Henry took another slug of his bourbon and suffered another pang of disappointment.
For some reason, it just wasn’t doing a thing for him tonight. In fact, it tasted like crap, though he was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the fact that it was well whisky. It was probably his anger tainting it.
Yet, tonight he wasn’t suffering his usual brand of anger, the anger that had so efficiently serenaded him through his flaming and, sadly, non-lethal re-entry into the atmosphere. No, tonight it was a new kind of anger, something fresher and more immediate like a fire started in the basement with a pint of kerosene, a box of kitchen matches, and a bad grudge.
He dropped the half-finished drink onto the wilted cocktail napkin, then leaned into the bar and looked down at the bartender. Larry was down at the other end, leaning across the counter on an elbow and dancing that irritating toothpick across her lips. She was watching Alice reviewing the selections on the jukebox the way a snake watches a mouse taking a morning stroll. Yeah, this was definitely a new anger.
“I thought you didn’t have any designs on my sister?”
Henry looked over at Frank, who leaned backward with his elbows propped precariously against the bar. He had his legs crossed too far out in front of him while drinking from a half-filled plastic pitcher of beer. Except for the bleached hair, the Sinbad earrings, the man-tits, and the Urban Cool Metrosexual duds, he might’ve just ridden in off the range.
Henry laughed at that image.
Frank looked at him. “What?”
“Dude, you look like a regular cowpoke in here.”
Frank grinned. “Really?”
“Not a problem, pardner.”
Frank laughed. He rolled clumsily around toward the bar and set his pitcher down on it without even falling. “You didn’t answer my question, Henry.”
Henry leaned sidelong beside him, and looked hard at Frank. “You’re the one who pushed me into the tent, as I recall.”
“Yeah,” Frank said as he lit another cigarette, “I’m smooth that way, baby.”
“Well, now I’m just confused.”
“You’re missing my point, dear boy.”
“You have a point?”
Frank smiled at him.
“Jesus, Frank. You make me swear I have no machinations on Alice, then you maneuver me into the starting lineup?”
“Yeah,” Frank said, giggling, “I’m a real piece of work.”
“So what the hell, Frank?”
“Why, Henry. I swear… I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
“You’re stoned, Frank. But that doesn’t mean I won’t slap it out of you anyway. What’s up with the tent?”
Frank slid his elbow across the bar and propped his cheek in his hand most girlishly. “You say you have no designs on Alice. Yet I’ve been observing you watching Larry watch Alice.”
“Ooh! Dare you deny it?”
Henry looked at him, at this man-girl, this longshoreman ballerina and his box full of tricks who was looking back at him with a variation of the same laser eyes Alice wielded. And in that moment, he lost his will to hide. He couldn’t explain it. There was something about this fool that made him uneasy and perfectly comfortable in the same breath. It was strange and as unexpected as lumps in a fart, but there it was all the same.
Instead of running away, Henry growled and looked back down the counter at the bartender. Finally, he said plainly, “I don’t trust her.”
“Really?” Frank asked too sweetly, “What’s to trust? Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but our Alice isn’t gay.”
“I know,” Henry said, still watching the bartender, “I mean, I figured as much. But that’s not the point. Larry should keep her distance, that’s all.”
Henry looked at Frank smiling back up at him. If the man had been clean-shaven and thirty years younger, he would’ve look positively precocious. “What do you mean, why?” he said, “Why shouldn’t it irritate me?”
“That’s what I’m asking you,” Frank said.
“Look, Frank. Why don’t you just save us both the time, and me the irritation, and just say it already.”
“Henry, it couldn’t be any more obvious. You’re jealous.”
Henry felt another blush fan its way across his face. It was a sensation he was truly coming to hate. “That’s bull,” he said, looking over at Alice, “How can I be jealous? I barely know her.”
“Ding! Ding! Ding!” Frank said, clapping his hands.
Henry resisted the urge to slap him.
“Isn’t that exactly what I told you this morning?” Frank said through his cigarette.
Henry didn’t shoot back. He couldn’t shoot back. He was clean out of ammo. Maybe Frank was right. He was a little jealous. That would explain this new anger simmering just under the point of a boil.
Frank slipped the cigarette from his mouth and batted his eyes at him. “Of course,” he said, demurely, “That was before I fell head over heels in love with you.” Then he rushed in and pasted a sloppy kiss on Henry’s mouth.
Henry batted him away. “Damn you, Frank! Control yourself. Slut!”
Frank lifted his pitcher in salute. “Sorry, Henry, but you’re just so cute. And Alice looks so good on you, too.”
“I think you two are like scheduled attractions. You’re set pieces. Matching towel and washcloth, bedspread and pillow slips, cup and saucer. Why the sight of you two together just makes me feel all mawkish.”
“Mawkish?” Henry said.
“Yes, dear. It means sentimentally syrupy.”
“I know what mawkish means, Frank! What I don’t know is why you suddenly changed tack.”
Frank downed the rest of his beer. He left a great deal of it on the front of his shirt. “Goodness,” he said, flipping the excess off his belly, “I’m such a little pig.”
Henry laughed. Despite the fact that it ran contrary to practically everything he hoped to achieve in his escape, he was actually starting to like Frank.
Frank started giggling. “Congratulations, Henry, dear. I’m stoned to the bloody boner.”
“You are such a piece of work, Frank,” Henry said as he lifted the remnants of his own drink. “Well, here’s to keeping Frank happy,” he said before he downed it. Then he waved to Larry for another round.
Frank rolled back on an elbow again. He looked up at Henry. “Seriously, you told me you didn’t have any designs on my sister.”
“For the love of—! Didn’t we just have this discussion?”
“Not sure you’re being completely candid with me here, Sweet Pea.”
The jukebox started whining on about a broken down tractor and late mortgage payments. It sounded just about like the last seven songs. Well, maybe it was a bit less nasally.
“All right, Frank. Yes, I like Alice a lot. In another life we might’ve been a Broadway musical. But this isn’t another life, so I guess we’ll have to settle for a Shakespearean tragedy. I’m hitting the road in the morning, and I have every intention of leaving her behind fully unscathed, so give it a rest.”
“Hmph,” Frank said seriously, “You’re a complete downer. And just where the hell are our drinks?”
Henry looked for Larry. She stood exactly where she’d been a minute earlier. She was looking straight at him but hadn’t moved a muscle. He waved again and pointed at his glass. “Do I need an appointment to get a bloody drink around here?”
Larry bristled. Henry was pretty sure she was liking him even less as she got to know him.
He turned back to Frank. “You’re damned protective of your sisters.”
“Of course, I am, stupid. They’re my sisters. I’m responsible. I am the towering icon of testicular fortitude and responsibility in the family now.” He snickered at that. “Testicular fortitude.” He practically doubled forward with laughter.
Larry walked up and slid another bourbon in front of Henry. She didn’t take the empty. “You doing okay, Princess?” she asked Frank.
Frank steadied himself and looked back at her. Still tittering, he said, “I will be as soon as you refill my drink, Tex.” He wiped his tears away with his cuff.
Larry gave Frank a look that had Henry thinking his Testicular Fortitude might be short-lived. “You’re drinking out of a pitcher, doll,” she said as she mopped the bar counter, “You asking for another pitcher or do you just want an empty glass?”
Frank put the pitcher down in the middle of the area she was cleaning. “Ooh, that’s a real conundrum there, Tex,” he said, “How does one define a drink? Is it the package the beverage is traditionally served in, or could it be the manner in which the patron consumes it?”
She was looking at him like she wasn’t sure she’d been insulted. Finally, she appeared to abandon the question altogether. “I’ll get you another pitcher, Princess. You can figure out your condom issue on your own.”
Frank fell laughing into Henry’s shoulder. “She thought I said condom,” he said between gasps, “That’s a real condom there, Tex.”
“Hilarious, Frank. You realize she could fill your pitcher with piss and kick the love out of you at the same time, right? I doubt she’d spill a drop, either. Not of piss, anyway.”
Frank pushed himself back into position. He wiped his eyes again and sighed. “My God, Henry. Am I not the funniest person you’ve ever met?”
“Yeah, a regular Carrot Top.”
Frank picked up his cigarette and drew a hit. As he blew it to the ceiling, he said, “Where was I?”
Henry glanced down the bar at Larry who glared back at him most enthusiastically. He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this. “You were asking me about my designs on Alice,” he said to Frank, “Again.”
“I was,” Frank said, “Yes, I absolutely was. You’re right. And how exactly did you answer that query?”
“I told you I was going to screw her nonstop for a month or two, then we were going to get married by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, and once she pinched off four or five brats I was going to dump her for a twenty year old. You were happy as a little girl about it.”
“Henry, Henry, Henry! Lying is a such a dreadful sin.”
“If I hear that one more time, I swear I’m going to kill someone.”
Frank suddenly fell sober. He looked studiously up into the smoking ceiling. “Hm, haven’t been in church in about a century, but still pretty sure murder’s a sin, too.”
Murder. Hilarious. “Whatever,” Henry said, taking a punch from his new drink.
Frank threw his arms out and practically sang, “Well, that’s the point exactly, isn’t it?”
Henry looked at him. “Frank, you are one drunk bitch.”
Larry set a fresh pitcher in front of Frank. She didn’t say anything. She also didn’t linger. Neither point broke Henry’s heart.
“Henry, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but… I don’t believe Larry is particularly fond of you.”
“Yeah? I don’t think you’re on her dance card, either, Pokey.”
“Well, see there?” Frank said, holding his old, quarter-full pitcher up, “That’s just what I’m talking about. That’s it dead on, in fact.”
Henry watched him draw a deep draught from the lip of the pitcher. Frank’s eyes looked like little red buttons. “Just what in the hell are you talking about this time, Frank?”
“I see the way you look at Larry,” he said, squeezing Henry’s shoulder.
“You don’t like her. In fact, if I may be so bold, I believe you’re a wee bit jealous.”
“Frank, we just had this conversation.”
“I think you’re jealous as a little boy on a playground full of other little boys.”
“I have absolutely no comeback for that, Frank.” Henry looked over at Alice. She was dancing a three-way with Bridget and Ed.
“Then, you deny it?”
“I deny that I’d be jealous on a playground full of little boys, yes.”
“So!” Frank said, with a finger raised dramatically, “There’s the truth, then. You are indeed falling for Alice. Don’t deny it! I have a sense about these things.”
Henry rolled his eyes. Another soothsayer with a sense about things. “It must run in the family,” he said, “Alice said the same thing.”
“Family!” Frank drew another hit and blew it into space. “Family is everything, Henry, dear. Family is the universe, the world, the grains of sand on a beach, the little ridges on the paper at the edge of a sugar pack. Family is the reason we exist. Family is the duty that gives us divine purpose in an otherwise pointless existence.”
“Yeah, thanks for that little bit of clarity, Frank. Pretty sure I’ll never think about it again.”
“Where’s your family, Henry? You do have family, don’t you?”
Family. Almost funnier than murder.
“Tell me,” Frank pressed, “Where is your family, dear Henry? Where do they reside? Are you close to them? Do you honor your mother and father?” He was laughing again.
Henry didn’t want to go there. It was a boring subject, and this time, it wasn’t even his anger putting him off. The truth was, at this strange and exotic point in time and space, he just didn’t care. For the first time in years, the current moment was all that defined his world. Nothing else existed. Alice instructed him to leave his ghosts out in the parking lot, and that was exactly what he’d done.
“Where are your parents? Of course, I don’t mean right at this very second.” He snorted a laugh.
“My Mother’s dead. My Father lives in Wisconsin.”
“No, they weren’t related.”
Frank sprayed beer across the bar. When he finally stopped laughing, he said, “Siblings, you idiot. I mean, do you have any?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a brother somewhere. A couple sisters, too, I think.” He picked up his drink and took another generous slug. Frank began to speak, but Henry threw a hand across his mouth. “Don’t even ask me where they are, Frank, because I don’t care, and I find it tedious to think about.”
Frank nodded. Henry removed his hand.
“Oh for the love of… yes, Frank?”
“Do you talk to your siblings?”
Henry sighed. “Sure, Frank. Every important holiday. Both of them, in fact. Every Christmas Eve and every damned birthday. It’s like a ritual. It’s the highlight of my year. I usually dress for the occasion.”
Frank hoisted his pitcher again. He wasn’t holding it as steadily now. “You are one sarcastic son of a bitch, Henry. Do you know that?”
The song shifted on the jukebox. “Oh good!” Henry said, “I’ll bet it’s another whiny song about, wait… wait… Yes! Unrequited love and adultery! What a refreshing change. Gee, I sure hope there’s something about a dog getting run over in this one.”
Henry feigned offense. “What? It’s an unexpected variation on the theme, don’t you think? It’s practically making my night with its boldness.”
“I think you should call your family.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew my family.”
“They’re blood, Henry. Even if they’ve somehow managed to insult you, you need to learn to forgive and forget. Family is family is family is family is family.”
“You know what’s funny, Frank? That’s just what Abel said right before Cain used his head to sharpen a rock.”
“Whatever. You should make amends. You’ll regret it someday if you don’t.”
Alice walked in off the dance floor just in the nick of time.