You are reading Fiddleblack #10
Wade was at the bar because he couldn’t go to the apartment. She’d hissed at him and slammed the door as hard as she could (so hard it bounced open) then pushed it shut and locked it and said, her voice starting to ripple, that she’d call the cops. And he made his voice start up like a slow engine, saying I hope to God you do, I hope to God you do, then gave his best slow mosey down the steps, letting his weight sink into each one, letting his body show her, even though she had locked the door and closed her eyes tight, that he was the master of the way he moved. He kept this feeling while he guided his body all the way to the bar, but the snow had gotten deep and it was hard to control his footing. The mounds of snow shoved his boots to one side or the other without even trying. He kept slipping, not staying put, and so every step got him more angry.
It was early enough that the bar wasn’t crowded. The stools were empty but seemed weighted down, filled with the big, chained presences of all the people who’d ever sat in them. On the wall was a picture of a boxer he didn’t know (framed and behind dingy glass), taken at the end of a fight so that the boxer’s gloves looked as heavy as cinder blocks, making all the muscles in his body work to hold them up, curving his mouth, mouth guard and all, into a spitty smile.
He drank a beer and got warm, feeling a calm rocking like a washing machine starting in his stomach. He got in the rhythm and ordered another and another, seeing black, letting the rage waft from his hot skin up into the dead ceiling fan, smoke curling around its blades.
He took his eyes down off the fan to watch three men walk in, looking serious about doing it, claiming the bar by letting their shoulders broaden out, their legs bow a little to take up space, making their eyes hard and covered over like blacktop. They sat two stools down, but he couldn’t feel them there at all. You’d think a body would have some way of knowing when people were nearby, some way of sensing it. Were people really so small, so meaningless, that they didn’t upset the air at all, that they would disappear completely if he just closed his eyes or kept his head turned?
It was something they used to practice in the Karate class he’d spent a few weeks in as a nine year old before quitting (dropped off by his mother, happy to have even just a few hours to herself). Blindfolded, he took slow, cautious steps, stopping only when he felt he was close to one of the other boys who’d been instructed to come near and stand still, to be sensed. He worked in the dark, trying to feel their presence, but he always removed his blindfold to find he wasn’t near anyone, that his body was sweating and had given him a false alarm.
The men sat like the stools were parts of their bodies. They wrapped their boots around the legs, hung their knees out to the sides, hunkered down, Jesus that comfort they showed. He found himself looking at the soft curving of their backs over the bar, their calm, stooping shoulders lined up in a row, their shadows rolling down onto the concrete.
But one of the men was looking toward him now, saying his name, and his eyes ran up their backs, up from the floor and the shadows to their shoulders where their short-cut hairlines poked through the backs of their necks. The man was still looking at him, saying his name again, Wade Fuller?
“It’s Connor, man, Connor Clayson,” he was saying, letting his eyes get a little wider. The other two, sitting on either side of him, leaned back on their stools so their eyes could get through.
“Connor?” he said it just to fill the empty space, but saying it brought something out of him, brought memories into his mind, and the face he was looking at four stools down the bar turned into Connor Clayson. Connor Clayson, who he’d played football with, skipped class with, watched his first porno with, who he’d been in the drunk car accident with.
“No shit. Connor. Hey man,” a breath in between each part.
He drug himself off of the stool and walked over and patted Connor on the shoulder and Connor introduced him to the other two, cousins, and he sat down, straddled a stool right next to them, four in a row now. They ordered shots of bourbon.
All they had to talk about was their high school days, the only days that had a definite shape and purpose. And they talked with a sincerity that would just make you blush, making like they’d been grown-ups the whole time, like they’d been eighty years old and the smartest men in the world the whole time they were in that tiny school. He knew this, felt it punching inside him even as they were talking, and more than anything, more than sad, it made him tired. He let himself slide somewhere underneath all the talk and the sweet, separate guitar strings started from the jukebox, soft strums that rode along with their voices. His eyes mixed around the room and he saw other people had come in. It was warmer now, and once the place filled up the smell wasn’t so bad. He took that all as a comfort and started talking, raising his voice over how much it hurt, ignoring the way he knew they all sounded, like a bunch of has-beens reaching for the times when life still had color.
“You remember the bridge?” Connor said it, and they both chuckled. They leaned backward like it was too much, blowing them back, but calmly.
Before they had a chance to think about the cold or about how long the drive really was, they were in Connor’s Blazer going toward the bridge, passing a joint and a bottle (cold because it had been sitting under the seat), the engine vibrating underneath them, a trail of exhaust behind them, fuming into the cold air and whisking, thinner and thinner, into the dark.
The bridge was different at night. When they came as boys it had always been in the day. Then, they’d pulled their pants down and stood on the slick railings, risking their lives to piss on the passing cars, laughing themselves sick, smoking cigarettes (Connor’s mother bought them by the carton—they were easy to steal), lost in a temporary dizziness. But what they mainly used to do on the bridge was drop things onto cars. Litter, nickels, chunks of pumpkins around Halloween. And it seemed fitting to carry on in that same tradition.
Wade stood at the edge, looking over. In the dark there wasn’t any view of the Kentucky shale scraping up out of the earth. He gripped the railing, felt its paint flake off under his palms. He wasn’t surprised a bit when he heard Connor say “let’s find a good rock,” and they went to the edges of the bridge, bent over and ran their hands along the ground.
Wade found a solid one, a few pounds, and held it over the edge. He called out, “Next one that passes,” and his voice tore into separate threads in the wind, and they all went silent, watching as a tiny pair of headlights enlarged along the road. He leaned further, held the rock far out over the railing and looked down, tried to time it just right. He let go and it disappeared, but the cold of it, the shape of it, stayed in his hands.
If Wade ever watched the news, he might have seen the pretty blonde anchor sitting straight-backed with her hands crossed one over the other, saying, “After months of searching, still no suspects in the crash that nearly took a local man’s life last December. Now, that man is speaking out.” The little box floating next to her blonde head grew to fill the whole screen. The old footage showed a silver Taurus angled on the roadside, its windshield spider-webbed around a hole. It showed the overpass, then moved to the empty road. That early in the morning, no traffic had come to put tracks in the thin layer of snow. For the interview, the man was placed in front of an old family portrait. The lights were dimmed. Covered in shadow, his face looked like a plastic bag pulled tight over dead twigs. “Wherever you are, you’re forgiven,” he said. The words came out muffled. The camera stayed still and the man looked into it, took a short breath, then said, “God forgives you.”
Eric Van Hoose lives in Ohio. His fiction has appeared in the Coffin Factory, Avatar Review, Poydras Review, and SquawkBack.