Third year. Hit the 50k mark both times previous, still no finished novel to show for it. I am broken but unbowed.
This time I tried a mystery. Partly because I read a lot of them that year and the idea appealed to me, partly because I might as well have an unfinished novel in every genre, just to be complete, and partly because mysteries like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series proved your protagonist didn’t really have to know what they were doing. Works for me.
So, This Murderer Walks Into a Bar…
By C. A. Bridges
There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.
— Samuel Johnson
When you’re a bartender and there’s a hurricane beating on your door, you really start to notice just how much glass is surrounding you at eye level.
Angry winds howled outside the windows like frustrated gods but I was ignoring them by contemplating the impressive shelves of bottles behind me. When 120-mile per hour gusts blew the plywood through the windows and started a whirlwind inside the bar, cutting us all open with shards of pre-sterilized glass, which of these flying refreshments would have my name on it? Maybe I should put the Crown Royal back in its bag, to soften the blow.
Then again, if alcohol was ever going to do me damage it would have to be blunt trauma. I’m a nondrinker, which isn’t as much of a handicap to being a bartender as you might think. It’s no tougher than a vegetarian becoming a master chef at a Kobe steak house.
OK, maybe it is a handicap. But it does keep our profit margin healthy.
“There you go,” I said finally, pointing at a squat amber bottle. “That’s the one that’ll get me, officer. Take my nose clean off and bash out half my teeth, I’m sure of it. You can tell by the evil gleam on its label. It’s a killer.”
The large man leaning on the bar behind me rumbled the hearty chuckle of a man accustomed to always being slightly wasted. This is because even stone sober Jimmy McNye was usually two drinks ahead of anybody else, it was more or less his base state. That’s why he owned the bar; he was smart enough to guarantee a steady supply for himself. It did tend to blunt the edge of his decision-making skills, which is why I run the place. I’m his nephew, Anthony. Anthony Marciano. Call me Marcy, everyone does.
And yes, he’s Irish. My name’s from Dad, and I’d like you to take a moment and think about what arguments between a feisty Irish mother and a proud Italian father were like during my youth. By the time I started working here, dealing with drunks three times my size was the easiest part of this job.
“The Dewar’s 12? Perish the thought, lad,” he said. “Such a smooth sip could never do you no harm. It’s certainly been good to me all these years, aside from the blackouts. And the impotence, o’course. No, it’ll be the Stoli what slashes you open, mark my words!”
Laughing with him, a very-nearly-pretty, very-nearly-drunk woman named Lee slumped against his shoulder in much the same way – and for much the same reason — that panicky white water rafters grab on to big rocks. “Jimmy! What a thing to say! And so untrue!” He embraced her with one beefy arm.
“Ah, you’re defending my manhood, then, ‘love? Speaking up for my wee lad?”
She looked down into his lap. “God, no, that’s been dead and dust for years. No, you’re scaring the boy, talking about which bottle will cut open his pretty face. It won’t be any of ‘em, and I think you’re horrible to suggest it!”
I smiled at her. “Thank you, Lee. I appreciate that.”
“No sir, it’ll be all that stemware over the bar,” she continued happily. “All those wine glasses, just hanging there? Take both your eyes right out, splat! Or maybe sploorch. I dunno.” She swiveled around to address the bar. “Hey, what sound does a scooped out eyeball make? Anyone?”
Helpful patrons broke away from their own conversations to provide their best guesses. For a full minute the bar sounded like someone had dropped a truckload of squid into a blender.
Lee giggled and kicked her feet. “Ewww! That’s perfect!” She spun back around and overshot, correcting herself by grabbing Jimmy and hauling herself back hand over hand to focus, with some difficulty, on one of the three of me she could see. “So, if you hear a sound like that, pretty boy, duck!”
It wasn’t the usual weekend at McNye’s Bar (“A Drinking Establishment”), mostly due to the oncoming killer storm. Our usual mix of Friday night regulars was off-kilter due to various opinions regarding evacuation and a few people had finished loading their cars to the consistency of wet baklava and had stopped by for just long enough to get loaded themselves before heading to high ground. Some had already left, of course, booking away as fast as their U-Hauls would go before the first drop of rain hit.
And some were staying, refusing to let anything as incidental as a Category Four hurricane interrupt their daily lives.
Jimmy was here, of course. He’d wait out the Last Trump here, nursing one more wee dram just in case Heaven made you take the pledge before they let you in. Beside him was his old partner and drinking buddy, Oscar Vetrano. Quiet guy, big sense of humor, living off his pension and investments that included, incidentally, a small but significant portion of the bar.
Lee Lasserre spent all her off-nights here and had ever since we started vetting her boyfriends for her, Lee having a natural attraction for victimizing jerks. More than one perfect date had ended for Lee when she brought her new beau here to get a nightcap only to wave sadly as we saw him to the door, not always under his own locomotion, not always in the same vertical position he’d started out in.
Phil Schafeler was still in his spot at the bar in front of the TV, which is how I knew we were still open.
Regulars from the rest of the week passed in and out, looking oddly out of place and almost surprised to see us open on other days, like they had wandered into a time machine set for “Happy Hour.”
When you hear a bar is set in a place like Daytona Beach you might think of tanned and wildly drunk college girls with notoriously loose bikini tops, or hairy, wildly drunk bikers tearing up the joint, or possibly even triumphant and wildly drunk race fans cheering on their favorite driver while they pound down the pitchers. McNye’s didn’t cater to any of those, specifically, although I still had hopes for the occasional misplaced college girl.
McNye’s is a locals bar. That means that just about everybody that walks in the door is a regular or about to become one, and that’s just how I like it. Just now I could look around the room and see fourteen or fifteen people whose lives I know in very limited and very intimate ways, mainly those having to do with relationships, personal histories, and nausea levels precise to within two sips.
And everyone had the same look of fearful anticipation on their faces. Not our usual mood, here, which varies between jolly companionship and artful drunkenness. The mood tonight was that of people huddled in a bunker, waiting for the bombs to start.
This was largely due to the cheerful blobs of red, yellow and green currently swirling on the TV set. The blobs were named “Bruno.” Or, to be precise, they represented a tropical with winds of nearly 140 mph extending outward 72 miles from the center. That center, if it followed the latest forecast, was aiming at the Main Street Pier. “Bruno” seemed appropriate.
The crowd clustered around the bar watched, mesmerized, as professionally concerned people pronounced certain doom.
“It’ll come right down Main Street, you mark my words,” Phil Schafeler said, shaking a gnarled finger at the screen where attractive people with carefully furrowed brows were assuring everyone that Armageddon was near. Phil was a retiree and was always waiting at the door when we opened, mostly so he could grab the remote. He had it now, having scooped it up the way hawks snatch small and furry things out of the tall grass. “It’ll kill us all in our beds!”
“Good thing I’m usually in someone else’s then,” Lee called over to him, to general laughter.
“Ain’t a jokin’ matter, missy.” The small knot of people between them tried to look amused without looking afraid, and only managed to look constipated. “I almost got my hair parted by a 200-year-old oak tree last time, I ain’t lookin’ to do it again!”
I set a fresh shot in front of him. He liked it when he didn’t have to order. I liked it when people didn’t have to yell at me. We were both happy. “So why didn’t you evacuate this time?”
Phil looked at the drink mournfully. “Didn’t want to come back to a smooshed house, water up to the second floor, open to the sky. If it happens, I want to know about it.”
Last time Phil’s neighbors to either side lost significant portions of their houses that had not been intended by the builders to be detachable. Neither family had been home when it happened, but Phil had been there waiting for them when they returned, holding carefully bagged, sentimentally valuable belongings he had salvaged for them.
He still charged them both hefty fees for hazardous retrieval and sentimental valuable storage, but I think his momentary spell of nobility unnerved him.
I squeezed his bony shoulder and smiled. “I’m with you, Phil. Ride it out and pick up the pieces afterwards. It works for my love life, it’ll work here.” This time when the people around him chuckled the nervous edge was gone. He grumbled and went back to glaring at the screen.
When a couple dozen people are drinking heavily and trying not to panic, it’s never a good idea to encourage them, especially when you’re the one that’ll be cleaning out the bathrooms later.
Behind Phil a young and attractive woman I’d never seen before smiled at me, sizing me up with as thorough an appraisal as she could manage considering half of me was hidden behind three feet of polished cherrywood. “Aren’t you scared?” she called from three feet away.
“Scared, no,” I said. “We’re boarded up and locked down, just waiting for the 11 o’clock forecast. What can I get you?”
“’Sex on the Beach’,” she said, smiling. “Unless you think it’s too dangerous.”
I glanced up at the screen where a man in a yellow windbreaker was standing on a wind-hammered beach somewhere, screaming something as gouts of rain went by him sideways. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but I guessed it was the traditional “Don’t do what I’m doing right now or you’ll die” announcement that field reporters are required by federal law to do every time a major storm comes closer than Puerto Rico.
“Only if the Weather Channel catches us,” I said, and slid back down the bar, smiling at her all the way. I’ve done this for too long to have to look at the bottles so I whispered to Lee out of the corner of my mouth, prison yard style, while my hands started doing interesting things with vodka and schnapps. “I’ve got a friend,” I told her.
Lee looked up, interested. “Chick with the rack?”
“That’d be the one.”
“Got your back,” she said, and she picked up her drink to casually saunter over to chat. By now I had the ingredients in the shaker and the outside was already getting cold. Lee was murmuring in the girl’s ear. Twice both of them looked over me, Lee sympathetically, the girl with a growing and slightly disgusted concern.
There are as many “Sex on the Beach” recipes as there are beaches. Ours uses vodka, peach schnapps, pineapple juice, three splashes of grenadine, and some heavy cream, although for a real “Sex on Daytona Beach” you should include an ounce of tar, a turtle egg, and a driftwood garnish. I’m a big fan of realism in alcohol. I poured the frothy mix into a glass and set it on a napkin in front of my newest groupie with a flourish. “There ya go,” I said, and followed with my most dazzling grin.
She smiled weakly, dropped a five on the bar and fled to the safety of the far tables underneath the huge “Hurricane Party” banner.
The banner had been one of Jimmy’s endless ideas to drum up business for a bar that didn’t really need it. We had compromised: I refused to preside over a drunken “flip the bird to Mother Nature” party, but I let him hang it at the start of hurricane season in August with the agreement that we’d take it down at the end of the season in December. It tended to bewilder new customers who came in on sunny days, but I enjoyed that..
Lee was back in her usual spot, visibly straining to look innocent when I returned. “So what was I this time,” I asked.
“Tragically diseased. I didn’t think she’d believe you were gay.”
“Thanks. I think. Which disease?”
She laid her hand on mine. “I’d rather not say. You don’t need that kind of burden in your life right now.”
We giggled together. I have no interest in romance-seeking barflies and Lee gets a kick out of returning the favor and scaring them off for me. It’s never a good idea to date a customer. Tipping becomes problematic.
Around the corner the toilet flushed, barely audible over the din outside, and Lenny Scales re-emerged to claim his traditional place at the bar in front of the garnish rack. He always said it was because he got the best view of the goings-on, but I knew it was so Lenny could filch olives.
It occurred to me that out of this soon-to-be disaster, some good could emerge. “Hey, Lenny,” I said. “Now’s your chance.”
Lenny looked up, confused. It was a familiar expression for him. He had the look of a man the universe has decided to stomp on. If you were to follow your dog around for a week, collecting his output into a bag, and then — for reasons known only to yourself and your god — go to the mall and heave the bag up over the crowd as high as you could, the person the bag would land upon would be Lenny.
He was twitching, wringing his hands and watching the TV with fearful eyes. Not a good guy in a crisis, our Lenny, and he couldn’t swing a hammer twice the same way, but he was a wizard with a pool cue.
“Chance? For what?”
“Maybe you’ll get lucky and that damn house of yours will get flipped into the Halifax. Then you can stick a tent there and finally rent the place.”
He slumped on his crossed arms and looked morose. “God, I hope not. Not now. Geez, of all times, not now.”
“Why not? For the last five years you’ve called down every manner of natural disaster you could think of on that old place. I’ve think I’ve helped you rebuild more of that house than you started with. How long since you rented it last?”
He mumbled into his glass.
“So maybe God will finally take it off your hands, or at least kick it enough so your insurance will pop for some real repairs. I’ve just about done all I can do with it.”
“But things are different now, Marce,” he said. He was almost pleading, although it was hard to tell. There was always something permanently frantic about Lenny, it made it hard to judge actual panic conditions. “I got something going, I need the house to stay upright and everything. It’s gotta!”
“Really? What’s up?”
He glanced sideways at where Lee, Jimmy, and Oscar were talking about obscene hurricane supplies and which batteries they’d need to stockpile. “Don’t wanna say, it’ll jinx it.
“Lenny, that house couldn’t get any more jinxed if you hung black cats at every corner. It’s on 13th Street—“
“It’s between 12th and 14th, you and the city planners can call it what you like. No one’s lived in it more than six months at a time since it was built, and it rejects any plumbing we try to put in it. At this point I think the best way to renovate it is with a bloody great hurricane, don’t you? Here ya go,” I said as I handed fresh drinks past Lenny to a few people that had come up and politely waited through my rant. There were some muffled thumps as something outside bounced off the plywood on the windows. I admire a storm with a sense of drama. “The thing’s cursed, Len, and I’m saying that as a faithful agnostic. You’re the one that’s been saying for years you’d tear it down yourself if you had the chance.”
He looked up at that and this time he held himself very still. “You think it’ll come down this time?”
“The last storms almost did it in, and you know we haven’t finished patching that up. I’d be surprised if it’s standing now.”
A sudden collective gasp from the bar potatoes caught our attention. The 11 p.m. forecast was on the screen. Lenny gave a little scream and he was gone, with the front door swinging shut behind him before I even saw him get up. I looked back at the harmless looking weather map.
Bruno was coming to visit. In about three hours.
“That’s it, bar’s closed,” I called. “I don’t care where you evacuate to, but you can’t stay here. Good luck, everybody! Be careful!”
The crowd filed out, slowly and grudgingly. Phil laid the remote on the bar in front of me and touched it once, tenderly. “I’ll guard it for you, Phil,” I promised.
Lee finished her drink and stood up, carefully. She had worked the last week solid so the other nurses on her shift could get their stuff boarded up, now she was heading into the hospital to ride out the storm. Made sense, it was stronger than most of the shelters and way stronger than her apartment building. I just hoped they didn’t give her grief for her off-duty, staggery condition. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “You take care,” she said, and left, daintily stepping over the tiny barricade of sandbags outside the door.
It dawned on me, not for the first time, that I really liked these people. I hoped they made it.
Jimmy came back from seeing Oscar out. “Well, here we are.”
“Got all our preparations made? Got the windows boarded, the bleach and batteries laid by, the supplies of food and drink secure? Haystacks tied down? Prayers said, peace with God made and shook on? Are we ready for Bruno, lad?”
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” I said.
Jimmy grinned. “Then there’s nothing to fear. Break out the cards, boy, it’s going to be a long night.”
“Basically, I’m for anything that gets you through the night – be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
— Frank Sinatra
The first hour was the worst, but only until the second hour started.
I’m not sure if I can accurately describe the sensation of weathering such an awesome storm, but after hours of consideration, most of them in screaming pitch-blackness, I came up with this:
Take a mob of violent, clinically insane criminals, ideally released early from their aggravated assault prison sentences, and dose them liberally with PCP and the more home-made strains of alcohol. Assemble them together at a construction site where you’ve placed generous amounts of power tools, earth-moving equipment, and a portable 50,000-gallon water tower with attached, pressurized hoses. Show them that the backpack in your hands is crammed with $1,000 bills, unmarked and non-sequential.
As they growl and reach for the sledgehammers, run over to the porta-potty and jump inside. In there you have a flashlight, an AM radio, two bottles of water, and a can of Beanie Weenies. Yell at the assorted mass of murderous humanity you’ve assembled and suggest that their mothers might not have been moral, upstanding citizens (choose your own phrasing). Lock the door.
What will happen to you over the next few hours is very similar to hunkering down in a house during a hurricane, although you have to add the sound and sensation of all the shingles on your roof being ripped off and blown to Mexico. Also, the criminals should howl a lot.
We lost power around 2:30 in the morning but that was hardly a surprise. I didn’t bother with the generator, I figured the freezer would keep things cold enough until morning and I didn’t want to mess with gasoline just then. Instead we lit some candles – after making sure that all of the tables had been cleared of any possibility of spilled booze – and waited it out.
Roughly every twenty minutes or so one of us would feel compelled to look outside. The first time I did it I told myself it was to check on the Jimmy’s car in the parking lot. Really it was just to feel the storm.
When I forced the door open and slipped outside, my first thought was that I had stepped onto the deck of a mighty sailing ship during a typhoon, which wasn’t too far off the mark. Everything was water. Water in the air, water sluicing off the roof in huge gouts, water surging down Nova Road, with an apparently endless supply waiting its turn. There weren’t any deckhands running around that I could see, or waves crashing over the bow, but my sneakers were splashing ankle deep the second I stepped off the curb and there were indeed tall masts swaying in the endless winds. Unfortunately they had power lines attached.
I went back inside.
As recently as a year ago most central Floridians ignored hurricane warnings as being so much hot, wet air. Big storms never ever came near the east coast of the state, everyone knew that. It was the Gulf Stream, or all the sand bars, or El Nino, or the Bermuda Triangle, or hot air currents from the Speedway or something. Storms might smack into the Keys or skim upwards to terrorize the Carolinas or loop around to bounce around the Gulf of Mexico like a pinball, but never did they join the tourists to pay a visit to Daytona Beach. Whenever a tropical disturbance got big enough and fast enough to deserve a name, local residents smiled to themselves and maybe rolled their car windows up as a precautionary measure.
For over twenty years, their lack of fear was justified. Sure, they’d buy some extra water and batteries and maybe a few bottles of bleach, since everyone else was, but they didn’t really worry about it.
Then Hurricane Charley carved its way across the state with devastating thoroughness, followed by a plodding Hurricane Frances that took its sweet time pounding everything Charley had missed. Houses were destroyed. Trees uprooted. Trailer parks smashed even more than usual. Millions of people were left without electricity and water for weeks. Power crews and rescue personnel worked heroic hours without rest to bring everyone back into the twenty-first century, and everyone began to rest easy.
And Mother Nature, proving that she could handle being fooled but got really ticked off if she was ignored, slapped the state with another hurricane a few weeks later to knock all the power out again and add some flooding besides.
People in Daytona Beach didn’t ignore hurricane warnings anymore.
Actually, once we got used to the sounds of creaking walls and water crashing against the window plywood, it wasn’t that bad. You can only tense your shoulders for so long before you either accept your impending doom or you get a headache, and I’ve never been the headache type.
The card game wasn’t quite as soothing for me as it was for Jimmy, who had embraced “Texas Hold-‘Em” to his poker-playing repertoire the way serial killers had embraced the reciprocating saw. I was nearly four thousand dollars in the hole when an ungodly ripping sound caught our attention. It started on the roof, ground there a while like someone was dragging a truck across it (with the parking brake on), and ended up with a resounding crash. Tucking his cards in his shirt pocket, Jimmy went to investigate.
He came back inside looking like he’d taken a few minutes for a quick, fully-clothed bath. “Well, we’re no longer McNye’s,” he said. “Although we might have a shot at being Domino’s Pizza if their sign comes any closer to us.”
“The sign’s down?”
“It’s sailing merrily down Nova Road without even stopping for the lights.”
“Well, good for it. About time it got to travel a bit.”
“True words indeed, and ones I’d be proud to toast. That’s a hint, boy, usually you have better ears than that. Is the wind too loud for you, then?”
It felt… calmer, behind the bar. Not in the sense that I was in any way safer there, surrounded by glass and sharp objects – the DeWars bottle was eyeing me in a menacing manner – but I felt more… I don’t know. In control? Maybe it was something like the captain wanting to be on the bridge when the ship went down, manning his post until the very end. It felt right.
Or else I just liked having a ready-made barricade in front of me.
“Too bad the TV’s out,” I said. “Be nice to know what to expect.”
“I dunno. If you know when it’s coming and when it should be past, there’s more pressure to do something about it. Like, we’ve got seventeen minutes between the blasted feeder bands, there’s our chance to rush out and tighten the support straps on the sign or make sure the cars are pointing west to reduce wind drag or something.”
“No worries there, our sign’s probably on I-95 by now.”
“But this? It’s out of our hands,” he said, waving his glass for emphasis. “We can’t do a thing. We’ve prepared ourselves, made our peace with God, and now Mother Nature has us in her clutches. She’s a rough bitch, Marcy, and she won’t put us down until she’s had her fun. She’ll shake us and throw us about and do everything to scare us to death, and all we can do is try to relax and enjoy it.”
I looked at him, content in the candlelight. “I think I know more about your sex life now then I ever really wanted to, Uncle Jim.”
“Ha! You’re a rogue, you are! I won’t deny that it’d be better to spend this night with a warm, willing lass in your arms. Nothing like mortal terror to get the girls jumping for you, eh?”
“And now I know too much about your dating strategies.”
He leaned over and tapped me on the arm. “Why didn’t you grab on to that wee lass earlier? She’d have been a ride and a half and from the looks of her she was already saddled and ready for you before she even said hello. She’d have been a bit of comfort tonight, to be sure. Better than a drunken Irishman, hard as that is to imagine.”
Something heavy smacking against the front of the building distracted us and gave me a few extra minutes to think about my answer. Anyone else would have gotten my stock responses (“I only date lesbians, they’re more of a challenge” or “If I want a woman I’ll download one”) but I owed Uncle Jimmy a lot. He was the only one of my relatives that thought I was ever worth a damn, and he proved it by hiring me at the bar the day I turned sixteen.
Well, not “hiring,” so much, that being illegal. Seems the state of Florida has funny ideas about alcohol, underage kids, and the proximity thereof. But he paid me to sweep up and clean tables and haul boxes and he treated me like a regular employee until I was old enough to hire legally, and by then I already knew how to follow drink recipes and talk to people.
Which, as it turns out, is all bartendering is.
Apparently he’d had a bit too much time to think. “Damn me, you’re not fey, are you? It’s perfectly all right with me if y’are, don’t be thinking otherwise,” he said, very quickly, when he saw my expression. “You’re a keen judge of character and I’m sure you’d pick a fine man to love. Only I’d like to know, if it’s not too personal. I’m not even in the pool, so it won’t matter if I know.”
It took me another minute or so to stop laughing, and a bit more effort to avoid joining in once he started up. “No, Jimmy, I’m straight. Not that there’s…”
“Anything wrong with that,” we both finished, laughing again.
“I just don’t… You know I had a girlfriend in high school, right?”
Candlelight made his shadows dance as he nodded. “Aye. You were hotter than pups in season. I’d be lying if I hadn’t expected to become a great-uncle a bit earlier than I’d planned.”
“Let’s say things went badly.” Uncle Jim gave me a sharp look. While he didn’t know exactly what had happened to me in high school – records for minors are kept sealed – he knew enough about it to make some shrewd guesses. “Really badly. About as bad as things could get, ever.”
“And that’s weighin’ on you still? Bad as it was, boy, that was eight years ago! I don’t know what Miss Manners says about it but I think you’re allowed to date again by now.”
I slumped back in my chair and took a long pull off my water bottle. “Allowed, sure. Interested?” I sighed. “I dunno.”
Then I sat up again. “Wait a minute. What pool?”
“What? Oh, well, I, uh…” A face that was not accustomed to ever needing to look innocent took a shot at it, screwing itself up into something approximating, if not actual lack of guilt, an expression of nolo contendere. “A few of the lads, you know, mostly the ones that have tried unsuccessfully to attract the selfsame ladies you brush off, have been having a bit of a game where-“
“You’re telling me that my friends, people I care for, people whose houses I’ve worked on and families I’ve helped out and drinks I’ve goddamn poured for all these years, these friends are actually betting on whether or not I’m gay just because I don’t try and nail everything that walks in the door?”
“How much is in the pot? It gets high enough, let me know. I can kiss anything for enough money.”
“Good to know, lad, good to know.”
We watched the shadows flicker on the walls. There was a small apartment upstairs where I lived, but by unspoken agreement both of us were down here for the duration. I didn’t know about Jim but I was eyeing the floor under the pool table as a likely camping spot. It was hand-made quarter-sawn oak with mahogany rails and the sweetest cushion I’d ever seen, more than strong enough to hold up the whole second floor if it had to. If it didn’t make it through the storm I didn’t think I wanted to, either.
Jim stretched, old bones creaking despite the steady single malt lubrication, and looked over at me. “You know, it’s not good to be lonely, Marcy. You’re an only child, you can’t count on having a loyal nephew to keep you company the rest of your life.”
“I’ve got lots of friends, Uncle Jim. I’ll be all right.”
“Friends are wonderful, I’ll never say different, and there’s not a person that sits in this bar wouldn’t flat out adopt you if you said yes. You’re a better son to half of them than their own blood already. Which reminds me, what was Leonard going on about?”
“He’s worried about his house. For the first time since he bought it, as far as I remember.”
“Ha! By right of blood and sweat it’s rightfully yours anyway, you’ve worked on it more than he ever has.”
I shrugged. “He needed a hand. I like having something to do when the bar’s closed, you know that. And it really isn’t in too bad a shape, structurally. It’s just from the outside that it looks like what you get after you demolish a house and sweep it into a pile.”
Jim leaned over the table. I caught his scent, a blend of smooth whiskey and pipe tobacco. The fact that I didn’t share either vice made no difference, that smell was home. “You do everything for your friends, and too much for me, and what does that leave you for yourself?”
“Take some time off. I’ve tried giving you vacations and you spend them building someone else’s deck or helping grout the Ocean Center or something. Go, spend a week doing nothing at all for nobody, see where it takes you. Go ride your bike to Key West or hike through the Rockies if you have to be exercising, although why a man needs to move more than his hips or his elbow is beyond me.”
For a full moment he just looked at me, with his face covered in more lines than a walnut and his eyes paler than a clear sky, and then he smiled and relaxed back into his usual, overstuffed couch self. He reached into his shirt pocket and produced a soggy handful of cards. “And you’ll be needin’ money for that, yes? I believe it was your ante…”
Outside the rain gods had their way with the city. The city screamed back. It was date rape night in weatherland, and in the morning all that would be left would be soreness and a suspicious puddle.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
— John Lennon
I was in a giant washing machine, pounding on the door to get out while the hot, sudsy water swirled higher and higher, faster and faster around me. Jeans and socks and pillow cases whipped around me with blinding speed, slapping me with wet denim and suffocating me in cheap linen. Someone had tossed their sneakers in with me and they kept beating me in the side of the head before I could dodge.
There was also a bright red T-shirt spinning past my eyes in a flat trajectory. I realized with a sinking feeling in my heart that when I got out, if I got out, I’d be forever dyed a bright pink.
Abruptly the ceiling swung open and light stabbed into my eyes as a gargantuan Lenny reached in and pulled me up, snapping me once or twice to get most of the water out. “Not now,” he said, in a voice that could shake buildings. “Not now!”
My world was filled with Lenny. I was on his hand, staring into miles of shabby clothes and acres of mournful face. When he opened his mouth to speak I was thrown to his palm from the forceful winds that suggested that dental care was an abstract concept in Lenny’s world. When I looked up his face contorted. He almost looked… sorry? “Lenny,” I said. “What are you—“
Without warning he dropped me into an angry ocean. Green lightning flashed overhead, highlighting the endless waves that were waiting to crash down over me. I swam feebly, fighting with weary arms to pull against the current that was dragging me back into a massive, shrieking whirlpool. Houses full of screaming people swept past me, familiar faces calling for me to come save them and buy a round for the house. All of the plywood and wood slats I had put on for them were coming off in shreds, like wet tissue paper, and I watched helplessly as friends and regulars were sucked out of their windows into the sea.
Tears streaming from my eyes I climbed onto half of a torn roof chunk and rode it into the vortex, cleaning it with my bar rag as I went. My certain death was nothing to me but I’d be damned if I went down with an unpolished roof. I had my pride.
Somewhere in the back of my dream there was the faint but persistent notion that if this wasn’t some kind of subconscious, storm-related fear then I had better start sleepwalking towards the bathroom, fast.
Lenny’s voice boomed over the furious surf. “Not now! Marcy! Not now!”
As I disappeared below the surface the last thing I saw was the red T-shirt, following me down…
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”
— William Shakespeare
It was still raining when I woke up, which seemed unfair. It was supposed to be over by now, wasn’t it? I’m supposed to wake up, blinking in the sunlight, to see the other post-apocalyptic survivors picking their way out of the rubble to see the bright new day?
Nope. Just rain.