Five-Page Exercise #1

Title: How Brown Smells

**Author’s note: Another story with violence. Well, implied violence and a gruesome body part. Also another story with a violent criminal who happens to be in a wheelchair. Who knows where these things come from? I like the narrator in this one, as tiredly tragic and condescending as he is. The idea of the low-rent, exhausted, workaday criminal fascinates me, and the texts with his now-ex-girlfriend help explain why he is so casual about everything ending in blood.**

Until I saw it dismembered and soaking in Portico’s hotel room bathtub, I could not say for sure how long Timmy Nelson’s torso was.

He always wore those fucking long striped shirts like he was some sort of hopper, or whatever they call them. Pillheads running pills here and there to other pillheads, scoring pills, crushing pills, ingesting pills, talking about pills.

I’m glad he’s dead, if I’m being honest.

But again, about his torso. We used to actually talk about it, like bust his balls about it. Walking behind him, telling him to pull up his pants – “or maybe your pants are all the way up, but we can’t tell ’cause you’re wearing that shirt like a dress.”

It’s really first grade humor, I am aware of that. The joy was in watching Nelson lose his shit and start bouncing around, rolling that nasty-ass toothpick back and forth in his tiny scar of an excuse for a mouth. He would run his hand across his buzzcut, slow, slow, then fast-fast-fast, schick schick schick. “Man, you guys ain’t that funny really. I make this look good anyway, so fuck y’all.”

Schick Schick Schick.

Fuck him. Who’s funny now, Mr. Torso? 

That stupid goddamned blue and white striped hopper shirt was in the corner when I walked into the bathroom, balled up and bloody. To tell the truth, that fucking bloody shirt bothered me more than seeing his torso soaking in that pink water. Some joker had added bubbles to the bath.

“What the fuck.” I nodded at Nelson’s torso.

Portico, squatting and smoking by the tub, shrugged. The room smelled like blood and ass. “Head in the sewer, arms and legs to Farrow’s pigs. I get the torso. Division of labor.”

“I know, but why are you soaking it? Won’t that log it down and make it harder to deal with? And, well, why the bubble bath? I’m just curious about all this, understand. I’m here to be a henchman, and hench I shall. I am just kinda baffled.”

“Well, then your job is to be baffled and shut the fuck up about it. Your job is to be baffled and do what I tell you anyway.”

“And apparently your job is to take Farrow’s orders like you’re giving him a mouth massage.”

Portico looked up at me and made as if to stand, but I didn’t look away. He was paying me, but that was all. A business arrangement. Fuck him and his movie ideas about being “boss.”

“Very funny, Big Guy. Fuck you. Help me roll him over so the other side can tenderize. Easier to cut him up.”

I shrugged. The dumb fuck wasn’t tenderizing anything, and I don’t know why he would bother trying to cut through a torso. I thought this guy was supposed to be experienced. But if this went wrong, it was his head that Farrow would symbolically mount above his ridiculous fireplace, not mine. So I knelt and reached into the water and helped roll the hunk of a former lackey over. It was slippery.

There was nothing very extraordinary about Nelson’s torso after all, once I saw it exposed. I kind of missed the fuck. He had a tattoo of a duck on his left tit that I had never seen. The torso bobbed a couple of times after we turned it, making that duck seem to float.


Farrow rubbed his kneecaps and then reached beneath his knees and repositioned his legs. 

“I think today was the worst it’s ever been,” he said, grimacing and rubbing his thighs.

“That arthritis is a bitch,” Portico nodded.

“Not that, you dumb fuck. My legs are paralyzed, idiot. How would I know what arthritis in them feels like? I’m talking about this fucking stupid beef with Copacetic. He called and said some nasty shit today. This is some Hatfield-McCoy bullshit. Or more like Baker-Howard. Didn’t more people die in the Baker-Howard feuds?”

Portico shrugged.

“Look that up,” Farrow nodded at me, and I pulled my phone from my pocket to Google it. There was a text message from Sheena: It wasn’t what you said it would be.

Followed immediately by another notification: *isn’t.

Farrow wheeled himself to his minibar. Everyone kind of made me sick with their movie shit: Farrow had a fireplace, a leather chair, and a minibar on wheels in his “lair.” In the fucking exurbs. Running a small-time criminal enterprise. Asshole. “I’m gonna need more bourbon,” he nodded to Portico. “Middle shelf this time.” I felt Portico look at me, daring me to notice his servitude. “Got it,” he mumbled, and wrote it down on that ridiculous little spiral notebook he kept in his breast pocket like he was 80 years old.

“I can’t find that information,” I said, thumbing my phone screen up. “Everybody seems to be all up in the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s assholes. No comparisons available between their death count and the Baker-Howard’s.” I flipped over to text Sheena back: Bought and paid for with the blood of my peace. Sorrow can be the only result. Goodbye.

My thumb hovered. 


“Well, I’m telling you for sure the Baker-Howard feuds killed more people,” Farrow said. “And all over some stupid fucking bullshit as trifling as this shit with Copacetic. I may send one of you goons to talk to him. Or hell, maybe we’ll all go. Old school.”

Fuck you then, Sheena texted back. I locked my phone and dropped it in my pocket.

“Do you mean ‘talk to him’ or really talk to him?” I asked.

“No, talk to him. For real. Find out what it will take to just put all this behind us.”

More movie shit: Portico and Copacetic sitting around in a smoky warehouse in the middle of nowhere, sharing a drink while their respective muscle stands by in the background. Silly fucking nonsense. Right then Copacetic was probably sitting in his pest-infested apartment counting out five-dollar bills and smoking crack. Any meetup between these two morons would be at a KFC or the adult bookstore or in the Wal-Mart parking lot in one of their dented SUVs. The best thing for us and for the world at large would have been to just to knock on Copacetic’s door and put a bullet in his head when he opened it.

“A sit-down,” Farrow said. “Old school.” Portico watched me closely, so I forced myself not to roll my eyes. He would love nothing more than to see me mocking Farrow. He would fuck me with a machete if it meant him getting a slight bump in pay. 

“Okay,” I said, maintaining eye contact with Portico. He finally looked away. “A sit-down. Got it.”

“Yeah,” Farrow said, rolling back over to me with his drink between his thighs. He was clearly warming up to the idea. “We’ll meet somewhere neutral, like KFC. Me and him, his people and my people.” He smiled and looked at each of us and sipped from his glass. I fully expected him to say “I love it when a plan comes together.” I wonder if I could have managed not to shoot him dead.

“Got it,” I said. “Our people and his people.” I pulled my phone back out and pretended to be taking notes. Copacetic’s “people” included, among other assorted halfwits: Nicky Stout, who was a minor overdose away from death, Barry Connik, who couldn’t understand something as simple as a golf scorecard if it meant blowjobs on demand for the rest of his life, and Fuck-o Barnett, who suffered from the impression that his nickname was an honorific.

“I’ll make the calls,” I said. No new text from Sheena. Good. I dropped the phone back in my pocket. The break had been coming for a while. Better to end it now. She hadn’t signed up for “torso remover” as a boyfriend, so really, who could blame her? 


Copacetic looked as stupid as usual. His bloodshot eyes darted and forgot, darted and forgot. I had never met someone that could really size up a room seemingly like a pro, and not understand a single thing he was seeing. 

His plastic spork scraped styrofoam as he scooped up the last of his wispy KFC mashed potatoes. I could almost taste the brown gravy. It reminded me of going to KMart with my mother and hoping she would have enough money for us to eat at the brown café at the back. The booths were brown, the menu was brown, the sad workers were dressed in brown uniforms, the gravy was brown. It is how brown smells to me to this day.

“In a minute,” he said, eyes darting and glassy, “we’ll go out to the car. I got something to show you. I think it will make everything a lot clearer.” He wiggled his eyebrows and sucked his spork. “By the way, have any of you guys seen Timmy Nelson?” He giggled.

Mike the Mechanic (the “muscle” Copacetic brought along) was still wearing his Midas uniform. He had a long streak of grease on his cheek that apparently no one had done the courtesy of telling him about. He had overcharged me for an oil change two weeks ago and all but begged for a tip, and now we were playing Godfather. He pursed his lips and tried to look hard, hands clasped in front of him. He just looked like an off-duty mechanic making a kissy face and for some reason standing stock still behind and to the left of a restaurant booth, glaring at no one in particular. If we had been in a decent part of town, the manager would no doubt have already tried to shoo him away or make him order something.

Farrow nodded slowly, eyes narrowing. “Okay,” he drawled. He actually scratched his chin. I felt Portico looking at me again and said a silent fuck-you.

Copacetic licked the underside of his spork where a little gravy lurked, stood up, and loomed over Farrow, enjoying the petty domination. “Let’s, um, take a ‘walk’ outside.” He cackled and slapped the back of Farrow’s wheelchair, and then Mike the Mechanic’s shoulder. Mike jumped and made a little sound, shook his head, and followed his boss outside.

“What kind of brake specials does Midas got going this week?” I asked as he passed. He pretended not to hear me, and he certainly didn’t look at me. He may still be alive if he had, because my face surely must have revealed how ready I was for shit to go wrong. I didn’t know what Copacetic was taking us to see in his trunk, but I doubted it was a treaty for everyone to sign. If Farrow had been 10% less stupid and not focused on playing a role, he would have seen it too and would also probably be alive now. He snapped his fingers at Portico, who jogged three steps around to assume his position at the back of the chair.

Sheena had told me about all of this. I didn’t even try to pretend she hadn’t warned me. She had described this inevitable scenario almost exactly as it was now unfolding. The torso was not only gruesome and a deal-breaker in her mind, but helping dispose of it had also been the beginning of the end for me, and she knew that. It was obvious, and had been the whole time.

“Your brain is too good to not see this,” she had pleaded before giving up on me altogether. I should have followed her to Fort Thomas. Her payroll scam would no doubt work exactly as she’d said, and wouldn’t involve torsos in bathtubs or trunks. She was probably already on her way there as I followed that band of morons out the cracked front door of the KFC. I liked to think about it.

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