By James Schlatter
Wynn’s hook wagged a twenty at him. The bill was folded in quarters, clutched in between the serrated prongs. When Stone reached for it, the prongs parted with an insect hum. Freed of the bill, the prongs clenched the handle of the coffee mug that Stone had just filled for him, lifted it to the man’s outstretched lips, and then tilted the mug into the mouth until all the Grey Goose was gone.
After pocketing the twenty, Stone stepped back and surveyed the heads. There were eight of them, their faces staring at him as if they were passengers in a sunken ship, their eyes stunned open. A glass rested on one elbow, a bowl of skinned nuts on the other. A web of cigarette smoke swayed in the sea green bar lights. Behind the heads, there were empty booths, cloudy mirrors, dust sprouting from the blades of a fan. Stone breathed deeply of the air, the smell of bourbon and menthols as familiar to him as his own voice. Seven years ago he had wandered in looking for something to get him through, but had remained, as much a prisoner as the heads in front of him.
“One more cap.”
“Another round Stony.”
Stone shook, mixed, strained and poured everyone’s drink, then fixed himself a tall Beefeater’s and tonic with three limes. It was his first drink of the night. When he sipped it, disgust pulsed through his body. But by the second sip, the gin tasted clean as water.
At the far end of the bar he felt the eyes of Tense on him. Moonlight poured in through the porthole shaped window, inflaming the hair piled atop her head. In front of her face, her palms appeared white as magician’s gloves. Stone slid his Doc Martens over the rubber mat, trying to knock off the bottle caps impressed into the soles. As he neared her, he again felt amazed at her utter whiteness, as if she were a creature stolen from mythology, half human-half egret. Her eyes were open sores, tears leaking with each blink. Alabaster fingers wiped them away.
“What does Stone do after work?”
“Stone goes home.”
“Tense walks on the beach. Crab season. Millions. She watches. Stone watches. Waves. Nice.”
“Not tonight. Stone goes home. TV. Peace.”
“Fire. Then peace.”
“Peace. Then sleep.”
“Fire. Then peace. Then sleep. Then fire again.”
The sound of quarters working their way through the machinery of a jukebox filled the bar. The juke beamed in the far corner, right in front of the open toilet. A forest green shower curtain surrounded the toilet, and when somebody was sitting on it, you could see their toe caps peeking out.
A sign read: No shitting allowed.
The juke was a time capsule blinking government lights—fire engine reds, cop car blues, the caution lights of road crews. Its records could have been selected from the play list of Sounds of the Seventies. It made Stone think of the roller rinks of his youth, the Orange Juliuses and the sugary wet tongues of the chickadees with nipples hard as seeds.
Fragment pressed his palms to the glass of the juke as if he were imprisoned in a submarine. In the left back pocket of his cinnamon-colored jeans, the cream handle of a comb protruded. Every once in a while, he removed his fingers from the glass, extracted the comb and raked it through his cadaverous hair. The sound of his limbs moving reminded Stone of shells being crushed under a shoe. They once timed his heart rate at 27 beats per minute. Other than the $50-a-week rooming house he lived in, he spent most of his money on whiskey sours and Jim Morrison. “Love Street” crackled from the speakers.
The heads groaned their displeasure.
When Kylie walked in, Stone had just finished his third Beefeaters—not yet drunk enough to keep his wrists from fluttering. He recognized the shirt that she was wearing as one of his own—a carnation pink guayabera that she wore buttoned low enough to bare all of her breasts save the nipples. She had cleaned the make-up from her face, and her eyes sagged with fatigue.
“Hello Alex,” she said, sliding onto the stool nearest the door. “Give me a Ketel sour.”
He poured her one.
“Been awhile, he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “How you been?”
She brought the highball to her lips, her fingernails dazzling. For a tall woman, she had a small mouth, thin lips. He rarely saw her without heavy lipstick.
“Getting by.” She lit a Salem, inhaled deeply, then arched her neck and blew the smoke straight up into the air. “Bobby’s been asking about you.”
“Yeah, he still remembers. Those rocks you used to find for him. Still has them in the window. The lights they make.”
Stone prepared himself another Beefeater’s. He didn’t bother with the tonic this time.
“Still on the gin huh?”
“Sometimes. I’ve slowed down a lot.” He lit one of her Salem’s. He blew the smoke out the side of the mouth as if he were whispering someone to shut up.
“I don’t drink much at all anymore,” she said. “Makes me too crazy.”
She smiled, revealing a gap wide enough in between her two front teeth to slide a dime in. It was, Stone considered, the sexiest part of her face. She reached up and loosened the ponytail from her hair, and the butter-colored strands cascaded over her shoulders—shoulders that made Stone want to protect her from something.
“Bobby start school yet?”
“Next fall will be his first year. I’m nervous for him. He’s a sweet kid, but not well-adjusted.”
“He’ll be alright.”
“I don’t know.”
Stone took a big swallow of gin. As it slid down his throat, his chest warmed.
“You still living in the same place?”
Her mouth full of cigarette smoke, she nodded.
“Maybe I could come by. See the kid.”
Kylie looked hard at him. It was, Stone imagined, what she had wanted from him. But her eyes made him doubt.
“Don’t come,” she said. “If you aren’t going to keep coming.”
“I’ll come. I really have slowed down. Some nights I don’t drink at all.”
She kept her eyes on him, but then they softened a little. They’d had some real wild ones, but deep down, he knew, whenever he wanted.
“I should go.” She threw a ten on the bar. “The sitter’s waiting.”
He bent toward her with his lips out, but she patted them with the palm of her hand.
“Bye Alex. I won’t tell Bobby you’re coming. You’ve promised before.”
“Tomorrow,” he wanted to shout, but knew better.
After the door closed behind her, Wynn asked for another Grey Goose. As Stone poured it into the mug, the prongs snapped open and closed over a single peanut resting in the wooden bowl—a feat of coordination that always stunned.
“The old lady huh?”
“I saw her once. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It was over at the old Lipstick. She came out nude, her body covered in spiders. Hundreds of them. Up and down her legs. On her tits. In her hair. When she started dancing, they panicked, poured off her body like rain, like big black drops that scattered when they hit the ground. But she was careful not to step on them, walked on the tips of her toes, could see those calves, her arms high, her tits high, like some sort of twisted ballet. But the best was the end, when the song was winding down and she shook her hair and all the rest of them came out. They flew into the crowd, webs shooting out their asses like lasers. Must a made a thousand bucks that night.”
“The spider dance,” Stone said, nodding. “She’s famous for it.”
They tossed back their drinks.
As the gin crackled in his belly, Stone again breathed in the tangelo scent of Kylie’s fingers as she squeezed the bright fruit into a glass, their nude bodies dripping sweat.
“Closing up!” he suddenly announced. He wiped his eyes. “Finish your drinks!”
The heads started to protest.
“Crab run,” Stone shouted above them. “We’re heading to the beach!”
The ocean seemed the edge of a cliff, a pit of darkness that didn’t breath. Waves broke so gently that Stone could hear light humming from the moon bloated over the horizon, a light that bleached the sand white, reflecting a million swarming shells. The heads bobbed in front of him, limbs attached below, willowy as tentacles. Save the moonlight reflecting off the steel hooks, and igniting the milky flesh of Tense, he could not distinguish which head belonged to which body. From the hands of several of them, liquid swished inside amber bottles. Stone stepped through the sand imagining a field of pulverized bone, the bones of all the creatures that had ever existed: reptiles the size of 747s, fire-breathing whales, birds that spoke the language of wind. And the bones of man. How many billions had been born, lived and died on this Earth? The number seemed staggering. All of them were being crushed under his bare feet. Sipping from the bottle of Beefeater he felt immense, superior.
“They’re everywhere!” the heads sang.
And they were. The beach radiated crabs. The earth spat them out of holes, and the sea sucked them in. In the shore break, Wynn shattered them with his steel hands. The others chased the crabs in circles, their unsteady legs collapsing underneath them as their mouths chattered laughter. To the north, moonlight illuminated Tense’s buttocks, smooth as polished rock. Her face pointed in the direction of the sea, and her hands were held out in front of her as if in supplication. As Stone neared her, he discerned her hair twisting atop her head, bright as squid. “They call Tense.”
After stepping out of his pants, he wrapped his arms around her, placing his palms over her breasts. The nipples felt rough and oily, like the neck of a lizard.
“You can ride them. Orange like a fish. But not a fish.”
“Tense has to make herself very tiny to ride them.”
He parted her buttocks a little with his fingers, then slipped himself inside her. His ears enjoyed the slurping sounds.
“So tiny,” Tense said. “That they can’t even see her.”
James Schlatter lives with his wife and son in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Photo "Port Elliot 1" courtesy of Chris Potter, Adelaide, Australia.
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