fiction, poetry & more


by William Burleson

Boxcar Sweet slumps on the corner of Seventh and St. Peter, hands in the pockets of his prized leather with the eagle on the back. His breath steams up and around, lit red in the dark from the café’s neon. Crusty brown ice lines the curb in front of him. Behind him, Mickey’s Diner hums with workers and slummers, tonies and slackers.

A toney in a topcoat and a sugar in knee-high boots stroll down Seventh, bitching all the way. They stop at Boxcar Sweet. “Excuse me, sir,” the sugar says. “Could you point us to the Ordway?”

The toney is edgy, and Boxcar has no time for him. Now the sugar may not be fresh but is still smoking, face lined but clean. For her, he’ll answer.

He points down St. Peter. “That way. When you get to the Landmark take a right, and you’ll see it.”

“I told you,” the toney says to the sugar.

“No you did not,” she slaps the man on the shoulder, cutely, not with anger. She turns back to Boxcar. “Thank you. Have a good night.” She strides in her knee-high boots off down the drag.

The toney shrugs and rolls his eyes at the tall, lanky Boxcar. There was a time Boxcar would have tossed the dude right then. It makes him boil that he would dis a sugar like that; tonies never appreciate what they have. “Thanks, man.” Calling Boxcar “man” landed with a clunk. The toney pushes his hand forward as if to shake Boxcar’s, who reaches out in return like any good standup, only to have something slapped in his palm. The toney hustles to catch up to his sugar and they are gone.

Boxcar looks down—a fin. He turns it over and back again, and stuffs it in his jeans pocket. Fuck, man, I don’t need to get paid for pointing down the drag. Who does that high hat think he is?

On the other hand, he figures, five bucks is five bucks.

 “Hey, Box!” yells a jake from behind. “What’s the ticket?”

“’Happening, Jazz.” Boxcar tells him about the toney in the topcoat.

“Dude thinks you’re the tourist bureau.” The skinny little black man hits on his square. “Who asks for directions anymore? A toney without a phone?”

Boxcar doesn’t say anything, instead focusing on the traffic going by.

“What are you going to do?”

Boxcar considers and decides: found jingle is the best jingle. “Let’s go to Candyland.”

“Now there’s some noodling, there, Boxcar. Yes sir. Candyland!”

Boxcar and Jazz roll down St. Peter, dark and quiet, until a block ahead, across the street, where light and sound from nightlife overflows onto the drag.

“Box, you ever trip in the Ordway?”


“Me neither. I knew a jake who worked there. Cherry job. Wore like a tux and everything. Just had to slump there taking tickets.” Jazz flicks his square into the middle of the street like some Marlboro-flicking gold medalist. “Someday I want to trip in the Ordway.”

“Black guys don’t go to the Ordway,” Boxcar says.

Jazz looks at him all sideways. “Why not? Why can’t I?”

“I didn’t say you can’t. I said you don’t.”

“If it’s just for vanillas, why haven’t you tripped there?”

“Because I don’t want to. Too many tonies. Too many manners. I’ve got no time for all those manners.”

They slip-slide through some nasty icy sludge on the walk, Boxcar Sweet’s cowboy boots not giving him much purchase.

 “Now there’s some white privilege-ass shit,” Jazz says.

“What’s that?”

“Check it. There you are, white guy on the corner: That makes you the fucking welcome wagon. Shade like me on the corner, vanillas cut a big-ass circle around you. If I even look at a toney, the pork comes and tosses me.”

Boxcar Sweet considers and decides that those are facts.

A river of cars comes down St. Peter, shining the scene. No one else shares the block, the pavement and sludge all theirs. Jazz struggles to keep up with Boxcar Sweet, Boxcar’s long limbs and even longer gait keeping him out in front of his scrawny wingman.

 “Box, I can just taste that sweet Candyland. I’m going to get me some Ju-Jus. That’s what I’m ’raving. What about you, Box? What are you going to get at Candyland?”

Boxcar hasn’t considered this yet. “Ju-Jus are good. Maybe drops. Maybe drops and snaps.”

“I’m getting Ju-Jus. Yeah, man, I can taste those sweet Candyland Ju-Jus now.”

As they pass an alley, a brown dog is licking something by a dumpster. Startled and stray-shy, it runs out of the alley into the lights. A Buick tries to stop but slides on some ice and hits the fido, the dog ricocheting off the bumper and landing in the gutter. The dog screams in pain.

“Oh, shit!” Jazz says. Both men run to the dog’s side, who continues to yelp and cry. He’s clearly grave, using his front legs to drag his dead haunches along.

Boxcar tries to coddle the poor dog, which sort-of works, with the dog’s cries reduced to whimpers. The ride sits in the street. No one gets out. Boxcar looks up and it spins away.

“Toney didn’t even help,” Jazz says, shaking his head. “What are we going to do?”

“Hey, I think that’s Turnbull’s fido,” says a female voice, behind.

Boxcar looks up and sees that it’s Rose. She must have been in the alley in the dark. “Isn’t Turnbull in Stillwater?”

The short native woman steps forward and leans over the stricken dog. “Yeah, he’s gone for a deuce. His fido’s been scrounging ever since they took him away.”

Boxcar doesn’t kowtow Turnbull—he considers him a welcher—but Boxcar had to acknowledge a bad deal when he saw one: stuck in jail and now his fido’s dead, or at least soon to be. “We should get him out of the gutter. No one deserves to die in a gutter.” Boxcar slides his hands under the dog, who at first tries to nip at him but gives up immediately. Boxcar carries the poor dog to the alley and lays him down. “His back is broken,” Boxcar says.

“What are you going to do?” Rose asks.

Boxcar isn’t sure how this became his prob, but they are near his corner, so he has a certain duty. The dog whimpers, lying on his side in the dirty alley snow. Boxcar had a dog when he was a kid. He didn’t have much else, but he had a dog. “We have to put him out of his pain,” Boxcar says. No one deserves to suffer, and that includes stray dogs—especially stray dogs—in Boxcar Sweet’s book.

“I know a guy,” Jazz says. Jazz sprints off down and then across onto that side street where toney bars are bright and loud with celebration.

Boxcar crouches at the fido’s side, hand on the dog’s shoulder. Rose stands over them. Rose is a good babe, Boxcar thinks. She doesn’t play the angles; she doesn’t take more than she gives. She wears a torn parka and flimsy tennis shoes and looks worse off than the last time he saw her, which was worse than the time before that. None of his business, he figures, but he’s known her since the shelter so he feels connected, maybe even responsible, to her as well.

“Jazz will square it,” Rose says.

“He will. Jazz will square it,” he replies.

“Buzz says you got a room.”

The change of subject seems abrupt, but he comes back, “Yeah. Above the Red Lantern.”

“Is it a good crib, Boxcar?”

Good? He doesn’t know if it’s a good crib. It’s a crib. It’s his. When he gets some shit, he can keep it there. So, yeah, all in all, “Yes.”

“I’m going to get me a crib,” she says. “You wait, I will.”

Boxcar wishes she would clam up. It seems wrong to be talking about another thing when Turnbull’s dog lays there suffering.

Jazz rolls up the drag with a solid young rock. When they get to Boxcar, Jazz points down at the dog.

“That’s Turnbull’s fido,” Jazz says.

The younger man in sweat pants and a puffy down jacket nods.

“Some toney hit him and left him in the gutter,” Jazz says, pointing at the spot where it happened.

The younger man nods again. He looks at Boxcar. “Who are you?”

“This is Boxcar Sweet,” Jazz says.

The rock eyeballs Boxcar Sweet. After a long while, he nods. “Respect man. My old man used to run with you.”

“This here is Jax,” Jazz says. “He slumps at Fifth and Robert.”

Boxcar thought about it, then, “Your bappy Chucker? The boxer?”

Jax nods.

“You look like him.” Chucker was a welterweight. A beaner from the Westside. They met in the army, in the sand. It was pure coincidence they were from the same town. Chucker beat every contender’s ass in bare-knuckled fights at forward bases. “How’s your bappy? I haven’t seen him in a while.”

“Dead, man.”

“Sorry to hear that.” And Boxcar truly is.

Jax nods and shrugs.

“He was a hell of a good boxer. Did he tell you we served together?”

“No. Just that you ran together.”

“Hell of a good boxer.”

In the sand, Boxcar always bet on him and won a shit-load of jingle, but then Chucker went back to the Westside. When Boxcar got out, there was Chucker fighting in the ring at the arena; a real boxer. After Chucker got his bell rung too many times and they wouldn’t let him fight any more, Boxcar and Chucker would often eat soup together at Sheltering Arms. Boxcar had no idea Chucker had a boy. He never mentioned.

“Nice eagle,” Jax says, pointing at Boxcar Sweet’s back.

His eagle leather jacket is Boxcar’s prize. He got it in Germany after leaving the hospital and before being shipped back. It was hand painted by a corporal from Houston who was getting discharged since he had only one hand left. A little bonus for Boxcar, a souvenir to go with all the souvenirs of Desert Fuckup, such as ringing in his ears and night-sweats.

 “Jax, will you square it?” Jazz says, bringing Boxcar back to the here and now.

Jax says to Boxcar, “You want me to take care of that dog?”

Boxcar looks down at the dog, breathing hard, eyes wide. “No one deserves to suffer.” Of that, Boxcar is sure. Suffering follows him, from the desert to the drag. Can’t escape. Boxcar knows that Chucker knew that.

Jax nods.

Boxcar carefully picks the dog up again and hands it to Jax. “Debt.”

“No. Anyone who ran with my dad … it’s my hon.” Jax scratches the fido’s ears. “It won’t hurt,” he says, maybe to the dog, maybe to those in attendance, probably to both. Jax slowly walks down the alley with the fido into the black.

Boxcar, Jazz, and Rose turn their backs and roll. What a standup young jake, Boxcar thinks. There was a time when Boxcar was the guy to square things. But he knew he was getting cushy. His warm crib and his occasional part-time gig working the late night with a cleaning crew at the Fitz. How would Jax do it? Probably a knife. No noise. Boxcar is happy not to be there to witness the end of the fido. Seen enough of that kind of pain to last a lifetime. No, no one should suffer, dog or man, no way, but Boxcar doesn’t need to be there to see the job done.

“Poor dog,” Rose says.

“Poor Turnbull,” says Jazz. “In max and now his fido is dead.”

The trio crosses St. Peter to where Jazz went earlier, onto the side street in front of all the clubs and show houses. Tonies and sugars laugh as neon flashes and flickers, shining the three intruders in a weird, other-world light. A door opens under a canopy of lights and out comes a steady tide of high hats and heels, surrounding the three with chatter and perfume. As they move though the crowd, it strikes Boxcar as an odd scene: all these clean people in long clean coats walking back and forth, all making big circles around Rose, Jazz, and him. No one looks at the three, at least not directly. A toney, laughing, with a sugar at his side, comes too close, and, just to prove that he is here, Boxcar considers tossing him. But what’s the point? He knows for the tonies and sugars he’s not really there. There was a time he cared about this, and he tried hard to be noticed—thus his prized leather—but now all he wants is to get to Candyland then back to his crib above the Red Lantern without anything else.

Yup, he’s gotten cushy.

“Where are we going?” Rose asks as they slalom through the crowd.

“Candyland,” Boxcar says.

“Box got a fin from a toney.” Jazz looks up, closes his eyes. “I can taste the Ju-Jus now.”

 “Can I go to Candyland with you?” Rose asks.

Boxcar looks down at her looking up. The Palace Theater lights cast chaotic shadows on the three, and Boxcar isn’t sure if the yellow in Rose’s eyes is from the light or just the color of her eyes. Maybe Rose could stay in his crib with him, he thinks. No, not for the old in-and-out, but just so she doesn’t have to sleep in that alley, so she can get well. He has a responsibility, after all. They go back. “Sure, Rose. You can always come with us to Candyland.”

“What are you going to have, Rose?” Jazz asks.

“I don’t know.” She’s smiling a big pumpkin smile. “Maybe licorice. Yes, licorice. How about you, Boxcar?”

He doesn’t know. He thinks about the endless possibilities.

William Burleson is an award-winning author whose stories have appeared in over two dozen literary journals and anthologies to date. His stories have won first prize in the TulipTree Review Humor Contest and have been finalists in American Fiction. His first novel, Ahnwee Days, is expected from Blackwater Press in 2024. Burleson has published extensively in non-fiction, most notably his book, Bi America, Hennepin History Magazine, and other publications. He is the founder of Flexible Press.

August 2023