by Jess Macy
Old Man is dying. He don’t seem to know it.
Asks for cold ones like normal. Drake fetches them like normal. Always real good at following orders from Old Man. When Drake sits down on the ratty ottoman, pops the tab for Old Man and holds it out, he looks at Drake from swollen sockets that make his black eyes look smaller and smaller every day.
Drake’s used to Old Man’s smell. He’s stale, and faintly sour. Like two-day beer. Hot water heater is shot, but it don’t matter. Old Man can’t hold his own heft no more. He makes a deeper crater in his chair every day. Strange, how his stomach is a bubble under his shirt, but his chest sinks and his shoulders shrivel more and more. Drake finally weighs more than him.
Old Man’s hand is an oven mitt, fingers fat like baby sausages, and his nails are the ragged edges of ripped paper. Drake holds out the beer till he’s certain enough Old Man won’t drop it on his lap like last time.
He brings it real slow to lips that are molting with dry skin. Trying to steady the can makes Old Man tremble. He sips and holds the beer inside his mouth for a while like he’s got to gather the strength to take it down. Drake can damn near hear Old Man’s gullet brace and move itself around to sluice the beer into his gut.
Finally, he says: “Been to the shop?” Old Man’s voice is frayed.
Drake nods his head. He’d been. Only butcher shop in Relief. Folks don’t stop needing linked sausage or deer jerky or pork belly just because Old Man’s dying. Drake runs a hand through black hair that needs a wash, widens his knees and drops his eyes to the floor. He balances his forearms on his thighs and stares at his boots without seeing much.
“Don’t fuck it up. All that’s left.”
Old Man is dying, and he didn’t seem to know it. Till now.
Drake clenches his jaw till the pain starts in the back of his skull. He lifts an arm from his thigh and runs his hand through his hair again. Grips it.
“Yeah, Old Man. I know.”
Old Man told him to hit her.
Drake was a kid. A runt. He looked up at Old Man. Old Man told him to hit her. Told him soft. Told him it was time to train her some—she’d gotten smart with him. But the quiet of him did nothing to quiet Drake, because the quiet clashed brutal against Old Man’s inky face, the thrust of his chest. Old Man’s fingers were snagged in the soft of her throat.
She was on the ground now. She was probably bleeding, because Old Man had nails he never cut. They were long and jagged and thick and uneven and yellowed, and there was always grime under them. Old Man’s nails had cut into her throat, probably.
At nine-years-old, Drake thought of Old Man as hot and fierce like a dragon. He had the talons. He had the fire that rose up in his skin to color it black or purple, and he had skin like scales in some places because of his meds. (He had called it meds when Drake had been stupid and asked. Old Man gave him a good wallop up the broadside of his head because even on his meds he moved quick. Then he said: “They meds, ya nosy lil’ bastard. I’m fuckin’ sick.”) Old Man scratched and scratched and clawed with his long long nails at those patches of skin.
Old Man watched Drake close. He squinted his narrow narrow eyes, the skin folding, spreading out his face like veins.
Ma was crumpled on the ground at Drake’s feet. Her breath rattled like she was breathing tissue paper. Drake had backed up to the couch that had a lot of rips, stuffing spilling out like insides. Old Man itched a lot, and there wasn’t any money to patch couch wounds.
Still quiet. Drake hated his quiet. Old Man finally said: “Don’t make me tell ya again, boy.” Drake stayed still.
And then, Old Man lurched towards him.
Old Man dies.
The house is Drake’s. He doesn’t move Old Man out, not really. Doesn’t make any kinda sense to dump all his shit. He tosses a few boxes of Old Man’s clothes into the back of the pickup, and also the junk behind the bathroom mirror. He takes it to the dump in Burnsville. Whole trip is fifty minutes because he takes Jack’s Creek instead of State Highway 197. The road snakes with the creek all the way back to Relief. He can’t stop thinking about Old Man.
Junior shows up like Drake tells him to. He always does. Junior’s old man used to deal for Drake’s old man until Old Man got a heart condition. Things got a lot better for Drake when Old Man stopped using. Ma was already dead, though. Old Man started training Drake at the butcher shop and folks started turning up to buy from them. Rooting through the attic one day, Drake found Old Man’s record player and instead of throwing it out, Old Man told him to go back up and get the box of records and they listened to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Steam Powered Aeroplane” every night.
Ma was already dead, though.
Drake got good at forgetting all of the bad shit Old Man had ever done and thought only about the bluegrass and the sing of the butcher blade, and how Old Man always remembered that Drake liked stout and not any of that light shit. The bad part about forgetting all the bad shit Old Man had ever done meant not thinking about Ma much at all.
Junior’s old man is dead now too, but he has been for a while. Junior never liked him much. Junior deals for Drake now, and Cuz hates him. Since Old Man died, Drake has been avoiding Cuz. Cuz made him look stuff in the face and he wasn’t much interested in that right now. Drake thinks he could call Vi. Tell her the house is his now. Maybe she’d wanna get a burger at Snap Dragon in Burnsville. He practices talking to her in the rearview mirror. When he gets to the part where she asks what happened to Old Man? Drake stops dead. He feels like someone’s just reached out and grabbed his throat.
He knows he ain’t gonna call Vi.
So Drake calls Junior and Junior comes over. Junior’s sitting on the porch, grinning at him and being jittery when Drake pulls up from dumping Old Man’s junk. Junior’s scraggly blond hair’s pulled in a ponytail down his back. He’s got on old gym shorts and his shins look white as bone.
“Where’s Old Man?” Junior asks. He stands up.
Drake shrugs his shoulders. Says: “He’s gonna be gone a few days.”
He doesn’t know why he says that.
But Junior don’t waste much time pulling out the baggy with needles, kitchen foil, cotton tufts, and the rest. Tells Drake to fetch a spoon and some water. Junior’s toying with the lighter. He spins down. The fire licks and licks, and then it’s gone.
Drake’ll pass out in Old Man’s recliner. He’ll mostly fit into the craters.
Two days after Junior shows up, Drake feels tucked back tight and deep in his cave. He’s in the bedroom, in a cave of bedsheets. He left Old Man’s armchair. Got uncomfortable midway through his memorial bender. Somewhere outside the cave, he hears a door slam. Drake still feels inside his bed. His legs and arms stay put. His neck, too. From inside the cave and inside his bed, he peers at the dented bathroom door. At the mouth of the cave, he hears two familiar voices. Cuz and Junior. At the sound of his cuz’s voice, Drake’s dead limbs flush with warmth. Cuz! But he doesn’t shift from his position. He won’t drift towards the cave’s opening.
“Where’s he at, Junior?”
“The bedroom. Place ain’t that big, man.” Only Junior laughs. “Everything’s cool, yeah?”
“Cool? No, it ain’t cool. D happen to mention his dad died last week?”
“Oh, heavy man. I don’t know! He might’ve—”
Drake thinks Cuz is a funny bastard. He thinks about this for what feels like a real long time. Funny. Cuz. Bastard. Bastardfunnycuz. Cuz, funny, bastard. Then, from deep back in his cave, deep back in his bed, while he’s thinking about Cuz, Drake sees shadows flash on and off the bathroom door. It looks like strobe lights in reverse.
And then water.
Liquid fucking ice.
Water so fucking cold, he’s damn near struck dead.
Drake yelps and shoots clean from inside his cave, clean from inside his bed, and drops to the floor like a barbell. His sheets are wrapped around his legs, and he lays there, tongue out, blinking fast, eyes burning, his bare chest shuddering like it just now remembers how to breath.
He ain’t dead.
Goddammit, Drake thinks.
“I know,” Drake gasps, the cold thrumming down through him. “I know there’s a b-better way you coulda woke me.” He squints up at Cuz.
Cuz says, “Yeah. I coulda broke your damn arm.”
His cuz ain’t happy; his face looks like a big, black straight line. His beard is thick wiry hairs trimmed neat around a red mouth. Drake thinks: All he could ever manage was some wispy black hairs beneath his nose, so fine it coulda come from a baby’s head. He coulda drawn them over his lip with a fine-tipped marker. Drake stayed clean-faced, unless he did a bender. Like right now. But he’d always been real jealous of how Cuz could grow hair. Funny bastard, Cuz. And that damned beard hair.
Drake heaves his body best he can onto all fours, his limbs feeling like badly chopped firewood. He starts crawling towards the bathroom spitting swearwords out like sunflower seeds.
“Yeah, yeah. Runnin’ your mouth.” Cuz says. His deep voice vibrates inside Drake’s bones. “Your gums are bleedin’. Like father like son, yeah?”
When Drake manages to see the mirror, he grins up from the floor. It’s a nasty grin. His teeth are red enamel chips. He collapses again, his firewood limbs having given up for now. He stares back out into the bedroom at Cuz’s black work boots and, now, Junior’s dirty sneakers. Junior’s probably come to see what’s the matter. But Cuz hasn’t noticed because he’s staring down, his face smoggy with anger, at firewood—Drake. Drake tries not to inhale the puffs of dust and hair that romp around his mouth.
Cuz calls from the bedroom: “Vi don’t want no junkie asshole.”
Drake kicks at the wall. He pushes his eyes up his skull to watch Cuz, but Cuz suddenly turns away from Drake with a feral quickness. He has finally noticed Junior, who had been slowly sidling back towards the bedroom door. Junior goes stock-still like a cornered coon.
Cuz speaks, and it’s smooth and quiet. But Drake knows there’s edge. Could slice some asshole’s finger straight off. Junior was just that kind of asshole. “Let’s talk, Junior.” Cuz raises his hand and beckons with his pointer finger.
“Oh, no. No, no. I’m—”
“Nah, really. Come here. We should talk.”
“Warren, listen…” Junior extends an arm like a makeshift shield, moving backwards. “Warren, really now—I’m sorry!” Junior takes another step back. “For Christ’s sa—” On his next step back, he catches his heel on a pair of Drake’s boots and stumbles. He hits the wall with a hollow thud, and snaps his wild, red-veined eyes back up to Cuz. His bottom lip quivers.
In a swift motion, Cuz’s fingers find the stretched-out collar of Junior’s shirt. He lifts Junior a little, jerks him off the wall, and then shoves him back hard against it. Another thud: Junior’s skull echoes in the bare room. Junior screws his face up in a wince and goes silent.
Cuz leans in. “Not gonna find you here again, am I?”
Junior’s shakes his head. His hair falls out of his ponytail. It’s all over his face now.
Everything’s muffled when Junior’s let go and he scurries out, knocking his shoulder against the doorframe with a whimper. The door to Old Man’s house opens, then slams shut. Drake watches his cuz from the floor.
He’d always been jealous of the way Cuz smoked cigarettes, too.
Old Man’s suddenness almost caused Drake to flinch, but he knew what happened when he flinched. Old Man didn’t like that.
Old Man grabbed Ma by her shoulders and jerked her up, but she wouldn’t straighten her knees or put any weight on them. She just hung slack. Old Man held her up. Her hair was smeared across her forehead a little, and her one eye on the right was clouded with broken blood vessels. She looked at Drake like he was real far away.
“Lemme help ya, boy.” Old Man displayed Ma to him. Drake felt his strong arm tense—his left one—and he felt his strong hand fist.
It was jarring because it was so girly. She sucked hard, gathered some spit, and hocked it out on the carpet beside Old Man. Ma grinned. She had a dark space where one of her side teeth had been a couple of months before. Drake looked at the skin of her arms where Old Man gripped her. They were scaly like his. She giggled again. Sometimes she shared Old Man’s meds.
“Go on, baby. Hit your Ma,” she said.
Six days ago, Drake’s bender ended. He spent the whole night on all four firewood limbs, dry-heaving like a dog. He’s still aching, but he wants to see Vi. He thinks he looks decent enough to see her now. The stuff crawling beneath his skin finally stopped its rooting, and the shakes stilled.
Old Man’s been dead for eight days.
He shows up at her bar in Burnsville on the way home from the gas station. Burnsville’s green and tidy. It’s a patchwork of real pretty squares with rounded shrubs and trimmed lawns and a statue of Captain Burns on a granite pedestal. All of the old-timey cast iron lampposts look like they’re trying to tickle Mount Mitchell, which sits back behind the town.
Always made sense Vi lived there.
The bar Vi works at is kinda touristy. It’s Western-themed. There are banjos and cowboy boots nailed to the wall and it has a big Rocky Mountain elk head mounted at the center with a lasso tangled in its prongs. Those don’t live around these parts, Drake told her once, trying to show her that he knew things. She smiled and said he could file an official complaint in that shoebox at the end of the bar, if he’d like.
Tonight, Drake’s got cold ones stuffed in a paper bag. He thunks them down on the bar inlaid with grainy photos of strangers showing the fish they caught or portraits of ladies in big hats or else long-dead mining towns dotted with buggies and men in overalls. Drake sits on the stool. Vi looks up from washing out glasses. An escaped hair is floating across her forehead, and Drake thinks, suddenly, how he wants to push it back behind her ear. Her hair’s red like sweet gum leaves when fall hits. It ain’t natural, but Drake likes it a lot.
“I know this bar’s got atmosphere, but maybe do me the favor of buying the booze—ya know, here?”
He shrugs. “Ain’t for me.”
That’s a lie.
He doesn’t even realize it’s a lie till it’s cold in his empty stomach. Old Man’s dead.
“How’s Gracie?” Drake asks. He uses his pocket knife to pry off the top of a beer. He pries off the top of another and slides it across the bar to Vi.
Vi looks like she thinks he’s funny. She bends down beneath the bar and rifles around. When she straightens up, she hands Drake a folded piece of paper. “She made something for you,” Vi says, and she smiles.
Drake takes it and lays it flat. It’s a picture of three cats on their hind legs wearing party hats. There’s music notes floating over top like little balloons. They’re dancing. Two of the cats are big. One is wearing a black coat and the other has long red hair that flows down between her ears. Then there’s a little one in the middle. She’s got a flower on the tip of her hat.
“Well—ain’t that somethin?” Drake says. He runs the tip of his finger over the big cat in the jacket. It’s him. He feels hot all the sudden—a real good hot.
Vi’s watching him. She must notice the burst veins in his eyes from all that heaving. “You don’t look so good, D. You need sleep.” He stares back at her. She leans across the bar. Drake tells himself not to look at her tits rising up a little in her black tank top.
Her fingertips trace his jawline and rest beneath his chin, tilting his head slowly up. He shivers a little. Swallows hard. He knows he’s white-knuckling the bar. Her hand is cool and soft. She smells sweet and clean with shampoo.
“Your eyes look like they hurt pretty bad.”
He shrugs again. “Don’t notice it much.”
And then it’s over. The pressure of her fingertips disappears, and the scent of her gets faint. She kneels beneath the bar. That cold thing gets heavier in his stomach with her there and then gone. She straightens back up and hands him a little bottle.
“Go to the bathroom. Put some-a this in those pretty bastards.”
He does. He was always real good at following orders.
Drake’s strong arm tensed more. He clenched his strong fist harder. Old Man watched him with his narrow narrow eyes. Ma watched Drake, but maybe she wasn’t really seeing much. He tensed even more. He clenched even more.
And then he swung.
Old Man said again.
Drake swung again.
Old Man said again.
Old Man said again.
It felt so damn good, and everything went so damn hazy that Drake didn’t stop until Old Man hit him hard in the chest (“Don’t fuckin’ bury her, ya crazy lil’ shit.”) with the heel of his boot and Drake stumbled back onto the carpet. He laid there panting, his chest thudding, his hand hurting and hurting, his knuckles bleeding, his shoulder and arm in knots, the hot acid of his muscles flushing down through him into something like a calm, and it felt so damn good that he just stared all hazy up at the ceiling on his back and wondered if this was like being on those meds his parents took together.
Old Man never asked for help training Ma again, and she didn’t like him much after that. Drake tried not to think about Ma always in pain. Never wanted to make her feel it again. It became a tick, though, this violence. It felt too good. It felt too damn good.
The shop is Drake’s now.
He’s never really owned anything worth much his whole life. Even his only jacket—a leather one—probably wasn’t really real, no matter what the tag told him. It only cost him $4.25 at The Salvation Army in Burnsville, at any rate. But Old Man’s shop, it isn’t something Drake could pull from a hanger, stuff into the front of his jeans, and walk out a store with. This was a butcher shop. Brick and mortar. One with his last name stamped on large plate glass windows.
Drake keeps most things the same. Like Old Man’s girlie calendar glued to the wall in the back. Early mornings when he’s prepping for dry hanging, or stocking the meat case, Drake stares at the same picture of a lady in little panties. Her thighs are kinda open, her head tilted back against one of those old style metal desks. She's got a phone cord wrapped around her forearm and the phone is cradled in her long-nailed fingers. She’s also got some black-rimmed glasses on and her lips are parted.
It’s a dirty conversation—he’s pretty sure of that.
She’s May, and it’s October. But that don’t matter. There are eleven other ladies, but he got real fond of this one quick. Vi wears glasses most days. Probably would hold a phone cord like that if someone ever handed her one. And even though Vi’s lips look better in red, the May lady’s nice to have around. Drake has this pretty thing to look up at as he strips down carcasses and shuffles among butcher knives and breaking knives and flank knives and skinning knives and his cleaver, doing the blood-letting, the skinning, the dehairing, the splitting down the center. Something that looks alive and lovely surrounded by all this dead.
Two months after his memorial bender, Vi sees the tracks. One night, he stays late at the bar after she unplugs the neon signs. He washes down tables and scoots the broom around the floor. Tells her some dumb jokes he knows. And in the middle of his dumb jokes, this dumbass gets too comfortable. He gets hot, so he strips his jacket off.
She’s giving him this little smile. Her lips are paler than a few hours ago. Her elbows are resting on the bar, and she’s leaning over it. Her curly hair is doing something to the light around her face. She looks kinda glowy at all her edges. He comes to her. Drake rests his forearms on the opposite side and leans across the bar. She’s closer than she’s ever been.
She kisses him before he has the chance to go for it first.
Over the thrumming of his heart, and the buzz of the silence outside him, he thinks that her mouth is the softest thing he’s ever felt. But, this dumbass, lifts his hand and slides it clear across the bar. He takes hold of her upper arm gentle so he can tilt his head some and kiss her deeper. But then, she glances down, and the heat of her mouth is gone.
It’s her turn to go grabbing.
Her fingers clamp down on the bone of his right wrist. Her nails pinch his skin a little. She wrenches the inside of his arm open wider. In the dimness of the bar, her own upturned wrists glow dully. He watches her wrists; she watches him.
“What’re you doin' this junk for, D?”
A smog blankets everything now. “It’s old, yeah? Ain’t done it in awhile.”
Her wrists hang there for a moment longer, and then she lets him go. “Good.” She turns back to the counter. “See you tomorrow, then.”
And, it’s over. Just like that.
Drake doesn’t do a good job acting like he’s okay. He swings around, and snaps at his jacket too loudly, hikes it over his shoulders and pushes his arms through like he’s putting on boxing gloves. Walks to the exit. She’s staring down at the drawer, counting money.
He mumbles, pushing out the door, “Act like I gotta problem or somethin.”
“D!” He pauses at the blast of cold air against his beer-hot, Vi-hot cheeks, and looks over his shoulder, back into the dense warmth behind him. Her sly little smile has reappeared on her bowed lips. “If you’re lucky, I’ll get Gracie a sitter.”
He grins, in spite of himself. “Hope ya don’t bribe all your customers like that, Vi.”
“No—just the ones in ratty leather jackets and bad band t-shirts.”
He turns back to the outside. The flush of heat stays till he’s back in his shit house.
This was a bad fucking night.
Old Man’s place got broken into while Drake and Old Man was at the shop. And Drake knew it was one of those goddamned drifters that picked through their town like turkey buzzards. Old Man was slowing down. Lost a lot of air when he prepped. Had to sit down every thirty minutes. A vein would seize and jump in his red temple and he’d wheeze like an old dog. Drake was working more hours for Old Man, trying to keep the doors open. And then, the house got broken into. Drake’s television, gone. He’d had been proud of that thing. Flat, lightweight, with a sheen that glinted even in the darkness. The bare spot against the wall felt like a goddamn hole out into the night.
This was the way of things, yeah? Some folks spent their whole lives taking orders from other folks to make them happy and then different folks come along and pick clean the only junk that made some folks happy.
Some folks tried to take all this bad shit like they think a man’s supposed to and just make it through this day and then the next day and then the day after that and then other folks come lurking along and club some folks in the back of the heads when they ain’t lookin’ and before some folks know it, they’re getting kicked in the ribs by other folks and smacked around in the back by different folks.
He didn’t know how much more he was expected to keep hold of.
Later that night, Drake pounded a six pack. Went to the bar. Roiling. At the bar, he slammed another four beers. When he finally stumbled out, he felt full of something dark and red and noxious. It flooded his lungs. Swamped up his throat. He was choking, and he wanted to hock it up, but his body wouldn’t work right. Somethin’ liked it there. He was made of smoking firewood, angry as hell, and dying a little.
Twenty-two and he was dying a little.
The outside expanded into everything and nothing. Black. The black didn’t even have the strength to stir the hair on his forehead. Snakes of sweat braided down his back. He shivered in his t-shirt and his leather jacket. Something had to loosen. Something had to give way.
Then, Drake saw him.
He was old, rickety and dirty. He was hunkered at the mouth of the alleyway. He saw Drake and lifted his hand in the church way. Drake shivered again. The old man asked if he got anything to spare. Drake levelled his narrow narrow eyes on him, and ran a hand through his black black hair, and he smiled. Drake thought he smiled at the old man. No teeth, though.
Blearily, the old man asked again. His arm was still raised, palm still cupped to the sky.
Drake’s hand fell from his hair to grip the crotch of his jeans. He tugged at it and said, “How about ya use that empty mouth and maybe I got somethin’ in my pocket?”
He blinked up at Drake, and then nodded. He knocked shakily to his feet and followed Drake back behind the far side of the dumpster. The old man got down on his knees again.
There was a broken piece of 2x4 within reach.
Anger has a way of making time a smog. Making it both impossible to grab and everywhere all at once. Drake was in it. He caught the old man’s shoulder with the wood. The man crumpled like a can in the street. He didn’t use his mouth, not even to scream. He kicked the old man in the stomach. The old man let out a bark of air.
In his head, someone chanted. Again and again and again.
A few moments passed, and then Drake stopped cold in all that heat. He was shaking, shuddering. The old man was as still as a can in the street, breathing tissue paper. He wasn’t going to fight back. He was gonna just wait till it was over. Sweat dropped down Drake’s forehead, leaving a wet trail that gathered across his upper lip.
Go on baby. Hit your Ma.
And Drake thought, wildly, no, no. This is Old Man. Old Man. Ma’d been dead five years. Old Man who deserved splitting open. Old Man who need training.
The world seized, and he felt sick. A tar bubbled at the back of his throat. He barely lurched to the side to avoid vomiting on the old man. He was on his hands and firewood knees, dry-heaving like a goddamn dog.
When he finished turning his stomach inside out, he wiped the back of his mouth and stood. He could hardly support his own weight. Drake looked down at the old man breathing tissue paper, still crumpled. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. All he had was $16. He let it go beside the man and it fluttered to the ground.
“I’m sorry,” Drake said, and limped away. Had to see to Old Man.
Vi leans back with her head tilted against the tile wall. Her eyes are closed. Her fingernails are tapping against the metal of the table she sits on. Her legs are extended over the side and her bare feet jerk and bob to music from the dented boombox.
He pauses from butchering the pig carcass. He sets the bloodied bayonet down next to the meat cleaver. Drake’s arms pulse. He uses the upper sleeve of his shirt to wipe the sweat across his forehead. He rubs his hands off on his bloody smock and watches her. She is singing quietly, her mouth opening in small O's and then closing. He glimpses her pink tongue from between glossy lips. Drake begins to forget about the dead animal that still needs cut up.
“Now,” he says, leaning against the steel table and crossing his arms, “if you see any of them Yancey County health officials, do me a favor, Vi, and don't tell ‘em you were barefoot in here, yeah? Or that you weren’t wearin’ the right things on your legs. Or, you know, much of anything at all, now that I'm lookin’ at you some...” He trails off for a moment, watching her leg bend and draw up to her torso as she situates herself, resting her chin on her knee.
She smiles at him. The corner of his mouth shifts upwards. He picks up the bayonet again. “And if they come ‘round, don’t tell ‘em that your hair wasn’t in netting neither, yeah?”
He goes to apply the blade to the raw meat when he pauses again and draws the knife away, tapping it on the metal table, frowning a little bit. He looks at her. “Also, last thing. Don’t tell ‘em we did it on this table I'm choppin’ meat on—and it was on this block, too, I'm thinkin’.” His frown deepens because she is laughing. “I'm serious, girl. They come sniffing ‘round here, them sneaky bastards, don’t say nothin’.”
Now she’s grinning at him from atop her bare knee. He looks down where her thighs part.
“Keep lookin’ at me like that, Vi, and we'll have another round on the front counter.” He pauses, considers, then adds, “And don’t tell ‘em about those couple times neither, all right? That should go without me even sayin’.”
“I ain’t gonna ask nice again—you listenin’, girl?” This asshole is slumped some over the bar. His face is red and his words are sloppy at their ends.
Vi laughs. She fills another frosty mug and slides it down to Cuz. Drake and his cuz are visiting Vi and they’re on their fourth or fifth beer. They’re sitting at the bar two seats down from this asshole.
“I’d prefer if you just didn’t ask me again. Save me the effort of saying—again—” Vi cups her hands around her mouth and turns towards the asshole who is teetering some in his seat. “You. Are. Cut. Off.”
Drake is trying to ignore him but it’s getting harder. His voice keeps pushing over the music. This asshole says, spittle caught in his beard, “You’re an uppity bitch, ain’t ya?”
Drake stares now. Cuz is watching Drake.
Vi isn’t laughing anymore. The rag she uses to dry glasses is slung over her shoulder. Her eyes seem to flash some in the low light. “I’ve oversold you already. Keep going and you’ll be banned till after you and your maker meet.”
This asshole starts to stand, groping for the coat he’s got on one of the hooks beneath the bar. “Best keep your eyes peeled on the way to your car tonight, huh sweetheart?”
Drake feels himself split like firewood.
This is when you can. This is when you should.
Drake stops fighting it.
That dark, red, noxious thing sluices through him. It’s been a long time since the last hit of it. He’s up: snags the asshole’s collar, yanks him around. Clocks him in the nose. It cracks. He cranks his arm back to hit him again, when someone gets him around the chest. Drake flails back. His elbow hits hollow.
Drake is released, and he swings around.
“Dammit, D,” Cuz grunts. Cuz is cupping his eye against the bar.
Drake stands still. His chest thrums, the noise in his ears subsides, the heat flushes from his system, and a cold, rotten thing forms in his gut.
Vi is pale. “Drake,” she says, quiet. “What d’you think I normally deal with?”
Drake doesn’t say anything. He stares at Vi. He looks back at Cuz. He is now slumped onto the barstool, his head held up by his palm.
“This isn’t what you…you can’t do this,” she says.
“That asshole—” That asshole was now clumped on the floor whimpering.
“You can’t hurt people, D. You can’t hurt people just because it feels right.”
“I didn’t know Cuz was—”
“No, it don’t matter. It don’t matter whether it’s Cuz or this asshole, or your own ma—I deserve more than that. So does Warren. And even this asshole over here. I’ve got Gracie to think of. And you need to…” She inhales deep, and rests her palms on the bar. “You need to let some of this go, D, or you’re gonna end up drownin’ by yourself.”
Drake leaves the bar and starts to walk home till Cuz pulls up and makes him get in. It’s a real quiet ride back to Relief. They drive with all the windows down to stay awake and it’s finally chilly enough that Drake shivers and the black hair on his arms bunch together. At 1:30 in the morning, Drake pushes the door open to his house, and stands at the entrance. He looks around and thinks of how the place is still Old Man’s.
Drake buys some new things.
He buys two sets of sheets. Heard somewhere that was a good amount. He chooses blue. He plans on hauling them to the laundromat once or twice a month. Heard that was a good amount, too. In the check-out line, he sees gummy bears and a cartoon cat coloring book. He tosses them in his cart. Thinks he could give them to Gracie sometime.
Back at the house, he attacks his bathroom with a bucket of bleach and water and fat yellow sponges. He sweeps up the romping hair and dust. Cuz offers to scoop out the fridge. Drake can hear his cuz say fuck you, D every now and then.
When the bathroom stinks like hospital, Drake stands, cracks his neck, and goes back out to the front. Cuz is now in the sink scraping with a gummy scouring pad. Drake leans against the wall, arms crossed. He looks at Old Man’s chair. Cuz stops scrubbing. He pushes loose hair off his forehead. His right eye is painted purple and blue.
Watching Old Man’s chair, Drake says, “It’s uh, old—ain’t it?”
Cuz snorts. “Yeah, sure. That’s one problem with it.”
“Old Man kinda left—” Drake flattens his palm and pushes the air down.
“Yeah. Almost like he died on it.”
Drake frowned. “He did die on it.”
“It’s not so comfortable anymore, really. And maybe it don’t smell so good.” Drake wrinkles his brow, runs a hand through his hair, scratches at the back of his head. “Gracie probably couldn’t sit right on it.” He pauses, and then adds, “If she ever comes over, I mean. With Vi.” Drake is quiet for a moment, and then looks over at Cuz. “Ya want it?”
His cuz huffs through his nose and shakes his head. “With that sales pitch? Nah, I’m good.”
Drake nods his head. “Yeah. Well—let’s chuck it, right?”
Together, they uproot the chair. Grunting and swearing, they drag it out of the house. A twenty-minute drive separates Old Man’s chair from the dump. When Cuz looks over at him, Drake smiles. Shows his teeth and everything. Cuz gives him a little tilt of the chin.
Drake will take State Highway 197 all the way there and all the way back. He’ll think about the shop. He’ll think about Gracie. He’ll think about Vi.
Jess Macy was born and raised in the suburbs of Kansas City and received her BA and MA at Pittsburg State University. Following a particularly nomadic decade, she will finally settle down (for now) in Chicago and pursue her MFA at DePaul University this fall.
— Sarah Rose Cadorette
“Oh, so NO ONE has ever gotten DRUNK at a WEDDING before?” I asked, flinging my arms out to indicate that I was a very, very big presence.
The EMT sighed, pushed the stretcher up against a wall, and came around to face me. “Do you know why we picked you up, Sarah? Hmm?” I shook my head defiantly. “You were laughing in the bushes.”