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A Number of Problems







A Number of Problems




            To start with I didn’t buy that old corner tavern because my life wasn’t interesting. Divorce, chemo, and a career-ending malpractice suit was enough excitement for a lifetime. Mine anyway. I bought the place because most of the time when I was in there drinking, it was quiet as a church. I like quiet. Like that first night.


            No one is in the place. I’m just watching the game with the sound off and playing solitaire on the bar. All of a sudden, the door flies open, and Ron Cherley comes in walking kind of fast. This gets my attention because Ron’s not the kind of guy who moves fast without a reason.

            “Doc, gimme a beer. I got a problem,” he says and puts a five on the bar.

            “You got it, Ronnie,” I say drawing a Miller. “What’s the problem?”


            “Here’s what happened. See, it wasn’t that I thought the guy was crazy. It’s that I thought he was sane. It’s more dangerous that way, Doc. You can think someone’s crazy and be wrong, and nothing happens, you know? You don’t give them money, you don’t loan them a gun, you stay away, you know? You sure as shit don’t date their sister.” He laughs a bit and takes a drink.


            In the six years I’ve had the place Ronnie has been my favorite customer. Favorite simply because his stories never start at the beginning and often end somewhere unexpected. Also, never a tab. Pays then drinks. I like that.

            “Shit, Doc, the guy—”


            “Wait, wait.” I hold up my hand. “What guy, Ronnie?”


            “That Bill guy. I think you don’t know him. Big mean dude. He doesn’t come in here. Anyway, he didn’t look crazy. I mean street crazy, walking around with three shirts on talking to himself. Not even close. He looked just like you or me. I mean, how’s a guy to know? Looking like you or me? Shit, you could be crazy, Doc. How would I know?” He lifts the glass and drains it.

            “Somedays I’m wearing three shirts, Ronnie,” I say laughing.


            “Yeah, but you know what I mean. You ain’t poisoned anybody or anything. You’re just killing us slowly with beer,” Ronnie slides his empty glass toward me. The comment stings, but I know he doesn’t mean anything by it.


            “Shut up and drink, Ronnie.” I grin and give him another beer. He’s a real beer lover. Usually drinks at least four maybe five on his way home. Quick like, boom, boom, boom. But sometimes, like that night, he’s got a story, so he’s going to be here awhile. Fine with me. I settle in.

            “Okay, okay. So, where was I?” Ronnie goes on. “I don’t know he’s crazy. Like I said, it’s not a good thing when someone really is. We go bowling, we watch football, you know. We do stuff. I start dating his sister. He doesn’t say anything. It’s fine with him.”


            He takes a drink, leans forward with his elbows on the bar, and says, “Then one day he says he needs to borrow my car. Says his isn’t running too well, and he has to go up to Boise, and he’s afraid he’s going to get stuck, blah, blah, blah. So, I loan him my car. He brings it back, tells me thanks, and get this—he’s filled the tank. That Regal’s got a 25 gallon one. ‘Nice guy’ I’m thinking. I mean, wouldn’t you?”


            “Sure. Nice guy.” Just then four young studs in matching bowling shirts come in. Same guys, same time, every Thursday at 10:30. I get them a pitcher and four glasses and go back behind the bar. Takes me just a second. It’s not a big place. Eight stools at the bar and four tables. Long and narrow and not well-lit. On purpose. I don’t want a lot of business, and I don’t get it. Most of what I get is pretty regular like these four. They drink here instead of going anywhere else because I let them step out back and smoke a joint. What do I care? They’re in the alley. Since my cancer came back, I’ve been joining them pretty regular. It helps. 


            Ronnie twirls the empty glass waiting for me to get back. He pushes it towards me and says, “This gets to be a regular thing. Him taking my car up to Boise, coming back the next day. Tank filled. Most of this fall and winter he’s been doing that. Then last month I get a flat tire. No problem. Hey, can still change a tire. I jack it up, I change the tire. I’m putting everything back, and I find this down in the tire well.” He reaches into his old red and black high school letter jacket and pulls out a wadded-up napkin. He opens the napkin holds up a small object.

            “What is that?” I ask.


            “What do you think it is? Take a look,” Ronnie says, setting it and the napkin on the bar.

            I see something that looks like an old French fry, but then I lean down and squint and see it’s not. “Is that a finger, Ronnie?”


            “Yeah. That there’s a goddamn finger, alright.”


            I notice the four guys have stopped talking and are looking our way, so I lean toward Ronnie and ask, “That was in your trunk? You want another?” I nod at his empty glass.


            “Yeah, gimme a bump too.” He takes off his grey Vandals stocking cap and puts it on the bar.

            “You think this Bill guy’s been hauling human parts around with your car? That the problem?” I get him his drinks, and he puts another five on the bar.


            “I know he has. But that ain’t the problem.” Ronnie throws down the shot and sips his beer. He belches. “It is how I knew he was crazy though. I mean what kind of person hauls body parts around? But, you know, I’m thinking “Shit, I get a free tank of gas every week. What the hell.”


            “You going to talk to him about it? I mean, it’s your car, Ronnie. You could be some sort of accomplice or something.”


            “I know. ‘Specially since I know what he’s been up to. I thought about it, but this guy’s kind of scary, Doc. Not kind of. He is.” Ronnie drains the beer and belches again.


            “So, what’s the problem?” I’m getting a little impatient.


            “I’m getting there.” He wraps up the finger and puts back in his pocket. “Day before yesterday this Bill gets into some sort of fight up there in Boise. Gets beat up pretty bad and ends up in the hospital.”


            “Wow.”


            “Yeah, you bet ‘wow.’ So, my car is at the scene, the cops trace it, and I get called.”

            “You in legal trouble? That it?”


            “Nah. Jenny runs me up to Boise. I explain to the cops that he just borrowed my car. No problem. I go by the hospital to get my keys, but he’s in the ICU, and they won’t give me access to his personal stuff.”


            “You need a ride up there to get your wheels?” I ask and get him another beer.

            “No, no,” he takes a drink. “I had a spare key hid under the bumper, and I bring the car back down here.”


            I’m getting really impatient now. “For Christ’s sake, Ronnie. What’s the problem?”

            “This afternoon I decide to take some stuff to the dump, and then I discover I got a problem. I don’t get much room in my trunk.”


            “Why? What’s in there?”


            “Guess.”


            “Don’t tell me,” I say. “Dang, Ronnie, are there body parts in there?”


            “Not parts.”


            “Whole?”


            Ronnie nods slowly.


            “Geezus, Ronnie, there’s a body in there?”


            He looks over his shoulder at the quartet of bowlers and then turns back to me, mouths the word ‘two,’ and holds up a couple of fingers.


            I don’t know what to say. Now I know something I don’t want to know, because knowing it makes it my problem too. What’s the saying? A burden shared is a burden cut in half? Yeah, well, I guess it means Ronnie and I have a body each. I ask him, “What are you going to do?”

            “I don’t know, Doc. That’s why I came in here and told you. I figure you’d have an idea.”


            One of the quartet of bowlers brings the empty pitcher up to the bar. “Can we get another?” he asks. “And a couple bags of Flamin’ Hots.” I take care of him and get back to Ronnie.


            “Listen,” I say, “Let me think about this. We don’t have to do anything tonight, right? I can come over tomorrow and take the stuff to the dump for you.”


            “Yeah, but the bodies, Doc.”


            “Your trunk’s locked?”


            “Sure.”


            “Just leave them in there. It’s going to be freezing or below for months now. They’ll be okay. I’ll try to think of something.”


            That’s where we leave it. The next day I go over to Ronnie’s and get his trash and stuff. I still don’t have any idea what to do with the two bodies. We talk about it, and finally figure we’ll just wait until the Bill guy gets back from the hospital. Two, three weeks go by. Ronnie comes in a couple times, but he hasn’t heard from Bill. Then one night I’m out in the alley sharing a number with the bowlers, and I see Ronnie’s big old ’85 go past the end of the alley. I figure he’s going to park in front and come in, so I go back inside. The door opens and in walks this big bearded guy in a camo parka, one of those therapeutic boots on one foot, no gloves on and moving kind of slow using a cane. I give him a wave and look behind him expecting Ronnie to be following. No Ronnie. The guy takes a stool.


            “What can I get you?” I ask still looking past him at the door.


            “Whiskey and coke,” he grunts.


            I give him his drink, and when he pulls out his wallet, I notice he’s got a cast on his left arm.

            “Fall on the ice?” I ask.


            “No,” he says, “Somebody thought I needed a few broken bones.” He puts a five on the bar, takes a sip of his drink and then puts out his hand. “My name’s Bill. I think we’ve got a mutual friend named Ronnie.”


            “Oh, sure. Hi, Bill,” I say, shaking his hand. His grip is really strong, and he makes sure I know it. I pull my hand free. “My name’s Frank, but everyone calls me ‘Doc.’ I haven’t seen Ronnie for a week or so though. Are you meeting him here?”


            “No. I came in to talk to you. Ronnie says you’re the smartest guy he knows. If a guy had a problem, you’d be the guy to go to. You a smart guy, Doc?” He asks kind of smiling, but it feels serious.


            “Maybe. If I was really smart, I wouldn’t own a bar,” I say trying to make a joke.

            “Maybe,” he says but doesn’t smile. “Ronnie told me he came in here earlier this winter with a problem. You remember that conversation? That problem?”


            I step back and cross my arms. This doesn’t feel right. “I do. I remember,” I answer. “We thought it was really your problem.”


            He swirls the ice in his drink, takes a sip, and then says to me, “Well, the problem—whoever’s problem it is—still exists. Let’s say it’s our problem, Doc. Yours and mine.”


            “Uh huh,” I say nodding. “The two bodies.”


            “Three.”


            “Three?” I say raising my eyebrows.


            “Yep. And I need your help with our problem, Doc.”


            “I don’t know what help I can be,” I shrug.


            “Does this place have a cooler? Someplace you keep the beer? Like downstairs maybe?”

“It does but—no, no. You can’t—That’s not the solution to the problem,” I say holding up both my hands.


            He just stares at me, and then he reaches into his coat and pulls out a gun. It looks like a small automatic. I don’t know guns. He doesn’t point it at me. He just lays it on the bar and picks up his drink. “Our problem has gotten more pressing, Doc. It needs immediate attention.”

            I look at the gun and then him, but I don’t say anything.


            He finishes his drink and picks up the gun. “So, are you a smart enough guy to help me with our problem?”


            “I guess so,” I say slowly.


            “Good,” he says putting the gun away and getting up. “Lock the front door. Meet me in back.”


            He goes out the front and I lock the door after him. I go out the back where I see Ronnie’s car is parked in the alley. 


            He tosses me the keys and says, “Unlock the trunk.”


            I do, and, by God, he’s right. There are three bodies crowded in there now. All three guys in winter coats. I can’t help thinking only an old Buick would have a big enough trunk for a dead trio. Then I see one of them is Ronnie. I turn around to say something and see he’s got the gun out again. My first thought is this is not the way I want to die. My second, is that cancer isn’t either.


            “I figure you can drag them down to the basement,” he says gesturing at the bodies with the gun. “I’ll supervise.”


            “Let me do some thinking,” I say stalling for time.


            “There’s nothing to think about, dipshit. The bodies go in the basement or you become part of the collateral damage like your dickwad buddy.”


            I look in the trunk of the old Buick. Ronnie is the closest. The last one in. Shot in the back of the head. I turn and ask, “If you’re so limited you need my help, how’d you get those three in there in the first place.”


            “What the fuck is it to you?” he says. “Smart guy can’t figure it out? I’ll tell you, Einstein. I put the first two in before I got beat up, and then I made your idiot buddy climb in himself. Then I shot him. I don’t know what he thought I was going to do. Give him a ride? Idiot.”

            I look from the gun to Ronnie. He wasn’t just my favorite customer. He was my friend. I figure we all have to go sometime. You know the saying, two’s company, three’s a crowd? Well, a real problem is four.





Don Niederfrank




Don Niederfrank is a retired clergy person enjoying the challenge of writing good fiction. He lives in Wisconsin, has the mindset of an old freak of the 60s, hardened by upper Midwest winters, embittered by contemporary politics. He delights in the companionship of his wife, the wit of his friends, the forgiveness of his children, and the growth of his grandchildren.

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3 Comments

  1. Commendable work for a time in need.

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  2. There's a spiritual undercurrent to your writing. Thanks for sharing it.

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