Table of Contents

Fall 2007

Short Stories

Bus Stop

Deep Freeze

In the Ditch

Missed Connections

My Bedtime Buddy

On Silent Feet

Out of Service

Ric With No K

The Rorschach Affair

The Years of the Wicked

Under the Blanket of the Sun

Upon A New Road

Reviews

Ammunition

Bad Thoughts

Beating the Babushka

Bloodthirsty

Hidden Depths

Pay Here

Play Dead

Poison Pen

Silence

Who Is Conrad Hirst

Profiles/Features

Bronx Noir

In For Questioning

Together We Write

Profile: Derek Nikitas

Pelecanos Country

Interviews

George Pelecanos

Robert Fate

Rick Mofina

Kevin Wignall

Short Story: IN THE DITCH by Patrick Shawn Bagley

Randy Buzzell waited to come up out of the ditch until the mail carrier’s Subaru wagon disappeared over the hill. He’d been squatting there on a hummock of boggy ground just behind a stand of cedar saplings, about six feet down from the hot top, swatting at blackflies for the better part of an hour. These must have been some kind of mutant blackflies, because Ben’s 100 did not bother them. It was his second attempt, his second afternoon spent with wet feet and bug-bitten skin. Today he’d worn a flannel shirt with the sleeves buttoned down, but the bugs still got at him; the money had damn well better be worth all the sweating and itching. Randy jumped over the trickle of yellow-brown water along the bottom of the ditch and, crouching low as he could, climbed to the shoulder of the road.

Old lady Viles’ big rusty mailbox sat atop a cedar post across the road from her house. Randy stayed down behind it, waiting to see if she would come right out. The check her son always sent her was a day late, and she’d be anxious to get it. Randy sure as hell was. But she might not come out right away. Maybe Mrs. Viles was taking a nap. Maybe she had the TV or radio on and hadn’t heard the mailman. She had not seen him yesterday; there’d only been a reminder from her doctor’s office, so he’d opened and closed the box fast and slunk back into the woods. He had a plan in case she came out and caught him: Randy would say he was down here checking out the fiddleheads, seeing if they were ready to be picked. But the more he went over the plan the dumber it sounded. No, not dumb. Simple. Keep it simple, that was the idea.

He’d heard a couple of old bluehairs gossiping in the IGA the week before, talking about how Mrs. Viles couldn’t afford her mortgage. She was too proud to let her son pay it directly, but her good boy mailed her a check the first of every month. So old Mrs. High-and-Mighty Viles couldn’t make ends meet. Served her right. Sometimes when Randy was hard up for beer money, he would cut her grass, but she always complained he’d done a lousy job. What did she expect for ten bucks?

Ruth Viles was a tough little woman who’d spent her whole life on farms. But now her husband was dead, her children grown and moved away, her land all sold but the couple of acres her house was on and another couple just across the road. She couldn’t afford hired help and she couldn’t do the work by herself, so the cows and pigs were all long gone. She kept a few chickens, and a nasty little rooster Randy could hear every morning at his place, up the hill. And poor as she was, the old lady still looked at Randy like he was trash.

Maybe Mrs. Viles was right. Maybe he really was trash. What kind of guy stole money from an old woman, even if she was mean as hell? But when you borrowed twelve hundred bucks from Stony Pelletier, you paid him back on time or his guys took it out of your hide.

Randy squinted, trying to see movement behind the lacy white curtains. Nothing. He waited a few seconds more, then rose up and stepped around to open the mailbox. Sweat dripped off his forehead and spattered on paper as he rifled through the mail: a Reny’s flier, a postcard from Canada, National Geographic, something from the AARP. There it was, an envelope with Bruce Viles’ name at the top of the return address. The check. Had to be. Randy folded the envelope in thirds and slid it into the front pocket of his jeans. He would take the check home and, with a few pieces of Scotch tape and some of Tammy’s nail polish remover, wash the old lady’s name right off it. Tammy was at work and she’d never have to know. Even if the money wasn’t enough to cover the whole debt, Stony would get off Randy’s ass for a while, give him time to find the rest.

“Here! What are you doing with my mail?”

Randy turned around and smiled. “Mrs. Viles, you didn’t have to come all the way out here. I saw the mailman drive off and figured I’d bring it in for you. I ain’t in any hurry to see my own mail. Nothing but bills anyway. Phew, it’s some hot today, ain’t it?”

She stood just the other side of the road, leaning on the cane she did not really need, since she could walk faster and steadier than any other old fart Randy knew. Now he knew she could be sneaky, too.

“Of course you’re hot. You’re wearing a flannel shirt and the thermometer on my porch reads eighty degrees. A man with any kind of sense would walk around in short sleeves today. Never mind that awful beard. I don’t know why you want to look like a lumberjack, you never did a decent day’s work in your life.” She reached out with a liver-spotted hand as Randy stepped toward her across the two-lane. “Come on then, give me my mail.”

Randy handed it over and she shuffled through it. He said, “That National Geographic’s a good magazine. My dad used to get it.”

“Your late father used to do a lot of things. I wasn’t aware reading was one of them. No, no, no. It’s still not here. Are you sure you got it all out of the box?”

Randy ignored the dig on his father. If he was going to talk his way out of this, he didn’t dare piss the old bag off any further. “That’s all there was, Mrs. Viles. Was you expecting something else?”

She tucked the mail under her arm and gave him that look she always did, one eyebrow raised up and her mouth set tight. Together, they crossed over to the mailbox. Randy yanked it open it and they both looked inside.

“See? I told you I got all your mail,” Randy said.

She turned around and looked up at his face. “You got it all right.”

“Now what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You took my check.”

Randy scratched at his beard. “Huh?”

“I expect you hear well enough. You have the check my son Bruce sent me. I loaned him some money and he’s been paying me back a little every month. It didn’t come yesterday, so I called Bruce and he said he mailed it Thursday. You took it.”

“I didn’t either.”

Mrs. Viles raised her cane and tapped Randy on the chest. “Don’t try that innocent look on me. That’s the trouble with all you Buzzells, every one a liar and none of you any good at it.”

Randy stepped back toward the middle of the road. He held up his hands. “Look, Mrs. Viles, you don’t have to get ugly about it. I never done nothing to you. The only reason I even came down here was to take a look at your fiddleheads. They grow real good down in that low boggy spot, and I was going to offer to pick them all for you if I could keep a couple pounds. That’s all. I saw the mailman stop, so I thought as long as I had to go to your house to talk to you anyway, I might as well bring your mail. Save you the walk, you know? And you call me a thief. What would I do with a check made out to you anyway?”

The old lady dropped her magazine and junk mail on the shoulder and raised her cane like a baseball bat. It was light but looked strong. Aluminum or titanium or something like that. Whatever it was made out of, Randy didn’t want it going upside his head.

She said, “There’s ways of changing the name on a check, and I bet you know every one. You’d cash my check and buy drugs or booze with it. Buzzells. Where’s your bucket if you were picking fiddleheads?”

“I didn’t bring it. I said I just came down to look.”

Mrs. Viles whacked him the elbow with the cane. It wasn’t much of a blow, more like a warning.

Randy said, “I ain’t got your Christless check.”

She pulled back the cane like she was winding up for a good one, but then she whipped it down and jabbed the road. “All right, mister man. We’ll see what the sheriff has to say about it.”

Randy felt his scalp prickling. He’d had his share of trouble with the police: some fights at the Solon Hotel—fights he never started, but sure as hell finished. And there was that one time he got busted on an OUI. Thirty days in the county jail; Tammy had almost dumped him over that. Getting caught messing around with the mail, though? That was like a federal offense or something. And here he was with the old lady’s check in his pocket, and her about to sic the cops on his ass.

Mrs. Viles tried to go around him, but Randy sidestepped in front of her. She swung the cane against Randy’s leg, banging it off his knee. He grabbed her by the elbows and half-lifted, half-pushed her backwards toward the mailbox. She kept whacking Randy in the knee, but couldn’t get enough room for a good hard swing.
“Listen to me,” Randy said. “Quit it and listen. I’ll give you the check back. Just don’t call the cops, all right?”

Mrs. Viles kept right on hitting him. She shook her head, not even looking at him anymore. “Prison! You’re going to prison. It’s where all you Buzzells belong. Cheating on welfare and breeding like rabbits while my husband worked himself into an early grave.”

“Goddamn it, you shut up now.”

“Stinking pack of thieves.”

“Shut up.”

The cane got tangled up between Randy’s legs and he stumbled forward. He put his arms out in front of him to block his fall, but he still had hold of the old lady. Randy let go of Mrs. Viles, who let go of the cane and tumbled backwards into the ditch. She didn’t scream or cry for help, just went right down ass over teakettle.

Randy skinned his left hand when he hit the ground, and both his knees felt like he had torn some hide off them. He didn’t have time to look. He scrambled around on one hip, strewing the old lady’s precious mail all over the place, and slid feet-first down into the ditch. Mrs. Viles lay there on her back in the mucky little brook. Her eyes were open and her mouth was moving, but Randy couldn’t hear what she was trying to say. Maybe she was in shock. Didn’t people mumble like that if they were in shock? She had one arm stretched out away from her side and bent at a weird angle.

A car came down the hill. Randy turned around to watch it, a red four-door of some kind with a fat woman at the wheel. She stopped right across from Randy and leaned out the window. What could she see from over there? No way she could help but see the mail spread out all over the road, the state of Randy’s clothes and the sweat rolling down his face. But could she see old lady Viles down in the ditch? She might have been able to when she was still coming down the hill and the angle was different. It would have been hard not to see the yellow blouse and blue slacks against the greens and browns.

“You all right?” the fat woman said. Randy smelled her perfume from clear across the road. She was probably in her forties, but he had always had a hard time guessing a fat girl’s age.

“Yeah, I’m okay.”

The woman craned her neck, trying to see past him. “Somebody hurt down there?”

Randy rubbed his bleeding hand against his jeans. “Mrs. Viles. She’s an old lady. A pulp truck came blasting by while we were getting her mail. Didn’t slow down or nothing. I got us out the way, but I tripped on her cane and we fell.”

The woman unbuckled her seatbelt, shoved it out of the way. “Can she move?”

“She’s hurt pretty bad.” Randy waved her off, but she came over anyway and looked down at the old lady. She took a couple of hesitant steps on the soft shoulder, like she was going down to help. Randy grabbed her arm. “Watch it. You almost fell down there right next to her.”

She nodded and backed away, her face flushed and her eyes tearing up. “We got to do something.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jen.”

“You got a cell phone with you, Jen? No? Well, that’s Mrs. Viles’ house right there. Go on in and call 911. I’ll stay here with her. I know First Aid.”

Jen crossed the lawn as fast as she could waddle. Mrs. Viles groaned in the ditch. Randy got down next to her. “You’ve never been in trouble like me. You don’t understand how much I needed that money. The bank would have let you slide a month. But me? I’m going to get my legs broke, or maybe even killed, all because of you.”

She scowled. “Call the cops,” she said. “I’ll call the cops. Call the cops.”

“You shut up now,” Randy said. He took her by the shoulders and flipped her over onto her stomach. Mrs. Viles squealed as her broken arm swung around, but the sound was cut off when Randy pushed her face into the muddy trickle. She didn’t even thrash much, just scratched at the ground a little with her good hand. Maybe the fall had taken all the fight out of her. Randy held her there as long as he dared. The Good Samaritan would be back any second. How long could it take a rotten old woman to drown anyway?

Randy rolled Mrs. Viles onto her back. Mud and grass clung to her lips and teeth, clogged her nose. He leaned down so his ear was over her mouth, but didn’t hear any breath. He couldn’t see her bony little chest move, either. At least her eyes were closed so she couldn’t give him that look. Even dead, her eyes would have held that look, like she was better than any Buzzell. Randy took off his flannel shirt and wiped her face with it, then dropped it next to her. Without the shirt, the sweat on his back and arms turned cold. Blackflies crawled on his chest and he did not bother to slap them.

The check. That had to go, in case they got suspicious and searched him. Randy took out the envelope and smoothed it against his leg. His hand left a dirty streak along the front. That didn’t matter much, because the three creases would still show no matter how much he tried to flatten it again. Not to mention his fingerprints all over it. With all the folding and unfolding, the envelope’s flap had come open. Randy looked inside. Five hundred and eighty bucks. Jesus H. Christ, it would only have been enough for Stony to give him another couple weeks’ grace. Now he was not even going to get that.

Randy wadded it into a ball, opened it back up a little bit and dropped it into the brook. He moved Mrs. Viles’ foot so it looked like she’d been holding the envelope when she fell and, in all the tumbling, landed on it. Maybe the water would get rid of his fingerprints too, but maybe it wouldn’t. The cops had all this CSI stuff now, even in Maine. But they’d probably have to send it away to Augusta or Portland. That took time, and time was what he needed. Randy stood up and climbed out of the ditch.

Jen came out of the house and chugged back, sweating worse than Randy. She stared at his bare chest and cocked her head to one side, like she was thinking. “There’s police and an ambulance coming, but it’ll take like five or ten minutes. How’s Mrs. Viles?”

Randy stayed in front of the fat girl, so she could not see into the ditch. He shook his head and looked at his sneakers. Jen looked ready to throw up.

“There wasn’t nothing I could do,” Randy said.

“I’m going to pull my car into the dooryard. The 911 lady wanted to know if you got the guy’s license number. She said you could give it when the cops get here.” She turned away, fishing around in her purse.

Randy knelt to pick up the old lady’s mail, giving a reason for his fingerprints being all over it in case the cops checked. The cane lay there near his feet. “No, I didn’t see his plates. I was too busy getting us out of the way.”

A cough. Randy heard a cough behind him, a ragged, gagging hack of a cough. He dropped the mail. Down in the ditch, Mrs. Viles cried for the sheriff. Randy’s balls shrank up into his body and the skin along his chest prickled. Jen paused with her car key in the ignition and gave Randy a look. When Mrs. Viles coughed again, the fat woman heaved herself back out of the car. Randy grabbed the cane and stood up, waiting. No way was he going to prison.

About the Author:
Patrick Shawn Bagley is a big grouchy hick who lives in a one-stoplight town in central Maine. He is the editor of Wicked: An Anthology of Maine Mystery and Crime Fiction and one of the co-editors of Mugshots e-zine. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CrimeSpree Magazine, The Iconoclast, Animus and other journals.