One of the unexpected side benefits to starting Broadsword and Blasters was discovering the plethora of other short fiction being published, especially by small independent presses. One of those happens to be Tough, headed by Rusty Barnes. Tough is primarily an online journal, but supported periodically with an printed collection, and the second one has recently been released. While some of the names were familiar to me (Thomas Pluck, Alec Cizak, Chris McGinley, William Soldan), I came to the majority of writers fresh. Tough goes for a no-frills approach. No editor’s note. No writer bios. No illustrations to mark the stories. All you get is the text.
Michael Bracken kicks things off with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with a private detective, Morris, his tattooist friend, and the trouble a young woman brings into his life. The way Bracken weaves the detective’s work life in with the personal life worked well, even if at the end I felt almost as dissatisfied as Morris did. There’s a feeling that you are only getting a small piece of the overall story, but in that way it more clearly mirrors reality. Stories end when we decide we’re done telling them.
Thomas Pluck brings us “The Third Jump of Frankie Buffalo,” and Korean war veteran Frank. Frank’s got bills to pay and retirement he wants to enjoy, so when a couple of young bloods decided to rob an armored car, Frank signs on. Only there’s a snag when he gets stuck at a railroad crossing. Pluck weaves the current with the past, giving us insight into Frank and why he is why he is (and how he got the nickname Buffalo). It’s a nice sharp bit of writing, and Pluck shows how to tell a great story in a short space.
“Day Planner” by Matt Mattilla breaks apart the standard narrative by telling a story broken up into small discrete chunks as it follows the day of a young homeless man simply called The Kid. It follows his routine, how he tries to disguise that he’s homeless, how he uses a restroom to get clean as much as he can, how panhandles for money, how he has a cough and it’s bad but no money and no insurance means there’s no doctor. The tension builds nicely at the end when his daily routine is roundly interrupted by the unexpected, but it is left open whether he will break out of his daily routine or if it was merely a roadside distraction.
“Tally Ho” by William Soldan reads like a variation on Taxi Driver (and yes, that’s meant as a compliment). Gordon drives a cab and one night he picks up a young woman in distress. He discovers that she is a prostitute working out of motel, working in conjunction with her boyfriend/pimp. Gordon offers to help her get out of the life, offers her some of his savings so she can start over. Then he discovers it was all a scam. Gordon realizes he’s no Travis Bickle, however, realizes there’s no way he can go out in a blaze of glory, and well, some people don’t want to be saved and that the story of Taxi Driver might be as much of a fairy tale as anything told by the Brothers Grimm. The end twists the narrative in a great way and makes no mistake where the narrator finds Gordon on the hero/villain line.
“Beach Body” by C.A. Rowland features a woman and her husband walking along a beach, far from their usual Chicago life, and stumbling upon a dead body. Only, the husband knows the body because he was having an affair with her. Rowland explores the nature of infidelity, along with the virtues of discretion and careful planning and I will admit to not having scene the twist coming at the end where the only one I was left feeling sorry for was the victim left on the beach.
Nick Kolakowski’s “Viking Funeral” felt like a small piece of a much larger story. Two people (hard to call them friends), tied by bonds of having served in the military together, journey to the home of a fellow solider, dead now two years, to put his remains in the car he restored and set the whole thing on fire. There’s allusions to things done while over seas that might come back with a vengeance on the main character, but what and why is never really explored. Maybe it was me, but I felt like I was staring at a puzzle with a solid chunk of the pieces missing.
A road trip from Ohio to Florida is the set-up for Andrew Welsh-Huggin’s “Long Drive Home.” Marty works for Shayne, driving down to Florida to buy pills from small pharmacies using forged prescriptions, then driving back up to Ohio where they’re sold to addicts. Only Marty is used to working with two other men and Shayne never goes with. Marty has a sister with kids he’s trying to do right by, even if it means skimming from Shayne to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Alex had dreams of working at Walt Disney World as a princess, dreams derailed when she met Aunt Jodie and ended up having her body sold out of motel rooms. The story lines come together nicely at the end, with both Marty and Alex left to what comes next.
“Masonry” by Rob McClure-Smith features Cowan who is on his way to meet two men, Jalil and Prince. The question is “Why?” The sense is that Cowan is intruding on their turf and they want him dead, but they pick a relatively public place and its still daylight. Cowan isn’t going down without a fight, however. Again, this is one of those pieces that alludes to a bigger story that the reader isn’t privy to. In this case the focus is more on the action, but I was still left wondering exactly what Cowan’s motivation was and what he was involved with. The dialogue and sense of place was a real strength in the piece.
“Once Upon a Time in Chicago” by Tia J’Anae, features a woman with her lover, her plans for the future, and how a few bullets can change all of that. In such a short story, I got a real sense of Carla, her motivations, and her ability to sense an opportunity. While ultimately a selfish character, I couldn’t help but root for her and hope she gets what she is after.
“The Grass Beneath My Feet” by S.A. Cosby features a convict released long enough to go to his mother’s funeral. Along the way we discover why he’s imprisoned, why he holds a grudge against his mother, and the experience of the fleeting freedom of being out of prison for even a short period of time. It also explores how dehumanizing incarceration can be and what it can do to a person.
“No News is Good News” by Evelyn Deshane explores the violence experienced by trans individuals (especially trans women) and the overall difficulties faced by those in that community, be it from forced group sessions, to reading crime reports hoping that one of your friends isn’t next, to the jealousy when someone in the community is able to get more than you. The characters are shown in all their humanity and the narrative is never played for a cheap thrill. I haven’t read any of Deshane’s work before but will definitely keep an eye out for that name in the future.
“The Bag Girl” by Alec Cizak is a great slice of small-town crime and bad decisions where a local girl helps her boyfriend find marks that he can attack in the parking lot. Only his actions draw the attention of the police, making it that much more difficult for them to score cash they need to feed their addictions. It’s also a bit of a morality story in that people who are pushed into corners might not respond they way you think. Cizak’s writing, as to be expected, is gritty, and grimy and might have you paying more attention to the people you interact with on a daily basis.
“Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy” by Preston Lang features a stolen table, sports betting, and laureate poets. A case study in how actions cascade, one upon another, and how poetry (still) doesn’t pay. I found the characters engaging and humorous while at the heart of the story is how little it takes to push someone out of their comfortable life.
“With Hair Blacker than Coal” by Chris McGinley is a fantastic piece of Appalachian noir that blends in a decent amount of local folklore. Curley Knott is after two brothers who’ve been poaching bears, only when he comes across them, one of them is dead and the other might not be far behind. The question becomes “What killed them?” There’s a sense that moving deeper into the wilderness moves the characters into a different world, one where people don’t rightly belong. The reader is left wondering if there is a woman living in the woods with bobcats or if the sheriff imagined it, but in such a way that the story feels complete even with the central mystery left to interpretation.
“She Goes First” by Mary Thorson features the events surrounding the execution of Ruth Snyder, and the circumstances of how her photograph was taken at the moment of her execution. The focus of the story is around the wife of the photographer, her struggling marriage, with the circumstances of the execution acting as a backdrop. The story, if anything, highlights the ever day cruelty that can be life, even when there isn’t anything as horrible as a murder to frame it.
Tough 2 can be found at Amazon. It publishes a new story every week on its website.