Bryan McMillan lives and works in Chicago, IL. He has published stories, articles and poems in Milk, Side-Show, Nexus, Shoreline, and various Writing Center Journals. His interests and turn-ons include archaeo-astrology, the Boston Red Sox, and Flappers.
Jeb’s Place was typically quiet on a Sunday evening. A few booths occupied, perhaps, some gaggle of girls intoxicated with themselves, usually a fat girl in the middle of them, to bring out the colors, and maybe Klaus and Ed in the corner on the 2004 Golden Tee. The 2005 version was outJoe had seen it at other barsbut Jeb’s only had the 2004.
Joe pulled into the parking lot from the highway. He drove a 1980 Mercury Monarch, a beast. Tan, the color of diner coffee with cream; he hated it. But it was all he could afford. The left side was scraped from headlight to passenger-side door on account of some idiot in a parked car who threw his door open with no mind to anything, slamming it into Joe’s car. The guy had been old, though, a real geezer, and Joe couldn’t justify hounding after him for any money. What did he care, really, if his car was scraped up. So, he just told the guy not to worry and shuffled off. He needed a new car, anyway. He needed a lot of things. Gas, for one; the needle was pressed to the far left side of the quarter-full mark, like a slider just outside the strike zone and slipping fast.
He needed a drink, too. He needed a few drinks, a few more than he wanted to own up to, as a matter of fact. Or afford. He killed the ignition and leaned over to the glove compartment. He pulled out a cloth bundle and let it unravel on the passenger’s seat, softly depositing a sleek black pistol. He looked at it before picking it up to make sure it was loaded. He thought of the first time he’d held a pistol, almost ten years ago, as an Eagle Scout. Holding the gun, he could almost feel the past, the faint whiff of youth, of hope, unspoiled, then, the years between gradually building a rotten egg’s stench of unfulfilled promise, too many checks never cashed in, too much debt. God, Joe thought. He gripped the gun tighter. He clicked the safety offhe didn’t want to be That Guy, waving a damn gun around and forgetting that the safety was on.
Everything was as Joe had pictured it inside Jeb’s. Stacey was behind the bar, her big blonde hair a holdover from her glory days of twentysomething party girl youth, her hand cocked on her hip and her head turned towards an older guy that Joe didn’t recognize. The old guy had some kind of rash or bruise covering most of his face, but when he looked up at Joe, coming through the door, Joe broke eye contact. Klaus and Ed were indeed in the corner, hunched over Golden Tee, a cloud of cigarette smoke slowly being sucked into the massive smoke-eater hanging five feet over their heads. Joe took a seat at the bar with a good view of the television and settled into place.
“Howdy, honey,” Stacey said. Joe had been in there for years, off and on, but she didn’t know his name. Once he’d asked her if she wanted to smoke some pot after her shift - this was back when he had weed, or money for itjust in a friendly heyI’m-in-here-a-lot-no-worries kind of way, but the way she’d deferred made Joe think she thought he was hitting on her. It made him old, remembering thatthat had been nearly five years ago. “What you having?”
“Whatever’s cheapest,” he said. She went and got a Pabst Blue Ribbon from a bucket. She twisted off the cap and plopped it down on a Don’t Do Drugs coaster in front of him. “You running a tab?”
Stacey went back to talking with the old guy with the bruised face. Joe looked up at the television. The Sopranos was on. It must have been an old one. He was talking to the therapist, the one everyone thought was hot but Joe never saw it. Wasn’t he done talking to her? Five years ago, he thought. He hadn’t wanted to fuck Stacey, just companionship. Maybe if people didn’t cut each other out so much, people wouldn’t be so desperate. He nursed this wounded feeling, looking down at the bar and at the Pabst label.
Klaus sauntered up to the bar. “Nurse!” he barked. “Hey, Joe, whaddya know?” He looked up at the screen. “God. Dr. Melfi. I want to fuck her so bad, dude.” He moaned. “God-damn.”
“Easy,” Stacey said, approaching them.
“Sorry, darling,” he turned to Joe and grinned ear-to-ear. “Two more MGDs, please.” As she walked to get the drinks, he leaned closer to Joe. “God, Stacey’s ass. Don’t you just want topop!smack it?” He made an “oo” soundit was from a song that Joe recognized, a Michael Jackson throwback-type songand amused himself, unleashing a Viking-like laugh over the bar.
A torrent of profanity ripped from the television, and Joe looked up to see Tony menacing over his therapist. An angry face, sputtering hostility, taking up the top two-thirds of the screen. Then, he stormed out, after spilling over a a glass table, shattering it.
“Drama,” Klaus said. “I don’t get this show. She’s hot, though.” He took his
two beers back to the corner.
Joe watched the rest of the episode, drinking his beer and letting the spectacle pacify him, someone else’s anger, someone else’s desparation. At leasrt his mother didn’t want to kill him, he figured; you think you got problems?
“Another Pabst, honey?”
He remembered that his inner pocket had a tear and periodically touched the gun to make sure it didn’t fall into the lining.
“How about a Bass? They’re three bucks this week.”
Joe nodded. What difference did it make, he suddenly realized. The first beer settled into his brain nicely. He could think with less distraction. He didn’t have any food in the fridge, so he’d only eaten half a banana and some runny diner eggs with the last of his laundry quarters. He’d only need a couple to be pretty sloshed. By then, he could do it, too. What was he going to do? Whatever he was going to do, he could do it then. Stacey put a pint glass of brown ale before him. Then, the door opened, and she went to wait on a sullen-looking guy with choppy sideburns and tattooes, who sat by himself near the Video Touchscreen.
One of the guys in the corner came to the bar and waited. He nodded at Joe, and Joe nodded back.
“I’ve seen you in here, unh?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“I’m Eric,” he said. They shook hands. “Dude. This guy” he indicated the booth“you got to hear this. He’s my sister’s boyfriend’s friend. I’m taking him out tonight. He’s from Russia. They’re staying at my house.”
“I’ll bring him over in a minute. You got to check this guy out.” Stacey came over, and he ordered two more drinks. “What are you drinking? Get him another, when he’s done.”
The sullen guy fed the machine before him with dollar bills and touched the breasts and thighs on the screen before him, which jiggled when matched correctly. He had a grimace, and if Joe looked too long, the guy’s eyes snapped towards him to warn him off.
Klaus and Ed, their game finished, settled into the seats next to Joe.
“Hey, Joe,” Ed said. “Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand, you son of a bitch?”
“Don’t mind him. He just shot a plus eleven,” Klaus said. “What’s on the boob tube?”
“God,” Ed said. HBO was advertising its Def Poetry Jam. “Have you guys seen this? Either of you?”
Joe looked up. He’d seen the show advertised, but poetry was an alien world to him. There was a class in his early twentiesone of the few he’d taken at the Community College before dropping outwhere he’d almost understood what it was about. But he’d had to drop the class. Another missed road.
“Joe, have you seen it?”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“It’s fucking ter-rible,” said Ed. “It represents everything that’s rubber-stamp-wrong about shit today.” Stacey came by more beers for them, and Ed took a slug from the bottle. “It’s the same shit over and over. You might as well take a polaroid of your crotch and stay home cooing over it.”
“The man says he’s never seen it,” Klaus said. He elbowed Joe conspiratorially. “This guy won’t shut up about this, I swear to God.”
“We’re just a diva society now,” Ed said. “We’ve diva-d everything. It’s just me, me, me. No audience, justwhat’s the word.” He looked off. “I can’t believe I don’t remember.”
“You’re fucking off your tits, is why,” Klaus said.
“I don’t know anything about it,” said Joe.
“Self-involved, self-centered,” Ed said. “Self-something.” He whirled his pointer finger around in a circle. “A snake eating its tail.”
“Who the fuck cares? Would you shut up about it?” Klaus said. “Poetry is crap, anyway.”
Ed laughed. “I’m not talking about poetry, though. I’m talking about the diva-ization thing.”
“Stop saying that.” Klaus turned and watched guy with the bruised face shuffle by them and out the door. “What’s up with Fred? He get into a fight with Mikhail Gorbachev?”
Joe didn’t get it. Klaus indicated the facial flushing and burst out laughing. Joe laughed, too, unsure.
“It’s not just” Ed waved to the TV. He lit a cigarette and a moment after tapped on the bar excitedly with his lighter. “Narcissism! That’s what I was trying to think of. It’s just narcissism run amok.”
“I hear you,” Klaus said. Lindsay Lohan appeared on the screen, talking from a red carpet in a bejeweled dress conforming to her body, wanting so badly to burst out and dazzle under the lights. He moaned. “Lord have mercy. Look at her working it. I wish I was an eighteen year old girl with knockout tits.”
“I’m a black guy and here’s my black guy poem, I’m a black girl and here’s my black girl poem, and” Ed was waving his arms and twisting his neck to imitate the manner of what Joe assumed was your typical poetry slam guy or girl, and delivering the words in a voice one part William Shatner and one part Queen Latifah“I’m a white girl who just wants to be your friend and I hate my father, and I’m a “ He snorted and dismissed it with his cigarette smoke. “I just don’t get it.”
“I’m a drunk son of a fucking pistol and here’s my fishing pole dick,” Klaus said. He roared with laughter again.
“My vagina is an Israeli Death Bomb,” Ed said.
Joe snickered. They were boisterous company. He wanted to tell them about the loaded gun in his pocket, draw them in, bestow confidence on them.
“Oh, Stacey,” Klaus said. He leaned over the bar and kissed her on the lips. Ed laughed. She looked at him and shook her head.
“I’ve always got to be the grown-up around here,” she said to Joe. “Know what I mean?” She pointed to his beer. He nodded.
“I just find it deeply distressing, is all,” said Ed again. “`It’s all good’ has been, like, written into law.”
“Would you shut up about that?” roared Klaus, laughing. “Jesus Christ!”
“Guns have replaced everything,” Ed said. “It’s just guys taking their shirts off and waving their guns around.”
“Unstoppable,” Klaus said.
Guns, Joe thought. He felt his again, to make sure it was still in place.
“Man,” said the the guy before the Videoscreen, “with all the shit that’s going on the world, who cares about some idiots reading their crap on some cable station?” He glared at the three of them.
“Amen to that, brother,” Klaus said. “That’s what I say.”
“I mean, with the election coming up, we should be discussing that,” he said. “Why don’t people come to bars and talk about the issues of the day? The important shit? Instead it’s fucking sports or celebrities. Fucking boobs. It’s pathetic.” He shook his head. “We deserve what we get.”
“Nothing wrong with boobs or sports,” Ed said. “I hear you, though.”
“That’s what I’m always saying,” Klaus said. “Want a cigarette?”
The guy cocked back his head, offended, “No, I don’t smoke.” He slid another dollar bill into the videoscreen.
Stacey changed the station to CNN, and the presidential debate filled the screen as if on cue. Klaus let out a whoop. “Here we go!”
“Look at the goddamn fucking asshole,” the videoscreen guy snarled. “Lying sack of shit.”
“Which one?” asked Ed.
Ed chuckled and shook his head. “Just kidding. I figured.”
“What are your thoughts, Mr. Joe?” asked Klaus. “You gonna vote?”
The videoscreen guy looked at Joe suddenly and intensely. Joe avoided his gaze.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “Vote for Kerry, I guess.”
“Good man, good man.”
“Not that he’s any better,” the other guy spat. “Fucking rich ass and his rich-ass wife. We’re just going through the puppet show for the one percent. But at least it isn’t George fucking Bush.”
“This is the kind of debate we need,” Ed said. “The issues of the day were surely never made so clear.”
The guy glared at Ed, who smiled. The guy shook his head.
“Kerry looks like the Eagle from The Muppet Show,” Klaus said and burst out laughing. “Seriously. Why don’t more people say that?”
Joe looked at the beer before him. He had lost count by this point. The front door opened, and a girl slipped into a seat at the bar near him. He turned to look at her, and his body ached. Olive skin, brilliant dark hair, thick eyebrowsnot the pencilled, plucked crazy hen look that was popular at the momentthin, angular arms. A little like that girl from SNL, Maya Rudolph, but darker. He stared at her openly, not realizing that she was looking directly a him.
“How’s it going, Chuck?” she said, her voice a gravel pit of tar and booze. Hearing itthe jarring contrast between how she looked and how she soundedJoe laughed.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s been a long night.”
“I bet,” she said. “You watching this?”
“The debate? Sure. Sort of. The Sopranos was on before. Different station, of course.”
“Yeah. I love that show,” she said. She looked up at the screen for a bit and then laughed. “You knowI don’t know how you feel about any of this butmaybe it’s just me. The Sopranos is the perfect model for Bush and his cronies.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. Joe suddenly wished he knew more about the world, or at least these pop culture details that other people seemed to collect so easily and weave in and out of conversation. He saw himself, hunkered over the bar in the mirror intermittently blocked by bottles, while she talked and missed nearly everything she said, focusing on himself.
“Like the Bada-Bing is the White House now, right? Except all Christian-right and stuff,” she said. “But the relationships, I mean. Tony and the boysGeorge and Rummy. You know what I’m saying?”
“That’s great,” he said. Joe sounded like he meant it.
“And Carmella is so Laura Bush,” she said. She laughed. Joe suddenly realized she was rip-roaring stoned on something or otherher eyes were small spots in a hazy red. And it wasn’t Maya Rudolph she looked like, but Condaleeza Rice. He was getting drunk. “And Meadow and AJ? The Bush daughters? Forget it.”
She leaned over the bar and held out her hand. “I’m Nina.”
Joe looked at her hand for a moment as if it were a contract to sign, then he shook it and nodded. “Hi, Nina, I’m Joe.”
“Not Nee-Na,” she said. “Neen-yalike the ship. Right, Chuck?”
Klaus had come to the bar at that moment and heard the last part. “The Nina, the Pina, and the Santa Maria.” He leaned into the girlclose, suggestively, breathing on herand held out his hand. “Call me Columbus.”
She tssked and turned her chair. “It was nice talking with you,” she said to Joe in a strained tone and moved away.
“Heard that on TV once. Never thought I’d have the occasion to use it. Fucking slut,” Klaus said. “Nurse! Cervazas!”
Joe moved in his seat and felt the gun. He had forgotten about it, talking to the girl. For a minute, things had seemed different. Un-inevitable.
“Did I fuck that up for you?” Klaus asked. “Sorry, bro.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” he said. “It’s all good.”
Sometime around midnight, Eric and the Russian guy in the corner got very loud. Eric approached the bar, laughing.
“Joe, right? You ready for another one?” he waved to Stacey. “You got to check this guy out. Hey, Boris, come over here.”
The Russian approached. He looked at Joe. “My name is not Boris. He kids too much.”
“We’re a regular bunch of kidders over here,” Eric said. He nodded at Joe. “You ever see Red Dawn?” Before Joe could answer, Eric went on. “You know, with Patrick Swayze and shit, the Wolverines? When the Cubans and the Soviets parachute into Middle America and start shooting up the football team?”
“You kid too much,” the Russian said. He was shorter than Joe, but stocky, with hard forearms coming out of his short-sleeves. “Fucking high school kids?” His voice grew loud again, which made Eric start to laugh again and attracted the attention of the guy at the videoscreen. “Against the Russian army? Is nonsense. Americans make such stupid movies.”
“High school kids!” Eric egged him on.
The Russian rolled up his sleeve. “I was in Russian army. LookI was attacked by polar bear. Look!” He thrust his arm in Joe’s face. Joe saw a scar running across his right bicep. “A fucking polar bear! And you tell me, high school kids?”
“No shit,” said the guy at the videoscreen.
“No shit!” the Russian said.
“The Cold War was absolute bullshit,” the guy said. “We learned over and over again in school that communism was evilthis was during Reagan, when I was growing up. And now look at iteverything the Communists said we were going to do we’re doing, everywhere we can. We would be better off as communists, believe me.”
“Communism is no good,” the Russian said. “Trust me. Is“ he pantomined jabbing a gun at the guy“’five minutes, pack bag.’ America makes stupid movies, but Russia is big and stupid like American movie. But tough.” He rolled back his sleeve. “Not for fucking high school kids to fight. Not for anyone. No, only one to defeat Russia is Russia.”
“Yeah, well,” the guy said, getting up and leaving money for his tip, “whatever else is, I’ll take it over this bullshit.” He left.
“Come on, Boris, let’s hit it,” Eric said. He threw a ten on the bar.
“Not Boris, you son of a bitch,” the Russian said.
“Night, Stacey! Joe, you be good now.”
They left, and Joe was alone at the bar. He looked around for Condy Rice, and he found her, making out with Klaus at a corner table.
“Last call, guys,” Stacey said.
“The days go round and round,” Ed said.
“Three more,” Klaus said. “And three shots, too.”
“I can’t give shots for last call.”
“Sure you can. We won’t tell,” he reached across the bar to kiss her, but she maneuvered away. She returned with three shots of Jagermeister, three more Bass Ales, and two separate checks.
“Here you go, hon,” she said to Joe.
He looked down at the bill. Everyone had been buying him drinks, how did he run up twrenty-four dollars? Without thinking, he reached into his wallet and pulled out a credit card, which she took from him and brought towards the machine. What was he doing? There was nothing on that card, and he knew it. He reached for his gun and felt it fall out of grasp into the lining of his coat.
“Fuck,” he mumbled. He stood up and took his jacket off.
“That’s right, settle in,” Klaus said. “We ain’t going anywhere. She’ll close up and do her bills and shit, and we’ll leave together. You smoke? You get high, right?”
Joe fumbled with his jacket. He felt his hands go around the pistol, and then it slipped still further into the lining.
“Salut,” Ed said. He downed his shot and chased it with a swig from his glass. He reached across the bar and grabbed the television remote. “Stacey, we’re gonna flip.”
“Go for it,” she said. Joe heard the credit card machine running. He played out the next few steps, her running it again, bringing over the rejected slip and confronting him, and that’s when he’d get the gun out. It would translate as currency, somehow. The details were spotty, but you didn’t need details when you had a loaded pistol. That much seemed obvious, when you looked around and thought about it.
“Laetitia Casta,” Klaus was saying as he fished for the pistol. He let out a tortured sound, a man in heat, howling in the drunk hours, lonely and surrounded by other drunk and lonely men. “Glad she’s back on TV, is all I’m saying.”
“This chick,” Ed said. The television played the Southwest commercial with the black girl at the computer who unleashes the virus. She desperately tries to turn the computer off, and as she stood to lean over the table, Ed and Klaus growned. “God, do I want to fuck her.”
“Oh, it’s Angel,” Klaus said, after the commercial. “God, Charisma Carpenter. With that back tatoo, God. You’ve seen the one where she’s like a princess or something, in that harem outfit?” He made the tortured sound again.
“Oh-kay,” Stacey walked towards Joe. His hands tightened around the gun, and he sighed. As he lifted it from his jacket, holding it right under the bar, she smiled and placed the credit card tray in front of him. “Here you are.”
Joe froze. He looked down at the approval slip. It had gone through. What the fuck was wrong with this country? Confused, he signed his name to it and overtipped. Then, nearly knocking his full beer over, he lifted the Jagermeister to his lips and knocked it back.
“I’m going to lock up,” Stacey said, moving around the bar. “You guys can watch tv. I’ll be about a half hour.”
“We’re having an after hours,” Klaus said. “You’re coming, right?”
Ed flipped between the cable stations. Election coverage, white-haired caucasians in ties speaking over a scrawl of headlines of bomb blasts in Israel and Iraq and fires and earthquakes in India, the Iron Chef, girls with fake breasts stretching over sofas, call us, call me, right now.
“Guys,” Joe said. He lifted the gun above his head to show them. Then, he placed it on the bar. “I don’t know what to do with this.”
He was slurring his words. Joe suddenly realized he was going to be sick. Whatever little food was in his belly was coagulating with the beer and Jager, and his face turned a dim red color.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. He looked at them. Ed was staring squarely at the television. Klaus was looking, fascinated, at the gun on the bar.
“You don’t look so good, my man,” Klaus said. “Flushed in the face. What, did you get in a fight with Mikhail Gorbachev?” He roared. “Twice in one night.” He reached over and took the gun. He slowly and deliberately put it into his own jacket pocket. “Take a rain check on the weed sometime, man. I live right down the road.”
Joe knew where he lived. A suburban plat in the middle of the woods that had once covered the area. In his swirling haze towards the door, keeping a step ahead of the vomit brewing within him, he remembered being there once, stretched out in a hammock watching girls play hackey-sack, a beer in his hand. The memory seemed so real, but it wasn’t. He had never been there. He pushed past Klaus and Edhad he remembered his credit card? It didn’t matter.
“Give me that thing,” he heard Klaus say. “Put something good on. What’s on?”
“Nothing.” Ed said. Click. Click. “Nothing.”