat on the ground and deposit in her own swelling trash bag. Ari is popping wheelies in a wheelchair he found who-knows-where, Confederate flag draped across his lap.
It’s a slow morning. Ahmed and I hang out in the cold storage room behind the cooler doors. He shows me videos of people testing out their 3D printed guns. Some of the brightly-colored Glocks explode on the first shot but Ahmed says those are old videos. There’s one where a fully automatic rifle shaped like a dragon sends shots right on target without falling apart in the shooter’s hands. More pink and blue and yellow pistols. Arcade game controllers firing live ammo. Ahmed says some printers only run a couple hundred, and you feed it with this plastic wire like what you’d use to string up a weed wacker.
Need me one of those.
Ahmed shows me story reels of hoes he went to school with. Bitches taking ass shots in the mirror between selfies with their kids. “Everybody’s somebody’s baby, huh?”
The bell over the door chimes. A cooler door opens. Standing there on the other side of the shelves of tall boys is a cousin I haven’t seen in some years. I don’t recognize the tattoos from his bald head to his fingertips, but the nigga did go to prison and that’s kind of what happens, right?
I say, “Raymond.”
Raymond leans in to peek over the beers. “Oh, shit,” he says. “What up, cuh?”
He joins us inside the cooler. My cousin is not a small person—probably 6’4” and prison buff—but he hops up on a stack of Natty Light boxes and they somehow don’t collapse. He cracks the tall boy and holds it out like we’re toasting and then he chugs it. I toss him another and grab one for Ahmed and myself as well.
“This is Ahmed,” I say. “This is my cousin Raymond. He was locked up for a minute.”
The two nod at each other.
Ahmed points at Raymond’s forearm, says, “What’s that all about?”
Raymond takes his time with the next beer. He sips, wipes foam off his lips, goes ahhh. He says, “Dude I bunked with liked to draw these evil-ass clowns, so I had him put a few on me to look scary.”
I’m pretty sure Ahmed is asking about the swastika and not the clowns, and Raymond knows this too, and Ahmed knows we all know, but we go along knowing shit without talking about it.
I tell Raymond I married my girlfriend and we have a daughter now and she’s crazy smart, she’s our beautiful baby girl, we’re just so tired all the time and it’s kind of a nightmare but it’s mostly pretty great.
Raymond says prison was boring at first, but when they moved him up the state, shit got crazy. He says it can be chill if you stay low key but—and he smiles here, ‘cause he knows it—this fool is the opposite of low key. He talks about working the kitchen and trying to get his GED but not being able to stay out of fights. Says they threw him in solitary for a good little minute with his jaw wired shut after some niggas jumped him.
Ahmed asks why they jumped him.
You know how a kid will grin like he’s trying not to when he knows he’s done something wrong, but he just wants the world to move on without acknowledging whatever he did? That’s Raymond. A little kid smiling his way out of trouble. I imagine him smiling like that with his jaw wired shut.
“I ain’t ever tried to start none with nobody,” he says.
The bell chimes. A customer knocks on the bulletproof glass. We kill the beers and move up front.
Raymond says he’s been staying at the halfway house up the road, but he’s got this friend that can hook him up with a place to crash. “He stay out in the country, though,” Raymond says.
I say, “How far out in the country?”
He names a county road that takes me back to pasture parties and drunk driving down suicide curves.
I’m texting all this to Kira while Raymond goes on about the halfway house.
“Bunch of crackheads,” he says. “They don’t help with dishes, they don’t do shit. They come here is what they do—I know you seen them—they pop this fake Adderall shit.”
The kid with broccoli hair buying synthetic energy pills puts his hands in his pockets, bounces on his heels.
Raymond smacks the kid on the shoulder. “I’m just kidding,” he says, “I’m a big kidder.”
Kira texts back: who’s watching Emery?
I reply: my mom?
“It’s good they don’t do dishes, really. I keep all the knives under my mattress.”
Kira: so she’s back on her meds all of a sudden?
Me: [blank stare emoji]
Raymond leans on the counter and nods at the crew of laborers lined up with their junk food lunches. Jeans and trucker hats caked in concrete. He goes on while Ahmed rings up the jerky and canned teas. “There’s this old nigga who stays there too,” he says. “He’s pretty cool, but he’s crazy, always forgetting where he’s at and calling the cops on the rest of us, saying we broke into his house and shit. I told him I’ma stab him next time he calls the cops, but he ain’t gonna listen.”
Ahmed says, “That’s crazy, bro.”
Kira texts back: just take her with you… it’s not a trap house, right?
It’s the first thing Percy says when we pull up. “My mans really brought his kid to the trap.”
We’re in swamp land. Out of the green murk grow bell-bottomed cypresses, rows like interlocked fingers choking out a tangerine sunset. A Lexus, a Coupe deVille, and a SLAB’d-out Civic are parked out front of this double-wide on cinder blocks. Extension cords snake through the mud and up a couple trees, plugged in to security cameras. A giant tortoise slow-crawls around Percy’s legs.
When Percy was a kid, a trucker dozed off at the wheel and rear-ended him and his mom and he flew through the windshield and slid head-first across the road, scalped by the asphalt. Where his head was stapled back together is this nasty railroad scar.
He burns down the last of a blunt and flicks the roach. “Been a minute,” he says. “Baby girl growing like a weed.” To Raymond, he says, “And your ass just keeps getting uglier.”
Raymond holds his arms out like Jesus, says, “Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m sexy.”
“Nah, hold up.” Percy laughs so hard, he’s doubled over coughing. He points at Raymond’s forearm, at the swastika. “The fuck is that?”
“Fuck is this?” Raymond points at the Japanese symbols on Percy’s neck, says, “Nah, nigga, fuck is that?”
“It says ‘soldier of fortune,’” Percy says. “Because I get money. And I’m a motherfucking soldier.”
Raymond sucks air through his teeth, shakes his head. “You got that shit on purpose?”
The walls are gutted hip high throughout the double-wide. Pipes and wires spilling out between the studs. We find everyone else in the living room. Bohemian rug over raw plywood sub-flooring. Leather furniture still wrapped in plastic. A frameless mirror capping off a neon tetra aquarium serves as a coffee table. Hash oil and a three-card tarot spread on the mirror. Asa is in the middle of getting his hair twisted by Briana. She keeps telling him to sit still. One half of his head is fro’d out fork-in-socket-like. He’s telling Isaac how he loves to fuck fat bitches. “Hundred pounds a leg,” he says, “throw one over each shoulder and—” he bites his bottom lip and humps the air. He jumps up when we enter and it’s bear hugs all around.
Emery holds my hand and hides behind my leg.
“She’s shot up like a weed,” Isaac says. A gold orb fills the empty socket of his left eye and he’s shirtless under a fur coat. Skinny torso covered in sigils. Isaac reads tarot and astrology. Been known to get into some shit with blood and fire as well.
Asa says Isaac was just telling him how rich he’s gonna be. Raymond asks if Mr. Money Bags is sharing the smoke. Asa sets him up with a glass pipe and a torch and Raymond hits a dab off the mirror.
There’s a deer head on a big wire spool in the kitchen where Asa pours up high-balls of Remy. “This the only one you get,” he says to me. “Gotta get the princess home safe.”
Emery warms up after a little while. She sits on her knees in front of the fish tank, face pressed to the glass, mesmerized by the red and blue tetra.
Briana patiently works on twisting the rest of Asa’s hair while he catches us up on his remodeling plans. Says he got this place on the cheap after the last hurricane sunk the property value. “I got the meth heads down the road to tear out all the wet shit,” he says. “Probably get them to help with drywall and paint, too. One of them niggas owes me eighty bucks. I’ma tell him, ‘look, I’ll let you hit a couple dabs or whatever, just come help me knock this out and we straight.’”
There’s a series of thuds coming from somewhere down the hall. Everyone but Asa turns to look.
“Hell yeah,” Asa says, “I love meth heads. They’ll steal your metal, though. That’s why I welded a cage around the HVAC.”
Raymond leans over to Isaac, says, “Think I’ma crash at your place instead.”
This scabbed-up skeleton in stained undies runs screaming down the hall. His wrists are duct-taped together. Mouth and ankles red. He bolts out the front door.
Emery jumps in my lap and Briana clutches her chest. Asa rises calmly, pulling a burner from between the cushions. He pops off a couple shots from the doorway.
“Damn,” he says. “That tweaker straight Spider-Man jumped over your car. My bad, bro.”
The rest of us look around at each other. In unison: “Whose car?”
Asa points at me with the burner, says, “Yours, nigga.” And again, he says, “My bad.”
Emery squeezes my neck as we head outside to check the damage. Couple holes in the windshield—one low, one high.
“Insurance oughtta take care of it,” Asa says. “Just don’t tell them you were here.”
I say, “About that.”
He says, “Damn, for real?”
“Shit’s been rough since Kira got laid off.”
We stand thinking about how to square this up when Emery rips a wet one. The smell wafts around to everyone within seconds. Hands clasp over faces. So I’m changing baby girl’s diaper on the rug and she’s entranced by the fish again when Asa comes up with an idea in the shape of a plastic bag full of pink capsules.
“Fuck is this?”
“Supposed to be like the love child of ecstasy and acid. It’s got a chemical name, but I call it Kalm with a ‘k,’ just ‘cause.”
“Bro, you shot up my windshield. Just give me some money.”
“It’s re-up season, nigga, not cash flow season. Unless you want to wait a week or so, this is what I got. Shit goes for ten a pill, that’s enough to get a new windshield and then some.”
Emery walks her fingers across the fish tank. Says, “Fishy.”
I stuff the baggie in my pocket and wrap up the dirty diaper and hand it to Asa.
“Guess we’re straight, then.”
Raymond says he’s going to hang out a bit and catch a ride with Isaac. I tell him I’ll be seeing him.
I call Kira once we’re back on the road. There’s the trilling pulse of a trap beat and a choir of hollering drunks on her end.
I ask how the set went.
She slurs, elongating each syllable. “It went grrrreat.” She gets quieter, breathes into the phone. “I’m going to ride you so hard tonight.”
Just like that, I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.
“How’s it going there?” she says. “How is Emery?”
Baby girl blinks against the wind funneling in through the bullet holes. She giggles. Covers her face with her hands.
I decide to just spill the truth to Kira—be upfront about it—so I tell her, I say, “Everything’s great.”
— Kelby Losack is a woodworking artisan and carpenter by trade. He is the author of Hurricane Season, Dead Boy (with J. David Osborne), The Way We Came In, and Heathenish, and the co-host of Agitator. He lives with his wife in Gulf Coast Texas. He is on Twitter @HeathenishKid and IG @kelby.losack