By Jesse Blake McCann
My friend had changed.
She sat at the bar, surrounded by the roughest looking men God could chisel. They spoke in low, slurring murmurs and every few minutes they broke out into obnoxious laughter after someone told a joke, presumably sexual or racist in nature. She tossed her head back and drained another shot of Johnnie Walker in a quick movement and then slammed the small glass on the bar. I expected a young woman as petite as her to flinch or make a sour face, but she only kept her eyes closed and licked her lips.
The bar was empty tonight except for the hyenas in sleeveless plaid shirts and my friend. I sat in a corner booth near the entrance with a barely sipped glass of untrustworthy water. The bar smelled like an unpleasant mixture of stale everything in a setting that was either mock country or just a shit hole. The ceiling was tall, the walls were lined with rippled sheet metal, and on the ground were woods chips that did a poor job of hiding the stains underneath. Punctured and ripped red booths were shoved in corners and against the walls where there weren’t pool tables or dart boards. The place was decorated with broken neon signs advertising beer and road signs I’m pretty sure were stolen.
The bar counter was in the center of this perverted vision of a drinking establishment. A low ceiling hung directly above it where there were dusty wine glasses hanging upside down. There was a dirty mirror behind the bar where the slacked-jaw patrons could stare at their inbred reflection.
“Hey Fat Faggot,” my friend called from the bar, “My buddy here wus wonderin’ how many dicks you can fit in dem chubby cheeks? Says ya been trainin’ with coconuts.”
“I said ‘cock ’n’ nuts’,” squealed a toothless old bastard. The group burst into an ugly and tone deaf choir of laughter, my friend acting as soprano with her shrill and cruel giggles that I would’ve never thought she was capable of.
The men were all focused on my friend, who was sitting on a stool pushed slightly away from the bar. Anger stabbed at my brain as I saw the way they were examining her body.
“Line those Johnny Walkers up. If I have to stare at your fuckin’ ugly pig faces, I at least need to be as drunk as you,” she said.
The men laughed and made catcalls.
“Wut the hell, Tim,” said the man closest to her, “This is a furst.”
“Tim” is what my friend started calling herself after she returned from the bathroom and went over to drink with these men.
“Yeah, yer not usually sportin’ those,” said a chubby man in a red hat, and he moved forward with a hand reaching toward her chest.
I started to get up, but then she quickly brought her fist up into one of the eyes of the advancing hick, her long red hair whipping behind her like a striking snake.
“Ahh! Wut the fuck?!”
“Keep yer fuckin’ hands to yourself. I ain’t no faggot, no matter how I look. Next time I’ll put a broken bottle in yer fuckin’ face.”
The group laughed at this, except for Red Hat, who rubbed his eye and moped like a dog who had just been disciplined. A small relief was administered to my overwhelming anxiety.
“You gotta admit, Tim, hangin’ witth you has never offered a better view,” said the old man while laughing.
“Then take in the sights and play with yer small pricks later,” she said and used both hands to rub her chest in a mocking manner.
I winced. Then she shouted, “Where the hell are them shots?”
I noticed the bartender then as he shuffled behind the bar. His brow was wrinkled with concern and he wore a small frown. He reached below the counter and there was the sound of glasses clinking together.
In my head was a fog that obscured any plan of action I could take. When I tried to approach her and pull her away, she would swing a beer bottle at me and tell me to fuck off. So I sat in one of the bar’s ruined booths and just watched the group get drunk.
They made cracks at each other’s expenses, but mostly at Red Hat. They chugged beers, told long and obscene jokes, chain smoked, and talked local gossip.
“Jeanie’s out of her fuckin’ mind again,” said one, “I don’t know where she got the coke this time…”
“They moved my court date. I swear those fuckers will never pay my worker’s comp…”
“If that asshole thinks I’m goin’ to move my truck offa my lawn…”
At this rate, we wouldn’t be in San Francisco by tonight like we originally planned. We had been making good time since we left Los Angeles, but now I doubted we’d even make her morning appointment with the university counselor.
A long hour later, someone suggested visiting “Old Chipper” and the group shouted in excited and slurred agreement. They filed out of the bar, and as I got up to exit, I felt a heavy hand grip my shoulder.
I turned and was facing the wide chest of the bartender. He looked like he once had a muscular build, but years of neglect and serving drinks caused his toned body to sag. He was bald and had a dark blonde mustache below a round nose. He wore a sweat-stained white shirt and had a gut that protruded over dark blue jeans.
“This won’t go on past tonight,” he said.
“Tim,” he said and nodded to the door, “He’ll be gone in the mornin’.”
I took a few steps back from him, and reached for the exit without taking my eyes off of him. Then I turned around and pushed outside into the night.
“Stay out of the barn,” he called after me, making my shoulders arch slightly in surprise.
Don’t worry about that, I thought to myself.
I ran out of the bar into the dirt parking lot and passed by my friend’s red Kia Sportage. Only an hour before, we were pulling off the 5 highway to make a quick pit stop on the way to San Francisco. After a short drive from the main road, we found the Buckner Lodge.
The bar looked like a flat log cabin. There was a green swinging door in the front and dusty circular windows. In front of the door was a patio area with a wooden overhang and a cracked concrete porch lined with ancient wooden chairs. From the windows came a flickering orange glow like the eyes of a jack-o-lantern. The dull light provided poor illumination against the surrounding darkness hanging above the expansive fields of sand and low shrubs. In the distance, I could see moving white specks tracing the distant highway, but otherwise I saw no other lights.
The group was moving across an adjacent field. I approached my friend and begged her to come with me. She pushed me away and took a swing at me. Luckily the alcohol had affected her aim, but I still stumbled several steps backwards and fell on my ass, causing the men to laugh.
“Please, just give me the keys to car,” I said, “Let’s get out of here.”
She stopped completely and turned to me. She produced a wicked grin, highlighted by sinister shadows over her eyes. The effect sent an icy surge through my chest
She removed her keys from her jean shorts, jingled them in front of my face, and then tossed them with amazing strength into the darkness.
“Fetch,” she said, and walked away, leaving me to gawk in the direction she threw.
The green bottle twirled rapidly up into the air, briefly caught the light of the LED camping lantern, and then smashed on the side of the wood chipper. The man in the John Deere hat wasn’t even close.
The laughter of the bar patrons exploded outward, but it did not echo back; it was absorbed by the dark and crisp coldness of the night. They stood about 20 feet from the wood chipper, rusted and long forgotten in the middle of this field. It had a pair of wheels in the center and a hitch in the front. The hitch wasn’t attached to anything, so the front slumped forward, leaving its wood-receiving square gap pointing up. I could still see the bar from where we were, and not too far behind it was the forbidden barn.
Red Hat was up next. He performed a dramatic wind up and pitch, but he flung his empty bottle too hard and too high, and it landed with a soft “thunk” behind the machinery.
“Where you aimin’? No wonder you piss on yer shoes so much,” said the oldest one, apparently too poor to afford dentures.
“Fuck you. The fuckin’ light’s too bright.”
“Move aside, noodle dick,” my friend said as she emerged from the group and pushed aside Red Hat, “Yer about to see why yer dear sweet mother calls me ‘Magic Fingers’.”
She strode forward a few steps. A cigarette hung from the side of her lips, looking as out of place in her mouth as she did among these grizzly men. I had never seen her smoke anything more than a few hits of weed at parties, and I worried what damage she might be doing to her lungs.
She took a last drag from her smoke, flicked it away, and finished her beer in one long swig. She grabbed the bottle by its neck and took aim. I wondered why she wasn’t cold dressed in only a yellow tank top and jean shorts while I sat hugging myself and shivering. I was a short distance away from the group, between two dry shrubs at the edge of the lamp light.
The men cheered and chanted “Tim! Tim! Tim!” while she took aim. I felt a strange twisting misery in my chest. Oddly, this feeling pulled me back to a memory of us standing in front of our community college’s water fountain. She brought someone I didn’t know; he was a blank-faced Music major, with a leather jacket, straight black crew cut, and a monkey face. I hated him and was not surprised when she said they were dating.
There was a soft whistle that snapped me back to the present, and then the top of my skull exploded with pain. I grabbed my head with both hands and cursed loudly. Something fell next to my side and I saw through red spots in my vision a green bottle rolling away from me.
I moved my bruised head toward the group of men and saw they were howling like demented hyenas. Someone made the comment, “Wide target.” In the center, my friend stood with her eyes fixed on me. She grinned with a foreign cruelty that caused my heart to beat faster.
My eyes searched for the bottle with half an idea to toss it back, when I was surprised to find someone was standing near me.
Red Hat was peeing into a bush and looking very drunk with his half-opened eyes.
“Fuck you, Tim,” he said under his breath, “You’re such a fuckin’ asshole.” Though he was much older than me, his face had droopy baby fat that made him look like a sad child that never got what he wanted for Christmas. I wondered if he even registered I was there.
“I bet you think I’mma stupid sonnuva bitch,” he said, “That yer some fuckin’ genius. But yer the one’s that’s dead.”
There was a long pause and then Red Hat muttered some indistinguishable words to himself. He shook his member, dripping piss on his shoe, zipped up, and then stumbled back to the group.
We were back at the bar. The group was at their usual spot at the counter after a couple chilly hours of throwing bottles at “Old Chipper”, though now they were more drunk and loud. Every time they would erupt with laughter, I flinched and the painful knot on my head would ache.
“I dun’t get it,” said the John Deere hat hick at the bar, “Is that fat piece of shit over there this bitch’s husband or sumthin’? Is he rich?”
I found myself focusing on stains on the floor beneath the wood chips.
“Nah, can’t be her man,” my friend said, “If he actually plowed this chick, he wouldn’t be stickin’ around. Bitch goes this crazy, any smart man would’ve got the hell outta Dodge.”
She lifted up another shot of whiskey and tilted it slowly into her mouth. She took a moment to appreciate the taste, and then opened her eyes.
“He’s one of them limp cocks that sticks ‘round ‘cause he’s waiting for the night when she has enough beers that she’ll let him touch a tit out of pity.”
I wasn’t looking at her, but I knew she had that smile, that fucking horrible and strange smile on her face.
“‘Course when that day comes, he’ll realize his dick’s already fallen off and comes to find he has a bigger pussy than she does.”
Laughter echoed on the bar walls and seemed to reverberate inside my head. I felt a burning behind my eyes.
With my focus on the ground, I didn’t notice the bartender approach. His heavy hand fell to the table in front of me and when he removed it, there was a plastic bag full of ice and three aspirin.
“Here,” he grunted, “Knock these back and put this on yer head. And this.” He put down a small shot glass full of brown liquid and, without looking back, returned to his post behind the bar.
I eagerly swallowed the three pills and washed them down with water. I lifted the shot glass, studied it, and then threw the contents down my throat. I coughed and slightly gagged on the burning content, and felt some of the liquor running down the side of my face. Luckily no one had noticed.
It didn’t take long for the aspirin and liquor to disconnect a few of the wires in my brain. The constant chatter from the bar, as obnoxious as it once was, now sounded like a comforting white noise. I pressed the cold bag to the top of my head, and the pain further numbed.
The hours dragged on. With the pain gone, I found there was only exhaustion underneath. Half dreams mixed with waking thoughts until I realized my head was slumping, then I would quickly snap to attention again. After battling this war for a while, I decided to lay my face on my folded arms on the table. If the group left anywhere, I was certain to hear it. And I wouldn’t fall asleep. Just a little rest, so my eyes didn’t feel so strained…
It was my own snoring that woke me up. I took in a short breath and lifted my head, shivering slightly. Then my heart dropped like a broken elevator when I was greeted with an empty room, save for the wide bartender.
“Where are they?!” I said as I rushed to the bar, knocking over a few wooden chairs as I went.
“Gone home, I reckon,” he said.
“Where’s my friend?” I said wildly.
He shrugged uselessly. I saw he had a green beer bottle dangling from the end of his fingers, which was not his first, judging by his swaying.
As I turned to leave, he said, “Can’t believe the sonnuva bitch can actually… All those books and old speak, we thought he was full of shit.”
The bartender peered at me through blurry eyes, “He came back. The dumbfuck said he would when he bit the bullet, and he did.”
“Bit the bullet?”
He nodded, “Died in a hospital up in Santa Cruz a few years back. I ferget what actually took him, but sumthin’ about liver failure, or cancer. Sumthin’ they couldn’t fix.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, “Who are you talking about?”
“Tim,” he said, “He’s gone, but he never left. Mothefucker just keeps coming back.”
I closed my eyes tightly. “You’re not making any sense. And you know what? I don’t care. I just need to find my friend and get the hell out of here.”
The bartender snorted. “You don’t get it, boy.”
“What don’t I get?”
The bartender took a long swig of his beer, then told me.
I flew out the front door and scrambled around the side of the building. I looked wildly in all directions; it was still deep into the night, and I saw no light in Old Chipper’s direction. I looked at the barn, and saw the faint glow of a LED lamp coming from inside.
As I got closer to the barn, I heard a faint grunting of a rough voice. My heart twisted and I ran inside.
The barn wasn’t big. The walls were made up of wood that was warped from years of weather abuse. Stacks of hay were lined up against two of the walls, and a set of giant double doors were in the back. Bright, new silver chains were wrapped around the doors’ rusted and curved handles. For no apparent reason, the doors were securely locked.
My friend was passed out on a hay pile, but there was no man on top of her. Instead, Red Hat was sitting on the floor a few feet away trying to remove his jeans with excited jerks. He was having no luck because he neglected to take off his shoes.
“You’re the fuckin’ idiot, Tim, not me,” he muttered as he continued his struggle. Once again he failed to notice my presence.
I picked up the shovel leaning against the wall and stepped in front of my friend. I held it in front of me like prison guard bracing for a riot.
“Get the hell out of here.” I was surprised at the deep and threatening tone of my voice, and it encouraged me to continue. “Get the hell out!”
Red Hat started and looked up at me with his man-child face. He squinted at me and seemed to register some vague recognition.
“Ah, I wasn’t gunna do anythin’”
“Go! Get out of here.” To emphasize my words, I swung the shovel in a wide arc.
He mumbled something and got to his feet. His pants were still pulled past his shoes and they dragged behind him as he shuffled toward the exit. He took five steps outside, tripped, and fell flat on his face. I heard him curse, but he remained lying on the floor.
“Well, look at the balls on this motherfucker,” my friend said in slurred words behind me. I turned around to look at her.
Her grinning face held a familiar strangeness that incited an angry misery in me. It was like going into my home and discovering a wasteland made up of my destroyed possessions.
“Get the fuck out of my friend, Tim.”
She laughed. “Why? You want to come inside her next?”
She turned to her side and cackled at her own awful joke.
“You’re a miserable fuck,” I said.
She look up at me, beaming that dead smile of hers, “If I’m the kettle, then yer the black pot. Least I don’t pussyfoot ‘round sumthin’ I want. That’s how I got to be here, and not some corpse rottin’ in the ground.”
The shovel now laid limply in one of my hands.
“Please,” I whispered, “I want to take my friend and get out of this shithole.”
“It’s a shithole no matter where you go. The best you can do is burn through life’s pleasures until one of ‘em kills ya.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She let out a low, cruel laugh. She was now facing away from me.
“Open them doors in the back, boy. Throw them open, and see the grinnin’ and fuckin’ ugly face of this world.”
I brought the spade tip of the shovel down on the silver chains that held the doors in the back of the barn closed. No effect. They were new and strong.
After a few more shovel stabs, my mind became numb with hatred and my hands worked more frantically. Eventually it was one of the curved and rusty handles that gave out, and the chain swung loosely to the ground. I pushed open the doors and let the lantern’s fluorescent lights fill the room beyond.
The walls were old white wood and badly chipping. There were dark burns on the walls in strange shapes, jagged drawings, and menacing patterns that formed a sinister language I did not recognize. It was as if I knew there were malevolent faces looking out at me, but I did not know where to look for them.
My eyes drifted to the floor of the room, and they stayed there for a long time. I dropped my shovel. After a long moment with no thoughts, the words the bartender said to me before I left the bar drifted back into my head:
“Yer friend ain’t ever comin’ back.”
I returned to my friend. She was sprawled across the hay pile, snoring loudly with her mouth open. Occasionally her leg would kick or an arm would twitch, and then she would shiver and groan uncomfortably. I looked down at her, the woman who had been the obsession of my heart for too many semesters
I stepped behind her, reached under her armpits, and pulled her toward the center of the hay so her limbs no longer dangled over the edge. She grunted, but otherwise did not protest in her sleep. I searched the barn, and found a dirty blanket that looked like it was once draped over a farm animal. I shook it and covered my friend. I searched for a pillow but could not find anything clean enough. I decided to improvise.
I sat down on the hay next to her and gently lifted her head and placed it on my lap. She was lying on her side, so I placed my hand on the top of her arm. I felt her breathe softly below my touch as I stared forward, feeling as useless as the lifeless bodies behind the doors that were once locked by the silver chains.
I had studied them for a long time. They were not rotting and they did not smell; instead they lay in awkward collapsed positions with vacant expressions, resembling discarded clothes more than anything that had once lived. Many looked malnourished and I could see the outline of ribs on tight skin. They were puppets Tim had gotten too bored to play with, pleasures for him to burn. And now there were no personalities left behind, just an emptiness behind the eyes.
“Where did you go?” I said quietly to the woman lying on my lap.She snorted in her sleep, and I caught of fresh whiff of cigarettes and whiskey. Despite everything that had happened today, death seemed the most unnatural.
I didn’t want to be here anymore, so I let my mind detach from conscious. It drifted through a neutral fog and would occasionally shudder with sadness. But eventually it settled on a memory of a sunny pitstop from earlier in the day.
It was around noon, and my friend and I had pull off the freeway and into an old parking lot. Next door was an abandoned gas station that was boarded up. Weeds poked through the cracked pavement and swayed slightly in the light breeze. Beyond this area and the road, there were only yellow and tan fields.
We made sandwiches and sat on the back of the Kia with our feet dangling over the rear bumper.
“Tuition is going to kill me in San Francisco, so I might as well start saving money on food,” my friend said.
“You’re really going to be gone next semester, huh?” I said.
“Probably not. This university is pretty popular, so I’ll most likely have to wait a year for the admissions process. And if my major is impacted, well, you’ll have to put up with me for a while longer.”
My heart gave a pleasant throb.
“It would be kind of nice to get out of Los Angeles sooner, though,” she said, “At a college in San Fran, there would be no chance I’d run into my ex and his new girl.”
“Let her keep him and his ugly leather jacket,” I said.
She laughed. “Thank you for coming with me on this trip. It’s been a great distraction. I was afraid I was going to be left alone with just my miserable thoughts.”
We sat in silence for a while and ate our lunch.
“I love peanut butter and jelly,” my friend said, “It might be my favorite food.”
I broke out of my thoughts, smiled, and said, “I would agree, except you like the nasty crunchy peanut butter.”
She laughed and said, “Crunchy is for real men.”
“Real men are not afraid to admit they prefer smooth spreads.”
“See, this is why we can never date,” she said.
That attempt at humor sent an unpleasant bite of misery through me. I didn’t know how to reply, so I focused on a patch of dirt on the ground. I felt the smile I was forcing onto my face.
Perhaps she sensed there was something wrong in my quiet as she shifted next to me. She said, “It would really cool to get photos in an Alcatraz jail cell.”
“I could like crunchy peanut butter too,” I said.
She laughed. Though… perhaps it was my insecurity, but was she trying to imitate her real laugh?
“I know, I was just joking,” she said, “Don’t get all sensitive about it.” She hopped down from the back of the car and went toward the driver’s side.
My body buzzed with an overwhelming urge I didn’t know how to define or sate. There were too many words passing behind my tongue, too many emotions pulling at my heart and mind. I went numb in self-defense, and I couldn’t tell you what I wanted or didn’t. I closed my eyes, swallowed, and retreated from my thoughts, trying to bury them deep in my subconscious.
After I closed the back of the Kia, I moved to the passenger side of the car and got in.
My friend was looking in the mirror on the car’s visor and putting on gloss lipstick, a gesture that will never be meant for me.
“Hey, think we can get to San Francisco before dark?” She asked with her eyes still focused on her reflection.
“Yeah,” I said facing forward, “I think we can.”