Fiction: A Town Called Violence

By Jacob Strunk

I dont wanna get political.” This is Don. Or Ron. Ive already forgotten, but I let him splash some more Canadian Mist into the plastic cup Im holding. Its warm in my hand and burns going down my throat, but I swallow it all. Dons about to get political.

Here we go,” says Dons buddy. Sean? John? Im terrible with names. Youre getting political. Im going in.” He stands with a groan.

Im not. Im not.” Then to me. What is the deal with that D.A. out there who wont put criminals away? Its like they want them on the streets. I tell ya, I wouldnt be caught dead in California these days. Not with what I see on the news.

Hes not going anywhere and he knows it. He hasnt been on an airplane since 1975.” And then Johns inside and headed down the hallway with the slight limp that seems to affect all guys like him, his age in this part of the country. Its cute, I think, their bickering, but I wonder how the rest of their ride to Nebraska will go tomorrow if they keep it up from the double beds in their shared room at the first open motel for 40 miles in either direction.

Some guys dont like to talk about anything real,” Don says, again offering the bottle. I hold up a hand, no thanks, and mumble something about finding an open restaurant. Dons still sitting outside, alone now on a bench facing a hazy cornfield, pouring himself another drink and no doubt fuming about the whole world going to hell as I head out down the cracked two lane highway in the direction of town.

Its not even two miles into Vehlens, but in the heat it feels like more. The sun doesnt set until after 9:00 here, and the entire state of Iowa is shrouded in brown smoke from the wildfires burning two thousand miles west, choking out the sun, so it feels like Im walking through some future dystopia: a world without blue skies, an Iowa without cornfields stretching to the horizon. I light the joint I rolled back at the motel and wonder briefly if weeds legal here or if Im pressing my luck. The last thing I need is to end up in some bumblefuck one room jailhouse at the mercy of a cornfed Barney Fife still making up for being bullied in junior high. As it is, the California plates on my car have already attracted attention. But they also did get me some free whiskey. I had to listen to an old biker rant for twenty minutes, sure, but thats part of the charm of the road.

I pass a yard sign that reads LAMBERT FOR STATE ASSEMBLY in bold, blood red sans-serif. Another one. I havent seen anything about his opponent, so I assume this George Lambert fellow has the race pretty much locked up. Maybe hes running on legal weed. Lax prosecution of petty criminals. Robust renewal of civic infrastructure. I pass a third George Lambert sign askew in a yard thats more rusted machinery than grass and chuckle. Not likely. Lamberts old, white, smiling face is so generic I forget it the moment Im past.

A sign at the exit next to the motel promised three restaurants in town, but I stand in the middle of the one intersection and see two of them are closed. Beyond a block or two in any of the four directions, the road disappears into rolling fields shrouded in brown smoke. Guess that makes it easy. I stub out the joint, push the roach into my pocket, and head for the one functioning neon Open” sign. As far as I can tell, that might be the name of this place. It should be fine. Im easy to please, and just looking for something simple after a day on the road.

Its dark inside. I mean dim, the kind of greasy false twilight that only exists downwind from a wildfire or in small town bars where people still smoke inside. Fresh air is apparently not in the cards for me tonight. Three townsfolk, all men, all wearing stained red trucker hats advertising fertilizer or seed or a make of tractor, give me a half-second glance as I stand silhouetted in the doorway, but no more. They go back to the card game on the high top in front of them. I take a seat at the far end of the bar. 

The bartender appears from the back, drying her hands on the towel tucked into her jeans. The jeans are flattering. Shes tall, pretty. Her pixie haircut is not what Id expect from the only woman Ive seen since exiting the highway. She slides a wrinkled sheet of paper at me across the bar: the menu. From the looks of it, her printers running out of ink. The menus stained with ketchup. Something else darker. Theres a twist of grey meat dried onto one corner.

You know, ink refills are more expensive than Chanel No. 5,” I say, hoping her sense of humor matches her chic metropolitan haircut.


Nothing,” I say. You have to shoot your shot. At the top, before the ink ran out, are the words Elles Lament. I guess its a step above calling the place Open. Are you Elle?

Yeah,” she says. Drink?” I ask what she has on tap. She doesnt. I ask for a Sierra Nevada. She blinks. 

Bud Light?

We have Miller.” Ill take it. She sets the bottle down in front of me and hovers. I look at the menu. Mozzarella sticks. Potato wedges. A half-pound burger with fries, the farmers special.

Do you have anything green?” 

Fried pickles. But were out. Were out of the wings, too.” Ill stick with the beer. I glance around the bar, desperate for something to look at. My eyes are still adjusting to the gloom, but I make out something painted on the wall, red stain on the dark wood paneling. Its a circle. With a star. Its a pentagram? But there are other lines, whorls bisecting it. Its like no pentagram Ive ever seen.

Whats that? On the wall, I mean.

My dad was a painter,” she says before bringing another round of drinks to the card players. I hear one of em making a wisecrack, but dont quite catch it. Elles body language tells me all I need to, though, as she puts a hand on her hip and shakes her finger at the guy. As she makes her way back behind the bar, the other guys laugh at their buddy getting in trouble. 

Sorry, what?” Elle asked me something, but Im looking at the painting on the wall again.

I asked if you were passing through or if you had business in Vehlens.

Oh, Im just stopped for the night up at the motel. Heading on the morning. I have another couple days ahead of me. Coast to coast.

Coast to coast, eh?” She eyes me suspiciously. Where you coming from?

San Francisco,” I say, and immediately regret it. Elle laughs scornfully. I notice the guys have paused their card game and are eyeing me from across the bar.

Youre a long way from home,” Elle says. She sets a glass on the counter, pours two fingers of dark flesh-colored liquid into it from an unmarked bottle. She pushes it to me across the bar. On the house. You wont find that in San Francisco.” I hear one of the card guys chuckle as I lift the glass, cautiously, to my nose. I look up at Elle, expecting something more, getting nothing.

Go on, California! Drink up!” Its one of the card guys. They snicker, all three of them, and I know now Im already deep inside some townie ritual. Humiliate the city folk. Whatever the hell they play out here. I raise the glass in their direction, then Elles, then bring it to my lips. Its sweet. I can taste the alcohol, but theres no burn. Its aromatic. Its smooth. Its surprisingly complex. Its very good. I drink again, letting it slide slowly down my throat, where it leaves a warm trail like a lovers hand.

Wow,” I say, setting the empty glass on the counter.

Only the first ones free, California!” They giggle like schoolgirls.

Dont mind them. Theyre jealous, is all, because they cant afford to drink it. You were expecting moonshine. Thats Lambert Gin. Theyve been distilling it here in Vehlens for 130 years. Youd never be able to get that flavor anywhere else in the world. Thats Iowa juniper, yarrow, some other local secrets. The recipes never changed. Its tradition. And youre welcome. But theyre right; only the first ones free.” She almost smiles.

I close my eyes and chase the taste of the gin. If its the same Lambert, no one wonder hes a local hero. Maybe hes onto something after all, however boring his face is. 

So where you headed?” she asks, bringing me back.

Salem,” I say, realizing its maybe the first time Ive said it aloud. I accepted an adjunct position this fall at the state university. Well, they call it part time faculty’ now, but–” I notice her eyes have gone glassy– “Im a teacher.

Teacher, huh. So you got run out of California, too.

Id still rather not say aloud the rest of it, not yet – the divorce, the unplanned psych hold, the dog Ill never get to see again – so I shrug and answer, Something like that.

Well, I can tell you this spot right here has all a body needs. And Id never be caught dead in California, tell you that much.

Now its my turn to chuckle, and I say, Ive been hearing that a lot lately.” To myself I think Midwesterners sure do love to give unsolicited opinions, especially on anything that isnt itself the Midwest. 

Criminals running loose on the streets. People living unders tarps, shitting and pissing right there on the Hollwood… whats it? That sidewalk with the stars. Damn illegals swimming their way up the coast. Movie stars with bolt-on tits driving little electric go karts. Hell, no. Not New York, either. Im happy right here with my people, where I belong. We take of each other here.” I wonder briefly if her trendy pixie cut is ironic, decide its not worth asking. In fact, I can feel the gin spreading through me, warmth radiating from my chest out, filling my head. Elles voice is getting louder, and I realize shes no longer speaking to me, not really. And dont even start with those commies in London or Switzerland or wherever. Im never leaving the United States of America because Im a goddamn American. I read the news. Two ladies are laid up right now in the best hospital in England with no kidneys. Someone took em out while they were vacationing in Turkey or Morocco or one of those… you know.” 

I dont know, and I dont want to. I pull out my wallet. 

Elle dunks glasses in a sink of soapy water as she speaks, The whole goddamn worlds gone crazy, and then they bring it here. Started with the blacks. Now all of a sudden everyones gay. They want everyone to be fluid or non-bialary or whatever. Trying to rewrite history.

Thats right,” one of the guys chimes in. I realize Elles not going to give me a bill. I realize I may be in over my head, and my head happens to be swimming. I finish the beer. I pull a ten from my wallet, drop it on the bar. A pint glass shatters in Elles hand, the sound splitting the air in the room. She doesnt seem to notice. Now shes splashing bloody water on the floor, on her shirt.

I dare those motherfuckers to try putting a litter box in one of our schools. Hell, no. Telling kids they can be cats. Letting kids grow up gay. Like thats natural. These woke assholes. Just like mixing races is perfectly natural, right. Give me a break.” Shes spattering blood on the bar. Grabbing more glasses, pushing them under the water. Shes not looking at me. Shes not looking anywhere. Her eyes are black in the gloom; I cant make them out. She pushes more glasses underwater, sets them to dry in a rack spattered with her own blood.

What do you think about that, California?” The card guys are standing now, all three of them, facing me, locked onto me, their faces dark beneath the brims of their branded red hats. The air between us shimmers briefly, like heat waves on a highway.

I dont know what else to say, so I offer, Go Lambert.” My head feels like its floating. I keep one hand on the bar to steady myself.

Thats goddamn right!” Elle shouts inches from my ear. She has her hands on the bar, leaning toward me. Bloody water runs down the bar from her hand. A man with principles, devoted to saving his people. Our people. It starts here, but hell go all the way to the top, and hell put this whole country back to rights. Youll see. Hell show you everything.” She stares at me, and I swear her eyes really are black now, inky, like a starless night. And then she straightens and looks down at her hand. Oh, hell.” She pulls the white towel from her waistline, wraps it around the glistening wound. How did that happen?” The towel begins to bloom a bright, oxygenated red. I start woozily toward the door.

The card guys watch me, follow me with pivoting heads, not moving from where they stand beside their high top. I make it to the door, then pause. I turn toward Elle.

I think you should go somewhere that scares you,” I say, and then push through the door into the hot, smoky night.

I sleep fitfully that night, tossing and turning in the stiff motel bed. My dreams flash between periods of sweaty wakefulness, grim vignettes of figures; shadows; and a dark, dank city of stone where black water flows. 

Im ripped from those nightmares into another, hands clawing at me, pulling me up, ragged whispers. But its not a nightmare. Im awake. Im in a stiff motel bed. Or I was. A gag is tied across my mouth, a hood pulled over my head. I struggle to break free, but the hands bind me, pull thick cord tight across my chest, around my wrists and ankles. I try to speak, to shout, and manage only to cough myself hoarse, choking, as I feel my body pulled along carpet, then slid across something hard and cold. Blind, I am bounced down concrete stairs. Smoke stinging my nose, I am dragged across pavement. Burning all over from skin left behind on concrete, tears like needles my eyes, I am finally, blissfully sent back into the black after an instant of sharp pain against the back of my head.

My first sense to awaken is smell. An ancient musk fills my nostrils, burrows up into my sinuses, and the rest of me comes swimming back. My vision is blurry, my eyelids scratchy and crusted over. I hear the movement of something fluid, but not water. It sounds heavier somehow. More dense. Darker. In the gloom I start to make out figures, a few spots of flickering light that must be fire. I try to reach out and sense the rest of my body, but I cant. I try to move my arms, my hands, a finger.

I cant. My thoughts come and go. Im chasing them, trying not to disappear again.

I imagine youre trying to get up and walk out of here.” 

I turn my head, blinking away tears, something else. Kneeling down, leaning close to me: a face so generic I forget it as soon as the man stands and turns away, removing his suit coat. My eyes adjusting, I look around the room. Several figures stand just beyond the reach of the torches illuminating the room. The walls are stone. And running through the center of the room is a channel of thick, black liquid. Two huge steel tanks sit close to the edge, hoses running between them and disappearing beneath the surface of the running ooze.

The man turns back to me and says, Im afraid thats impossible.” Loosening his tie, pulling it over his head, he says, We severed your spinal cord at your T1 vertebra.” A hand appears for the tie, takes it, drapes it across the suit coat. The hand gives me a little wave and runs itself through an unironic pixie cut. Your vocal cords have been frozen with an injection.

I try to scream.

Unbuttoning his cuffs, he smiles generically and says, They need you alive, but beyond that, well, this is easier. Frankly, were not sure if they need you conscious. But its tradition. Tradition matters around here.” He pauses, looking right at me. I fight to stay present, shake my head.

I hear something large and heavy thud against the side one of the tanks. Another bang, and now I hear something thrashing about inside both tanks. George Lambert is unbuttoning his shirt now, and I see the surface of the ooze break, see something slender glimmering in the torchlight for just a second.

George Lambert stands before me, pulling open his shirt, exposing his great white belly. He slides something along it, a blade, leaving a thin red line from his breast to his pelvis. And then it bursts open, and slithering things, shiny with slime, flashing silver teeth, spill out of him. I hear them pouring onto the stone floor down below me somewhere. I hear them slapping, snapping. I hear pulling, grinding. Chewing. My head begins to loll rhythmically, and I realize the lampreys or whatever they are, theyre pulling at me. The sinewy eels, the horrible things, they grind through me, chewing through bone, making a racket. I feel nothing.

And then tendrils rise from the foul creek, slide across the floor, and begin pulling the things – shrieking with gluttony, fat with blood – splashing into the black abyss. The thrashing in the tanks grows louder, the damned smell in the air more pungent. George Lambert tilts his head back and laughs.

Elle kneels at one of the tanks, turning a spigot. Brown liquid splashes into a dark wooden bowl. She stands and brings it to Lambert. He raises it to his lips and drinks deeply. It runs down his chin. It splashes on his bare chest, into the slowly closing maw of his open belly. His black eyes glisten. Elle takes the bowl, drinks from it herself, and then turns to me. 

The flapping, hideous things disappear over the edge into the black channel, and Elle leans in close to my ear, whispering, We got all we need right here, California. Why would you ever want to leave a place like this?” And then she tilts the bowl against my mouth and pours.

Its sweet, aromatic, smooth. Despite myself, I drink. I hear it falling out of me, running onto the floor. Figures move about in the shadows, perhaps a dozen, perhaps a hundred. My vision swims, distorts, and I feel myself – my mind – being pulled somewhere. I think I am not ready to go. Then I think I am. The walls of the room pulse and wave. The tanks breathe, their horrible residents banging in eldritch rhythm. George Lambert lets the shirt fall from his shoulders to the befouled floor, begins unbuckling his belt. The forms in the shadows grow larger, closer. They almost have faces. Elle smiles at me with dolls eyes, pulling her shirt up over her head, revealing rows of pulsing brown teats, each of them weeping like angry boils.

And now I do feel something, a warmth blossoming in my stomach, reaching out with silken fingers through my body and up the back of my neck, filling my head with light.

Jacob Strunk has been short-listed for both a Student Academy Award and the Pushcart Prize in fiction, as well as the Glimmer Train short story award and a New Rivers Press book prize. His films have screened in competition and by invitation across the world, and his genre-bending fiction has appeared in print for over twenty years, most recently in Coffin BellFive on the Fifth, and his collection Screaming in Tongues, published in early 2023. He earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and teaches film and media in Los Angeles, where he lives with a few framed movie posters and the ghost of his cat, Stephen.


  1. Wow! Quite the story. Pretty scarey. Stay away from Iowa.


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