C. N. Martin
If I’d been given the choice between a punch in the face or a kick to the mid-section, I’d have gone with the punch. Ten years and fifty pounds ago my choice would’ve been different. That was before the beer belly, before I’d gone soft in the middle. I could’ve taken a kick back then. I’d have been more concerned with losing a tooth out of my pretty face than a cracked rib. A moot point I suppose, as the choice wasn’t mine. I was gifted both. It was a fitting final jab at a life lived poorly.
Bill was about my height, thicker around the middle and strong. He pulled me off the ground and walked me over to the side door and set me against the wall. “Joe, you okay, man? What happened?”
“A meth-head asked me for a smoke, I told him I didn’t have any.”
“He didn’t believe you?”
“Apparently not,” I said.
“You need a doctor or anything? You want me to call someone?”
“No. No thanks. I’m good.” I pulled a Marlboro from the near-empty pack in my front pocket.
My tongue pressed against the loosened molar and wiggled it, coating my taste buds in metallic booze-thinned brine. A cough rushed up my chest and I spat the blood into the rusted can of Folgers on the ground. The ache and stabs of pain crackled through my body like the cellophane around the misshapen pack of cancer sticks. It would have been much worse if I’d been sober.
I lit the cigarette. At first I thought it was the soreness in my ribs that kept me from getting a good draw, but I was wrong. I hadn’t noticed the tear in the paper where the tobacco met the filter. Fuck it. I tore off the end, took a few puffs and threw the remainder in the coffee can.
“All right, well I have to get back in. I got thirsty people in there. Let me know if you change your mind.” Bill put his cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe as usual, and flicked the butt toward the bike rack where a little patch of dirt had become an unofficial ashtray.
“Yeah, I’m heading back in, too,” I said. “I’ll finish my beer and get out of your hair.”
“Stay as long as you like, brother.”
The Corner was far enough away from the bustle of J Street that tourists from suburbia made only a rare appearance. They only came to midtown for the trendy brew pubs and coffee shops. This was a locals-only kind of place, my home away from home. Three blocks up, and three over and I was there.
I shuffled in behind Bill, walked past the pool table, and into the bathroom. I hated that bathroom. The kitchen was the next room over and the heat poured through the paper-thin wall like a furnace. It was stifling even on a cold night, and the busted fan ensured that it always smelled like day-old piss. Its white walls and bright light were a stark contrast to the rest of the bar’s mood lighting and black paint. It was clinical without the cleanliness.
After a couple of less than gentle taps from my fist, the dispenser coughed out a small mound of granulated soap. I pressed the chalky substance into my skin and washed the dirt from my hands and face. Shattered pieces of mirror clung to yellowed glue and cracked paint on the wall over the sink. I took an extra moment to examine my unexpected dental work in my reflection before I walked back to my customary seat at the end of the long mahogany bar.
Tracy was right where I’d left her. “Bill told me what happened. Are you okay?” She ran her fingers through my hair and gave my scalp a quick scratch. “You need a haircut.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just got sucker punched, and yes, I know I need a haircut.” I pointed to a heavy shot glass that sat next to the beer I’d left before I went outside. It was filled with a beautiful, amber colored liquid. “What’s this?”
“It’s Buffalo Trace, from Bill. He poured it for you when you were in the bathroom. I don’t know how you can drink that stuff.”
Tracy knew a lot about a lot of things. She had a sharp wit and a sharper tongue. She was a slave to just about every form of music, and she often spoke in movie quotes. Her curves fit her frame in just the right way and her style made her seem like a classic pinup girl from an old black and white poster made real. I’d never cheated on my woman. It was a principle thing and I suppose in a way I even loved her. But I’d thought about it, and I’d often thought about it with Tracy. Tracy was sex. She was all those things and more, but she was strictly a beer drinker and she didn’t know shit about bourbon.
Truthfully I didn’t know much about it either, other than the fact that I liked it. That may not have been the best bourbon in the world, but it was damn sure better than the Canadian Mist that sat in the well.
I raised the glass high as my ribs would allow. “Thanks, Bill.” The shot worked its way with the tender, caring burn of a well-remembered friend.
“No problem,” he said. “You earned it.” He smiled and went about his business. Bill was studious in his work. Even on a slow Tuesday night he buzzed around the bar, wiped down the counter and polished glass after glass. He even made the occasional drink or two for the regulars.
If it was busy I’d play the good patron and collect empty glasses from the tables and bring them up to the bar to help him out. It wasn’t busy. There was an odd quiet in the air, broken only by the infrequent cracking sound that came from the pool table in the back where Mike was practicing.
“Give me a dollar for the juke box.” Tracy opened her palm to me. “It’s time to learn you some more music.”
It’d come as quite the surprise to her that I didn’t own any music, or a stereo, and that the radio in my car was tuned to either sports talk, or NPR.
It came as an even bigger shock when she’d found out I actually played a little guitar. The calluses that once graced my fingertips were long gone, and I wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. But I used to make a habit of teaching myself new things. Guitar had been one of them.
She’d accused me of being a music hater, and while that wasn’t true, I clearly didn’t love it either. So she made it a point to school me on various bands and singers. I was especially bad about linking a band’s name to the title of whatever song was playing.
There were five singles in my pocket, my net worth. It was all hers. I put the wrinkled wad of cash in her hand and she practically bounced the five-something feet to the jukebox.
She hummed and bobbed her head side to side as she picked out a handful of songs. Her fingers flew across the touch screen faster than I could read the menu options, or what she’d keyed in. She caught me trying to peek, frowned and rolled her shoulder up to block the view. I turned my attention back to the beer in front of me.
The vibrating sound of hard plastic against key and coin caught my attention and I pulled the phone from my pocket. I could never remember the zigzag pattern on the nine button lock, so I’d gone with a number password instead. Zero-seven-one-three. The German had sent me a pointed message. The text read: Tomorrow. 8pm. Your place.
When I’d first met the man I was more than a little surprised at his brown skin, and the tattoo of the holy mother on his forearm. The matte black Dickies that hung loose around his waist and the plain white T-shirt he wore didn’t exactly scream of central Europe either. An acquaintance had told me he was given the alias because of his middle name, Klaus. Supposedly his grandfather was on the wrong side during World War II and eventually fled to South America.
Twice I’d gotten extensions on the money I owed him, and all the while the juice had been running. And with those extensions came inflation. Two thousand became five. Five became ten. I’ve seen you at the poker table, he said. This shouldn’t be a problem for you. After my first couple missed payments I started to wonder if his nickname came from his sadistic predilection for dishing out pain. Twice he’d used a rubber mallet in an effort to collect; once on my left hand, once on my right knee. He reminded me that I didn’t really need those to bet, or fold. Perhaps his Nazi heritage wasn’t so dubious after all.
I stuffed my phone away as Tracy meandered her way back. She raised her hands to the air, fingers and thumbs pressed together like the conductor of some grand orchestra.
The music rolled in like a storm for the next two minutes. Thunder clapped over the speakers first. It was followed by the sound of leather boots making a slow march down a long gravel road. It was the sound of the old west. A solo guitar sprang up a sad, one-string-at-a-time ballad. Then there were drums, more thunder, and then humming in tune with a violin.
Tracy was anxious; she wanted me to guess what song it was. She tried to coax the answer from me with a stare, shrugged shoulders and a waiting smile.
I already knew the title. Of the few songs I did know, this was my second or third favorite. It might have been my first, either way it was up there. I waited until the last possible moment, and blurted out the answer before the lyrics came on.
“Short Change Hero, by The Heavy.”
“Yeah,” she yelled. “Get this man another beer.” Her hand whipped into the air to signal Bill we were ready for another round.
“Guess you’re not leaving after all,” Bill said with a smile. His laugh had a short, choppy cadence, and it carried less bass than one would expect from a man with a neck as thick as his. It was a good laugh. He set the beer onto the bar in front of us and let the coasters soak up the foam that overflowed from the pint glasses. “That’ll be five dollars. Whose tab?”
Tracy made a motion with her hand as if she were swatting away the question. “I got this one.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Well you’ve had a rough day. I’ll tell you what; if you can guess the next two songs I’ll buy the next beer as well.”
With my head cocked sideways I shot her a skeptical, bleary-eyed glance. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to guess the next two. “And if I get them wrong?”
“Then nothing,” she said. “It’s just a reward if you get the right answers.”
We sat and drank and laughed at little things for the next few minutes. We listened to the rest of the song, and for a moment everything that was wrong didn’t seem to matter. In the end though, she couldn’t see where I was coming from, and the Corner was no place for heroes.
I managed to guess the next song as well. I’d seen a special on ESPN about Seattle fans chanting an elongated “Wilson” whenever their quarterback took the field. The opening bass lines of a song that shared his name brought the same response they received at a Phish concert. I told Tracy about it. She called it cheating.
“Of course you only remember it because of football.”
“Whatever works,” I said.
If I’d won that battle, I lost the next. I’d guessed the song correctly; it was “Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies. Only I didn’t say it was by the Pixies, I’d said it was by the Pete Box. I was wrong of course.
It was close enough for Tracy that she honored her bet, and Bill brought me one last pint. I took it down in three deep gulps.
The clock on the wall showed 1:30am. Late for a work night, not that I was actually going in the next day. All the same, it was about time for me to get down to business.
Tracy gave me a kiss on the cheek, I shook Bill’s hand goodbye, and waved at Mike from across the bar. The corner of the building was rounded, and made of thick glass bricks with a door that pointed a person to the intersection as they walked out. I’d always walked out that door when I left and I let the door lock behind me for one last time.
I pulled a smoke from my pocket, and made sure it was intact before I fired it up. The draw was smooth and satisfying. The burn in the back of my throat was different from the bourbon, but it was just as familiar. The flickering neon sign above me set the shadows of the surrounding trees dancing on the blacktop. It was a silent dance, save the light whip of the pan flute wind against the leaves, and the beating drum in my chest. I stood there for a time and watched, mesmerized by the rhythm, and pondered my fate.
I’d had the ten thousand just the night before. Twelve hours I’d spent grinding the table at the Poverty Ridge Poker Room, and I’d been killing it. The nervous, sweaty stench of a bluff stood out more than the obvious strength of a high pocket pair before the flop. I’d tripled my money. Then the whale sat down with a fat rack of chips and just enough skill to lose it.
Of course I had aces. Every bad beat story starts with aces. I bet big, he called. The ace of hearts hit the flop with an eight of clubs, and a two of spades. I pushed hard and bet a thousand at a pot of eight hundred. I had the money I needed. I just wanted to end the hand and go home with a little extra. He should’ve gone away, but instead he did the wrong thing and pushed all his chips toward the middle of the table. Maybe he had an ace with a high kicker like a king or a queen. Maybe he called the raise with the dead man’s hand, ace-eight, and made two pair. Either way I was good. I called the all-in because that’s what you’re supposed to do. He turned over his cards and showed me his pocket twos; my best possible three of a kind, against his worst possible three of a kind. Of course he hit a two on the river. Every bad beat story ends on the river.
My mind was already set on doing the right thing, that’s why I’d taken the day off. I’d wanted to see as much of my family, and as many of my friends as I could. I owed, and one way or another I was going to pay. I’d thought about running, but I’d given Tracy my last five dollars and the half-tank of gas in the Honda wouldn’t get me very far. The German would have found me anyway, or hurt people I cared about if he couldn’t.
I really had only two choices. I could’ve waited for him to show up with his crew, but that would’ve ended badly. It would’ve been messy. He would’ve made an example of me, and he would’ve done it slowly. I didn’t want my folks or my sister to see what was left after something like that. The alternative was to do it myself, but I didn’t want people to think I was sad or desperate. I didn’t want any clean-up. That limited my options.
No. The best kind of death I could hope for was an embarrassing one. David Carradine came to mind, the guy that played Caine, from Kung Fu. I thought about tying a belt around my neck with my pants around my ankles. It would’ve been pathetic, but it wouldn’t have been painful. It would’ve looked like an accident of sexual deviance instead of an act of desperation. It might’ve even made people laugh, and that brought me a strange sort of comfort.
My train of thought broke when the neon sign shut off, and the last puff on my cigarette brought the taste and smell of a burnt filter. I spat, flicked the butt toward the bike rack and walked kitty-corner through the intersection. A bright silver Mercedes idled near the stop sign where I stepped back onto the sidewalk. The front passenger rolled down the window, and two large men stepped from the back seats as I approached.
“Hey, Joe,” the German said. “Let’s go for a ride.”