“Fifteen or Twenty Thousand, At Least” by Letson Williams

I pull into the “Uh-Oh” parking lot like I have a thousand times before. The uneven gravel and potholes are easy to feel in the shitty Civic I’m driving. I can feel bumps in the road that don’t even exist. Bumps even after the town puts up a sign that says “All fixed.” Now, maybe I just lack the basic components of maintaining anything and all I need is some new shocks or some fat on my body but every trip is a bone rattler and further, you might not think that “shit-brown” is a marketable color but I see these things all over town. Sometimes I think it’s me driving toward myself.

Tonight is colder than most, for this time of year, and I hustle in the door to avoid the chill. Keene is sitting at the end of the bar like he does. He looks pensive and downs at least half the pint glass that Nick just set down as I come in. A slight upward turn of both their heads, nearly simultaneously, is the only greeting necessary. Nick has a pint for me too.

I’m at least five minutes into a lost thought that pint before Keene even speaks.

“Do you see who’s in the corner over there?”

I turn. It’s Jerry.

Fucking Jerry.

I know what this means. It means Keene will now be spending more than half the night bitching about what a liar Jerry is, what a manipulator Jerry is and then getting drunk/getting brave like he is ever going to do anything to or about ‘fucking Jerry.’

The conversation goes as it always does: “He lied to us. He stole from us. He’s just so fuck-ingg… I dunno man, smug. Someone should slap that shitty lil’ smirk off his face. I’m just the motherfucker to do it too…”

I silently amuse myself thinking of Keene trying to throw a punch. Like the one time he tried to throw a football. He probably should just stick to slapping.

The woman who often accompanies Jerry is far more beautiful than anyone Keene or I have been close to in a long time. That doesn’t help the situation at all. Tonight, the conversation turns, as usual, to money.

“How much you think he cost us?” Keene mutters.

“Umm, I dunno, maybe fifteen, twenty thousand, ” I reply.

“AT FUCKING LEAST!” Keene exclaims, pounding the bar with his fist.

Everyone turns around, including Jerry and the woman.

“At fucking least…” Keene breathes the words again, trailing off, while staring blankly at the door.

It’s not really like Keene to get this agitated about anything besides football or records. I don’t know what to make of it.

Nick comes over to see what the commotion is, he’s got two more pints. As a bartender, he’s aces, and as a singer too. But he’s just enough of a liar to make you wonder about him. Even the late, way past last call, nights where all the drinks are freer than Freebird can’t erase what you know about Nick. You know the times he lies. He knows you know. It’s a schoolyard thing, who’s going to take it the furthest? Nick always gets there before you. His smile is a lie, that much everyone knows. So, the pints are placed and sipped. This calms Keene for the moment but he won’t be consoled for long. The look in his eyes is distant. It’s different.

As I worry, I push the conversation toward the new records that came out so far this year; the good, the bad, and the brilliant. It’s working and I even catch him smiling as he waxes nostalgic for the days when U2 didn’t suck so much. I know this is something that’ll keep him going for a while. I let him go.

Later, Jerry gets up to leave and his girl wanders out of sight toward the bathroom. He stands chatting with Nick on the other side of the bar. Keene fixes his eyes in a way that he would look at anything but Jerry, anything at all. He can look through the wall if he has to. I know that look. I invented that look. It’s the defense of the wronged but still proud but I’m not using it tonight. Tonight, I think I’ll just go with the garden variety snub and casually act like I don’t care. Now, if you’re keeping score (and I am always keeping score), I do care but that’s not the point. I care. Quite a bit, in fact, maybe even more than Keene ever will but this isn’t about caring, it’s about saving face and I’m good at saving face. Jerry and the woman brush by and he shouts something to Nick about his recent success, and how he’s going to hit up the Telegraph tonight and then he nudges me in a familiar way.

“Donnie” he says with a nod.

“Fuck you Jerry,” I reply.

He keeps walking. We do this part all the time. It used to be a joke, but not anymore. Keene is staring so hard at nothing that his eyes are almost closed. The door swings shut and Nick’s off doing something in the back. We’re the only ones left at the bar. A glance at my watch gives me all the incentive I need to leave. It’s one forty-five and work starts at nine. Keene says his goodbyes to Nick and we open the door together.

We always do this. It’s goodbyes inside and then we spend at least an hour in the parking lot talking about women or records or both. It’s completely normal. Many a night Nick says goodbye to us once on the inside of the bar then again an hour or two later in the parking lot. It’s more than the norm. It’s overlearned. It’s the routine. Keene’s turning his head back and forth, quickly like he’s looking something or someone.

“Let’s go to the Telegraph,” he whispers.

“Why?” I ask.

“Jerry’s there,” he says plainly.

“Oh, Jesus. What in the fuck are we going to say to Jerry at the fucking Telegraph?”.

“How much do you think he COST us??!?” says Keene, his voice raised.

“I told you, fifteen grand, maybe twenty. We go through this all the time.”

“We ought to go and take that much out of the motherfucker’s ass,” Keene says, looking around nervously.

“Jesus fuck, Keene, are we really the kind of people who take things out of people’s asses? Listen man, we’re just going to go over there and not say anything and then work is going to suck tomorrow because I won’t get to sleep before four.”

“DonnieDonnieDonnieDonnieDonnie. C’mon man, let’s just go and give him a lil’ scare. C’mon.”

“Dude, he’s not scared of us. He’s never been scared of us, ” I assert.

“That’s the problem. We do whatever we can, whatever we want, but he ain’t gonna care, man. He’s got the money, the chick. He’s on top of the fuckin’ world. Why would he ever care what we think?” I spit.

Keene looks at me indignantly.

“Fuck it dude, we’re going,” he says opening the car door.

I get in but I know it isn’t going to be good.

It’ll be another in a long line of disappointments. Neither of us will ever say what we really want to say and Jerry will just smirk like he does and that little, red, round end of his nose with the sharp pinches wrinkling a little, pitying us will just piss me off. And then tomorrow will drag on daylong and I’ll have to think about this shit again. Again. Fucking Jerry. Why doesn’t he just go to some downtown bar and leave the neighborhood joints to those of us who were here when his dumb ass crawled up from Knoxville?

The Telegraph isn’t far away and we get there before I really get a chance to consider what I am going to do or say if we do see Jerry. And we see him all right, the instant we turn the corner at McFarland. He’s putting the girl in a cab. I see him shut the door and pat the top of the car.

Keene pulls into a spot near Jerry’s car and hops out as Jerry approaches. He’s a little wobbly actually and he even smiles at Keene until he realizes who it is. He kicks his head back a little in a little backwards nod. He’s looking at Keene but he starts talking to me.

“What are you boys doing here? Huh? Don’t you have the “Uh-Oh” parking lot booked for another hour or so?” His smile starts to fade through smirk and approaches a concerned grimace by the end of the sentence. He keeps looking at Keene and talking to me. “Donnie, your boy here looks pissed, pissed the fuck off. What are we going to do about that?”

Before I even know what I am doing I hit Jerry at least a dozen times. He didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even see it coming. My hands move quicker than my thoughts. I keep swinging with force and begin to notice that there is quite a bit of blood flowing from a cut along Jerry’s left cheekbone. My hands are stung numb but I keep moving them.

I don’t see Keene at all but I can hear him breathing heavily and excitedly, more so than Jerry or I. In fact, all I can hear is the three of us breathing. My cadence is much too steady for this kind of activity. Jerry is coughing but still breathing evenly, in a soft rhythm. I just keep pounding at his head with both my hands until he slumps out of my reach and that’s when I see Keene’s feet take over. He’s kicking so furiously that I stop to watch for a minute and his breathing quickens. There are now three exhales to every inhale, and all are quick and sharp. I try to kick him a few times but keep missing and once even kick Keene in the knee.

“What the fuck are ya doing?” he hisses as my foot glances off him.

I can’t speak. I just keep breathing, steadily. It feels good to breathe. Jerry isn’t smiling anymore. In fact, he isn’t even moving. Keene and I look at each other but don’t speak. I walk to the passenger side of Keene’s Volkswagen and get in. Half a minute later he opens the driver’s door, slides in and starts the car. He drops Jerry’s wallet on the dash saying, “This might come in handy.”

We drive straight to the “Uh-Oh” and are sitting in the VW when Nick comes out of the bar. He waves at us from the door and hurries to his car. We are stunned. We sit there in the car for at least an hour listening to a record before Keene breaks the silence.

“We never even went there,” he says. “That’s the whole story. Take your clothes home and burn them. I’ll do the same. Nobody will know, nobody will tell.”

“Know what?!!?” I explode. “Jerry fucking knows. Jerry’s sure as shit gonna tell!” I scream as I snap to this new reality.

“Jerry ain’t gonna say shit,”Keene says, quickly.

“Why wouldn’t he? Of course he will. He’s probably sayin’ shit right now, right fuckin’ now!” I can’t help but think about what life will be like in the morning. Jail? Does this mean jail? What happens if you beat somebody up?

I’ve never done it before. I didn’t think I had it in me, actually. I can’t imagine that we’d have to go to jail for this. I mean what’s the charge, right? It was a bar fight. It just happened at two different bars, right? Right? People don’t have to go to jail for a bar fight. The thoughts come faster than I can think them.

Keene raises both hands and lowers them, in an effort to settle the air, or me, or both.

“Jerry’s not gonna say anything man, because Jerry’s fuckin’ dead,” he says, blank stare intact. It’s so matter of fact, devoid of passion or confusion. Like he is talking about getting his car fixed or telling me a work story. And then, the snow started to fall.

Profile: Letson Williams

*This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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