Changing the Tune – the KC Women’s Jazz Festival

February 28, 2018

CHANGING THE TUNE: The Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, 1978-1985

by Carolyn Glenn Brewer (University of North Texas Press)

A glance through the personnel of a random hundred recent albums shows that although women are by no means uncommon in jazz today, they are still a minority. If someone were to contemplate starting a women only jazz festival today they might well be thought foolishly optimistic. That two women should have done so forty years ago suggests (put politely) temporary loss of reason. Fortunately for jazz, this is what was done by two brave Kansas City women, Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg. Apart from the problems attendant upon organizing a regular jazz festival, Comer and Gregg were confronted by skepticism, disinterest, prejudice and negativity. They should be applauded unreservedly for their determination and for the remarkable success of the seven festivals presented. Helped by Marian McPartland and Leonard Feather in preparing the first Women’s Jazz Festival (WJF), Comer and Gregg presented leading jazz artists, including Toshiko Akiyoshi, Betty Carter, Mary Osborne and Mary Lou Williams. Musicians appearing over the following years include Carla Bley, Jane Ira Bloom, Joanne Brackeen, Carol Kaye, Stacy Rowles, and Melba Liston, who was lured out of retirement for the occasion. There were big bands, including Maiden Voyage and Yes M.A.A.M., and one year surviving members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were invited guests (some of whom happily sat in at jam sessions). There were also singers, too often considered to be the only role for women in jazz: Ernestine Anderson, Urszula Dudziak, Sheila Jordan, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day and Nancy Wilson.Jazz singer

The author of this thoroughly researched and very well written account is a music educator who has played clarinet in various ensembles in and around Kansas City. During her research she interviewed many of the participants, including most of those named above, as well as Dotty Dodgion, Mary Fettig, Janice Robinson, Monette Sudler and many others. Also interviewed were writers Linda Dahl and Sally Placksin, and, of course, she had extensive conversations with Comer and Gregg. The course upon which the WJF would set out was determined when Comer and Gregg and others first met. They laid down a definition of purpose, which states in part: “A non-political, not-for-profit group to educate the public in aspects of jazz, especially women’s contributions; to promote workshops, clinics and concerts, to offer scholarships for students of jazz”. Of course, some of the sidemen in the bands were literally that: men. That this brought protests points to the flawed critical judgement of critics predisposed to find fault. The inclusion of male musicians was important and Brewer draws attention to the opening words of the WJF’s definition of purpose and its reference to the non-political nature of the enterprise: “They were trying to break up decades of prejudice by not doing to men musicians what had been done to women musicians.” There were also complaints when the range of jazz styles was broadened, suggesting that these complainers were unaware of the onerous (sometimes borderline impossible) task of attracting financial support and public attendance, problems that perpetually beset jazz festival organizers everywhere. Scattered among the interviewees’ anecdotes are many instances of crass words and behavior by people who should have known better, among them male musicians. Speaking of behavior, it wasn’t all sweetness and light among the female musicians and from time to time instances arose of egos needing a little polishing. An important aspect of the WJF’s definition of purpose, its intention to promote workshops and clinics and offer scholarships for students, was vividly apparent through the many student bands coming to Kansas City from all parts of the country and when scholarship winners went on to important careers. Among the clinicians perhaps David Baker is one of the best known, having had Chris Botti, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine and Jeff Hamilton under his wing. Brewer uses the educational aspect of the WJF as a jumping off point to show the breadth and value of jazz education in the modern world.changing

The book is structured chronologically across the years in which the WJF took place but within these sections Brewer ranges much more widely, vividly covering career paths of artists, political and financial pressures, as well as personal issues, some of which have particular impact on women. Life on the road places obvious strain on marriages, especially those where there are children to bear and raise. Even when both wife and husband are musicians, and hence are both aware of the problems, difficulties can still arise. This is especially so when the woman is more successful than the man. Covering all the issues that it does, musical and non-musical, this enlightening account provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes picture of the founding and operation of a jazz festival and will appeal to many jazz lovers. It is also an engaging tale of how two friends confronted and overcame not only the external problems of organizing any festival, but also those from within the jazz community, which should have been wholly supportive. Eventually and with real regret, Comer and Gregg bowed to the pressure of trying to live their own lives in tandem with the WJF. Coincident with their departure, the 1984 festival had to be cancelled, mainly for financial reasons, and although the following year’s event proceeded it was then decided that the WJF’s day was done. Its successes echo down through the years since then with numerous events that are for women only or are women dominated. It is for this and the many careers launched (or at least boosted) by appearances at the WJF that Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg deserve the gratitude of all true lovers of jazz. As for women in jazz today, they owe much more to them than merely gratitude, some perhaps even owe their careers. And these two friends in turn are no doubt grateful that they have been very well served by Carolyn Glenn Brewer.

Changing the Tune is a 320-page hardback edition, which includes 40 b&w illustrations, 25 pages of referral notes, an extensive bibliography, and an index. It is also available as an ebook.

ISBN-13: 978-1-57441-666-4 (ebook ISBN-978-1-57441-679-4)

A shorter version of this review appeared in the August 2017 issue of Jazz Journal. Published monthly, this magazine ranges stylistically from the origins of jazz to the music of tomorrow. There are interviews with musicians, articles on many topics, photographs, reviews of books, DVDs, and around 850 CDs annually.


February 15, 2018

An old friend, Dave Tuck, asked if I might offer a young undergraduate any useful suggestions for a thesis she was planning on aspects of rock ‘n’ roll. Now where r ‘n’ r is concerned my knowledge is only that of a casual listener; however, one of the facets being considered for the thesis was an exploration of how parents reacted to their offspring’s embracing of the new rebellious music of the 1950s. Through her own background, she knew how white adults and teenagers in the UK reacted to rock ‘n’ roll, but she was curious to know if black teenagers in the USA had similar experiences to hers. And did black adults also view this new musical fashion as controversial and sinful? I had no idea, so I raised these questions with two black American singers and their replies, while maybe not too helpful with the proposed university thesis, offered some insight into the making of a jazz singer.

One of these singers is Sandi Russell, who performs concerts and makes albums as a jazz singer (see my review in Jazz Journal in December 2007), Sandi-Russell-CD-150x150 and has also toured her one-woman show dealing with aspects of being a black woman in a white-dominated society. sr book2 In her reply to my query, Sandi commented that she was “somewhat interested in rock and roll, Bill Haley, etc.,” but “mostly listened to doo-wop and rhythm and blues, and my parents didn’t seem to mind or care. I don’t think the black community paid that much attention, and not many kids I knew liked Elvis at all!” Sandi’s father, though, did take marked exception to her playing Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire, which he promptly broke in half, saying that “this kind of music is not allowed in the house”. Sandi added that at the time she had “no idea what the song meant, except somebody was happy and excited!”

Sandi, who was born in New York but has lived in England for many years, published her début novel, Color, in book

I expect there are many who encountered related confrontations with parents. In my case there were parental objections to the double entendre lyrics of some of the blues records I played and yet, confusingly (to the teenage me), the blatantly single entendre lyrics of the musical hall ribaldry my parents loved were deemed acceptable.

The other singer is Sandy Graham, born and still based in California, who has been closely involved in the jazz world most of her life and has made several albums, one of which I reviewed in Jazz Journal in April 2004.sg1 In her reply to my inquiry, Sandy remarked that she could offer little insight into rock ‘n’ roll. “I was exposed to gospel music and jazz as a child. When I did listen to music other than gospel or jazz I listened to pop or classical music.” Sandy’s father “played saxophone and loved Johnny Hodges, so I was exposed to jazz all the time. The first record I ever bought was Charlie Parker’s All The Things You Are. I was eleven or twelve years old. The pop music I heard was by Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Sinatra, Como, the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo’s et. al. I did like some R&B groups, such as the Clovers, the Temptations, the Impressions, but was exposed to very little of it when I was a child. I didn’t like Little Richard or James Brown and those folks. So as far as the parent/child relationship is concerned there was no rebellion in my home. My family was musical and when I lived in foster homes prior to living with my Dad, they were also listening to jazz, gospel and very little R&B.”

The years Sandy spent with her father were in Oregon and it was there, at the age of sixteen, that she won the opportunity to sing on television. “I sang Little Things Mean A Lot. It was a pop song recorded by Teresa Brewer. I was scared to death. But I did it beautifully, so they say . . . I hardly remember. Anyway, my father was very proud and used to wake me at two o’clock in the morning to sing Four Brothers for his friends who would come by the house after work. Ha ha! I loved bebop. Still do.”sg2

It was in Oregon that Sandy met Elise Bly and it was through her that when she was back in Los Angeles she met trumpeter Clora Bryant. Elise and Clora had played together in Oklahoma and these musical generation-spanning contacts of Sandy’s can be seen in Judy Chaikin’s award-winning film, The Girls In The Band. When she was in Los Angeles, Sandy was never far from music. “We lived off Central Avenue where jazz and blues played anytime of the day and night. I remember when people would come from all over Los Angeles to go to the clubs in the Central Avenue area.jc girls They would dress up in shiny dresses, pearls and furs. I always said when I get big I’m going to dress like that, smoke cigarettes out of a long cigarette holder and go to the clubs and listen to the beautiful music. Of course when I got old enough to go to Central Avenue all those jazz clubs were gone. Oh, but I’m rambling on because I still think about the places that I missed. I was born too late for those glorious, glamorous times. At least, it seemed glamorous to me. But it probably wasn’t really. My eyes were full of stars.”

Those images of Central Avenue are much more than half a world away from many. Speaking for myself, I was born and raised in a city in the North of England where there were no jazz clubs and only rarely did a jazz artist make a concert appearance at the stately and quite unsuitable City Hall. Gradually, as the years went by, jazz was heard; the trad jazz boom of the 1950s at last giving pub landlords something to do with those cavernous first-floor rooms that had lain empty and echoing for decades.Door with jazz and graffiti So different are these memories from Sandy Graham’s Central Avenue recollections and yet, somehow, I feel a surprisingly strong kinship with her and others who saw and heard those sights and sounds, be they in Los Angeles or Kansas City or on Chicago’s South Side or New York’s 52nd Street. If her eyes were full of stars, then the same might be said of my head. Hopefully, the make-believe will stay in my head among the images of reported but unrecorded moments of magic: Joe Turner singing behind the bar of the Reno Club; Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton playing a 30-minute duet on trumpet and drums in a Los Angeles nightspot; Dizzy Gillespie happily sitting in and playing fourth (!) trumpet in Bill Berry’s band at Carmelo’s in Hollywood; Chick Webb routing Benny Goodman in a battle of the bands at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. All these are real events but the aural and visual images they evoke are entirely imaginary, and yet are all so real to me.

This same imagination drew me by way of jazz to other aspects of American culture. Among the results of this is my stage play, The Colors Of Your Life, which centers upon the mistreatment of black women in the USA from slavery through to the present day.bc colors Also, three of my recent crime novels, Harlem Nocturne, Harlem Madness, and Harlem Blues, are set respectively in 1939, 1943 and 1963. Although fiction, these tales touch upon real issues of those times, including the rise of fascism, the Harlem riots, and the impact of the Civil Rights movement. I am immeasurably grateful that jazz and my (perhaps overly active) imagination led me into these other worlds.bc h blues No bad thing; because imagination is what someone in my trade needs. Just as it is needed in the much richer and more important work of the jazz giants we all admire. Perhaps, once in a while, imagination overflows a little beyond acceptable boundaries, but I certainly hope that such lapses can be forgiven, if only because in so doing I can sneakily forgive myself when I do it. And why not? After all, without imagination, the world can be a very dull place.

All books, CDs and DVDs are available from Amazon.

Lies Kill – crime fiction

December 20, 2017


a new crime novel by

Bruce Crowther

Justice Minister Elaine Parry dies in an explosion. A terrorist attack? A political assassination? Or is it personal?

Big-time criminals, an international media tycoon, the CEO of a pharmaceutical giant, even one of London’s top cops – all have reasons for wanting the minister dead.

Closer to home, Michael Parry desperately seeks a life-saving donor for teenage daughter, Leah, critically injured in the same attack – and political blogger, Rachel Denison, scenting scandal as well as murder, risks her life unearthing the truth.

It is soon brutally clear that there are those who will stop at nothing to keep the minister’s secrets buried.

Available in print: ISBN-13: 978-1978167834

And as an ebook from Kindle: ISBN-10: 1978167830


Available in print: ISBN-13: 978-1978167834

And as an ebook from Kindle: ISBN-10: 1978167830

Take Three Girls — a short story

October 31, 2017


a short story by

Bruce Crowther

Tommy Field wasn’t sure when he first thought that it didn’t matter much either way whether he lived or died. Pretty certainly it was sometime before the most recent decade of his fifty-odd years. Before the time when the gray hairs outnumbered mouse-brown, before his waist measurement overtook his chest by a good six inches, and he had to pause for breath on any staircase that exceeded one flight. Quite some time, certainly, before he came to Gainsville and took a bleak, damp, cheerless room in Mrs Ford’s lodging house. But he knew the exact moment when he changed his mind about living or dying. It was three weeks ago, when he saw Suzie for the first time. That was when he decided that he wanted to live again

She first came into the diner where he worked the graveyard shift as a short-order cook on a drizzling early morning in mid-February, shaking a fine spray of raindrops from her long, streaked-blonde hair, stamping her high-heeled booted feet to restore circulation, and laughing in an unaffected open-throated, bawdy way at her companions.

Listening secretively to them he learned their names. Suzie. Mel. Kris.

Later, Suzie’s companions, Mel and Kris, drifted into the edges of Tommy’s consciousness as two very pretty girls – young women – Mel, dark and tiny and energetic; Kris, cropped-blonde, slow-moving and drawling, statuesque – but they didn’t do too much for Tommy.

But Suzie; oh, boy, Suzie!

Eddie Bert, the counterman, would call through the orders, Tommy would prepare the food, Eddie would serve it, by which time Tommy was head down over the stove preparing the next order. It was a couple of nights later that things changed. Things were slow because of the weather and Tommy was able to take a break and was standing by the back door, blowing smoke from his seventeenth cigarette of the day into the fine rain. He knew the number of cigarettes because six months ago he had felt unwell, had visited Doc Evans where he was told to cut down from his usual three packs a day to less than one. The way Tommy figured it, Doc Evans was too smart, or at least too experienced, to expect a three-pack-a-day man to change his ways too dramatically – even if it meant saving his life. So Tommy counted carefully and tried not to go over the magic life-preserving twenty.3women-225399__340

It was around two o’clock in the morning and he idly watched the headlights of an approaching vehicle break up into rainbow droplets and gradually become identifiably a twenty-year old Plymouth gas-guzzler all a-glitter with chrome. The car stopped and the three women clambered out and scurried, giggling and shouting across the lot. Tommy flicked his cigarette butt into a fast-forming puddle and wandered through the kitchen to see what they would order.

But he didn’t hear a word Eddie said, not until the counterman grabbed his arm and demanded to know what the hell was the matter with him.

What was the matter with him?

As Tommy slowly began to stir eggs into a pan he knew only too uncomfortably well what was the matter. Something had happened to him that hadn’t happened for longer than he cared to think about. He had the beginnings of an erection.

They’d said it would never happen again, the doctors. They’d said that he would never again experience any kind of sexual urge beyond a mild yearning. That was the word they’d used. Yearning. Making it sound like something you gazed back upon in nostalgia-tinted afterglow. Yearning. Like it was something he should be pleased that he could feel. Like it was something to be thankful for. Doctors! But he hadn’t said anything to them, anymore than he would contradict Doc Evans about the ill effects of cigarettes. Tommy was always ill-at-ease around authority figures. He didn’t know how to speak to them, how to handle them, what signals to give off. So he acted meek and subservient, which came easily to him because most of the time that’s exactly what he was. Meek and mild, obedient. Anyway, generally speaking doctors really did know best which is what his mother had always told him. They certainly cured him of some of his childhood ailments although it was mostly his mother’s nursing that had made him feel better. Not happier; no, certainly not happier. But better. Some of the time. But this had been different. For one thing, his mother hadn’t been there to help. Still, the doctors had worked hard. Tested him, tried all that they could to make him . . . be a man again. And they couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get an erection. They couldn’t make him get an erection. Nothing could. Nobody could. They had succeeded.

Or they thought they had. And so did he. Until now.

After all this time – what was it? ten, eleven years – what they’d said would never happen again was happening. Well, almost. It wasn’t full-scale. Nothing he couldn’t easily hide beneath the grease-spattered heavy apron he wore. But it was there. And with it the once familiar and now almost forgotten tumbling of the muscles inside his thighs; the feeling in the pit of his stomach that mingled excitement with fear. Like he’d felt as a kid when his mother took him to the funfair and he finally managed to persuade her to let him ride the roller-coaster and having persuaded her wished she hadn’t given in.

Tommy snapped out of his idle dreaming as Eddie yelled at him again. He was asking about the rooming house. About Mrs Ford’s. Why?

He tried to focus on Eddie but behind the counterman he could see the three girls at their table, legs sprawled, drinking coffee, chattering non-stop. Eddie was asking him if there were any rooms to let at Mrs Ford’s and he stammered an answer. There were always rooms to let at Mrs Ford’s. No one stayed there longer than they needed to. Trouble was, he needed to because he hadn’t any other place to go. He heard Eddie relay the information to the girls. Why? Surely they wouldn’t want to stay at a place like that. It was a dump. An unwelcoming dump. They’d hate it. Tommy started from the kitchen, planning to tell them that it was no place for three girls like them – young women, he hurriedly corrected himself. But then the thought hit him that, obviously, they must be planning on staying in town. And if they stayed at Mrs Ford’s then he would see them every day; see them in ways no one else could imagine. Not them. Her. The girl with the streaked-blonde hair and the boots.

And then Eddie was harrying him for the eggs and muffins and Tommy closed his mouth. Even if what was happening beneath his apron was only in his imagination he would still want to see them – her – again. And if it wasn’t only his imagination . . .

By the end of the week, Tommy knew that they were in show business – but wasn’t too clear what it was they did or why they were in a dead-end town like Gainsville – and he knew that they’d be around until at least the end of the month. And also by the end of the first week Tommy knew that he hadn’t been imagining it; it really had been an erection. And by the end of the week he was able to masturbate twice in the day. He did it lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. In the room directly above his, Suzie slept. Her gorgeous, softly-muscled body, just seven or eight feet above his head. Naked. He was sure that was how she slept. Naked. Inviting.

He thought about that. Carefully. At first he had dismissed the glances she kept throwing his way as being nothing more than wild imaginings. But by now he was certain that just as the erections and the twice-daily masturbation were real, so were the looks she sent his way. Which started a train of thought that soon was hurtling along like a runaway locomotive. Tommy’s room was next to the bathroom used by all the tenants on the upper two floors of the house – himself, a dour man named Shannon who had moved in a few weeks ago and never spoke to anyone, grunting an unwilling acknowledgment of greetings only when he had to, and the three girls. At the beginning of the second week, Tommy used up some vacation time he was owed, taking a night off. The girls were out doing whatever it was they did, Shannon was in bed and snored loudly and was, anyway, partially deaf. When the house below was quiet Tommy went into the bathroom and carefully drilled a hole, slightly angled, through into the wall that separated the bathroom from his own bedroom. The hole was tiny and unless you knew it was there virtually invisible. The angle ensured two things; one, that light wouldn’t shine through from his room and, two, that in direct line with the hole was a large stained mirror affixed to the opposite wall. In his room, Tommy carefully widened the hole until he could see through and into the mirror and by reflection almost all of the bath. Back in the bathroom he checked for light shining through and decided that it was safe enough although probably he would hang a thick blanket over the curtained window of his room just to be sure. He washed the dust he had made into the bath and swilled it away. He was ready.bath-426383__340

He knew the habits of the three girls by now. They came in around the time he did, usually between four and five in the morning, gathered in one room or another to talk and laugh and play the radio. And then they took their baths. Of course they used the bathroom at other times, less predictably, but while he would always be happy to see any one of them sitting on the toilet bowl, what he wanted was to see them naked, preparing for and taking their baths.

As it happened it was Mel who went to the bathroom first. He could hear her singing to herself and the water running. He took down from his wall the framed copy of Mrs Ford’s house rules that he had re-hung a couple of feet to the left so that it concealed his spy-hole, then climbed onto the little table that usually stood beneath the window and peered into the hole. It was perfect.

Mel stood by the bath, casually dropping her clothes to the floor, then stood, naked, fluffing her dark hair, her breasts rising and falling with her movements. As the water ran into the bath the mirror began steaming up but she kept reaching out to wipe it clear so that she could see herself.

And, of course, Tommy could see her too. He could hardly breathe and when he did he was sure that it was so loud that she must be able to hear him. But the running water and her non-stop singing must have drowned out his sounds, sounds that became louder and louder until he gasped himself to a surging climax.

He almost fell as he stepped down from the table and lay for a moment on his bed but almost at once he heard Mel leave the bathroom and call out to Kris that she was through. Somehow he managed to pull himself together and was back in his place, ready for Kris. Naked, she was even more spectacular than he had imagined and his imagination wasn’t feeble. All those years, imagination was all that he’d had.

Afterward, when he thought about it, it was like every fantasy he’d ever had. Two beautiful, sexually desirable young women, performing naked for his eyes only. Two huge erections and two masturbations. Two exhausting climaxes. He didn’t know if he could manage three. Maybe he should have waited. Missed Mel or Kris. Maybe both. Kept himself for Suzie. Kept himself filled with the power; filled with the almost uncontrollable urge to command a female body. To do with it all the things that he had done before, so long ago.

Tommy lay on his bed, thinking about the past. How things had been before . . . before he had changed. Maybe, just maybe, he could turn back the clock to the way things had been. The way he had been. He stared at the ceiling, thinking about Suzie and rubbing himself gently. Two climaxes already tonight and he could feel a faint stirring. It could be the way it had been before. It really could. No, not exactly that way. It would have to be different. But the end result could be the same.

He heard the floorboards of the room upstairs creak and he was ready, on the table, peering through the hole when Suzie came into the bathroom.

What had gone before was nothing; barely a curtain raiser for the real show. Unlike the other girls, Suzie didn’t sit in the bath; she stood, soaping herself lazily, her hands circling her breasts, her fingers pulling at her nipples. Then her hands drifted down her stomach and circle her belly and her hips, dreamily caressing herself. Her fingers moved again, lower, until she began to tease gently with her clitoris. Until her body began to move in a rhythm of its own.

And Tommy thought he would die.

He slept past his usual time and was late arriving at the diner and let Eddie’s haranguing flood over him without comment. He was too drained to argue.

The next morning was virtually a scene-by-scene replay and again Tommy slept as if pole-axed. Fortunately, he had reset his alarm to half an hour earlier and put it on to loud. He had to drag himself through the shift but at least Eddie didn’t have any complaints.

On the following morning it was different. Mel was still in the bathroom when Tommy heard someone coming along the corridor and then a light knock on the bathroom door. Mel climbed out of the tub, water rippling over her buttocks, and opened the door for Kris. And embraced her.

If what had gone before was fantasy then what was this? Two women, the tiny dark-haired Mel and the tall, lean blonde Kris, bathing one another and kissing and doing things to one another that Tommy had only read about. When they were done, so was Tommy. He sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, his head only inches away from where the two women lay together in the bathtub. Which was how he heard their voices, heard Suzie’s name mentioned. It was Mel, suggesting to Kris that they invite Suzie to join them; then Kris answering, saying that Suzie wouldn’t be interested, that Kris had tried once before. And, anyway, she added, and this time her voice was quite distinct.

“She has her sights set on the jerk from the diner.”

Tommy swallowed hard, straining to hear. Mel spoke his name, derisively, then Kris spoke again, confirming it. Suzie had eyes for Tommy.

That day Tommy didn’t think about anything else. It was hard to believe. Okay, he had seen the glances Suzie shot his way from time to time but deep down, much as he liked the idea, he hadn’t really believed it. Not Suzie, not that fantastic sexual creature; she couldn’t lust after him the way he hungered for her. But he had heard his name spoken by the other girls, heard it distinctly.

The next day Tommy didn’t watch any of them in the bathroom. Instead, he lay on his bed, summoning up the nerve to speak to Suzie. Just before he was due to leave for the diner he heard Suzie come bounding down the stairs to join her friends as they too were due to go out to work. He hurried from his room in time to intercept her and before he could weaken his resolve he blurted out his question, asking her for a date, ready to hurry on down the stairs in a cloak of embarrassment when she said no. But Suzie grinned brightly at him and said, “Sure. That’d be nice.”

If anyone had asked Tommy how many eggs he fried that night, how many burgers, how many plates of beans he served up, he wouldn’t have had the faintest idea. He went through the shift like a man in a daze.

He was in a daze.

In the morning he dressed himself with far more care than he usually showed. Done, he stared at the round, pale face in the mirror, seeing vestiges of the man he had been years ago and was able to convince himself that this was what Suzie could see. She must be able to see the man he used to be, and could be once more if only the circumstances were right, the way they used to be.

There were not too many things to do in Gainsville during the day and Suzie suggested they take a drive in the Plymouth. Tommy was delighted to head out of town and up into the hills. The Plymouth was the same model as one he’d had many years ago and it was like reliving the more pleasurable parts of his past. Even the music blaring from the old 8-track cassettes Suzie fed into the player was his kind of music, rock ‘n’ roll. Not today’s rock; this was the King and Jerry Lee and other heroes. It was gratifying, the way she drove a car like his, played music he liked. It was hard to believe because she was so much younger. Hesitantly, he asked her how old she was. Twenty-six, she told him. One year younger than Mel, two years younger than Kris. He hadn’t asked her about the others, didn’t want to talk about them. But for some reason Suzie did. Did he think they were attractive? Did he like Mel more than Kris, either of them more than her? He stammered out answers, trying to tell her that he had eyes for no one else but her. And she was gently mocking, saying how she was sure that a man like him would have lots of girls. And then asking was he married and had he ever been and did he have children and did he like children? And he was answering: No and No and No and No, and Suzie glanced at him curiously and said that she thought a man like him would like children. Really like them a lot.

The Plymouth slowed and turned off the road and bumped along a track that reached deep into woodland. Eventually, Suzie stopped the car and turned off the engine and climbed out without speaking and walked off into the trees. Just before she disappeared from his view she turned and waved her hand at him. Something white fluttered to the ground and then she was gone.

Tommy stumbled after her. The white object was a tiny pair of lace panties. His breath quickening, he hurried into the darkly shaded woods. He didn’t know where he was going, had lost all sense of direction, but he could hear Suzie every now and again, calling his name, and he kept going.

The clearing was small, not much bigger than the diner where he worked and the cabin at its edge was tiny, even smaller than his room at Mrs Ford’s. Tommy stood, hesitant, then came Suzie’s throaty, enticing laughter and he almost ran to the cabin door.shed-166529__340

Inside it was dark but then a match scraped and in a moment a warm yellow glow of an oil lamp illuminated the cabin. There appeared to be only two rooms, the dividing wall a thin makeshift partition with an opening across which hung a faded curtain. The room in which he was standing held two chairs and a table, upon which stood the oil lamp. In one of the chairs sat Mel. In the other sat Kris. Suzie stood behind the table, smiling slightly at him. Then she turned and pushed aside the curtain and went into the other room. Tommy stared from Mel to Kris and back again. They looked – well, strange. No, it was the way they were dressed that was strange.

Mel was wearing a blue and white checkered dress. Although it was her size and fitted perfectly the style was all wrong. It was the kind of dress a little girl might have worn, not today but twenty years ago. And Kris was wearing a one-piece bathing costume. It too was a perfect fit but was curiously dated and entirely unsuitable for a grown woman. Then Suzie came back into the room. She had changed her clothes. A pleated white skirt and a white blouse with a red check collar. A little girl’s clothes.

Tommy stared from one to the other, his mind racing, adding up the clothes, the car, the music. He began to remember things. Something in his expression must have opened a tiny window onto his thoughts because suddenly Suzie spoke.

“You remember, don’t you?” she asked him.

And he did.

The Plymouth had been a part of it. It was exactly like the one he’d had, even down to the color. The rock ‘n’ roll tapes were like his, too. Same singers, same tunes. Exactly the same.

He had played the tapes to make them feel at ease. The little girls. The little girls he had picked up in his Plymouth, the little girls who liked the rock ‘n’ roll he had played. The little girls he had driven into the woods. Woods like those that surrounded this cabin. But that was hundreds of miles away and twenty years ago.three-1312869__340

Tommy started to back away but all three women moved and now he could see that all of them were holding guns. Rock steady. Their faces wearing expressions that were rock hard.

“We even used our real names,” Suzie said. “The girls didn’t want to because they thought you would recognize them and run away. Of course, then I wasn’t Suzie, I was Susan. Mel was Melanie and Kris was Christine. I didn’t think you’d remember, though. Because there were too many for you to remember all the names. How many were there, Tommy? How many little girls did you rape?”

And he was stammering, denying it.

But Suzie ignored him, the dreamy look back in her eyes. “Eight were mentioned in court,” she said. “But the police thought there were others. Children who never told their parents. Children who were too frightened. Too traumatized. Children whose lives were damned forever. So, how many were there, Tommy? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? More? And what was your sentence? Twenty years to life. And you got out early because you talked the doctors into believing you were cured.”

I was. I am. I was given drugs. They used . . . aversion therapy, they call it.” The words were tumbling out. “They cured me. I couldn’t . . . can’t . . . even look at a picture of . . . of a girl without wanting to throw up.”

“The way I can’t look at a man without wanting to throw up?” Kris asked.

“That’s why Mel and Kris are the way they are,” Suzie told him. “They prefer women to men. Some of the others we talked to adjusted – that’s how it’s put – adjusted. I’m not sure I believe them. Oh, maybe they spoke what they think is the truth, but is it really? We talked to one who has married and has two kids of her own. But I looked into her eyes and I know that you’re still in there, Tommy. Deep inside that woman, you’re lying in wait, the way you did all those years ago, and one day you’ll come out and destroy her life all over again. The way you destroyed our lives. Mel and Kris can’t do the things they might have done because of what you have turned them into.” Suzie’s eyes were still far away. “But they love one another, which is something I suppose. But what about me, Tommy? What do you suppose has been the effect you had on me? That day, just one day in your life while I was just one little girl in your life. I don’t suppose you remember. Oh, the car, yes, and the music. But that was the same with all of us, wasn’t it? But do you remember each of us individually, or do we all blur into one in your mind? Are we all alike in that fetid, twisted sewer you call your mind? Is that what we are, just faceless, nameless, five-year-old bodies that you defiled? Did you treat them all in the same way? The way you treated us. We added it up, the first time the three of us met. Between the three of us do you know what it adds up to? Five oral penetrations. Four vaginal penetrations. Three anal penetrations. And I was only five years old, and Mel was six, and Kris seven. All that you did to us, and now you’re out of prison and free to walk the streets and do it all over again.”

I haven’t touched a . . . anyone. Not since I came out. I haven’t even wanted to. It worked, the treatment. It worked.”

“Did it? Is that why you drilled a hole in the bathroom wall? Is that why you watched us in the bath? And what did you do while you watched us? Can we guess? Or do you want to tell us, Tommy?”

You know about . . . then you did it deliberately. You enticed me.”

Enticed? That’s an interesting choice of words. Enticed.”

You did. From the start.”

No, Tommy. What happened was, you remembered. All this time, whatever the doctors thought or said or did, all your evil was lying there waiting. Waiting to come out again and do its worst. That evil remembered us, remembered little Susan and Christine and Melanie. You were never cured, Tommy. Your kind can never be cured. At least, not that way, not by doctors. There’s only one cure for people like you. And we know what that is.”

Suzie lowered her gun and quickly emptied the chambers, then she put back one shell, spun the chamber and before Tommy could move she raised the revolver and fired at him. He screamed in fear and dimly heard the empty click of the hammer.

You just got lucky, Tommy. Or maybe unlucky, depending on how you look at it. This is what happens here today, you get a chance to live. But if you live, you live the life we want you to live. A harmless life.”

Suzie spun the chamber and pointed the gun at Tommy’s head. Kris laid something on the table. It was a pen and some sheets of paper. “Sign them, Tommy,” Suzie said. “Your promise to commit yourself to hospital for further treatment. To pay your victims. To dedicate the rest of your life to God.”

Tommy reached for the pen, scrawling his signature hurriedly and unseeingly on each of the papers, eager to do whatever he was asked, anxious to get out of here, buzzing with the hope that this wasn’t going to be anywhere nearly as bad as he had begun to fear just a few moments ago. Kris took away the papers, and something else took their place. Tommy looked down, recognizing with a thrill of horror the meat cleaver he used at the diner. The blade sharp and heavy, the wooden handle worn smooth with use.

“You didn’t think we were leaving it to chance and your word, did you, Tommy?” Suzie said. “That’s the real choice you have to make. Cut your pecker off or die.”

Tommy stared at her, then back at the cleaver, then at Kris and Mel. No one was smiling, nothing broke the silence except the pounding of blood in his ears.

“Now, Tommy” Suzie said.

He couldn’t move and she squeezed the trigger and Tommy squealed in terror as the hammer clicked again on an empty chamber.

Suzie spun the chamber again, pointed the gun at his head. “Do it, Tommy.” He stared at her, then at the muzzle of the gun, hypnotized. She squeezed the trigger again and once again he squealed as the impact on another empty chamber echoed like thunder in his head. Suzie didn’t move, didn’t spin the chamber.

Time to shorten the odds, Tommy. No more free spins, no more one-in-six chances. This time it will be one in five. Next time, if there is a next time, one in four. Then three. Pretty easy choice I would’ve thought. Not far down this road and suddenly there’ll be no choice at all. And all you have to do to stop this, to save your miserable life, is to chop it off. That . . . thing you used on me and Kris and Mel.”

Suzie’s forearm stiffened and she squeezed the trigger and Tommy fell to the floor, a thin, keening cry escaping his lips.

Lucky man,” Suzie said. “Now it’s one in four.”

“You can’t . . . you don’t understand . . . I couldn’t help . . .”

“One in four and next time it’s one in three.”

“Stand up,” Mel said. It was the first time she had spoken and even in the state he was in Tommy noticed that the bubbly sound was gone from her voice. “Stand up, you miserable sweaty pig,” she told him.

Tommy scrambled to his knees, lifted his head until it came level with the table top. Kris pushed the cleaver towards him. He stared at it; the point was aimed directly between his eyes.

“No,” he whimpered. He sensed rather than saw Suzie’s movement and screamed, “No!”

He reached out a trembling hand towards the cleaver. “Stand up,” Mel said again.

Somehow, he used the table to drag himself upright. “Unzip,” Kris said.

Fumblingly, he did as he was told. “Lay it out,” Mel said.

He did so.

Pick up the cleaver,” Kris said.

He did.

Do it,” Mel said, her voice thick.

He was weeping uncontrollably now, shaking with fear and desperation.

Do it,” Mel shouted.

No,” he screamed and he heard the hammer click onto an empty chamber and again he screamed, a wordless echoing cry.

This time it’s an even chance, you filthy, perverted animal,” Suzie said, then shouted, “Do it,” her voice reverberating from the cabin walls.chopper-1071578__340

And he screamed in mortal terror and reached for the cleaver, gripped it, raised it. Hesitated. Then bit hard on his lip and . . . and suddenly there was pain, excruciating, beyond belief. But not from his skull where Suzie’s bullet would have gone. Not from his groin where the butcher’s cleaver would have fallen. But in his chest. A pain that stopped him from breathing, that thankfully wiped his brain clear of his scrambling, careering thoughts. And then he was falling into a whirling, dizzying, endlessly deep black chasm.

The Plymouth reversed all the way down the track to the blacktop, then turned and headed north, away from Gainsville.

“Did you know about his heart?” Mel asked, her voice neutral.

Suzie shrugged her shoulders. “Mitchell said something about it,” she said.

For a few miles the others said nothing, then Kris asked, “Where are we meeting him?”

Suzie gestured ahead in answer. Mitchell’s car was pulled over on the other side of the road, pointing towards Gainsville. Suzie coasted to a stop and wound down the window. Mitchell came across the road and Kris handed him the papers Tommy Field had signed. Mitchell took them, glanced through them.

They’re all there,” Kris told him. “Lawyer, bank, proxies, the lot.”

“How much does he have, you reckon?” Suzie asked.

“Near as I can say, ten thousand,” Mitchell said.

Mel made an exasperated sound and Suzie glanced at her through the rear-view mirror.

Mitchell tucked the papers away and handed an envelope to Suzie. “Rainbow City, Iowa,” he said. “Man named Ben Leeson. Convicted in 1999 on three counts of rape of minors, released this year after serving two-thirds of his sentence.” Mitchell glanced at Mel. “Used to own a couple of radio stations and a newspaper. Big bucks, just sitting in the bank, sweetheart.”

Who do I have to play this time?” Mel asked. “Not another goddamn lesbian?”

Work it out for yourselves, kids, after you’ve read the case histories.” Mitchell stepped away from the Plymouth. “After I’ve checked the cabin, I’ll go back to Mrs Ford’s, check your rooms.”

They’re clean,” Suzie said.

I’m sure they are,” Mitchell said. “But I’ll check all the same. Can’t be too careful. I’ll see you next week in Rainbow City.” He walked back to his car and Suzie accelerated away without acknowledging his wave.

They drove in silence for a while, Suzie watching her companions’ faces through the mirror. Kris was okay but Mel was starting to worry her.

Kris reached over, took the envelope Mitchell had handed to Suzie and opened it up.

Who do I get to play this time?” Mel asked. “Pray God not another Mel-ah-nee or a goddamn Lulu Belle.”

Kris glanced up from her reading. “There’s a Jane would suit you. Or a Mildred if you want to dye your hair.”

“Mildred! You gotta be joking.”

Suzie drove on, half listening, thinking hard. She would watch Mel – Elena, really – very carefully in Rainbow City and if she didn’t straighten up she would talk to Mitchell about dropping her. That was Mitchell’s job, part of it anyway. Finding the marks was his official role in the operation but he was also the unofficial executioner when one of the girls had to be replaced. Suzie would never kill a girl. Only men. She sighed to herself. If only she and Mitchell could find two girls like herself. Two girls who could assume roles, play the games, keep the cover, and, when it came down to the last nine yards, kill.

One day, with luck, they would find two girls just like herself.

And one day, with a lot of luck, Mitchell would finally track down the man she had hired him to find six years ago. The man who had taken her from her parents’ house when she was four years old and had kept her in a trailer halfway across the country for seven years. Seven years before she had managed to escape. And when she went back with the police the man was gone, the trailer was gone, and no one ever really believed her story. Too incredible. She had to have made it all up. Just what they thought she had been doing for seven years from the age of four she had never figured out. And eventually she stopped trying to persuade them. Instead, she saved every cent she could scrape together until she had enough to hire Mitchell and when that ran out she went along with his scam. She didn’t mind too much. In fact, helping animals like Tommy Field into the next world helped ease the pain a little.

In the back seat of the Plymouth, Kris turned a page. “We have to dump this old clunker,” she said. “For this one, we’ll need an SUV of some kind. The guy hunts in the mountains all the time.”

“Jesus,” Mel said, “When are we gonna get some guy who lives in a California beach house?”

Yes, Suzie thought, Mel really will have to go, whatever happens in Rainbow City. She doesn’t understand a single damn thing about why the hell we’re doing this. She thinks it’s all for the money. Or in Mel’s case, for the kicks.

Five or six miles behind them, heading towards Gainsville, Mitchell was thinking about the girls. Some day soon he would have to make a decision. Find someone to replace Suzie. The other girls were the best they’d had but Suzie was starting to be a pain. Too damn serious about the perverts he found for them. Too intent on hurting them, making them pay in sweat and pain and blood. Too many damn killings.

Yes, she would have to go. Certainly she had to go before she started on again, as she did every few months, about how the search was going for the guy who’d kidnapped and raped her when she was a kid. One day, she might realize that there were other people around like him she might hire. And the other people might find the trail as easily as he had. And tell her that the man she was hunting was dead. Had died the same night she’d run away from the trailer; but whose death – and guilt – had been covered up because he was the brother-in-law of the sheriff in the town where Suzie had been hidden all those years.

Christ, Mitchell thought, it didn’t bear thinking about what that crazy woman might do – to him – if she discovered that he’d been lying to her all these years.

Copyright © 1998 & 2017 Bruce Crowther

Bruce Crowther has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of the work

Illustrations courtesy of Pixabay

What’s In A Name — a short story

August 30, 2017


a short story by

Bruce Crowther

Dennis hadn’t always hated people. For the first five years of his life he didn’t hate anyone. Five and a bit years. If he wanted, he could date it exactly. Even to the moment. A little past nine-thirty on a Monday morning in early September when the flat Kansas fields between his home and the schoolhouse were clouded with dust as tractors churned their way through the stubble left by towering combine harvesters.

And he knew precisely who it was earned that first flare of hatred. Mister Simpkins, the schoolteacher. Of course, Dennis hadn’t known that what he felt that morning was hatred. It was just an emotion he had never felt before. No, it was more than an emotion; it was physical. A snatching, tearing feeling in his stomach followed by the desire to cry, a desire that he fought off. But only just, and not for long. The other kids in his class saw to that.

Dennis had never thought much about names. Everyone called him Dennis. His Ma and Pa; the handful of neighbors on the other small farms along the creek; his aunts and uncles; the two boys his own age who lived on the farm down by a swampy patch that filled with frogs in the springtime and echoed with their mating calls in the summer, and was perfect territory for games of Cowboys and Indians; and one or two people in town, mainly at the hardware and grocery stores where his Pa and Ma called every Saturday morning.

Pa was Joe, Ma was Mary Beth but the way everyone said it was as if it was all one word – Marybeth.

Well, maybe not everyone called him Dennis. Aunt Mabel always called him Darling Boy and smeared red goo from her lips across his forehead; and Mr Buckley, the man who ran the hardware store, called him Soldier. But otherwise it was always Dennis. Just Dennis.

If he had thought about it he would have known that everyone had more than one name. He knew that there were given names and family names all right, he had just never thought about it. The boys he played with in the swamp were Roy and Billy. Their parents were Mister Wilson and Miz Wilson, so he knew that the boys were really Roy Wilson and Billy Wilson. He just never thought about things like that. There were too many other things to think about, games to play, chores to do around the house, books to read. Dennis loved books. He knew that when they played in the swamp Roy and Billy were heroes from the movies and television. But Dennis was always a hero from a book. Even if, most of the time, he didn’t let on to the others because he knew they didn’t read much. He had read since he was three, thanks to Aunt Mabel’s encouragement. She had a name for his ability, a name he couldn’t spell but eventually found in the dictionary. Precocious, she called him. Well, if that was what it was to be able to read and lose himself in books, then precocious was what he was.

And loving books meant that the prospect of starting school when he reached five was one that filled him with eager anticipation and excitement. There, they wanted you to read books. He wouldn’t need to do it secretly, hiding them from Pa and Ma.

That was why, on Monday, September 5, at nine o’clock in the morning, Dennis was almost unable to contain the thrill of entering the schoolhouse.classroom-1660223__340

For the first half hour they were talked at by the Principal about their routine for the next few months and how they were to act on the school premises and how there must be no running in the corridors and they should always be on time and clean and neatly dressed and how they should always be respectful to the teachers and call them ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’. Around him, Dennis knew that some of the other children were giggling and passing notes and digging one another in the ribs and kicking ankles, but he paid attention, listening to every word, taking in everything, missing nothing. This was to be his new world for the next ten or so years and he did not intend missing out on anything.

Then they were divided into groups – classes – and Dennis went off with about twenty or thirty other five-year-olds into a classroom where a tall, thin-faced, gloomy looking man told them that he was to be their teacher and that his name was Mister Simpkins. Then, Mister Simpkins began to read from what he called The Register. The roll-call’s purpose was obvious. It was so that the teacher would know who was there and who wasn’t; Dennis could see how that would help the teacher.

The Register also served another purpose, one for which it was not designed. It taught Dennis the formality of names.

Everybody had two names, many even had three. There was the family name and in front of that came the given names, what they called Christian names. The first boy whose name was called was Ronald John Abbott. Until then he had simply been Ronnie. Then came McKinley Arnold, Mack to everyone. By the time Mister Simpkins came to Dennis he knew what he would hear but was not prepared for the way it sounded. Or the way that everyone in the class reacted. Or how Mister Simpkins reacted.

Of course, he had always known his family name. He knew that Pa was Joe Ennis and his Ma was Marybeth Ennis. But no one had ever called him by his full name and so he had never thought of himself by his full name. Which was why, when Mister Simpkins read out ‘Dennis Ennis’ from the register, his name sounded odd. Dennis Ennis. And it sounded odd to Mister Simpkins, too, because after he said it the corner of his thin mouth twitched just a little. Dennis saw it because he was watching the teacher with rapt attention.

Dennis Ennis, twitch.

And someone sniggered.

Mister Simpkins looked up and glared in the direction of the sniggerer and that might – just might – have been the end of it except that Mister Simpkins did not go straight on to read the next name, Lewis Charles Falk, or Chuck as he had been until then. Instead, Mister Simpkins went back and read Dennis’s name again. Only this time he rolled it all into one. Dennisennis. And again the corner of his mouth twitched. Dennisennis – twitch. No one sniggered this time, but neither did anyone miss the twitch. After that Dennis Ennis’s name was a joke. A joke repeated over and over again with the mindless, remorseless, relentless cruelty that is the special aptitude of five-year-olds.

Dennisennis. Dennisennis.


From then on, Dennis ceased to be Dennis. He was Dennisennis.

And his life was changed.

Slowly at first but then with accelerating haste he changed from being a cheerful and friendly little boy, eager to learn and explore the world about him into being a morose and solitary individual, no longer able to immerse himself in books and day-dreams.


Dennis kept to himself. But he heard the sibilant whispers.


As the months passed by, things grew steadily worse. Even Roy and Billy started calling him Dennisennis the way everyone else did. And he hated them for it because, by now, he knew what that strange emotion was called. Hate.

Soon, he was aware of the futility of avoiding his name and how others saw and heard it. He learned how to conceal his hatred. To treat it all lightly; at least, that was the face he turned to the world. But he couldn’t fool himself. And he was always alert to the telltale twitch that followed him everywhere.

For as long as he could remember, Dennis had wanted to become a member of the public library, not the children’s section, the real one where the good books were; to have his own library card would be a dream come true. And so when he was old enough he went along there and filled in an application blank and the librarian, Miss Bennett, read his name. And there was the twitch. She didn’t even read the name aloud, just to herself, but the twitch was there.


He hoped that might be the end of it but every time he visited the library and handed her his card, there it was again. Silencesilence-twitch. Soon, he stopped going to the library. And he hated Miss Bennett for losing him all the books he might have read.books-1702790__340

Miss Bennett and Mister Simpkins and Billy and Roy were not the only ones he hated by this time. Almost daily his hate list was building.

But he didn’t hate his Pa and Ma. Not at first. Not until he had been suffering from the joke people made of his name for years did he begin to understand that it was his Pa and his Ma who were to blame. They had chosen to name him Dennis. As the painful months continued to pass he weighed all the possibilities. These ranged from, at best, that they might never have considered what would happen when he went out into the world, to, at worst, outright malevolence. As he grew older, mostly he reckoned that Joe and Marybeth Ennis had thought that Dennis Ennis sounded cute. But whatever the reason, their action was unforgivable. And so he came in time to reserve his special, blackest hatred for them, for his Pa and his Ma.choctaw-bluff-305932__340

When he was twelve Dennis began working evenings and Saturday mornings for Mister Buckley, who still called him Soldier. Actually, Mister Buckley called all the small boys and young men Soldier, simply, Dennis gathered when he went to work for him, to avoid having to remember their names. For the same reason he called all the little girls Treasure. As a result of this quirk, the old man was one of the few people in Dennis’s world who did not qualify for his hatred. A hatred that was becoming steadily more consuming, more central to his life.

Dennis wasn’t paid much by Mister Buckley, but he didn’t have much to do in the store so he never complained. The money was useful because it allowed him to buy worn paperbacks at the second-hand bookstore, where he didn’t need a library card or to fill out any forms.

Form filling was something Dennis avoided whenever he could. But as he entered his teenage years he discovered that forms snared his path like an endless tangle of barbed-wire traps. Looking ahead, he could see that the future would become very difficult indeed. If he filled out a form, there at the top would be his name and someone would sit in front of him and read it and there would be the now familiar twitch. Bank account, job application, drivers license, you name it, they had a form for it. And all of them designed especially to bring the accompanying twitch.

Some of these were things he could not avoid. Some form filling was necessary and so for a while he toyed with the idea of changing his name. Such a step might not have been necessary if he’d had a name that could be shortened or if he could have a nickname. Like Michael became Mike, or Edward became Ted, or William Wilson was Billy. And Charles was replaced with Chuck, or Bernard with Buddy. But there was nothing you could do with Dennis except, maybe, Den; and Den Ennis was no improvement. Even writing his initial didn’t work. D. Ennis was almost always misread as Dennis and he was back where he started. But he abandoned the idea of changing his name when he realized that to do so he would have to complete a form.

New name: James Ennis.

Previous name: Dennis Ennis.


So the day he left school and Mister Buckley fired him Dennis went looking for a job where he didn’t have to fill out any forms. The reason Mister Buckley fired him was because he could not afford to pay a proper wage and had to hire another twelve-year old who would work for four years for peanuts. Dennis tried in vain to persuade the old man to change his mind but it seems that there were laws and forms to be filled out and while Dennis didn’t care one way or the other about the laws he knew all about filling out forms and didn’t press Mister Buckley too hard. So he left the hardware store and disliked Mister Buckley for firing him. But he didn’t hate him because, after all, the old man had never called him anything but Soldier and he had spent a few idle summer evenings showing Dennis his gun collection and teaching him to strip down, clean and re-assemble just about everything from an old Frontier Colt revolver to a brand-new assault rifle.gun-306921__340

Dennis liked guns. The feel of them. Even the smell. Especially the look of them. Sleek, polished, gleaming with power and authority. And he had taken advantage of his job of storing and stacking in the back room to build up a little cache of ammunition and cleaning materials which he kept hidden in one of his old game-playing hiding places down in the swamp. The day he was fired, he left the store for the last time taking with him a ·38 Smith & Wesson Special that Mister Buckley had told him was worthless because it lacked a firing-pin and a spring from the safety-catch. The old man hadn’t looked at the gun but once in the four years Dennis worked at the store. It might be years before he looked at it again and when he did the blame could not be placed unerringly on Dennis. The thief could have been some other Soldier.

The first job Dennis took was as a driver for a pair of brothers in the next county who didn’t ask any questions of anyone just so long as no one asked questions of them. Dennis was a good driver. Filling out the application blank for a driver’s license was something he’d had to grit his teeth over because he knew that he needed the license. The twitch came; of course it did. But he did not show his feelings. He had become adept at that.

One day, but not yet awhile because he wasn’t quite old enough, he would need a gun permit. When the time came, he’d bite the bullet over that too because just as a man needed to drive a car he also needed to carry a gun. Preferably legally. Until then, he would have to take a chance with the carefully repaired Smith & Wesson he’d taken from Mister Buckley’s store.

He needed the gun because although the work he did for the Logan brothers was undemanding it was also mostly illegal. But he did it because they paid him well and because he enjoyed driving. He just needed to be careful in case someone decided to rip off the loads he carried. Of course, whether or not he would be able to fire the gun at someone was another matter.

The overnight stops before the return runs usually left Dennis with time to kill in other towns where no one knew him and where he could give a false name if he chose, or simply use his first name, safe in the knowledge that questions were never asked at the kind of place where he slept or ate or drank.whiskey-barrels-2290108__340

Some of the people he met on these overnights were girls and Dennis discovered that he had a way with them. They seemed to like the fact that he was a little shy and quiet and he learned to play on that. But when it came down to it, Dennis wasn’t much good at sex. Oh, he soon figured out the moves but he couldn’t hold on for very long before reaching a climax and he never really learned how to make the encounter pleasurable for the girl. So after a while, he stopped making himself attractive to girls of his own age he met hanging around the cafés and pool halls and dance halls and turned instead to the hookers who drifted in and out of the bars and truck stops. The physical side of things didn’t alter, he still came too quickly and the women he was with found no pleasure in what he did but at least they pretended to. And they didn’t criticize him, didn’t sulk. They just took their money and left.

Then, one night, it all changed. And it was entirely by chance. He was with a woman called Cindy, a thin, dark-haired former singer whose voice had given out through too many cigarettes. He’d picked her up a couple of times before and while the sex was no different from any other encounter, she had a bawdy sense of humor he quite liked. This night, they had finished, quickly as usual, and he was starting to clamber off the bed in the motel room when he accidentally hit her face with his elbow. He hurt her badly and she cried out in pain. Two things happened. Dennis suddenly felt himself become erect again, painfully, rigidly so. And Cindy smothered her pain with a quick grin and told him that if he wanted it that kind of sex was okay but it would cost more.

Dennis had never thought about that kind of sex. He’d read about it, of course, but he’d never thought it might be something he would want. He asked her how much more it would cost and they made a deal. Only he couldn’t make it work because he didn’t want to hurt her. Why should he? She had never done anything to make him hurt her and only hating someone was a reason for hurting them.

But Dennis knew about hatred.

For the first time since he had begun going with girls, and women, he gave his name. His real name. His full name. And Cindy repeated it. And the corner of her mouth twitched. And Dennis hated her. So he beat her. The sex, when it followed, was magnificent. Endlessly, he drove himself into her body, mindless of her cries, ignoring the blood on her face and breasts, exulting in the sense of power, the delight in making someone pay for laughing at him. This time, when he came after what seemed like, and maybe even was, an hour it was like the breaking of a dam that had stood for a hundred years. It was wonderful. Exhausting. Expensive.

Cindy made him pay dearly but Dennis didn’t care. The experience had opened up a new world.

During the next few months Dennis learned which of the hookers would accept him as this kind of client and their rates and just how far he could go. Cindy spread the word for him, at a price, but he didn’t care what it cost. The Logan brothers were expanding and Dennis was making more runs than ever before and his reliability was such that his pay kept going up and up. And all his extra money went on girls. On paid-for painful, bloody, endlessly exciting sex.

Dennis’s life, still secretive but in a different way, was better than it had been since he was five years old.

And then, one day, he met Jane Holley.

restaurant-1685876__340Jane worked at a diner in the county where most of the Logan boys’ customers lived. She was about Dennis’s age, approaching twenty, very pretty, bright, and he could tell that she was a cut or two above the joint she worked in. He liked Jane. Liked her in a way that was very different from the way he had liked some of the other girls he’d met during the past couple of years. He liked to see her, to talk to her, to smell the mingling of fresh soap and faint cooking smells, to feel the occasional touch of her fingers as he took the check or handed her a tip. Most of all he liked the flashing smile, the friendly sound of her voice as she greeted him, or sent him out into the night. After a while he found himself thinking of Jane as he drove along the night-clad roads, imagining what it would be like to go home after a long night’s work, a real home, his own home, his and Jane’s home. A porch for the summer evenings, a yard for the dog – yes, they would have a dog, maybe two – a kitchen where Jane would make food just for the two of them not the hungry, rowdy, vulgar mob who crowded into the diner where she worked. And a living room, with television and records and comfortable armchairs for burning logs. A room with books. Lots of books. And a bedroom.

A bedroom.

What would it be like to make love – because that is what it would be, not just sex – to a woman like Jane. No, not a woman like Jane because there were no other women like Jane, Dennis was sure of that. But Dennis didn’t know if he would handle that kind of relationship.

One night he asked Jane for a date and she responded with only the tiniest hesitation followed by a quick grin. They dated a few times and he learned that she was filling in time before going east to college where she planned to major in English. This was almost too perfect. They both loved books.

Their dates became ever more friendly, ever more affectionate, ever more loving. And Dennis enjoyed it, he didn’t feel the kind of needs that he had fulfilled with the hookers. Which was something for which he was desperately thankful. Because there was no way that he could ever raise a finger to harm Jane. He was sure that when the time came, he wouldn’t need that kind of artificial stimulation with her.

Life for Dennis was better than he ever dreamed it could be. But one night, something that he had been dreading came up. Jane asked him his name. His full name.

Until then he had just been Dennis. Now he had to tell her his second name. He could lie, of course, like he had done so often in the past. But he knew that what he and Jane had, whatever it was, was something special. The road they were starting out on was by far the most exciting and important of any road he had so far traveled. And starting out on a lie was no way for a relationship to have a chance.

But what would happen when he told her his name was Dennis Ennis? Would there be that tell-tale twitch at the corner of her sweet mouth? He would never know, until and unless he told her. So why take the chance? Why risk everything? But the lie would be worse. Especially if he wanted their relationship to continue and to grow. Dennis thought about that. There was no doubt in his mind that he wanted them to remain at least good friends. No, that wasn’t it. He liked her a lot more than that. Maybe what he felt for her was . . . well, love.

They had so many things in common. They read the same books, enjoyed the same movies, laughed at the same jokes. Both of them were quiet, self-contained, comfortable in silence and thought. Dennis knew that when Jane went east to college he would happily follow her, dropping his job with the Logan boys without a second’s thought, leaving behind his Pa and his Ma and the town he had grown up in and where he hated almost everybody.

He knew he was risking a lot, telling her his name. Maybe he was risking everything. But, somehow, he didn’t seem to have any choice.

So he told her his name and waited.

For a moment there was a flat silence. Then something gleamed in her eye and she repeated his name. Dennis Ennis. He waited, barely breathing. And then the corner of her mouth moved. Not a twitch exactly; but close enough. And then her face blurred as tears came to his eyes.

And then he left, telling her he’d forgotten something important he had to do, mumbling something about not being long, that he’d be back soon. Then he was gone, forcing the truck along the back roads the Logan boys always insisted he take, trailing dust. Forcing himself not to think. Not thinking about the – whatever it was that had touched Jane’s lips. No, he would not think about that. Not ever.

Dennis still lived with his Pa and Ma and he left the truck outside the house when he went inside. He had no plan. No thoughts of what he might do. Just the blank, anger-tainted feeling that occupied most of his brain. And his gun was in his hand. His mother came down the stairs and from somewhere a long way off he heard himself ask why they’d named him Dennis Ennis. Marybeth looked surprised, then smiled uneasily, looking at the gun and told him that they – herself and his Pa – had figured it was, well, kinda cute.

Cute, he repeated.

Then he shot her.

His Pa came out of the kitchen, a bottle of Coors in his hand, staring at his son and at his wife lying there, her head trailing over the bottom step, blood staining her lemon-yellow and white house dress. Joe Ennis opened his mouth to speak, then turned to run but Dennis shot him in the back of the head.

Outside, Dennis sat in the truck for a few minutes, thinking. Really thinking, for the first time since he had left Jane. The Wilson house was closest, then he would have to drive through town to reach the others he hated. But there wouldn’t be time for them all. Nor bullets. So he went first to the Wilsons’ place. The old man had died a few years back but Miz Wilson was there with his one-time friends Roy and Billy.

Afterward, Dennis reloaded his gun and drove away without looking back. He didn’t want any memories of the Wilson house or any other house or building or man or woman that were a part of his life before now.

On his way through town to the house where Mister Simpkins boarded he had to pass the library so he went in and shot the librarian. There were two other women in the library but Dennis didn’t know either of them so he ignored them, leaving one woman in a faint, the other screaming in a low-pitched

Mister Buckley was standing in the doorway of his store, idly watching the few people and cars passing by. He saw Dennis and nodded his head. Maybe he knew it was Dennis, maybe he just knew it was someone he knew: one of his Soldiers. Dennis lifted his hand in what was almost a wave. Then realized it was the hand that held the gun and saw the old man’s eyes widen before he straightened up to stare more intently as Dennis drove on.

The schoolteacher had retired and spent his days sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of the boarding house where he lived. Dennis didn’t even bother to climb out of the truck or switch off the engine.

The force of the bullet hitting his chest pitched Mister Simpkins backwards, chair and all, but Dennis didn’t wait to see if he was dead. He could already hear police sirens.

Knowing that time was running out, he did not take the back roads but drove the highway fast and hard, back to the diner where Jane Holley worked, parked the truck out front and went inside.

Her smile looked almost like one of relief when she saw him coming in through the door. But the smile faded at his expression and at the sight of the gun which he pointed right at her.

He watched her face, saw a strange catalog of expressions run across it. But not fear. For some reason she wasn’t afraid of him. And in a sudden clear moment he knew why. He couldn’t kill her. He loved her. And she knew that he did.

They could go away together, drive together, see the country together, be together, live together, sleep together, make love together. Die together. But there was no reason for Jane to die. No reason at all. She had no hate in her; she had nothing to do with what he had done. But never, ever – however far they traveled together, however much they talked, however hard he tried to explain – would she understand.firearm-409000__340

So Dennis smiled at her. Then put the muzzle of the revolver into his mouth, bit hard onto the barrel. And squeezed the trigger.


Jane didn’t know how many hours she had to sit in the County Sheriff’s office waiting for him to finish all his telephone calls. She knew it was a long time from the number of pieces of wadded tissue in the wastebasket beside her. She felt limp, washed out. Totally drained of tears of emotion, of hope, of love.

From the one-sided telephone calls she heard she had gathered that over in Dennis’s town things were pretty bad. Dennis hadn’t had any choice in doing what he had finally done in front of her. But how she wished he had taken her with him.

Eventually, the sheriff ended his last call and prepared to take down her statement but first he began to write her name across the top of the page. Jane took a deep breath and stopped him. As this was official, she knew that she would have to use her real name.

Not Jane, she told him. That’s just what I call myself. My parents, they gave me one of those – cutesy names. The sheriff carefully wiped out her name with liquid corrector then blew on it until it dried. Then he looked at her. Waiting.

Molly, she told him, after a while.

She waited, knowing what came next after he finished typing.

Molly Holley, he read, silently.

And then the corner of his mouth moved and she knew that he was repeating her name to himself, the way everyone had done as she grew up and made her life miserable in a way that no one – no one, except perhaps Dennis – could ever understand.

Molly Holley.






Copyright © 1998 & 2017 Bruce Crowther

Bruce Crowther has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of the work

Illustrations courtesy of Pixabay

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