Atomic #10 - a short story from my new collection Frontier
Summer madness. Steamy landscape fades to black. It's night fever in the city where neon washed figures slip into the shadowed dark. I had just blown into town and caught myself sitting at Joe's Bar downtown. It had been a long time, but not long enough to take the edge off how I felt about her. It was here at Joe's where I'd last seen her.
Most guys would've moved on and found somebody else, but not me. That's a lesson I'd never learned. I looked over at the couple in the corner. They were married, but not to each other.
You could tell that by the way he held her. He had both arms around her as if she might try to get away. That's the way I had always held Sheila, as if it were for the last time, as if I always knew she would leave me the minute I forgot to look.
"It's been a long time." Joe put a Budweiser coaster in front of me. "You still drinking Johnny Walker?" He already had his hand on the bottle.
"No, I'm off the hard stuff. Just give me a beer." I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes stared back hard. I was thirsty. The bus ride had been long and I could still smell it. The woman in the corner laughed. She was drunk.
Joe set a cool one in front of me. I pulled out a smoke from my shirt pocket and he passed me some matches. "You seen her?" I tried to sound casual.
Joe stood back from the counter. He looked tired. "She was never good for you, Jimmy."
"I want to see her. Is she with somebody?" I knew the answer already. Sheila was never alone. There were some women like that and she was one of them.
Joe pushed a bowl of nuts toward me. He always kept them on the bar for the customers. Even after happy hour. It was Poppycock, sweet-coated popcorn and nuts. It tasted better with scotch than it did with beer. I looked up at the black and white pictures above the mirror. Old people. They had all been patrons here at one time. They were dead now, but Joe kept their pictures up to remember happier times. White haired men and women sitting at the bar.
"Better give me a real drink." I pushed the beer bottle back toward him. Joe looked at me and went for the bottle. I took a long drink and set the glass back down. It went down good and I could feel it in the back of my legs like magic. I could see Sheila's face as if she were sitting right here in front of me. She was the best looking woman I'd ever seen. She had full lips like a model and real blonde hair. She only used the Clairol to lighten it up ever so often. She always wore a dress, even in the daytime. She was a real woman. And she held her liquor, too. I remember when we'd be here at Joe’s, late, and somebody would get rude, she'd never yell back. She'd always let somebody take the fight and there would always be a fight.
"What are you planning to do now that you're out, Jimmy? You staying here in town?
"I told you. I'm gonna find Sheila."
"Listen, Jimmy. Sheila's gone."
I was scared. "Gone?" That's all I had waited for the past five years, to get back to her. I jumped up off my barstool and reached for Joe’s collar. "What do you mean gone?"
He shook me off and tried to laugh, but he was nervous. "She left, Jimmy. She left town the minute you went to San Quentin."
I sat back down and took my drink. I saw my reflection. I looked like a loser. I took another drink and then another. I was a loser. I had sat in that prison cell for five years waiting for her to write. I sat there trying not to feel it on visitor's day when all the other guys had their girls in. I kept thinking when I got out, then maybe we'd get back together and it could be like it used to be. I looked back at the couple in the corner. He was helping her into her coat and his hand lingered for a moment underneath her breast. It wasn't fair.
"Give me another one, a double."
Joe looked worried, but he poured me one just the same. I knocked it back the minute it hit the bar. I slammed the glass back on the counter to signal another one. He looked over at the door while he poured me another one. The door opened and a serious contender walked in. It was Gomes. I knew him alright. He'd been here that last night. He sat three seats down the bar from me. I looked at him, waiting for him to recognize me. He just looked ahead at his reflection in the mirror. What kind of guy dressed like that? He wore a Hanes undershirt with a sports jacket over it. His hair was greased back and he pulled out a cigarette and put it between his lips. "Give me a bourbon. Early Times." He didn't look my way. I waited for him to look my way, but he didn't.
"I'll take another Johnny Walker, Joe.” I felt myself getting worked up, the anxiety filling up my chest and my breath getting short. I needed that drink to calm myself down. Joe was still pouring the bourbon for Gomes. He knocked his back and pushed the glass for a refill. When Joe finished with him, he walked back over to me.
"You better slow down, Jimmy. That stuff'll sneak up on you."
I was irritated. "I said I wanted another one."
Gomes laughed. "What are you laughing at?" I looked over at Gomes and he stared straight ahead.
"Hey, I'm talking to you."
Gomes turned slow. Joe looked nervous and stepped up to the bar between us. Gomes looked me up and down and smiled an evil smile. I had seen that kind of smile in the joint and it didn't have anything to do with something funny. "I'm laughing because I feel like laughing, cholo." He had a tiny homemade tattooed x on his hand.
"You were here that night with Sheila. I remember you."
"I don't remember any Sheila".
He was lying and I knew it. "Sure you remember her. She was going to be my wife. She was going to have our baby." I was losing it.
Gomes smiled again. "Oh, you mean the fox? That hot little number? Man, that was a long time ago. Way long time ago."
He shook his head slowly, dismissing me. I flew off my barstool, knocking over the two seats between us. "Where is she? Where did she go?" I shoved him.
Gomes got his bearings fast. He was on top of me in nothing flat and had me on the ground face down with his knee in my back. "Listen, I told you I don't know what happened to the girl."
Joe pushed up over the bar. He had a club. "I don't want any trouble. You guys take it outside or I call 911."
I reared back, but Gomes had me pinned to the ground. He was breathing hard and I could smell whiskey and meat. He leaned down to my ear and whispered, "You're lucky for now, cholo, but I'll be waiting for you. And that girl, she was no good. She left town in a bad way."
I kept bucking until he finally got off of me. Joe still had his stick. "You better call it a night, Jimmy."
I stood up and tried to regain my dignity, but I didn't have any to regain. That was lost five years ago in this tavern. Sheila had been with Gomes and she was laughing at me. They were both laughing at me. I was a loser who had nothing left to lose. I turned around to face Gomes. He wasn't smiling anymore. The smile was gone and replaced by what looked like pity. He didn't even think I was worth fighting. Joe laid the club on the bar. "Go home, Jimmy."
I walked out the door into the night. I let the darkness crowd around me. How many other guys had walked out of this bar feeling like I did. I felt alone, like I did that night
five years ago and like I did every night I spent in my cell.
I was going to ask her to marry me that night and she had come into Joe's with Gomes. It was like she already knew and that was her way of telling me to go away. I walked outside that night like the loser I was and tried to rob a store and you know the rest of the story.
The thing is, if I saw Sheila tonight, I'd beg her to take me back. Even after everything, I'd beg her to come back. That's the kind of guy I am, I guess.
The air outside is hot considering how dark it is. I take off walking and remember a little bar we used to go down the street, me and Sheila.