Henry watched the refreshed drink slide across the bar toward him.“Where exactly you heading, boy?”
“Where am I heading?” Henry said as he lifted the second bourbon to eye level, “Hell, of course. The only place that’ll have me.”
“Hell’s a long way from here.”
Henry studied the ice cubes drowning in the amber liquor. “Yeah, well, I’m taking the scenic route.”
Zoe’s face materialized in the stale ice like an affirmation. Her last words to him erupted like a flash fire: I can’t live this way, Henry! I’m not strong enough, Henry! It’s not—
The voice startled Henry out of his terrors. His heart was working on his ribs again, beating at his chest like a chain ganger breaking rocks. He looked up. The old bartender was sucking on a cigar, the kind with the plastic tip like on a baby’s cup. Henry drew a deep slug of his bourbon, then dropped the glass back to the bar. When had it gotten so cold in here?
The bartender studied the end of his cigar like he was trying to read something written in the ash. Then he gave it a slow, gentle blow. Bits of ash leapt free and flitted to the bar as the coal flared. Apparently satisfied, he stuck it back in his mouth and looked at Henry. “Maybe you should try to drink another cup of water, boy.”
Henry only barely heard him. He stuck his finger into his drink and stirred the ice. “Tell me something,” he said as he worked the cubes, “Where exactly did I re-enter this time?”
Henry looked up at the bartender. Should it be this hard? “Where did I splash down, Slim? What town, what state, what planet?”
“Ah. Sure. Well, it appears this time you crash landed twenty miles west of Defiance.”
“Defiance,” Henry repeated, “Oh, that’s perfect.”
“You’re in New Mexico, boy. Old Route Sixty-Six is waiting for you right outside that door there.”
“Well, of course it is.”
The bartender clenched the plastic cigar tip between his yellowing teeth. He again took up that perfect white cloth and began wiping his hands in it. Though he’d been working that rag since Henry came in, it didn’t seem to be losing any of its luster. It seemed to be the only spark of light in a room where the shadows had shadows.
He dropped his head and wrestled against the vice locked on the back of his neck. “Defiance, New Mexico,” he said, “Damn, I’m good.” He started to laugh, but the pressure in his skull forced him to abort the attempt.
The old man pulled the cigar out of his mouth and leaned into the bar on crossed arms. “You’re a west coaster,” he said. His tone fully matched the insult obvious in the words. “I’d say you hail the San Bernardino parts. But that’s not where your roots are. In your heart, you’re a Midwest boy, ain’t you?”
“Well, that is one hell of a guess, old man,” Henry said, truly surprised, “I live in Riverside, but I’m from Michigan, originally. What, do I have an accent or something?”
“Or something,” Henry repeated, “So, what’s your name, old man? Jed? Billy? Maybe Billy Bob, if we’re going to be formal?” He laughed again, and this time his eyes didn’t nearly pop out with the effort. Seemed the medicine was beginning to work.
“Clarence,” the bartender said, “Clarence Takoda.”
“Takoda? Sounds suspiciously Injun.”
Henry studied the old man for a moment. He was pale as ash and looked about as Native American as Mr. Rogers. In fact, he was the perfect textbook rendition of your All American, Papal sanctioned, Third Reich certified Anglo Saxon.
“You’re damned white to be an Indian,” he said as he stuck his finger into his drink and slowly agitated the ice cubes.
“Father was Sioux,” the old man said, “Mother was Lutheran.”
Henry just looked at him.
The bartender shrugged indifferently. “Lutheran genes won, I expect.”
It was a preposterously surreal moment, keeping perfectly in context with utter ridiculousness of this entire day.
“God, I swear this trip is proceeding seamlessly,” Henry said as he raised his glass to the man, “Pleasure, Clarence. You can call me Henry. Or Hank, if it’s more regionally palatable.”
“I have a phone back here, Henry. Calls all over the country. You’re welcome to use it to call a friend if you need to. No charge.”
Henry reeled his drink back to the graffiti burdened lip of the bar. A friend, he thought. He collected friends the way a lumberjack collected trees. Friends only complicated his plans. He lifted the drink and murdered it.
“I can even dial the number for you if you don’t think you’re steady enough.”
Henry dragged a hand over his mouth and slid the empty glass back at the bartender. “Nah, I’m good, old man. Don’t worry about it.”
The old man shrugged. “Well, I suppose a man as busy with his anger as you are probably wouldn’t have time for friends anyway. Or maybe they don’t have time for him.”
The words stung. Again. What was it with this guy? He had a tongue that could penetrate armor.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Clarence,” he said sharply, “Of course, I have friends. Everyone has friends. Serial killers have friends.”
“You got any friends near enough to come get you?”
“Sure, got one right back there in Riverside. He’d come get me in a heartbeat.”
“I do. His name’s Cal. One syllable.”
“Cal,” the old man said like he was seriously thinking about it, “Short for Calvin?”
“How the hell would I know? Never occurred to me it might be anything bigger than Cal.”
The bartender laughed. “You must be very close friends.”
“Close enough, I suppose. Sadly, he’s an unemployed stoner and a total waste of skin, but I guess you take your friends where they’ll have you, yeah?”
“Cal sounds like a sad enough figure.”
“Sad is as sad does, Clarence.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“He’s a total screw up.”
“I’m sure he is.”
“I’ve no doubt,” the old man said with a little shrug, “What reason would a man like you have to exaggerate?”
Henry winced at that. Prick.
After a moment, he leaned into the bar and held his whiskey glass up toward the bartender. “Listen to this,” he said, “He’s diabetic, right?”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Henry said carefully, “But here’s the thing: He uses his diabetes as an excuse for every bad thing that’s ever happened to him. Wears it like a crown. Spends his life in a drug-induced stupor because, hey, what’s the point? He’s a diabetic, after all. He’s entitled, right?”
“I don’t think you do see, Clarence. I’ve tried to help him, tried to get him to improve himself, to stop being such a screw up, to stop pissing his life away, but…”
Henry stopped. He couldn’t finish it, and he wasn’t sure why. It was just the truth, wasn’t it? Cal was a screw up, right? When did understanding the truth start carrying a judgment value? It had to be the hangover. It was skewing reality into some bizarre phantom zone where nothing was what it should be.
“Perhaps the man just don’t have any ears.”
Henry looked up at the old man. “What did you say?”
“Perhaps he’s not as old and wise a soul as you. Perhaps he simply resists good influences.”
“Yeah,” Henry said, “Yeah, that’s it. He resists good influences. Not that it matters. It is what it is. He lives by the creed of the Born Loser. You know, like why put any effort into life? Death is coming for us all. I hate that shit. It’s weak.”
“Well, I expect you can give a pig a diploma, but it don’t make him a genius.”
“I suppose not.”
The old man pulled a long draw from his cigar, then sent the blue smoke fleeing to the ceiling. He seemed to study the swirls as they fled into the shadows. Then he looked back at Henry.
“I suppose that’s not why you won’t call him, though,” he said too softly, “I expect the truth is there’s a risk you’re wrong about it, that maybe he just ain’t much inclined to help you out, after all. I expect you’d rather suffer the trip back alone than face the possibility of that kind of rejection.”
Another well placed kick. Another blindside tackle.
“What are you talking about?” Henry said too quickly, “Of course, he’d help me. I just have to ask, that’s all. But I won’t ask, because I don’t care to extend my debt to the man.”
The old man threw a sly grin at that. “You smell that, Henry? Smells like bullpuck.”
Henry scowled. “Well, just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means it’s a lie. It means the real reason you won’t ask is because asking for help don’t fit in with your plans.”
Henry’s mood took another nose-dive. “I don’t know what you mean.”
The bartender only looked at him. Any emotions he may have harbored about their conversation were cloaked beneath a camouflage netting of deep creases. Eventually, he gave a little sniff and said, “I see.”
Henry nodded at the bottle parked next to the bartender’s elbow and tapped the edge of his glass. “Oh, you see, do you?” he said as he watched the old man slowly twist the cap from the bottle, “Well, please don’t stop now, Clarence. Please enlighten me. What exactly is it you see?”
The bottle’s neck clinked merrily against the glass. “Well,” the old man said as he poured, “From where I’m standing, I’d say his problems don’t come anywhere close to challenging yours.”
Clarence spun the cap back into place on the bottle and gave it a final twist. “No, sir. I’d say his lack of ambition won’t ever be dour enough to land him sitting there on that barstool next to you. Takes a special kind of problem to achieve a feat like that.”
“Oh, do tell,” Henry said sarcastically.
“Do tell,” the man said with a snort.
Henry steadied himself against another rush of irritation.
The bartender wiped the bottle with that perfect white rag, then set it carefully on the bar. “All right, Henry,” he said as he again folded the white cloth, “Here’s how I see it. It’s not that you’re shy about asking for help, because you’re not much shy about nothing. And it’s not that you wouldn’t appreciate the help, or at least the sentiment of it being offered. Matter of fact, I think being offered the help would just about throw you to tears.”
Henry laughed at that. “That’s good. Keep going.”
“No, it’s a heck of a lot simpler than that, ain’t it? You won’t ask for help because help don’t fit into your agenda.”
Henry lifted his drink. “Agenda,” he said, “I’m intrigued. Don’t stop now.”
Clarence leaned forward onto the bar again. His cloudy old eyes were still smothered in wrinkles, but now they looked more like the gathering clouds of an approaching storm.
“You want the truth, boy?” he said carefully, “You sure you can handle it?”
“Bring it on, brother.”
“All righty then, here it is. Your agenda’s about as full and dark as a drunken evangelist’s sermon. It’s written all around penitence.”
Henry looked back at him. “Penitence?”
“Penitence,” Clarence said, “You’re punishing yourself because no one else will do it for you. Truth is, you’ve got blood on your hands, ain’t that right?”
The temperature in the bar plummeted. Henry’s eyes fled to the cowboy ghosts floating through the smoke deep in the shadows of the bar. Zoe tried to barge her way into his thoughts again, but he immediately bolted the door against her. He couldn’t let her in, not here, not now, not in this absurdly hysterical moment in his life.
“Then again, what do I know?” Clarence said too suddenly, “I’m just a bartender, an old man tottering at the abyss. Hell, the wife’s always accusing me of suffering Old Timer’s disease. Can’t remember to wipe my own rear half the time, or so she says.”
Henry forced himself to look up at the man.
“Besides, it don’t much matter either way, does it? We are what we are, and it ain’t my place to judge.” With that, he picked up the white rag and went back to cleaning at a bar that needed no cleaning.
“What?” Henry said, feigning surprise, “That’s it? You’re just going to end it there? Make me suffer through the speech, but deny me the moral lesson at the end? Why, I never figured you for a quitter, Clarence.”
Clarence stopped wiping and looked at Henry, looked at him like he had x-ray vision, like he could see clear through to Henry’s soul. Henry couldn’t see his eyes through the wrinkles, but he sure as hell could feel their heat. Maybe he’d hit a nerve in the old man. He seriously doubted it.
“All right, Henry,” Clarence said. He was smiling at Henry the way a mortician smiles at a corpse just before the embalming, like this is it, this is the end of your mortal life, and, goddamn, I’m so sorry to have to do this.
Henry suddenly felt a fear he couldn’t explain. “Don’t play me, Clarence,” he said with a forced grin, “Just say it. Man, it’s like waiting for the damned hammer to fall. Get on with it already.”
“You want the moral?” Clarence said as seriously as a judge passing a capital sentence, “Fine, here it is. Truth is it don’t matter what you’ve done or what you’re guilty of. It don’t matter one whit what your crime is. It don’t matter because the prize you covet is the punishment, not the forgiveness. You’re claiming survivor’s rights to your guilt, and you don’t give a hoot one way or another whether the blood on your hands is your fault or not. You just want the penalty.”
Henry seized the lifeline of the bar and tried to steady himself. That one hurt. That one caught flesh. It took all his strength to stay in that stool, to deny the overpowering urge to run for the door and flee out into the desert heat.
“All you care about is the sentence,” Clarence continued, oblivious to or unconcerned about the terror seizing Henry, “But the truth is, you’re not near strong enough to exact the sentence you think you deserve, not in a direct line anyhow. You approach your so-called punishment in a roundabout way because it’s easier, because it takes less commitment. You want out of your life, but you’re afraid to do the deed. So you settle for self-imposed exile, which will ultimately bring the same results, ain’t that right? You’re heading for that dark door, you’re just not doing it in a hurry. You’re waiting for someone else to do it for you. Are you listening to me, Henry?”
Henry lifted the bourbon but stopped short of a sip. The oxygen seemed to have evacuated the room. His hand was shaking. He quickly anchored it to the counter. He locked his eyes on the drink squatting before him, because that drink suddenly felt like the only safe place in the bar.
The old man picked up the bourbon bottle, retightened the cap, then stowed it behind the bar. “Here’s the moral, Henry,” he said, “You’re a coward camouflaged in anger. The only thing you’re running from is yourself. If you were serious about your guilt, you’d be propping up a headstone back there in Riverside right now. Or maybe Michigan. Don’t matter. Dead is dead, and the parking spot don’t mean diddley.”
Henry finished his drink and threw the glass down on the bar. This nobody bartender in Hell’s Half Acre, New Mexico had effectively ruined an otherwise perfect morning. He looked up into the creases where he’d last seen the old man’s eyes, but the storm simmering there was too intense. He wheeled away from it and fled back to his now empty glass, which was perfectly centered in a fossilized beer ring on the worn Formica separating them.
When he was confident he could safely breathe again, he said, “Another drink, please, Clarence. That is, if you’re finished analyzing me.”
“The most dangerous lies under God’s heaven are the ones you tell yourself, Henry. You can’t face the truth if you don’t know what the truth is. You can only run like hell and hope you’re running fast enough and in the right direction.”
The man’s words hanged before Henry like a stoplight that wouldn’t change. He couldn’t go forward and he couldn’t run back. The man had completely blindsided him. The truth was Zoe was dead and it was his fault, and no cowboy philosopher was ever going to change that truth. And in that moment, he hated every living soul on earth.
Clarence mashed his cigar out in a beat up black plastic ashtray that was the size of a hubcap. “Got a bathroom in the back,” he said, “Got a soap dispenser there, too. You oughta do the world a favor and wash up before you hit the road.”
“Hit the road?” Henry said, trying to act like he didn’t see it coming, “Why, Clarence! Are you cutting me off?”
Clarence scooped up the empty glass and swiped the bar with that ridiculously white rag. He didn’t look at a Henry and he didn’t speak.
“Fine!” Henry said, “I refuse to beg. I was raised better than that.” But even as he said it, he knew it was just a smokescreen. Truth was he was suffocating. It was all he could do to resist bolting for the door.
The old man gave him one last long inspection, then simply nodded and walked away, sliding his old hand along the bar surface to steady himself.
Henry held up the rumpled twenty. His hand was still shaking. He pinned it back to the counter. He had to get the hell out of here. “My tab, please, Clarence!”
“On the house,” Clarence said without looking back, “Now go clean up. You smell like shit.”