I can tell that Bennie’s no townie. He wants to smoke, but doesn’t want to leave his drink. He pulled a cigarette out of a fresh pack a while ago and keeps turning it in his fingers, sticking it behind his ear, pulling it back out, and playing with it again. I imagine he’s wondering about the smoking laws here, and I forgot to put the ashtrays out when I opened. I tell him it’s fine and I light one up, too. I place a red plastic ashtray on the bar between us.
“I love this music,” he says. “Willie Dixon?”
“That’s right,” I say. I’m always impressed when customers recognize the songs. It’s a fact that the Delta Cafe has the best jukebox in all of North Florida, maybe the best in the whole country. Years ago, the owner converted all of the music on his old blues LP’s into CDs and filled the thing up with them. The sound retains all the hisses and scratches of the old vinyl and, especially for lonely older men drunk on bourbon, there’s really nothing like it.
I have a key to the jukebox; that’s the best part of the job. I start every shift by opening it up and taking a single quarter and sliding it down the slot over and over again, racking up credits, and picking out hours of music. Then I unlock the door and make a pot of coffee, smoke some cigarettes, and wait for the day’s first patrons.
Bennie asks me for quarters.
“I’d like to play few,” he says.
I think about unlocking it for him, but I’m always curious to see what songs a man finds worthy of his money, so I make his change and watch him move through the room. He’s in his forties, I think, with thick shoulders and eyes that just barely peek out between his flush cheeks and dark, bushy eyebrows. His hair is wild and black and speckled with gray. He’s a pretty fat man, but he carries that weight like it’s a great treasure; he has the kind of grace that makes me think he’d been an athlete in his younger years. He gets excited about an album he sees and is very deliberate as he pushes the buttons.
The Delta is on the outskirts of Live Oak, on Route 10 twenty miles from Lake City. The barroom itself isn’t much more than a long, dilapidated hallway. There are framed pictures of old bluesmen, favorite patrons, and sporting scenes along the dingy walls. There aren’t any booths; just a couple of tables and the bar itself–long and romantically old-looking, a dirty brass rail running along the bottom, bearing the shoe prints fragments of countless old drunks. Sometimes I wonder if in years past, a fellow or two hasn’t been slid across that bar, fists flying and bottles breaking all around, like a saloon fight in an old Western flick. And then there’s the jukebox.
It’s beautiful in its humility: a minimal rectangle attached to the wall in the back of the bar, between the doors of the two bathrooms. Four different records were featured on each page, no album art, no pictures at all. Just plain white paper, with all the information needed handwritten in black ink.
Bennie returns, sits down, and smacks an enthusiastic hand on the bar as he orders a well whiskey. He’d been drinking beer before. Now he sits quietly and sips at his new drink, listening to the music. It’s “Mojo Hand” by Lightnin’ Hopkins, and he tells me he’s playing the entire album. I smile at him. If I only have one customer today, I could do worse than Bennie.
It’s still raining. I think it’s rained every day since I’ve been back home. I remember the rain when I was young, but not like this. I ask Bennie where he’s from and he says right here in Live Oak, but I don’t believe him. He’s really enjoying Lightnin’ Hopkins, nodding his head up and down and sometimes moving his hand confidently with the downbeat, like he’s conducting a strange orchestra. When the song ends, he asks me where I’m from.
“Right here in Live Oak, same as you,” I say.
I tell him about how I’ve recently moved back to town from Glendale, and how I got a job working the day shift behind the bar here. I don’t make half as much money as I did in California, I say, but I still think it might be the best job I’ve ever had.
“I believe it,” Bennie grins and nods at the jukebox.
I do love this job, and not just for the music. Ignore the occasional bad drunk, and there are things you learn in a barroom that you can’t learn anywhere else. Working at the bank in Glendale may have paid the mortgage and my ex-husband’s tuition, but it wore me thin. There are souls that come together in the Delta Cafe that bring out something hopeful in me. It helps me endure the fact that I’m living back in Live Oak, at my mother’s house in my childhood bedroom.
Mom said she’d stop by today. She’d been doing that frequently since I’d been back, bringing me sandwiches in brown paper bags like I was a school kid again. It’s a little weird and makes me feel infantile, but the sandwiches are very good and Mom seems to get some satisfaction from doing it.
She says she needs me here, and she thanks me every day for coming back. A lot of things changed for her when my grandmother passed. You can’t be an old woman while your parents are alive, Mom told me once. Grandma stayed alive for nearly a century on pure grit, and that filtered down into a youthful serum inherited by her children. They all lived and looked younger than their ages, but when she died at age ninety-six, her children – my mother, especially – plunged headlong into old age.
The wheels fell off my marriage a while ago, so I jumped at an excuse to get out of California.
So here I am, bartending bad shifts and eating sack lunches. Bennie asks how I like being back in Live Oak. I tell him it’s nice to be around family again and wonder if he believes me.
“Sweetheart,” Bennie says. “Every time I come back to this town it feels like going into my home bathroom after a visitor takes a shit. As long as things are familiar and safe, I can ignore the stink.”
He laughs hard, and I can tell he’s used this line before.
He’s still the only other person in the bar. I usually have a few regulars, but some are out of town. Others are saving money for the holidays. So Bennie and I spend an hour and a half of small talk with Lightin’, then Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell.
Another customer, a semi-regular, comes in and downs a Bloody Mary about as quickly as you can. Bennie tries to chat him up, but barely gets the win-loss record of Suwanee High’s football team out of him before he heads for the door.
There are three more whiskeys and two albums by Son House. We’re talking more about the endless rain when a clean-cut fellow comes in. He’s well-dressed and I don’t know if I’ve ever served a man wearing a tie in here before. He’s got a lanky frame, and neatly combed sandy hair. He pauses as he enters the room, looks about, and nods as if he had envisioned this place and created it himself; now he approves of what he has made. Bennie extends a greeting to him. The clean-cut fellow sits down and orders a Budweiser.
Bennie keeps looking at him.
“Holy shit,” he speaks up. “You’re Thomas Barnes.”
“Um. Yes, I am. You are?”
“Ha ha! Tom! It’s me, Bennie Howard.”
“Wow,” Tom says. “Bennie Howard. It’s been, what? Ten or eleven years?”
“At least that long. How the hell have you been?”
“Good, real good. Do you still live here in town?”
“Here?” Bennie says. “Hell no, man. I’m just passing through. Trying to see a few familiar faces. But shit, I never thought I’d see old Tommy Boy Barnes again.”
The two were old high school classmates here in Live Oak, both long gone since graduation. It’s a charming reunion to witness. They move to adjacent stools and share an ashtray as Bennie buys Tom a shot of whiskey and they talk about football and old flames, their conversation moving in rollercoaster tones, up and down, almost playing along with the jukebox. They move on from high school and start talking about the years between then and now. Tom’s married with children–two girls–and settled happily in South Carolina. He’s in town for the holidays. Bennie’s story isn’t nearly as wholesome; he’s a transient, and makes no excuses for it.
He says he’s “in between things” at the moment. I like him even more.
“Last I heard anything about you,” Tom says. “I was talking to Frank Hughes, believe it or not.”
“Fucking Frankie, man. That crazy son of a bitch.”
“He told me that you got locked up for something.”
“He ain’t one to talk.”
“I don’t mean to get too personal,” Tom says. “But is it true?”
Bennie runs a finger along the lip of his glass–he’s obviously excited about this story–and goes on and tells of an elaborate scam. He used to pose as a deliveryman, faking the uniform with the brown shorts and everything, and would go into office buildings in cities up and down the East Coast. He would carry an empty box and tell the receptionist that he had a delivery for some name he made up. When she told him that so and so didn’t work there, Bennie would put on a confused face and ask if he could use the phone–you know, to call headquarters and straighten this all out. Of course, reception would say yes. Most of the time, she’d turn the phone toward Bennie to allow him to call whoever he needed. That’s when he’d make his move: he’d dial this 1-900 number and pretend to have a conversation, asking an imaginary person about his supposed delivery. At some point, reception would quit looking at him, and he’d put the phone on hold, then end his pretend call and hang up the phone. He’d apologize for his mistake and politely excuse himself.
“I don’t get it,” Tom says.
“There was this guy in Savannah who I used to do work with,” Bennie says. “He owned this 900 number, had these fat old broads talking to lonely assholes in sexy voices. Well, he got busted selling dope, and before he went away, he sold me that phone business.”
Tom looks at Bennie. He’s not getting it.
“It was my 900 number!” Bennie says. “It charged a fortune by the minute. Sometimes the call would hang out on hold for an hour or more before they realized what had happened.”
Tom shakes his head.
“I made a shitload of money off of that before I got caught,” Bennie says and slaps Tom playfully on the back.
“How’d they find you out?”
Bennie shrugs and takes a drink.
“You’re a real son of a bitch, Bennie.”
“I probably made more money than you do at whatever straight-laced gig you’ve got,” he says.
“I’m an accountant,” Tom says. “I do alright.”
“I’ve always been good with math. I enjoy the numbers.”
“Sounds really fucking boring,” Bennie says, and slaps him on the back again. He asks me for two more whiskeys.
They keep on drinking and telling tales. A couple more customers swiftly come and go. Tom and Bennie go to the jukebox and play more songs. Bennie can’t believe that Tom doesn’t know Muddy fucking Waters and he puts on “Hoochie Coochie Man”. The bell above the door rings again, and a young man walks in.
His name is Luke; he’s not a townie either, but he was here last night, reading a book at one of the tables. It’s my favorite table in the bar–that’s why I noticed him–because of a picture on the wall above it, titled The Carter Handicap, June 1944- Aqueduct Racetrack-Triple Dead Heat. It shows three majestic race horses, each with their nose just reaching the finish line at the same moment, with jockeys pulsing and whipping, and the whole black and white world blurring out of control around them. I wonder how the hell they determined the winner of that race, how the jockeys felt and how the gamblers that day split up the winnings.
Last night, Luke had showed up just before the end of my shift. He was flipping through One Hundred Years of Solitude, and he seemed attractive in a brooding way, so when I got off I served myself a beer and sat down across from him. Trying to be flirtatious, I snatched the book out of his hand and opened the first page:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. I was profoundly lonely. I stayed in the bar, something I rarely do after my shift ends. It got busier as the night went on, and as I talked with Luke, I thought of those lines again and again whenever a customer ordered a drink on the rocks. I’d feel worried that someone would drop an ice cube on the counter or floor, and I would spend an unhealthy amount of time focusing on its potential demise. At one point, someone dropped a gin and tonic, and glass broke and ice scattered about the floor. It burst into a hundred tiny pieces of future droplets. In other drinks, it just drowned in its own insides. I looked at my reflection in the glare of the horse-racing picture. My hair and clothes were so much different than they were in California. I did that on purpose, trying to start over new, but now it just looked strange.
I went outside and stood alone in the drizzling rain. I was very drunk at that point and I started to think about the Live Oak of my youth, before Dad left, and it made me dizzy. Growing up, the summer sun and the bathhouse-thick air treated my skin like a badly painted house; it came and went in bubbling and peeling layers. The year my father left was the worst one, humidity-wise. He left in the early spring. I developed earlier than the other girls, and that summer left me looking like a fledgling leper just beginning to molt. I barely had the courage to put on my bathing suit. I’d sit in one of those sticky plastic poolside chairs and pull ice cubes from the cooler, running them along my tender arms and legs and I felt a wonderful comfort.
I understood Aureliano’s fascination with the ice, and why he thought about it before the firing squad.
Luke said he was a musician, on the road between Gainesville and somewhere in Georgia. He had recently played in California, he said, and we talked about my old state for a good, long while.
He asked me what song was played the most at the bar. He guessed “Cocaine Blues” in one of its variations, and was surprised when I told him it was, easily, “In the Pines”. He pointed out that that’s not the real name of the song. I knew for certain then that he wasn’t a local; he didn’t exist in the swamps or springs, he had never felt smothered by the Spanish moss and the slash pines. He didn’t live–as some customers did, and regularly talked about–with a lingering fear of being swallowed up by a sinkhole.
Most of the bar folk, although they appreciated the music, didn’t really know the music. Luke did. He asked me how I knew so much and I told him about my parents’ own record collection, about my father’s guitar and my mother’s voice, and he asked me to dance to “Moonshine Blues” by Little Walter. He was an awkward dancer, but he had decent rhythm and his clumsiness was charming. The next song was Dave Van Ronk’s take on “He Was a Friend of Mine” and he sang along and pulled me close on the first chorus. When it hit that sad major seventh chord on the second verse, he pressed his cheek against mine, and his lips brushed just against my ear.
Something about it all reminded me of Eric in the good times. I hadn’t been with anyone since California–I hadn’t wanted to–but within the hour we were in the backseat of my car. I was wearing a Western-style shirt; he mistakenly thought that the buttons were snaps, and in an attempt to be sexy he tried to rip it open. The top two buttons gave way and sprang free and when he realized what he’d done, he began to apologize over and over, burying his face in my chest. It was something to have a moment like that with someone again.
He kissed me a lot, and he was good at it. He told me I was beautiful and when we finished, he wiped the fog from my windows with his hooded sweatshirt. It was a simple gesture, and it made me feel good. This was something I needed. I was proud of myself. We said goodbye and I drove home and went to sleep.
When I got in my car to go to work this morning, I called Eric for the first time in weeks. He didn’t answer, but I listened to his voicemail greeting. I thought that something had changed, that his voice would be different now, but it wasn’t. He’s had the same overly excited greeting for years. I’ve always hated it, but this morning it made me miss him like nothing ever had before. I thought about the last civil conversation we had, trying hard to remember the how our voices mixed, the old way our laughter ricocheted off each other and echoed, like a basketball hitting the floor in an empty gym. Maybe it never really did that, I’m realizing now. All I can think of now is the way he used the word tertiary the last time we spoke. It was so out of character for him and I was certain he wasn’t using it correctly. I couldn’t focus on anything else he said. Tertiary. I hung up without leaving a message.
I started the car and noticed that the condensation the body heat had left on the windows had dried up, leaving pudgy streaks and blotches all over. I let myself sit in that shitty visibility and drove the mile and a half to the bar, observing the world through those odd, ghostly remains.
In last night’s bar light–and even more so in the soggy darkness of the backseat–Luke had been handsome enough. But now the sun is poking through the rain and coming in the windows and he looks as desperate as can be. I noticed his paunchy beer belly when he was on top of me in the car; in the moment, I thought it was cute. Today, however, he’s wearing a tight fitting T-shirt that does that gut no favors at all.
The night is coming back to me in a disturbingly sober hindsight. The sights and sounds are amplified and jarringly bad, like bass-heavy music being played through tiny speakers.
He’s tentative as he approaches the bar, as if he owes me money and knows he can’t repay it. I don’t know what he’s doing here and now I’m very glad that he’s just passing through town.
“Hey,” is what he says to me.
Big Bill Broonzy is singing “When Did You Leave Heaven?” and the sultry voice plows through and evaporates Luke’s pale greeting. Every bar of the song pushes down on him like intensified gravity. It fills up all the space around his sad frame, making him smaller and smaller.
“Do you serve food here?” He settles onto a bar stool like an old man collapsing into a recliner at noon on a football Sunday–he’s going to be here for a while. I reach into the cooler and pick up an ice cube and roll it about in my left hand.
We do not serve food and I tell him so. I want him to leave. I want to tell him that food isn’t served anywhere in Florida, anywhere on the damn planet.
“Can I get a beer?”
I wipe my hands on my apron and get him a draft.
“I thought you had a show somewhere tonight?”
“I do. Valdosta. But I don’t have to be there ‘til 8.”
I can tell now that he’s been drinking already. I don’t believe he has a show at all and I want Big Bill Broonzy to physically materialize out of the sound waves and smash his guitar on this asshole’s smiling head. What a fool I’d been. I look back down the bar toward Bennie and Tom, praying that they needed service. Their drinks are still half full.
“Must’ve been tough getting up for the early shift today, huh?” he smiles again.
“It was fine,” I say.
“You’re a champ,” he says. “I’m worn the fuck out.”
He emphasizes the word fuck in a way that makes me feel like I need a shower. I’m trying to find busywork, preparing to wash already clean glasses, but Big Bill stops singing. The playlist has ended. I punch the cash register, grab a fresh fistful of quarters, and escape to the jukebox. I take my time picking out new songs. Bennie and Tom have taken to more hushed tones now that a stranger has come in, and I can’t make out what they’re saying. I hate Luke even more for making me miss whatever part of Bennie’s prison story merited a secretive voice. It’s obvious that Bennie is a consummate bullshitter–many of my favorite customers are–and I’m sure he can spin a fantastic jailhouse yarn.
I start my new set with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee playing “Freight Train” and return to Bennie and Tom. Tom’s been asking Bennie about life after prison.
“I headed west,” Bennie says. “Out to Texas. I got an uncle out there who runs this crazy-ass farm. It’s like a wilderness reserve with all these exotic animals from Africa and shit. And these rich folks come from all over the world and pay through the nose for a chance to shoot at these things, to hunt them. It’s this safari playground for rich assholes. He gave me a job there. Real crazy, right?”
“Yeah. Sounds cruel, too.”
“I thought the same thing, but my uncle, he really knows his shit. He kept an eye on everything, man. Regulated, that’s what it was.”
“If you say so.”
“A bunch of these species are dying off in the wild. They can’t stay alive by themselves. And he’s got them running rampant on this reserve. Population control, that’s all it is. And a damn good way to make money off of some rich folks.”
“I suppose,” Tom says.
“Well, I’ve seen it. And it ain’t cruel.”
“I believe you, Bennie.”
“More beers, boys?” I ask. Their drinks are nearing the bottom.
“Keep them coming, sweetheart,” Bennie grins. “And two more whiskeys.”
“Neat,” he says. “And double them up, if you please.”
“You got it.”
“So what did you do on this safari farm in Texas?” Tom asks.
“I worked in the firing range. They had one there.”
I place the beer and whiskeys in front of the men and they drink, long and hard.
They both cringe after the whiskeys. Everybody gets quiet and listens to the new song on the jukebox.
“Who is this?” Tom asks.
“Mississippi John Hurt.” I say.
“Mississippi John fucking Hurt,” Bennie shakes his head. “He sounds hurt, alright.”
“I like it,” says Tom.
“Yeah, so do I. Hey, sweetheart? Can you drink on the job? I’d love to buy you one for all this strong work on the jukebox.”
“Sure,” I say, and I pour myself a whiskey. “But just this one.”
“What are you drinking,” Luke plows in. “I’ll buy you one, too.”
“I’m not trying to get drunk.”
“Keep the hits coming, kid,” Bennie says.
Tom is beginning to sway in his stool. “Bennie,” he says. “I want a story. Tell me more about your adventures in Texas.”
“Yes, indeed. Crazy shit happened at Ghostland.”
“My family is all from Naples. The neighborhood they grew up in was called Coastland. So when my uncle moved to Texas and started up and built this ranch, he named the whole thing Coastland Fields. Central fucking Texas, and he names the place Coastland. Ha!”
“I thought you said Ghostland?”
“Well, that’s what all the boys that worked there called the place. It was haunted.”
“You can’t be serious,” Tom says.
“Oh, I’m serious. The place was creepy as hell.”
“Did your uncle build it on an Indian burial ground? Were the ghosts of poor endangered species chasing around the rich clientele?” Tom thinks this is all very funny.
“No,” Bennie says, getting quieter now. “I don’t really like to talk about it, but a lot of people committed suicide there.”
“Yeah. People would come into the firing range. We had guns that you could rent and shoot. They’d come in and pick out a gun and then go in and sometimes–whereas most of the time we heard a constant boom! boom! boom! and on and on until they ran out of ammo–sometimes we’d just hear boom! Once. And then nothing. And then we knew we had a mess on our hands.” Bennie speaks softer, but in a voice that makes it all sound as if he’s talking about walking the dog, or buying postage stamps, which somehow makes it all the more believable.
“Jesus Christ,” Tom says. “That’s horrifying.”
“You get used to it.”
“How the hell can you get used to that?”
“I don’t know,” Bennie says and drinks. “How the hell do you get used to anything?”
“How often did it happen?”
“I worked there about three years. There were eleven suicides, I think.”
“Fuck!” Tom says and drinks.
“We had probably thirty shooters or more in there every day, seven days a week. Add that up to three years. How many people is that?”
Tom’s face strains. “32,850,” he says.
“I’m good at math.”
“Thirty-two thousand, eight hundred and whatever. And there were eleven.”
“I can’t think of any other workplace environment where eleven suicides on the premises would be the norm, no matter what kind of numbers they were pushing through.” Bennie finishes his drink with one gulp. “Too many numbers, man,” he says.
“You’re too far removed. You think about numbers too much.”
“I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”
“You don’t deal with people enough. You don’t get the suffering. You got to get in there in the muck and the shit. That shit that makes us human. It ain’t statistics.”
“Ha ha! Now the gun range worker is an expert on the human condition.”
“Shooting brings out something in folks, seriously. Something primal. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. But it’s real.”
I glance back at Luke. He’s scribbled something on a napkin and he’s shoving it into his pocket. He smiles at me again before I turn away.
“We should go shooting some time, Tommy,” Bennie says. “You and me.”
“I don’t think so,” Tom says.
“Why not? You can see what I’m talking about.”
“For one thing, we don’t even live in the same town.”
“Let’s go around here. Let’s go tomorrow. I’d say tonight, but we’re too drunk. They won’t let us in.”
“That’s very responsible of you, but I don’t even know if I’ll be in town tomorrow.”
“What do you mean? Why would you leave before Christmas?”
“It’s complicated,” Tom says, and finishes his whiskey. “Ma’am? Another round, please.”
“You got it,” I say, and start a new pour.
“Put it on my tab, sweetheart,” Bennie says.
“Quit it, man,” Tom says. “You don’t have to keep buying my drinks.”
“No worries. It’s the holidays, after all.”
I put their new drinks in front of them.
“Cheers,” Tom says.
A new song plays.
“I like that guitar lick an awful lot,” Bennie says. “Nothing beats that old bottleneck sound.”
Tom nods and downs most of his whiskey. His face looks different as he listens to the music. He laughs at nothing.
“What’s so funny?” Bennie asks and then looks at me, amused at Tom’s inebriations.
“I left them,” Tom says.
“Huh? Left what?”
“Mary and the kids. I left them.”
“What are you talking about, Tommy?”
“They don’t even know yet. They think I’m at work.”
He laughs again. “I left this morning like any other day, but instead of driving to the office, I drove all the way here.”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“No. I left them.”
“Jesus. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna talk to them? Where are you gonna stay?”
“I don’t know.”
The jukebox keeps playing:
She caught the rumbling–I caught the falling down If I ever see her, I never turn around
“What the hell is this?” Tom demands of me.
“Furry Lewis,” I say. “An old Memphis player.”
“Tommy, what happened?” Bennie asks.
“It doesn’t matter what happened. It’s done.” Tom finishes his whiskey.
Now a couple of twenty-something guys in graphic T-shirts push loudly through the door–one talking about a slam dunk in some college basketball game that the other has to see, man; fucking vicious!–signaling the arrival of a louder brand of drunkenness. They order two pitchers of beer and sit down at one of the tables. Tom looks nearly frightened of these new patrons. He gets quiet and leans in towards Bennie, like a quarterback calling a play in the huddle. Bennie signals at me for more drinks.
“I think it started December 5th,” Tom says, trailing off sadly.
“What was December 5th?” Bennie asks.
“That’s what I kept saying, too,” Tom leans back on his stool. “So many bills and responsibilities. Too much of myself owed out. What was it on December 5th? I’d paid everything, I thought. I was sure of it. But I knew something was due that day. I thought about it all damn day, checked my email and my files, couldn’t find anything. It drove me crazy. I started worrying about things getting turned off and my credit getting even more fucked up. You know what it turned out to be? The fucking milk was expiring. On December 5th. When I bought milk–that was the date on the cap. Can you believe it?”
Bennie glances at me like we’re siblings seeing our father weep for the first time. He looks confused. I begin making a fresh pot of coffee.
“And then that same week I met this girl online,” Tom goes on. “And she was fucking amazing. I mean, she totally got me, you know? And she was young and beautiful and I hadn’t felt the way I felt in ages.”
“You left to be with her?” Bennie asks.
“I would have. I was prepared to do that.”
“So what happened?”
“It turns out that she was just some asshole kids, fucking with me,” Tom drinks deeply from his glass. “Trying to work me for a dollar.”
“Yeah, shit. And I fell for it for weeks. Fell hard.”
“When did you find out?” Bennie asks.
“Last night. And then this morning I just had to get away.”
Oh, Luke is still here, too. He’s shrunk away to the point of being nearly non-existent. I see his glass is empty, and I grab it for a refill. He stops me and hands me a ten-dollar bill and says he’s done. He looks at me like he has something important to say, but everything in the world is preventing him from doing it.
And now, I feel sorry for him.
“I don’t need any change,” he stands up and looks around the room. “Thanks for everything.”
“Take care of yourself,” I say.
“Maybe I’ll see you around,” he says. The music has stopped again. Luke goes up to the jukebox, flips a few pages, drops a single quarter in and turns and walks out the door.
I turn back to Bennie and Tom.
“You guys want a cup of coffee?”
“Yeah, sure,” Tom says.
I pour a cup and set some sugars and creamer on the counter. The two guys in graphic tees are exploding with laughter as they start their second pitcher. It makes the silence between Bennie and Tom feel heavy.
That bastard Luke has played Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”–the live version where he credits his mother in the opening–and the piano riff cuts through the room and straight into my insides. I think about Eric, about my mother and how she hasn’t brought me a sandwich today, about my father, pretending to be a cowboy somewhere in South Dakota.
My father. He loved this fucking record.
“Do you still love them?” I immediately feel like a foolish asshole for asking.
“What?” Tom looks like I’ve purposely stomped on his foot.
“I mean, your family–shit, I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have said that.” Tom pushes away from the bar, nearly topples over, stands up and stumbles toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Bennie shouts after him.
“I need a cigarette.”
“You can smoke inside.”
“I don’t want to be inside.”
“But it’s raining.”
Tom nearly falls out the door into the rain.
“Our boy Tommy is a real mess, ain’t he?” Bennie says to me. “I don’t know that I should buy him anymore drinks.”
“Yeah,” I say. “He needs to be done for the night.”
“Poor bastard’s got nowhere to go.”
“There’s a Super 8 by the highway,” I tell him. “Two miles from here. I’ll call him a cab.”
Bennie twists his shoulders back and forth in an uneven manner.
“I don’t know why I said that to him,” I say.
“You’re fine, sweetheart. Don’t worry about it.”
“I feel awful.”
“Listen,” Bennie says. “I’m gonna go check on Tommy; make sure he’s not doing anything foolish.”
“But I need to take a piss first. I’ll be right back.”
Bennie heads for the restroom and I call for the taxi. The music has stopped again, but I don’t feel like putting on more songs. When Tom comes back in, he is soaking wet.
“I called you a cab,” I tell him as he plops back onto his stool. “There’s a hotel by the highway.”
Tom looks at me, blankly.
“I really am sorry about what I said. It’s not any of my business.”
“Thanks,” he says. I can’t tell if he’s been crying or if his face is wet with rain. “Thank you. I mean it.”
I refill the pitchers for the graphic tee boys. “Where’d Bennie run off to?” Tom asks me.
“You didn’t see him? He said he was coming out to talk to you.”
“I haven’t seen him since I went out,” Tom says. And now my heart sinks. Bennie had told us straight up that he was a hustler, and I let him walk out of the bar with an open tab.
Tom’s face melts and freezes and melts again as he realizes what has happened. Their tab is over eighty dollars.
“He’s not coming back, is he?”
“No,” I say. “He isn’t.”
“Well,” Tom says. “That just tears it, doesn’t it?”
“I shouldn’t have let him walk out. I’m sorry.”
A car horn sounds from outside. It’s Tom’s taxi.
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. You’re a good bartender, and I appreciate that.” His sincerity makes my eyes pinch. “You know,” Tom stands up and looks around the room. His eyes are pleading. “I’m really sorry about today.”
“You don’t need to apologize to me for anything.”
“Did you believe Bennie?” he asks.
“I think Bennie is mostly full of shit.”
“But,” he bites his lip as he talks. “Do you think that place was haunted?”
My shift is over in ten minutes. Sarah, the night shift girl, has arrived behind the bar and is tying a green apron around her waist. She’s already put her first round of shift songs in the jukebox. She always leads off with Rev. Gary Davis. Tonight he’s singing “I’ll Fly Away.” I top off Tom’s coffee and open a can of beer for myself.
“I don’t really know,” I say.
“Yeah. I don’t know either,” Tom sips the coffee and reaches for his wallet. He looks like a puppy that has been dropped in a swimming pool by cruel children.
“Tom, you don’t have to cover the whole check. People walk out. It happens. I’ll explain what happened to the owner and he’ll understand.”
“No. Let me pay for this. I should do it. I need to do it.” He nods emphatically and fingers through the billfold, and places a $100 bill on the bar. His shoulders sink as he turns and starts for the door.
“What are you going to do?” I ask. “Are you going to go home?”
“Yes,” he says; he never turns, and keeps walking towards the waiting car. “Tomorrow, I think. I’ll go home.”
It is true, of course. Ghosts are everywhere. Anyplace worth a damn will have them. Anybody interesting is bound to be haunted.
He hesitates but doesn’t turn around. I don’t know if he thinks I’ve said something or if he’s just balancing himself against the booze. I watch him leave and get into his taxi. I tell Sarah my tabs are all closed and ask if she’d mind if I leave a few minutes early. She does not. I do my paperwork and before I leave, I sit in the stall of the women’s bathroom and try to call Eric again, but again there’s no answer.
His voicemail comes and goes. Tertiary.
I get up and grab a bottle of window cleaner from the back room, along with a few paper towels. I take a beer with me and leave out the back door, the same route Bennie used for his escape. Part of me hopes I find him out here, passed out on the muddy ground, like he didn’t mean to do it. But he’s nowhere to be seen, so I get in my car and start to scrub the streaks on the windshield.
I finish cleaning and sit there smoking, drinking my beer with my legs resting out the open car door. The rain has finally broke, and the moon and stars have appeared for the first time in days, their light once again sputtering and diving in and out of the slash pines, like quarreling lovers putting aside their differences and reuniting. The make-up sex is hasty and wild and their love spills through the cleaned windshield and across the dashboard, while I look on, trying to find shapes in the shadows of the swamp.
Billy Wallace is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana, where he also serves as Editor-in-Chief for CutBank Literary Magazine. He grew up in Ohio and Virginia, but spent most the last decade on the road, singing songs and making friends. Sometimes enemies. He writes stories about the folks he’s met and the adventures he’s had.