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Columbia College Fiction Writing Department

Told from multiple points of view, THE2NDHAND editor Todd Dills's first novel, "Sons of the Rapture," narrates a panegyric story of men on the brink of redeeming their sorry lives, chief among them that of Billy Jones, budding alcoholic Chicago call-center maverick who has a score to settle with his father Johnny. Billy drowns his South Carolina past in booze while back home his father saddles up for a drive to reclaim him... Caught in this perfect little storm is a ragged assortment of savants: shape-shifting doctor, despairingly bisexual bombshell, tiara-crowned trumpeter, zombie senator. A stampede is coming for the lot, and it's carrying the weight of America's forgotten revolutionary heritage. The excerpt featured in this special half-issue is from the first chapter, "Billy." Click here for the 11"x17" pdf, and for info on ordering see below. Join us at Comix Revolution in Evanston July 29 (Todd Dills, Al Burian, Anne Elizabeth Moore) for the release party. Click here for details. To order the book itself or for more info, visit Featherproof.com. And watch this page for updates on Dills's Aug/Sept/Oct 2006 tour.

To order Installment 21.5 by mail, please send $1 donation to:

c/o Todd Dills
4038 Clairmont Ave.
Birmingham, AL 35222

Or by donation using any major credit card via PayPal (allow a couple weeks for delivery):

Todd Dills

Artichoke Heart was a South Carolina Jones, same as me: Jones, William Harmony. Eventually he left Chicago too, got up his courage and boarded a plane headed south -- he never flew on planes, normally, hadn't left Chicago for ten years, he told me the day I met him. Same day I met Elsa, actually. A.H. played west-side food fests, "tastes" of this and that. He took the stage decked out in sequined cowboy vests, hair done up in a greasy pompadour, and played wanky, old-fashioned Mexican norteņo with the crew of his four brothers, the Joneses. That fateful summer people were bouncing in the streets like not since seen. The boys revitalized the west-side block party scene. It wasn't my bag, though I'd admit he was good, if asked. He put on an ecstatic show.

Taste of Kedzie, at the square down the block from my apartment, sticks in my mind as a half-assed gathering of lonely apartment hounds, where one was lucky to catch the GN'R tribute band that used to play around the neighborhood, unlucky if ending the day tired and bored with, at most, four other showgoers out on the street, hearing one of four different combos, all the same, very pandering in their instrumentation and obvious attempt at PC. Black singer, male. White longhair bassist rocking on his heels behind a big butch of a lady drummer, also white. There may be a black female or Latina keyboardist, but always the male Latino trumpeter up front, squeaking monotonously away: "La Bamba," "Black Magic Woman," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Black Dog," they played it all, though the humdrum affairs always paled to that first one I witnessed -- featuring none other than one Artichoke Heart, the new in block party entertainment.

I was only out for a quick coffee at a square cafe, though I carried my chrome flask as always, just in case. But stepping off my block I eyed a monstrous vinyl sign stretched across the facing buildings the other side of the square, satanic red lettering announcing today's performer: ARTICHOKE HEART. The square jammed full of bodies, yellow food tents stewed, crawled with souls. I looked around for someone I knew -- vaguely recognized, rather, for I'd been in Chicago just shy of two months -- and found no one but anonymous Spanish speakers, an ugly white man or two with an uglier woman draped over his shoulder.

When I spotted her she was wading through this crowd: Elsa, a goddess with piano-key fingers wrapped tight around a stick on which was speared a rounded specimen of gyro meat. She was followed by her tall, functionally Amazonian equivalent: sister Katje, I would learn. The beautiful sight instilled a quality of bravery in my bones it's likely I should not have felt. I shot through a couple and grabbed her by the wrist. She yelped in protest, whirled around and caught an old woman in the side of the head with a freewheeling elbow. I laughed, genuine hilarity bubbling up in my body. The girl muttered apologies to the old lady, then cocked a hip, staring down the plane of her nose in a squint. "Have a dime, dear woman?" I said, a shudder passing through the loose flesh of my premature Jones jowls. She didn't say anything for a moment. "Jesus hell," I muttered, and made like to turn away, but she stopped me, baring her crooked teeth in a sly grin, knowing too well my gambit. "I'm Elsa," she said, extending her ghostly white arm, hand out, which I took. She chomped down on the tube of meat. "This is my sister Katje," she went on, shredded bits popping half-chewed from her mouth. I proffered my flask only after a long pull for myself. Her dark eyes went wide. Katje squeezed up behind her, laid her chin on her sister's shoulder and grimaced at the sun. "How do you do?" she said.

I felt even surlier then, like a cowboy or something in my T-shirt and jeans in front of the two pristine women. I introduced myself with a twang as "SC Bill." The ladies rolled their eyes, passed the flask between themselves. A wild gust of wind then kicked up, sending a ripple through the crowded square, a keen murmur rising as heads turned toward the stage. We gazed with the crowd up there, and lo, there was Artichoke Heart. "Wow," the lady Elsa said in appraisal. I took the flask from her and pulled hard, exhaled at the terminus to the sight of the all-Jones crew of bass, drums, guitar, accordion, and just by the front microphone A.H.'s silvery trumpet resting quietly on a stand. Artichoke Heart bent at the waist to prize the instrument; the flames on his tiara aimed out at the crowd. A dust cloud rose and hung in the now windless sky above us. A hush fell over the assembled. Elsa worked at the belly of her T-shirt, raised up on her tiptoes. "Look at the guy!" she said. A man at my left raised his fist and bellowed happily in Spanish. And without a word A.H. and his band bounced through three polka numbers, covered MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This." I clutched my own gyro tube by then and put out a hefty shout-out to my new friend. She pulled hard on both my flask and arm beside me, smiling into me, shouting "HOLY -- JESUS -- CHRIST -- this guy is GOOD!" her face screwed up sweetly like she'd never been happier. I pretended I couldn't hear her, leaned closer, and fireworks sprung from A.H.'s stage, the final song another exotic, accordion-based number. I set my gaze there, lit a cigarette, and pulled the final bit from the flask. I noted the man's devilish tiara, cheeks distended as he blasted away, the quintet whee-wonk-wonking their way through some of the most beautifully crazed music I'd ever heard. Elsa blew smoke in my ear, saying something -- it didn't matter what -- and my mind flew high over the stage and square to where I could look down on it all, the small traffic circle, south end full of people, the bulbous yellow tops of the food tents and the smoke billowing out from their sides, the thick molasses stench of it all reaching way up here, opening up the sterile angles of the Chicago grid, the little blocks of neighborhoods, the right angles, the 45-degree angles of diagonal flow streets that connected them all, the fine curve of the expressway gray and desolate and jammed on its way downtown. It made some sense, for the moment. I could approach it.

We headed to Johnny's Grill, a diner on the corner. A couple coffees into our sit Artichoke Heart strode into the space bedecked in street clothes, apparently. In full red jumpsuit, tiara, greasy Elvis hairdo, the man was followed by a cavalcade of admirers, brown-faced boys with baggy T-shirts half-tucked into jeans that sagged around their butts. Johnny's Grill's proprietor, Dean, came swinging feet-first over an empty space at the counter to fend the boys off. They sidled backward, waving their arms in parody of their future selves. A.H. smiled at them, taking the seat next to me, and Dean poured him a coffee like it was nothing, like he knew the man. And he did. "Wow!" Elsa whispered. She really liked saying that. I got a little nervous in the man's presence myself. I trained my sight on Dean, who was back behind the counter by now tapping a syncopated beat with a metal spatula on the flattop cooker. "He's so--" Elsa pausing, then whispering on. "So cool! Look at him!"

I turned to A.H., now determined in spite of my minor trepidation to show the girls something of myself. "Bill. Nice to meet you," I said, thrusting my hand out like I might have been a vacuum-cleaner salesman, awkwardly holding it there not grasped in the space between myself and the red-vinyl-clad man.

A.H. only nodded, his deep voice then booming above the precious silence left in the terminus of Dean's syncopated tapping. "Good to meet you, Bill," he aped back, just barely letting his eyes catch mine before turning back to his coffee.

I asked him his name. He took a long, slow sip, put the cup down and exhaled dramatically. "Artichoke Heart," he breathed, distending his cheeks after a long inhale.

"Oh, I meant your real one," I said.

His eyes then went wide, caught mine for a long moment. He chuckled. Elsa and Katje gaped around my shoulder, their hot breath falling over my neck. The whites of the man's eyes grew further at the women's grinning faces before he pulled from a chest pocket in his jumpsuit his mirrored aviator shades, slipping them across his nose to dim the sight. "Jones," he said, proffering his hand to me and prompting a series of guffaws from the women. "Artichoke Heart Jones."

And we hung around all afternoon, told stories, and ended the day at a bar down the road. The pure chance of our time did matter, for the fun was had, and a beautiful trap was set for each of us. Thereafter we traveled in a pack. A.H. took the point, Elsa and I groping each other just behind him with Katje at our backs to ward off opportunistic assholes, those who would attempt to upset the delicate balance we made. We convoyed to parties, drank in corners, joked, and got along quite fabulously. A few months into it, I got fired from my job at a downtown bakery, and Johnny's Grill was where me and A.H. met in the aftermath. I told him I'd been stealing from the register, it was true, and probably deserved what I got. "No problem," A.H. said, "though that will be on your 'record.' We want to say you don't even have one." So he set me up with a guy he knew in the Illinois Division of Waste Management, Frank Christ -- "Tell him I sent you," A.H. said -- who apparently owed A.H. a favor. I didn't ask him for particulars, and when I finally got a haircut and met with the man, when I told Mr. Christ who sent me, the old man's brow lost its wrinkled consternation and I got the job.

A time of bliss ensued with Elsa on my twin bed. The apartment took on the smell of her perfume and sex, and she talked my ears off while atop my stomach. I loved her there, above me, chatting with abandon about my dark eyes, goofball humor. She began to give me the rundown of her previous men, an African named Aime, Hugo the Portuguese, Yves back home. She toppled down the uncertain hills of her memory and I dogged behind her like Katje -- Dutch, I learned, adopted. My heart fluttered anxiously, elated, occasionally bored though I was, at the spoken history of the lady. At bottom Elsa's voice is a salve for your wounds, sexy like cold water. But her past began to loom in my mind like charging Confederates flanked by outrageous artillery. I could take Elsa's monologues no longer and told her about it, laid it out hard that I did not under any circumstances want to hear about her men past.

"Jealous, jealous man!" she cried, laughing wildly from her perch on my stomach and digging her fingers into my ribs. "Jealous of the past!"

I did not laugh. I spent the night grinding my teeth while I slept.

I ran to A.H., who told me how full of shit I was, how Elsa would see that just fine, too. Johnny's Grill was enveloped in ice that brutal Chicago winter. The wagging lips of the old men scattered around the counter like to have frozen even poised above their coffee mugs. A.H. perched on his haunches atop the counter and gave a sermon about my plight to the men. Now what will this Billy boy do?

One of the old fools remarked that the only way to control a woman was to beat the evil out of her.

The next day, A.H. played banjo and guitar for me in his little den. We went on to Johnny's, and he listened to the whole again in front of Dean, the proprietor, who laughed and said I sounded like a bitch in heat without a mind or even a dong to act on it. The men around the counter joined him in his cold laughing.

I smoked more and more laid up on my bed, evenings. Elsa assumed her customary spot on top of me, talking. I blew smoke in her eyes if she leaned too close, even burned the tips of her bangs once or twice -- half-hearted accidents. The rotten, acrid smell of burning hair filled the apartment.

One morning, after an unpleasant dream that involved Elsa and out-of-work porn actors, I woke sweating and crying. I did not want to hear the same shit from A.H. again, so I hooked up with Dean at Johnny's on my own. He took me to his Serbian uncle's place outside Milwaukee. I shot and killed a raccoon with a little .22, a fine shot, Dean said. He skinned the beast, cleaned it, giving me the mangled bullet to commemorate the day. Then he cooked it in his patented (or so I was told) raccoon stew. We ate it. The meat tasted like the smell of burning hair, if that makes sense. "Raccoons are crazy little fuckers, rodents," Dean said, his fork pulling at the gristle in his plastic bowl.

"You cook a mean one," I forced out, washing yet another acrid mouthful down with a pull from my beer. A strong urge to spit didn't subside for weeks.

After two days absence, I returned home to find Elsa in my apartment, smiling in front of some TV rerun like I'd never been gone. I told her I'd been called home by my father, my brother had died in prison and the funeral was just yesterday. She brushed the lie off, mostly, beckoned me to the bed and made love to me as I smoked cigarette after cigarette to keep from spitting, crying into the stench of her burned hair, the memory of the taste of the wayward rodent crowding my senses so that I gagged at every pull of the cigarette, Elsa giggling, screaming at the pleasure of it.

I left the apartment after, cruised the alleyways with the .22 I'd stolen from Dean's uncle. I liked the feel of it tucked at the small of my back, though I worried that it would misfire and blow my ass off. The alleyway behind my place led me to the trash cans behind the square's restaurants, where I found an open bin crawling with rats. I stopped ten yards off, pulled the gun, kicked at the asphalt under my feet prompting a further swarm of vermin in every direction, behind and under the bins lining the alley or into the mindless safety of crevices under concrete steps. Some, certainly, only burrowed further into the filth. One mighty son of a bitch had the gall to sit stock still atop the mounds of garbage there; the thing stared straight into me, an opportunity too great to resist. My arms went numb as I took aim, fired, and the fucker flew over backward in the bin.

Next day, I woke up and called A.H. I told him Dean had taken me out to his uncle's and fed me the best damned food I'd ever had.

"Dean cook you a raccoon?" A.H. asked.

"How'd you know?"

Artichoke Heart didn't speak, but I could picture him on his end of the line, casually laid back in his big orange chair, wide cryptic grin spread across his face, the grin that told you he'd heard it all....

Continued in THE2NDHAND Installment 21.5: View the pdf here.