Brian Maxwell


Brian Maxwell is a Florida-based writer, particularly interested in the short story form. His fiction has appeared in Fugue, Evansville Review, Louisville Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Rio Grande Review, 580 Split, 2 Bridges Review, Sierra Nevada Review, and elsewhere. His story, “Listen as the Bells,” was translated into Italian and included in the anthology Orbite Vuote, published by Intermezzi Press, and his book reviews have appeared in the North Dakota Quarterly. Brian currently resides along the Space Coast in Florida, where he is a communications instructor at Eastern Florida State College.


My friend Clevenger was one of those lucky guys who didn’t believe in luck, which made me believe even more. Luck is an empty box, he’d say, and he meant it. Clevenger was always quoting that stuff, slogans he’d picked up from his years of mandatory counseling. He claimed that he made his own luck, and maybe he was right. After all, he was the one who opened the door that afternoon when Fat Harry came around. It was my idea to pretend that we weren’t home.

Harry Blenny was so unlucky he might as well have been cursed. He really was fat, which I thought was impossible for a junkie. Plus he was always getting picked up by the cops, and maybe because of his size, they liked to beat on him. Word was that he’d been bitten by a shark on two occasions, and for someone who lived in Florida and couldn’t swim, that was quite a feat. So it wasn’t a total surprise that a guy like Harry might show up at the door with a huge bag of pills and die on the couch the same day. I mean, it wasn’t like you couldn’t see it coming.

I’d gone for a walk to think things through, but the clouds looked ominous so I went to Al’s Lounge instead. Clevenger was on the floor when I got back, bug-eyed and sweating, a road map spread out in front of him. That’s when he broke the news. That dude might be dead, he told me. I could see that he’d taken it upon himself to separate the dead man from his stash.

“Wait,” I said. “What? Maybe we should call someone.” I was really thinking that maybe we should get out of there and then call someone, or just get out of there. I went to put a blanket over Harry, but we only had one and he was lying on it. His lips were parted and the tip of his tongue poked out of his tiny mouth. The tiny mouth made him look even bigger, I decided, but maybe this, too, was just bad luck. “When did this happen?” I asked Clevenger. “What did you do?”

We were only in the apartment because Clevenger’s uncle had put him through rehab again and given him a place to crash. It was more like a storage space, really—one big room with a single table and a couch and boarded-up windows. The uncle stopped by every once in a while with a box of chicken and a newspaper to see if Clevenger had found a job, but Clevenger wasn’t doing so hot. He hardly slept and had taken to carrying around an over-sized hunting knife, poking at the walls like he was probing for termites. And he talked to himself at night, whole conversations while I pretended to sleep on the floor. Our situation had been tenuous long before Harry Blenny showed up with his giant bag of drugs, but now the scales had really tipped.

“Hey,” I said. “Are you listening?”

Clevenger nodded. He had his finger on the map like he’d already picked a place to go, and of course he had that knife by his side. I’d always dreamed about getting out of town, leaving it all behind, and when I pictured the place I wanted to end up it always looked like Hawaii. Clevenger had a different plan. “Where’s your car?” he said. “We’re going to Pensacola.”

By the time I found the Oldsmobile, it had begun to rain. Apparently I’d left it by the train tracks. The windows were rolled down part way and the tires were bald. Otherwise, she looked OK. The car had been my mother’s until the brakes began to fail. Then it was the steering, and finally she just handed it over. I’d been nursing it along without so much as opening the hood.

I found the key under the seat and got her running on the first try. The Oldsmobile smelled like a dumpster, since I’d been sleeping in the back before hooking up with Clevenger. Once upon a time it had been a swell car. The seats were a slick red and the body was as white as a wedding dress. Now there was hardly any color at all, inside or out, except for the streaks of rust along the hood.

Clevenger was standing in the rain when I bumped around the corner, and I could tell that he was wound pretty tight. He had the map jammed under his arm and Harry Blenny’s brown bag clenched in his fist and he seemed to be wearing all of the clothes that he owned, but no shoes. I tried to park but he waved me on. Then he was pushing me out of the way to get behind the wheel and we were off.

“Can you read a map?” said Clevenger, but he didn’t seem interested in an answer. Instead he blew through a stop sign and flicked the wipers on and off. Then he was fiddling with the radio dial. There was only static but he was bobbing anyway, singing along with some song in his head.

I had about three blocks to think about poor Harry Blenny, and then about Clevenger’s uncle and how he would be the one to find the body. There was always the chance that Harry might wake up, but what was there really for him to wake up to? Anyway, that was the kind of thing that happened to people with good luck, and Harry Blenny was not one of those people.

Right about then Clevenger turned onto the river road. He was tapping his fingers on the wheel and riding the yellow lines. The rain really started coming down and I saw a guy on a racing-type bicycle peddling along up ahead, swerving to avoid the puddles. I was glad to see that he was wearing a helmet, because I knew we were going to hit him even before Clevenger reached down to mess with the radio again. That was all it took.

“What was that?” Clevenger said. “Did you feel something?”

“Pull over,” I told him, though he was already stopping. I craned my head but didn’t open the door. I wasn’t in a hurry to see another dead person. Clevenger dashed out into the mist and when he came back he had the bike. He only put it down to pop the trunk and toss it in.

“Where’s the guy?” I shouted, but Clevenger had disappeared again. As if by magic, the radio settled on a station. I could just make out John Denver singing “Love is Everywhere,” while the wipers tortured the windshield and Clevenger began to beat on the back door with his foot. This time he had the guy over his shoulder. I reached over the seat and yanked the handle, and just like that there were three of us charging off under the grey-striped evening sky. I sat perfectly still while Clevenger pumped the gas and sang along with John Denver. The bicycle guy made dying noises behind us, but I wasn’t about to turn around until we got out of town.

Somewhere past Titusville the road lined up beneath us and the streetlights started glimmering. Beyond that the stars shined meekly but they were hard to see. The guy had stopped moaning and I meant to check him out, or at least take off his helmet.

“Dude,” Clevenger said. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“I can’t believe you hit him,” I said. “What’s wrong with you?” There was blood dripping from the guy’s face and he had a mean shiner and maybe a broken nose. “At least let me take that thing off his head.”

“Maybe he hit us,” said Clevenger. “Anyway, he’s safe in here.”

“He’d be safer if we hadn’t smashed him,” I said. “Or stolen his bike.”

Clevenger bristled. He drifted into the center lane and gunned us down the road. I didn’t know what the hell Harry Blenny had brought along in that bag of his, but Clevenger was high as a kite. He had both hands on the wheel and he was squeezing it like it might jump up and bite him.

A mile later we pulled into a hamburger place and parked in the darkest corner possible. Clevenger cupped the key in his hand. Then he turned around and checked out our passenger for about a half a second. “I’m starved,” he said. “Be right back.”

I watched him stroll up to the building with all the ease of a free man just released from jail. He never once looked back. When I was sure he was gone, I reached over the seat and tried to get that helmet off. But even in the dark I could tell that there was blood everywhere so I quit. I didn’t know how to check for a pulse so I grabbed his nose instead. That did it. His eyes flashed violently and he let out a low, wet groan, but I could see a bit of blue mixed in with the red. “Stay here,” I told him. “Don’t go anywhere.”

Inside, the fluorescent lights played tricks on my eyes but at least the place was empty. I found Clevenger in the bathroom, humming. He was dripping and barefoot, staring into the mirror and poking his cheeks. He pulled off a jacket to reveal another one underneath and laughed at that. “I can’t see, man,” he said. “And then I can.” That’s when I noticed the knife tucked into his jeans.

“We should split,” I told him. “It’s not good here.”

“Not so fast,” Clevenger said. He’d followed my eyes to his waistline and turned to face me. “Dude, chill. I got us some burgers.”

The next few minutes felt like forever. The girl at the counter smiled from under her paper hat, but that smile wanted to call the cops. Her eyebrows were jumping off her face, as if never in her short life had she seen anything like Clevenger. I realized too late that he had left Harry Blenny’s brown paper bag there on the counter when he went to the bathroom. It, too, was soaked and ragged, but also open at the top, and we all stood together while the country western station played in the background and the hamburger man did his thing in the kitchen and the girl pretended not to fear for her life. When she’d finally handed over the sack of burgers, we had no choice but to grab the other bag as well and walk slowly back the way we came. I prayed that we’d find an empty parking lot and the Oldsmobile and even that damned bike guy with his bloody face and his helmet.

Then we were driving again. Clevenger had stripped down to a t-shirt and boxers, having piled his wet stuff in the back, next to our passenger, who had apparently managed to get his door open and plant one foot on the ground before losing consciousness in the parking lot. That was where we found him, bleeding on the asphalt with one leg in the car and his helmet strapped tight to his head. I still didn’t know what, exactly, was in Pensacola, or whether Clevenger would be able to keep it together until we got there. He had the knife in his lap and he didn’t seem to notice that the Oldsmobile was running on fumes. But worse than that, he was gobbling pills while he chewed his food. The burgers he’d thrown my way sat between us on the seat.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s in Pensacola, anyhow?” We were crossing the state on a two-lane and I watched the pawn shop signs fly by and then a few neon saloon signs. The road grew darker the further we got out of town. I was still waiting for Clevenger to say something.

Between bites he told me that he knew a guy: “He’ll know what to do. He’s got us covered.” Clevenger wiped his hand on the dash and grabbed the pills, shaking the bag in my face. “This, man,” he said. “This right here. Everything’s gonna be fine. Eat your hamburgers.”

“We have to stop for gas,” I told him.

He unwrapped another burger and seemed to contemplate the situation. We’d been friends a long time, and though I’d witnessed Clevenger in various states of drugged-out agitation, I’d never seen this version. I knew him to steal on occasion, if no one was looking. And I’d seen him in a few fights, but rarely without good reason, and even then, only if there was a girl involved. He was usually a decent person. Not responsible, or even caring. Certainly not kind. But this was hit-and-run, or kidnapping, or some terrible combination of the two. I had to help him, if I could. Or at least I had to stop him.

A light flashed up ahead and it looked like a sign for a Kwik-Stop. “Pull over,” I told him. “Unless you want to get stuck out here.” He seemed to be slowing down so I kept badgering him. When he turned on the blinker I knew that I had him for a moment, but probably not much more. “Who’s your guy in Pensacola?” I said. “Do I know him? What’s his name?”

We coasted into the Kwik-Stop a bit too fast, and I slumped forward. The last few burgers shot across the seat and there was a groan from the back. Clevenger steadied the Oldsmobile and pulled up next to the pump. He was still holding tight to the wheel and staring straight ahead through the windshield as if this were all a mirage, so I asked him again.

“Fat guy,” he said, closing his eyes. “Harry something.” Outside, a swarm of insects descended, chasing the sweet scent of coolant as it bubbled gently out of the radiator, and probably our own sweat and stink as well. A boiled peanut stand stood nearby, empty and unattended. The pivot doors had been left up, propped open with a stick, and the dark space there gaped back at us like a cavernous black hole. “Fat Harry,” Clevenger muttered. “Harry Bear. I left him on the couch. He’s waiting for us in Pensacola. He’s there right now.”

When he stepped out of the car, the knife clattered to the ground but he didn’t stop to retrieve it and I let him go. The Oldsmobile ticked rhythmically and I could feel heat from the engine as it relaxed and readied itself for what was to come. Clevenger made his way to the Kwik-Stop, hunched and barefoot beneath a swarming mosquito cloud. He walked differently now, as if the last hour had ground him down, and it took me a moment to realize that he was also half naked as he disappeared through the glass doors. There was nothing to do except go after him.

Inside, the young clerk pointed to the corner where the bathroom sat tucked away behind a stack of beer boxes. “Rough night,” he offered, hardly turning from his magazine. His greasy smile told me that he wasn’t scared of us, and I took that as a good sign. The bathroom was a cramped one-room job with a light bulb dangling from the ceiling. Clevenger had passed out in a heap on the dirty tile floor, one arm over the toilet like he’d found a friend. I watched him for a while, waiting for him to twist himself awake and erupt. But he was somewhere else. I felt sorry for his brain, of course, for the electric mess that he’d made of it, and for the shock of life that was sure to arrive when he woke to the dull throb of another missing day. It hurt to see him this way, and I owed him plenty. But that didn’t stop me from locking the door on the inside and shutting it behind me as I turned to go.

The moon was visible as I pulled out, a white fingernail in the sky above since the rain had quit and the clouds were moving west. I shook out a handful of pills from Harry Blenny’s stash and choked them down. After a while, I could feel the future bending around me. I could taste it on the inhale and the exhale of my breath as I drove the dark two-lane, walled in on both sides by an endless wall of slash pines and gnarled oak trees. Even though I hadn’t filled up the tank, I knew I’d make it back to town, just as I knew that my passenger would eventually rise from the back seat and take the helmet from his head and look at me and ask: “What happened?”

“There was an accident,” I’d tell him, and the air outside would suddenly feel heavy and sweet at the same time. His name would be Joe Poke, and he wouldn’t see the hunting knife on the front seat or notice, yet, the blood on his face or hands. In fact he wouldn’t say anything at all for several miles, until I swerved to miss a possum. At that point, he would sigh and tell me to be careful, and I would take this as another good sign. Then I’d lean down and run my hand across the floor until I found Joe Poke a hamburger and he would eat it in three bites while I found him another one. “Here,” I’d tell him, holding it up between us without turning my head. “Eat this, too.”

As a student of southern fiction and a Floridian, I’ve always been sensitive to the fact that despite its tabloid reputation, my home state seems underrepresented in the grand scheme of all things literary. There are plenty of reasons for this, perhaps none as valid as the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. When you start with Mickey Mouse, mobile homes, hurricanes, and alligators, it’s often difficult to resist the urge to veer straight toward a rioting and calamitous punch line. So the story 'Pensacola' is part of my ongoing attempt to write about Florida without relying too heavily upon stock regionalist imagery or the most obvious plot twists. That said, I am fond of a well-written hurricane tale, and I do believe there should be more fiction based on or around shark fishing.