28 May, 2009

The Fine Art of Falling Down

I left towards the end of happy hour, about seven. On the way back to my room at the Lost Dutchman, I always walked by a construction site. There had been a Circle K there before; now it was slated to become an overflow parking lot for the university. Although I doubted that the world would miss one little convenience store, I was kind of annoyed that it wasn’t still there; that meant I had to walk an extra block in the opposite to the am/pm on the corner for any last minute groceries, rather than just stop on my back from the bar. Distance was no one’s friend. Even though it was a short walk from the bar back to my room, the late summer heat made the walk feel miles longer than it was. In heat like that, the sidewalks and streets stretched out in front of you; your feet get heavy and your back aches and your knees are tired of moving up and down. You sweat, but it’s so hot that even the sweat evaporates. Sunset helps, but only slightly, and sometimes at night, I could look out at the pavement and see the waves of heat rising up like old demons from the pavement.

Naturally, I was busy walking and looking at the construction site, and I trusted my feet to carry me back to my bed without any problem. That was my first mistake. What I didn’t count on was the cracked sidewalk; and while I was strolling along thinking about the larger injustices of the world and how small business always gave way to the monster bureaucracies that ran everything, I tripped on a broken piece of sidewalk.

I have a lot of experience when it comes to falling down. It doesn’t take much. My feet, despite the faith I put in them, have been working against me since I took my first step and I’m certain they won’t stop until I’m in a wheel chair or dead. I once fell I stepped on a pebble the size of a pea. One time, I stepped off a curb to cross the street and fell just because of the way my foot hit the concrete. I’ve fallen going up stairs more times than I can count. I’ve nearly sprained or broken almost every bone in my body. My ankles are shot. The cartilage in my knees is scraped almost to the bone, and the left one always hurts when it’s going to rain. My arms and torso are littered with scars from falls I barely remember. Once, at a party in Louisville, I fell down two flights of stairs and came out relatively unscathed – I thought. The only thing that saved me was the large quantities of bourbon that I’d been drinking. The next morning, there wasn’t a part of me that wasn’t sore, and the girl who hosted the party was convinced that I broke my neck and didn’t know it.

The thing that saved me this time was the fence. One of the things about falling is that you learn pretty quickly to go limp. When the ground is rushing towards you, the natural inclination is to tense up. This is a mistake. By going limp, you run a better chance of not breaking any bones or sustaining any serious damage. Stunt men and race car drivers know this. It’s part of the art of falling: knowing when to let go. I’m pretty good at letting go. What I’m not good at, though, is fixing the other mistake that people make when they fall – the very natural inclination to try and catch oneself. When a person falls forward, he instinctively put his hands out to try and catch himself and stop the fall. This never works. Physics and the law of gravity are working against you.

My eyes were closed, braced for impact. When I opened them, I wasn’t on the ground looking up, like I expected. But I wasn’t standing either. I looked over and my hand – specifically the meaty part of my right thumb, had caught on a piece of the construction fence and been impaled. I managed to pull my feet under me and, once I was supporting my own weight, I took a closer look at my hand. It was a single piece of metal that had somehow become separated from the link and was sticking out – and that had been what caught me.

My fucking savior. I stood there for a couple of seconds wondering what to do. First of all, I looked around to see if there was anybody around who might help. I was the only person on the sidewalk, and the late rush hour traffic sped by me without noticing. I had my cell phone, and I considered calling 911; but I tried to imagine that call.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“Yeah… I’m, uh, stuck. On a fence.”

“What did you say, sir?”

“I said... my thumb is impaled on a chain link fence. I was walking home from the bar and I tripped and…”

“Impaled, sir?”


“Is it bleeding?”

“Not yet.”

“Have you tried pulling it off?”


“Are you intoxicated, sir?”

Fuck that. I’d end up with a hole in my thumb and I’d probably get arrested for public drunkenness. What a crock of shit. If I was one of those rich assholes who lived in a gated community and had a gym membership, I could just drive my drunk ass home and nobody would say anything. So long as nothing disturbed the appearance of peace and tranquility, nobody gave a shit about anything. I looked at my wound again; there didn’t seem to be anything else holding me. I tried to wiggle my thumb. It didn’t hurt. I looked around again. I was still alone on the sidewalk. So I took a deep breathe and carefully pulled my thumb up and off the protruding piece of link fence. The hole in my hand was about the size of a navy bean, and it looked black. That couldn’t be good. I decided to beat it back to my room and clean the wound.

On my way down the sidewalk, my hand started to bleed. A lot. I wrapped it in my shirt and put pressure on it to keep from bleeding all over myself and the sidewalk. I could feel my thumb starting to swell up. It wasn’t as easy to wiggle as it had been when I was still stuck on the fence. While I was keeping pressure on my hand, I was watching my feet to make sure I didn’t fall down again. That was all I needed.

The Lost Dutchman was a cheap thirteen room motel that rented by the day and the week. Some of the room had kitchenettes. Most of the inhabitants rented their rooms by the week. It was right next to an adult book store, so there was quite a bit of shared foot traffic and commerce. If you knew what doors to knock on, and if the people inside didn’t think you were a narc, it was a free market for anything you might want – whether it was drugs or pussy or something a little more on the exotic side. My room was on the second floor. I made my way upstairs without falling. My hand was throbbing. I managed to get the door open, and I rushed in to clean my wound.

My room was one of the ones without a kitchenette. It was small, single bed, the usual plywood motel furniture, a small table and chair, a television that worked most of the time (so long as the owner paid the cable bill) and the bathroom. The walls covered with a wallpaper that had long since lost any color. The central air rattled like an iron lung. On the wall above the bed, there was a painting of a country scene – one of those third generation impressionistic paintings by somebody who had probably never even been anywhere near the natural world. a border of trees opened up into a footpath, a small brook that looked like a miniaturized version of the Grand Rapids, and a pastoral green field littered a bit too neatly with indefinable pink, yellow, and purple flowers. In the sky, high above this roughly brushed scene was what I guessed was a bird. It too was indefinable. The clouds were puffy and white like flavorless cotton candy. The sky was clear blue. Underneath the painting, attached to the cheap faux wood frame, there was a small plaque that may have once been gold plated. The title of the painting, Entrance to Paradise, was inscribed in badly done and nearly illegible cursive. I hated the painting. I hated it because there were no fields like that anywhere; and even if there had been once, there sure as shit weren’t any more. They were plowed under and covered with condominiums and industrial complexes.

But I didn’t take it down. The absence, I think, would have been worse.

I unwrapped my hand. My thumb was throbbing more, and the shirt was ruined. I turned on the cold water and placed the wound under it. Despite my shirt and the pressure I put on it, it was still bleeding, and starting to look more and more infected. The redness was starting to extend up my thumb and down onto my wrist.

“Fuck.” I thought about going to the hospital. But that would mean either walking, which would take too long, or calling an ambulance, which I knew I couldn’t afford. The only time I’d ever seen an ambulance at the Lost Dutchman was when the junkie in Number 9 overdosed. I knew I had to clean the wound properly or the infection would spread. What a way to go, I thought. Death by tripping. I wrapped my hand again and left the room. My only other option was to walk to the am/pm and but the necessary supplies. I still had a little money left that I was saving for food the following day… but what would that matter if I bled to death during the night?

The walk to the am/pm was short, but I was in a hurry. The hole in my thumb had more or less sobered me up, and I was careful to avoid any breaks in the sidewalk. When I got there, I picked up a bottle of peroxide, a bottle or rubbing alcohol, and some band aids. As I was checking out, the girl behind the counter looked at my shirt.

“Are you ok?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I’m ok. Just a little accident here. No worries.”

She nodded and put my purchases in a plastic. Then she looked at me. “You know you’re not supposed to drink that stuff, right? The rubbing alcohol?”

What the FUCK? I wanted to ask her if I looked like the kind of dumbass who would try and drink rubbing alcohol; but then I realized that I was the one stumbling in with a bloody shirt and a bleeding thumb. And on top of that, I probably still smelled like booze, even though the effects had long since worn off. I nodded, grabbed the bag, and left.

I rushed back to my room. The throbbing was getting worse, but the bleeding was slowing down. As I was digging out my key, the door two down from mine opened. A man stepped out. He was putting on the jacket to what looked like an expensive suit. He had a full face, chubby flushed cheeks, and buzz cut. He was looking around; at first I thought he’d say something to me because I was watching him. But he didn’t seem to care at all. He rushed by me, not bothering look at me, jogged down the steps, got into an expensive looking silver car, and sped off. I didn’t look to see if he was wearing a wedding ring. Just then, Loyce, the hooker who lived in that room, poked her head out, looked at me, nodded, and closed the door. I heard the dead bolt and chain lock click in place. Then I went into my room, straight to the sink, and started pouring the peroxide on the hole in my thumb. I poured it until the wound stopped bubbling up, and then I cleaned it out more the alcohol. Then I washed the area with soap, dried it off carefully, and put the band aid over it.

The throbbing had stopped, but I knew I’d have to clean it again tomorrow. I sat back on my bed and turned on the TV. I flipped around. There was nothing to watch. I stopped at a commercial. It was one of those anti-drop house commercials put out by the Sheriff’s department that encouraged people to beware of any strange looking brown people in their neighborhoods. That was when I saw him – the john who left Loyce’s room. Only in the commercial he was wearing a Sheriff’s uniform. I changed the channel and left it on one that ran old TV shows from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It was an episode of Father Knows Best.

27 May, 2009

Bad Art Comes in Many Forms

Adelle was working, which meant very little actual work got done, the music was turned up a little too loud, and there were free drinks to be had – if you were part of her crew. They were around her nearly all the time; and even when they weren’t, they were at her beck and call. The inner circle was made up entirely of men who weren’t too proud to prune and strut like they were featured on Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in order to get free shots. They listened to whatever music Adelle wanted to listen to, ate whatever Adelle wanted to eat, and as a reward, they were given booze and an open invite to Adelle’s frequent summer cool pool parties – where the liquor flowed like water, the coke and weed was sold at discount, and bathing suits were (I understand) optional. Sometimes Adelle would even invite some of the prettier, more impressionable girls who worked at the bar to her pool parties, too. To be Adelle’s friend was to never know want: there was always enough booze, prescription pills, and illegal party favors to go around. Adelle loved her coke as much as she loved her froo-froo drinks and the bass heavy club music that she played 95% of the time. A kinder person might look at her over-bleached hair, sagging tits, spray on tan and carefully applied make-up that didn’t really disguise her age or her lifestyle, and feel sorry for her. In a late afternoon booze fuzzy light, a sympathetic soul might even say she looked tragic. One of those bad character studies drawn by angst-ridden suburban art students.

I wasn’t in Adelle’s crew; so I bought my own drinks and ignored the music as best I could.

It was hard not to watch her, though, while she went about playing a trailer park Scarlett O’Hara hopped up on coke and shots of Bacardi. She manipulated her crew, the girls who worked for her, and even her partner (and ex-boyfriend) Jake with a master’s precision. You can tell a lot about people without having to talk to them. Most people, for example, tend to stop at the age they were the happiest. Fashion trends, music, slang. For example, a lot of people who grew up in the 80’s still hold onto the modified yuppie look. Yuppies and golfers are the reason why polo shirts still exist, and why you still see the occasional turned up collar. Adelle was clearly at her happiest in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and even though time marched on, her wardrobe was an odd mixture of club trendy and old school strut – and though there is a point where a woman should have the good grace to cover up, Adelle was clearly unconcerned. I guess in that beer fuzzy light that might pass for some kind of whored out feminism.

From the roof tiles down to the hardwood floors, the MTP Sports Bar and Grill was a simple, straightforward place. 60 TVs that showed, at any one time, at least three different sporting events, including both horse and dog races. Derby Day, Superbowl Sunday, and the NCAA Championship were high volume days. The bar was centrally located but far enough from campus to avoid most of the college age crowd -- except on Friday and Saturday nights, when most of the regulars had the good sense to stay away. The regulars were a melting pot of pipe fitters and bookies, gamblers and groundskeepers, lawyers and house painters, business owners and retirees blowing their children’s inheritance at the mutuel window and on strong gin and tonics or whiskey sours.

That didn’t stop Adelle from subjecting us to her whims of narcotic inspired pretense. For example, she loved to change the menu. Most of the food was decent sturdy bar food: chicken wings, pizza, poppers, hamburgers, mozzarella sticks. Decent chili. A lot of it was reasonably priced, which, given the piss poor economic climate, was a nice touch. But Adelle was always trying to attract a different class of clientele. She went through cooks faster than she went through a bottle of rum, and was always adding appetizers and entrees that she saw in other restaurants. A shrimp ceviche that barely looked like shrimp and probably could’ve passed for a moderately passable cocktail. There was the chicken breast stuffed with tomato and pesto, served with “wild” rice and mushy steamed vegetables – that went for $10. Then she tried a spinach dip with pita chips that I refused to try simply because I wasn’t sure exactly what else was in it.

“Hey,” she said to me. At first, I thought she was talking to somebody else. I looked up to see she was standing in front of me with a platter piled with corn chips and holding a bowl of what looked like a dip. “You want to try this?”

“What is it?”

“Poblano cheese dip,” she smiled. “It’s a new menu item and I’m trying to get some customer feedback.”

“Sure,” I said, though it was probably the beer talking. I hadn’t eaten much since breakfast. And I figured a little free food was never a bad thing. Besides, I thought, if I play my cards right there might be some free drinks and beer distributor swag in my future. It wasn’t like I had anything else to look forward to. No job. No prospects. An otherwise carefree life. I’d been in Arizona for nearly a year. No steady work. No steady friends. Neither of which particularly bothered me, since both jobs and people get to me eventually. Or I get to them. Things turn out the same either way in the end. Most jobs want more dedication than I’m willing to give for seven dollars an hour, and most people start thinking you’re their best friend if you have more than three beers with them. Then they start telling you their life story and all their little secrets. Like I care. In the end, it’s all one big headache; and the only headaches I want to put up with are hangovers.

But it probably was the beer talking, and so, even though I’d watched the Incredible Sagging Adelle enough to know she was high maintenance and low threshold, I picked up a pita chip, dipped it in the bowl, and shoved the sludge in my mouth.

“So?” she was smiling. Her teeth were crooked, but bleached a blinding white. One of her eye teeth was pointed at the end and askew.

I swallowed what was in my mouth and washed the taste out with what was left of my beer. The beer didn’t help. I looked down and inspected what it was I had just taken a bite of. The contents of the bowl was slightly chunky and light brownish – not really a color I associate with cheese. It looked more like day old vomit. Maybe baby shit. Suzy, the bartender, brought me another beer and I drank half of it down hoping it would take the taste out of my mouth. It didn’t.

“So what do you think?” she repeated. Her eye tooth looked like it was pointing at me.

“Uh,” I tried to smile. “I’m probably not the person to ask.” I was thinking that maybe I could feign an ignorance of cuisine and save myself. No such luck.

“Oh,” she chided, “Come on. It’s not too HOT, is it?”

I wish. “No,” I answered, wishing I hadn’t quit smoking so that I could excuse myself for a cig and get out of the conversation – not to mention putting another taste in my mouth. “It’s, eh… uh…” Sigh. “I didn’t much care for it.”

She stopped smiling. “Really?” The tone was not so much a questioning one as much as it was one of disbelief. Clearly mine wasn’t the answer she was looking for.

“Yeah. Well. I mean… it’s ok. Cheese sauce isn’t really my thing, first of all. And.. it’s, uh… kind of bland.”

Adelle picked up the platter and turned her face down the bar. Two of the guys from her crew – one of whom (I think) filled the role of occasional boyfriend – were down at the end ogling the new waitress with headlight tits and straight, boyish hips. She smiled at them, offering the platter of cheese and cold pita chips. They tried it, smiled, and told her it was “fuckin’ awesome.” This clearly pleased Adelle, because she bounced across the bar to the well and poured them a couple of shots – deliberately flaunting them front of me as she passed, not even bothering to look at me. Then she set the shots down in front of them, went back and poured herself a shot (which she also flaunted in front of me), and returned to the end of the bar to join her crew.

I drained my beer and motioned for Suzy to bring me another. Suzy was a decent enough bartender. She remembered what people drank and would remember your name if you talked to her a little bit. She played up the flirtation a little – after all, Adelle insisted – but only a little because she was clearly pregnant. From the look of her, maybe as far along as six months. She’d been skinny to begin with, so she didn’t balloon out too much. I did wonder how long Adelle would let her work – though couldn’t just fire the girl for being knocked up. And, ignoring the whole protruding stomach, Suzy’s pregnancy cleavage wasn’t bad to look at, and she probably got extra tips, anyway. Diapers are expensive, after all. When she brought my fresh beer I smiled and thanked her.

“Hey,” I said. “I guess I should’ve said I liked the dip, huh?” I motioned towards Adelle, who was giggling and rubbing up on the boyfriend toy.

Suzy didn’t answer. But she did shrug and smile – as if to welcome me to a club. My lot in the bar had been chosen. I suppose I should’ve been grateful that Adelle didn’t find some excuse to kick me out. She did, however, turn the juke up so loud that it was impossible to hear anything but an unrelenting bass beat.

But then – I always paid my tab. Somebody has to cover the free shots.

26 May, 2009

The Day Ferguson Died

My headache was amplified by the peeling echo of the telephone and I wished (yet again) that there was a way to turn the ringer off the without breaking it. I tried muffling the sound by holding a pillow over my face and ears and burrowing into the bed; but it was no use. When I finally picked it up though, there was no one on the other end.

“Fuck.” It hurt to talk, but thinking hurt even more. After some doing I sat up and looked around the motel room with its dirty tan walls, sticky bed cover and rickety plywood furniture. The empties were starting to add up. At some point, I thought, I’ll have to let housekeeping in to pick this shit up. What a fucking joke. Housekeeping. The entire housekeeping department of the Lost Dutchman was two Mexican women who barely spoke English and who glared at me whenever I passed them on my way to the ice machine. Maybe they were getting reports from the bedbugs that I wasn’t taking care of the room.

After managing to sit up on the bed and put my feet on the floor, I looked over and noticed an unopened beer next to the telephone. It would be warm; but at least it was something. I cracked open the can and poured it down my throat. The taste of warm beer and aluminum filled my mouth, but I closed my eyes and tried not to focus on it. Why couldn’t I have found a motel with a mini fridge? I hadn’t been in any shape to be picky. I still wasn’t. A month today. I’ve been living here a month today.

The idea was a simple one. Brit and I talked about it for a couple of days and I convinced her it was our best shot. There wasn’t any work to be had. The wave of general unemployment was sweeping down from Michigan and Ohio, and up from Kentucky. I hadn’t worked in months, and it was causing us problems Since I wasn’t working, Brit was working all the time to try and cover things. We were fighting a lot; it was all about money, my drinking, and the fact that her parents wanted her to leave me. Then I heard from my one of my old buddies, Paul. He was living out in Arizona. He told me things were still good in the west; that any dumbass who could swing a hammer could find work. That was an exact quote. Even though I hadn’t really done any construction work, he told me he could probably get me a job schlepping shit around construction sites so long as I could handle the heat and as long as I didn’t mind getting paid under the table. Brit didn’t like the idea of me leaving; but she still had her job, and there was a chance that she could get transferred to Phoenix. It would just take some time. But Paul told me that if I wanted him to hook me up that I needed to get out there ASAP.

At first she was worried about me going. “It’ll be an adventure,” I told her. “Like one of those westerns where the guy goes west to build a new life for him and his lady love. It’s almost romantic. Kind of heroic, actually.”

That one made her laugh. A little. So Brit and I scrounged together some money, borrowing what we could from friends and family, and I hopped a red eye Greyhound out of Indianapolis.

Two days and three transfers later, I was in the Phoenix station with one suitcase, the clothes on my back, and every expectation that I could land a job and that Brit would follow me in a couple of weeks. Paul met me at the station. When I called him from Santa Fe and told him I was on my way, he seemed surprised. I told him when I’d hit town and asked if I could just crash for a couple of days, until I got settled. He was non-committal; but we were old friends and he’d never let me down in the past. When he met me, though, he told me his old lady wasn’t comfortable having me there. “She just doesn’t know you,” he said. “Come over for dinner a few times. Once she gets to know you, it’ll be cool. It’s just how she is with new people.” I was too exhausted to argue, so I told him I needed to find a cheap place to stay. It was Paul who suggested the Lost Dutchman. “It ain’t much,” he said. “But it’s cheap. And it’s on the bus line.” And so I checked into room 232 and paid the first week. I figured it would take at least that long to find work and find a better place to live.

The beer steadied me and I stood up. My head was still killing me, and various parts of my body were starting to wake up and join in. I felt like I’d fallen down a flight of stairs. The face that stared back at me in the smudged mirror wasn’t bruised. No evidence of falling. Just an awful goddamn hangover. I stripped and turned the shower on; after the pipes made an arthritic moan the water spit out of the shower head, and I turned the hot water way up.

The shower helped; Brit could never understand why I liked my showers so hot. She used to tell me that I was scalding myself every time I took one. I let the water pour over me; I could feel the burning sensations beading on my head, and trickling down my back, my ass, my legs. I managed to milk a dab of motel shampoo out of the bottle and spread it through my hair as best could. Then I reached for the remainder of the tiny soap and did my best to feel clean. Just about the time the water started to go cold, I turned it off. The phone was ringing again. Fuck. I grabbed the last clean towel and dried myself off. But by the time I got to the phone, the ringing stopped.

Friday, I reminded myself. It’s Friday. That meant I had to pay my weekly rent or be out by noon. The clock read 9:59 AM. I put on some clothes that didn’t look too dirty and walked down to the office for a cup of coffee. It was horrible shit; not much more than brown water, really. But it was coffee, and it was free. My first morning at the Lost Dutchman I made the mistake of trying the “Continental Breakfast” – a series of stale donuts, muffins, and bagels hard enough to give serious concussions. The coffee creamer was rancid and the orange juice looked like piss. So I stuck with the coffee, since I had actually seen them making it once. I knew where it came from.

When I got down to the office, the morning girl wasn’t behind the desk. Must be sneaking a cigarette in the back. The coffee was lukewarm and tasted like shit, but it was no worse than the warm beer I’d started my late morning with. I drank down the first cup quickly, topped off the small Styrofoam cup, and went back to my room. Standing outside the door, I heard the phone ringing again. After fumbling with the key card and missing the time when motels actually gave you a fucking KEY, I got the door open. The phone stopped ringing.

“I hope that’s not Paul,” I said to the empty room. He’d been telling me for a couple of days that he was trying to line something up for me. He had to wait for the boss to get back in town, he said. Apparently the guy was in Fiji with his young new wife. Paul seemed to think this was a good sign. “If he can afford to run off to a tropical island,” he told me, “sure as shit he can afford to hire you on to do something. Trust me.”

Yeah, right. I trusted that I wouldn’t have spend what little seed money I had on a cheap motel where the only other long term residents crawled on six legs and scattered when the lights came on. I sat down on the bed next to the phone, picked it up, and dialed Paul’s cell phone number. Maybe he heard something. Maybe I wasn’t completely fucked on this entire deal.

He kept telling me he was doing the best he could. He invited me over for dinner a couple of times, but always cancelled at the last minute. That was what had happened the night before. When Paul showed up to (I thought) take me over to meet the old lady and try her award winning pot roast with baby potatoes and carrots, he had a large cheese pizza, two twelve packs of beer, and a bottle of tequila with him. “It’s just a bad night,” he apologized. “Don’t worry about it.”

I sat and listened to his cell phone go to voice mail and hung up. I didn’t feel like leaving him a message. Besides, I told myself, he’ll call when he’s got something. He said he’d have something.

The coffee was gone and I knew better than to think that there was anything on TV worth watching. All morning news and those annoying shiny happy people with their bleached smiles and spray on tans. No thanks. If I lay back down I probably wouldn’t have gotten up again for another couple of hours. The aches and pains were slowly starting to wear off, though my head was still a little fuzzy. Goddamn tequila. Maybe Paul figured if I was hungover enough I wouldn’t nag him about a job. Or his old lady’s pot roast.

I found my watch. It was still set to Indiana time. Brit would be at work and too busy to talk. Besides, I wanted to be able to call her with good news. We had put off getting married until I found regular work again, and the longer it took me to find something, the more it felt like the wedding was never going to happen. For the first week, we talked everyday. We talked about wedding plans. We talked about what it would be like when she moved to Phoenix. We talked. She complained about the fact that I didn’t have a cell phone. I told her she was too dependent on hers. The last week or so she wasn’t as talkative. She was working more, I think. Trying to get in good so she could get the transfer, maybe. She stopped bringing up the wedding and started asking about other things. She asked me about the weather. It was August, so the days got up to 119 or 120 degrees. “But it’s a dry heat,” she said. “Right?” I tried to explain that there was no way to compare the heat to what we were used to. I told her it wasn’t a matter of it being hotter, or of it being too hot. It was just different. She’d ask me what I meant and I’d tell her I didn’t really know. She’d have to see for herself.

The clock read 11:00 AM. I was either going to have to pay for the room or pack my shit. I reached into my jeans pocket and dug out the money I had left. I could swing another day. Maybe two, as long as I didn’t eat anything. Paul had been buying most of the booze and some of the food. Guilt on his part, I supposed. Dragging my unemployed ass halfway across the country only to tell me I’m shit out of luck.

One more day, I thought. Give Paul a chance to come through. I stood up and walked down to the office. The morning girl was sitting behind the desk reading Star.

“So are Brad and Jennifer going to break up?” I joked.

She looked at me and sniffed. “It’s NOT Brad and Jen anymore. Brad’s with Angelina Jolie.” She looked at me like I was an idiot.

“Right,” I said. “Tragic. Horrible.” She wasn’t impressed. “I need to pay another day.”

“Room number?”

I told her.

“One more night?”

I sighed and nodded my head.

She brought up my bill and told me how much it cost. I gave her cash. She gave me change. Then she went back to her magazine.

What? I thought. No ‘Thanks for your business?’ I walked back up to my room. The phone was ringing again. I tried the key card. It didn’t work. I tried it a couple more times. Nothing. The phone stopped ringing. I trudged back down to the office. The girl had stopped reading about the secrets of the rich and famous and was watching The Young and The Restless while eating a can of Spaghetti-Os.

“Excuse me?”

She looked up. Annoyed. “Yes?”

I held up the keycard. “It doesn’t work.”

She huffed, set down her Spaghetti-Os, and reached out her pudgy fingers. I was surprised to see that her fingers weren’t coated in tomato sauce. I gave her the card. “Did I update it?”

“I don’t know. Don’t think so.”

She shook her head. “It won’t work unless I update it.” She looked at me as if she were saying Why didn’t you know that, numb nuts?

“Sorry,” I mumbled and smiled.

She shook her head again, ran the card through a machine, and punched some keys. Then she handed it back to me. That was when I noticed her bracelet – one of those WWJD rubber band bracelets. I looked at her in profile. Not a bad looking girl. A little on the chunky side maybe. But how did that song go? The bigger the cushion, the better the pushin’. Maybe she just needed a solid fuck. Something to clean out the dust and sanctimonious air.

But I didn’t comment. She stopped focusing on me and went back to squinting at the 12 inch TV and eating her abandoned lunch. When I got back up to my room, the keycard worked, but the phone wasn’t ringing. When I called Paul’s number it went straight to voice mail. Again.

I was about to give up and turn on the TV – maybe, I told myself, maybe I can get into soap operas and daytime talk and commercials about maxi pads – when the phone rang. I got to it before it rang twice.

“Hey! Hello?”

“Walter?” It was Brit.

“Brit! Hey babe. I figured you’d be at work, or I would’ve called you.”

“How are things?”

“Fine. I’m expecting a call from Paul today. His boss is back in town, so he should be able to tell me something.”

“That’s good,” she said. “Listen…”

“I can’t wait til you get here, Brit,” I said. “I miss you. Everybody here is fucking nuts, babe.”


“Yeah. I mean, granted, I haven’t exactly been around the crème de la crème … but once you get out here you’ll see what I mean. How’s that going, anyway? Any word on transferring out here?”

“Yeah, Walter. Listen…”

Listen. I’d heard that tone before. That time we broke up. The time her cat died. The time she thought she was pregnant. I’d heard her use that tone with her mother when they had to hospitalize her for her own good.

“What’s wrong? You can’t transfer? Fuck it, babe. Once I get settled just quit and come on out. You’ll have better luck, I know it. I bet Paul knows somebody.”

Walter…” she paused. “I… you remember a guy named Ferguson?”

I shook my head. How could I not? “His parents are friends with your parents?”


Sure as shit I remembered him. Brit’s parents kept a picture of him on the mantle in the living room; it was Brit’s senior prom picture. Ferguson had been her date. Whenever we went over, the picture was there, staring me in the face. They always had news about what he was doing. How his grades were in college. What he was studying. When he was coming home for a visit. I never met the guy; but hear Brit’s parents talk, you’d think he was the second coming. WWFD. When we asked for the loan so I could get out to Phoenix, they were more than willing to give us the money – as well as another sterling update about Ferguson, who had just been accepted to law school. From what I could tell, her folks were already planning on what to name the future grandchildren.

“What about him?”

She started crying. “He… died.”

“Shit,” I answered, trying to sound shocked. “What happened?”

I got the gist of it through her tears and sniffles. He’d been visiting friends in Cincinnati and was downtown going to some club or another when he walked down the wrong street. Bad luck, bad timing. Certainly not what was expected for Ferguson the wonder kid. Guess there was plenty of bad luck going around and he got his all at once. Brit was pretty tore up, so I could only imagine how her parents felt, now that all those grandchildren they’d been planning on would never come into existence.

“I’m sorry, babe,” I tried to console her. Secretly, though, I felt like a weight had just been taken off my back. He was dead. I was alive. Now all that remained was for Paul to come through and for Brit to move to Phoenix so we could get married and start thinking about kids of our own. “After things settle down, you should come on out,” I said. “Get away from all the sadness. The sun always shines out here, you know.”

“Walter,” she began. “I…I… I’m sorry.”

“About what?”

“I can’t. I can’t come out there. I can’t. I just can’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I never wanted to move,” she said. “But you were so determined.”

“I did this for US.”

“I… I just can’t. I can’t be that far away. Not now.”

“Why? Because Ferguson got killed? What the Fuck, Brit?”

She went on to tell me it was more than that. That part of the reason her parents gave us the money so easily was because they wanted to get rid of me. That she’d been spending a lot of time with Ferguson. That she was supposed to go to Cincinnati with him but that she couldn’t get off work. She tried to explain, but I stopped listening. There was nothing left to listen to, and nothing I could say. When she got to “I’ll always love you Walter, but…” I hung up the phone before she finished.

I sat there for a minute, not thinking anything. My gut hurt and it took everything in me not to start punching the wall. After a few minutes I stood up and started to breathe. Then I went to the sink and splashed water on my face.

Just then, the phone rang. At first, I wasn’t going to answer it. I figured it was Brit, trying to get the last word in. Trying to finish her bullshit sentence about how she loved me but wasn’t IN love with me… or some such other bullshit excuse for dumping me when I was nearly broke and stuck in the desert. The phone kept on ringing. Maybe it’s Paul, I thought. Maybe he got that job lined up. Maybe if I can get work lined up, I can convince Brit to come out anyway, and that she really loved me and that her parents were wrong about me.

I picked up after seven or eight rings. It was a wrong number.

13 May, 2009

Every Other Wednesday At the Rec Center

I hadn’t been in town very long when I ran into this guy I’d known back in the day. T.C. He’d just been a kid, then – all wide-eyed and full of misdirected passions. He’d do things like put up what he called “installation art” on the University Chancellor’s front lawn – usually under the cover of darkness and typically involving large amounts of prepared paper mache’ toilet paper, stick figures made from the limbs of the big Ginkgo tree in front of the Chancellor’s house, occasional fireworks displays, or random words spray painted in the grass. Words like TYRANT. Sometimes he would spray paint entire phrases like MUSSOLINI WAS A UNIVERSITY CHANCELLOR. Like I said, random shit. And he got away with it most of the time; he was the son of a particularly popular English professor, Dr. Arnie Grimble. And when I say popular, I mean popular with the students. The only reason T.C.’s dad got tenure was that the administration was afraid of a full fledged student uprising. Not that the old man didn’t deserve it; but you can’t ever be too popular with your students or people start to think you’re passing out A’s. But Dr. Grimble wasn’t like that. He was hard. But fair. He also treated his students with respect. And, I suspect the administration was also afraid if there was a student uprising, that T.C. would be at the front of the pack with his paper mache TP and banners comparing the Chancellor – a doddering old man in his early 70’s – to Hitler or Stalin. T.C. didn’t really know history and he wasn’t trying to make a statement. He just liked the effect.

“Hey, man,” he shook my hand and smiled.

I shook back and made some bullshit comment about how much he’d grown. Once the words left my mouth, though, I regretted saying them. Not because they were wrong. He was nearly a head and a half taller than me with broad shoulders and well defined muscles. He’d also started sporting a full mustache and lamb chops that would have shamed Elvis. He looked even less like his dad than he ever did. No, I regretted the words because they made me sound old. I was also jealous of his mustache. I’d finally shaved my beard off because the grey hair was starting to out number the dark brown, and I would be damned if I was going to be one of pathetic assholes who colored their beards. Better walk through life shorn and accept the inevitable.

“What are you doing back in town?” he asked.

“Just visiting,” I answered. “Thought I’d check out the old stomping grounds again.” I hadn’t been back since I graduated. There hadn’t been a reason to go back. I found a teaching gig, got married, had kids. Had a life. “What about you? You still live here, or are you back visiting the folks?”

“Folk,” he answered. “Mom died about five years go. Cancer.”

“Geez, I’m sorry.” And I was. T.C.’s mom was the well known and well liked – particularly by the guys in the graduate program who had spent any time at the house. Lydia. Her name was Lydia. She was nothing short of gorgeous: perfect tits, Marilyn Monroe curves, perfect lips, and an ass that wouldn’t quit. Many of us often wondered how a guy who, thought brilliant, sometimes couldn’t match his socks managed to land a woman like her.

“Yeah, well. She didn’t linger very long. By the time she went to the doctor, it was too late.”

“Still,” I said. Part of me wanted to ask what kind of cancer it was; but then I felt a little stab of shame. What did it matter? Does it matter whether it was breast cancer or a brain tumor? No. But the memory of her was something that lingered for me. Even years after. “So you’re here visiting the old man? Is he still around?”

T.C. nodded. “He’s still around, but I’m not visiting. I live here.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “You’re not STILL in college, are you?”

He laughed. “Fuuuck no, man. I didn’t stay in very long.”

“It would be hard for you to go to school here, I’d think.”

“Oh I didn’t go here,” he sniffed. “I got accepted to a school out of state.”

“Can’t imagine you suffering from separation anxiety.”

He shook his head. “I stuck it out for a whole year. Then I left and didn’t go back.”

“So what happened?”

He handed me a flyer. “This.”

I looked at the flyer. It was an advertisement for a wrestling match, that night at the Hardwood Avenue Rec Center. I must’ve looked confused, because he kept talking. “I’m a wrestler, man. You should come and check it out.”

“A wrestler?” I said “Like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, shit like that?”

He nodded. “Damn straight. It’s a fun gig, man. High energy. Entertaining stuff.”

“What made you want to do something like that? I mean, I know it’s not real, exactly… but it’s still dangerous, right?”

“It’s as real as anything else,” he said.

“Does the old man go to watch?”

T.C. shook his head and spit on the sidewalk. “Nah. He never has.”

So I told him I’d check it out, though I had didn’t really have any intention of going. He told me to hang around afterward and then we’d go get a beer. I was trying to picture him flying around a ring, bouncing off the ropes, throwing even bigger guys down on the mat. It was difficult to imagine. Yeah, he was bigger. And he had clearly bulked up. But a wrestler?

The campus was pretty much how I remembered it; it was one of those places that never really changed. I’d heard through the Alumni newsletter that they were going to be building a new dorm, and additions to the student union were in the works. There was no evidence anywhere in the middle of campus, though, that anybody was building anything. Maybe it was just all talk. Maybe the funding had fallen through. It was a private university, so all the money had to come from alumni and whatever other sources they found to keep the doors open. Nearly all of my teaching experience had been in a public university. Big campus. Big expectation. And, like every state school, it had reputations for being a “party school.” The new buildings on my campus were paid for with matching funds from the state. Tax payer money. Building brand new buildings that would look good in a brochure or on a web-based virtual tour, while entire programs and colleges were being cut off and allowed to die from academic starvation.

Why had I come back? I wasn’t even sure. I was never the sort of guy who went to reunions. I made sure I kept myself in the Alumni Listing, but I never contributed money. An image of Lydia slid into my mind. It was summer. She was wearing one of her bikinis – the blue one the matched her eyes. A bunch of us were grilling out at the lake. Dr. Grimble was off manning the grill and drinking shitty beer like it was water. The other graduate students were hanging around, playing frisbee. A couple of the girls were sun bathing, and a few of the guys were focusing their attentions on them. Lydia pulled me asked and asked me if I’d ever seen this one part of the lake. “The rocks,” she told me, “are fantastic. You can see the history of the world and soak your feet at the same time.”

I walked by the house. Lydia’s house. I had planned to stop in and see my old professor; but I wasn’t sure that it was appropriate. I hadn’t called ahead; though maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have gone.

The whole trip was a last minute decision; I packed a bag, left a note for my wife, and headed out before she got home after picking up the kids from day care. That the only way I could get out of the house without an argument. That was all we’d been doing for months – since the cutbacks were announced. The work I’d ever known was academic. But she wanted me to go out and get something else. Anything, she said. I could be a dishwasher for all she cared, she said. At least I’d be contributing. I didn’t feel like trying to explain what I didn’t really understand myself – the urge to visit the old alma mater. I didn’t feel like talking about it when she tried to call my cell. I didn’t feel like arguing with her about the simple fact that there was no money for any kind of trip – which meant I was using credit cards for everything. Gas. Food. The cheap ass motel at the edge of town where all the high school kids went after the prom. I was decimating our collective credit rating, and I didn’t give a shit. Just more bills to avoid paying. About half way there, I decided to stop and see Arnie Grimble. And Lydia. But, I think it was mostly to see Lydia. Running into T.C. on the street was something I hadn’t counted on. I also hadn’t counted on Lydia being dead.

I stood in front of the house for a couple of minutes; then I kept walking.

Later on that day, I was lying on the bed in my room and staring at the television. I should’ve gone up and knocked on the door, I thought. I should stop in any say hello. I wondered if the house looked the way that Lydia had kept it. Her tastes were eclectic and kitschy. Interesting. Handmade trinkets from Barbados. World music on the stereo. Intentionally mismatched dinnerware. When Lydia cooked, it was always some exotic dish from some foreign land. Most of the time she wouldn’t tell us what it was until we’d had at least two bites of it. What about Arnie? I thought. How’s he handling it? How could he handle it? How could anybody? I tried to imagine what I’d feel like if my wife went through something like that. Cancer. What a horrible way to go. The cure was as bad as the disease, and if one didn’t get you, the other probably would.

I closed my eyes and dreamed of Lydia, and that day by the lake. The place she showed me was secluded; we were out of view from Dr. Grimble and everyone else. She soaked her feet in the cool water and talked to me about the rocks. She was fascinated with fossils, she said. It was interesting to think that all we ever really know about the past is the garbage we leave behind.

“Garbage?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she smiled, snuggling up close to me. I could feel the heat emanating from her body. “Garbage. Old bones, broken pots. Garbage. We know more from old garbage than we do from all of recorded history. Manuscripts get destroyed. Libraries get razed and burned. But nobody worries about what gets thrown out. Garbage.”

She laughed, and stood up. I thought, a little disappointed, that she wanted to go back. Instead, she looked around, then looked down at me and smiled. “I think I want to go skinny dipping,” she said. “I bet the water feels WONDERFUL.” And before I could answer she had untied her bikini top, letting it fall beside me, and stepped out of her bottoms. Then she jumped in, laughing. She came up out of the water gloriously wet; it was deep enough to jump but shallow enough to stand. “Come on in, Ray” she called. The water slid off her skin and back into the lake, and for an instant, I envied the water. I was about to slide in and join her when she shook her finger at me. “Tsk tsk tsk,” she said. “We’re skinny dipping, remember?” I’d been naked in front of girls before; but for some reason, I was nervous when I stood up. I looked around to make sure there was no one around, and, almost in a single motion, dropped my shorts and jumped in, washed in the cool lake water and the sound of her giggling laughter.

Some noise on the television woke me up. I woke up to a too cool but clearly bloated Lee Marvin yelling at a very young Charles Bronson in The Dirty Dozen. I looked over at the clock. 7:00. I sat up and looked around the room. Food crossed my mind; I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning. As I slid my shoes on to run out and get something to eat, I glanced at the bedside table and saw T.C.’s flyer. According to the flyer, there was going to be food and beer. I had enough cash left for the door. And I did tell him I’d show up. It wasn’t like I had anything else planned.

The rec center was easy to find. There was a small crowd of cars, so I found a spot easily. I paid the door and walked in. A crowd of around 50 people were there, with more trickling in. It wasn’t Madison Square Gardens – but it was a bigger crowd than I had expected. I made my way back to the concession stand, where I bought myself a hot dog and a beer, then I found a seat. I looked around for Arnie, but he wasn’t anywhere in the crowd.

When the show started, the crowd was on their feet yelling. Sometimes they’d cheer. Sometimes they’d boo. They always cheered for the Good Guy and always booed the Bad Guy. Up close it was obvious that most of the body to body hits weren’t really hits. But it was interesting. I’d watched wrestling a few times on television when there was nothing else to watch; but you don’t really get a sense of how orchestrated it all is until you see it up close. You understand, of course, that it’s not real. But it didn’t matter to anybody in the crowd. They yelled and cheered and through popcorn. They called out moves for the wrestlers to use, with names like the Puxatony Pile Driver and the Grand Slam Head Ram. The Bad Guy wrestlers jeered when they were winning and insulted and egged on the crowd, only to ultimately be beaten by the Good Guy and have slink off in humiliation.

The main event was between Gorgeous G and Tommy Knocker. Gorgeous G made his entrance the way All Good Guys did and jumped into the ring. Then the announcer called out Tommy Knocker, The Bad Guy. When he made his snarling, yapping, yelling entrance, I saw immediately that it was T.C. He dressed in black spandex bottoms, so all of his tats would be exposed. His hair was spiked and he had dark paint under his eyes. He was egging on the crowd beating his chest and insulting everyone. The crowd seemed to have it for him. But that only seemed to encourage him. When he stepped into the ring, the first thing he did was head butt the ref and throw Gorgeous G against the ropes.

Of course, T.C. lost. The final move happened when Gorgeous G lifted T.C, above his head, spun him around, and in a seamless move, pile drove him into the mat. The screamed and chanted “G Force Slam,” over and over. But instead of slinking off humble and defeated, T.C. refused the help of his “manager,” a beautiful blonde with a perfect tan and too good to be real tits and walked out on his own.

I waited around for him to come out. As the crowd trickled out and the cleaning crew came in to break everything down and clean everything up, I looked at the floor. It was covered in sticky split pop and puddles of warm beer, pop corn, half eaten hot dogs and nachos. Garbage, thought. For a second I tried to imagine what the Roman Coliseum must have looked like after the gladiator fights. Empty wine skins and chicken bones mixed with blood and piss? I thought about Lydia. Something about all of this would have appealed to her. I tried to imagine what she might say, but all could think about was her eyes, the feel of her skin, the image of her rising out of the water, the feel of her lips, and sounds she made while we fucked. When T.C. came out, he was smiling the way he used to smile when the University Chancellor called Arnie about the latest vandalism of university property. We went to a bar one town over and had few beers. We talked about the match. About the back in the day. About Lydia.

When I got back to my room, I noticed there were 20 new calls on my cell phone. They were all from my wife. When I called to make sure it wasn’t something with the kids, she started yelling at me. I wasn’t in the mood for an argument, so I told her I just needed some air and that I’d be home the following day. The next day, I checked out of the motel and drove home.

12 May, 2009


Darryl Junior was sitting in the middle of the living room crying the way a 24 month old baby cries when he needs to be changed: peeling, ear splitting cries that carried all over the house. The oldest, eleven year old Vanessa, was sitting on the couch ignoring her baby brother and watching television. Eight year old Shonda was sitting at the kitchenette, still refusing to eat her peas even though it was a full two hours since dinner was over. The third child, Celia, who was seven, was over at a friend’s house. (Thank God!) In the back corner of the small house, locked in her bedroom, Nice Jones was curled up on her bed crying and talking on the phone with Mama.

“Can’t you come over?” she asked. “Please, Mama. I just need some help tonight. Please…”

“You shoulda thought of that ‘fore you laid down,” was the reply. The tone was sharp. Unforgiving. “You shoulda thought of that before you laid down FOUR times, Nice.”

“Please, Mama…”

“Girl, I just got off WORK,” Mama replied. “I’m tired. My feet hurt. My knees hurt. My back’s got spasms again. I just want to soak in a tub and relax. I can’t keep coming over to help you.”


“YOU the Mama now,” Mama said. “I told you, didn’t I? Now go take care of that crying child.”

She hung up the phone and Nice cried ever harder. Between Darryl Junior, the noise from the television being turned up to drown him out, and her own exhaustion, Nice Jones was spent. She couldn’t move from her bed. She’d known that it probably wouldn’t do any good to call Mama.

Nice wiped her eyes on her sleeve and looked at the pregnancy test sitting on the bedside table. She’d known the signs before she took the test, but she was hoping it was something else. Cancer, maybe. But the test confirmed what she already knew. Nice Jones was pregnant again. 24 years old and pregnant with her fifth child. The panic didn’t hit her until she got all the way home and Big Darryl had left the kids alone again to hang out with his Boys.

Once, not long after Shonda was born, she’d had a dream that her ovaries shriveled up and fell out of her. They fell out of her just like she was taking a shit, and when she was forced awake by the sound of baby Shonda crying, Nice was determined to go on birth control after that. But there was never any money for it. Other things were more important. Diapers. Formula. Baby food. Bills. Rent. More than once Old Man Marner had let her slide on the rent because he felt sorry for her; but this last time, he wasn’t so sympathetic. He told her she could pay him rent or she could work it off another way. “You’re a pretty girl,” he told her smiling like he forgot he didn’t have his teeth in. “You’re a pretty girl with big dark eyes.” Then he reached out and cupped her left tit. “We can figure SOMETHING out, Nice. Make an arrangement.”

Old Man Marner was old enough to be her grandfather. The thought of it made her sick to her stomach. Worse than morning sickness. Nice had thought about telling her Mama about what the old son of bitch had said—but Mama probably wouldn’t believe her. She went to the same church where Old Man Marner was a deacon. So she sold her car after that to pay rent, and now she was riding the bus to work… which took longer. But the money kept the old man away. For another month, anyway.

And then there was Big Darryl. Not that he was big; he actually wasn’t all the big at all. Scrawny for a man, and light as a feather. But he had a temper on him, and when he drank (which was most of the time) he made sure he got what he wanted. That included Nice, and he wasn’t about to think about slipping on a rubber after he came home from the strip clubs he hung out at with his Boys, horny when he couldn’t get one of the strippers there to do extras on credit. Nice could almost count the days back to the last time he’d climbed on top of her smelling of booze, blunts, and cheap perfume. She’d pretended she was asleep so she wouldn’t have to look at him; it was over pretty fast, and then he rolled off of her and passed out.

“Goddamn you, Darryl Stokes,” she whispered to herself, trying to pull herself together enough to leave the small bedroom and go take care of her children. She sat up on the bed and looked around. Cheap furniture. Rickety bed. Pictures of the kids on the wall by the door. The only window was partially boarded up from one of the times Darryl came home drunk and angry. The curtains were so thin and over washed that they were nearly colorless. Nice was never sure exactly how he’d come home. Or when. Sometimes he didn’t come home for days at a time; and when he finally did, Nice could always smell the reason on him. She could smell another woman’s pussy the way those dogs sniff out bombs at the airport. Darryl didn’t even bother to hide. Sometimes he didn’t even take a shower before he came home.

Pregnant, she thought. Why did I have to get pregnant again? Nice looked at the test again, as if the other ten times had been illusions. Like if she looked at it just one more time, it would read the way she wanted it to read.

She’d had Vanessa when she was just 15 years old; Vanessa’s father was a second string linebacker on the varsity football team. She didn’t really understand what that meant – she didn’t like football – but she liked wearing his varsity jacket, and she liked how big and strong he looked. When Nice came up pregnant, he told everybody it wasn’t his and convinced everybody she was a whore. He told everyone she’d made the rounds. That she’d fucked everybody on the football team. Nice had quit school by the time she was starting show. And even though she’d managed to earn her GED, she still struggled. For a while she stayed at home; but when she came up pregnant again – this time by one of the guys who worked the same shift as her at the factory where she worked an assembly line, making computer printers – her Mama had kicked her out. When she didn’t have anywhere to go, she ended up with another guy that she met through one of her friends at work. He was Shonda’s father, and it looked like he was going to stick around until the friend who had introduced them decided she wanted him for herself. Not long after that, Nice had the dream.

And then she met Darryl. He wasn’t the best man in the world. But he was willing to accept her and her kids. Plus, at the time he’d had a good job working in the deli at the grocery store, and he wasn’t drinking all that much. But that all changed within two months of her and the kids moving in. Darryl never got another job, and he was always stealing money from her purse to spend on booze and strippers and god-knows-what-else with the Boys. Then she came up pregnant with Darryl Junior. In the end, the only reason he even accepted the kid as his was because it was a boy.

Nice knew what he’d say this time. He’d say what they always say. That it wasn’t his. That she was a whore. He had plenty of proof, and they all lived in the house. She couldn’t afford to be kicked out of her own house; Old Man Marner wouldn’t do anything but help throw what little she owned on the patch of dead grass that passed for a front yard unless she got down on her knees.

Awilda, the Puerto Rican girl who worked the station next to her told her to consider her options. “There are things,” she said. “Things you can do. You have a choice , you know.”

Choice? Nice thought. What choice do I have? She was still early along. She supposed there was time. But what would Mama say? If Nice had gotten around to telling Mama that she was going to have another baby, there wouldn’t be an option. Mama couldn’t stand that her only daughter – the one she worked two full time jobs for to save money for college – was the mother of four children before she was 25. But adoption just meant sending an innocent child to a state run facility full of perverts and child haters; and The Other Option… well that wasn’t even an option at all. When her Mama wasn’t working, she was one of five people from her church who marched around the Planned Parenthood Clinic, carrying signs and pictures of aborted fetuses, yelling at the women as they walked in. The first time Nice ever heard a woman curse, it had been Mama, yelling insults at the women walking into the clinic. She called them sluts. She called them whores. She called them baby-killers. Nice was glad when she got to be old enough to tell Mama she didn’t want to go to the rallies anymore.

She stood up, walked over to her dresser, and got a single tissue from the box that was setting next to her jewelry box. It wasn’t much of a jewelry box; but then, she didn’t have much in the way of jewelry. She thought of the pictures of glamorous models in all the magazines she’d ever read. Young. Gorgeous. Adorned in the finest jewelry and most expensive clothes. Childless. Free.

Sigh. It wasn’t fair to blame the kids. She wiped the tears from her eyes and carefully blew her nose.

What am I gonna tell Darryl? she thought. No answer came to her. “What will he do?” she whispered to the empty bedroom. Nice grabbed another tissue from the box. It was scratchy on her nose the way cheap tissues are scratchy. Setting on the other side of the jewelry box, there was picture of Darryl and her. They were both smiling. Darryl’s smile was electric. She loved his smile and his laugh. His smile used to make her smile in spite of herself. She used to call him her Boo. She didn’t start calling him Darryl until he started coming home drunk and smelling like pussy. She thought about the women she’d seen on those talk shows – the ones who sniff their men’s underwear looking for jizz stains. Nice would never allow herself to go that far. When she complained about Darryl at work, though, she called him her Boo-Boo. Her tiny mistake. Like stubbing her toe on the corner table, or spilling a glass of water. It made the other women laugh and made the men shake their heads. Probably, she figured, because they knew their old ladies were saying the same kind of shit about them. Men were all the same.

Putting the picture back in its place on the dresser, she dug her hand into her pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. On the scrap of paper there was a phone number. Awilda had given it to her. “You should call them,” she told Nice. “Call them on a break. Make an appointment.”

Nice didn’t call; but she didn’t throw the number away, either. It wasn’t a decision she could make standing on the line inserting the printer track on inkjet printers. She looked at the number, and her mother’s hoarse voice echoed in her mind. “WHORE! SLUT! BABY KILLER! HOW MANY MEN DID YOU FUCK TODAY, WHORE!?”

Praise Jesus, Nice thought. She shook her head. Mama used to slap the shit out of Nice whenever she cussed. Said it wasn’t proper. But it was okay, Nice guessed, when you’re cursing like a sailor in the service of God. What bullshit. When the pregnancy test showed positive, Nice had an overwhelming desire to talk to Mama; though she wasn’t sure why. That was why she called in the first place. Not to ask her to come help with the kids. But not far into the short conversation, Nice realized there was no way she could tell her mom. She realized she was on her own. She couldn’t tell Mama. She couldn’t tell Darryl. The only other person who knew was Awilda at work, and Nice wasn’t even sure why she told her. But it had felt good to talk about to someone.

Nice Jones sat back down on her side of the bed and looked around the bedroom. She looked over at the boarded up window and wished she could look outside. Then she looked over the cordless phone sitting on her pillow. The pillow was still wet from Nice’s tears. Then she looked at the scrap of paper in her hand. The clinic would still be open. She could make a Saturday appointment, maybe.

As she was about to dial the number, Nice noticed that Darryl Junior wasn’t crying anymore. She dropped the phone, then rushed out of the bedroom and into the living room. Vanessa, the oldest, was still sitting on the couch. But she was holding A happy looking Darryl Junior in her lap.

Vanessa looked up. “He needed changin’”she said. When Nice didn’t respond, Vanessa shrugged and went back to watching the television. After a couple of seconds, Nice asked her daughter if she’d had dinner yet. “Yeah, Mama, we ate earlier. I made hot dogs and mac-n-cheese. There’s still some on the stove. Darryl Junior had the cream peas and peaches. He’s about out of food, though.”

Nice nodded, walked back down the short hall, and into her bedroom. She shut the door behind her. Darryl might be home later. He might not be. It was nearly the first of the month and dirt old man Marner would be skulking around playing grab ass. Mama wasn’t going to help her. She looked at herself in the full length mirror that was nailed to the inside of the bedroom door. Then she walked over to the bed, bent down and picked up the phone, and dialed the number Awilda had given her.

07 May, 2009

The Tiny Restaurant on the Corner

Dobby’s Place was one of two businesses left on Main Street after the state came through and built the by-pass. The other storefronts were boarded up and empty, leaving the center of town looking like a deserted movie set. The only other business still open– Sanderson’s Drugs – was getting ready to close and move to a better location in the new strip mall up by the interstate. On this day, (like every other) Dobby’s conspicuously well kept Chrysler could be seen turning left onto Main from Second Street around four. By four-fifteen, he was in the kitchen getting ready. Just like it did every Thursday at four-thirty, a large truck wound its way through the narrow streets and wiggled into the small parking lot next to the restaurant, delivering the weekly supplies.

“You ever think about moving to a better location?” the driver asked. “It’s hard to maneuver the truck in here sometimes. Especially when traffic’s bad.” Of course, traffic was never bad, but Dobby knew what the driver meant. Having to drive into town took longer than he wanted to spend and some of his other clients were right off the interstate, or on the by-pass. Dobby didn’t answered the question, and started humming to himself the way he always did. He wasn’t a man to waste time on useless things. He just got things unloaded and counted as quickly as possible he could so he could go about his day.

The first morning customers usually came in right after six. Dobby knew them all by name. Like Abner Wally, who came in for breakfast and lunch every single day, except Sunday. When Abner walked in, he looked like he belonged there, with the dark wood paneled walls covered with old photos and posters, news clippings, and random things like the old tractor seat that someone had nailed upside down on one of the exposed roof beams or that steering wheel to Sam Foster’s old Edsel – the only one in town. Abner settled on the same stool at the counter every day and ordered the same thing. Coffee—black. Two eggs – over easy. Toast – slightly burnt. Then he read the paper and pointed out the interesting stories to Dobby while Dobby was cooking.

“Look here. Says here that Mitchell’s farm was sold to developers. They’re gonna build houses on it.”

“Yeah, I heard about that,” Dobby said. “His kids split it up and sold it.”

Abner shook his head. “Too bad,” he said. “ Old Mike Mitchell, he put everything he had into that farm.”

“Yeah. But none of the kids stuck around. The three sons, not including the oldest who died in the war, and the girl.. what’s her name?”

“Judy,” Abner answered. “I think they named her Judy.”

“Nope,” Dobby said. “I think her name’s Sarah.”

“Don’t say,” Abner said.

“Yeah. She went off to college. Now she lives in Los Angeles. Works for some movie producer.”

“Pretty snazzy.”

“Yeah. Certainly ain’t farming.”

“Nope. I think the boys went off to school, too.”

“Yeah. But one of them lives here. The other two live in the city.”

Abner shook his head. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I haven’t been there in 40 years; but the last time I went was enough for me.”

“Yeah. Know what you mean.”

“Hey, Dobby. How’s your little girl doing these days?”

Dobby perked up considerably. For Dobby. “That little girl is almost 30 years old, Abner. Ashley lives in New York and works for a big publishing house. She’s an editor. Or something.”

Abner whistled. “Certainly ain’t farming. You hear from her much?”

“She calls once or twice a month. She’s doing real good.”

“Married yet?”

Dobby shook his head. “Said she can’t meet any nice guys there.”

“Tell her she ought to come home, then,” Abner smiled. “I’d take her to dinner.”

Dobby smiled at the joke. Then he shook his head. “She knows better than to trust a crusty old bastard like you. Besides,” he shrugged, “she’s got better sense than to come back to this place.”

Abner smiled and shook his head. He was about to move on to another article when the door opened and Marcus Macroy walked in.

“Coffee, Marc?”

“Thanks Dobby. Coffee sounds great.”

Dobby set the cup down on the counter in front of him. Marcus was a large man with hands the size of meat hooks. To look at him, you’d think he was mean, with his big long scraggly beard and deep set eyes and the lumbering way he walked. But he gentle; he never wanted to hurt anybody and nobody ever particularly wanted to hurt him. Just a nice guy.

“How’s that wife of yours?” Dobby asked. “Haven’t seen her around in a while.”

“She’s visiting her sister in Florida,” Marcus answered.

“You going to eat this morning Marc?”

“I, uh… I think I’ll stick with coffee.”

“Uh-huh.” Marcus had been out of work for six months or more; he used to drive two hours one way to work the morning shift in a factory that build water purifiers for the military. Then the company lost the contract and went out of business. Marcus refused to draw unemployment and he couldn’t find another job. His wife was in Florida, along with his five year old son, because divorce cost too much. It was just easier to leave.

“You know, Marcus,” Dobby said, “I made this extra food here and it’s going to go to waste. You sure you don’t want it? If you don’t eat it, I’ll just end up throwing it away.”

“Extra food?”

“Yeah,” Dobby smiled and looked over at Abner who was skimming the sports section. “There was a guy that come in wanting food, but he changed his mind. Got a call on his cellular phone and ran off.”

“Who was it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Out of towner. He’s gone. Anyway, I got some scrambled eggs and bacon here that’ll just go to waste. You sure you don’t want it? Be doing me a favor.”

“As long as it’s helping you out,” Marcus said, trying not to drool on the plate Dobby put in front of him. “Listen, Dobby. I’m, uh, a little short on money right now…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Dobby said. “You’re the one doing me a favor, remember? If you feel like paying for it sometime when you can afford it, that’s fine. But don’t worry about it now.”

Marcus smiled and said ok, then dug into his plate. Dobby gave him an order of toast and refilled his coffee. Abner mentioned the women’s softball team at the high school and how they won state for the third time in a row.

“Too bad the boy’s team can’t seem to get there,” Dobby said, shaking his head. “That would certainly be something.”

“Yeah,” Abner agreed. “Sure would.”

By eight or so, a few more people would trickle in – the old guys who retired but still needed a place to go in the morning. That was who most of Dobby’s customers were – retired steel workers, bought out farmers, and retired factory workers whose wives preferred it if they got out of the house for a few hours every day. Even if it was just to go to Dobby’s and watch baseball on the small tv with lousy reception because Dobby never got cable. Dobby kept bottles of beer cold for the afternoon. Sometimes they didn’t want to drink. But mostly they did. The township was dry, so there was no way for him to get a liquor license – not that he’d have gotten one anyway. It wasn’t worth it, having to deal with all the kids trying to sneak and drink underage and the undercover cops trying to bust you for selling to minors. Plus the insurance rates were hell. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t sit with his friends and have a beer now and again, did it?

The day was wearing on and Abner came back in for lunch. This time he was reading a different paper. “Heard something interesting today, boys,” he said, sitting down in the exact same stool he had sat in earlier. “Heard they’re wanting to redo Main Street.”

“What do you mean, ‘redo Main Street?” asked a man named Johnston.

“Just what I said,” Abner answered. “They want to repaint everything and tear down some of the older buildings to make room for parking. They say small business owners will move in to the store fronts if things are prettier and there’s more parking. There’s even talk of putting a Starbucks in.”

“Where?” The question came from Mr. Silas.

“Over where the laundromat used to be,” Abner answered. He turned and looked at Dobby. “You hear anything about this, Dobby?”

“You eating or you spreading bullshit?” Dobby asked. The other patrons laughed.

Abner shook his head. There wasn’t any point in trying to get Dobby to talk about something he didn’t want to talk about. “It’s a damn shame,” he continued to the rest of the patrons. “I hate to see people come in and change things like that. Used to be, this street was the center of everything. On any given Saturday, if you started out at the down at the Feed and Tack and ended up at the Tastee Freeze, you’d run into everybody.” He shook his head. “Things just aren’t like that anymore.”

“Things change,” another man said. “I saw it comin’ when the subsidies weren’t enough.”

“It’s them corporate farms,” another man spoke up. “Put the Little Man outta business.”

“It’s ‘cuz they import food from Mexico,” Johnston added his two cents. “They signed that NAFTA bill. They work cheaper down there, so it sells for less.”

“It’s like what happened at the steel mill,” Mr. Silas spoke up. “They laid off all the union workers and brought in scabs to work at less than half the rate.”

Dobby didn’t say anything during the conversation. He stayed at the griddle, cooking and humming the same old tune. Some people thought it was an old hymn, like “In The Garden.” Others thought he was humming one of those bee-bop rock songs from the 50’s, from back when his only competition was the Frisch’s drive-in with all those cute girls in hot pants wearing roller skates. Some people thought he made it up as he went along. No one ever asked him. He probably wouldn’t answer, anyway.

Around the three o’clock Dobby broke out the beer, just in time for the baseball game. Abner didn’t usually come back for dinner, but he came back to watch the game. It was the last game of a triple header and the first two hadn’t gone well. Sometime around the fourth inning, the restaurant door swung open and Alex Tierney walked in. Dobby had known Alex’s dad since they were kids together playing hide and seek in the sacks of feed down at that Feed and Tack. The Tierneys owned and ran the Feed and Tack until that brand new home and garden center opened up just five miles out of town up the by-pass. Losing the store pretty much killed old man Tierney – but all it did for young Alex was give him an excuse to behave like the jackass he always was. He’d gone to school with Ashley, and even back then he was a mean, spoiled little shit. More than once, Dobby had to shoo him away from Ashley, who wouldn’t have anything to do with him anyway.

Alex sat down at the counter and slammed his fist down on the Formica. Hard. “Give me a beer,” he snapped at Dobby.

“Looks like you’ve had your limit today,” Dobby said.

“I wasn’t asking your opinion, Dobby. I said gimme a goddamn beer.”

“I’ll give you coffee if you want it,” Dobby answered, wiping off his hands and tossing the towel over his left shoulder. “I’ll even fix you a burger. How about a burger?”

Alex Tierney snarled. “I SAID I want a beer old man. Now. You better just give me that fucking beer.”

Dobby looked at him calmly. “Or what?”

“Or maybe the next time that daughter of yours comes into town, I’ll look her up.” He smiled and licked his lips. “Yup. She always was pretty. And I think she was always pretty soft on me, to tell you the truth. She’s been up in New York, right? Maybe she needs the feel of a REAL MAN, instead of one them dildoes like all the lezzies up there use …”

Alex had barely finished his sentence when he looked over and was face to face with a sawed off twelve gauge shotgun. Everybody behind Alex Tierney moved to the far corner to watch.

“You ever come in here again, I’ll blow your damn fool head off,” Dobby said. His voice was calm. “And if you ever even THINK about my daughter again,” he let his eyes drift downward for a split second. “I’ll blow something else off for good measure.”

“N-n-n-o-o-w-w-w D-D-D-o-b-by, you and my old man were friends for years, and …”

“Your old man don’t have any say in this,” Dobby said. “Besides, if he was here he’d tan your ass just for walking around like a bum. You’re a waste of good air, Alex Tierney. Now unless you want me to empty this into your empty head, get out.”

“You don’t have the guts,” he choked.

Dobby pulled the hammer back and looked Alex straight in the eye. Apparently he didn’t need to say anything else, because Alex stood up slowly and back out of the restaurant, closing the door softly as he left.

After Alex left, the old man shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Dumb ass kids.” He put the hammer down on the sawed off shot gun and smiled. “Who needs another beer? I know I do.”

The other old men settled back into their seats and talked about the baseball game and how some kids were just born dumb in spite of having good parents. Before he got out another round of beer, Dobby returned the gun to it’s place under the counter. Next to the place where he kept the gun, there was an open letter. He picked it up briefly. The subject line read: ORDER TO RELOCATE. He’d read the letter several times, and the only other line that stood out to him was RIGHT OF IMMINENT DOMAIN. He shook his head. There wasn’t any point. He put the letter down next to the twelve gauge. Then he served up the next round of beer, humming to himself.

05 May, 2009

Colleen’s Angry Itch

From the look of her she’d been sitting at the bar for hours, drinking and shoving money into juke box with the same conviction that a man might shove bills in a stripper’s g-string. Sometimes she would run her fingers through her dark curly hair and look around to see if anybody noticed. The bartender was clearly out of patience with her – but she was paying for her drinks in cash. When I sat down at the bar, she looked straight at me. I made a point not to look at her directly. I was in a strange bar, waiting on friends, and I didn’t feel like making any new ones. After a couple of seconds she went back to staring into her mixed drink.

“Whatd’ll ya have?”

I looked over the selection on tap. All imports: Guinness, Bass, Harps. “You have any domestics on draft?”

He shook his head, and I thought I detected a slight roll of the eyes. “Domestics are in bottles only.”

I ordered a bottle of beer and looked around the bar. Tudor’s was one of those places trying to be something – in this case, a British pub. I’ve never traveled outside of the country, so I’ve certainly never been in a real British pub house – but for some reason, I had difficulty imaging that they were really like this one. The actual bar itself was well kept mahogany, and the rest of the place was decked out in hard wood and deep green paint. A dart board hung in the back corner. Pictures of rolling green hills and men playing golf were on the walls, spaced out in a non-claustrophobic way from the flat screen televisions showing the last basketball game of the season. None of the people there were particularly paying attention – the game meant nothing since the team managed to miss the post-season again. I wasn’t much of a basketball fan, but there was nothing else to watch. I wasn’t even sure of where the other team was from, but the appeared to have things tied up.

“It’s a damn shame, isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure at first who she was talking to, but I looked over and saw she was looking straight at me. I smiled. “I guess. To be honest, I don’t really follow basketball.”

She snorted. “Well, you’re not missing anything. Not this year, anyway.” She cackled at her own joke. “I’m more of a Knicks fan, myself.”

I nodded like I knew what she was talking about. Talk to me about football or baseball, I have a little bit more of a clue. I’m not one of those guys who has everybody’s stats memorized; but I enjoy watching a ball game, and there is something strangely cathartic about watching guys pound the shit out of one another.

She kept talking to me. That’s what I get for looking at her. “You’re not from here, are you?”

“Ah, no,” I said, looking towards the door. “But I’ve been living here for a while.”

“How long?”

“About three years.”

“I’ve been here five years, myself. The name’s Colleen.” She drained her glass and slammed it down on the bar. The bartender, who was at the other end of the bar flirting with one of the waitresses, sighed, glared, and trudged down to our end of the bar like he was doing us a favor. When he got down to her, she put some bills on the bar. “Another.”

For a moment I thought he was going to say something to her – one of those, “I think you’ve had enough, Lady” kind of statements you only hear in the movies. The truth is, unless you’re sexually harassing the help or starting a fight, most bartenders will serve you drinks until they have to pour you out onto the parking lot. This one was no different. From the look of him, he was probably a college student and it probably never occurred to him that he could do something as bold as refuse service. When he passed back by me, I raised my empty bottle to indicate I wanted another. He brought us both back drinks and then beat it back to the far end of the bar and the waitress who seemed not have moved more than half a step.

“Yeah,” she continued. “I been here five years. I’m from NEW YORK originally. What about you?”

“Ohio,” I answered, still trying to keep the conversation as limited as possible. “I’m from Ohio.”

“And what made you move out here?” Colleen stood up and moved down the bar and closer to me. “Did you want to breathe in all that clean desert air?” She chuckled into her drink.

“I moved out here for a job,” I said.

“Me, too. What do you do?”

“I used to teach.”

“High school?”

I shook my head. “College.”

“Oh, really? What do you teach?”

Usually when would tell people I taught English, they would roll their eyes and talk about how much they hated having to take English. Every teacher was a lousy teacher. All the papers were boring. It was always a waste of time.

When I told the woman I was an English teacher, she perked up. “I teach sociology,” she said. Then she said where she taught – at one of the community colleges. “Where do you teach?” I told her where I used to teach and eyes widened. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or impressed.

“So What’s it like teaching at such a large university?”

I shrugged. “I don’t teach there anymore,” I answered, “but when I did it was pretty much like teaching everywhere else.”

“You’re not teaching?”

“Budget cuts,” I said, hoping that my tone would tell her I was in no mood to talk to anybody, and certainly in no mood to talk about my former vocation. Instead, she moved a little closer.

“So what are you doing now?”

“Drinking a beer that will probably end up costing me too much,” I said, “and waiting on friends.”

She smiled. “Big plans?”

“Nah,” I said. “I think they want to cheer me up. Or maybe it’s just an excuse to go out drinking. Kinda hard to tell.”

Too much information. I wasn’t doing a very good job in scaring her off. I considered just telling her to leave me alone, but I didn’t want to cause trouble. I was definitely going to tell my friends, though, what I thought of “cool little bar” they wanted to meet me at. I tried to tell them I’d rather drink closer to home, where the taps were domestic and the atmosphere not as laboriously kitschy.

“Are you looking for another position?” She was running her fingers through her hair and leaning in to talk to me. I looked at her. Her large dark eyes, if they hadn’t been muddled by too much booze and caked on make-up, might have been pretty. Almost.

“I came out here to teach, too,” she said. “The market was better then – here, anyway.”
She looked around. “So are your friends coming soon?”

“They’re supposed to be here now,” I said. “They probably got held up or something.”

“Ah.” She smiled. When she smiled, it reminded me of a clown. A dirty, drunk clown that felt up little girls and drove by elementary schools during recess. “So what happened?”


“The job. What happened?”

I shrugged. “Budget cuts,” I said. “Between the economy and everything else – a lot of positions were cut.”

“So what do you do now? For money, I mean.”

“Right now,” I said, taking another drink, “I draw unemployment. But that can’t last forever.”

“You should look at community colleges,” she said.

I nodded. I really didn’t want to talk about that. If I had been in the mood at all, I would have pointed out that there were no positions at any community college in the area. I guess I could move – but I didn’t really have the money set back for that. I’m not a ‘save for a rainy day’ kind of guy, and with my credit even those vultures at Visa know better than to trust me with a card. But I wasn’t all that sure I wanted to teach anymore, anyway. The purpose the outing, I thought, was more likely one of those sit com style interventions where my friends – none of whom had lost their jobs – would remind me that I needed to find a job. Any job. When I announced that I was drawing unemployment, two of them looked absolutely horrified. The others said very little and shuffled their feet. I think they were afraid I was going to ask them for money.

“Do you have a PhD?”

I shook my head.

“You going to go back and get it?”

I shook my head again.

She seemed incredulous. “Why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said, holding up my empty so the bartender could take a break from the blonde waitress and do his job. “Seems like a lot of expense to be in more or less the same position. Besides, I don’t really WANT to. And I figure that graduate school is one of those things you really ought to WANT to do.”

She nodded like she agreed with me. “I know what you mean. I’m ABD and I just don’t give a shit. You know? I mean, who wants to go through all that? Write a book? What the hell for?”

I nodded, trying to be non-committal. I was starting to think maybe I was in the wrong bar. Did Nicky tell me to meet them at Tudor’s Pub? The directions were pretty clear, but I wasn’t all that excited about having to drive to a bar that’s a half hour from home when the traffic is good. Maybe I should call them. I didn’t feel like listening to the moanings of a drunken post-grad burn out. I didn’t feel like commiserating with a fellow academic peon. And I didn’t want to hear her life story – which I suspected would come soon if something didn’t change. Fuck this, I thought. If they want to drink with me, they can meet me closer to home. I got the bartender’s attention pretty easily. The blonde waitress actually had to go and serve a table for a change so he was standing behind the bar watching the basketball game. When he came over I told him I wanted my tab. Then he walked over, printed it out, brought it to me, and walked away. Presumably to poor drinks for the pretty people at the other end of the bar.

“Hey, you leaving?” Colleen asked. “Let me buy you a drink.” Before I could answer she was waving down the bartender and ordering two shots of Jagermeister. “Come on,” she smiled. “One shot.”

If I wanted cough medicine, I thought, I’d buy something that didn’t taste like shit. But the shot was sitting in front of me and Colleen was watching. I didn’t want the shot, but I didn’t want to waste the energy being rude. Colleen was rubbing up on my arm and twirling her one of her fingers in her hair. Eyeing me.

No matter how young or how a person is, seeing somebody out on the prowl is always a little pathetic. Part of me felt sorry for her; clearly there was nobody for her to drink with, or she’d have been buying them shots of that licorice shit. Fucking Colleen wouldn’t have taken much work; she was drunk and was clearly in the mood. I imagined when she wasn’t hammered and throwing herself at uninterested men in bars, she was probably an attractive woman. Not a bad body. The face was a little rough – but I wasn’t much to look at either.

But the part of me that felt sorry for her wasn’t big enough to overcome the fact that mostly, I wanted to get out there. Alone. I wasn’t all that fired up about meeting my friends. And I actually liked them – when they weren’t being assholes and standing me up, anyway.

I pushed the shot away. “I can’t,” I said. “I, uh, I gotta go.”

“Aw, come ON,” she chided. “Just one drink. Just one little drink. Come on. It’s already POURED for fuck’s sake.” She was doing everything except sitting in my lap; and if I had given her the space, she probably would’ve done that, too.

“I really gotta go.”

“I thought you were meeting FRIENDS.”

“I think I got the place wrong. I need to call them to make sure.”

“It’s just ONE SHOT,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of anybody turning down a shot.” Smile smile wink wink.

I glanced over at the bartender; he was intentionally NOT looking over at us. Other people at the bar and at some of the tables were starting to get interested in the little drama unfolding. Will he accept the drink? Will he turn it down? Will he walk her to her car? Will he ever see his friends again? These and other questions will be answered in the next episode. Stay tuned.

My phone went off. It was Nicky. He was probably wondering where I was. I wanted to answer and thank him for his stellar fucking directions. Colleen noticed the phone going off.

“You going to answer that?”

“In a minute,” I said, starting to stand up.

“Whoa, you don’t have to LEAVE to answer that.” She was rubbing up on me again and smiling. She was blocking me, rubbing her tits up on me. If I was in a better mood, maybe I’d have liked the aggressive approach. And maybe it would’ve been a nice release – warm feel of flesh and reckless abandon. But then there’s always the next morning, when the booze wears off and the hangover and regret kicks in.

“Look,” I said, escaping the blockade created by her boobs, “I really need to take this. It was nice meeting you. Take care.”

“Whoever heard of not taking a free drink?” She sounded hurt.

I almost felt bad. Almost. But we all have our little hurts and I didn’t want to take on hers, too. She had a point, though. A free drink is a free drink. I stopped and turned around. She smiled. I took the shot, downed it, thanked her and walked out. When I checked my voicemail, it was Nicky telling me they were running late but that they’d be at Tutor’s in about five minutes. I got in my car. As I was getting ready to pull out of the parking space, Colleen walked out of the bar latched onto the arm of a tallish guy wearing a pork pie hat. She was rubbing up on him and talking into his ear. I put the car in reverse and decided to call Nicky back once I got on the road.