The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

June 18, 2010

WGI 1st Place: BEAT ON THE BRAT by Nigel Bird

He makes us anything we want, the clown on the stilts. Hearts or dogs or swords. Whatever we can think of.

“What’ll it be, bud?” He looks down from his great height and smiles. I don’t know why he puts on the lipstick - he doesn’t need it. Grin’s as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge and I should know - I seen it once.

“Giraffe,” I tell him.

“Speak up son,” he says. “It’s a long way for sound to travel.”

“The magic word?”

“Sorry, son. What’ya say?”

“Giraffe, please.” It wasn’t any louder, but he reaches into his apron pocket.


I tell him blue and yellow and this time remember the magic. He messes with the tangle of rubber worms and picks the ones he needs.

Starts with the blue, gives it a stretch. As far as his arms will go. Takes one up to his lips and fills it with an enormous breath till it looks like a huge salami.

“How d’you do that, Stevie?” Joey, my little brother, always asks the same things. Stevie never seems to mind.

“Did martial arts and yoga when I was a kid,” he says and turns and twists his balloons. “Get fit now and you’ll be fit for life.”

It looks like the neck and head, a long snout with two sausage ears.

“You always been a clown, Stevie?”

He takes his time to answer and his eyes go misty. Maybe it’s all the puffing and blowing.

The yellow balloon fills with air. He ties a knot in the end. Looks at it for a moment and smiles again.

“Just the way it turned out.” The yellow balloon squeaks as he works it.

“Tell us, Stevie,” Joey says. “Tell us the story.”

We know he will. He tells it the same every Sunday when we stop on the way home from practice.

This time I don’t even listen. Don’t have to. I look down at Joey and see the wonder in his eyes. It’s like Stevie’s Christ and we’re his disciples.

Story goes he was signed up for the Yankees on account of him being a big hitter at college. Nobody had seen anyone like him since ‘Babe’ the way he tells it.

First time at the Yankee Stadium he scored two home runs. lew right over the fence. Guy called Bill Addler dislocated his shoulder trying to catch him. Shouldn’t have bothered according to Stevie.

Asked Pops about Addler. Remembers it 'cause he was there. Fine player, pop says. A real terrier.

So was Stevie. Real potential. Shame the way it happened to him.

After the game, Stevie’s the hero. They go celebrate even though they’ve told the coach they’re heading home. Ends up in a bar at the end of the earth and takes a lift home with some old lush.

Lush runs a light. Gets himself killed.

Gets Stevie a glass eye and a bit of brain damage.

Stevie always takes his eye out when it gets to that part. Let’s us have a play so long as our hands are clean.

Feels warm like it’s alive.

He hands over the giraffe to me and leans down to Joey.

“What’ll it be today?”

One of the geeks walks right between us, almost knocks Stevie over. Brushes the giraffe from my hands.

He never looks where he’s going. Always dress the same, him and his mates. Ripped jeans, leather jackets and hair like girls. Not a spare ounce on their bodies.
Spend half their time hopped up on glue – I seen ‘em with their bags out on the stoop. The other half they’re making tunes. Don’t pay no attention to us, normally.
Pop says that guys like them should be drafted into the army. They’d learn ‘em a thing or two.

I don’t know about that.

I’ve heard ‘em play down in the garage. Make me feel good, their songs. Like they wanna be somewhere else or somebody else or something. I think I understand.

Stevie shouts over.

“Careful where you go, son,” he says, in a nice voice, like he’s trying to be kind.

The boy looks up. Can’t see his eyes cos of his shades and the flop of hair.

“Sorry,” he says and takes his hands out of his pockets. Comes back and picks up the giraffe and gives it to me.

“Sorry kid.”

He puts his hands back in his pockets and gets on his way again. I wonder where he’s headed. Then he looks 'round. Speaks.

“How you doin’, Stevie?” He says it like they know each other, but not well.

“Same old things, Little Man. Same old things.”

Stevie leans down to Joey.

“A dog in a heart, please.”

He picks out two pink balloons, same as always, one dark one light.

* * *

She’s so fucking hot, man. Melting.

Debbie. Hell rhymes with that? Heavy?

Debbie / she’s so heavy / ba ba ba ba, ba ba.

Makes her sound fat. Definitely not the way into her skirt.

That skirt. Shit. It’s like she’s tellin’ us to come and get it. Gotta get me a piece of the action or I’ll die a fucking monk.

What about that place in sunny Afrique?

Entebbe. With the hijack. Could work.

Like the folk on the planes down in Entebbe / I’m a hostage to love with a girl called Debbie / ba ba ba ba, ba ba.

Hotdog! A million fucking dollars.

Better get me a pen.

And glue. My head feels tight. Need to loosen things up in there.

Fuck was that?

“Careful where you go, son.”

I ain't nobody’s son. Not any more. If I ever see that bastard, I’ll suck his lungs out through a straw and spit them right back in his face.

“Sorry,” I tell them. McKendrick’s kids. Hang round on Lex. Seen the big one by the garage. He’s OK. Shame they still got a father. Poor sods.

“Sorry kid.” I really am.

Christ, he’s got the giraffe. Always my favorite.

Wonder if Stevie’s still telling the way it used to be. Wouldn’t mind seeing him pop his eye.

“How you doin’, Stevie?”

He’s looking good. Hair’s a bit longer. Maybe not so orange. Teeth busted up. But good. Maybe I should ask him to see his eye.

“Same old things, Little Man. Same old things.”

Little Man. Fucker’s going make me cry. I’d better move. Always used to call me Little Man. Made me feel special. Like I had a friend, you know?

Hope the guys are ready. I need to blow off some shit. Rip into the bag and get me singing.

My turn to get pizza. Two extra large.

Christ. McKendrick’s steaming again. Slumped in the street with his bottle in a bag.

Wouldn’t swap places with those kids. Better not to have a dad than to get stuck with one like that.

“Arsehole,” he shouts. “Come here, arsehole.”

Don’t look like he can walk. Think I’m going over there to get myself a kicking? No way, man.

“You chicken, boy?”

Get called a lot worse than that. Chicken. I eat fucking chicken.

“Come over, you streak of piss. Come an' I’ll shave your hair, you hippie freak.”

“So long sir,” I tell him. “Have a nice day.” Then I whisper, “Prick.”

You know, one day he’s gonna be asking for my fucking autograph. And you know what I’m gonna say when he does?

Well, nor do I, not yet. But it’s gonna be good, I tell ya. It’s gonna be a peach.

* * *

Boys like that, Joey and Ray and Little Man, they’re the future. The way it’s going to be.

I’m glad I know them. Means I’ll be around even when I’m gone, wrapped up in their heads like precious stones.

That’s what I don’t tell them, see. That I’m happy doing what I do. Seems more important to them that I was a hotshot with a bat many moons ago.

Their papa, now he remembers the way it was. Caught those pitches like they were sent down by first-graders. First-grade girls at that. I’ll never forget the balls, way they flew like they were going into orbit. That was some day.

Nowadays I got me an art form to keep me occupied.

Yankees still look after me, even now. Thirteen years on. Check’s in the post first of the month, regular as a vegetarian.

This just gets me out. Meeting the future. Looking after it. Keeping it safe. Place like this, somebody has to. Somebody needs to be their catcher in the rye.

* * *

“Dunno where he is,” I tell Joey. Down at the bar, I guess. Prick.

Ain’t got no money left now we bought our balloons.

Joey’s not feeling so good. Maybe it was the ice-creams that did it.

“When can we go in, Ray?”

Wish I knew. “In a few minutes. Mom’ll be back from work soon. Or Dad’ll come.”

“I wanna go to Pop’s,” he says. It’s a good idea, only we haven’t got the fare.

“What about your dog?” I ask. “What does he want to do?”

“He wants to go to Pop’s, too.”

Even the balloon dog knows where we should head.

The geeks come out from their session. Sounded good, what I heard. Got a new song about Debbie. Something about love and planes.

“Your old man’s down at Blake’s,” Little Man shouts over. Funny, he looks like he’s smiling. “Wanna hang out for a while? Get some pizza?”

I look down at Joey. He nods and looks at the dog in the heart. The dog nods too.

“If you like,” I tell him.

“Don’t be doing me any favors, now,” he says.

They walk along the street, heads down and nodding like their necks are busted.

Joey puts his hat on and picks up his dog and his bat. Maybe he smells a game. I get the ball and the mitt to keep him happy. No point telling him these boys don’t play. Reckon the last time they got any exercise they were running from the cops.

Little Man stops and turns towards us. Looks down at the balloon dog. “Cool,” he says, then he turns round quick. Starts walking away before we get there.

“Ray.” Sounds like Dad. “Ray, you keep away from those layabouts, understand.”

“Least those layabouts are here for us.”

I shouldn’t have said it. I know better. Keep quiet when he’s drinking, Mom says, and I try. Only the words are out and it’s too late.

He storms over like he’s defending the Alamo. Bright red cheeks, wheezing, a cigarette stuck to his lips.

“What you say?”

I see Little Man turn to look at me. He doesn’t speak, but I know what he’s thinking. ‘Keep your mouth shut, boy. Don’t say a word.’ I get it. I say nothing.

“He said they were here for us.”

Joey doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t mean to make it worse, only I know he’s just thrown me into a bucketful of shit.

Little Man’s still watching. Like he’s thinking what to do. He looks real pale in the sunlight.

“Gimme the bat,” Dad says to Joey.

Joey slips it behind his back. He’s a good boy.

“Give it to me.” Joey holds still.

Dad reaches over. Grabs the handle. Lifts it into the air. Joey holds on tight, his legs dangling and kicking the air. Dad shakes the stick, pulls at his fingers, lets Joey fall to the ground.

Before I can move, I see him swing.

It’s coming right for me. I look at Little Man.

It hits. I know it hits. Only there’s no pain. Just a massive crunch. Like nutting a wall when you’re angry. Doesn’t feel right.

I’m on the floor. I feel it now. A dark wave of icy water running through my body.

I look for Little Man. Try to hear what’s going on. My eyes won’t see. My ears won’t hear. I think of hitting a homer at the stadium, see the ball curve. I think of Stevie smiling. I think of my giraffe, of yellow and blue.

* * *

Bastard McKendrick. Same as all the grown-ups round here, a useless fucking slob.

I ever end up like him, I’ll give Dee Dee a gun. Get him to pull the trigger.

Stupid brat. Why’d he have to open his mouth.

“You got no right to beat on the brat, asshole,” I tell him. “Not with a fucking baseball bat.”

I’ll write a song about it one day. Tell the world.

I run to catch up with the guys. No way I’m staying around to find out what he thinks. No way he’s coming after me. Besides, somebody needs to call an ambulance.

* * *

I don’t have to think.

Before I know it, I’m home, opening the display cabinet in the bedroom.

First time it’s been out in thirteen years. Unlucky for some.

I don’t need to read the inscription underneath. I know that off by heart.

“To Stevie Boyle. In honor of what might have been.”

Felt good to have a bat in my hand again. I gave it a quick look, the autographs as vivid as they were the day they were written.

I almost trip over the stilts on the way out. Kick them against the wall and start to run. Without them my trousers are three feet too long, but what the hell. Doesn’t stop me taking the stairs two at a time.

He’s still there, standing over the kid and shouting at Joey. People like him, they need a lesson.

There are men that share their sperm and there are fathers. I think about that when I get to them.

I don’t imagine I ever swung as good, even at college.

The back-lift, the arc of the bat, the sound of the air being sliced all just as I remember.

Then there’s the contact. Sweet as a nut. Crisp and mighty.

Easy as taking the top off a boiled egg.

I look down and see what I’ve done. Look carefully in there for precious stones.

Nothing sparkles. Nothing shines. All I see is grey mess, spreading over the sidewalk like the arms of an octopus.

Joey steps over. Holds tight onto my leg. Buries his head into my trousers. Looks up. I rub his hair. Feel nine foot tall.


  1. Now THAT is impressive. A worthy winner.

  2. Utterly brilliant and a joy to read.

    Thank you.

  3. Very nice, very dark. Puts me in the mind of Ken Bruen. Congratulations!

  4. Humble thanks all. It's an honour to have such feedback from people who know what they're talking about.
    Joe, you mention Ken Breun. My pile of books that need reading now stretches across my shelf with almost forty in there. To add Ken Bruen into the mix, could any of you recommend the title you'd start with? Thanks. nigel

  5. Nigel, you can start with The Guards which is the first in his Jack Taylor series. Or if you can find it, you could try White Arrest or even Calibre which are part of his Brant series. Or you could read one of his standalones, such as Once Were Cops, which will give you a good feel for Bruen's sharp style and black humor. It doesn't really matter where you start, except for the Taylor series. That should be read in strict order for the way the characters build and develop. Not that you absolutely have to, but you'll get more out of each Taylor book that way.

    But if you think your To Be Read shelf is busy now, I feel there is something you should know and I direct you to this post, THE INFLUENCE PEDDLER to see what I mean.

  6. Many thanks, Naomi.
    I ordered a copy of Once Were Cops as my taster and I'll go for the Taylor pretty soon as I love a good series (you can see where my prizemony's going). Great advice. Much as I get frustrated by the TBR pile, I do love looking at it and picking the next one out, especially when it comes to grabbing a handful for holiday reading.


  7. Nigel, I'll be very interested in learning what you think of Once Were Cops.

    Yes, the TBR stacks seem like a nuisance because they never go away, but I consider them a blessing in disguise.

  8. Joey... Jeffrey Hyman...Ramone is buried one town over from me. He'd be proud you wrote this story.
    I loved it.