Monday, November 19, 2012

Chapter Two


Blood Chapter Two 



Briar woke early in the morning. He wasn't sure whether it was the light, white and bulbous streaming through a crack in the heavy green curtains on a direct path to his eyes, or the screaming child running through the living room that did it. Neither one of them reacted very well with the brimming hangover that threatened to explode into full-on sickness. He put his hand over his eyes to block out the sun and used the stiff cushions of the couch he was laying on to try to block out the child. Neither one was very effective and he figured it was better to just get up. 
The living room was a small, musty square cluttered with a rainbow of plastic toys. The child stood in the middle of it in a pair of saggy panties and a face stained pink. Briar had startled the little girl by swinging up from the couch so suddenly. She stood staring at him, her arms still in mid-tantrum and face frozen with an anger that wasn’t quite committed to melting into fear. Briar thought she looked like a surprised mutt trying to decide if it was safe to continue tearing through the garbage. When he fell still and managed a weak, confused smile, she decided he was harmless. She threw her arms down to her thighs, took a sharp breath, and after one more wary glance toward the stranger let loose a torrent of song and noisemaking and marched back off down the hall from whence she came. Briar only watched in stunned amazement.
It took a minute to remember just where he was. The day before had put a warp on his mind. Not just the drinking, but the boy. He had driven around for a while afterword wondering if he should go back and talk to Henry. He thought he should try to smooth things out and control just what he told his mother. He tried to form the conversation in his head as the truck rumbled down the boulevard. He wasn't necessarily trying to formulate a lie, but he didn't think he should really come out looking bad either, and he knew he couldn't trust the boy to keep important details from her. He sipped at his bottle as he passed out of town and into the farmland that bordered it to the north. The streetlights streaked by lulling him into meandering thoughts, and no matter how much he tried to return to the boy, the talk, his wife, they escaped him like sand through his fingers. The whiskey and the monotonous roar of the truck were like a lullaby. Sleep was rapidly approaching. There was more whiskey and the darkness never went away. He had been outside talking to somebody, trying to talk them into something and a lot of whispering. Then he woke up and his head pounded and the liquor sat festering heavy in his stomach. 
"Abigail, knock it off."
The voice was shrill and mean. It sounded like a blown out speaker. Briar was glad he was not Abigail.
"Yr daddy's tryin t'sleep," the voice said again and the child who had just been screaming and marching came walking slowly, defeated, back into the living room. She wouldn’t look at Briar.
Briar fished around in the trash on the coffee table for a cigarette.
"Oh shit," the voice said, this time much closer. 
He looked up and saw Vicki Clausen standing at the end of the hallway. She was wearing a short silk bathrobe that barely covered her dark, freckled thigh. It was open at the front and Briar could see the matted tuft of hair between her legs. the round mass of her breast, a thick, brown nipple silhouetted against the white fabric. There was the spark of recognition in her eyes and she was slow to cover herself up.
"When you git here?" she asked. Her voice had gone airy and soft.
"Last night," he answered with a pained smile. 
Was it last night. Had he blacked out. No, she would have known.
He didn't lift his eyes from her body and he didn't stop smiling. How, he wondered, did an old slob like Clyde Clausen end up with a beauty like Vicki. He wasn't rich or smart. He sure as hell wasn't good looking, and Vicki wasn't the type of girl who looked for personality. She wasn't faithful to him. Briar knew that first hand. He figured the answer lied in the big, blue eyes looking up at her and the tiny little hands clinging to her bare calf. 
"I didn even hear y'come in."
"I's tryin t'be quiet," he said. 
He found a cigarette in a crumpled pack under a magazine. They weren't his brand, but he didn't care. He stuck it in his mouth and lit it and inhaled the smoke deep into his lungs. He leaned back on the couch and grimaced under the throb of his headache. 
"Y'did good," Vicki said. 
She stroked her girl's hair lovingly and when the child tugged at her robe, she crouched down to hear the secret. 
"Yes, baby, we can make pancakes."
The two ladies stepped over a field of random, brightly colored toys to make there way to the kitchen. She talked sweetly to the girl explaining each pan and bowl and utensil she pulled out. She told a story of how her mother used to make pancakes with her when she was a girl. She told of how they had a blueberry bush and she would get up early to go pick the fruit and how her mother would let her stir the blueberries into the pancake batter. Briar listened and smoked and thought about how nice it would be to have some pancakes in his belly. He could hear the rattle of the spoon in the mixing bowl and then the sizzle of the batter being poured out into the pan. Abigail giggled and cooed and Vicki warned her to not get too close to the hot pan. 
The cigarette smoke sizzled into the raw flesh of his lungs. He smoked one after the other when he drank, taking the smoke in as deep as he could, the whiskey telling him that the burn and the cough was actually pleasure. The next day he paid plenty, but he wasn't going to stop. Of course, there was always the voice there, swimming sickeningly in the pain and the throbbing and the raspy nausea, saying that this one was the last one. He should quit. He shouldn't drink and he shouldn't smoke. He listened to that voice while he sucked down the smoldering leaf and wondered if it was beer or whiskey that would take the blunt, bleating edge off this hangover. He wasn't going to stop because in all his life, in all the begging and striving for relief, nothing gave him a moment of respite like a good drunk or a smoke. He stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray and stood. The throbbing in his head intensified and he had to stand with his eyes closed for a minute to allow it to subside.
"Too much fun last night?"
Vicki was standing just outside the kitchen with a plate in one hand and a fork in the other. 
"Not too much," Briar said and smiled and patted down his pockets to find his keys and wallet.
"Y'wanna watch cartoons, Abby?" Vicki asked
The child shook her head vigorously and licked her lips. 
"Well, have a seat."
The child scampered over to the couch sliding through Briar's legs and cried, "Mooooove," once she had taken a seat. 
"Pardon," Briar said and moved as he was told.
The girl grabbed up the remote control and tapped the television to life. She flipped through a few channels until she found what she wanted and then settled into the couch that all but swallowed her little body up. Vicki set the plate in her daughter's lap and stood back up and looked at Briar. 
"I hope you like Super Dog," she said demurely.
"S'my favorite."
She turned and walked back into the kitchen.
"You like cartoons?" Abigail asked. 
Briar looked around as if there might have been someone else she was talking to. He mumbled something and shuffled a bit, but then finally answered, "Yeah, I, uh, they's some good'ns."
The girl smiled broadly, her lips glistening with syrup and her mouth full of pancakes. She patted the couch cushion next to her for him to sit. He eased himself down and thought how nice it would be to have a drink just then. 
"What's this'n called?" he asked.
"It's Super Dog," Abigail said. She swallowed her mouthload of pancake and went on. "It's not the best, but it's still good."
"Oh yeah?"
"Yeah."
"What's th'best'n?"
"Prooooblyyy..." She looked up to the ceiling, her eyes and her brain working hard to answer such a serious question. She chewed her food methodically and evenly, her entire body wiggling in time with her teeth. She hummed quietly as she thought.
"Probly, Josie and the Group Hug," she said finally. 
"That's th'best?"
"Yeah. It's really cool and funny and stuff. It's about a band and they're cats and they play music and make people happy."
"That does sound purty nice," Briar said and smiled at the girl. She had stopped chewing but her body still wiggled it's dance.
"Y'hungry, Briar?" Vicki hollered from the kitchen.
Rather than answer, he leaned in to whisper to Abigail.
"Them pancakes any good?"
Abigail nodded her head slowly and smiled and said, "Mmmmmhmmmm."
"Think I'll get me some, then," he said and got up from the couch.
Vicki was pouring a fresh batch of batter in the pan in front of her and rounding it out with a spatula. She looked up at Briar and smiled and repeated, "Y'hungry?"
Briar noticed right away that her robe was open again, the delicate hump of her belly pressed against the metal handle of the oven door, the course tendrils of pubic hair peaking out from the shadow of her thigh.
"Y'got somethin fr me?" Briar asked and moved in closer to her.
He slid his hand across her belly and up around her breast and she smiled. She began to tell him that Clyde was in the bedroom but he ran his thumb and forefinger around her stiff nipple and squeezed slightly. 
"Yr a bad man," she managed to say. 
"And yr a bad woman,” Briar said and spread his fingers out over her breast. 
She dropped the spatula into the pan and pushed his hand away.
“Goddamnit, Briar,” she hissed and fumbled to close up her robe again.
Briar stepped back looking hurt.
“Clyde’s right in th’back bedroom. He come out any minute,” she protested.
Briar smiled like he had just gotten away with extra candy. He moved in closer again, but this time kept his hand outside the robe. He ran the tips of his fingers down her back slowly. He liked the way her back twitched under them, but then pushed back against them ever so slightly. He liked the way she lowered her head and pretended to ignore him by attending the pancakes. 
He asked her what time he had gotten there and she said she had no idea.
“What time Clyde get in th’bed?”
“I don’t know. Probly bout two. Maybe it was three.”
“Y’all go at it?”
“Fr god’s sake, Briar,” she said and pulled away from his hand, but she smiled too.
“Yeah?”
“Ain’t none of yr business!”
He looked her over as if reading every statement her body had to make, and she didn’t like it. He alternately smiled and rolled his eyes all in some protracted ritual not unlike a snakecharmer.
“Naw, y’all didn do nothin,” he said finally and snickered.
“Briar Pupp,” she said and slapped his chest and plopped two browned pancakes onto a plate.
“There’s syrup over there,” she said pointing to the table and went right back to making more pancakes as if the matter were settled and there was only business to attend to.

§

It was hot outside, and the air still wet with morning, though he was sure it was past noon. The sun was yellow and blinding. It seemed to make his swollen head balloon out even wider, thump harder, his stomach twist and slide slower and sicklier. Jesus, Fucking, Christ, he thought. 
The Clausen's apartment was on the second level of a brown and beige building lost in the repetitive concrete vista of a complex filled with a couple hundred strangers. It was the kind of place no one planned on staying for long, but never left. His footsteps echoed around the little alcove outside their door. They sounded metallic and monstrous as he walked down the two flights of concrete stairs, each step jostling the noxious bubble in his gut. At the bottom, stepping out into the sunshine and the heat, he had to stop. He lit a cigarette from the pack he took off the table and took a deep breath, savoring it like it was a tonic. He tried to stretch out the nausea. He tried to will it away and ignore it, but then his skin went cold and his gut went numb. His asshole tightened and that bubble zoomed up his throat. He let the cigarette drop from his mouth, for this was the point of no return. He dodged to the side, panic making him colder and sicker. He pushed his way along the wall to his left putting himself behind a row of bushes. All within that initial spasm, Briar bent over and held back anything that might get splattered and at the last instant opened his mouth and a foamy melange of whiskey and beer and bile and pancake leapt from his body in a violent torrent that tasted like maple syrup and grapefruit juice, but smelled like Evan Williams through and through. Just before suffocation took him the slew ran dry and he sucked in a deep, desperate breath that burned his throat and lungs. His body tensed and there was another. The whole of the fiery, unforgiving universe poured through him and out onto the ground, across the wall, dripping languidly from the teardrop leaves of the bush. Twenty four hours in the life of Briar Pupp blazoned out in front of him. A breath. His arms and legs were shaking and he couldn't stop the whimpering, sucking at the air. He thought he was going to pass out, but then his muscles went rigid, his back bowed and another, smaller torrent fell out wet and thick into the puddle he had made, and it didn't stop once his gut was empty. Just to make sure, just so the torture was complete, his gut kept wrenching, twisting and pushing and he made sick, deathly grunts out into the air, every vein in his face engorged with his poisoned blood. 
His body relaxed and warmth flooded back into his flesh from the nether. His gut settled, but Briar didn't trust it so he didn't straighten up just yet. He took slow breaths and let the sour bile in his mouth drip out onto the ground. In his head, a mantra of regret repeated over and over with his breath, fuuuckfuuuckfuuuuuck. Then he heard a thump right next to his head. 
He turned, sucking up the bitter string hanging from his lower lip, and he realized he was bent over next to a window. Just behind it, a thick, white curtain was parted around a thin, calico cat and a fat, pale child. They stared at him, both stoic and inquisitive as if this was a spectacle whose purpose had yet to be revealed. Briar felt a bit of fear, but his body was too weak and hurt to move away. Their faces were inches apart, a thin sheet of glass and mesh screen between them. The cat licked at it's whiskers and then looked off beyond him. The child, less than a year old, stared right into Briar's eyes. It's mouth was crusted with some kind of dried, brown substance, it's nostrils wet and flaky with snot. Briar spit a final wad of puke into his puddle and the kid flinched, but didn't break it's gaze. When Briar stood, the cat whipped it's head back around and then ducked back into the darkness. The kid just stared. 
"Go on," Briar hissed and wrapped a knuckle against the glass. The kid flinched as if broken from a trance. It looked down at Briar's hand, the one that had knocked the glass, then returned it's stare to his face as he moved away, out from behind the bush and out of site. 
He moved down the walkway spitting thick wads of acidic phlegm into the dead and dying grass that was one of several neglected patches that passed for community lawn. Oasis in a concrete sea. They were littered with the tell-tale signs that they were no one's in particular. Ragged, sun-bleached plastic toys. Crushed soda cans. A potpourri of candy wrappers and cigarette butts. Years of padded down and ignored patches of grass walked over on the way here or there. Everything about the place, not just the little yards but the buildings, the air, the sounds: the highway that knotted it's way through the sparsely-inhabited countryside less than a mile away, was transient. Neglected. 
Briar stood at the end of the sidewalk and lit another cigarette and scanned the parking lot. 
"Fuck," he said stomping at the ground and spitting out a thick, grey stream of smoke.
He didn't see his truck. The fact seemed to make his headache worse, as if his brain was having it's own pissy fit kicking at the back of his eyes. He took a deep drag from the cigarette and scanned the parking lot again. He squinted his eyes against the globulous yellow of the new sun looking for the truck, splotch of red, the old crackled city sticker on the windshield. Nothing.
Did he even drive here last night? He supposed it was possible he had met up with Clyde at Hawkeye's or somewhere like it and he or someone else had driven him here. But if that was the case, why didn't they just take him home? 
It would have been easier to just go back inside and ask Clyde, but he didn't want to. For all the rejection she had given him, as soon as Clyde had gotten out of bed, farting and belching and grumbling indecipherable meanness, Vicki decided she liked Briar touching her, trying to fuck her. He was halfway through his pancakes when he heard his friend up and carping. Vicki had slid back down the hallway to greet her husband and he said something Briar couldn't make out. Then she came back with a hurt, disappointed look on her face and her skimpy little robe pulled tighter. Briar knew what would come next. He knew this girl. He knew her kind. When she wanted attention, she was going to get it. If her man wasn't going to give it to her, his friend would. And wouldn't all that drama be icing on the cake. She started out by just walking closer to him, brushing up against him as if the little dining nook was just too small, and letting the friction pull her robe open a bit. She was sure to pull it nice and tight when Clyde came out from the back. Briar had seen her do it. Clyde came in the kitchen, said hello, got himself some coffee, and as he stood at the kitchen counter stirring in cream and sugar, Vicki slid out, brushing against Briar and he could feel soft skin against his arm. He looked up slowly, knowing what he was going to see but not wanting to, and she moved the edge of the robe back just enough to expose one stiffened nipple. She smiled that smile and kept moving. She ran her fingertips against his arm then turned completely away from him. Clyde followed her out and announced he was going to take a shit. Briar got up from the table and slid his plate back into the sink and stood there shaking his head and patting once again for his keys. Silently, magically, she was back and she reached around him, her hand sliding over the downward slant of his flaccid penis. He turned toward her and with one stiff, gritty finger in her chest pushed her back.
"Y'had yr chaince," he said. 
He didn't smile. He didn't even look down at her deliriously wonderful body. He simply pulled his key ring out of his pocket and walked into the living room. Behind him he heard her hiss the word asshole.  
"Good seein y'Abigail," he said to the tiny girl sitting slumped over a sloppy plate, entire body enraptured by the television screen. She didn't move or speak or acknowledge him in any way. He smiled and walked out the door. 
The lot was a wide concrete tract composing the center of the complex, the brown and beige buildings encircling it like stones around a fire pit. The sun glinted off a million windshields sending a billion pinpricks of light into his eyes, his brain, and he thought the hot pain of it would make him puke again. It turned up the volume level of his headache into a near migraine. He had to stop and close his eyes and rub the back of his neck. Reflexively, he pitched his head forward and that was a bad move. The cold washed across his flesh again and the weakness jellied his legs. He felt like his whole body was flipping over, into a black cold, wet and misty with noxious fumes and he had to choke back a bit more maple-flavored bile. 
He spat and straightened himself out.  A warm, saturday morning was filling the air, clinging to the thick heat as if sweated from the void. To the chorus of birds and distant traffic, there was the smell of a hundred breakfasts cooking. Fried chicken and eggs and bacon. Briar walked along the sidewalk scanning the expanse of the parking lot for a sign of his truck. His nose flared and soaked up the smell of all these families packed into the shabby boxes all around him. It was quiet. Still felt early. His boots ticked flat on the sidewalk like a clock counting seconds. 
His truck was parked three buildings down, out in one of the middle islands of parking spaces between  two plumber's vans. It was unlocked and there was a six-pack in the front seat missing two beers. One of them was sitting half-empty on the hood. Briar pulled himself up into the cab of the truck and let his body settle. Finding the truck had been an echo of the puking fit he had had by the window, as if vomiting was jumping off the high dive at the public pool and getting into his truck was the silencing relief hitting water. A rush from one frightful moment to the suspended relief of another. 
The cab was hot and stuffy, thick with the smell of engine grease and sweat. He was glad he had covered the leather with the canvas drop cloth. He took a few breaths and let his eyes close. He would have slept right there if he didn't think he would die of heat stroke. Instead, he pulled one of the warm beers from the plastic ring and, balancing it on his thigh, pulled the tab back, raised the can to his mouth and let the warm, sudsy bitterness fill his mouth. It was too warm, he knew, to drink more than one. It already felt like an exploding ball of gas in his stomach. He pulled down the folding armrest in the center of the bench seat and fished back behind the grimy piece of foam for the slim, plastic bottle. He pulled it out and unscrewed the cap. The hot, sweet smell of whiskey filled his nose. He could taste it in the back of his throat. In an act of rebellion, his gut flinched and tensed and his bowels threatened to let loose. He stared at the bottle, just the glint of the rim of it, the green plastic band a half-inch down. It sat silvery and wet like a dare. Like a demon. Unconsciously it moved closer to his mouth. A flood of things ran through his head in an unintelligible slew of familiar things. His boy. His daddy. Carla. His wife. A fight he remembered with Kenny Griffin where he actually watched that big meaty fist coming at him until it went out of focus and slammed into the flexible knob of his nose - black - blood. He shut his eyes and tilted the bottle back against his lips and pulled the whiskey in. It was heavy and light all at the same time. Every part of his mouth it touched seemed to shrivel back. The fume rose around him, went up his nose, and that familiar initial rejection of the drink-worn body seized him, turned him cold and weak, but he swallowed it down, tightened up his throat against his body’s dissent, and there was no option but to accept. Then, before his body could protest, he took another long pull from the bottle quick as if he were sneaking it by someone. That one sat better in his gut. Once the warm release of whiskey in the blood came over him, Briar knew he would be alright. He sat in the cab of his truck and smoked and finished the rest of his warm beer. 

§

By the time he had made it back home, his hangover was almost gone. The headache was reduced to a small creep, and the nausea felt more like a fading flu than a hangover. He had taken a couple more drinks along the way, and by the time he was at his front door, he noticed he had a little difficulty fishing through the crowded ring for the door key. 
It was Bobby Holt's trailer, but Briar had been staying there on and off. It had been Bobby's before he married Jeannie Kilgore. It was paid for, lot and all, so he kept it. It had some furniture and the water and electric worked. Only once had Bobby been back there, after a fight with Jeannie, and he had only spent the night. Briar had to buy him a case of beer for "rent," but he didn't mind because he had drunk half of them himself. 
Just as Briar thought about how much easier it would be to simply kick in the flimsy door the lock snapped back and the door eased open. He stepped inside out of the sun and he slammed the door shut behind him. It made a thin, rackety sound as if the aluminum frame it hung from had snapped, as if the frosted plastic window in it's upper end had cracked and tumbled out of it's caulking. He didn't care enough to turn and check it. 
The inside of the trailer was musty and damp. The stale smell roused a bit of the headache in the crook of the bridge of his nose. He had thought about dropping onto the couch and watching some television, but knew it would be hard to get up. He was going to sleep. He wanted to be naked and horizontal for that. 
The bedroom had to be ten degrees hotter than the rest of the trailer. It sat at the back, beyond the moldy sewage emanating from the bathroom, broadside along the stream of the noonday sun. The entire room glowed gold like the memory of fire. A thin cadmium mist of dust clung to every available surface. The hangover had started to creep back into Briar's head and gut and his mood curdled along with it. He slipped out of his shoes and shirt and wrestled with his belt until it gave way and the jeans fell to the floor in convulsive release. He slipped out of his underwear and gave his pendulous cock a couple pulls. He eased himself into bed, on top of the stained sheets and rested the bend of his wrist on the crook of his nose. 
The trailer was silent once he was settled and his breathing slowed. The day, an entity all to itself, like a gentle, sleeping beast growling light and heat, cast the song of sleep through the trailer.   Effortlessly, Brair fell into it and dreamed all afternoon of things he would not remember until the phone rang in the early evening. 
"Hello?"
"Briar."
"Yep. S'me."
"Briar, I need to talk to you."
He hadn't heard his wife's voice in months.
"What's wrong, Dolly?"
There was a pause in her voice. Only a few seconds, but in it he could see the boy and his over-blown, childish version of the day before. He could hear the lies and the distortions and he could see his wife's face curl up. He could see her mouth draw together and push out her lips in a slow, oozing roll of disbelief. Her chubby, florid cheeks would rise and swoop in a bit and make her eyes squint. Thinking of it made him angry himself. He thought she was the ugliest when she was angry. 
"It's yr boy."
My boy
"I seen'm yestrdy."
 "Yeah, well, y'musta pissed'm off good."
He couldn't control the sigh. His headache was coming back. 
"What he do," he asked as he pulled himself off of the couch and started for the front door. 
"He come home and gone off on me. I ain't gonna put up with it no more, Briar. He done blowed up my TV and he hit me. I ain't gonna put up with it. I ain't gonna put up with no more th'bullshit."
Her voice got shakier and faster as she went on. Briar knew when she started repeating herself, she was just as much scared as pissed.
"How the hell he blow up a TV?"
The air was much cooler outside. The sun had tucked itself behind the mountains, but it wasn't dark yet. In the midst of the southern summer heat, this was the hour of grace.
"He jus started a-yellin and then pitched it offa th' table. Threw it on t'th'floor and it busted. Blew up. Ain't gonna put up with it no more."
He pulled the driver-side door open and bent inside and pulled the bottle out from the armrest. 
"And he hitcha?"
"Yeah, he hit me. In the stomach like I's a man."
Briar rolled over and leaned his back against the bed of the truck. He took a long slug of the whiskey and clenched his eyes against it.
"Y'hit'em back," he asked.
Dolly only grunted and said again, "I ain't gonna put up with it, Briar."
"Well, I-"
"He done jus got outta that place and he's already causin' trouble. You gonna hafta put some sense in that boy. I don't know what else I can do."
"Well, I don either, Dolly. I mean, you can whoop th'boy jus like I can."
"He's too big," she said, screamed, and Briar cringed. 
"Yellin usually works with that boy." 
"It. Don't. Work," she screeched into the phone and Briar pulled the phone away from his ear and took another drink. 
"I ain-"
"What th'hell you want me to do, Dolly," Briar said, his own voice rising close to the point.

§

There was no moon and this far down the boulevard there were no streetlights. The truck's weakened headlights barely cut through the inky black. Just enough to see the white, dotted line and keep it off the gravel shoulder. Other than this amber globe of light beyond the hood of the truck, the world was submerged in the blackness. A spot of light from a porch or window streaked by here and there, but not enough to break the trance the darkness had put on Briar's mind. 
The conversation with Dolly earlier had somehow sapped his mind of all other thoughts. All he could hear was her screaming, her pleading, her crying. Even the roar of the engine was her, like static on a radio and her voice was coming through, ...please please please... you have to... I can't.... The whiskey had him sweating so he rolled down the window, and though the rush of air was initially a shock to his skin, it wouldn't take away the voice. He had tried to watch television earlier and he smoked cigarettes. He finished off the beer in the fridge and he took a few shots of whiskey, but nothing did it. Nothing calmed him and nothing took the voice out of his head. It lingered there like an echo, but the echo had weight and a pulse, an anger and an urgency that wouldn't let him get back to sleep. It wouldn't let him set still. It even made his heart race and his back ache. But it wasn't the voice or the words, really, that had him so uptight. It was the guilt. He knew she was right. A woman can't raise a boy, much less make him a man. 
He pulled into Hawkeye's Lounge and let the truck settle in between two others he recognized. Ollie Coffelt and Jim Young, who he needed to talk to anyway. There weren't too many other cars in the gravel lot, but it was a Wednesday, and almost the end of the month. He saw Tracy Fitzsimmons' car parked back toward the boulevard and he smiled. She was a waitress, career waitress, and she was fine as hell to look at. She was a bore in the sack, but damn if she didn't look good. Already, not halfway to the door, he could hear someone screeching out Conway Twitty on the karaoke machine. 
He swung open the double door and the music hit him in a wave of stale beer and french fries. Some fat old grease ball was up front swaying to the last few notes of Slow Hand and his lady stood right in front of him cooing over the show. It was a fairly spacious room, the floor littered with twenty or so tables and there was still room for a stage riser and a bar with another twenty stools.  
"Hey, Briar," Tracy said, catching him as he wove around a table of union boys and kissed his cheek.
He slid his hand over the bulge of her ass and whistled.
"How y'been Tracy girl?"
"Payin bills, you?" 
She smiled and wiggled her butt a little for him and opened her eyes wide and Briar gave her little pat.
"Hell," he said, "I'm tryin t'get out of it."
"You figure that out and let me know yr secret."
She went on to deliver the beers in her hand and he watched her go. She gave him a look over her shoulder and he knew if he wanted to go home with her tonight he could. He didn't plan on drinking that much.
"Harvey, how y'doin," he said taking the seat next to Harvey Brown at the bar.
"Hidy, Briar," Harvey said and raised his beer.
The bartender, some six and a half foot red-headed monster Briar didn't recognize, walked up and Briar ordered a beer. 
"Whatcha know good," Briar asked as he drank the neck out of the cold beer.
"Kids damn drivin me crazy t'nite. Patty won't do a damn thing t'calm'em down neither. Keeps on givin'em juice an ice cream an pizza an shit. Hadda git a beer," Harvey said and raised his beer again and they both took a gulp.
"Here ya. Mine ain't been a picnic either."
Harvey nodded and tightened his lips against the cold of his drink.
"He got out yet?" he asked.
"Yeah. Just a few days ago an already causin trouble."
Harvey nodded again and clucked his tongue and smiled.
"We raised a little hell when we's youngins too," he said. 
"Mor'n a little."
"Army'll straighten'im out," Harvey said matter-of-factly. "Did me."
"Probly git kicked out."
"Hell, no. They'll whip'is ass inna shape."
"Whipins don't seem t'work," Brair said over the mouth of his bottle and took a drink.
"Guess we're gettin paid back, aye Briar."
They both laughed.
"Don't think I was as lazy though," Briar said.
"Hell no."
"Sorta what I came down here for," Briar said and sucked down half the beer and waved to the Irishman for another.
"How so," Harvey asked.
"Well, I's wonderin if y'knew of any work. Maybe y'had space on a crew."
"Fr yr boy?"
"Well, both of us. He ain't never done no work so I figured I could show him how it's done. Get'im started."
Briar saw Harvey finish off his beer so he ordered one on his tab and Jim thanked him.
"Y'ever done electric work," Harvey asked.
"Naw. Never done electric. Done some plumbing and lots of carpentry"
"Damn," Harvey said and sipped off the neck of his fresh beer. "All I really need right now is an electrician. Had t'fire Derrick Bishop last week."
"Damn," Briar said. "What he do."
"Puttin too much of that shit up his nose. Just about all m'crew into it. But fuckin Derrick done pawned some tools and not all of'em his."
"And all y'did was fire'im?"
"Yeah," Harvey said dejectedly.
"I'd've dotted his eye or somethin," Briar said and drank to it.
"Hell Briar, them boys got twenty years on me. I'd be a fool t'tussle with'em."
"Yeah," Briar said. "Guess yr right."
Behind them somebody dedicated their rendition of Are the Good Times Really Over to some girl named Lucille and a few of the boys whistled and clapped.  Both Harvey and Briar shook their heads and that was when Briar spotted Jim Young across the room.
"I ain't got nothin right now, Briar," Harvey said. "I'll keep a look out for ya, though. If I get anything I'll letcha know."
"I appreciate it, Harv," Briar said and clapped his old friend on the shoulder, but he didn't take his eyes off Jim Young. 
Harvey raised his beer and drank and said goodbye when Briar stood and walked away distractedly.
Jim Young saw Briar coming across the room and he raised his hand to wave. It was wrapped in a white bandage and he waggled a cold beer at him. Briar nodded. Jim was sitting at a table with Ollie Coffelt and his brother Walter. The table was full of empty beer bottles and a stack of fry baskets. Briar weaved through the tables sipping at his beer and checking out Tracy Fitzsimmons one more time. She blew him a kiss and he winked.
"Y'gotcha some of that yet," Ollie asked as Briar got to the table and sat at the one empty seat. 
"Yeah, I have," Briar said looking away then turned to him and asked, "How's th'car Oll?"
Jim and Ollie looked down and Walter shook his head and drank his beer. 
"I got it taken care of," Ollie said uncomfortably.
"Good."
"It was expensive. If you could help me out, I'd appreciate it."
Briar smiled and sipped his beer and saw Walter looking at him, pissed. Briar shook his head and looked away and said, "I'll see what I can do 'bout that."
"Y'doin alright, Briar," Jim interjected nervously.
"I'm doin good, Jim. You?"
"Good, 'cept this cut," Jim said and raised his arm.
"Yeah, I saw that. Should be more careful," Briar said and finished off his beer.
"How 'bout you an I go outside, Jim." Briar said and all three men's eyes opened wide.
"What th'ell for, Briar," Jim said with a mix of fear and anger.
"I juss need t'talk to y'about somethin private."
Jim felt like the whole bar watched them walk out. He wouldn't have gone if Ollie and Walter hadn't stared him down like he was scared. It pissed him off because they wouldn't wanted to have gone either. He knew Briar knew about him and Darlanetta and didn't want to get in a fight about it. He didn't think it was worth it. 
Once they were out the door and the music was quiet, Briar called out, "Jim Young?"
Jim turned on his heels and faced Briar and held out his arms.
"Briar Pupp," he said defiantly.
Briar spaced his feet out and crossed his arms and stared out at Jim about seven feet away.
"I'm only gonna say this once, Jim."
Jim felt the twinge of fear run up his spine and he crossed his arms incase it showed on his face. 
"I'm listenin," he said.
"I'm back livin with Darlanetta and the boy now."
Jim nodded.
"I thank ya fr lookin after'em and all, but y'ain't gotta do it no more."
Jim was silent. He was afraid if he said anything his voice would crack and he couldn't bare that.
"Y'unnerstand?"
"I hear ya, Briar."
"Good, 'cause if I catch y'round th'house again, I ain't gonna fightcha. I'm gonna put a case of buckshot in ya."
Jim stood up straight and balled his fists. His pudgy cheeks flushed red and Briar knew he wanted to give him a lick but he stood right where he was.
"Goddamnit, Briar, that's my fuckin house. I own it. Dolly's my tenant. I got th'right t'be there whenever I want."
"That so?"
"Yr got-damn right that's so. Ain no need t'be threatenin me fr nothin. I don't know what-"
He stopped and flinched when Briar took a step toward him and he blurted out, "Whatcha doin?"
"Well, Jim, I tried talkin to ya. Now I'm gonna go on over t'm'truck and get m'pistol an settle this right now."
"Goddamnit, Briar, I ain't gonna be over there no more. Fuck."
Briar didn't brake his stride but spun as he passed Jim and punched him in the nose. Jim fell back and stumbled to the ground and quickly got back to his feet trying to see through the tears and pain. A faint trickle of blood dribbled over his greying mustache. He put up his fists and waited for Briar to try it again.
"What th'fuck y'do that fr," he barked and spat out a wad of blood. 
"So you'll remember in th'mornin."

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