Justin Thurman holds a Ph.D in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He currently lives in LaGrange, Georgia, where he teaches writing and directs the first-year program and writing center at LaGrange College. “Sam’s Guys” is a stand-alone excerpt from his novel Tall As The Devil.
Five years back from the jungle and Sam Chapel had himself a nice stable of guys. Casino floor managers. Pit bosses. Bankers. DMV workers. He remembered them by the logos on their uniforms. Sam’s guy at Harrah’s. Sam’s guy at the Shaboom Room. Sam’s guy who rejected borrowers at First Interstate Savings and Loan.
These guys were important, but they were also interchangeable.
Sammy’s most valuable guys had atypical skillsets, unmanageable debts, and no collateral to short sell. These guys were not interchangeable. Like the Ski Bum in Tahoe. The Ski Bum wanted to be an instructor. Work when it snowed. Bed the golf widows when it didn’t. The Ski Bum knew entertainment types from his days in Southern California. The Ski Bum was an artsy guy, which Sammy wasn’t at all. Said he smoked dope with Sonny and Cher, threw craps with Wayne Newton. The craps problem brought Sammy into the picture. So now? If Sam needed to know about a whale coming to south shore? If Sam needed an introduction to some Hollywood bigwig? The Ski Bum was a valuable guy.
Mr. Gilbert was another valuable guy, another one who had access to things Sam didn’t understand. Mr. Gilbert was a high school English teacher in Carson City. He owed Sam something terrible for a vacation home in Graeagle. Never should have bought it. His wife was getting restless. She left him anyway. Mr. Gilbert could snoop with the best of them. For free. He wanted to be a mystery writer, probably to stick it to that no-good wife. He thought snooping was a real treat. And he paid on time, like it was his penance. Mr. Gilbert? Great guy.
Sammy’s most valuable guys had atypical skillsets, unmanageable debts, and no collateral to short sell.
Sammy had guys like The Ski Bum and Mr. Gilbert in every corner of the state. There was Rob the Gay Rancher of Bald Mountain if Sam needed dirt on other gays or if Sam needed livestock. The Cat Butcher in Gardnerville if Sam needed to slaughter that livestock. Sammy had a miner in Stagecoach. Stagecoach Joe. He had a few guys like Stagecoach Joe. Stagecoach Joe was a violent drunk. He’d be owing Sammy forever. Give Stagecoach a few pops and he could tune up Joe Frazier. Hard guy to handle. Way useful for gamblers that chased away what they owed. All Sam had to say was “Let me call Stagecoach” at breakfast. He’d have at least half what was due by lunch.
Sammy called guys like Stageoach Joe world haters.
Sam’s favorite guy would always be his first guy. The Corporal. Sammy’s cornerstone guy. Like all guys, he had strengths and weaknesses, both of which could be exploited with money. His weakness was shame. He lied to folks about his record in Vietnam, had half the state believing he was a war hero. Sammy knew the Corporal wasn’t no war hero. He didn’t care. Sammy staked him for a hotel and saloon in Bliss Valley. Little town yo-yoed from boom to bust and back again depending on mining outputs and water levels. For as long as Sammy had been home and sharking, that hotel and town were nothing but fun. Great for moving money, cooking up invoices. Great for a night out. There was potential to make a legitimate mint there, too. When the Corporal dreamt, he dreamt legitimate, bless his heart. Fine with Sam. Restaurants, bars, and hotels are full of gear. If the Corporal’s legitimate dream ever went south—which it would because bars and restaurants fail all the time—Sam could fence that gear and burn the place to the ground.
The Corporal’s strengths were rare. He was reliable, never late, no excuses, and kept his mouth shut. Steady as a pack mule. If he couldn’t pay? He worked. He would drive three-hundred miles in a night. Or drop off black-market stoles from the dry cleaners. He was big—no world hater—but delinquents often paid when Sam brought the Corporal over to glance at their family photos. The Corporal didn’t pull slots, didn’t play table games. Not because he was a loser, either. The Corporal wanted to build his fortune, not win it.
Sure, the Corporal could get smart with Sam sometimes. Clever stuff. Sammy could take that. Respected it, even. The Corporal tended the bar at his place and Sammy loved having cocktails and unloading his burdens. When they talked—like for-real talked—Sam and the Corporal talked about movies and women and life.
What the hell, Sammy didn’t mind saying it out loud. He liked the Corporal.
He wanted the Corporal to be his own man. The big city lawyers called it “making partner.” Your guy growing into a guy with his own guys? That’s a pedigree. People see that and say, “If that guy is Sam’s guy and now has his own guys, maybe I could have my own guys if I start as Sam’s guy?”
The Corporal’s place booked banquets and wakes, a place you might take a woman. Sammy’s marks stayed in motels, not hotels. Motels weren’t for banquets. Motels were for trouble. His motel guy was in Lake Topaz. Carlos.
And the Corporal’s wife, Mrs. Goodbath. Pregnant as a 4H sow. Tall broad with secrets. Sammy could tell. Particular with everything that passed through the door. She was a good woman but an impediment to mischief. She put a spring in the Corporal’s step. Sammy imagined she was a sticky wicket, the type to throw a fit and ask for a manager if her steak was overcooked. He always loved it when a woman brought out the claws.
Mrs. Goodbath could be a guy with guys.
If guys wanted to be a woman’s guys.
But guys don’t like that so much.
Sammy’s major problem over and above his feelings for the Corporal and his wife was that the hotel was no fun anymore. It was classy. He and Mrs. Goodbath were trying to do things the legitimate way, which was always the harder way, and that way bored Sammy half to death and made him hate his work.
Sammy wanted to love his work. Mostly he wanted to belly up to the Corporal’s bar. Talk to a friend, not to another guy. Make that the normal way they talked rather than a special occasion. Maybe the Corporal was ready to move into his own racket. Maybe Sammy could send the elevator down to the Corporal’s floor.
Sammy was thinking about all this the day he saw Mrs. Goodbath outside the Picnic Blanket Snack and Bait Shack.
It was hot. Her baby was about ready to fall out. And wouldn’t you know it, she was chatting up some freak in colored boots and a muscle car with California plates. Sam drove right up next to the muscle car so Mrs. Goodbath could see him. She made that face that guys make when they’re out of their depth. Scared but trying not to look scared.
Sam’s guys don’t lose their wives to colored-boot-wearing freaks from California. And Sam had the guys to figure out a thing or two about Mrs. Goodbath’s California guy.
Sammy wanted the Corporal to make partner, sure, be his friend, achieve his dreams the legitimate way. But where there’s shifty eyes, there’s money.
Sammy couldn’t resist poking a few sticks in Mrs. Goodbath’s direction. Maybe the Corporal’s hotel could be a fun place to do business again. Hold that elevator, Sammy thought. Hold that elevator right the hell up.
Two weeks and Mr. Gilbert handed Sam a folder chock full of the California guy’s wanderings. Mr. Gilbert really dug in. Followed him. Rifled through his trash.
Damn it, Mr. Gilbert was a great guy.
California guy was called Lieutenant Tarloc. An officer in Vietnam. Came home to nothing. No wife. No kids. Mr. Gilbert was distressed by the needles in Tarloc’s trash. And Tarloc was doing some snooping of his own at the Corporal’s hotel. Maybe peeping on Mrs. Goodbath.
Sammy couldn’t see nobody peeping on Mrs. Goodbath. This Tarloc wasn’t the worst looking guy. Had city tastes in cars and boots and sunglasses. What would he want with a big heifer like Mrs. Goodbath? Sammy didn’t buy the peeping Tom angle.
Best piece of information was where Tarloc was staying. Carlos’s at Lake Topaz. Sammy loved this. Carlos was his guy. And it proved Sam’s theory that motels are better than hotels as far as improper and fun business is concerned.
Sammy wiped a hundred off Mr. Gilbert’s ledger and called Carlos. He asked if Carlos was running a scam. Figured it was a courtesy. Can’t begrudge a man for running a play.
A scam? Carlos asked.
Sure. With this Tarloc guy. Casing the Corporal’s joint for towels, little soaps, chamber pots. Carlos might have staked this desperate junky to steal lodging accoutrement from a competitor. It’d be a snap if this was the thing. Tell Carlos to stop running that scam, thank you very much. Good idea, Carlos. Wrong guy. Scam another motel guy, not my hotel guy. Then Sammy would give old Mrs. Goodbath a stern warning. Stand by your man stuff. Threaten her, shake her angle loose, call it a day.
Carlos wasn’t running a scam. He didn’t know Mrs. Goodbath or Lieutenant Tarloc.
Sammy told Carlos to watch Tarloc like a hawk.
Few months later, Carlos saw the needles. And Mrs. Goodbath was visiting.
The Corporal’s son was born by this point. Thank sweet Christ for that. He couldn’t explain why Mrs. Goodbath seeing his Tarloc while she was still with child gave him the creeps. That was a whole other thing, how big and misshapen the baby was. Healthy otherwise. Naturally deformed maybe. Her dealings with Tarloc not messing up the kid as a small comfort.
Carlos kept watching.
Weeks passed and Carlos reported crumpled-up papers in the trash. Carlos called them nonsense poetries. Sammy told Carlos to give him the poems. That would seal it. Mrs. Goodbath and Officer Tarloc cooking up sonnets together. Necking and making poems. Here’s the proof, Corporal. Kick Mrs. Goodbath out. Keep the deformed baby. Let’s chase those legitimate dreams together and find you a replacement wife when we’re big and fat.
Carlos being Basque probably made it so he couldn’t read English. Tarloc’s scribblings weren’t poems. They were song lyrics. And not a single one about balling Mrs. Goodbath. The funny letters were guitar chords. Every third page or so had a doodle of Private Plopp, that dumb Army comic strip Sammy read when he was in country.
Needles. Music lyrics. Guitar chords. This was Ski Bum territory. Some lounge singer with a standing gig at the Stateline Country Club had heard of Tarloc. He had a name.
That’s right! It clicked. Vietnam officer. Tarloc. Private Plopp. This clown was like Mr. Gilbert. But where Mr. Gilbert wrote mystery stories, Tarloc did cartoons in the funny papers that ran around the firebases.
Ski Bum didn’t know about that. He did know that the lounge singer said Tarloc sold songs pretty regular. Mostly to folk singers and outlaw country types. Charged them extra so they could say the songs were theirs. Didn’t want to sing in the shadow of Private Plopp. Ski Bum told Sammy that there was a running joke about Tarloc. How when he writes a song, it disappears into a hole in his arm and comes out of John Denver’s mouth.
Sammy was starting to see why Mr. Gilbert snooped for free. It was a thrill when all the needles and muscle cars and broad-shouldered ladies lined up into something that made some sense.
Carlos reported that Mrs. Goodbath was still running in and out of the Lake Topaz motel, sometimes even with her deformed baby. And the Corporal—that poor, hardworking bastard—was wise to none of it.
Sammy was steaming mad.
What else could she be doing with this hippie drugged-out Tarloc? And with the baby watching? Sammy didn’t know anything about babies, certainly not deformed babies. But he reckoned they shouldn’t be party to their giant mothers balling strung-out folk songwriters and failed cartoonists. All behind the Corporal’s back.
Sam was good and pissed off. He decided he needed a world hater.
He called Stagecoach Joe.
Sammy knew the stigma: you start loan sharking and you end up busting kneecaps. When Sammy told his old man how he planned on earning now that he was home, his dad asked if that’s what Sammy learned in the Marines, to bust kneecaps.
Sammy was prepared for this question. He told his dad it doesn’t make much sense to put a guy in a yoke and then bust his kneecaps.
Sam’s dad liked this answer. He asked if Sammy was ready to put a man down. A real man, not a faceless savage like Sammy put down in the war.
Sam had an answer for this one, too. Spilled blood brings attention. A business is only as good as its family’s name. Sam would carry a piece, stay sharp. But Sam wanted to be in the money business, not the undertaking business.
Since he talked things through with his dad all those years ago, the worst he’d done was watch Stagecoach Joe knock a man unconscious and take an actual dump in that same guy’s convertible Karmann Ghia. That wasn’t great to watch. It wasn’t bodies and blood, neither. And convertible guy paid up quick. Sammy pulled his piece for show or for target shooting trash out at Lahontan.
This thing with Tarloc, though? Sammy’s temper got bad when his senses of business and justice overlapped. His favorite guy was being wronged. His favorite guy’s wife was chasing bad action. Best Sammy could figure? Angry as he was? The attention would be worth the spilled blood.
Stagecoach came into Lake Topaz hot. He buried a handle of bourbon on the drive. Took him two hours, so he was stove up and ready to smash something’s head. When Tarloc opened his motel door, Stagecoach snapped, started thumping on Tarloc right there. Sammy wanted to throw Tarloc in the trunk, go south into a dead spot outside Coleville, but Stagecoach got right after it, so there was nothing to do but close Carlos’s motel room drapes and bolt the door.
Sam asked Tarloc about Mrs. Goodbath.
Tarloc blubbered some blood out of his mouth. Said he was helping her with a thing.
Stagecoach Joe’s fists must have needed a rest. He brought his big mining boot up through Tarloc’s chin.
Be more specific, Sammy said.
A song, Tarloc said. He was helping her with a song.
Sure it’s a song, Sammy said. If the instrument is the skin flute.
Tarloc swore. A song. That’s it. Mrs. Goodbath ain’t his type. Too big and torn up after that big retarded baby. He started begging.
You’re banging my guy’s wife, Sam said. And you’re telling stories about songwriting. Cheating and then lying about it. Those are capital crimes in these parts.
Tarloc said he’s not banging the wife. He’s not telling stories. It’s the truth.
Sam needed something to help him understand. To hold off Stagecoach Joe, you see. He likes knocking the snot out of people if you haven’t reckoned that yet, Sam said.
That’s when Tarloc said it. Silver dollars, he said.
Sam said stop. Stagecoach had both his fists skyward and ready. He was itching to turn this Tarloc’s big-city head into a puddle.
Go on, Sam said to Tarloc.
Silver dollars. Millions of them.
Sam had to take a moment. Before the Corporal’s place was the Corporal’s place, it was old man Ray Lafollete’s hotel. Rumor was that Ray Lafollete converted all his cash into silver dollars and lined the walls with them. It was a crazy story. But when he staked the Corporal, the deal was Sammy excavate Lafollete’s like King Tutt’s tomb. He did it, too. Tore out every single wall and the Corporal hollered the whole time that he worked for Ray Lafollete and that there were no silver dollars anywhere.
Me and Stagecoach grew up hearing those stories, Sam said to Tarloc. I had guys tear that place down to the studs. No silver dollars. Give him a kiss, Joe.
And Stagecoach Joe got back to work, knocking Tarloc around like a puppy that crapped in his work helmet.
Tarloc hollered that he knows where the silver dollars are.
Sam was surprised Stagecoach hadn’t beat every last word out of that guy. Who? Sam asked. You? Or Mrs. Goodbath’s husband? He knows where those silver dollars are?
Tarloc nodded with all the strength and wits he had left. Damn Joe had worked him over. He was nodding about the Corporal. Wife says he put the silver dollars there. Like as a boy, working for LaFollete. But corporal won’t tell nobody, not even her. She wanted to clear his debt with some guy named Sammy and they were going to…
Sam couldn’t take it no more. He told Tarloc to shut up. He pulled out the piece that he hadn’t fired nowhere but at coffee cans. A Colt .45. He crouched down to Tarloc’s level, pushed it to the side of his scalp and sprayed his songs across the Lake Topaz Motor Inn’s wall.
That set Stagecoach Joe off his lunch.
It set Sam off a bit too. He understood Mrs. Goodbath wanting to clear the Corporal’s ledger, but the Corporal holding out on him hurt a little bit. As he cooled off and cleaned up Stagecoach’s puke and situated the body and put the Colt in Tarloc’s hand and convinced Carlos to leave things as they are for a minute, Sam got to respecting the Corporal an awful lot.
What if what Tarloc said was true? That means the Corporal stood by while Sammy’s crew tore up that place and didn’t say a word. That means the Corporal had the stomach to watch them gut his lifelong dream, and the faith that Sammy would keep his word and make the place right if there weren’t any silver dollars. The Corporal was an honest-to-God grinder. He gambled, all right. He’d been slow-playing Sammy for five years. He didn’t think the Corporal had it in him.
And if Tarloc was lying? The Corporal’s place was still valuable. The Corporal would appreciate getting this drugged-up has-been cartoonist out of the picture.
Either way, Sam knew he did right by making the Corporal his first guy. Sam was surer than ever that this guy, the Corporal, was the pinnacle of guys.
One thing was certain. Silver dollars or no silver dollars, Mrs. Goodbath was running around. She would need something more severe than stand by your man.
Rubbing out Tarloc was no small thing Sam did, neither. He was already out a decent .45. He’d need more indispensable guys, probably a few he hadn’t met yet. It was the least Sammy could do. This was the Corporal after all. Sammy’s grinding, lying pack mule. And damn it if that old hotel and little boomtown wasn’t fun again.
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