He should never have walked through those doors.
He knew better.
Knew better than to let the rusty smell of whiskey tempt him. It’d been one year four months and who gives a fuck how many days. Rules are meant to be broken, eh?
The look that slip of a girl had shot his way (or had he imagined it?) at the rest stop was enough to set him off. Weak. He hadn’t sold shit in days anyhow. Fuck it. The gaping maw of drunk awaited him; jaw slack, tongue throbbing, nose twitching.
“Whiskey, two ice cubes.”
He leveled the last of these words at the bartender like a threat.
Larry Lynch, you sad-sack shit of a man. Drink your fill, vomit your guts, keep on laughing. No one hears, except for the grave, which sports the biggest smile of all – a broad grin that could swallow the whole world.
A woman walked in, like an echo of the rest-stop girl. Except quite a bit older, perhaps even older than him. She sauntered in like she owned the damn place, like she owned every damn place. Shut up, you idiot, he chided himself, you have no business even being here. The woman walked around the right-angled bar, exaggerating her movements almost theatrically. Who’s she trying to impress, Larry thought, it’s just me, the bartender and that schlub in the corner. The sun was still beating the blacktop and unless you were some kinda do-nothing hippie, it sure as hell wasn’t party time yet. But this woman -- with her finely-coiffed medium-length blonde ‘do, and her hip-hugging high-waisted white slacks, which revealed a sculpted torso culminating in generous breasts -- was acting like she was Lauren fuckin’ Bacall, and where’s my Bogart? her pursed lips seemed to be on the verge of asking, hell, more like demanding. Well, I’m taller than that dead fuck, toots, is what Larry wanted to not so much as say, but throw at her -- right at her pretty little head.
Larry made a vague motion towards one of the beer taps and the bored-looking bartender, so used to this scene as to be hopelessly mundane, poured the cheap suds and shuffled over to where Larry half-sat at the bar, one leg up and one leg firmly on the ground, as if he was ready to sprint out of there at a moment’s notice. Mr. Bartender delicately dropped the pint glass right next to Larry’s now-empty whiskey. All it took was Larry making eye contact for the bartender to blindly reach behind him, snag the whiskey bottle, and swing it around in an arc, coming to rest directly above Larry’s rocks glass. The bartender looked Larry directly in the eyes as he turned the bottle upside down and expertly poured the brown liquid. Just as Larry was about to demand two more ice, the bartender’s other hand seemed to appear out of nowhere with a small, stainless steel scoop sporting two square cubes. He slid the cubes into the glass without so much as a fleck of whiskey escaping over the lip of the glass. Larry picked up the glass, took a long sip of the rich, smoky poison, quickly followed by a desperate guzzle of the beer, draining half in one swallow.
A full bladder equals an occupied mind, as his father used to say. He lifted himself off the stool, wobbling slightly, legs still weak from the ass-numbing ride of the past few hours. He practically stumbled away from the bar and the bartender shot him a warning look. After all, it was only quarter after three in the afternoon, he wasn’t quite lubed up enough to deal with some shit-heel drunk who came floating in on a cloud of fumes. But Larry quickly righted himself and made his way to the restroom in the back, snaking his way through a cluttered maze of mismatched tables and chairs.
In the bathroom, Larry kept inching into the urinal, the tip of his dick touching cold linoleum at a steady rhythm; the only steady thing about Larry as his pants slipped down his weak-kneed chicken legs and his worn-out buster browns slipped on the dirt-tiled floor, his soles squeaking in his own piss.
It took him a few minutes to recover any sense of his surroundings. Oh yeah, here I am again, trapped myself in a bar. Bet the sun is still out there pounding the concrete. Fucker is merciless. Might as well stay in here and beat the heat, Larry thought.
“What’s the harm, hell it’s good for my skin,” Larry said out loud, to no one. Then he realized he was talking to his own reflection. At first, he hadn’t even recognized the unkempt vagabond staring back at him. It had been days since he’d shaved; and last time he shaved he had to use one side of a pair of old scissors, digging at the stubble in his chin as if he were foraging for root vegetables, or digging mines out of an old warzone. It hadn’t gone well, especially as hungover as Larry had been, as Larry was, in that moment. Both moments. Every moment. At this thought, he felt the vertigo hit him again and he swayed in place, like an inflatable wind dancer. Those inhuman advertisements that reminded us all how small and earthbound we truly are. Larry felt inhuman. Just then the portly schlub came barreling into the cramped bathroom, shocking Larry out of his fog and nudging him towards the sink. Larry reached out, suddenly desperate, and managed to secure the lip of the sink in his clutching hands. He steadied himself as the man pulled up at the lone urinal like a horse to water.
“Sorry, chief, gotta drain this weasel something fierce, boy I tell you!”
Back at the bar, Larry’s head swiveled around like a broken-necked doll, unsteady on his badly-shaven throat. He felt like a forgotten toy at the bottom of a child’s closet. For how long would he remain neglected? Perhaps not as long as he thought, as the bartender decided to take pity and poured him a double, this time catching his eyes with a slightly sympathetic look. We’ve all been there, he seemed to say. Larry raised his glass in salute and the man said, “No problem, bud, this one’s on me.”
Larry asked for another beer on top of his full rocks glass (he somehow forgot to ask for ice and the man had not offered). As the delicious warmth began to spread over his body – is this what heroin addicts feel like? Larry thought – he managed to take a little more control over his upper spine and found himself gazing fixedly at the lone woman. She was sitting catty-corner from him and she matched his stare, her face betraying no emotion whatsoever. Not so much as dismissive, but impassive. Stone-faced. Larry imagined her elegant features supplanting one of those fuckers at Mount Rushmore, might even class that craggy rock up a bit. She was certainly making this shitty bar more inviting by the minute.
“I like the way you look at me,” she said. “Like a problem you are trying to parse.”
A dim recollection of grade school pushed its way to the front of Larry’s brain.
“Don’t you ‘parse’ sentences?”
“Oh I am a sentence, baby. Some would say ‘life,’ some would say ‘death.’ I say let the chips fall where they may.”
“Easy to say, hard to follow through.”
“Oh sugar, don’t make it too easy for me now, would you? It’s still early yet.”
Larry waved this comment away with a floppy hand, accidentally rapping his knuckles hard on the bar counter. Somewhere, nerves screamed in pain, but they failed to penetrate the spreading warmth.
“Leave that poor, old bar alone,” the woman mock-scolded him. “What’s it ever done to you?”
“Plenty. More than plenty. It’s done it all, and then some, and then one more time for good measure.”
“Yet here you are, sucked back in.”
“Goddamn black hole.”
“We’ve all got holes, honey, just depends on if you want to turn the light on or not,” she smiled. And all Larry could think was, There, that smile, that’s my light. Turn me on, baby. Hit that switch.
Instead, Larry grunted a response, in an attempt to show that he was above it all.
The woman wasn’t fooled. “Come on, stranger, come closer. Let’s co…..mmiserate.”
Larry let the comment float in the air for an extra beat. Then, feigning reluctance, he gradually lifted his sore ass off his stool and slow-walked down the bar, trying his best to appear as nonchalant as possible. But secretly, desperately, his heart was taking a drum solo and he felt something like electricity shooting through his veins. Aha, now this is what junkies feel.
Larry led with his whiskey, placing the rocks glass close to her cocktail, and parking himself next to her.
“You got a name, sugar?”
“That’s a strong name, Larry. Larry of Arabia,” she giggled to herself. “Desert warrior. I’m Annabelle, pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. Are you coming in from a long journey through sandstorms and the like?”
“Something like that. I sell, I travel. It feels like war sometimes.”
“And what do you sell, Sir Larry?”
“Vacuum cleaners, cleaning products, peace of mind.”
“Do they still do that? I had no idea.”
“I still do it. It’s all I know. My brother got me into it fresh outta high school, and I guess I’m just too dumb or too stubborn to figure out how to do anything else.”
“I think it’s charming.”
“Feh, don’t bullshit me, Annabelle. It’s the pits and you should be laughing at me. God knows I do. Sometimes I turn off the AM and just laugh myself silly.”
“Oh Larry, that’s sad. Please don’t do that.”
“Looks like your drink’s empty. What’s your poison?”
“Today, I’m feeling tropical. I can almost smell that Caribbean air, the salt and the sand and the sun.”
“Going on a trip?”
“Hey buddy,” Larry jerked his chin at the bartender. “Can the lady get a pina colada?
The bartender rolled his eyes and began to prepare the cocktail. The entire time, he shook his head imperceptibly, not knowing whether to laugh or be annoyed at this putz.
Larry was oblivious, trying to appear in charge, in control – to not let on that his head was swimming and his thoughts were growing more primitive by the second. He took a sip of whiskey, figuring that would level him out.
Annabelle smacked at her lips, the sound drawing Larry’s eyes to her mouth, and in that instant, he felt like he could disappear into her mouth, that between those lips and those pretty white teeth, he could dwell forever, safe from harm, content in that moist cave. It had been too long since Larry had been with a woman, and this broad was a step-up from the usual floozies he took to second-run movies and then dingy bars to patiently wait for them to get drunk enough to fuck him. Now, he was the drunk one, and it felt good, and she was going to be his, he could just feel it.
The bartender frisbee’d a cocktail napkin onto the bar-top and placed the garish drink in front of Annabelle. A miniature umbrella poked out of the comically large glass. Larry raised his own drink, “Here’s to you, toots.”
Annabelle clinked his glass and took a long sip from the double-strawed cocktail.
“Thanks, hon. I’ve got to visit the little girls’ room and make a quick phone call. I’ll be back in two shakes, don’t you go anywhere,” she winked at him.
Larry just nodded dumbly. He watched her as she navigated the furniture maze with grace, plump derriere moving in slow motion. As she closed the bathroom door behind her, he turned his head and noticed the corner schlub licking his lips and giving him a curious look. Then the schlub raised his glass as a sort of salute, or perhaps it was a congratulations. Truth be told, Larry was just as surprised as he was. But the whiskey provided bravado, so he gave the guy a pitying look and half-raised his glass in acknowledgment. Sucker, he thought as he turned back around.
As the minutes ticked by, Larry seemed to be frozen in time. He felt like a relic from another age. A traveling salesman. A drunk. A failure. Goddamn, was he sick of all this self-pity. He just needed one good night. One night to feel the caress of a woman, to feel alive again. He deserved that much, didn’t he? Look at all these bastards running the world, starting wars in unpronounceable countries, shitting on the common man. They should be strung up and beaten to death. Give ‘em the ol’ Mussolini headkick.
Larry glanced over to the dimly lit hallway in the back, which housed the cigarette machine and some novelty toy-grabbing doohickey. He saw Annabelle on the payphone, laughing at someone’s words, sure as hell not his. He felt a pang of jealousy, but eased it with a long pull on his whiskey. While she yammered on, probably with some girlfriend or perhaps a family member, Larry ordered another beer. It had been awhile since Larry had drank, but he hadn’t forgotten that he preferred to have a chaser for the brown stuff. Double-fist. A real man.
Annabelle sashayed back to her stool and seemed even perkier than before. She wriggled her perfectly-round ass on the stool, finding her comfort zone. She looked as at home as a lioness on the plains of Africa. There was something slightly exotic about her; not the way she looked necessarily -- although she was a fine specimen no doubt – but in the way her eyes played over Larry’s face, seeming to read all the hurt and bullshit he had been through. If she could see it, maybe she could heal it. Or at least soothe it. This wild beast needs soothing, Larry thought. Before I go extinct.
“Now, where were we?” Annabelle said, tracing the outline of her glass with her forefinger.
Larry snapped himself out his hypnotic trance. “I think you mentioned going somewhere more private,” he gambled. Fuck it, she wants it.
“Oh, did I?” Annabelle chuckled, tossing her head back slightly, revealing her long, pale neck. Larry longed to kiss and bite at that fleshy column.
“Yep. And gentleman that I am, I suggested my car. It’s parked right outside and it’s a Lincoln, so there’s plenty of room.”
Annabelle looked amused. “You brave and dirty man. You are asking for a world of hurt,” she teased, as her hand seemed to drop accidentally onto his knee and slowly moved up his thigh, stopping just as it was entering the no-fly zone, so to speak. Something stirred deep in Larry. A voice way back in the cheap seats of his brain wondered what he had done to stumble upon such luck. Well, a million drunks drinking in a million bars, someone’s gotta get laid eventually…
“It’s like that monkey typewriter thing,” he said out loud.
“What’s that, hon?”
“Nothin’. Wanna get out of here?”
“Not quite yet, I still have my drink to finish! you impatient scoundrel,” she squeezed his thigh good-naturedly. “Don’t forget, it’s still early yet. This bar is dark, but outside, well, there’s a whole wide world, bright and shiny as a new penny.”
“Whatever you say, babe,” Larry said as he slipped his hand behind her and placed it on the small of her back. She didn’t flinch. He needed to possess her. Larry forgot about everything else in his life; it was all a joke anyway, all that seemed to matter was making this flirty broad his, if only for a few hours. Sometimes that’s all a man needs to recharge his batteries. Larry was running low, but he could feel the electricity radiating off of Annabelle. The current ran up his arm and juiced his brain.
Just then, the front door swung open and daylight burst into the dark bar. Everyone jumped slightly, except Annabelle, who continued to smile her enigmatic grin. Even the bartender had appeared to be lost in some sort of reverie, perhaps recalling a time when he didn’t spend his afternoons in this shit-hole.
Once Larry’s eyes adjusted to the burst of light, and the door swung shut, he saw a tall, dusk-skinned man stride in purposefully. A few steps in and he took stock of the bar and its patrons. He gave the schlub in the corner a perfunctory glance and the man nodded his head. He shot the bartender a look and the bartender seemed to shrug, almost invisibly. Or perhaps Larry imagined it. The room was teetering and he was having trouble staying on his stool. Finally, the man fixed his gaze towards the couple at the bar. He lingered momentarily on Annabelle’s visage, but he fixed his gaze right on Larry. Larry felt like lab rat, or a zoo animal. He didn’t appreciate the attention. He only wanted attention from one of these people and this big fella sure as shit wasn’t the one.
To Larry’s surprise, Annabelle waved at the man and motioned for him to walk around the bar. With his gaze still locked on Larry, he cleared the corner, came up on the other side of Annabelle, and planted a kiss on her cheek, which she offered willingly. Larry’s heart hit the floor and the back of his neck tingled.
“Larry, this is Ramon. Ramon, meet Larry. He sells vacuum cleaners. He’s a real sucker!” Annabelle erupted in hysterical laughter at this last sentence, cackling like some idiot hyena.
“Pleased to meet you, Larry,” Ramon said with the trace of an accent, “Now get your fucking hand off my girl.”
Larry realized that his left hand was still perched on the small of Annabelle’s back. He almost drew it back, but then the whiskey re-asserted itself and Larry thought, This is it. This is my moment. I can get it all back, here, now, in this bar. My self-respect is within reach. Fuckin’ grab it, Larry!
“Sorry, bud, I don’t think so. Me and the lady were having a nice conversation, and we ain’t finished with it yet. Ain’t that right, darlin’?”
Annabelle just looked straight ahead with that smile playing on her lips.
“Oh, I don’t know, Larry, I was just thinking how my flight was soon. That trip, remember? To the tropics? Well, here he is.”
As Larry’s whiskey-soaked brain tried to piece together what was exactly happening, Ramon grabbed his wrist in a tight grip and flung it off of Annabelle’s back. That seemed to spark the adrenaline Larry needed and he immediately stood up, knocking his stool over. The beast was loose.
“Touch me again, and you take a trip to the hospital.”
“Oooooo,” Annabelle cooed, her smile widening.
Ramon, a good six inches taller than Larry, stepped forward and pushed him hard in the chest. Larry went flying backwards into a mass of tables and chairs. He hit his head, but barely felt it. He was barely feeling anything. The schlub jumped up and Larry could have sworn he saw him rub his hands together. Larry looked at the bartender, and once again, he shrugged so faintly, Larry couldn’t tell if it was just a weird tic he had. Guess I’m on my own, he thought, as he made his way to stand up. He felt like he was moving through molasses. The room was still spinning, but it had slowed down enough for him to focus on Ramon. He was a big motherfucker, that was for sure. But Larry grew up with two older brothers, and they were merciless in their youth. He suffered beatings on a daily basis until he was big enough to swing back.
Larry took a step forward, and so did Ramon. They were almost in each other’s radius. The bigger they are, Larry thought, as he rushed at Ramon. He threw a punch at the man’s chin, but ended up hitting him in the arm -- like he was kidding, like this was all just a joke. Ramon pushed him hard again, but Larry came back for another try. This time, Ramon blocked the punch, covered Larry’s face with his hand and threw him back onto the floor.
The schlub was roaring with laughter, “You swing like a rusty hinge!”
Larry had picked a fight with the wrong man, but it was too late to back down. He charged at Ramon with all of the desperate strength he could muster. Ramon side-stepped Larry’s clumsy attack and grabbed him by the collar of his cheap suit. There was a split-second where everything in the room stopped moving, the scene became as tranquil as a deserted street during first snow -- pure calm and peace reigned.
“A rusty hinge!”
Ramon pulled Larry towards him and everything went red as Ramon’s fist detonated on Larry’s nose, blood and cartilage flying everywhere. His only satisfaction was seeing a few flecks land on Annabelle’s white slacks as Larry hit the floor for the third time in less than a minute. This time, he wasn’t getting up. He was beat. The beast was dead.
The couple towered over his prostrate body, his muscles limp and defeated.
All Larry could manage was a squeak.
“Just needed something to kill the time, sugar.”
They walked out into the heat and light and Larry just lay there.
He wasn’t going anywhere.