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I was a revolutionary, p.17

I Was a Revolutionary, page 17


I Was a Revolutionary

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  Everybody, each one of them in the bar, suffered their shame in private, and for that they were as lonely as they were connected.

  For the past hour Sal had been sitting at the bar, staring at the mute infomercial that had come on after the late news. For forty dollars you could buy an aerosol can that spray-painted hair onto your bald spot. Bored, he left to take a seat by the pool table just as Brewgner sunk a game winner in the side pocket.

  “Best two out of three,” said Ray.

  “What’s in it for me? I already got what I wanted.”

  Ray asked Sal to get a round, and when he was gone said, “Maybe I can sweeten the pot.”

  It was just past eleven, and everyone was crowded up to the bar, trying to get a drink, or packed into a booth, devouring burgers. Sal held up two fingers as he approached. Somehow Ricky managed it all with aplomb, hurrying to the stove to turn burgers and then returning to eyeball generous pours from the well. The time Dolan had put in with Charlene was paying off. He was calling her Charlie and she was starting to consider the possibility that she would let him take her home. Hector and Byrd sat in a booth with Dan and Carlos, devouring the first of two burgers apiece, pausing momentarily to make a joke. “I think I remember this one from last week,” said Dan, studying his burger.

  Having dropped the first game, Ray was now obliged to find a job for Brewgner at the plant. It would take some coaxing of the bosses, but he could find something in Packaging or Rendering easily enough. Now, however, Ray promised that if Brewgner won again he could return to his old position. It wasn’t that the thought of demoting Sal from his new post didn’t cross his mind. It was that under the heady glow of competitive wager it didn’t seem possible. Didn’t hurt, of course, that if Ray won he’d collect Brewgner’s final two work-comp checks. There was no way he’d lose.

  “You put these on my tab, right?” said Ray when Sal returned with two more bourbons. Sal nodded yes, though he’d placed them on his own. Brewgner was on the far side of the table, his back to them, chalking his cue. Sal asked what the bet was. “It’s nothing. Whoever loses has to drink buffalo sweat. I got this.” Buffalo sweat was what they called the cocktail produced when Ricky wrung out the rags he used to wipe down the bar into a single shot glass. Every few weeks some poor bastard lost a friendly bet and had to suck one down. Suddenly Ray cried, “Oh shit, I forgot my theme song,” and ran over to the juke. He selected “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” smiling as Freddy Fender’s voice filled Doc’s. “No wonder I lost the first game,” he said, playing a little air guitar with his cue.

  Sal knew this was no bet about drinking a vile shot of liquor. Despite Ray’s jovial calm, Sal could see the gambler’s intensity. It was payday; he was betting against his check. He’d seen the highs and lows of Ray’s gambling over the years, and had benefitted from it, too. His friend had always been generous. Used to be, if Ray won—be it cards, pool, darts, whatever—they’d end up in a room at the Thunderbird with a couple of whores from the boulevard for an hour or two before Ray had to get back home. Last winter, however, they’d passed out after sharing a chubby blonde who’d infuriated Ray when she said Sal had to fuck her from behind. Those scars, she said, made her want to puke. Ray pulled his knife on her but she showed no fear or regret; she said cutting cost extra. Exasperated, he put the knife away and unzipped his fly.

  Later Ray returned home unapologetic, stinking of another woman. Lorna had been out searching all night. “If you’re not gonna give it to me,” he said, “I’ll find it somewhere.” She told him not to talk to her about needs. They had three kids, plus they sent money to her sister and mother on the rez. Their house was a dump, the boiler needed to be replaced, and the truck was always breaking down. “I don’t want this life anymore,” she told him and left the house. A minute later Ray chased her down, falling to his knees and wrapping his arms around her waist, pleading, apologizing. “I’ll last for thirty seconds without you and the kids.” He was a bastard, he said. He had the heart of a prairie dog. “Come back to me, baby.” That was her opportunity to leave. She wanted to, considered it, and then thought of the kids. If it was this bad now, what would it be like with no money coming in? She told Ray he needed to bring his paycheck home. No more gambling, she said. No other women. And he’d cried, swearing allegiance and fidelity—a promise he’d kept thus far—leading her back inside, where, still dirty with the sex of the other woman, he made love to her against the kitchen counter.

  Not long after that, Lorna had confided in Sal about her concerns. He was over at their place for dinner and Ray had run out to the store to pick up an ingredient—cayenne, Sal still recalled—Lorna needed for a dish. There was a lull in the cooking, the kids were watching TV in the back room, and they sat at the kitchen table. She’d told him about the gambling, money concerns, how she’d almost left. “Ray’s great, the kids love him, but he’s . . . Ray.” Then she started to cry, but quickly changed the subject, trying to laugh it off. “How about you—got your eye on anyone?” She smiled, a single, persistent tear still lodged in the corner of her eye. But he didn’t want her to back off, to close the door she’d already opened. In that moment he wanted to confess his own shame and sadness. He wanted to tell her the truth about his scars and said so. “What happened?” she said, leaning across the table to put her hands on his face. Her soft touch over his old wounds. But as he began to speak, Ray entered through the front door and she took her hands away. “Not too much of this, baby,” Ray said, holding the red spice container. “I don’t want to be screaming on the toilet tomorrow.”

  Brewgner was short but lean, bald, with an overbite so extreme that he looked like a character in a horror movie in the early stages of transmogrifying into a werewolf. It was unsettling to look at him and he knew it. He stared at Ray across the pool table, the scattered constellation of a good break between them. The table was open, Brewgner’s shot. Ray grabbed the crotch of his jeans, cupping his testicles, and plopped them on the silver ornamental work of the corner pocket Brewgner was eyeing for the three ball. “Don’t let them scare you,” he said. Ray had won the second game easily and was anxious to vanquish Brewgner in the third. Brewgner wasn’t worried. Sure, Ray had gone on a tear in the second game, but he had dumped a couple shots on purpose to speed the process along, to feed Ray’s confidence, to set him up for a game-three comeuppance. Brewgner leaned forward, sized up the three, and staked his claim to the lows. He’d struck the ball hard but with control so that the cue didn’t fly all over the table, a leave that allowed him soft tap-ins on the seven and five before he missed on the two. Ray took over and quickly combo’d the twelve off the ten. He whistled as he took a long, slow strut around the table. He knocked in the ten and banked the fourteen into the side pocket, and then had a two-ball run that ended with the cue following the fifteen into the pocket. “I meant to do that,” he said. “You look like you could use some help.”

  When Lorna showed up with June, their youngest, at her chest, Brewgner was in the midst of taking a commanding lead, capitalizing on Ray’s scratch. It took Ray a moment to notice her standing there beside Sal, and then a few moments more, him just staring at her, to react. In so many ways it was completely normal to see his wife and best friend watching him, whispering. It was Byrd’s ridiculing from the front of the bar—“Look out, Ray, your old lady’s on the warpath”—that provoked him to say something. To be dragged out of Doc’s by your wife was one of the greater indignities in the D&L universe.

  “The fuck are you doing here, woman?” said Ray.

  “Like it was hard to know where you’d be,” she said.

  It was bubbling in him now. He had to let it out, and it had to be mean if he was going to preempt further ridicule and hazing at work.

  “With my baby! Are you crazy or just stupid? We have rules in here—no knives, no babies!” As he continued to perform his anger for the bar, Lorna slowly approached him and when he finally quieted, she whispered: “Give me your paycheck and you c
an make your scene. I won’t care whether you ever come home again.” He reached in his pocket and gave her his check and pay stub. Then she turned and left as everyone stared at her. Asie nodded, said, “Night, Lorna.”

  “That’s right—leave! Go change a diaper. You’re stinking up the Doc Holliday Inn and Lounge!” Ray yelled. Sal followed after her as Ray shouted at everyone staring back at him: “Fuck are you looking at?” They returned to their drinks and conversation, and Ray felt a little relief. It seemed to have worked. No one was likely to tease him about the incident tomorrow. Brewgner tapped his stick against the table. It was Ray’s shot. “You think I’m rattled?” he said. “I become a goddamn artist at this table when I’m angry.”

  Outside, Lorna sat in the driver’s seat of Ray’s pickup. She rolled down the window as Sal approached. The heat of July was still in the air and the soft light of a toenail moon made the red of the truck’s hood glow. Inside the cab were all three kids. Daniel, ten now, sat next to Russell, four, who held Baby June. They were in their pajamas. In unison the two older children said, “Hello, Uncle Sal” sleepily.

  “That went well,” said Lorna. She was wearing one of Ray’s shirts, red-check and pearl-snap. Her hair was black and fell longer than Ray’s, almost to her breasts. “I hate him,” she said. To prevent herself from crying she started the engine. Sal wanted to reach in and turn it off. Tired, upset, beautiful, did she know that he was in love with her, that he’d longed for her for years? Did Ray, for that matter? Sal took hold of her hand that was hanging out the window. She squeezed his hand twice and smiled sadly. “Thank you for calling me. It’s not your job to look after him.” She attempted to let go, but he held fast to her. “Are you okay?” she said. He was acting strange, quieter than usual, if such a thing were possible, and he leaned forward through the window. She pulled back—“Don’t”—and looked at the children crowded against each other on the bench seat, who stared back at them. “I have to get the kids home.” She shifted into gear and she was gone.

  Sal went back inside the bar and made his way to the high-top, where Ray was pointing his cue at Brewgner: “You bush-league sonofabitch!” He swung the stick toward the image of Bronson on the pinball machine. “You’ve placed my ball under the spell of this man with a tanned vagina for a face.”

  “It wasn’t intentional, Ray,” said Brewgner.

  “The hell it wasn’t. We have a code here—you don’t Bronson another man!”

  Brewgner hadn’t meant to. He didn’t need to, he was on the cusp of victory as it was. A gambler like Ray would almost always beat himself, which was why Brewgner let him move the cue ball a few inches so he could get a clean shot. But Ray was rattled, convinced this, like everything that evening, was only a small part of a vast conspiracy to keep him from winning, a notion seemingly confirmed when the eight followed the eleven into the corner pocket.

  “Oops,” said Brewgner, smiling.

  Ray stared at the pocket in disbelief. He tossed his cue onto the table, sending the remaining balls scattershot. Brewgner returned his stick to the rack on the wall and walked toward Ray.

  “Doesn’t mean anything,” said Ray. “You’re done at the plant.”

  Brewgner grabbed hold of Ray’s shirt. “You made a bet.”

  “I didn’t sign anything,” he said, pushing Brewgner’s hand away.

  “The hell you didn’t. On your word, Ray. You bet on your word, like we always do.”

  They were in each other’s face now and Sal approached to intercede. Everyone in the bar was good and tight and no one up front knew a fight was about to break out. Sal pushed them apart.

  “Tell him,” Brewgner said to Ray. “Go ahead.”

  “Enough,” said Ray. “We’ll talk. The three of us. Out back.” Once again he told Sal to go get them another round. “Three whiskeys. On me.”

  A few minutes later, after the trip to the bar and a stop at the pisser, Sal made his way to join them outside, a pyramid of tumblers clamped between his hands. There wasn’t much back there, just a gravel lot, empty but for an abandoned Buick where people sometimes went to smoke a joint or fool around. He nudged open the screen door with his boot and for a moment saw nothing, just the darkness and fuzzy starlight of a humid summer night. There was the sound, though—like hooves on cobblestone—and in the distance he saw Ray running down the road, those boot heels clacking away on the pavement. Sal called out to him. Ray stopped and turned around. That’s when Sal sensed something off to his left, beside the rear tires of the Buick. Brewgner prostrate on the ground. Ray waved his hand a few times—what did that mean?—before taking off again.

  Sal dropped the glasses and approached Brewgner, kneeling next to the fallen man. His left hand was covering his stomach, his shirt blood-soaked. Sal moved the hand to inspect the wound and saw Ray’s knife lodged in Brewgner’s stomach. Ray had got him good, the kind of cut that didn’t look like much but would bleed you to death if you let it. Brewgner’s eyes were shut and Sal put two fingers to his neck. There was still a pulse. Sal looked back at the bar. Through the screen door the light inside illuminated the familiar spectacle of a late-night wind-down, people leaning against the bar, wearily suppressing yawns, boozily swaying. They would all be heading home soon. Sal thought of taking the knife and running, then of calling for help. Neither avenue was actually a way out. All roads led back to Ray. One way or another his friend would pay. Sal froze. For a brief moment he was filled with the rush of excitement that Lorna would be alone.

  While he was still half turned, looking back at Doc’s, the knife entered Sal’s neck below the left ear—Brewgner’s eyes suddenly opening, his hand thrusting forth from his belly—and severed the left carotid artery, a clean swoop that continued across the neck to the internal jugular vein, stopping just past the far side of the trachea when Brewgner’s arm reached full extension. It was over before Sal had a chance to register pain, though as he fell backward he knew what had happened and what would. He looked up at the sky, but what he saw in his mind’s eye was the knife making its silent progress along his throat. The cut wasn’t complete, but it was enough. He had 83 seconds to live.

  It was twenty minutes past closing when Ricky finally started the arduous process of getting everyone to leave. “Closing time,” he would shout, and they’d nod and return to their conversations. He’d kill the juke, wipe down the rail, and then begin gathering the glasses from the tables, saying, “Finish your drinks. Time to leave.” Again they would nod and return to their conversations. A few minutes would pass and then he could bring the anger: “Come on, you bastards, I want to go home!” Only then would they slowly make their way to the bar to settle their tabs, fumbling for wallets, while Ricky figured their totals, punching a number that sounded right into the ancient register and making change.

  There was the mad rush for a final piss that turned the men’s bathroom into a virtual clown car: Asie splattering the toilet seat in the stall, Dan and Byrd at the urinals, their streams in audible competition, and Hector, unable to wait, pissing so hard in the sink that it seemed he might bore a hole through the enamel. Kathy had already paid and left, giving a ride that was nothing more than a ride to Carlos, who’d drunk too much and left his car in the parking lot. Slowly, the men exited the bathroom and made their way to the front exit, fishing for the keys in their pockets, figuring out who was giving a ride to whom. They needed to go home and get some sleep or else they’d suffer under the watch of line supervisors who would write them up—three and you were out—for slowing down the chain or not pulling their count.

  In a minute they would all be gone and Ricky would count the tips and wash the last of the glasses. He’d find Ray, Sal, and Brewgner’s tabs unpaid and set them next to the register to remember to collect on the next time they came in. He had a few more things to do but was already thinking about the joint in his shirt pocket that he’d smoke out back under the stars.

  Dodge City, you open sore. Where Ray bursts through the front door, dr
ipping sweat, telling Lorna to get the kids in the truck. Where Dolan, in the cab of his Ranger with Charlene, sensing the onset of whiskey dick, rejects the advances he’s worked so hard to engender, something that leaves them both feeling ashamed and embarrassed when he simply drops her off outside her apartment and speeds away before she’s made it inside. Where Doris, unable to sleep, watches television well into the early morning while her cancer-sick husband snores in the bedroom. And where Bob, two hours passed out after another Royals loss, momentarily wakes to flip his pillow to the cool underside when he hears the siren of a passing ambulance sound through the neighborhood. But then it’s quiet and he’s asleep again, his hand extending through the sheet tangle to the empty space on the other side of the bed.


  Part I: Dinsmoor


  He dreamed of concrete. And so, upon his retirement in 1905, from teaching and farming, from fighting, first on battlefields of the Civil War and later on political campaigns of the 1890s—from sixty-two years in the American maelstrom—Samuel Perry Dinsmoor bought the half-acre lot, moving with his wife and children from the outskirts of town to the center of Lucas, where his neighbors, who’d long termed the man a freethinker, looked on with moderate curiosity as he began to construct the fence surrounding his property, a fence he fashioned from cement paste and crushed stone. The July 20, 1906, edition of the Lucas Independent deemed him a “genius” and his fence “the noblest in town.”

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