“Short Cuts”

52 Pickup 2.0, #16, 4/21/20

Steve Williams: “Will there be more like “Wait For Signs”? Really enjoy the short stories as well. Wish more authors would publish these nubs of ideas.”

I think when you’re first starting out as a writer, one of the most difficult things to do is gauge the scope of a tale and be able to tell if what you’re looking at is a novel, a novella, or a short story. Over the years I’ve gotten to be like a gambler at the racetrack, looking over stories and attempting to determine if they’re a quarter horse, good for bursts of speed at a relatively short distance or thoroughbreds who are likely to go the full-length-novel distance.

I’ve often told the story of my wife somewhat forcing me to write my first short story, Old Indian Trick, for the Cowboys & Indians/Tony Hillerman/Pen USA Short Story Contest, simply because she wanted to have dinner with Tony. I think it was a transformative point for me, allowing me to see that even though a story is only twelve pages or so, it can still have an impact and a message rivaling those of an entire novel.

As the holidays approached, I sent out that first short story to everyone on my Post-It mailing list, and didn’t really know what kind of trouble I was making for myself until the next December when readers started asking when they’d get this year’s free Christmas Story…

It became a tradition, and one I really enjoy. All through the year I’ll be combing the newspapers or eavesdropping on conversations that might provide a vehicle for my little holiday stories. After I got about ten of them done, I was contacted by A.S.A.P. Press in California about doing a limited-run anthology. They had published these beautiful, leather-bound, illustrated editions with Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel, and others, and I thought—sure, why not? It was only after I looked more closely at my contract with Viking/Penguin that I realized they had first-refusal rights on all of my writing. I quickly got in touch with my editor there and explained the situation. They were great and said no problem, so long as it was a limited run.

Later that year Viking/Penguin approached me about doing an anthology, mostly based on the sales of my first novella, Spirit of Steamboat, which had sold pretty well. It was a tough sell in that short story collections don’t really garner much of a response unless you’re somebody like Tom Hanks… (Who I was fortunate enough to see at the Rancho Mirage Writer’s Festival in Palm Springs and he was marvelous; funny, smart, insightful). Actually, now might be an opportune time for me to release the news that I’ll be at the Festival again this coming January with some guy that plays a sheriff on some TV show. Anyway, I persisted, they relented, and Wait For Signs came into existence having chugged along onto the New York Times Bestseller’s List and continued sales ever since. Here in another year or two I’ll be approaching enough of the short stories to consider writing a few extra to fill out another anthology which I think Viking/Penguin will be open to, probably continuing to use the phrase with Stay Calm.

A message for the times, don’t you think?

Some authors write short stories and get them published in magazines or collections, but other than the one in Cowboys & Indians, I kind of keep mine close. I’m not sure why more don’t do it, other than the financial renumeration really isn’t worth a lot unless you’ve got a well-defined fan base. You do have to change gears in the process, but I think that helps expand your abilities as a writer, and that’s always worthwhile.

For anybody who hasn’t read any of the short stories, here’s the one I sent out for Christmas to the folks who subscribe to my Post-It Newsletter at http://www.craigallenjohnson.com/

See you on the trail,

Who’s Your Daddy?
Craig Johnson

It’s not every day that you get to watch the Kropky brothers throw furniture and small appliances through the windows of their doublewide compound on the outskirts of the unofficial trailer park in suburban Powder Junction, Wyoming—but, it was Christmas Day, and that made it kind of special.
Standing with Frances Wooster in the Kropky front yard, which was covered in ankle-deep snow and household goods, I turned over a loveseat with three remaining legs and gestured for Frances to sit with my faithful companion Dog, while I tried to trace the chain of events that had led to this pass. I remembered that like most things in my line of work, it had started with a phone call.
Double-Tough, the regular deputy stationed in the small town in the southern portion of our county, had been called away when his favored aunt had passed, and I hadn’t been cruel enough to make anyone else in my four-and-a-half person staff work through the holidays.
The first night hadn’t been so bad. My undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, had visited with a pan of lasagna, a bottle of chianti, and a Tony Bennett Christmas CD, but the next morning she’d continued down I-25 to Casper to jet back to Philadelphia to be with her extended family.
A light snow had settled in on Christmas Eve, and I’d had dinner at the Hole In The Wall Bar, after which I was so bored that I’d gone down to the hardware store/country club to shag a few balls into the indoor golf simulator as the owner and Dog watched. Finally, having felt guilty for keeping the poor man there, I loaded up the beast and had driven back to the most depressing place in the western hemisphere—the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department Sub-Station.
I had stared at the concrete block walls and the enormous map of the county for a few minutes, before picking up the phone to call my daughter down in Cheyenne to confirm our plans for Christmas.
“That late?” Matching the whine on the high-tension lines from the southern part of the state I listened as Lola babbled in the background.
“I’ve got some work I need to get done.” There was some jostling. “Lola, put that down.”
“On Christmas Day?”
“It’s just another day at the State Attorney General’s Office, Daddy.” More jostling. “Lola, don’t put that in your mouth.”
“I’m going to call your boss.”
There was a pause, because she knew I meant it. “Please don’t.” She sighed. “Anyway, if I can get off the phone with you, I might actually get there earlier.”
Being a trained detective, I took the hint and let her go. “Bye, Punk.”
With nothing else to do, I riffled through the government surplus desk, found a deck of cards in the top drawer, and played solitaire till my eyes wouldn’t focus. I then retired to the single bed in the small living quarters in the back.
The place had burned a few years ago, but the majority of the structure, being concrete, had simply needed to be power-washed and repainted. The doors, windows, rafters, and insulation were new, and I’d appropriated funding for the building to be finished, but Double-Tough had said that with his construction background he’d just do it in his free time. The stack of T111 paneling was still leaning against the wall, so I guess he hadn’t gotten the time he’d needed, even though as near as I could tell, all you had was free time in Powder Junction.
Awakening the next morning to Dog’s snores, I rolled over and looked through the doorway and the flaking decal of our sheriff’s star to see the snow had stopped; the clouds, however, held an ironclad grip.
Rising, I’d showered and shaved in the fiberglass shell Double-Tough called a shower and had dressed in bright and shining clothes for Christmas Day. I’d decided to flip the deck of cards into the wire trashcan and only had three cards left in my hands when the phone on the metal desk had rung. I’d dropped them in hopes that The Greatest Legal Mind of Our Time had taken pity and called me. “You decided to leave early?”
The voice was hesitant. “Double-Tough?”
I cleared my throat. “No, I’m sorry, but he’s away on personal business. This is the sheriff—can I help you?”
“Walt, it’s Frances Wooster.”
I recognized the voice of the sturdy ranch wife whose family owned close to fifteen thousand acres. “Hi Frances, what’s up?”
“Walt, you know the Kropky place, south of town?”
“Edith . . . the one who passed away a while back?”
“Yes. She had four sons.”
“Roughnecks. Colorful, as I recall.”
“Um, yes, you could say that.”
“What’s going on?”
“I was driving by and noticed they’re throwing things out the window.”
“Appliances, furniture, each other…”
“I’ll be right over.”
Seeing as it was only about two miles, I was as good as my word and now stood in the yard as Francis sat on the broken loveseat with Dog, the two of them looking up at me. “What are you going to do?”
There was thumping and crashing emitting from the trailer house, and true to Francis’ word an item or two were jettisoned from the windows.
Calling Dog, I walked him back to the truck and opened the door so he could jump in. I lowered the window just a bit before closing the door, then answered Francis. “Oh, as I recall, Double-Tough says they usually calm themselves down after a while.”
A few moments passed, however, and it became apparent from the noises and hollering that this particular altercation was neither waxing nor waning. I sighed and started off toward the nearest trailer.
I turned to look at her as she held out a small, heavily worn, black notebook. “You better take this.”
I stared at her. “What is it?”
“Something from their mother.” She seemed pained by the thought, lowering her head and then raising it again with a sad smile. “Years ago, Edith gave me this to give to her sons in case something like this happened.”
“Like what happened?”
She glanced at the house, still sounding like a World Wrestling Federation match. “Walt, I really can’t say, but I think it’ll become obvious if it’s what I think it is.” She stood and started off toward her parked truck. “Those boys used to listen to their mother, and it would’ve done that family a world of good if they had had at least one sister.”
I stared at her for a long moment and then stuffed the notebook inside my sheepskin coat and started off.
As near as I could tell, the place had begun as four trailers that had been attached to each other. Like most things Kropky, it had started off with great expectations, but somewhere over the long years it had fallen short. Edith had been the matriarch of the family and the glue, I suspect, who had held it together as long as it effectively had held.
Edith had been quite a character, a roughneck oilrig worker herself, who could throw chain with the best of the men. Her husband, Mel, had been a shiftless conman who had appeared and disappeared enough in her life to engender the four sons whom they had named after cities around the state, i.e., Sheridan, Casper, Cody, and the unfortunate fourth son, Therm, who had born the dubious affliction of being named for Thermopolis. There was talk that Edith and Mel had stopped having children to keep from having to name a fifth child Rock Springs or Muddy Gap.
The yelling had continued inside, and another dining room chair crashed through the front window to land on the porch, as I’d started up the stairs.
Pulling my Mag-lite from my belt, I pounded on the dents in the door that were already there from previous visits from my staff. “Absaroka County Sheriff!”
The house grew silent.
“Sheriff Walt Longmire. I need you to open up.”
There was an argument, then heavy footsteps, and the door was yanked open, almost off its hinges.
There are only three men in Absaroka County who are bigger than I am, and one of them was standing in front of me, holding the door. Therm Kropky tipped the scale at an easy three hundred and fifty pounds; he was doughy, doughy like a hippopotamus or a rhino and had the same, close-set, dangerous, beady eyes. His head looked small, but nothing short of an NBA basketball would’ve been in proportion with his gigantic body. He was dressed in only a pair of stained jeans, and blood streaked down the side of his head, coating his sweaty body with a pinkish sheen that gave the impression that the giant man-child had just been born.
Releasing the doorjamb, he thrust a sausage-like finger at me and hollered, “My momma was no whore!”
Glancing around as if there might be someone else he could be talking to, I finally turned back to the pink hulk. “Okay.”
The conversation was interrupted when another dining room chair was brought down on the back of Therm’s head, causing the giant to stagger forward and then turn and thunder after the individual who had struck him—one of the other metropolitan areas of the great state of Wyoming.
Stepping in the doorway, I watched as Therm disappeared in warm pursuit, and I took advantage of the situation to look around at the shambles of the Kropky home or what was left of it.
As far as I knew housekeeping had never been a strong suit for Edith, and since her death the better part of a year ago, things hadn’t improved. There was garbage everywhere, along with what remained of the broken furnishings, stained carpeting, and odd spoors that manifested on the ceiling tiles. All in all, it looked like a great place to get Legionnaire’s Disease.
Through an opening in the cabinetry that hung over a collapsed counter, I could see another half-naked individual calmly sitting in one of the remaining chairs. He was nursing a swollen eye with a can of Coors, a much larger can of baked beans with a serving spoon sticking out from the top on the table in front of him.
Casper was the eldest, and one of the more reasonable Kropkys, which wasn’t saying much, but at least he wasn’t chasing his brother around the house with malicious intent.
Holstering my Mag-lite, I moved around the counter and studied the damaged man. “Casper?”
“Hey, Sheriff.” He looked up at me, and I could see the whole side of his face was battered, the eye completely shut, and a large gash open at his hairline. He was self-medicating with the beer and took a swig before offering me one by lifting the plastic ring with the remaining four cans. “Cocktail?”
“Um, a little early for me.”
He threw his head back, his long, dirty blonde hair swinging with the exception of the blood-soaked strands that continued to stick to the side of his face. “Merry tidings of the season.” We heard more crashing and yelling from other parts of the house as Casper glanced in that direction. “Uh oh, sounds like Therm caught Sheridan.”
Stepping back, I could see that the configuration of the trailers had made for a raceway with the only open path in the otherwise cluttered household.
“You can get away from him out in the open, but here in the house in an enclosed space he’ll eventually get ‘ya.” He kicked at one of the upright chairs in invitation. “Have a seat. How’s your daughter, Sheriff?”
Vaguely remembering that they were approximately the same age and had gone to high school together, I recalled Casper had actually been in the math club with Cady. “She’s fine—working in Cheyenne these days.”
“That’s nice.”
“She and my granddaughter are supposedly coming up to spend the day with me.”
It was about then that there was a great deal of cursing coming from the far end of the house when Sheridan appeared turning into the hallway to my left and running toward us at a high rate of speed. I stepped back and watched him pass before hearing the thumping that could’ve been mistaken for a full-blown brahma bull turned loose in the trailer as Therm followed.
They disappeared, the hulking individual not quite making the turn and crashing into the interior wall before pushing off and continuing to give chase.
I turned back to seated man. “Casper, what’s going on?”
He spooned some beans into his mouth. “It’s Cody’s damn fault.”
I glanced around on the stained, shag carpeting in case I’d missed him. “And where is Cody?”
Casper made a vague gesture with the spoon, a few beans still holding on. “I think he’s out in the yard somewhere… He knows better than to let Therm catch him, especially since he started all this shit.”
“And, what exactly is all this shit?”
He gestured with the spoon before noticing the adhered beans at which point he licked them off. “I ought to let Cody tell you himself.”
“Well then, I need to speak to Cody.”
“He’s around here somewhere—bought us all a Christmas gift that he gave us for Thanksgiving, and we weren’t supposed to open them up till this morning. Therm cheats, though. I think he got up early to open his, but he didn’t understand it, so he got Sheridan up to explain it to him and that’s when all the trouble started.” He sipped his beer. “All this from spitting in a cup…” He glanced up at me through the closed eye. “Got any brothers, sheriff?”
“Um, no.”
“Well, don’t.”
There was more noise. “Casper, what do you mean about spitting in a cup?”
He tried to explain. “It’s a kit, like one of those drug tests the insurance companies make you take every six weeks on the job.”
“A drug test?”
“Yeah, but no… Like the DMV.”
“Department of Motor Vehicles?”
He shook his head, some of the shaggy, blood-dried hair coming loose. “No, in this one you just spit in a tube and then you mail it off and they tell you if your father was the king of France or your mother was the Queen of Sheba.” He shrugged. “Personally, I think it’s all a bunch of horseshit. I mean have you ever heard somebody do one of those things and come back and say—my father shoveled manure in merry old England till he caught the typhus and died like a dog in the dirt, or my mother was the best prostitute in all of Bangladesh?”
“You mean a DNA test?”
“Yeah, that’s it. You spit in a cup, and they dig out your essential moleculars, but I was drinking that night, so I got a sneakin’ suspicion that they got more charred barrels from Tennessee than actual DMV.”
“Whatever.” He shoveled in another spoonful and gestured with the utensil again, a few beans falling to the worn Formica surface of the table. “Anyway, mine came back aborted, which I’m not sure if it means I should’ve been or that the test was a crock because the sample was contaminated.”
“From the liquor.”
Picking up the few wayward beans from the table and stuffing them in his mouth, he waxed philosophic. “Yeah, but I mean who cares? I figure it’s all about where you’re going and not where you came from, you get me?”
I glanced around the trailer. “That our environment has more of an effect on our lives than our genetic make-up.”
He pointed the spoon at me. “Exactly.”
“So, all of you took this test at Thanksgiving?”
“And the results that came back turned out to be something of a revelation to your brothers?”
Casper nodded. “I guess you could say that.”
I nudged one of the discount-size cans of beans. “Broke up breakfast, huh?”
He nodded. “Since mom passed the eating options have gotten kind of slim.”
I picked up one of the results of the DNA kit, also lying on the table. “So, assorted pater familias?”
“Different dads?”
“Well, you know what they say—momma’s baby, daddy’s maybe.”
“Your mother led a rich and varied life?”
He nodded. “She got around, yeah.”
“You don’t seem too upset by the turn of events.”
“Like I said, my results came back inconclusive, and I honestly don’t give a shit.” He swallowed and gestured with the spoon again. “I figure c’est la vie, you know? Who am I to judge, right?”
“Therm seems awfully upset.”
Casper leaned forward, looking both ways in the trailer as if it were a crossroads at a thoroughfare. “In case you haven’t noticed, Therm can be kind of childish sometimes.”
More noise emitted from somewhere else in the interconnected house trailers as I reached into my pocket and felt the black notebook Frances had given me in the yard. Pulling it out, I looked at it and then opened to the first page where Casper’s name was at the top of a lengthy essay along with four small, black & white photographs in a strip, the kind you might get made in a photo booth in an arcade, acting as a bookmark. “Well, I’ve got something here that might settle some of the mysteries—it’s a notebook from your mother, which looks to have a lot of clues about you and your brother’s lineage.” I flipped through the pages, looking at the photographs, newspaper articles, and obituaries. “You appear to be first.”
He didn’t say anything, and I turned in time to see Sheridan bounce off the wall. It was as he flew by again that he shouted. “Therm flushed Cody out from under his bed!”
I turned to see Cody, flinging himself against the far wall sideways, barely avoiding the crushing weight of Therm as the monster slammed into the same spot right behind him. The smaller man was approaching at high speed now, and the behemoth pulled himself from the corner and continued the pursuit in earnest.
Cody was wearing an AC/DC t-shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and un-tied work boots, and there was no way the smaller man was going to escape, especially when, scrambling as he was, he stepped on a shoelace and tripped. Falling to the carpet, he slid on his back, a look of abject horror on his face as his brother approached like a blubbery tidal wave.
Therm pounded past us and began raising his fists to clobber his brother into a genetic puddle when I grasped one of the economy-sized cans of beans from the table and whirled in a half-circle, throwing it with all my strength into the back of the colossus’s head.
The can smacked the base of his skull with a tremendous thump, creating a large dent in the container, as the giant’s knees immediately buckled and he fell onto his prey who gave out with a short, wheezing squeal.
Stepping over, I kicked the can and then grabbed the shoulder of the unconscious Goliath and pulled him to the side like a pole-axed steer. The smaller man was lying underneath attempting to catch his breath. “Cody?”
He nodded and gasped and finally came out with some words, “Hey, Sheriff.”
“What were you thinking?”
Reaching down, I gave him a hand and pulled him up from the floor. “This whole DNA testing kit you gave your brothers?”
He shrugged. “Well, there were questions, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Helping him step over his still unconscious brother, I seated him at the table with Casper where he collapsed in the chair. I returned to the big man and placed a few fingers at his throat. The pulse was strong, and I ascertained that Therm would indeed survive the liberal application of non-lethal force. “Yep, well maybe not the best idea considering the volatile nature of your brother here.”
“He was the one that was curious.”
I stood and returned to the table. “Why?”
“We used to tease him and say he looked like Raymond Ailes, the milkman.”
Sitting in one of the remaining chairs, I fished in my pocket and pulled out the black book of secrets again, flipping it toward the end and studying the last section. “Well, your neighbor, Mrs. Wooster, just gave me this. She said that your mother entrusted it to her for safe-keeping in case there might be any questions.”
I looked up to see Cody raising a finger and pointing behind me as something like grappling hooks took hold of my shoulders, lifting me from the chair and flinging me sideways into the interior wall across the room.
I’ve been manhandled a few times in my career, but nothing prepared me for the amount of considerable force that Therm Kropky could inflict. Absorbing the impact, I slid down on the wall, feeling my lips and nose rubbing against the textured surface, and all I could think was what kind of diseases was I going to get from this. I didn’t have long to contemplate, because in an instant, I was snatched up again and flung down the hallway toward the front entrance, slamming into a broken chair, a floor lamp, and a pile of DVDs.
I desperately tried to clear my head, but when I opened my eyes, I could only see a performance of the 1812 Overture complete with pyrotechnics as he rolled me over. I tried to push him off, but it was like trying to lift a prize steer.
Therm was seated on my chest and was raising the same enormous, dented can of beans preparing to bring it crashing into my face. Just as he came down with it, I heaved to the right and threw my left hand back into his face enough to cause the edge of the can to thud into the floor beside my left ear with the force of a six-pound sledgehammer.
I got my right hand under his enormous thigh and on my sidearm, yanking it from the holster as he reared back with the beans again. I pushed the muzzle against the soft underside of his chin. Most people, when confronted with the tunnel-like business end of the Colt 1911a1 in condition one, are given pause, but this did not seem to be the case with Therm Kropky.
He lifted the quart can even higher.
Blinking, I snapped off the safety, which usually does the trick with even the most psychotic of antagonists, but all I could see was Therm preparing to bring the domestic instrument of destruction down again.
I hated the thought of shooting the giant but being beaten to death with a can of beans in a trailer house in Powder Junction had to top the list of ways in which I really didn’t want to die.
My forefinger had just begun to tighten on the trigger when, of all things, a female voice rang out clear as a Christmas bell. “Stop!”
Therm looked as surprised as me as we both slowly turned our heads toward the open front door where my daughter stood in a full-length, goose-down coat, watch cap, and winter boots holding my equally insulated granddaughter. A few wisps of snow were swirling along in her trail like she was a modern, Wyoming winter pietà.
Her grey eyes and voice were sharp. “Drop that. Now!”
Therm let loose of the can as if his will were not his own, and it fell beside my head, bean au jus splattering the side of my face.
I snapped the safety back on, let the big, semiautomatic fall to my chest, and smiled up at her. “Hi, punk.”

Lola sat on Therm’s enormous lap and was enjoying her share of the beans as the giant divvied up what was in the dented can between him and my granddaughter, The Greatest Legal Mind Of Our Time holding up the notebook beside his face and making a comparison. “I can see a similarity, now that the notebook mentions it.”
“He used to come over and play cards with Mom and Dad on weekends, and when Dad was out of town, he sometimes showed up then, too.” Casper sipped another beer. “He was sometimes here for breakfast, come to think of it.”
“Raymond Ailes was the milkman?”
Casper turned to look at Sheridan. “Yeah, back when there was a local dairy– they used to deliver it in bottles, among other things.”
Sheridan nodded and glanced at Cody, who remained silent. “You all right?”
Cody looked up at him. “Yeah.”
Sheridan nudged his brother. “What?”
Cody finally erupted. “Wayne Dean was a shit. You remember how he used to yell at us if we rode our bikes on his yard?”
“And he yelled at me the most.”
“Well, now we know why.” Sheridan sipped his beer and shrugged. “You do look like him.”
Cady lowered the notebook and flipped back to the first section. “Well… Casper?”
He swirled the dregs at the bottom of his can of beer. “Not interested.”
She placed a manicured finger between the pages, closed the book, and looked at him. “Really?”
“Nope.” He smiled a philosophical grin. “I’ll keep that book just in case I get curious, but I don’t think I ever will.” He sat the can on the table and looked around at his siblings. “I know who I am, and I know who they are, they’re my brothers—they were my brothers when they were born, they were my brothers when we were growing up, and they’ll always be my brothers even if they’re half-brothers. Nothing can change that.” He smiled, and I noticed a missing tooth. “Maybe I’m just as bad as those idiots that think they’re long-lost royalty. Hell, I’d like to think I’ve got a shred of dignity somewhere back in my ancestry too, but I don’t need to go digging for it. I know who I am, and I’m okay with that.”
My daughter reached out and placed a hand on his forearm. “Casper, I’m a pretty shrewd judge of character, and I’m willing to bet that there is more than a fair-share of nobility in your background.” They smiled at each other, and the holiday warmth in the wayward trailer was palpable.
“Merry Christmas.”


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