A Hard Time Dying
Saturday, July 1
Static hissed through the car speakers. Air rushed in through unopened windows; battering damp clothes that stuck against his skin. Steeped in the stifling heat of the Northern Michigan summer, his body burned and his brain fought against a deepened resolve for nonexistence. At least no one had seen him try.
At twenty-seven, Andrew could feel the weight of his mortality suffocating him. It bubbled and wormed beneath his skin—a black viscous fluid like the shadow of a dark lake. Outside the car, trees reached toward the sky with ever-growing fingers of nature’s skeleton. On the left side of the road, an illuminated marquee with track lettering that advertised food caught his eye. His stomach ached. He hit the brakes, and turned the wheel around.
The sun was setting by the time he pulled into the gravel lot. Pickups and sedans sat packed together next to the Black Star, a small bar with a lacquered pine exterior and entrance lit up in neon. Everything in the world appeared painfully vivid to Andrew. Colors popped with a brightness that drew his attention; the sky a pastel pink, swirled with a violent neon orange, and crested the crowd of evergreens that engulfed the low buildings of the four-way stop. The smallest sounds rose in volume: gravel rattled beneath his car like an avalanche or the whir of his car windows rolling up felt like it would burst his ear drums. Andrew careened his limping Subaru into a spot next to an ancient pick up the color of burnt umber, far from the entrance of the bar. He tucked the front bumper against a splintering patch of switchgrass that sprouted wildly from unchecked growth. The straw-like foliage desperately attacked the loose border of the gravel lot, as if this cluster of small buildings was the last marking of humanity and the world was trying to swallow it up.
Andrew killed the car and opened the door in a swift motion. As he stepped onto the gravel and pulled himself from the driver’s seat, the world went sideways. His knees buckled as he fell hard onto the ground. The soft gray cotton of his oversized sweatpants did little to break the force of impact. Air escaped his lungs in a wheezing sound as he collapsed to his elbows. His pulse quickened. He could feel the ground shift beneath him through the rolled sleeves of his plaid button down. First the lake, then the shower. He wanted desperately to get away from the dampness that lined his clothes. His stomach churned as he pushed his back against the car, angling his head toward the setting sun. A pill. He could solve all of this with a pill. With some food to keep it down, and water to wash it along; in thirty minutes this panic attack would feel like a distant memory. He needed to eat and take his meds. Just get some food and take his meds.
Andrew coughed into a fist as the past twenty-four hours caught up with him. His lungs kicked up stale moisture. He felt weak—like a boxer that had been in the ring long past the end of his fight. He closed his eyes and focused on his breath, letting the world come back to him in pieces. The sticky syrup of the humid night air. The roar of his own panicked breathing. As his breath returned to normal and the drumbeat of his heart in his ears subsided, more sounds filtered in. The cooling engine of his car clicked to an off-beat rhythm. Crickets chirped their reedy cacophony against the sawblades of cicadas. A car door slammed in the distance. Somewhere nearby a woman sobbed in long pained gasps.
Jim Leeper thought about his recent run of bad luck. The mirror above the sink was lined with festering groups of rust. The sole bulb in the closet sized bathroom spasmed through various shades of flickering illumination. He inspected his face between the light’s epileptic fits. His slicked-back hair fell out of place in all the right ways, driving wildly against his face. Grey eyes gave him the gaze of a specter. Despite working long hours beneath the summer sun, his skin was bedsheet-white, veins visible beneath its surface in tendrilled blue ropes along his arms and small clusters around his temples.
He ran water from the sink; using his left hand to rub the coolness across his long jaw. Some of the water splashed the hard cast on his right arm—he was still getting used to its presence. Inside the cast, he could feel the ache of his broken hand, the cracked and swollen knuckles. The only other sign of his recent trouble was a slight bruise that couched a cut just above his right eyebrow.
Jim turned around to face the only toilet in the bathroom. The lid up, no privacy stall. Darkness swallowed the corners of the room on either side of it. From the deepest part of his back pocket, he produced a blue latex glove. It made a satisfying snapping sound as he slipped it on his left hand, snugging it with his teeth and the exposed fingertips of his right. This was his ritual. He unzipped and aimed with the gloved hand, adjusting his stream of urine. When he was finished, he zipped himself up, kicked the handle of the toilet with his boot and dropped the glove at the bottom of the trash can. Turning quickly, he washed his left hand raw in the sink, and brought his focus back to the hours ahead of him. Tonight his luck was going to change. He could feel it. He could taste it in the air around him. It was a sweet metallic taste, riding on the mixture of dank air in the dingy bathroom and the whisper of cinnamon whiskey on his breath.
Andrew pulled the cigarettes from the front pocket of his shirt and lit up. The woman’s crying echoed through the air. Part of him was jealous of her tears. He took long drags, letting the smoke drift in lazy motes around him. Beneath the mixture of sweat and mothballs, he could smell the brown lake water on his skin; it clung to him despite the vigorous scrubbing he’d given himself in the shower. He wafted the smoke over his body and let it coat him. Each second felt like a day. Each minute, a week. When the cherry hit the filter, he snubbed out the cigarette on the ground beside him and raised to a crouch on the balls of his feet, arms resting across the tops of his legs. Food, water, pills, he thought to himself.
The sobbing continued, close. Hung in the air like middle-aged depression. He stood. His medium frame engulfed in ill-fitting clothing. Combed brown hair, blue eyes. Skin too pale to be real, like it was made of paper-mache. He held out a hand and placed it over his reflection on his driver-side window and let out a long sigh. If only it was that easy.
A loud series of sniffles brought him back to his surroundings. Through the window glass of his car, he was surprised to see a woman sitting in the pickup on the other side of his Subaru. Andrew considered leaving the woman to her business. There was enough shit on his plate without involving himself in someone else’s troubles, but something about her seemed familiar. She reminded him of his mother, his sister. He could see them holding each other at the kitchen table, crying over his own death. Guilt gnawed at him.
He walked around his car and made eye contact with the woman. In the shadow of the cab, all he could make out was the vague impression of her face. When he moved into the space in between their vehicles she jumped in her seat. A renewed sob cut off mid-gasp. He raised his hands in a calming gesture and pulled the cigarettes from his pocket, holding them before him. An offer. She nodded. The tension on her face eased.
He walked up to the open window of the truck and looked at his feet as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. He’d forgotten he was wearing teal flip flops, the only spare footwear he could find at the cottage. He kept a healthy distance as he opened the pack and held it out. They both took one, the flame of the lighter sparking bright in the dim light.
“Thank you,” she said.
Andrew nodded in response. Dark makeup had run from her eyes down her cheeks, a half-finished charcoal drawing. In the dim light of the cab, he found her beautiful despite her agony. Her cropped hair, high cheekbones, and round nose reminded him of Audrey Hepburn. Her left-hand held the cigarette and gripped the steering wheel, occasionally tapping ash out the window. Her right-hand rested on the ignition. Andrew got the impression it might be a bad idea to stand close to the wheels of her pickup. He leaned back against the side of his car, its evergreen paint chipped and rusted in places.
“I’m Rose,” she said.
From his left, he heard the crunch of gravel and the snap of a windshield wiper hitting glass. He looked over to see two boys, no older than fifteen, in white dress shirts and black slacks. One had a backpack and carried two buckets, his arms straining from the load. As Andrew watched, the boy with free hands pulled pamphlets from the backpack and slid them under the wipers of the cars in the lot.
Andrew looked at Rose’s windshield and saw one of the pamphlets affixed there. He leaned over the front of her truck and pulled it from under her wiper. It was one of those multi-paneled deals that unfolded into a full sheet. Written along the bottom in purple lettering was “The Church of Her Most Precious Blood.” The inside was full of warnings about the salvation of his eternal soul. He held the pamphlet up to the ember of his cigarette and drew on it a few times. They both watched the eager flame spread across the paper.
“This place will kill you, you know,” she said.
Andrew looked up, surprised at the steel in her tone, her cigarette was gone from her mouth. Her face was puffy and swollen. “These people,” she waved at the air around her, then stopped to collect herself, looking as if she might cry again. “They’re suffocating. This town chokes the life out of you.” Andrew opened his mouth, then closed it. “It’s enough to drive you crazy.” Her hand turned the ignition and the truck roared to life. “See you later, James Dean.”
The truck pulled forward, out of the gravel lot then onto the two-lane blacktop, accelerating into the low light of the setting sun.
Andrew ran a hand through his hair and stood in the trail of fumes left in her wake, chewing over her words. Her intent had been obvious, to warn him away from the Black Star. It didn’t change the fact that he needed to eat.
He had been sleeping with Amber, a server at the bar he worked at back home. A faithful wife, a mother of three. She had this philosophy that if you experience great pain in your life, no matter the cause, you had to be equally capable of experiencing the same measure of happiness. She brought up this philosophy frequently after their post-work fuck sessions in her minivan. He hadn’t found a way to tell her he thought that the idea was bullshit.
The night before he left, she told him he had sad eyes. He lay half tangled in the litheness of her naked body and wondered how she could be so wrong. How could she see anything at all between the booze, the weed, the pills, and their constant fucking? Twenty-seven didn’t make him a sage but he had no hopeless romantic notions about the spectrum of human emotion. In his experience, there was no limit to pain. Pain was a bottomless well within which you tread water trying to keep yourself from drowning until your muscles ache and your chest burns and you slip slowly beneath the surface. Then, you’re breathing water until your lungs are full, but it still won’t let you go. Everything goes black. This is it; the absolution you’ve been begging for. Then you wake up on the shore wondering how you got back to the place you started. You don’t understand why you’re still alive or how any one person could bear so much; all you can do is exist.
He opened the passenger-side door and unzipped the main compartment of his backpack. Inside lay a casual orgy of translucent orange pill bottles. Beneath the bottles he could see the black handle of the revolver. A dark part of him wanted desperately to grab the pistol from his backpack, place the barrel against his temple and ventilate his cranium. He thought about what the inside of his skull would look like as it dripped down the side of his car and lay splashed across the gravel. It was a pointless fantasy. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t have the stomach for it—that much he had learned on the dock.
The medications always seemed foreign to him despite his religious adherence to their schedule. The pills were coated in the elusive quality of brain chemistry that no one could describe to him fully. The hard tubular bodies varied drastically in height and width. White safety caps with blue hieroglyphics. He pulled the necessary bottles, popped their tops, fished out what he needed, and stashed the handful of collected H-framed ovals and perfect circles in their various confectionary colors in the front pocket of his sweatpants, tossing the bottles back into the pack one-by-one.
Medicating himself was a matter of math. A simple equation that guaranteed certain outcomes. Take XYZ pills at ABC time every day and his brain would stay regulated. He could miss a dose of certain medications here and there, but if he skipped more than two in a row, his emotions would start to become unstable. In this state, his ability to observe the world, as it truly was, would spiral downwards drastically while his sensory perceptions would become heightened. It amounted to what was a natural high: mania.
It had been two days since Andrew had taken any of his medication. This was intentional. He had wanted to ride that high one last time. The soaring feeling of grandiose thought and superhuman possibilities. In this place he could never be wrong.
Andrew stashed the handful of collected H-framed ovals and perfect circles in their various confectionary colors in the front pocket of his sweatpants. In reflex, he reached into his back pocket for his phone, knowing even as he patted his pocket it was at the bottom of the lake. He checked his paper wallet, for his ID and credit card and finding both, replaced it in his back pocket where it lay soggy and disintegrating.
Jim exited the bathroom at a fast walk, cruising toward the bar rail. As he moved, he took in the room before him. The Friday night crowd had taken up their regular places. If he looked behind him, he’d see his own crew holding down the table by the juke, warding off anyone from playing music they didn’t like. A burst of loud laughter came from this direction. He ignored it, shrugging off his ever-present paranoia that he might be the butt of someone else’s joke. This was his first time visiting the Black Star since being fired from Don’s Lawn Care the previous Sunday when he’d beaten a day laborer into the ICU. He would find Krista and let her know that he was ready. Ready to leave Angie. Ready to leave all of this behind. Ready to pick up where they left off almost a year ago on a drunken summer night.
He scanned the length of the bar until he found her. Krista was leaning over the short arm of the bar rail talking to a guy Jim had never seen before. There was something about the newcomer. Something Jim couldn’t quite figure out. He was wearing a plaid button-down that was three sizes too big, grey sweatpants and flip flops. As Jim watched, Krista and the newbie broke out into a shared laughter. The irrational jealousy that burned across his face was immediate and withering. What could be so funny? Does she know this guy? Why is she talking to someone dressed like that? Get him a drink and move on. Krista slid her order book into the back pocket of her jeans and started down the bar toward where he stood. As she drew closer, Jim leaned over the bar top and flagged her down.
“One sec, I gotta put this order in.”
Krista winked at Jim, then brushed past where he stood and moved through the swinging double doors into the small kitchen. Her hair always hung in long curls, her bangs straight. Her eyes had a perceptive quality that made Jim feel seen in a way that no one else did. He needed those eyes, now more than ever. The shape of her face was a mix of soft curves and teasing angles. She had a way of moving through life in a way that made modernity seem seductive. Jim found himself taking in her figure with desperation. He took a breath and tried to compose himself.
To his right sat Dottie in her usual spot at the end of the rail. Her wild, gray hair was a bird’s nest; her eyes always staring off into some distant place that no one else could see. She slurped Long Islands like water. A charity case who could never pay her tab, always banking on the kindness of the other locals. He supposed the Black Star was as close to a homeless shelter as you’d find around the lake. Age lines and wrinkles crossed her face. She reminded Jim of his own mother. A bad taste rolled across his tongue.
Jim pictured himself and wondered if his hair still looked the way it had in the bathroom. His mind wandered. First, back to what Krista was wearing, denim jeans and a purple plaid button-down knotted over a tight white t-shirt that showed a hint of her toned midriff. Then, to all of the things he would like to do to her—and all of the things he would like her to do to him. Lost in his fantasy he missed her return.
“What happened to you?”
Jim took in her olive complexion and the hazel of her eyes. She nodded toward his busted hand, her brown hair bobbing with her head as she spoke. Jim raised his right hand and gave it a long look as if he was seeing the cast for the first time. He resolved to lie and shrugged his shoulders, fixing a bored expression across his face.
“It’s nothing. Just a work thing.”
Krista raised an eyebrow and paused for a moment chewing her lip, a gesture Jim found adorable, then turned around and fetched a clear bottle from a low cooler. As she bent over, Jim allowed himself a brief glance at the curve of her ass before fixing his eyes on the mirror that ran the length of the back bar. In its reflection, he watched the man he didn’t recognize, sitting at the opposite end of the bar. In front of the man sat a pint glass of water and a short glass filled with red liquid. She placed two shot glasses on the bar top between them. With a practiced motion, she filled the two glasses and raised one up into the neutral air before her.
“To your health.”
Jim picked up his own glass and clinked it against hers. “To my health.”
He downed the shot. A strong rush of mint and the accompanying burn filled his mouth, the heat working at the back of his throat. If he could freeze this moment in time and stay there forever, he would. He had everything he would ever need: a decent buzz, a hot girl, the promise of a new beginning, and his hometown bar. A too-large hand grabbed Jim’s inner thigh from behind. The smell of bubblegum, tobacco and gin told him that it was Angie. In his haste to get to Krista, he hadn’t bothered to check the corner table for her. Jim watched in the mirror with mild disgust as Angie nibbled painfully on his ear. He’d been meaning to break it off with her for months, but the thought of her potential reaction terrified him. Given her tendency for violence and hysterics, she’d kill herself or kill him. Maybe both. It took all his self-restraint not to flinch. When she spoke, her voice had a slight rasp from her two-pack-a-day habit.
“Grabbing a smoke. I’ll be back.”
In the mirror, Jim watched Angie lock eyes with Krista before walking out the front door, her last name “Shaffer” written across the back of her sweatshirt. Jim tapped his shot glass twice on the bar and slid it the short distance toward Krista. The glass traveled across the knotted wood and came to rest squarely in front of her. Jim nodded toward the man he didn’t recognize sitting at the end of the bar.
“You know him, Kris?”
“No. First time I’ve seen him.”
“What were you two talking about just now?”
“His order.” Krista folded her arms across her chest.
“That funny huh? Some tacos and a vodka cran?”
“Fuckin juice? You’re saying he’s here for the food?”
“I’m saying there’s nothing wrong with someone stopping in for service. Especially if they can make me laugh.”
A smile broke out across Krista’s face. Jim could see her replay the man’s words in her head like they were lit up on a scrolling billboard.
“Could I get a bottle for the table? The usual?”
Krista leaned back and rested her hands against her hips. “You gonna cause trouble tonight?”
“Me? Never dream of it. Oh, and uh,” Jim flicked his eyes toward Dottie, “I’ll take her tab for the night.” Jim pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and placed a wad of bills on the bar. He couldn’t afford the expense, but he wanted to see her reaction. This night was going to go his way. He watched her eyes light up as she did the math. “Keep the change.”
Krista chewed her lip and then turned around to fetch a bottle of whiskey. She set the bottle on the bar top and bent over at the waist to retrieve a small tray and eight shot glasses. Returning upright, she placed the bottle and the glasses in a neat circle on the tray.
Jim picked up the bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses from the tray and started walking. With each step his surroundings faded further into the background until there was just him and Mr. Juice.
When Andrew had approached the entrance to the bar, he saw the short figure of a woman standing at the railing that lined the small deck wrapped around the front. Walking up the handicap ramp, he paused beneath the harsh violet and red aura of the neon signs. The smell of menthol and tobacco filled his nose.
The two boys who had been flyering windshields stood in front of the deck, buckets sitting at their feet. They whispered back and forth to one another through cupped hands.
Andrew lit a cigarette and positioned himself beside the woman. Her sandy blond hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, her arms too long for her slim body, She wore jean cutoffs with the pockets falling down her thighs and a blue high school track sweatshirt with the name “Shaffer” written on the back in gold lettering. The tan skin of her face seemed older than the rest of her. Lines showed in soft places; eyes stamped with crow’s feet.
They watched the boys.
“You ever read those flyers they hand out?” Andrew asked. The woman nodded and took a drag.
“If you thought those were hot shit, you’ll love this,” she said.
With her cigarette cupped between her fingers she gestured toward the boys. They pulled off their suspenders and let them fall to their side. Then each raised one of the buckets above his head. Their arms shaking, they began to speak at a volume that rose to a yell: “The time for salvation is running out. Receive her blessing and be reborn. The end is near. There is not long left. There is only God to cry now! There is only God to cry now!”
When they finished with their speech, each boy upended his bucket over his head. Water drenched them, revealing, in their soaked state, how impossibly thin both were. One wrapped his arms around the other who held his fist to the sky. They kissed each other on the forehead and yipped with joy. After a few moments, the boys collected their belongings and walked off toward the far end of the parking lot. In the looming darkness, Andrew thought he could see figures dressed in all white, waiting where the gravel met the pavement of the road, beckoning the boys over.
“Show’s over,” said the woman.
Gooseflesh broke out across Andrew’s arm. He shook it out and finished his cigarette. Turning to flick the butt, he noticed that the woman next to him was rubbing a small silver cross that hung around her neck.
“Well, that seemed awfully progressive,” he offered.
“Their God is a woman. Does this sort of thing happen often?” She turned toward the entrance and flicked her cigarette before pausing and leaning back toward him.
“Every Friday night since that church opened last summer.”
“How long has this place been open?” Andrew nodded at the bar, “Last time I was up here, maybe five years ago, the building was empty.”
“You just missed it then. The Black Star reopened four years ago now. I need a drink.” She fixed him with hazy eyes whose intent he couldn’t read.
“What’s your poison?” he asked. “Gin and tonic. You?”
Heat worked across his cheeks as he smiled dumbly at the woman, knowing how his answer sounded. She made a clucking sound with her tongue. The interest drained from her body language. With one word he had emasculated himself. Utterly disinterested, she turned and walked through the entrance of the bar, leaving Andrew alone on the deck.
The interior of the small bar was cozy, with just enough space for Andrew to sit along the small arm of the L-shaped rail, away from the other guests. A handful of tables, no two of which were identical, lay scattered around the dining room with guests in varying numbers huddled together in conversation. An ornate chandelier hung high on a needlessly vaulted ceiling. It cast the interior with a dim amber-orange hue. The backwater soundtrack of America pumped through a mismatched assortment of speakers spread throughout the room.
The bar top felt odd to Andrew as he ran his hands along its surface. The wood hummed with vibration beneath his palms. He alternated sips of water and juice. It felt good to get something in his stomach. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten. But then, whatever had been in his stomach had been evacuated all over the dock. He shivered recalling the wet sound of his vomit slopping into the lake as it dropped between the wooden slats. Warmth broke out across his face even as he thought how absurd it was to be embarrassed by an event only he had been witness to.
Carved into the surface of the bar top was a primitive drawing. Andrew traced it with his fingers. A rough and uneven circle dotted the middle of three arms, each of which reached outward at evenly spaced intervals. Two of the arms looked like twisted question marks, though one of these was facing the wrong way. The third arm, which was shorter than the other two, resembled a slightly bent line. It was as if someone had interrupted the artist as they were etching the final leg.
The first thing that told Andrew he was no longer alone was the smell, an acrid unsettling odor that reminded him of kerosene. It was strong enough to cut through the scent of the pinewood and sanitizer wafting off the counter. When he looked up, a man stood next to him. He faced away from Andrew, leaned against the bar, and surveyed the small room and its occupants as a king would his castle. The man had a roman nose and a long beak of a jaw. His hair was slicked back, thick torso suffocated in a plain white tee-shirt. Cords of muscle roped across his limbs. A dull white cast encased his right forearm. Even sitting, Andrew could tell the man was taller than him.
As the man turned to face him, and judging by the semi-glossed look of his eyes, Andrew could tell he was well on his way to being shitfaced. Andrew groaned internally and hoped this didn’t show in his body language. He took a careful sip of juice. For a moment, he held onto the hope that if he didn’t engage with the man, he would be left alone.
“I, uhh, seen you around before?” The man rolled his head toward Andrew as he spoke.
Andrew tried to pause before responding but even on his best days his mouth ran ahead of his brain. “Doubtful.”
“‘n how’s that?”
“I’m not from here. My grandad had a place on the lake. We kept it in the family when he passed.”
“You come from money then?” Andrew leaned back in his barstool and looked himself up and down.
“The clothes give it away?”
The man barked a single sharp laugh and pulled his lips into a thin smile. The gesture seemed off to Andrew, making him feel uneasy as another pang of hunger squelched in his stomach. The man reached beside him for something Andrew couldn’t see and produced two glasses and a bottle of whiskey. Before Andrew could object, one of the glasses slid his way across the bar top. Whiskey sloshed into the concave clearness.
“In that case, let me formally welcome you to the lake.”
Andrew stared at the glass before him, his hands cupping the base. The noise of the world around him seemed to turn down. His symptoms were getting worse. It was as if someone had spun the volume knob back a few clicks on everything but the two of them. This wasn’t his first time playing this game. Every second he didn’t pick up the shot and down it he lost ground and he knew it. Ground that seemed increasingly important after the man’s goofy smile. Andrew paused, another second lost. He couldn’t drink and take his meds. Not if he wanted them to work. He looked from the shot to the man and saw genuine curiosity in his dim eyes, but there was something else there. Something that lurked deeper beneath the surface.
“Go on,” the man offered, “have a real drink. My treat.”
Andrew picked up the shot glass and clinked it against its twin. They downed their drinks and slapped the glasses onto the wood of the bar top. The booze felt warm going down but made him slightly queasy. Andrew had always enjoyed the feeling of a good buzz. In this moment however, he was unable to shake an increasing anxiety. In the corner of his vision, he spotted Krista, the bartender, watching them closely as she ran pint glasses through the triple sink.
Time began to change for Andrew. The music warped and sounded to him like it was being played at twice the speed while the movements of everyone in the bar appeared to slow down. It was like someone had slinky’ed the world. Time scrunched, then unscrunched. A wave of vertigo passed through him as the booze began to kick in. He coughed into his fist and let the percussion clear his head.
“Thanks for the drink. I’m Andrew.” He turned toward the man and extended his hand. The man ignored the gesture, collected the shot glasses, and unscrewed the top of the whiskey bottle with one hand and filled them once more.
“Name’s Jim.” Drops of whiskey spilled between the two glasses as he poured. Jim set one of the glasses in front of Andrew and raised his arm out in a second offer. Andrew saw it for what it was: a challenge, one that he was afraid to turn down. He clinked glasses again and tilted his head back slightly and took the shot. As he drank, he looked down the length of the bar once more for a pair of friendly eyes. Krista was walking away from the two of them toward the kitchen. The sway of her hips caught Andrew’s attention. His eyes traced the tan skin of her exposed midriff and followed the curve of her jeans around the form of her hips. As the whiskey slid down his throat, alarm bells went off in the back of his head. To his right, Jim leaned toward him.
“See something you like?” Jim’s breath felt hot against his face.
Andrew fumbled the shot glass, clattering it across the bar top. Each hit cascaded through his hearing, some of the percussions louder than others. As if he was experiencing the doppler effect without moving. He shook his head to clear it. The only way he could see himself getting out of the corner he had just backed himself into was to try and clear the air. When he spoke, he didn’t dare look at Jim.
“I appreciate the drinks but if I did something to offend you, I’m sorry.” Andrew watched Krista exit the kitchen carrying a paper plate sagging with food. She smiled as she walked but the look in her eyes hinted at caution. He turned to face Jim, whose body was no longer resting against the bar but squared up in Andrew’s direction. Jim collected the shot glasses once more and reset them in anticipation of another round. He kept his eyes on Andrew.
“Offended? Nah, I’m pretty easy to get along with.” He poured two more shots, spilling more booze. “Keep your eyes to yourself, friendo.”
“Here we are,” Krista said, placing Andrew’s food in front of him with a small fold of paper napkins. “Tonight’s special.”
Both men turned to face her. Andrew watched Jim straighten his posture slightly and work a fool’s grin across his face. In a moment his entire demeanor changed. The oversized menace that had been so concerning receded into quiet malice. Andrew locked eyes with Krista, then turned away, self-conscious that Jim would mention his wandering eye. Jim slid the shot glass back toward Andrew. The glass rabbled across the bar top a short distance before Krista scooped it up.
“Come on, Jim. I can’t let you give away all your booze to strangers.”
Andrew watched Jim’s forehead twitch with a flash of indignation. The lapse was momentary, but he was sure that Krista saw it. Jim turned and walked to the opposite end of the bar. Krista moved the bottle of whiskey from the customer side of the bar to her side and gave Andrew a “sorry for the trouble” shrug of her shoulders. There was a sadness in her eyes that seemed to swirl around her irises. Andrew bit into one of the tacos and did his best to focus on the food in front of him. He was mid-chew when the slap of a shot glass hitting the bar top jolted him in his seat. Food caught in his throat. He brought his hand up to cover his mouth and leaned over gripped by a fit of coughing.
“We’re not strangers,” Jim said, “This is Andrew, and Andrew likes to drink.”
Jim peeled a wide grin and slapped Andrew’s back and put his arm around his shoulder. Andrew took a long drink of water. When he spoke he sounded emphysemic.
Jim reached for the bottle of whiskey. Krista grabbed his arm by the wrist in midair.
“That’s enough, Jim.”
“Says who?” Anger burst across Jim’s face. A Y-shaped vein throbbed from the top of his forehead into his hairline.
“I said, that’s enough.”
“I’m a paying customer; leave it alone.”
“I won’t do that. How exactly did you get that cast?”
“Who are you to be sticking up for him? You don’t know him.”
“Neither do you.”
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Krista leaned in toward Jim, her arm that held his wrist pulled taught and shaking. Her face was beat red, her voice full of exasperation. This argument was stale, its motions well-rehearsed. Andrew found himself thinking about sitting against his car in the parking lot. He reached for the sensation of being surrounded by cigarette smoke. He wanted to fade away into the air. To slip endlessly upward above all the noise around him.
“You ever consider it’s not just him I’m trying to protect?”
“He deserves your attention?”
“Just how do you think I make money?”
Their voices had been steadily rising in volume with each exchange. The last rose to a level just beneath yelling. Andrew made himself small on his bar stool and tried to fade into the wood paneling behind him. He kept his hands beneath the bar rail, intent on not giving Jim further excuse for provocation.
“Get your hands off him!” The shout came from over Andrew’s right shoulder.
In an instant the energy of the room changed. All fell quiet except for the music. Andrew turned to see the woman that he had watched the boys with earlier, standing in the entrance to the bar. He could see her better in the light of the room. She was short, her eyes were a shade of blue that neared turquoise. A vein bulged, protruding beneath her left eye. From where he sat, a few feet away, Andrew could smell the scent she had doused herself in. Something like dying flowers mixed with antiseptic. Her eyes stripped the confidence from Krista. The woman crossed the ten feet from the entrance with a surprising speed.
“Ang, I-” Jim tried.
Angie pulled Jim’s arm out of Krista’s grasp with a jerk and turned to face Andrew. She lowered the volume of her voice, and though she spoke to Andrew, her words were directed at all three of them.
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” With violence, she spun in place to face Jim, who pressed himself backwards against the bar rail. “Do you see what your money gets you? Are you done looking like an asshole?” The words hit Jim, and for a second his tough man facade wilted. Before he could do anything about it, Angie turned and pulled Andrew’s face toward her, kissing him on the cheek. Andrew’s eyes went wide, and he looked at Jim, already shaking his head before Angie had even finished the gesture. She turned to Jim and reached around him, grabbing his phone from his back pocket, “Home, now.” Angie turned on her heels and stormed out the door.
“Fuck.” Jim slammed his good hand against the bar, rattling glassware and spilling the shot he had poured for Andrew.
“Out Jim. Go.” Krista commanded, slapping her hand on the bar.
He turned to Andrew, giving him a once-over before walking away. His boots thudded heavy across the floor as he exited the bar, letting the door slam behind him. The room remained silent as wheels peeled out against gravel.
Conversation slowly returned to the room. Andrew, certain now of at least a temporary respite, resumed eating his food. Krista cleaned up the mess on the bar beside him, careful to wipe around where he was eating. An overweight man with thinning white hair, wearing a black tee shirt and black apron moved behind Krista and leaned on the bar directly across from the space where Jim had been and stared out the square window in the front door. Krista pulled the half-empty water glass from the bar in front of Andrew. Though he couldn’t see her behind the man, he could hear her scooping ice and the familiar whooshing sound of a soda gun. She replaced Andrew’s water glass and drank cola from one of her own.
“Thanks for the tacos,” Andrew offered.
When the cook spoke, it was to no one in particular. “What happened here?”
Andrew thought about his response as he swallowed another bite of food. Krista leaned against the back bar and continued sipping at her drink while looking at the ground. Andrew cleared his throat and leaned into the absurdity of the night.
“Angie kissed me, and Jim tried to drown me in whiskey.”
Krista snorted soda down the front of her shirt and brought her hand up to cover her mouth. Liquid escaped between her fingers. The cook laughed, his round face turning red. Andrew watched Krista as she wiped herself dry with a towel and checked her makeup in the back bar mirror. The cook stood upright and leaned against the bar, his tone resigned.
“Jim. Fucking. Leeper.”
Andrew had been drifting. He did that sometimes when he drank, slipped into a place where time became funny. The bar top came into focus before him. The slurping sound of a straw, digging around the bottom of a glass for the last drops of liquid, came from his left. Lost in his head, he hadn’t noticed anyone take up the stool two places over.
His head felt heavy. He turned and found Rose, the woman from the truck, sitting along the wall, facing him with a drained pint glass in her hand. Any sign of her previous distress had vanished entirely. Her makeup was fixed, her hair perfectly in place. Her eyes sparkled with a glint beneath the soft light. There was a brightness in them where before there had been pain. She wore a red cocktail dress, her legs crossed and bare. His eyes focused on her skin a few seconds longer than he was comfortable with. A plastic bucket full of roses sat on the stool between them. She tamped the ice at the bottom of her glass some more before setting it on the bar top next to her red wine.
Andrew’s mind began wandering, his gaze moving from her pink lips to organic folds of red petals. He remembered eating and taking his meds but nothing after that. How long had she been sitting there? How had he not felt her move behind him to take her seat? He went to sip his own water but found a tall whiskey and coke in its place. The sweet cola mixed with booze lit up some of the foggy parts of his brain as it went down.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’ve got quite the way with people?” Her tone was even, no sign of the slight tremor that it’d had in her truck. Andrew turned his stool to face her.
“I’m not sure handing out cigarettes counts.” She smiled at him.
“Of course it does. For as long as I sat there no one else bothered to stop.” Andrew set his half empty drink back on the bar top. His heartbeat was heavy in his chest as he fought to keep his thoughts in order. He felt worn thin. Like he was being pulled apart in every direction.
“It could be, and I’m speaking from very recent experience, that this place is just full of assholes,” he said. A smile curved the edges of her lips as she took a sip of her wine. “Is it a habit of yours to carry flowers into bars?”
Rose stood and pulled the bucket close to her. “I’m something of a florist. I moonlight selling these beauties in all sorts of dim places.”
She slipped past Andrew’s stool, raising the bucket over his head and circled the room carrying the flowers at her hip like a small child. She started with the couples’ first, catching the eyes of the women, which opened the wallets of the men. With the singles, she took a less forward approach, starting up a conversation about anything but the roses on her hip. She let their curiosity bring them to her. In no time at all she returned to her stool, replacing the bucket between them. A single rose was left, leaning diagonally in the black plastic with a fragile grace. The thin stem reminded Andrew of himself. All of his pedals were falling off. Rose took a long drink of her wine and sighed, her fingers counting out loose bills on the bar top.
“It’s not always that smooth, but when it is, it feels like magic,” she said, her eyes still working over the bills. Her presence put Andrew at ease. There was something honest about her transactional purpose for being in the bar. For a few moments, the chaos of the day faded behind him and he focused on the curious figure before him. She leaned back in her stool and for the first time Andrew noticed that one of her eyes was brown and the other was blue. A twitch of desire jolted him below the waist. He looked away, focusing on his glass, and then picked up his drink and held it out.
Rose stared him down just long enough to make him doubt himself. He could hear the soda fizz.
“Just what is it we’re toasting?”
“To the prettiest stranger I’ve met today, and the only one that I’ve seen cry. May your nights always be smooth.” They clinked glasses and he drained his drink until the straw rattled the ice.
Andrew stepped from the warmth of the bar out into the cool of night. It had down poured in the hours since the commotion with Jim and Angie. Air felt wet in his lungs. A pang of panic ticked inside him. The memory of being submerged in the lake washed over him. He leaned back against the wooden railing and watched Krista, an unfocused blur through the dirt speckled window. She moved around the barroom wiping tables. His hands ran along the stem of the rose that had been sitting in front of him when the world came back into focus. He had been drifting again. When he looked up, she was wiping down the taps and the main room was empty. Through the double doors, he could see that even the kitchen was dark. Not wanting to overstay his welcome, he stood up, left a generous tip, and walked out into the world.
“Fuck,” he stuck his thumb in his mouth where a thorn from the rose had pricked it.
Everything around him felt unreal. Like it was being told to him by someone else—as if he didn’t own his own experiences. The meds pulled his brain in one direction, while the booze pulled in another. A yard light hummed high above him on an unused telephone pole. Purple and red neon lights bathed his face. Crickets chirped in the tall grass that surrounded the bar. Off the road to his left, he could hear the movement of a river that he’d driven over just before pulling into the parking lot.
Andrew fumbled with his pack of cigarettes. The skin of his hands looked waxy beneath the glow of the light. He rubbed the stiffness from his forearms as he took a drag on his cigarette. He needed to clear his head. Thoughts of his family played through his mind. He should get in touch with them. He needed a phone. He thought about entering the bar and asking Krista for the house phone if they had one. Then hip-hop music began blaring over the speakers, and he knew it was time to be gone. He smiled and flicked the skeleton of his cigarette, crushing it beneath his heel as he walked down the ramp.
In the far corner of the lot, he could see the outline of his car. With every step he took the details around him faded further into darkness. He shook out another cigarette and lit up, thankful for the illumination and the small flame of the lighter. His gait hitched as he stepped across the uneven gravel. From what he could see, besides a small sedan parked next to the bar, his car was the only one left in the lot.
As he neared his four-door, a sinking feeling took hold of his stomach. His Subaru was sitting lower than it should. He stepped close, leaned down and ran his hands over the jagged slash marks that had been carved into the front tire.
“Fuck.” He set the rose on top of his car and walked the length of the vehicle and confirmed that the back tires had been slashed. “Shit.” What he found on the opposite side of the car shook him the most.
The passenger side door lay wide open, his backpack wet on the ground. Surrounding it, emptied onto the gravel, partially crushed and bloated from the rain, lay all his medication. Andrew fell to his knees and picked up the empty orange pill bottles one by one, searching them for anything usable but there was nothing. What he had left was already in his system. The sensation of crawling ants broke out across his skin, multiplying with each empty bottle he collected and tossed into the backpack. He ran his hands over the slimy misshapen half dissolved pills. A fierce panic gripped him. He punched the side of the car, his hand rebounding with pain and then gripped his head, digging his fingers into his scalp.
Andrew tossed the backpack onto the passenger seat and swung the door closed. He moved to the front of the car and lay across the hood. The ants were all over him now. They moved up and down his body, into his mouth, ears, and nose. He choked on them. No amount of cutting, scraping, scratching, or brushing could remove them. He had been here before. The hallucination would consume him, then pass. He lit another cigarette and took in the kaleidoscope of stars winking above him with their cosmic indifference.
He pulled his car keys out of his pocket and cycled through pressing the lock and unlock buttons at even intervals. All the door locks made a uniform click when they unlocked. Each its own miniature gunshot in the stillness of the night. When he pressed the lock button, however, all the door locks made uniform clicks except for the one in the front passenger side door. This one made a noise that halted just before the others. In his haste to get into the bar he had neglected to press this lock manually.
Anxiety burned through him as he realized that his meds might be the least of his worries. The stumbling math about when he’d taken his meds, and how long that would last him, had kept him from focusing on the more immediate problem: His father’s pistol was gone. He slid off the hood, collapsed to his knees and puked. His vision narrowed, hands and feet tingling with numbness. He held onto his arms and cradled himself until he had the strength to stand and start walking toward the entrance to the bar. The trees that surrounded the lot unnerved him as they reached into the night sky. He pictured himself from their point of view, a lone figure cupped in the spindling skeletal hand of nature.
He lit another cigarette as he walked. Sentences of what he could say to Krista ran through his head. A few years back he had spent a long weekend at the cottage during a mayfly hatch. After sleeping off a few joints and a nice day drunk, he had pulled back the curtains on the sliding glass door to find it covered completely in mayflies. This was how he felt as he moved across the lot, covered in some impossible hatching of squirming dark insects.
When he got halfway across the lot, the deep growl of a truck roaring to life split the silence of the night. The air around him filled with the violent rays of high beam light. The dark sticky mayflies scattered. Andrew turned to face the illumination, shielding his eyes with one arm. A truck across the street peeled out onto the road, pulling the light of the high beams with it, honking the horn as it sped off.
As his vision returned to him, Andrew saw the cook from the Black Star crunching across the lot toward him.
“Where’d you come from?” Andrew fought to keep his thoughts from swirling out again.
“Across the street, a few of us old timers play cards in the back of the Lighter’s gas station.”
“You let someone tune up my car?” The cook looked behind Andrew at his sunken Subaru sitting alone in the dark.
“Didn’t know you were still here until I heard the horn and came out front,” the cook said. Krista joined them, walking down the ramp and into the lot. She looked concerned, unsure of the situation.
“Andrew, this is Art, he run’s the kitchen and owns the bar. What’s going on?” Andrew took a long drag and then let it out into the sky above him. He could feel the neurons in his brain screaming at him, telling him to run away from this place as fast as he could. An utter impossibility without a car. He rubbed his palms into his eyes as he spoke.
“Someone slashed my tires and dumped my shit out onto the ground before it rained. I had medication in my backpack. It’s ruined.” He decided against telling them about the pistol. Art and Krista shared a look of concern.
“Fuck,” said Krista.
“Fuck indeed,” said Art. “Let’s get inside and we can talk about what to do with your car.” He started up the ramp, followed by Krista. Andrew flicked his cigarette and shoved his hands in his sweatpants, trudging along behind them.
Inside the bar, Art placed his keys on the bar top and twisted the bolt to lock the front door behind them. He moved around the rail and vanished into the kitchen. Krista walked behind the bar and filled three pint glasses with ice water. She reached beneath the bar top and pulled out an ashtray, setting it on the bar top. For the second time in a night Andrew found himself offering his cigarettes to a woman. As they smoked, he tried not to think about the future. Art returned from the kitchen, carrying three shot glasses filled half and half with a dark and a cream liquor. He set them on the bar top between Andrew and Krista and retrieved a can of whipped cream from a cooler, blasting a dollop on each shot.
“Given the night’s events, it would seem to me like each of us could use a blow job.”
It felt like it physically hurt when Andrew smiled. He had no phone, no meds, and no car. What the fuck would he do now? He cheers’d Krista and Art then raised the over-sweet shot to his lips. Whatever it was that came next, getting good and drunk would be a start.
Collin Brophy is a senior at MSU majoring in English. He was born in 1991, in Fort Wayne, Indiana where he currently resides. His literary practice is inspired by authors such as Gabe Habash, Patrick Cottrel, and Smith Henderson. He will pursue a graduate degree in creative writing starting fall 2022.