“And now I rub my eyes...for he has returned.
Seems my preconceptions are what should have been burned.
For he still smiles...and he’s still strong...
Nothing’s changed, but the surrounding bullshit, that has grown...
And now he’s home, and we’re laughing, like we always did...
My same old, same old friend...”
—Pearl Jam, ‘Off He Goes’,’ No Code (1996)
The barroom itself is noticeably different from the last time I saw it. The old barn-wood paneling has been replaced by some tin sheathing that was probably modern and cutting edge a decade or so ago. Of course, a faux-modern renovation is hardly a surprise. Resistance to change is a side-effect of the Midwestern mindset. In a place like Drury, the avant-garde has a distinctly stale vibe, but that’s never been one of the things that bothered me about home. Some would find our collective tendency to tiptoe into the waters of history a bit tedious, but to me it spoke more to dependability and consistency than hesitation. Years ago, I left this place with a bag full of fears and misplaced aspirations, and I’ve been searching for consistency ever since, so it would be more than a bit hypocritical of me to split hairs, now.
Looking about the barroom, looking past the remodeled walls and newly purchased barstools, I can’t help but feel that nothing has really changed. The minutia of the barroom is different—posters on the wall, neon lights hanging in the windows, but the atmosphere is exactly the same, a familiar mood that I can almost smell in the air. I had walked in expecting to see a handful of familiar faces, but a quick look around only reveals fresh-faced strangers. Even more unsettling, I’ve never heard the pop-rock anthem bleeding through the speakers.
Between the lack of recognizable faces and the unsettling song, the warm embrace of familiarity that I felt when I walked through the door suddenly fades, and I am confronted with the same sickening feeling I had endured when I looked at those girls on the island. I’m plagued by a sudden, nauseating certainty that I should be standing across the street at Garrett’s.
Shaking the thought from my mind, I walk over to the bar and ask the bartender for a Budweiser. When she comes back, she sets the dripping bottle down on the lacquered bar, and places her hand awkwardly on my own as I stare down at my feet.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” she asks. I look deeply at her face, but I draw a complete blank. She is probably about my age, so I know that I should know her, but nothing clicks, just a plain-looking but pretty-ish girl with shoulder length, sandy-colored hair. An unremarkable extra in the back of a movie scene.
During the few seconds of lull after her question, I feel the unbearable weight of awkward conversation. It feels as though I should say something, but no words come. This is why I have always hung around with people who are louder than I am.
It’s also what drew me to my new friends when I went away to Whitehaven. It’s why I was so ready to follow Whistler without hesitation. It’s why Whistler called me an observer.
Some people thrive in social situations. Some people make connections with ease. Typically, I’m more likely to break out in a cold sweat than find something clever to say.
“It’s ok,” she says at last, mercifully ending the silence. “Nobody recognizes me anymore. I’m Carrie Bounds. We graduated together.” It takes me a moment, but I eventually recall. It’s no wonder I didn’t recognize her. In fact, it’s hard to even believe the girl standing in front of me could be the same person from my memory. She is literally a quarter of the size of her former self. In school, everyone called her Carrie Pounds because she was easily the largest girl in our class. The name was passed back and forth with ease. No one really said it to her face, but they didn’t exactly look over their shoulder, either.
“Wow,” I say. “You look great.”
She smiles and nods enthusiastically. Clearly she enjoys this interaction, the “new-me” reveal to the pseudo-stranger that wanders into the bar. Judging by her face, it doesn’t happen that often, which means that her transformation must have occurred awhile back. The new-car smell is fading, the clock on her fifteen minutes about to expire.
“So what have you been up to?” she asks.
“Oh, you know. Same old thing. Just working.” Sometimes the breadth of my conversational abilities amazes me.
“What brings you back to town?” she asks.
For some strange reason, I momentarily panic, as if this girl tending bar at the Black Dogg can somehow see directly into my thoughts. “I’m just here for family, you know.” I say quickly. “Visiting my dad.”
The change in her demeanor is instantaneous. Though she smiles politely, I can already see her beginning to pull away. Shutting down. This is one of those occurrences that drove me from Drury all those years ago, another one of those good-news/bad-news situations. On the one hand, you have the close-knit community, the village raising the child and all that. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a family secret. My father’s storied past was as well known to most people in Drury as their grandmother’s recipes. Every one of them would look me square in the eye and say “it’s not your fault” if I asked, but they’d all be lying.
Right or wrong the price of societal intimacy is judgment, plain and simple.
I had grown up with it, wearing my father’s reputation as a shroud. More often than not, I found myself apologizing for his existence to just about everyone. We all have our go-to habits, our nervous ticks. My mother’s was an infuriating mask of optimism, mine was constant apology.
There was a time that I believed that Tommy’s death might change things, some kind of ancillary benefit to losing my brother and best friend. After my mother died, I realized that it was just a pipe dream. Even the karma build-up of a cancer-stricken brother and dead mom wasn’t enough to wash the stink of Marvin Kauffman off my chest.
“Well,” she says. “It’s great to see you.” Though I resent the sudden change in her tone, I can’t help but feel a little relieved to be released from the conversation.
I watch her move down the bar and shake my head. She is literally a shadow of her former self, like the fat that surrounded her body was nothing more than a cocoon, growing the pretty girl inside. Though she isn’t the kind of girl you notice the second you walk into the room, she’s definitely attractive. I try to think back to how I might have treated her in school. Was I mean to her? Was I one of the boys throwing nasty names around? I can’t remember, but the answer was probably yes. If it wasn’t me personally, it most certainly would have been one of my friends. In the end, laughing at the name in front of her was just as bad as saying it yourself.
I grab the bottle of Bud, and I take a long drink. If there’s one thing I missed about being back home it was cold beer. For some reason, the rest of the world didn’t seem to always realize the importance of keeping beer as cold as possible. Over at Garrett’s, they even charge an extra quarter for bottles coated in ice. They call them wall-huggers, the bottles left in the corner of the drop coolers. The condensation freezes and forms a protective barrier of ice around the bottle. Not enough to freeze the contents, but enough to leave a layer of slush in the neck. This beer isn’t a wall-hugger, but it’s awfully damn cold.
A few stools down, there is an old man hunched over the bar, muttering to himself. His skinny, discolored elbows are poking out from a hole in the sleeve of his flannel shirt, and judging by his disheveled hair and three-day neck whiskers, he looks as though he’s on the tail end of a long bender. He is nursing a highball glass filled with amber-colored booze and drooling slightly out of the corner of his mouth. The man looks at me for a moment, and grunts his disapproval.
It seems as though our interaction will end with a disinterested nod, when he suddenly leans across a bar stool and points a bony finger at me, his grimy black fingernail a few inches from my face. “You shouldn’t be here,” he shouts. Surprised, I rock back on the stool, nearly toppling backwards onto the floor. The old man squeals with delight. “Eeeh, hee, hee,” he says, choking out a shrill laugh and sending hurls of spit misting through the air.
“What the fuck is your problem?”
Catching sight of the formerly fat bartender, who has taken notice of his antics, the old man calms instantly. “Didn’t mean, nothing by it. Nothin’ at all,” he says, waving a hand at the bartender and taking a long slurp from his glass. When she turns her attention to another patron, the old man continues, this time his voice hushed and low. “What cha doing here, boy?” he asks. “That’s what I’m askin’.”
“I’m just killing time,” I say, straightening myself in my chair. My voice takes on a hard edge as I try to reclaim a bit of my dignity. “What’s it to you, anyway?”
The old man nods gravely, “That’s what I thought,” he says. “That’s what I thought.” He stands and grabs me by the shoulder, knotting up my shirt in his bony knuckles. “You’ve gotta be careful with that, boy. Wasting time aint nothin’ but temporary suicide.”
The bartender turns back towards us as he leans across the bar to grab my shirt. I hear her yell for the bouncer at the front door, and a few seconds later, the fresh-faced bouncer grabs the old man from behind and begins to pull him away from me. “Let’s go Emmet,” the bouncer says. “I’m sick of your shit.” The bouncer is grumbling more to himself that talking to the old man. “Every fucking night,” he says, yanking on the old man’s arm.
Emmet looks back and forth from me to the bouncer, pleading for leniency, glancing at me with pathetic eyes. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” he shouts. “Just talking with the boy.”
The bouncer slaps the old man’s hand away and puts his nose inches from the old man’s face. “Enough, pay your tab. It’s time to go.”
Like a chastised child, the old man frowns and looks down at his feet. He reaches into his pockets and pulls out a wadded twenty dollar bill. After he throws it onto the bar, the bouncer begins to drag him away. “That enough?” the bouncer asks the bartender, already half shoving the old man out the door. She looks up from the rinse sink and waves her hand in apathetic approval as the bouncer pushes the old man completely out the door.
A bit shell-shocked, I sit in silence and stare at the twenty dollar bill on the bar top. The forest-green edges of the weathered bill slowly change to the color of black moss as the bill soaks up the condensation from Emmet’s forgotten drink. I hear a noise from the corner, a cross between a yawn and a low, guttural growl, and I lean on my stool to look around the edge of the bar. Just past where Emmet was sitting, I see an ancient, mangy dog curled up in the corner.
The dog has patchy, calico-colored fur, and even curled up in a ball, it looks old. Sensing my gaze, the dog lifts its head and sniffs the air, its deep-blue cataract-filled eyes seeing nothing. Eventually it rises, stumbling a few arthritic steps forward like a canine Lazarus walking forth from its tomb. After about fifteen feet, exhausted from the effort, the dog crumples again into a ball near the outside wall of the bar.
I nod my head at Carrie and flick a thumb over my shoulder at the dog. “Is that the owner’s dog, Shaggy?”
Carrie nods her head and grunts in disgust. When I first started coming to the Black Dogg, when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, the owner of the bar, Sue Denning, was sitting in the back both every single night, and her dog, Shaggy, would sit by her side every evening. I remember some of the regulars giving her grief that she owned a bar called the Black Dogg, but she came in every night with a calico-colored mutt that she had found walking alone in the country.
“I don’t give a shit what my dad named this place,” she said, “and I don’t want a goddamn black dog. I want Shaggy.” As a result, Shaggy became the ill-suited, poorly colored mascot of the Black Dogg.
Carrie waves her hand in the dog’s direction, seemingly cursing its very existence. “Two years ago, Sue drops dead from a heart attack, and leaves the bar to her dipshit, cheapskate son.” Without even asking, she pulls another Budweiser from the cooler and slides it in my direction. “Keeping the dog here was his idea of paying tribute to his mom, but the truth is, he’s just a lazy asshole. He shows up once a week to grab money and try to water down the liquor. Leaves me and the other bartenders to feed that thing and clean up its shit.” Though I’m a little surprised by her forceful critique of her boss, the few people within earshot seem to nod in agreement, and she goes back to washing glasses. Though the clear and brutal Culver-County honesty is refreshing, it’s also a grim reminder of the conversations that I’ll be having over the next few days.
As Carrie walks away, I grab the beer and throw a toast in the dog’s general direction. “To longevity,” I say, laughing at the disgusted look on Carrie’s face.
“Trey Fucking Kauffman!”
The announcement comes from the direction of the pool tables in the back room of the bar. I look up and see a tall, dark-skinned man in a tank top standing in the doorway of the billiards room. Although he has lost a bit of hair, and he sports a few new tattoos creeping up his arms, my old friend, Mark Caldwell looks exactly the same as he did five years ago.
He drops a pool cue against the back of a booth and walks across the floor in a half-trot. When he reaches me, he grabs me around the shoulder and gives me the kind of hug that only very old friends can share. “Where the fuck have you been, man?”
Along with David, and of course Tommie, Mark had been one of my best friends when I was younger. He had always been the kind of guy that was impossible not to admire. Without fail, he said what was on his mind to anyone who might be listening, and he gave less than a shit who might be offended or upset. From the day he was born, he was endowed with a kind of bravery that I have never been able to muster in my entire life, a courage that completely negated self-consciousness.
“I’m going to get us some fucking beers. You drinking Bud?” In less than a minute of conversation, it was plain to see that nothing had changed about my old friend. He still said the word fuck approximately as often as the average person said the word the, and he still carried himself with a fierce, unstoppable momentum. Though he was thin and muscular, he moved like a bowling ball, rolling forward with complete disregard for any objects in his path.
He was the kind of person that made normal, polite people unsettled. Walking in the mall or standing in line for movie tickets, he would elicit quick glances and random shuffling of feet. It wasn’t that he looked like a criminal or a terrorist—though his naturally dark complexion did give him a vague middle-eastern air, but there was something about him that challenged people. For some, his vast collection of tattoos might be unsettling, especially the bright red devil on the top of his right hand, but for most, his appearance really had very little to do with people’s reaction. The discomfort he seemed to elicit in others couldn’t be attributed to any one characteristic. It was just an aura with which he carried himself, the kind of careless impulse-driven personality that defied easy categorization.
Those same qualities also made him a fiercely loyal friend, and I suddenly feel immensely grateful that he is here.
As we drink a few beers and roll through a few games of pool, it becomes apparent that neither one of us is overly interested in rehashing the past few years. Though we share a little bit of the what-have-you-been-doing-lately chit chat, it’s pretty clear that Mark is even less concerned about talking specifics than I am, which is a tremendous relief.
“We should call David,” Mark says, slamming down a shot of Rumplemintz. “It’s Friday, maybe he’ll actually come out.”
“He doesn’t come out much anymore, huh?”
“You mean Mr. Family Man? Fuck no! Aimee’s got him tied up pretty tight, you know?” For a moment, that name hangs in the air like a puff of smoke. Of all of the loose ends that I’m going to find myself tying in the next few days, Aimee has been the one that I’ve thought about most over the last few years. I had managed to successfully leave my father behind, and no matter how far away I went, Tommy and Mom were going to stay buried, but Aimee was a different story. The one ghost that wouldn’t stay buried. Like it or not, she had always been a voice of reason and a moral compass, and when push came to shove it had always been her voice speaking in the back of my mind. How could I look at her now, knowing how often I had ignored that voice?
I can tell that Mark is uncharacteristically nervous. For a guy who’s never at a loss for words, he seems dumbfounded about how to proceed. Sweeping five years of our questionable decisions under the rug is one thing, tackling the Aimee/Trey/David situation is another. “Don’t sweat it, man. I’m happy for them,” I say. “Give him a call.”
Mark pulls out his phone and gives David a call. “No surprise, man. Didn’t answer.” Mark disappears through the doorway and re-emerges a few minutes later with another round. “Only one solution to a problem like this,” he says. “Drink more…faster.”
One of many Mark-ism that I haven’t heard in so many years. Since the moment I crossed the county line, I have struggled with the uniformity and lack of change. Though in some ways, the old familiarity is comforting, it also feels distinctly toxic, as though too much might cause me to choke. Thankfully, Mark’s presence feels distinctly like an exception. He is my same old friend, and talking with him over a game of pool is the first chance I’ve had to feel normal in longer than I can recall.
Two games later, I was lining up the eight ball for a bank shot in the corner pocket when I heard Mark let out a gasp. “Holy shit,” he said. “He’s here.”
David is standing in the doorway of the billiards room looking towards us with a strange, half-cocked smile on his lips. It’s clear neither of us is exactly sure how to proceed, but it is good to see him. I walk over and meet him halfway between the door and the pool table. “How are you doing, man?” I ask, grabbing his hand and wrapping up his shoulder in a half-hug. “It’s good to see you.”
Unlike my first few moments with Mark, my embrace with David feels a little uneasy. Not awkward, exactly, but a little more forced, as though we are both distinctly conscious of the water flowing below the bridge. I look at him for a moment, unsure of what to say. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the wedding. I’m really happy for you guys.” I blurt it all out in quick succession, eager to tackle the elephant in the room.
He smiles, and waves the thought away like flies buzzing through the air. “It’s ok, man,” he says. “I’m just glad you’re home. Aimee will be happy to see you, too.”
Before long, we have shared another few drinks, and we’ve all fallen back into an easy rhythm, as if the past years and the separations had never occurred. David is noticeably behind in drinks, but he doesn’t seem to mind. We fill the next few hours dusting off old stories and rehashing punch lines that we haven’t heard in years.
At around 10:15, David looks at his watch. Almost immediately, his shoulders stiffen and he looks towards the door. “I’ve got to get home,” he says.
“Aww, fuck that!” Mark snaps. “You’re out with the boys. She never lets you come out anymore.” Mark, who’s had far more shots and just as many beers as we have, is starting to sound pretty drunk.
David slams his hand down on the pool table and points his fingers at Mark. “It’s got nothing to do with her,” he says. “You know damn well it’s got a lot more to do with your new friends and your little job than anything else.”
I’m not sure what exactly is going on between them, but Mark walks away almost immediately without another word. David stares for a moment at Mark’s back as he walks towards the bathroom before he says another word. “Don’t worry about that,” he says. “it’s been brewing between us for a while.”
When we were growing up, our roles had been pretty clearly defined. Mark had always been the adrenaline glands of our group, and I had been the reticent one. I always couched it as being ‘the voice of reason,’ but the truth is that I was always afraid. I never had the guts that Mark or David had. They were always willing to walk further out on the ledge.
David had been the de facto leader. He was the one that struck the balance between Mark’s latest scheme and my reluctance. He waded through the bullshit and pointed us in the right direction.
It was hard to tell for sure what was going on between them, but if I had to guess it probably had something to do with Gil Grady. David’s life plan had been set from the time he was born. His great-grandfather owned a feed store on the river, and from the moment he first opened his eyes, he was the heir apparent to a tiny but respectable family business.
I was the one that was supposed to go off to college and make something of myself. The smart one. The one with a big future. I had always been saddled with the expectation of potential, a refrain I heard over and over again after my mother died. You can’t let this ruin your future, they’d say. You’ve got so much potential. You’re whole life is ahead of you.
Any time there is a tragedy, people want to say something comforting. It’s a visceral reaction. An empathy-reflex. In the wake of terrible circumstance, everyone turns almost immediately into robotic drones, spitting out the most accessible bit of Hallmark wisdom they can muster.
After Tommy’s death, I’d had about all of the Hallmark sympathy I could muster. Mom’s accident only pushed it all over the edge.
Rather than deal with my father, I moved in with David and his family. Our mothers had been best friends, too, and from the moment of her death, my arrangements for the rest of my senior year were a forgone conclusion. I’d live with the Harris family for the rest of the year, graduate high school, run off to Whitehaven, and then begin my bigger, better life. That was the plan. Simple and clear.
The fact that I’m standing here now is proof that the plan was a colossal failure. Even without any of the details, both of my friends could tell that.
Mark’s life prospects were a little harder to determine. On the one hand, he had never been a terrible student, but he wasn’t exactly a scholar either. He was very good with his hands and mechanically inclined, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to tie himself down to a nine-to-five. Based on the look on David’s face, I could only assume that Mark had fallen in with some level of the shady underground economy that secretly drove Culver County. Either directly or indirectly, that probably meant that Mark worked for Gil Grady.
David threw one last quick nod in my direction before he turns toward the door. “It really is good to see you,” he says, and then he’s off as quickly as he arrived.
I walk out into the main barroom, and I can see that Mark is sitting at the counter, flirting with Carrie Bounds. As the evening has worn on, the hustle and flow of the bar has increased. Like the bouncer, all of the patrons look fresh-faced and barely old enough to walk through the door, even with the Black Dogg’s relaxed age policy. I walk over to the bay window at the front of the bar and stare out across the street towards Garrett’s Tavern. Unlike the bright, neon façade of the Black Dogg, Garrett’s is dark and understated. Other than a half-lit Pabst Blue Ribbon neon light handing near the front door, you probably wouldn’t even know the place was still open if you drove by on the street. It doesn’t really matter, though. Garrett’s doesn’t exactly rely on foot traffic or the latest advertising trends.
Mark eventually walks back over and hands me another beer. I take a few hard swallows, still staring out the window. “Looks like you were hitting it off,” I say.
“You mean with Pounds, up there? No way.” Mark was certainly one of the people who would have used the nickname within earshot, probably without a second thought.
“I don’t know,” I say, poking at his ribs.
Mark smiles brightly as he slaps my hand away. “Naw, man, I get it, I do. She looks great,” he leans in closely, billowing whiffs of Rumplemintz in my face, “but you gotta think about the skin.”
At first, I laugh because I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about, but his face seems surprisingly serious, taught cheeks and furrowed brow. “She had the surgery, you know? Bar-i-a-tric.” He says the word in four, thick syllables. “What about all that extra skin? I’ve seen programs on the Discovery Channel, you know?”
Mark was slipping into a point in the evening of no return, so I slap him on the shoulder and nudge him in the bartender’s direction. “What’s the harm in finding out?”
Before he turns back to the bar, a young, black-haired kid, maybe twenty years old walks up and pushes his way between us. “The fuck are doing bringing your sorry ass back to town?” The kid doesn’t shove me, but he sticks his nose a few inches from my chin. He’s short, maybe five foot seven, but he’s muscular and lean.
I stand motionless staring at the top of his greasy black hair. Before I can move, Mark shoves him from the side sending him hurling at least ten feet before he catches himself against a high-top table. “The fuck is your problem?” Mark shouts, clenching his fist and walking towards the boy.
The boy’s confidence has completely eroded, but he does his best to regain his composure. “My problem is with him,” he says, pointing a finger in my direction. “Him and his old man.”
I glance back across the street and look and Garrett’s again. That didn’t take long.
Mark appears to be just moments away from complete frenzy, but before he raises his fists, the boy takes three quick steps backwards and runs directly into the bouncer. The bouncer reaches out, grabs the boy by the collar of his shirt and stares at Mark in silence, as though he were waiting for some kind of direction or approbation. Mark gives a slight, nearly imperceptible nod, and the bouncer starts dragging his catch towards the door, the young man clasped firmly in his grasp. Though he throws his hands up in weak protest, there is little he can do to slow his exit.
“What the fuck was that?” I ask.
Mark turns back to me and pauses, breathing deeply and trying to center himself. “It was Tyrian Collins. That’s Donna Collins’ youngest.” I slowly shake my head, as I watch the bouncer out the window. He shuffles the boy down the street towards the parking lot before giving the boy a final shove that lands him face-first in a ditch. Donna Collins…Another ghost of Culver County that will forever refuse to stay buried. “Don’t worry about it, man. It’s not your fault.” Mark points to the side of my shirt. In the skirmish, I had managed to spill the rest of my beer, half of it landing on me and the other half on the floor. “Let me get you another one,” he says.
I reach out and grab his arm. “Don’t worry about it,” I say. “I’ve got to go across the street and see my father, anyway.” From the tone of my voice, Mark can tell I’m looking forward to the process about as much as I might look forward to a root canal.
“You sure that’s a good idea?”
“No,” I say, “but I don’t have much of a choice.” Mark starts to speak again, but then stops. Though we hadn’t seen each other in years, he can still read me, distinguish my limits. I suppose that’s one of the benefits of being very old friends. “Go get back to work on Bounds up there,” I say, attempting to break the mood. “Tell me how it works out.”
He smiles broadly and slaps me on the shoulder. For a moment, his hand lingers on my shoulder while he attempts to say something profound about our reunion. After a few seconds, the hand drops away, and he simply says, “I’m glad you’re home.”
As I watch him walk back towards the bar, I think about those simple words glad you’re home. Though nothing about my return to this place makes me feel anything close to glad, I must admit that it’s good to see Mark and David again.
When I open the door, a blast of cold bites immediately at my cheeks. The temperature has dropped at least twenty degrees since I first walked into the bar. I take a deep breath of the chilly air, and look across the street at the old man’s bar.
My grandmother always said that folks in the River Valley knew about the winter before the weatherman. “You can taste it,” she’d say. “Sure as salt on green beans, you can taste the winter in the air.”
After one last taste of the approaching winter, I step off the curb towards Garrett’s Tavern.