Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 15

15

“What good is livin’ a life you’ve been given

If all you do is stand in one place?”

—Lord Huron, ‘Ends of the Earth,’ Lonesome Dreams (2012)

As I trailed the stranger, I had the off-putting realization that I would make a pretty good stalker. Paying such careful attention to a person who had no idea that he was being watched was an odd experience. When we are alone, we are completely at ease with our own little habits and peculiarities, but we shed these affectations the moment we know we are being watched and observed. As a result, most of us wind up taking part in micro-cosmic reality plays each day.

Though we consider ourselves sons, or fathers, or mothers, we are actually just doing complex impressions. Though we define ourselves as bank tellers, or firemen, or teachers, we are actually just doing infomercial and sitcom interpretations that we stored in our conscious long ago.

Though watching a random, un-expecting stranger so closely made me feel vaguely lascivious, I found myself transfixed. It was as though I was getting a special glimpse past the curtain, seeing a personalized sneak peak. At first blush, this man was not noticeably different than me in any appreciable way—other than the blonde streak in hair and the slight urban flair in his wardrobe. Yet, he nevertheless seemed foreign and strange. Something in the way he walked, or carried himself—an aura that trailed him down the street as surely as the wafts of cigarette smoke.

Given the fact that he essentially told a professor to “Fuck off” right to his face, it wasn’t exactly surprising that he had a confident walk, but there was something more to his demeanor than simple confidence. His outburst in the classroom could have been described as juvenile, even petulant, but I was not watching the walk of a child. This man—the one I was currently trailing like some kind of third-rate private eye—did not have the walk of a child, or even the walk of the twenty-somethings that populated the bulk of Whitehaven’s campus. This person was somehow more…purposeful.

Despite the relatively early hour—it was barely noon—the man stopped at a bar a few blocks from campus called Easy Street. Though you could see the neon lights of the bar from campus at night, I had never set foot in it before. Most of the bars in town were fair game for the underage crowd, provided you showed up early and demonstrated reasonable restraint, but this particular establishment had a reputation on campus for being less than friendly to the wild, binge-drinking college crowd. Evidently, the owner preferred the steadfast support of salty regulars over the volume business that campus visitors might afford.

I stood outside the bar for quite some time, deciding whether or not to walk in. It was only noon, so the chances of the bar having a bouncer working was quite low, and I rarely got carded before nine or ten at night. Nevertheless, it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t twenty-one. After spending a few minutes arguing silently with myself, I remembered the bravado of my stalking prey. Here was a man that was willing to curse at an established, tenured professor, and I didn’t have the balls to walk into a random bar in the middle of the day.

I took a deep breath, shrugged, and pushed open the door. By the time my eyes adjusted to the dark innards of the tavern, the man I had been following had disappeared. Though the tavern was quite small, the bar itself was striking—a long, ornate oak bar backed by impressive-looking shelves and a large saloon mirror. For a second, I stood motionless, unsure what I was going to do. It was clear that I hadn’t thought any of this out. I had followed a complete stranger on foot for over ten minutes, and now I had managed to lose him in a tiny barroom that was currently only occupied by three other people. Furthermore, I was struck, full-force with the jarring realization that I had no end game…none. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say to this person, nor did I have any logical reason for standing in this particular bar in the middle of the day.

After quickly glancing at my watch, I realized that it was probably too late to trek all the way back to campus and then huff across the quad for my biology class. Besides that, I had become acutely aware that the bartender and the two other men sitting in the dark bar had already taken notice of me. It was as if I had stumbled into the wrong bar in an old western. Though I was terrified that the bartender was going to ask for an ID, my only two choices were to turn and run away like a fool, or to take a chance. I quickly decided on the later, grabbing a stool at the bar and ordering a Budweiser, attempting to drop my voice by half an octave.

Although the bartender gave me an extended glare, he served me without much hesitation. The owner’s supposed preference for regulars aside, this man didn’t seem like the type to pass up what little opportunity he had for a mid-week (and mid-day) tip. I took the beer and turned my attention to a small flat screen television hanging over the far corner of the bar, which was playing a random ballgame between the Pirates and the Phillies.

With each sip from the beer, I became more nervous and self-conscious, the end result of which was a raging desire to slam the rest of the bottle, stand up, and scurry away, never to return to this establishment as long as I lived. Having finished the beer, I started to push myself up to carry out my plan when I suddenly heard a voice behind me.

“You got some kind of problem, buddy?”

The ‘buddy’ stopped me in my tracks. It was said with a kind of venom that sent a slight shiver down my back. I slowly swung the barstool around to find myself face to face with the stranger from my class. He was staring at me hard, his fists clenched tightly at his side.

“No problem, man…” In my head I sounded terrified and meek, the way I would imagine a cornered mouse might sound if it could actually talk. “…I just wanted to meet you.” I flicked my thumb towards the door in the direction of the campus. “I was in Werner’s religion class, and I…I’ve just never seen anything like that.”

The man looked at me for a long while, as if he were subjecting me to a silent lie-detector test. He stared directly into my face, the furrows of his brow creasing slightly as he studied something deep behind my eyes. After a full minute, he finally cracked a smile.

“That?” he asked, slapping my shoulder with a sharp flick of his arm. “I was just fucking around. I do that sometimes when I’m bored.” He pulled out the stool next to me and motioned toward the bartender for two more drinks. “I just choose a class and sit-in.”

“So you’re not a student?” I asked.

“Student?” The man looked at me and smiled broadly, then began laughing, that same broad, arrogant laugh from the class. “Fuck no, man…Well,” he paused. “I suppose I was a student once, but not at that place. I attended Marrymount Community College a few years back. The studious life never seemed to suit me though.” As he spoke, he flipped out a pack of Marlboro Lights and pulled a cigarette from the box.

Now that he was laughing and relaxed, I saw something vaguely familiar in his demeanor. After a few minutes, I realized that he reminded me of Mark. Though they looked nothing alike, I could see commonality in the way they talked. Something in his voice and his mannerisms, the carefree way he thrust about his limbs during conversation, nonchalantly spraying cigarette ash everywhere but the ashtray—it all reminded me quite a bit of my old friend.

Even the bizarre lie detector test seemed like something Mark would do, sharp suspicion followed by complete and unquestioned acceptance.

As we talked, I brought up his strange instruction into the class once again. I couldn’t imagine having the balls to do something like that. “Aren’t you worried that they are going to recognize you? Figure out that you’re not one of their students?”

He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit another smoke and he shook his head. “Naw,” he said. “Most of those assholes don’t have a clue who’s in their class and who isn’t. Besides, what’s the worst thing they could say to me? Get out?” As he exhaled a large breath of smoke, he stuck out his hand in my direction. “The name is Brett,” he said, “Brett Lawley.”

“Travis Kauffman,” I said. “It’s a pleasure.”

Brett looked me up and down. “Freshmen, right?”

I took a quick look at the bartender who was leaning against the far end of the bar, engrossed in the Pirates game. I held my finger to my lips, still worried that the bartender would discover me as the under-aged drinker I was.

“Don’t worry about him,” Brett says. “He can’t hear us, and even if he could, he wouldn’t give a fuck. This place doesn’t ever have a bouncer or check ID’s.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t have to,” he said. “The place is a cop hang out. They come here after hours and get sauced before they start their next day’s shift. Nobody’s gonna be focusing on this place with any kind of sting operation.” We sat and had three more beers, talking nonchalantly and parceling through a bare minimum of biographical information. I told him about Drury and Culver County and his face lit up. “I grew up on the banks of the Mississippi,” he said. “My old man was a ferryboat operator, down in Cyprus.”

I nodded and smiled. Though I didn’t know the area well, I knew it couldn’t be much different from Culver County. Bigger, deeper river, but everything else the same. “A fellow river rat, huh?”

“Oh, hell yeah,” he said. “Of course, that seems like a completely different life, now. I’ve been away for almost ten years.”

I nodded and pointed down at the bartender for another round. “So, what do you do when you’re not fucking with spit-mouthed professors?”

Brett slapped the bar and laughed again. “I know! I mean, what the fuck is with that? How do you not wipe your damn mouth?” The bartender brought the beers and set the bottles in front of us. Though they were sweating with condensation, the beers were almost lukewarm. “Uggh,” he said. “How can they not keep the beers a bit colder? I mean son of a bitch!”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

We were four or five beers in, and my bladder was beginning to take notice. “You have any idea where the bathroom is?” Brett flicked a thumb over his right shoulder towards the back corner of the bar, and I pushed myself off the stool, a bit uneasy on my feet. When I walked into the bathroom, I was immediately slapped in the face with a thick cloud of odor. Though the bar itself was quite well-maintained, the bathroom resembled and smelled like a Wrigley Field john at the end of a double-header. I took a leak, and rushed back out as soon as I possibly could.

By the time I remerged from the bathroom, Brett was surrounded by three young men, one a skinny and fierce-looking black man, and the other two square headed and broad-shouldered white boys. The men were dressed in dark colors and loose-fitting jeans, and I could tell instantly that they were at odds with the regulars in the bar.

As I walked up, Brett was talking with the black man, who seemed to be the leader of the group. Though the smirk hadn’t left Brett’s face, something had changed in his demeanor, a bit of tension in his shoulders that wasn’t there before.

“You’re just gonna need to let it go, Tae. Nothing to be done,” Brett said to the leader of the group. He took a last swill of the beer he was holding and slammed the bottle down on the bar.

“Naw, man. I ain’t gonna be letting anything go,” the black man said. Whatever the tenor of the conversation had been, I could tell that it was now escalating. The same threat of violence that I had felt when Brett stood up in the classroom was now lingering in the air, a tangible presence hovering above the bar.

Though I was terrified by the whole situation, I took a step forward towards the group. One of Tae’s minions turned to me as I walked up and tersely shoved my shoulders. “Get the fuck back!” As he yelled, he pushed towards me, blowing a hot gasp of rancid breath in my face, a noxious mixture of garlic and cheap cigarettes. He was so close that I could see little bits of bread or some kind of other food stuck in his mangy, spotted beard.

Instantly, a familiar, dreaded sensation gripped my chest. The flight response. An overwhelming desire to bolt for the door and never see these people again. Looking back, I still can’t say with any degree of certainty why I stayed. It wasn’t as though I owed this person any loyalty. We had known each other for all of an hour and a half, our newly kindled friendship based on nothing more than four or five longnecks.

For some reason, though, I stayed. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I pushed forward into the fray. Growing up, there had been a few scrapes here and there, minor fights and battles with various enemies about town. In those days, though, I was always following—backing up Mark or David or both. I’d like to say that I made a conscious choice, mutating on the spot into a more self-assured, confident version of myself. I’d love to claim a moment of clarity or catharsis, but it wasn’t. It was little more than a whim, a random rebellion fueled by a few lukewarm Budweisers.

If experience has taught me anything, it’s that those moments of sudden clarity and catharsis only happen in the movies. There’s no doubt people change, but it happens slowly, by small degrees. Either that, or they wind up propelled in a new direction by dumb luck or outright stupidity.

After all I’ve been through, I still don’t know if this moment was of the former or the later.

Doing my best not to tremble, I pushed past the foul-breathed man with the pubic beard. Though I was pushing out my chest, I made sure not to initiate any real contact. “Brett,” I said, leaning past Tae and cutting off the conversation. “I just got a text. Campus security got wind of your performance in Werner’s class. The cops are on campus asking questions.”

It was the only thing that came to my mind. I could tell that Tae was completely unimpressed with my news, but the interruption served its purpose. Brett took the cue instantly.

“Looks like I need to go,” he said to Tae, shrugging his shoulders dramatically. “We’ll have to pick this back up again later.”

Tae took a step forward and threw his own hands up. “You think I give a shit about some fake-ass campus rent-a-cop?” Though his voice was pure menace, there was clearly something holding him back, some kind of invisible field that he wasn’t willing to cross. Brett evidently came to the same conclusion, as his smile suddenly changed, a wide grin full of arrogance and spite.

“You probably should, buddy,” he said, grandly emphasizing the final syllable. “Old Dave is no regular campus security officer,” he continued. “He’s a retired police captain, Templeton County Sherriff’s office.” He motioned towards the bartender standing at the opposite end of the bar, behind Tae’s back. “In fact, our boy down there serving up the drinks? He’s a deputy with Templeton County, too. Might even be Dave’s nephew.”

For perhaps the first time since he had entered the bar and started his conversation with Brett, Tae seemed to look around and take stock of his surroundings. The bartender was glaring daggers at them as the muscles in his jaw rippled with tension. He had his hand down below the bar, as if he was gripping something—a gun? A prop?—and preparing to take action. The two regulars beside him weren’t exactly imposing—one a rail-thin man of forty or fifty and the other a paunchy, red-faced retiree who looked like he might keel over of a heart attack at any moment, but the men both watched our conversation with clear malice, as though they were ready to help the bartender if necessary.

It didn’t take long for Tae to take stock of the situation. After giving Brett a few long seconds of cold stare, he nodded his head, summoning his two companions to the door. “This ain’t done,” he said, pointing a long, bony finger into Brett’s chest. “You tell Whistler we need to talk.”

Though Brett’s smile remained unchanged, I could see a glint of hate billowing up behind his eyes. “Sure thing, buddy,” he said again, his voice dripping with mock sincerity.

We watched in silence as the three men strolled slowly out of the bar. As they thrust open the front door, a brilliant, white-hot light spewed into the dim room. One by one, the men merged into vague shadows as they slipped through the door and disappeared into the light.

“What the fuck was that about?” I asked.

“Nothing you need to worry about,” Brett said. “Just a little business dispute, that’s all.” Suddenly, Brett checked his watch and grimaced. “I gotta go,” he said. “It’s getting to be late. You got something to write on?”

When I walked into the bar, I had dropped my backpack next to the door, to try to lessen my youthful impression. I walked over, retrieved the pack, and fished out a paper and a pen. When I walked back over and handed the paper to Brett, I realized that it was a copy of the syllabus for my religion class.

“You sure you want me writing on this?” Brett asked, waving the paper in front of me like it was a precious artifact. He laughed, and then jotted an address on the back of the syllabus.

“That was good thinking,” he said. “You got me out of that conversation a little quicker. Probably would have been fine either way, but I appreciate it nonetheless.”

I sat down on a bar stool. My heart was still hammering inside my chest from the excitement of the exchange. “Could have fooled me,” I said. “I think I might have literally shit my pants.”

Brett laughed loudly. “Well, you did fine,” he said. “I appreciate the help.” He slapped me on the shoulder as he stood up. “I’ve gotta get out of here, but hold on to that paper. Stop by that address sometime at the end of the week, whenever you want is good, just pop in some time after seven.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“You want a place where the beer is actually cold? Then go to that address.”

I held my hands up. “Is there a bouncer? I don’t have a fake ID or any….”

“You won’t need it,” he said. “Just tell them my name.”

I shoved the paper back into my bag and turned to watch him walk out of the bar. “Nice meeting you,” I said. He nodded over his shoulder and threw his hands back at me in mute agreement.

Once again, searing light rolled into the bar as he reached for the door. Stopping half-way into the doorway, he turned back. “I’ll catch you on the flipside,” he said.

I nodded in agreement, but I couldn’t be sure he saw me or not. Even holding my hand to my brow to shield against the light, I couldn’t make anything out beyond a dim shape outlined against a bright blur.

A moment later the door slammed shut, and I was once again swallowed by the darkness of the bar. I blinked several times, but the bright light had left tracers on the underside of my eyelids that didn’t seem to fade.

I sat on the barstool, breathing heavily and trying to slow my heartbeat. Everything that had occurred that afternoon—following Brett to the bar, initiating in conversation, saying something to those goons—was completely out of character. Something in Brett’s defiant little speech in my religion class had stuck with me, pushed me towards one decision followed by another, which was followed by another.

I spent the days after leaving Whitehaven trying to retrace my path, searching for the moment when it all changed, the decision that turned everything to shit. In retrospect, my introduction to Brett Lawley seems as logical a point as any.

Though a completely useless exercise, I keep wondering what might have been if I had gone the other direction that day. A question that keeps popping up no matter how many times I slap it down, like that old whack-a-mole arcade game.

That’s the nature of regret.

It does us no good, and only compounds our pain, but we can’t help looking for a scapegoat, a whipping boy to ease the burden of our guilt. We try to convince ourselves that it was the other guy’s fault, in the hopes that we find absolution.

But that’s all bullshit.

Brett didn’t cause anything to happen, it was me. I made the choice. I kept taking steps forward.

What’s worse is I’m not really sure I would change it if I could. Even knowing the pain, and the fear, and damage that would come later, I’m not sure if I could give it all up.

Despite everything, there is no doubt that I had been searching for something like Whistler and his little band of brothers. And my introduction to Brett was just the beginning.

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