By Nicholas John-Francis Claro
I’d been with Leslie Flynn for three years, a rail thin ICU nurse from Kansas, who had a delicate, avian-like beauty. She was religious, maybe a little too proud, a bit boring, and put ice cubes in glasses of red wine.
Leslie worked the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift at a hospital twenty minutes north in Rogers while I bartended a couple blocks from our place in Fayetteville. Weeks when our schedules aligned there were three-day stretches where we saw one another only in passing.
One night, the ice machine at work shorted out two hours into my shift. Me and Alan, the other bartender, closed down once we ran out. We hung around afterward, each of us downing several shots of JTS Brown to make up for the money we didn’t make. I was buzzed and unsure whether I had booze at home and stopped by the liquor store on the way there. A cheap bottle of Kentucky Deluxe for me and a bottle of wine for Leslie, if she wanted to join.
That evening, a black Altima was parked in the driveway behind Leslie’s Montero Sport.
The Altima had an Oklahoma plate and a collection of record store and band stickers plastered across its back bumper. Pulled up far as it was, with its front bumper nearly touching Leslie’s car, it still blocked half of the sidewalk.
I decided I wasn’t going to worry about the car and went in.
First, I’ll tell you what I heard. And then what I saw.
I heard clapping. The kind of slow clap that precedes a standing ovation.
Looking back, I should have left then. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on. Mysterious car. Strange noises coming from the bedroom. But if I had turned and walked out I think probably I would have convinced myself that I’d been mistaken. That there had to be some rational explanation. It was only clapping. Only clapping. Clapping? Only clapping. I hadn’t seen anything, except for two empty bottles of wine, and two empty wine glasses. Emptied except for drops at the bottom. In retrospect, things might have been easier if I left.
For a while, at least.
I set the black plastic bag of booze on the countertop, careful not to plink the pinot against its surface. The bottle of Kentucky Deluxe was plastic. I tiptoed through the house, pausing to hold my breath each time a floorboard creaked beneath my feet.
The clapping grew sharper.
The door was ajar and a thin strip of margarine light cut down the hallway. Leslie let out a trill that was high-pitched yet somehow soft at the same time. Nothing theatrical. A little song. Afterward she went, “Yes, yes.”
I pulled it the rest of the way open with the hesitation of someone who’d been called to a morgue to identify the potential body of a loved one.
What I saw was Leslie on top of him. Naked except for a surgical mask, a stethoscope, and a pair of blue nitrile gloves. Her long brown hair was woven in a thick plume that hung down her back. The guy held on to this plume, pulling so when Leslie crooned, “Yes,” again, she did so to the ceiling. Winglike, she flapped one of her hands out at her side while the other pressed the flat disc part of the stethoscope against the guy’s chest. He dug his fingers into one of Leslie’s breasts and, with his other hand, gave her ass another firm smack.
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
He smacked her ass again and again, each time louder until something inside me broke.
“Yes,” she warbled.
Reflexively, my hands balled into fists. Synapses fired and sent a thousand messages to tear this guy apart.
I don’t remember if I said something or not, but Leslie squawked when she saw me. Stumbling off him and then the bed, she stood at the foot of it, the stethoscope tube hanging between her breasts. The one he’d been clutching was red. Leslie writhed her hands, which squeaked like someone twisting a balloon animal because of the rubber gloves.
“Ben,” she said from behind the mask. “What are you doing here?”
I hadn’t noticed the salty, sour stench of the room until then.
“I live here,” I said.
The guy scrambled out of the bed, repeating, “Fuck,” as he made his way toward his pile of clothes at the base of the dresser. He gathered his shirt, jeans, pair of boxer briefs, and pinched shiny loafers between his fingers. He used this to cover himself.
All he wore was a pair of socks.
The guy was a couple inches taller than me. Skinny. Handsome in that stuck up, has-only-been-fed-from-a-silver-spoon kind of way—stupid haircut and all. He inched toward me, the way someone might approach a stray dog. He stopped when he saw my fists.
Bluffing, I raised them.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Easy, bro.” He lifted the loafers. “Before you think about doing anything crazy, you should know my dad’s a lawyer,” he said, and glanced at Leslie, who’d slipped the surgical mask down to reveal a bottom lip clamped beneath teeth.
I considered the possibility of his dad really being a lawyer, how I could wind up in a heap of shit. I’d been drinking. Had a DUI on my record. Last month, I’d spent a night in jail after I got picked up stumbling home after work. My record would be used against me. I’d be labeled as an unstable drunk with possible anger issues. They’d throw the book at me.
I turned and put holes into the drywall.
Facing them, the guy lowered the loafers. He stared stupidly, his jaw unhinged. Leslie covered herself with the bedsheet and stared past me at the wall.
My pulse beat in my knuckles and my wrists stung.
“You’re supposed to be at work,” Leslie sobbed.
“Why are you crying?” I said.
“Why are you crying?” she parroted. “What kind of question is that? I’m upset.” She took a breath. “I don’t know how… Maybe this is all part of His plan.”
I pointed to the guy.
“His?” I said.
He worked a finger out of a loafer to point to himself.
“Mine?” he said.
Leslie let go of the sheet to point upward, accidentally revealing the breast that wasn’t red.
“No,” she said. “His.”
The guy looked relieved.
“Listen,” he said. “I should go. Let you two sort this out.” He took a step toward the door. Toward me.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
“Fair enough,” he said.
Leslie repositioned the sheet around herself and sniffed.
“Let me explain,” she said.
Part of me wanted to hear whatever excuse she cooked up. Except I knew it had the potential to make me angrier, or sadder, although in that moment I didn’t feel anything. I floated in that abnormal, empty space devoid of emotion. This unresponsive, emotional purgatory.
Before she said another word, I left.
On the way out I grabbed the bag of booze. Outside, I took two large pulls from the Kentucky Deluxe, watching the bubbles float. It set my throat and stomach on fire. I nearly vomited. I took another, gagged and wiped my mouth. I screwed the cap back on and stashed it in the trunk of my car.
I hurled the bottle of pinot through the windshield of the Altima.
At the end of the block, I sent Alan a text.
Where are you? I wrote.
What happened to going out?
I was in the middle of writing how I’d just walked in on Leslie fucking someone when she called. My phone lit up with a picture of her I’d taken last summer. We’d spent the afternoon canoeing Lake Wedington. In the picture, Leslie wore a red-and-white striped bikini, big sunglasses, an oar held high over her head, smile frozen in a laugh.
I ignored the call.
She called back.
She called. Kept calling.
Leslie left five voicemails by the time I walked into Buster’s.
Buster’s was a townie dive and one of the few bars I drank at, though usually during the afternoon when class was over or on one of my days off. Working at a bar killed any want of being in one when they were busy.
It was busy now. The bartenders ran back and forth, dodging one another with a practiced choreography as they reached for bottles, grabbed beers out of coolers, shook shakers, rang people up, tabbed them out. All of the booths and tables were full. A crowd stood in front of a man playing guitar in the corner of the bar. The musician had a ratty flannel button-up tucked into a pair of skinny jeans. His thick mustache covered his top lip. The cowboy hat rested at a tilt on his head, a snakeskin band wrapped around it. It was difficult to tell whether he was actually country or just some cosplaying hipster.
He played a slow, twangy song. The lyrics hinging on drunkenness, self-inflicted despair, while name-dropping brands of whiskey, cigarettes, and cheap beer you couldn’t buy in Arkansas.
I stood behind a small group of women leaning in over the bar. They waved handfuls of cash. I ignored people who did that. Boochie, one of the bartenders, ignored them too, while he poured a long line of sweet shots I could smell over cigarette smoke while the other bartender Cole pointed at me as he yanked down a draft handle.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he yelled.
One of the women looked back at me.
I raised my hand to indicate I didn’t know and a moment later Cole came by, reaching over the heads of the women to hand me my usual: A shot of Evan Williams with a Coors back.
The one who’d looked back earlier turned. She had curly black hair, a thin nose, and a sharp jawline. Leaning toward me, she looked offended or surprised.
“How’d you do that?” she said. “We’ve been standing here for ten minutes trying to get a drink.”
She held an empty rocks glass. A crushed lime wedge sat at its watery, pinkish bottom.
“Scootch,” I said.
I downed the shot and chugged the beer. I wasn’t sure she would have been able to hear it over the music, but to be safe I burped into my mouth and released it out of my nose.
I set the empties on the bar and asked what she and her friends were drinking.
“Vodka-crans,” she said.
“All the three of you?”
“Not if you’re buying,” she said.
It didn’t take long for Cole to notice me.
Afterward, the woman and her friends thanked me.
“Have a good night,” I said, and threw back my shot.
I joined the crowd clustered in front of the musician a few feet from where I’d been standing. Several people had been at my bar earlier. They weren’t regulars, just people who were there all the time. I knew them by their drinks, not names.
The musician finished the song and started another. From what I could tell, he subscribed to the tropes found in most sad country songs. Sang something about a broken down pick-up. A broken down marriage. Driving across a lonely strip of Kansas highway at night. Though I tried to fight it, at the mention of Kansas I couldn’t help but think about Leslie.
I whistled when the song ended. Not because I liked it. Because it was over. Other people in the crowd clapped and hollered.
Someone yelled, “Can I get a hell yeah?”
“Hell yeah!” a few of them went.
The musician tipped his hat and announced he was taking a smoke break.
I lit one of my own. Finished my beer.
I felt it now.
Then I felt the pull of the thought that the guy was still in the house. That I should go back now and beat the hell out of him. I didn’t give a shit any longer. So what if his dad was a lawyer?
I transferred the beer bottle to my other hand and gripped it by its neck. It was coming with me.
“What do you think the next song’ll be about?” someone said, their breath hot in my ear. “Another disaster ballad about an imploding relationship? Having to put a dog down? Some other country-ass stereotype?”
It was the vodka-cran woman. She held one of those in a hand and a Coors in the other, which she lifted.
“That for me?” I said, trying not to slur.
“I was afraid I’d spill if I got this and the shot for you,” she said. “Small hands, you know?”
Maybe we’d hit it off, I thought. Wind up back at her place. In the morning Leslie would ask where I’d slept. I’d tell her and ask if that was part of His big plan, too.
I told the woman to wait a sec and dropped my cigarette into my empty before pitching it into a nearby trash can.
Taking the beer she offered, I said, “Appreciate that.”
“We figured we owed you one.”
“You caught me,” she said. “Figured I owed you one.”
We clinked glasses and each took a long sips.
“Maybe the next song will be a little more uplifting,” I said. “A little ditty about, oh, I don’t know, a train derailment.”
That got her smiling.
“There’s always 9/11,” she said. “Nationalism masquerading as patriotism is very in right now.”
“There you go.”
“Have you ever heard a country song about Alzheimer’s?” she said and gave me a crimped smile.
“Could be we’ll hear one about bone cancer,” I said. “In children.”
My phone vibrated. I ignored it.
“A suicide pact,” she said.
“If he really wants to depress everyone, he could belt something out about the Walmart self-checkout line.”
“That could be the worst of all.” I took another drink. “Depending on whether we’re talking about the one on Mall Ave or off 15th Street.”
She grinned and shook her head.
My phone stopped vibrating.
“Now would be the perfect time for introductions,” she said.
“I’m Ben,” I said, and extended my hand. “Ben Gilson. And you are?”
“For now,” she said.
Behind her, the musician weaved through the crowd with his hands in the air, his huge hat floating ship-like over a sea of bobbing heads buoyed in cigarette smoke.
Back on stage he looped the strap over his shoulder and tuned the guitar.
“I’ve got one more for y’all,” he said.
Some light applause. Hoots. Yips.
Cole produced a bullhorn from behind the bar and yelled, “Last call!”
“Any final predictions?” Kristen said.
“Honestly, I’m too drunk to think of a good one,” I said. “What about you?”
“Same,” Kristen said, bunching her shoulders. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out.”
“All right. But here’s the deal,” I said, and pointed to the musician while he strummed a chord and coughed into the mic. “If one of us has called exactly how doomed this is before it’s even started, we can’t rub it in the other person’s face. No saying ‘Ha! I told you so,’ or whatever, and hold it over them. Got it?”
“You sure like to suck the fun out of everything.”
“Come on,” I said. “Swear it.”
She thought this over.
“I won’t hold it over your head,” Kristen said.
I held out my pinkie, surprised when she wrapped hers around mine.
The music started, but by then neither of us paid attention. Kristen had moved closer, her shoulder pressed against my arm. We went back and forth between sips, asking and answering each other’s questions. I smelled the tartness of cranberry juice on her tongue.
When the song ended the lights flicked on.
A collective groan resounded throughout the bar. Kristen squinted and put a hand over her eyes.
“You’d think they’d ease us into it,” she said.
Kristen’s friends stared at us from across the bar like we were conspiring to do something illegal. Then one of them broke the tension with a grin. The other more serious-looking one waved Kristen over and yelled, “C’mon, Kris. We’re tabbed out already.”
“That’s my ride,” Kristen said.
I took out my phone and swiped away the notification of Leslie’s missed call.
“Let me get your number?” I said.
I wondered how desperate I sounded.
Trying to unlock my phone, I punched the passcode incorrectly.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” she said.
Back at the house, I stood in the driveway. The guy’s car was gone. Deep grooves cut into the gravel and some of it had been kicked out into the street. The porch light was on. Bits of glass twinkled among the rocks.
I fished my keys out of my pocket, took the whiskey out of the trunk, and got in on the passenger side of my car, careful not to make noise when I closed the door. I sank into the warm, soft upholstery.
Are you sure you’re ready?
I hadn’t a clue.
I took a drink. It didn’t burn or settle hot in my stomach. I set my hand on the dashboard. My knuckles purple and swollen but not hurting. If Kristen noticed them she didn’t say anything.
The moon glowed silver in the middle of the sky and reflected off the windshield. It was an old car and over the years the exterior had suffered all kinds of damage. A hail storm left dents like sloppy braille dotted across the hood. There were scrapes along the driver’s side door from who-knows-what. Paint peeled over the back left tire well where rust had taken over. With the cab lit up by the moon, I noticed for the first time how nice the seats looked. Free from rips, stains, or cigarette burns. The floorboards were spotless. There wasn’t any trash packed in the middle console cup holder. I reached out and ran a finger over the glass that covered the speedometer and the other gauges. No dust. The car might look like a disaster on the outside. But the inside looked good. New, even.
Nicholas Claro is an MFA candidate in fiction at Wichita State University where he is the 2023/24 Fiction Fellow. He reads fiction for Nimrod International Journal and his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in JMWW, Cleaver Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Identity Theory, Write or Die Magazine, Necessary Fiction, XRAY, and others.