A short story by Miles Klee, recommended by Matt Bell
INTRODUCTION BY MATT BELL
I first read Miles Klee’s work in a submission pile, when I was the editor of The Collagist. That piece, which I published in our next issue, was a series of five “miniatures,” each a tiny narrative powered by compression, suggestion, and ambiguity. There’s a certain distance to the voice of those shorts, a sort of pseudo-journalistic diction that makes the strangeness of the content all the more striking. I was immediately captivated, eager to seek out more.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only person excited about Klee’s work, and plenty of other stories of his were appearing just then in other literary magazines. As I discovered more of his work, I was initially taken aback by how different each new story was from the ones he’d sent me. It’s always tempting to assume that a first encounter with a writer’s work is representative of the whole, and more often than not you’d be right to think so. But part of what makes Klee such an interesting writer — the reason I’ve happily read nearly everything of his I can get my hands on, including his new collection True False — is how wide-ranging his talent is. Unlike most writers, who are so grateful to find something that succeeds that they end up mining that same patch of ground for most of their careers, Klee seems capable of writing any kind of story he wants, often starting by mimicking different genres and forms, then subverting those existing tropes to serve his own needs.
“Everybody’s Bluffing” is so different from those five miniatures I took for The Collagist that, if I didn’t know better, it would be easy to convince me that the two pieces had been written by completely different writers. It has a fantastic voice all its own, inspired but never constrained by the prose of noir detective novels — probably the ones at the pulpier end of the spectrum, as one of the story’s sly early allusions suggests — and it uses the genre trappings of its plot (two bank robbers, one the brains and one the brawn, pulling off a string of heists) as a sort of disguise or sleight-of-hand to keep the reader guessing, to slow the pace of revelation of the true mysteries at the heart of the story.
What is actually motivating the characters in “Everybody’s Bluffing” are their own lifelong bluffs, gambits perhaps as unlikely as the “house full of kings” the narrator flashes during the card game that gives the story its name. But sooner or later, in stories at least, someone always calls your bluff, and it’s thrilling to watch these two characters accelerate toward their ending. As for Miles Klee? If his prodigious gift for voice and style and storytelling is a bluff of its own, I haven’t yet seen what’s hiding behind it. Story after story, he raises the stakes, and every time I sit down to read him again it seems he finds another new way to come out winning.
Author of Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods
by Miles Klee
If we’d hit Hillcrest Savings the last time through Kansas City, neither of us could recall. But a source had it ripe that day — said the place groaned with cash. We’d outraced a storm bearing east; the air around us was all hiss while miles north, a twister poked and dragged at the earth as the finger of one supremely bored. A haze was cooking off the road.
Lionel clawed up a blizzard of yellowing newsprint in back, hoping for a hint in our headlines. Why didn’t we keep these details straight? Blame the sole thing he and I felt in kind: that when wheels were in motion, the motion consumed. There appeared not only no end, but no beginning to speak of either. We’d ever just escaped that storm, riding cheap tires, our faces tight in the heat.
“Damn,” he said. “Damn-hell-dammit.”
“I’m looking, Slip. Drive.”
“You’re not looking.”
“Who cares if we do it twice?”
Lionel’s mouth had vexed me ever since he’d sprung me from a cell in Decatur. I loved him, I’ll say it, but trust is a different ball of wax. He’d always been spotty, in need of counsel. Thus my swerving the Ford till he lost his balance and whanged his head.
“Christ’s ass,” he hollered.
“Don’t talk in there,” I said. “Things you say stand funny.”
It was afternoon and scorching when we rolled past Hillcrest, a mean brick box of no sophistication. We turned off Independence Ave and parked next to an unhappy tree.
“We done this cracker barrel before,” I said. “No lie.”
Lionel grunted and got out and went to the trunk for the Tommy. I reached under my seat for the Colts. Loaded the machine pistol, then changed my mind. Ungentlemanlike. Pocketed the standard instead.
In the sad little bank were two tellers wearing far too much pomade; a manager, crisp like an undertaker, signing papers at his desk; a bull reading some pulp called The Set-Up; a dusty old cracker in overalls, leaning on the counter and speaking with one of the grease-combed tellers.
“Oh yeah,” Lionel said, remembering the place. The bull looked up from his dime-store trash — Lionel smacked it into his face and confiscated the rod all at once.
“For those who weren’t with us last time,” I said, “don’t fuss, it comes natural.”
The manager and tellers were stacking bills when I got to the counter. Lionel kept his revolver on the bull, the Tommy poised to spray. I snapped open the valise and felt a mosquito land in my eyebrow and when I twitched I noticed again the old cracker in overalls beside me.
He gawked like I was a sheep he might rape. It was foul. It made me feel his lowness, dressed me in it, the way the wealthy dress you in their grace. He’d been struck dumb by our entrance, but now something about him spoke: a white government check, sapping the wetness of a spotty, tightened fist.
“You, Prince Dirt,” I said, pointing with the .38, no more than appendage this late in the dance. “You got hold of some money.”
The geezer didn’t flinch. He just real slow and careful stuffed the check in his overall pocket like nothing slicker had ever been dreamt up. Well, who wouldn’t’ve died from laughing?
“You seeing?” I said, and hacked a bit from laughing, and spat.
“Thought I wasn’t talking,” Lionel pointed out.
“Hardworking fella thinks I’m gonna take his check.”
I stepped up to the desk, counted ten twenties from the pile and swept the rest into my bag. The tellers cast hopeful glances; I saw that they were twins. The manager pinched his top vest button, doubtless appalled by the slightest freedoms and ready to slander us when we’d gone. A dab of axle grease, though, and the old cracker would spend his twilight holding forth at his cracker saloon about the time Slip Church cut him in, and I’d have that many more friends when we hid out in cracker country — just pray the gallows take me first.
Lionel said my name, but strangely it was no longer mine. I stared out the window at sizzling blue, two hundred dollars in my hand. I couldn’t break this gaze, now that the oddity of sense had revealed itself. A moment passed as if God weren’t paying attention. A cloud was floating by and it stroked the room with shade, and the shade parted my ribs, and twists of hot shadow coiled through me.
I saw the old cracker standing there with his dinky ladies’ gun. He was already dead, the Tommy ribboning his chest. The bull lunged, Lionel wheeled, I caressed an emptiness with my gun and sank. I put lips to floor thinking now, it’s now.
My eyes fell open. Lionel’s dead face stared back. Half his neck appeared to be missing, but who knew with that kind of gore.
I was laid out in richly scented blood. The unfired Colt was still in my hand. Voices weaved overhead. It was the manager and the bull (the tellers I supposed were meatloaf). They were arguing how they’d tell it. The bull wanted credit for killing me and Lionel both. He wanted to hide the dead cracker’s gun. The manager had a better idea. He said they could split the money in the valise and claim a third robber got away. The bull didn’t like that story; he started in on his angle again.
Although I’ve claimed, and often, that everyone’s a thief and a con, it stung somehow to hear the proof. I didn’t think twice about riddling the sons of bitches with lead.
But Lionel beat me to it.
Lionel and I been together a decent while. Our mothers were sisters, lived in the same steel pocket of Philly. His older brother got gassed in a trench. My kid brother hung himself. Like as not that’s why I’d stuck with him so long: Jonah gone, he was the last responsibility I had. After learning how from books we set to hustling dice around town. Bootlegged a bit, had a bad scrape or three. Found robbery easier, not to mention a lot more fun, and beat it before the law beat us.
He’s smart, Lionel, and quick. Not a showman, which is important, because more than one showman don’t play. But if we’re talking quality of mind… he’s not curious. He dresses like a bum, which I’ve given up on fixing, and besides, I like folks to sell him short. Got the better part of all the money he ever stole buried under a cabin in Wisconsin. I’ve never asked what he’s saving for, as I suspect he has no designs, no imagination for that fortune to excite. I suppose I don’t much either, throwing it at lively women, but at least when I run dry I’ve got due cause to drain a safe. Lionel, he’s in business for business’ sake.
Hurtled south on a country road, wheel sticky with various bloods. What there was to say wouldn’t come. We’d been so keen to light out of KC that we near forgot the dough, and when I remembered, out on the bank’s front steps, I could see straightaway that Lionel wouldn’t go back in. I had him bring the Ford around.
“We’re alive,” I said after a stretch.
“We’re alive,” Lionel agreed. He was rasping from his clipped windpipe.
“Does that hurt?” I said.
“No. Does that?”
Two oozing holes opened into my right lung. A third plunged deep into my heart. I peeled back a flap of ragged skin and put two fingers in the heart hole: like poking a patch of swamp whose faraway bottom heaved in reply.
“Does not,” I said.
I drove us to Maysville, Missouri, hardly aware of doing so. Lionel ripped a sleeve from his shirt to tie around his slippery neck. Soon after, he was asleep. Exhaustion had me too, and I eased off the road and covered my face with my hat, whose brim smelled of burnt powder.
I woke to stars clustered tight over prairie and Lionel’s hand seeking pulse in my neck. He whistled in relief; blood bubbled over the edge of his scarf.
“We near Dodger’s?”
“Thought we may as well.”
“Let’s throw cold water on him,” Lionel said, cheerful about it even.
Half hour later, the Ford’s beams sliced across Dodger’s farmhouse, and we saw he was awake, smoking on his porch in an undershirt stretched from when he was fat. I guided the car into a hollow of the dry thicket nearby; its branches snapped like tiny bones. When we got to the house, Dodger was lighting a second cigarette with the first.
“Who you hoping for?” I asked him.
“Socrates. Gaw, the worst headache just now.” He squinted drunkenly, unable to see the state of us. “Prolly scared him off.”
“Keep telling you he isn’t yours,” I said. “Does what he pleases.”
“What night is this,” Dodger said.
“Wednesday,” Lionel said.
“You were gonna hit Hillcrest. Wasn’t it you I told last week.”
“Told us yesterday,” I told him.
“And we did,” Lionel said.
“Again,” I added.
“Well,” he said. “You survived.”
Lionel sucked his teeth, not ready to talk. I didn’t want to, either — didn’t even see how. We followed Dodger up stairs that sighed, plodding through blackness, thick country silence. Dodger knew every gangster and crooked flatfoot the Midwest had to offer, swapped leads on jobs, and rarely if ever quit shooting the shit. But that night he led us to a chilly bedroom and didn’t cough about his share, just slammed the door. I had the thought it was a fake Dodger, made from clay, with gears in his head. Lionel and I undressed and tried to wipe the crust from our wounds before climbing into stiff yellow sheets. We slept deeply, each facing outward. When I woke, there in the tree by the window was Socrates, Dodger’s red-headed, white-collared pheasant. Peering at me from a place of hard noon light. It bobbed and made to jump from its perch but then changed its mind and settled. Lionel stirred next to me, and I rolled onto my back, began picking apart the rafters with my eyes.
“How many folks you think we’ve done?” Lionel asked.
“Lost count. It’s like with girls.”
I understood, in an aching wave, why Jonah had punched his own ticket: if one could never see where life stood you — or in what form its answers might come — you had to take control.
“We don’t seem to be able to die,” Lionel said.
“Maybe it’s just a one-time deal.”
We put on the clean shirts and trousers folded on the bedside chair, collected our dough and went downstairs. I did it mechanically, parting slow air that slid past like water. Floorboards warped, unsure against my feet. I held a brown shirt and rubbed its coarseness with a thumb, and it wasn’t as though the shirt or my thumb weren’t real, but their meeting was weird, counterfeit.
Lionel didn’t concern himself with such phenomena. He had washed his face and neck and ripped Dodger’s curtains to make a scarf that concealed his mangled throat. As he gathered his things you could hear a wet reedy wind to his breath.
Down in the kitchen, Dodger unwrapped a hunk of cornbread while his wife Victoria watched and sipped tea. Vic went all over the country, alone, but she was no outlaw really, just hustling enough for the next stretch of road. She’d meet people, join their scene for a while, then get fussy and strike out again. I don’t understand it exactly, the kind of life I’m trying to explain, with those pauses.
“Slip. Lionel,” said Dodger, “I am a gracious host now goodbye.”
“Good morning, Victoria,” Lionel said.
“Lay aside your cut then.”
“Good morning Lionel,” Vic said. “Morning Slip.”
“Don’t get a cut.”
“Morning — d’you mean you don’t.”
“Been anywhere neat lately?” Lionel asked.
“Montreal this time.”
“What, don’t trust it? You tip someone off?”
“The hell are you. Get gone, you boys give me a headache. Like noisy little wind-up toys.”
“Don’t kick them out, Dodge,” Victoria put in. “They’re hungry.”
“How… how’s that?”
“Slip, let’s… ”
Victoria followed us out to the porch.
“I’m sorry, don’t know what’s eating him. Have some for the drive.” She pressed cornbread, pale and heavy, into Lionel’s palm. As their fingers met she pulled hers away, as from a sharp pain. Her face was typically radiant in these small acts of kindness, betraying a purity of motive, yet now her features swirled, their careful arrangement undone.
Lionel, blind to her horror, produced from his pocket a wad of cash.
“For your next trip?” he suggested.
Victoria erupted in tears. Her sobs turned to screams when Lionel gently touched her shoulder. We made our getaway, before she could put it into words.
Next few weeks were tossed with badness.
Found it took your average sober man not long to pick up something queer about us, at which point he was apt to fight. It didn’t ever make sense, what they said, the reasons they came up with. Two pubs tossed us because of Lionel’s scarf (it was “swishy”), and one hotel manager said a guest complained that a man of “guttering respiration” had lurked outside her door.
Women got wise sooner, though Vic aside they didn’t make scenes. When we spoke to them they jumped as if we’d burst into being right there. In Des Moines, on a street corner, a lady shaded by parasol against that feverish corn-god sun thought to ask: Was I in town for the convention? That she’d spoken freely, figured me the illustrious, convention-going type, made me want to ply her with booze, wit, dancing. Then I understood her tone, in reality musically cruel. I was beneath her, a middling nobody, the kind of slob who went to conventions. Or perhaps… but I couldn’t split her meanings, I was a reeling stack of meat, and by now the query had gone so long unanswered that she took her freckled nose and strolled off, satisfied to have stumped me.
And Lionel. Came an afternoon we were eating sandwiches on a mossy old pier, a lake on Minnesota’s border. He said, spewing crumbs, that he might pay the police a call. I hadn’t slept in days and screamed at him till he shoved me in the water. The Ford sped from the shore as I hauled myself out and sprawled, gasping, on slimy planks. Hours later (I hadn’t much dried) a growl shot across the lake. The approaching Ford flickered behind a rim of evergreens. It stopped where I’d parked it before, and Lionel got out chuckling, shaking his head.
“They wouldn’t arrest me,” he said.
“That’s a damn shame,” I replied. He stooped to pick up a stick that he then cast about like a magic wand.
“They said to stop wasting their time. I told them about Kansas City, they said that’s KC’s affair. I said we took banks in Minnesota too and they said no wonder I don’t look rich. I asked if they heard of you and me, the other stuff we done, and they said why’s it every guy thinks he can talk his way into being famous?”
“Damn shame,” I repeated.
“I gave them the money, too.”
“Of course you did not.”
“I poured it out on a desk.”
“They said they didn’t want it.”
“Thank the holy Christ our savior.”
“I left it there anyway.”
My head rolled. Spots floated at the darkening mouth of the forest. There wasn’t any part of me to wrap around what I’d heard. What I’d seen. In our previous life I’d been a name and a face and memory; I was those things, but I was becoming them, too. We’d retraced a part of this path, which made for a rotten doubling, forced us into a different past.
“The cabin,” I said. Lionel tugged at his scarf and knelt and stabbed his wand into the sandy dirt. “We could hole up there.”
“You mean retire.” He collected more sticks for a teepee of kindling.
“I mean wait. And see.”
“We’re on a spree now. Job a day.”
“They’ll remember us.” He worked another stick across the one that stood in the center. “Bit by bit.”
He was never one for wanting fame; I didn’t think adventure, let alone desire, had ever entered his calculations. He’d told me about the two days he’d spent alone in a flophouse when a job went awry and we separated — nervous rash on his backside, restless but exhausted from a rooftop escape. He’d heard a strange noise down the hall on the second morning and found a dog there, a dog eating so intensely from a can of beans that it kept choking and puking a brown mouthful that it unfailingly bent to lick up once more.
Well, Lionel had said, stupid thing had to want the want.
He seemed now to guess that my mind had wandered, because he said: “I always helped you. Wanna return the favor?” He was going at the sticks like a madman; I didn’t spy any smoke.
“Even know how to do that?” I asked. He stood and kicked his kindling away in a fury, then composed himself and smiled.
So of course I went along with it. I couldn’t lose Lionel, and Lionel wouldn’t veer from his course. He had us arcing back down to Dubuque and zooming along the northern edge of Illinois into Chicago’s sprawl, where the heat would be devilish if anyone had a mind to catch us. Which I almost wanted. I couldn’t muster the confidence of the mythical me, the Slip Church known to poach kisses from pretty witnesses to his crimes, to show up at jazz clubs with four dates, tip with autographed stolen bills.
We sped downstate along the lazy Mississippi, which in its calmness resembled a terrible new road. I let Lionel drive; the fresh summer air was nauseatingly sweet. The long grass leaned forward and back again in the wind, its green changing as the light and its opposite swept through, and it was all very beautiful in the way that makes me want to blow my brains out. Jonah was a fool for using a rope, I decided. It showed he wanted one last chance to squirm free, and that made his death a kind of joke.
“Life informs me, incessantly, of my needs,” Lionel said, unusually theatric. “It’s repulsive. Being compelled to eat and see — to spend.”
“The energy I have to spend. Life without end means endless need. A mockery of needing.”
At last the sky sealed itself and allowed no further light to trespass. There was silence of perhaps an hour as nighttime road flowed under the Ford. It was impossible, in this hideous gap of reasoning, not to dwell on those whose need we had irreversibly severed. Had I harbored a pride in what I’d long told myself was a sorry byproduct of our work — flashes of a precise butchery? Hadn’t I come to envy such tidy, messy ends, those deaths of strict necessity, and begun to feel the bliss in their arrival?
“Alive,” Lionel said. “And needing.”
After gliding though drowsy towns for a day, Lionel stopped on the outskirts of Guttenberg, this nothing little haven for krauts.
“We start over here,” he said.
“Let’s be quick.”
He slapped me, searing a cheek, and when I recovered, his eyes were inconstant small black flames. He checked the machine pistol. Goddamn loony gun, something I’d won off a hothead kid too crazed to walk from the cards. Everybody’s bluffing, he’d said when I fanned a house full of kings, and kept saying as he was shaken down, escorted into a dim back alley.
“This time you’re the one doesn’t say anything.”
It wasn’t the bank we saw first but a sliver of a general store with a scraggly vegetable garden. I was hungry, jumped out of the Ford.
“Hey,” Lionel barked. He threw me the other Colt.
“Just want a bite,” I said.
“Just want a bite,” he mocked, stepping to the shop’s door, kicking in. I chased after him and already we had a standoff, the swollen-bellied owner brandishing the usual shotgun, yelling in German at Lionel. There were three other dirt-streaked farmhands — caught chatting up the pretty slight thing in the painfully faded yellow dress, cloth passed through the filth of steerage. She studied Lionel with cold amazement.
“Mon-ey,” Lionel finally sang, and I remembered to hold my gun up, too. The instinct was dusty, my elbow creaked.
“Fahr zur Hölle,” came the reply, only Lionel shot him in the middle of it, and his shotgun discharged into the ceiling, which sent down a flurry of wood flakes. Red bloomed in the storeowner’s white shirt; instead of buckling he staggered back into a corner and died up against a shelf full of chews. Lionel spun to the farmhands and spoke at the one who’d pissed himself.
He shook his head and Lionel shot him there, spraying the wall of sack grain with matter. The other farmhands and the girl ducked. I dove at Lionel; he caught my forearm and cast me aside. I’d forgotten how quick he could be. The bullet holes in my chest did something — they buzzed. Another burst of gunfire and then the poor girl was left alone, huddled on knees and motionless. Lionel removed his scarf and let it fall in a lovely wave.
“You see this?” he asked her, pointing to his neck hole, the exposed and heaving apparatus of his throat.
She nodded with the terrible calm of a creature hunted its whole life. I stood at the edge of her being and glimpsed what had led her there. She’d woken too early that morning, innocent of her dreams. She’d looked on her brothers, who slumbered close by. She’d kissed her mother in their kitchen and said, idly, that she’d walk into town, it was so nice out.
She nodded — yes, she saw.
“No you don’t,” Lionel said.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Miles Klee.