by Tom Altreuter
Becca has a gun.
One that squirts ink under your skin to make a permeating forever mark. They use it to fund the other needle designs that are not visible unless they work a vein too often. Becca, when she’s flying, fills her exterior with images and words that float to her hand the way snow flurries build to drifts. She uses her back, the parts unreachable, as a public wall for those willing to share her enthusiasm for the needle of whichever choice. She doesn’t give a fuck about where it lands, but she will fuck for trade if the art is not your thing and you’re holding.
She likes to flaunt her recent acquisitions, pulling off her shirt at the dark, dank booth we occupy most of the time, sniffling and cold, and lets us interpret whatever scrawl is now bonded to her flesh. Most of it is mess over mess. Speckled blobs of nebulous shapes in varied colors. Somebody did a pretty bomb flaming skull, which no one seems to have tagged over—yet—but her back mostly resembles suburban rat wannabe bangers on their first can of spray paint. She is fast losing what remains of unconquered territory. All she has left is her face and that is on its way to far gone anyway. “Never” has already been scripted on her lower inside lip, backwards and upside down, in a late night moment of despair.
Asked her one time, about the back graffiti and she was all, “Who cares?” Didn’t give a fuck because of how she’d need two mirrors to even look at it. I was all, “Someone else will be looking at it,” and she got her sneer on, piccolo voice hitting upper registers as to why would that fucking matter and I told her maybe fucking her from behind was like jerking off in a forgotten Tacoma port-a-potty and that may be why we are friends. You can only tell friends shit like that and then they laugh instead of fucking your shit up. People you can be true to, that’s friends.
We are at the rail of The Waterfront and it is just as sad as you can imagine a bar on Christmas could be. Might as well be just Tuesday except most Tuesdays the festive lights collect dust, unlit. Nikki—paid tender to our lost, worthless souls—has arranged a creche behind the bar. It is made up of bottles. The Virgin is an eight ounce bottle of Aquafina, her consort, a regulation size bottle of Jack.
Shepard’s and their ilk are a lineup of well drink pours. The wise men are all top shelf stuff in flutes and the Lord—who should be saving us—Is swaddled in an open bag of spicy Doritos, represented in the form of a mini bottle of Jameson. Looming golden behind this display is a tall bottle of Galliano topped with a silver bow. The heralding angels are origami tips. Nikki is solid.
The ‘Front is famous, in its own peculiar way, as a home base for nondescript patrons who became nationally known for serial killer crimes. There is no wall of shame to commemorate this, it’s kind of like the embarrassing family member or three that everyone prefers not to mention. This afternoon, Murph is the one who mentions our little taboo and when he does it you can see his desire to snatch the words back and swallow them with a wheezing inhale into his toothless mouth.
Wally breaks the silence that follows, getting all over Murph’s shit about the transgression. A little past one in the afternoon and he’s fucking smashed having opened the doors the minute Nikki unlocked them this morning. Why any parent would name their child Wallace and not expect them to end up a shit face drunk in a dive bar on Christmas is beyond my ken. Some names are just destiny.
Murph keeps saying he’s sorry and Wally is down to words of four letters in various combinations. Holly says for them to shut the fuck up about “him” except she uses his name. Her reaction is to slap both hands over her mouth and get a little bug-eyed. Wally’s “fucks” and what not sputter down from his lips like water hitting hot oil, eventually returning to his normal tic mutterings. Pete stays quiet like he does, except to order another Rainier and returns to picking at his pull tabs.
Thing is, the name both Murph and Holly manage to bring up is like “Bloody Mary,” except it really only needs to be said once and not in a mirror. You just say “Jon” to someone who knows him and he appears. This has been proven over time. We all used to like him; everyone does at first.
We all met going to meetings either forced by the court or a half-held desire to get our shit straight. We’d recognize each other at the bar after with the tacit agreement to pretend we weren’t just at a meeting. As time went on, smoking outside, there was bonding over what fucked up losers we continued to be, a non-support group where all could avoid the twelve-step inspirational sayings that none of us found helpful. It became a small community of sorts, that one.
I didn’t plan on being here today but Becca and I showed up at the clinic at the same time, leading to a, “Why not?” and Wally and Pete are fixtures so it was no surprise they were here when we arrived. Only one missing is Skip but he had a come-to-Jesus moment a couple of months ago and good luck to him. Nobody misses Jon so he doesn’t count.
Every time the door opens we cast a nervous eye to the door to see who’s entering. Normal bar behavior except the nervous part. Peter suggests we maybe go somewhere else but we all know this won’t work. The name has been uttered.
The other patrons are carrying on, shit talking, playing pool or darts if they’re with friends, or staring at the TV (various sports, sound down) or a phone screen if alone or sometimes even when they aren’t. Nikki wanders over to see why we’ve all gone quiet. I let her know what Murph did and she just sighs. I notice she starts watching the door, too. Normally she is less intent. Less pensive. Jon has burned everyone here in ways not dissected because doing that, we learned, is another way to summon him.
This is not like a ghost story except for the fact that all of us here are mostly phantasms to the larger world who are busy unwrapping gifts, eating elaborate meals with family, going to the worship halls above the basements where we prod solace and small salvation. Me, Peter, and Holly have living situations that require rent and therefore steady jobs we can’t fuck up too bad at. Holly stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, Peter hangs on by flipping eggs at the ‘Shoe, both graveyard grinders. Becca and Murph live in their cars getting by on tricks and theft.
I wash dishes, five to eleven—often later—at this fancy place where I load half eaten steaks and day-old bread into take-out bags for my days off and to share with Peter and Holly. Three of us all rent by the week in the tweak motels, which are clustered together and lit day and night by swirling blue and red strobes. Temptations abound but we all do our best to walk our narrow path on the edge.
Got my job when I wasn’t fucking up. Chef is in sixteen years and tossed me the bone of steady work after I had hit ninety days. Up until then I was temping. Now that I’ve fallen down the steps he watches, waiting for the twitch, dogging me daily, spouting the party line of how there ain’t no party as if I didn’t fucking know. I’m pretty fucking stubborn. I can hold my cliff diving desire for eight or nine hours for regular pay. Sometimes I want to stab his big fat Santa gut and I express this to my bar mates who all know the dude, which breaks the underlying tension a little. He’s unavoidable. He seems to be able to attend every meeting in town no matter the hour or day like the lord’s burning rain.
Door, handle rigged with jingle bells, opens but it’s just someone returning from a smoke break. Our shoulders all move in a reflex of relief. Even Nikki’s, as she stacks grease-soaked baskets.
The place has a sign advertising “Best Fish ‘n’ Chips in Town.” Wouldn’t know. Joint is redolent of stale beer, rancid oil, and old piss. The years of indoor smoking lingers in a wet ashtray way. In moments of emptiness I have sampled the bacon and cheese fries. Pretty sure the ketchup is always fermented, it bubbles in the paper lining of the basket when you squeeze it from the opaque red plastic tube. Not sure if that’s why I end up with near crippling diarrhea after, might be the droughts of piss which made me spend the money. I never call in sick. Fuck Chef.
Holly is the youngest but she is jade turned obsidian. Nothing ever rolls right for her and she can be counted on to offer the bleakest view of any joy no matter how small. She’s Becca’s current favorite canvas. Only one who knows Jon from only seeing and hearing him play guitar and sing, who gave him money out of pity. Only learned the curse when talking about the band she saw him in at a club. We knew instantly that Holly had felt his sway as well as the fact that the band she had seen him with had kicked him out for being erratic, which was polite of them. I know the drummer of Baybe Katz and the band never speaks his name either.
That’s the thing, the charisma, the talent everyone hopes to tap. All of it real but not realized. Gigs get missed when the axe rests in state at the pawn shop and the nod calls louder than the stage. Holly views our attempts to protect her with deep dark black hole detachment but the jingle bell catches her ear as well and we all know better than to trade stories.
You’re not supposed to drink alcohol when doing methadone, something about involuntary muscles slowing down like an overdose. Something like that but it’s fucking Christmas and the buzz from methadone is pure maintenance, just chasing a low nothing every day. Besides, Rainier isn’t really alcohol.
Peter has picked through the lot of his pull tabs and has won enough for another bowl of them and a schooner. Nikki is reading the sports page so he has to clear his throat theatrically to get her attention. None of us feel like talking at the moment. The door jingles but it’s just two people either leaving or smoking. Me and Becca go for a smoke as well. The non-conversation continues and I notice we are both standing in a way that allows each of us a view in opposite directions.
No sign of Jon.
He is a fairly conspicuous individual. Above average height, rail thin, dirty trench coat, long graying blond hair, wavy as the bay at our backs. Most of the time the neck of his guitar rides over his shoulder like a mast that has lost its sail. The axe is never in a case. When the weather is foul he’ll wrap it in a garbage bag.
The guitars change, sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric but never the one he had the last time. This may be one of the other reasons he always gets tossed from any local band that takes him on—the instrument as unpredictable as the player.
Motherfucker has talent and radiates a genuine yet radioactive charm, you could almost say it glows. One can forget they are dealing with a junkie who had decided these gifts were meant for exploitation. It’s how he manages to stay off the street most of the time. Always some kids drawn by his musical gifts or a woman of tender heart who gives him a couch or even a bed to share. Kids have been easier lately; the good looks are fading, disappearing with his teeth. The gregarious wide smile replaced by tight lips and crow’s feet. They take him in, defend him until they get burned. That’s another small community around here. Doesn’t have a name except his and everyone learns not to mention it.
He busks around town for money. At this point, somebody who knows somebody gives a heads-up when he auditions with just-forming bands around the area. I’ve heard him playing on a corner ahead and changed my route. The singing and playing earn him enough to get by. Everybody talks about the sad waste.
I say, “Mendacious,” more to the cloud I’m exhaling as I watch my end of the street but Becca hears me—not much traffic today on this normally busy thoroughfare¬—and throws a look over her shoulder. Before she can start to excoriate me for being a shitbag of flowery words nobody uses in real life, even if I just did, I give her the definition. She takes a last drag and flicks her spent butt in an expert high arc to the gutter.
Hugging her thin, coatless self against the chill of December air, she continues looking up the street. I apologize. Explain for the umpteenth time how I like to read, the way words feel and sound, how they appeal to me and how I didn’t mean it as more than what I was feeling about him. An accidental verbal fart not meant to blow in her direction, which makes her laugh. She still has a nice laugh in spite of life. Hold the door as we reenter. She goes first. Bells jingle and heads turn reveling expressions of relief that it is only us coming back in from the cold.
At the rail, Holly is trying to explain a certain point about holes in hearts that aren’t romantic—in a winding way, trying not to invite shutdowns based on pure gender based rules of common pronouns about people who have held significance—or the opposite, as far as life goes. Trying to illustrate the point by swirling imaginary circles in the air, both hands in front of her move in counter directions, bisecting, I would guess, in a near middle but that’s only my interpretation of the point she might be making. Rare sight to see Holly so animated so I hold my mouth and try to pick up on where she is going. It gets digressive and if there was a point, guess Becca and I missed it and order another round while clapping sotto over the rare extended soliloquy about missing things in life.
Personally, they are the most words I have ever heard Holly speak. Her voice is a mixture of smoke, whiskey, and wet autumn leaves your feet sloosh through that make you think of dark winter. I wonder about heart holes, needle-sized or cannon balls having just wandered back in after she wound up her speech and leaves the rest of her thought to drift away like the smoke that used to fog this joint.
Our return, once noticed, ends the spell and Holly grabs Becca and they retreat to the ladies’. Nobody has a follow up, no outbursts, revelations, whatever, whereas normally we would all be gushing like toilets flushing. Sometimes we overflow to annoyingly loud but mostly remain a thing no one notices over the chatter noise. Even if you’re here for happy reasons it’s a crap place for celebration. Nikki wipes the bar, Murph blows his nose into his bandanna, and Peter picks through his pull tabs as if searching for a cure for internal scabs he can’t help but peel.
The jingle of the door gets me all jangled and I roll another smoke, then excuse myself while heading to the back door. During the season it is outdoor seating and smoking is a no go but now is only just a deck with tables and chairs chained up and sitting idle. Nice view of the bay. Nikki could also give a fuck ‘cause of it being Christmas so the Health Department won’t be dropping by.
As a dick move, and a trick I learned from an old girlfriend, I slip two bucks into the internet juke box and select sides one and two from an album called “Music for Airports”, just under an hour of ambient sounds to quell the Nuge, Skynard, and Zep, which match the demographic but not the day. One of my fave “fuck you”s when wishing solace in rowdy public spaces. They think they have been ripped off or the Wi-Fi is broken. Some people can’t handle the quiet. Sometimes I want to be alone to just listen. None of us talking anyway. Because now we are waiting.
Peter joins me. He dumps the worthless pull tabs from his pockets down to the water. At least it is only paper. The pilings supporting the deck entraps plastic bags, bottles, jimmy hats, six-pack rings, and churns up a dirty brown foam. Eastward stands the remains of a paper pulp factory whose crimes outweigh Peter’s by a long shot. Big white tarps cover the toxic waste like shrouds over a body too abused to be seen by the majority of eyes who want to keep their children safe. The promise is future parks and condos. Reality, at least for us, is less immediate squats.
We don’t say anything. Smoke at the dying of the light. The bay laps at the pilings, gentle as spring rain. Sun sets, bay placid almost like a lake. A few boats move past seeking their mooring. Seagulls cry their seagull hate speech and the ravens return to their murders’ roosting spots, cawing insults right back at the gulls’ threnody.
Peter is a languorous smoker. Measured draws and long exhales while studying the coal and forming ash, the curl of the rising plume seems to ever fascinate him. I suck mine down like a hungry inmate and go back in.
Nikki looks at me, no longer pensive, more like confused. Wally is crying but he’s one of those drunks whose emotions change erratically anyway so that could mean anything. The sardonic default smirk of Becca is tight lipped and almost nonexistent. Holly’s head is bowed and her dirty brown hair is hiding her profile. Murph is blowing his nose, which sounds like a muted trumpet. I look at the TV to see if there’s been some fresh tragedy but it’s still just sports.
Everybody is still saying nothing. I take my stool and pull from my beer. Nikki slides the local paper over and taps the relevant article with the candy cane striped nail of her index finger. “Death of Homeless Man Ruled a Drowning” offers not too much in the detail department. Two short columns containing six paragraphs. Usual stuff, name being withheld pending notification of family, police seeking help in ID-ing the victim, where and approximate when, drugs in system. Then the guitar.
Take another drink and give Nikki the signal for another. Picture Jon, just a few nights ago stumbling toward garbage beach already on the nod. Laying down in the sand in between some of the logs there to get out of the wind. Drifting into bliss and not noticing the rising tide. Hugging his guitar protectively from thieves. When they found him it looked like an OD or exposure until they found his lungs full of water.
Don’t know what I feel. Becca makes a gesture with her right hand like the type a magician would use when they make a dove disappear in a poof. Peter’s back so I slide him the paper.
Nikki pours shots on the house for us. We should all have something to talk about now but we don’t even say, “Cheers.” The door jingles. Nobody looks.
Tom Altreuter occasionally enjoys short walks on the beach, chasing seabirds, biting other dogs, and snoozing. He’s learning to type.