Physical

Just 'nother old pick-up

Today was made for me by gods.

A massive sun hangs steamy and stubborn in the endless sky, the air swells with humidity, the light in my eyelashes punishes. 

My foot is a brick against the accelerator of the old pickup, which squeals with distress or delight but either is good to my ears. The windows are down, the wind bullies my sweating face, raking my tangled hair. It feels good, a splash of cold water after a hot, beer-soaked brawl. The road in front of me stretches empty, wants to be driven, and I meet it head on, with the perfect joy of a racer completing his final lap.

            I feel at once ecstatic and empty, fulfilled and thirsty. I wonder if I should seek out a bar, if there I could find a reward worthy of this day. Scotch would taste good, right now, mother’s milk, all peat and clawing bite when it hits the back of the tongue, then fire and ice in the gut, then warmth, slow and comfortable, in the blood.

My imagination makes me dry swallow and I cough.

I claw a cigarette butt from the dirty ashtray to distract me. I light the pathetic refry in my lips, take a deep drag that stinks of straight ashtray and hack a real cough.

The smoke, hot and filthy like fresh smog, burns the thin top layer of my lungs, pain as pleasant as a nameless whore in a bathroom stall. I glance at the butt, clamped between two grit-blackened fingernails of my hand and I see, in the pores and divots of my skin, the smeared and clotted red running up the wrist and past the elbow. I look down to find stains on my white t-shirt, the spatters on my jeans. These are not my clothes. I didn’t put them on this morning. No, this morning I was born naked. These clothes belong to another life, another man. Still, obviously, naked men and those bathed in red aren’t welcome in bars.

Then again, I never gave much of a damn about where I’m welcome.

With a destination in mind, I stomp on the gas, pissed to find only the floor and the beast’s disappointing top speed. I stub the refry in the ashtray, wishing like hell I had some fresh smokes, and flick on the radio. Anything to keep the words in my head at bay, words like “caught” and “cops” that promise to piss all over my parade. A blast of fuzz shatters the silence, welcome agony to maintain my high and derail my thoughts. I spin the dial, stopping by chance on a local station, one of those big-hair-and-neon-spandex lovin’ DJs you can only find out in the sticks these days. A familiar, clapping rhythm blows through the speakers, two quick claps, pause, one hard clap, pause; then hollering female voices, shouting my name. “Hey, Mickey, you’re so fine! You’re so fine, you blow my mind.” I can’t help but join in as she shouts my name again. Today, this song is perfect, with the red smeared across my skin and an electric, coppery smell spicing each breath I take. The song confirms me, my existence. Today is my day. Today was made for me by gods.

Ten minutes later, I hit the gravel parking lot in front of Viper’s. “Let’s get physical, physical!” I scream along with the stereo, my loud falsetto hurting my throat. The truck is still flying and the brakes do little amidst the pinging gravel. The old beast fishtails and shimmies, chewing grit in its quest for the tavern door. Through the one grimy tavern window, I can see the bartender’s face, round with surprise, gaping in wonder at the rusty, once-blue beast. I can’t help but grin. The dumb, gawking moron deserves to die if I don’t get this motherfucker of a truck under control.

Just feet from smashing through wood and glass and stupid human, the beast finally drags itself to an abrupt stop. My head hits the windshield, a flower of tiny fractures blooming in the glass. The steering wheel nails my sternum hard enough to make me yelp.

“Son of a bitch!” I jerk the visor down and look at my forehead. Not even bleeding, just a huge, purpling goose egg. I put my hand to my chest and push. It hurts. But I can breathe.

I rip the key from the ignition and get out, following the closing truck door with my steel toed boot. My foot collides with the old, aluminum panel, leaving a deep, rusty dent. This satisfies me, somehow.

Clanking and reeking of hot rubber, the truck stands crooked and obnoxious just inches from Viper’s front door. I can’t squeeze between the hood and the wall it nearly kisses, and walking behind the truck is too many steps. My boot leaves a perfect dusty print on the beast’s hood as I climb over.

I enter the bar and glance at the bartender I nearly killed, a doughy little ape with heavy eyebrows and tiny eyes. He rubs his thinning hair with one chubby hand and gapes at me. I climb into the nearest stool at his bar and look around the place. Only shadows occupy the booths and tables. Though the shades are up, but the sun coming through the windows crawls through layers of dust. The jukebox sits in the corner, its lights doing little to brighten the room. “And when I drink alone, I prefer to be by myself,” sings a deep bass at low volume. A sarcastic smile creeps onto my lips.

“Slow today, huh?”

I turn back to the bartender, who holds a menu in one trembling hand. I take it and start looking for something good. Days like today provoke the deepest kind of hunger.

“It’s only just ten. We don’t get the lunch crowd for another hour.”

            I choke out a laugh. “Lunch crowd? You mean the shaking boozers who can’t wait any longer.”

            I look up to see the little man’s mouth puckering. The people I insult are his bread and butter. When I meet his gaze, his expression becomes unsettled.

            “Give me a tuna melt with coleslaw.” I toss the menu to the bar and wait for him to fill the order, but he only gazes at me.

            “Tuna?”

            “Did I stutter?”

            The little man holds his hands up on either side of his face and then drops them. He hollers my order over his shoulder without taking his eyes off me.        He looks me up and down. “Have you been out hunting? It’s a little early to be on break from the packing plant.”

            I glance at the stains on my arms and clothes, then I grin at him. “It was an unbelievable day at work.”

            His expression melts from nervousness to fear and he shrinks away, grabbing a glass and polishing it diligently. I shake my head. The glassware is the only clean thing in the place. “Bring me a scotch. Anything but Walker.”

            The bartender cringes when I speak. Sweat begin to creep from his armpits, darkening the folds of his light blue shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He doesn’t want to serve me. He wants to pretend like I’m not here. “Low-flyer?” he squeaks.

            “Fine. Jimmy in today?”

            The bartender pours me a double on the rocks, then replaces the bottle in the well. “He’s making your food right now,” he says as he totters back to where I sit. He reaches to put my drink on the bar, but I grab his wrist, making him slosh the fine liquid. He jumps in his skin and glares at me. No man likes to feel scared, especially of someone they know. I’m upsetting his turnip truck and I know it, but I can’t stop myself. Not today.

I glance at the wasted scotch drying on my hand, then back into his frightened brown piggy eyes. “You know I like a coaster with salt on it.”

With his free hand, he snatches the nearest coaster and tosses it onto the scarred oak in front of me. The salt shaker is just out of his reach and he topples it with shaking fingers, sending a small drift of snowy white into the sticky groove along the inner lip of the bar. I grab the shaker for him and release his hand as I salt my coaster. He drops the rocks glass onto my coaster and backs up until his bubbly ass hits the shelves of liquor behind him.

I swirl the ice and amber in my glass and put my nose to the rim, breathing deeply of the yeast and peat. The tumbled pile of salt sits on the lip of the bar and stares at me. The hair on the back of my neck tingles as I stare back. If ever there was one, today is a day to stroke the universe for luck. “Throw some of that salt, Lee,” I say as I take a sip of my scotch.

Lee doesn’t move. He’s still gaping at me.

“For luck, Lee. Throw some of the salt you spilled over your shoulder.”

Still doe-eyed, Lee starts to reach for the small pile of salt, following my orders because I’ve scared him, not because he wants to. Yesterday, I might have cared that he dislikes me in this moment and I try to remind myself I’m not here for him. He’s not guilty.

As I take another long drink from my glass, a flurry of noise drifts to my ears. I’ve been waiting for these noises, ones I’ve learned to expect but never learned to tolerate. Never learned to forgive.

Jimmy shouts from the kitchen. He screams words like “stupid” and “useless.” He spits the words “cunt” and “bitch.” Lola, the waitress, Jimmy’s wife, a short, squatty little thing with injured blue eyes and dyed red hair, scurries through the steam swirling about the kitchen door. A steel-toed almost as big as mine follows her out, connects with her rear and sends her sprawling to the floor. My plate of food flies from her hands and musses the grimy hardwood. She gets to her knees and starts grabbing the food with her fingers as Jimmy screams anew from the kitchen. Lola never makes a peep.

Once the mess is clean and the plate is in the bus tub by the door, Lola stands in one place and looks lost. Jimmy yells about having to cook the order all over again. He orders Lola to the freezer out back to get beef for the lunch rush. He tells her she shouldn’t be able to screw up such a task.

Lola looks afraid and drops her eyes. She limps as she hurries through the back door that stands cattycorner to the kitchen. She glances at me over her shoulder. Her face is a sculpture of shame.

“Your food will be ready soon.” Lee’s tone is an apology I’ve heard too many times.

I look at him. His lips twitch and his eyelids stretch wide. The Viper is never a fun place to work, given Jimmy in the back. Today, I’m a new hornet in the nest. Lee’s afraid because he’s just a bumblebee. He doesn’t want to be stung. He wants less to sting. Stinging would kill him.

I drop a fifty on the bar. “Keep it, Lee. I’m not hungry anymore, anyway.”

I get to my feet, dropping the last of my scotch down my throat. I don’t even taste it as it goes down. After all, I didn’t come here to drink.

My boots thunk against the soft wood as I tread toward the kitchen. The steam escaping from the door reaches for me as I draw near. I step through the cloud to find Jimmy placing a fresh fry pan on the burner as he starts on another tuna melt. He catches my movement from the corner of his eye and glances at me.

“I’ll have your order done soon. Be patient, wouldja?”

His mouth snarls and his lips are wet. His cheeks hang in sacks below his black hole eyes. He looks away from me. He dismisses me. He’s used to Lola, who only exists when he wants her to. But he doesn’t know.

Today is my day. Today was made for me by gods.

I wrench the heavy fry pan from his grip. His expression tightens into rage and he snaps his eyes to my face. “What the—”

His words and mouth disintegrate into red oatmeal beneath the hard iron of the pan I swing. I drop the pan and pound his head with my fists. I hit him four times. Five. Six. His eyes roll with shock and pain. Finally, his knees unhinge and he drops moaning to the floor. He reaches to touch my right boot with his blood smeared hand. I step back.

When I turn to walk away, he speaks. I can barely understand the words coming out of his shattered mouth, but his tone is unmistakable. He threatens to press charges and sue me. He tells me he knows where I live.

He hasn’t yet learned and so I pivot his way. His threats die on his bleeding tongue and he crawls away from me. For good measure, I plant my boot in his ass. Something crunches and he screams.

I turn back to the door to leave. “You cook like shit, Jimmy.”

I push through the back door of Viper’s, ignoring the painted red warning about sounding a fire alarm. The door has been silent for all the years I’ve been coming here. The sunlight outside is white and milky. A stiff breeze blows the dust beneath the gravel into a dozen tiny tornados in the parking lot. Balls of scrub dance in circles on their sad stage. The ripe stench of rotting food and old beer hangs like a blanket over the back door space. No wind will ever scour that smell away.

I turn to walk around the building, back to my truck. My feet slow beneath me when I see two short legs sticking out the opening of the chest freezer against the wall. The jeans-clad legs pedal and wave in the air. Tiny sneakers dangling at the end of the legs kick without effect at the fiberglass sides of the freezer. The heavy lid is down, pinning in place the hips above the legs. Small, animal sounds issue from within the deep, wide, icy box.

When I reach the freezer, I lift the lid and secure it to the wall. I thread my index finger into Lola’s belt loop and pull her from her most recent prison. She staggers a step or two and then catches her balance with her hands held out to her sides. Her face is red and her lips are blue and trembling. Her expression is sad and accepting. Water stands in her eyes but she doesn’t cry. I wonder how many years it’s been since she bothered with tears.

She stares at me but doesn’t speak.

“You’re worth more, old Mom.” I lay one bloody and now bleeding hand on her cold shoulder and walk past her, heading again for my truck.

“Mickey,” she says from behind me.

I wouldn’t have heard her quiet word were I not so surprised she actually spoke. I turn back. Time is short, but it’s still my day and I want to listen.

“Are you okay? You’re covered in blood.”

I grin at her. My face feels wolfish but she doesn’t cringe or turn away.

“Today is my day,” I tell her.

Her eyes widen. Her face looks shocked, as if what I’ve said is some gospel truth that’s been dangling just out of her reach.

“It’s your day, too, old Mom.”

I would stay longer but I can hear the sirens’ song lazy on the wind. I turn my back on Lola and make my way to my truck. Time has come to move on to whatever new exploits might be worthy of my day, of the day made for me by gods.

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