Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 17

17

“Been workin like a dog,

I turned all my dreams off.

I didn’t know my name.

I didn’t know my name.”

—Grouplove, ‘Ways to Go,’ Spreading Rumors (2013)

I spent virtually all of my free time over the next few months at Whistler’s Hall. After only a few days, Whistler offered me a job, working as a bar back, filling ice and hauling cases of beer from the back room. Though it didn’t pay much at all, I pretty much drank for free most nights, which was quite a salary for a 19 year old college student.

Besides, the work was easy, and there was virtually no schedule. Whoever happened to show up on any given night helped out. That was about it.

On the slow nights in the middle of the week, I would sit around with Whistler’s crew, shooting pool and playing pitch. From the very beginning, I was amazed at how easily I fell into the rhythm of their misfit society. It was as if I had been there all along.

“Ok,” Flatrock said, “top five movies, all time.”

This was one of the group’s favorite pastimes, especially on slow nights at the bar. Someone would throw out a top five list, which the group would populate. The goal, of course, would be to come to a consensus on a top five. Of course, identifying and ridiculing the shitty answers was just as important as coming up with a final list.

Karl started the discussion. “Gotta be The Godfather.”

The room nodded enthusiastically, happy with the initial call. Zevon leaned against the back wall, resting on top of an old iron radiator, watching Flatrock and Karl shooting a game of pool.

Bonnie was sulking over the in corner on a couch near the bar. He had recently shown up with a new hair style, complete with brighter frosted tips. The resulting barrage of condescension and petty malice had left him licking his wounds. As the conversation kicked up, though, his usual smile returned, and he joined the conversation. “You’ve gotta stick with the classics,” he said. “Citizen Kane or Casablanca? How about Wizard of Oz?”

“You would choose a musical, frosty tips.” UB’s crack came from the other room as he manned the bar. “If you’re going to go classics, why not Psycho.”

“It’s alright,” I said, “but if we’re going with Hitchcock, I prefer Vertigo.”

Whistler, who was sitting at his customary position at the card table next to the bar, rapped three times on the table with the bottom of his beer bottle, a universal sign of agreement and support.

“Ok, ok,” Flatrock said. “I appreciate the outpouring of support for the grand old days of cinema, but how about some modern flare?”

“When you say modern flare, are you referring to frosted tips, perhaps?” Karl shot Bonnie a wide grin and sunk the two-ball in the top-left pocket, a shot that is nearly impossible to sink unless you knew the flows and slants of that particular table. Because the Hall was over a hundred years old—and the pool table was likely close to half that age itself—the table was far from level. After years of beer spillage and poor humidity control, everything in the building was warped and slightly askew. The wooden window panes stuck, tile floor rolled out in waves that followed the warped subfloor, and the pool table bore the stains and scars of five decades of spirited crowds, and all of the abuse that comes with them.

Bonnie flipped his middle finger in Karl’s direction and continued. “Alright, how about The Shawshank Redemption?”

“One of my favorites,” Whistler said, clanging his beer against the table again. “Certainly top 10 anyway.”

“I’ve always been a fan of Seven,” I said.

Karl broke into a loud and enthusiastic impression immediately. “What’s in the box?!? What’s in the box?!?!” He screamed and contorted his face in his best Brad Pitt impression.

Farley walked into the bar room and piped up immediately. “Deer Hunter!” he shouted.

Flatrock turned slowly, his mouth agape. “Holy shit!” he yelled. “That was actually a good answer! I expected a Steven Seagal or Van Damme special, but Deer Hunter? How’s that for a fucking shock!”

UB immediately jumped into an impression of Steven Seagal, who was, hands-down, Farley’s favorite actor. The crux of the impression was to stick out his stomach wide, while whipping his hands through the air furiously. Everyone in the room, including Farley, laughed. “Fattest damn karate hands, I’ve ever seen in my life,” UB said at the conclusion of his impression. “Does that son-of-a-bitch even have legs?”

Farley shook his head, taking in the ridicule with his typical good-natured acceptance. “I wanna know Mule’s pick!” he said. “I’ll bet it’s a good one.”

Attention in the room turned to Mule, who was sitting at the card table next to Whistler. As usual, he was three or four drinks in already. It was hard to say what kind of vile concoction he was sipping on, as he was fond of mixing random liquors and juice together. Then, he’d slam down three drinks in quick fashion and wander about the room, attempting to get everyone to try his latest creation. The general rule was, if Mule tried to hand you a drink, you said no. One way or another, everyone in the room had learned the rule, more often than not the hard way.

For me, it only took two different sips before I vowed never to touch another mule concoction.

Whatever his mixture was on that particular evening, it was heavy enough to lead directly to a profound bout of slurring, and it wasn’t even eight o’clock. While the group goaded Mule into a slurred response, I continued jotting in my notebook, thinking of movie titles that I could throw out to the group. The movies were easy to come up with. If there was one activity that dominated our free time growing up as much as listening to music, it was movies. We would lock ourselves away for days sometimes, watching movies in David’s grandmother’s basement. Me, David, Mark, and Tommy. We took up residence at the local video store, as keenly aware of movie premiere dates as we were of new music releases.

The notebook was a holdover from my brief tenure at the psychiatrist’s office in the days after Tommy’s death. A tiny little memo book that I kept in my pocket. Though my mother was convinced that therapy was the only way forward through my grief, I never found a great deal of use for any of it. When I refused to talk, the therapist suggested that I take to keeping the notebook. While the notebook was mostly a therapeutic failure, the habit stuck, and the further from Tommy I drifted, the more I tended to write.

“Aww f-f-fuck it,” Mule slurred. “My favorite movie is the F-F—Fast and the F-F-Furious…”

Instantly, the room erupted in vibrant laughter. I’m not sure any of us knew what to expect, but the response didn’t disappoint. Whistler raised his hands above his head, asking for silence. “This is going nowhere,” he said. “How about top five albums of all time? Any genre, any time.”

Immediately, I started writing album titles in my notebook. Before I knew it, the names were flowing out of my pen at a furious pace, Bob Dylan—Blonde on Blone; Nirvana—Nevermind; Bruce Springsteen—Born to Run; The Beatles—Revolver—the names came pouring out at such a furious pace, that I could barely even hear the conversation around me.

Karl argued vehemently about the merits of Van Morrison while Flatrock angrily argued for the Allman Brothers’ At Filmore East, even though it was a live album and Whistler had set out a declaration that live albums were off the table.

As they argued the names kept coming—Bridge Over Troubled Water; Beggar’s Banquet; Dark Side of the Moon—I kept writing, completely immersed in the page in front of me. The names were varied and eclectic—Elvis Costello, Dr. Dre, The Who, Pearl Jam, The Talking Heads.

“Travis!” Karl shouted. “What do you think?”

I stopped writing, and looked up, completely lost in the conversation. For a moment, I even forgot where I was. A moment before I had felt almost literally transported, riding in a car with Tommy and arguing over Neil Young and Bob Dylan. I had always contended that they were both great songwriters, but Young was a terrible performer, while Tommy had always had an obsession with Neil Young.

It was the kind of argument that could become bizarrely heated between us, the only real discord that ever seemed to pop up. He would argue passionately for his view, but I would match his argument with equal fury, the tiny squabbles magnified by the fact that we so often agreed.

I shook my head, clearing my thoughts, and looked back in Karl’s direction. “What?”

“Jesus,” he said. “You really were lost in your little notebook there, weren’t you? I said, which do you think is the better Radiohead album, Kid A or The Bends?”

I stared at him blankly for a moment. I was aware that a strange stillness had fallen over the room. Though ‘Last Night’ by The Strokes was playing in the background, I could barely hear the music. It was nothing but white noise as the room started to spin, my eyes covering with haze. I could feel my stomach churning.

I stood up abruptly, and ran off to the bathroom where I proceeded to retch into the sink just inside the doorway. After a few minutes the heaving stopped, and I used a paper towel to fish the large bits of my pre-chewed dinner out of the sink. I threw the mess of paper towels into the nearby trashcan and looked into the mirror.

My face was flush and sweat was pouring off my brow, a few randomly long hairs sticking to my forehead in wet chunks. There was a time when the panic attacks were as commonplace as a slight headache, coming and going in regular intervals. Since leaving Culver County, they seemed to have decreased in regularity, while increasing in intensity.

After a few minutes, Bonnie popped his head into the bathroom. “You alright, pussy?”

I flipped him off as I scooped a few handfuls of cool water into my mouth. “I’m fine,” I said. “Just something I ate.”

“Good,” he said, “cause we’re starting to get busy.” He punched me in my lower back, sending a searing bolt of pain through my kidneys. “UB’s working the bar. He needs you to go downstairs and get him a few cases of Natural Light.”

I rubbed my back and flipped Bonnie off as I headed out the front door. Though winter’s biting chill had set in completely, the icy taste of air felt nice. I took a few long gulps as I stood on the front steps before I walked around the corner of the bar to the basement steps.

The building was old enough that the basement was inaccessible from the main floor. As a result, we kept as little as possible down there. Mostly, it was filled with old, long-forgotten boxes and empty kegs. Sometimes, though, we had to use the basement for overflow storage when the closets got full.

When I walked back into the Hall carrying a full armload of Natty bottles, I stopped in the vestibule and looked towards the back room. Whistler was standing in the back office, beckoning a man that I never seen before towards the back room. The man looked suspiciously over his shoulder as he disappeared into the room.

For a moment, I caught eyes with Whistler, who looked back at me with a gaze that I couldn’t quite interpret. Not exactly anger or judgement, but something there nonetheless, a bitter and fierce glint in his eyes that I had yet to notice in any other circumstance. As Whistler briskly closed the door, I stood in the vestibule, pondering the strange glance.

“Natty Light!” UB shouted, clearly losing patience. As I walked back into the bar room, Karl was shaking Okie by the shoulder. Although Okie was named for the old Merl Haggard song, ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ he had never even been to Oklahoma. In fact, he had never even been outside of Illinois.

Despite the country roots and southern drawl, Okie mostly despised country music. He was a big fan of modern alternative and gangsta rap, and he frequently threw down in the dance room to Biggie Smalls and Tupac. His favorite song of all time was Warren G.’s ‘Regulators.’ Any time it came on, he created quite a scene of thrusting and gyrating, which slowly built to a fury. His dancing was always the epitome of awkward white-boy, and we all flocked to see it whenever we got the chance.

Karl was poking him in the chest, “First off, that’s ridiculous,” he shouted. “Second, there is no way anyone could enter that conversation with a straight face and say that!”

I set the cases down on the bar and turned to them. Karl looked at me, hooking his thumb over his shoulder in my direction. “Tell him,” he said.

“Goddamn, man. I’m not saying, I just….” He looked at Karl’s rabid eyes for a moment, then shook his head and looked back to me. “All I said was, I kind of like Nickleback.”

I immediately choked out a laugh, which Karl returned. Within a few moments, we were both doubled over, leaning on the bar and gasping for air. As usual, Okie took great offense to our laughter, and stormed off. “Well, fuck you guys, then.” His curse was meant to sound biting, but it only made us laugh harder. Because of his country drawl, his voice had a tendency to raise an octave when he cursed, a trait which everyone mocked incessantly.

When we finally caught our breath, I turned back around and looked in the corner, noticing that Whistler’s usual chair was still empty. I leaned over the bar so that only Karl would be able to hear me over the sound of the music in the bar. “What’s Whistler up to?” I ask. “In the back room?”

In an instant, Karl’s personality flipped a switch. Anyone who spent enough time around Karl quickly became acquainted with his temper. Though we were growing close, his volatile mood swings sometimes made me a little more than nervous.

“You don’t worry about that,” he snapped. “It’s business.”

As ingratiated as I had become in the group, it was clear that I was still an outsider, the trespasser sitting at the dining table. Karl kept a hard stare pointed in my direction for a moment before walking off to join in on another pool game.

I looked around the crowded bar, and for the first time in a long time, I felt that old, familiar sense of loneliness, the isolation of a large and indifferent crowd.

It didn’t take me long hanging around the bar to realize the importance of ten o’clock at the bar. That was right around the time that the girls showed up. Finished with primping, and pre-party drinks, and visits to dorm rooms, ten o’clock was a witching hour that called the girls out the bar. Because Whistler’s Hall never carded campus girls—and never seemed to face any repercussions—the girls usually came out in droves.

It was ten o’clock on the nose when I first saw Caroline walk into the bar. I knew her immediately—the blond girl in the silver top, the one I saw on the dance floor that first time I stepped into the Hall. She had mesmerized me then, and I felt the same feeling again when I watched her walk through the door.

I went to elementary school during the waning years of the D.A.R.E. program, Nancy Regan’s attempt to fight the war on drugs. I’m not sure if it was very effective in stopping actual drug use, but I always remembered the lessons anyway. Just one hit of this drug, and you could be hooked for life…Beware of the bad trip, instant psychosis…That sort of thing. Over the years, I’ve tried a few things, here and there, but I’ve never taken any drug that had an instant effect, a high that I couldn’t ever go without.

But watching Caroline walk through the door was close. She was long, and blonde, and fierce-looking, and she infatuated me and terrified me from the first moment that I laid eyes on her. Those swaying hips, in direct odds with the rhythm of the rest of the room.

When she walked in, she looked back towards the bar where I was standing, and just for a moment, I thought that she looked at me. A devastating smile that could have leveled me in an instant. A second later, it was clear that she was smiling at Karl, who was sitting on a stool at the end of the bar, a few feet away from where I was standing.

I watched her float through the room, working the crowd, giving hugs and pecks on the cheek as she worked her way back towards the bar. When she reached Karl and threw her arms around him in a full embrace, I had to swallow a white-hot ball of jealousy.

It wasn’t surprising that she was drawn to him. He was well-built and sharp featured. Even more importantly, he carried himself with a kind of confidence that I had never really known. He said exactly what he wanted, without explanation or apology to anyone. It’s obvious why girls are drawn to that sort of thing.

To some degree, they all had that confidence, Whistler and his boys. After all, that kind of confidence is what caused me to follow Bonnie in the first place. It was the push that drove me through the doors of the Hall that very first time.

Over the next few weeks, I got used to seeing Caroline walk through the door, even worked up the courage to speak to her a few times, but I could never quite bury the disappointment when she walked out the door with Karl.

Though Karl and I were becoming close, there was always something unsettling about him. A mercurial nature. A temper boiling below the surface. I told myself that he was no different than Zevon, who was a terrifying human being. At least he’s on my side.

With Karl though, it was different. I always got the feeling that Karl wasn’t on any side but his own. Then again, it was probably just overt jealousy and nothing more.

One night, I watched out the window as Karl carried Caroline out of the front door. She got a little too drunk, and he was taking her home. Her body was slacked and she hung off of him like a loose-fitting sweater, her head leaning against his shoulder as he helped her walk.

In an instant, I felt a hot rush of shame wash over my body. I was doing it again. Watching other people’s lives. The quiet voyeur in the corner.

Looking for a quick distraction, I looked quickly around the room, but I didn’t see anything remarkable. It was nearly midnight, and a few clumps of campus girls floated in and out of the bar’s two rooms, each one trailed by the obligatory group of campus men, hot on the trail of a fresh piece of ass. This was the usual state of affairs, the ebb and flow of the bar. The girls came in, and the boys followed after. Then they split into various groups, the night ended, and it started all over again.

Of course, some people don’t like the way the game is played. Be it their nature or just bad luck, some people are destined to go against the flow. To disrupt the natural order.

Rich Lazzar was one of those people. He stumbled into the bar just before one am, looking for his old girlfriend. Rich was a bit of a regular around the campus, some wayward, former Whitehaven undergrad who flunked out, only to spend the following years as a general pain in the ass about town. He caused a general nuisance and ruckus just about everywhere he went.

Unfortunately for Lazzar, the girl he was looking for that particular night had already left with Flatrock a half-hour earlier, and as people like him often do, Lazzar put his mind to finding someone to blame. After fifteen minutes of fruitless searching through the bar, Lazzar re-entered the pool table room and made the spontaneous decision that Bonnie was his man, the target of his angst.

Though I had only been working in the bar for a few months, it wasn’t the first time that I had witnessed this scenario. Some beefed-up jackass wanders into the bar, looking for a fight, completely unaware that there was no real way to pick a fight in this place with just a single person. One way or another, even if you were in the right, a fight with one was going to lead to a fight with everyone.

After hours, between friends, Whistler’s inclination was to let a fight brew. “We’re like brothers,” he’d say, “and sometimes brothers have to work their shit out.”

For outsiders, however, there was no such thing as taking the other side. Anyone who wandered into that place to pick a fight with one of the regulars? That man was going to find himself in the wrong in a big hurry. Most figured it out quickly. After a bit of shoving and shit-talking, they would recognize the odds, and then back away.

Some men, however, didn’t ever realize the odds. Some people are just too proud or too stupid to submit to the obvious, even when it smacks you in the face. Lazzar was one of those. Too drunk and high on his own anger to realize the swarm of men that surrounded him the moment that he raised his voice to one of our own.

When Lazarr approached Bonnie and started hurling accusations. He claimed that Bonnie was staring him down, laughing at him, talking shit, that sort of thing. There are many ways that particular conversation could have ended. Flatrock would have likely talked the guy down and diffused the situation, Karl would have just punched him in the face and been done with it.

But neither of those choices fit with Bonnie’s style.

“Look, man,” he said, his voice oozing with mock sincerity, “I can see you’re really upset, but I think I’ve got a solution.” He leaned close to Lazarr’s face, stopping to ash his cigarette on the ground at his feet. “Why don’t you ball up that little fist of yours, go home, and gently fuck yourself?”

Of course, Bonnie could say whatever he wanted. Okie had already gone outside to fetch Zevon, and Toke and Farley were standing just a few feet away, ready for Lazarr to move.

The second Lazarr grabbed the empty bottle, it was over. Before he could even raise the bottle over his head, three people grabbed Lazarr, one at his shoulders, one at his feet, and one pinning the bottle hand to the wall. A moment later, Zevon walked into the room, picked Lazarr up by his color, and dragged him out the door.

We rushed to the window to watch the aftermath unfold in front of the bar. With the aid of Zevon’s prodding, Lazarr traveled the length of the twelve steps without a foot so much as touching the ground. He landed on the side of his face, skidding to a stop after a quick bounce.

At first, Lazarr lay with such stillness that more than a few of us thought he might be dead, but when he started twitching and moving slightly, most of the crowd lost interest. Eventually, he drug himself to his feet and disappeared down the road, leaving only a spot of bloody drool on the sidewalk in front of the bar, a feabile piece of evidence to bear witness to his spectacular fall.

The whole time, Whistler had watched it all unfolding, standing in the back corner, his arms crossed across his chest. When we all reacted with hoots and groans as Lazarr skid off the pavement, Whistler started hooting and laughing in the back corner. He didn’t need to see it. He’d watched it a hundred times before.

Less than an hour later, it was closing time, and I found myself sitting, once again at the card table with Whistler. He reached into his pocket and pulled out my small notebook. He set it on the table reverently in front of me.

“You dropped this in the excitement,” he said, holding out my the little notebook I used for random thoughts. “Seems like it’s important to you.” I reached out and grabbed the notebook, giving him a grateful nod.

“Thanks,” I said, unsure how to proceed. Whistler was clearly curious as to why I spent so much time doodling in the notebook, but he clearly wasn’t going to pry. “It has to do with my brother, Tommy…” Trying to put Tommy’s death into words was like trying to describe a sunset or vocalize the beauty of a well-written song. Despite our best intentions, our need to give proper voice to the profound is often a spectacular failure. Sometimes language just falls short. “…He’s dead now.”

Whistler nodded and took a long pull from the joint. For a moment, he seemed to consider a follow-up question, but then he stopped, realizing perhaps that this was a conversation for another time. “You always been in the habit of writing?” he asked, nodding towards the journal.

“Not always,” I said, “but long enough that it’s become second nature.”

He nodded again, staring at my hands. “That’s not surprising,” he said. “Since I’ve met you, you’ve always struck me as the contemplative-type. A watcher. An observer.”

I nodded grimly. It wasn’t the first time that someone had noticed my propensity to observe. Some would see that as a sign of intelligence, I suppose—only fools rush in, and all that—but to me, it had always been another one of those markers of ignominy. An observer is slow to action, only reluctantly committed to the fight. David and Mark were both men of action, not observers. They were fighters. Just like Tommy.

I had never been a fighter a day in my life.

As the crowd was thinning out, UB and Toke had walked back over towards the bar, readying themselves for the after party.

Whistler reached over and slapped me on the shoulder with his massive palm. “Don’t stress about it,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing.” He huffed, chocking down one of his loud laughs. “It might even lead to a job. Maybe you can be our local reporter. The resident scribe.”

UB was still standing behind the bar, a few feet from our conversation. “That’s it!” he shouted. “You’ve got it.”

I looked back at Whistler, who leaned back with a satisfied grin. “Yup,” he said.

From that moment on, nobody referred to me as Travis.

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