I don’t usually go to a joint like this. Ever. And by ever, I mean, this new ever that I’ve been in for a while. But the thing is, a guy forgets. And it’s easy to forget because this isn’t the kind of place anyone plans to get lost in—that one-in-the-morning-still-going-strong-place, where Pabst is the master of the house—a fucking king who shapes the remnants of the day into whatever you swore you’d never do again.
But you go there anyway.
You go there because sometimes you have to taste it all over again—you have to feel the bite just to know it’s real. And here at Sketchers it’s easy to get lost inside the tall cans of Red Bull, Guinness, and shots of whiskey waiting to punch a hole in the night.
Another short notice visit. I do that, drop into town at the last second just to see the old place. I gave Ike, Donny, and Rich a call yesterday, but sometimes I don’t tell a soul. I just hop onto Highway 70 and head east, eighty miles per hour until the Gateway Arch climbs into the sky, the setting sun casting its aluminum shell in a rusty red glow. I pass the latest version of Busch Stadium, cross over into Illinois, and before I know it, I’m back in the old downtown where I walk the streets alone.
And there are times when I see what’s long gone: the monkey bars, swings and dirt field across the street where I played ball deep into dusk, my little sister and I racing on our bikes toward that spinning ice cream cone, and Betty’s hair salon where my mother worked weekends.
And then I fall into the now, buildings for rent, cheap, real cheap—scary fucking cheap. The old Sears building has been empty for over a decade now, and the Washington Theater marquee is touting a flea market—First Saturday of the Month. The library’s only open three days a week now, and the post office found a new strip mall to call home, but Sketchers… well Sketchers is goin’ strong as ever along with the old Schmidt mortuary, a freshly painted sign on its front lawn, just a few doors from Zeek’s Pawn Shop.
And this town is everywhere and nowhere now, a remnant of a place, strangely ordinary in its decay—an Econo Lodge-Dairy Queen-Dollar Store lovefest—a god-damned, chained up nightmare, and it starts to eat at me, and more than ever I sense the pull and the weight of the street as if it’s trying to take me back—trying to swallow me whole.
When Ike pulls into the parking lot, I sense it happening, that thing in me waking back up, the thing I thought I’d killed off, but hadn’t—the thing waiting there to take over when my defenses are down. And right now they’re down, pulled way down low—bent-over-pants-around-my-ankles-low. And I can still see, though I don’t want to see, my little sister in the back of my mind, her body bleeding a life away onto the pavement—those young eyes turning the world cold.
And when the car door squeaks open into the wet-cool night, it hits me right away, that thick, burning-tire, sulfur smell in the air from what’s left of the steel mill, the taste of it clinging to the back of my throat. I’m deep in the heart of it all, eight blocks from where I grew up, the gravel crunching and twisting beneath my boots as we step toward the bar.
I can almost hear my dad telling me it’s okay to walk down to Hit and Run and get him some smokes at ten p.m., even though I was only eleven, and we’d sat there watching the scary movies together—watched arms and legs sliced off by chainsaws, girls getting knifed in the shower, and Freddie Kruger finding his way into our dreams. I didn’t want to go—the quiet fear rising inside me—a fear my old man could see in my eyes. But he just laughed and said the scare was only on the screen, that it wasn’t real, but for a kid, real has nothing to do with it.
Outside Sketchers, I hesitate, and for an instant I’m lost inside a haze of beautiful possibilities—ancient possibilities. I hear the music, picture the empty hours drinking and imagining the days ahead, all of us dancing, and the laughter flowing from our mouths like wine.
But open the door now, and the story changes. There’s nothing pretty about this place, with its second or third-hand feel, and just enough bad lighting to hide the acne scars and cheap mascara. Fifty drunks packed into a place meant to hold forty. Leather pants, torn jeans, and old combat boots. They’re all around me, the ghost-tired-needing-to-smile faces, the ones straight out of some bad movie with tattoos over stretch marks, tramp stamps, and the pierced tongues that used to do it for me. But that was just a phase, a short one I got lost in before moving on. Ya see, life is all about phases for me—rooms we have in the mansions of our minds—I read that somewhere, and it’s got a nice sound of it, mansions in your mind. A phrase like that can almost make you believe in things again if you let it. Yeah, I’d like to think that inside each of us there’s a mansion, but the truth is, I think of it as a morgue instead—rooms of dead spaces, places, and faces that are long gone—nothing worth looking back at.
I should have known better and pushed back when my best old buddy, Ike, stopped at 7-Eleven for some smokes. He’s a realtor who hates people, and that’s what I like about him. “One guy’s dream house is another guy’s nightmare,” he likes to say. “And once you realize that, you own the world.” He gets a rush out of selling a shit house or condo to some idiot who thinks he can flip it. “We’re all just using each other,” Ike says, and fuck if he ain’t right. He held the lighter in front of my face, and when I took my first drag in nearly a year, it was over. One in the morning, and I didn’t say no. I didn’t stop him from taking me here because I wanted what I shouldn’t want. I fucking signed up for the night and everything it had to offer when he gave me that grin, the two of us nodding in sync. Game on.
So here’s the shit: I’ve done bad things. Bad things were my job, and when you do your job right, those bad things rack up into a giant bill, and the only way to pay it off is to harvest the bad all over again, to get down and taste it, bite into the apple and smile while you’re doing it. Yeah… it’s all about normalizing the thing. It’s a fucking détente with the beast within. The shrinks tell you it won’t work, but they don’t know—don’t understand that you can’t fill a burned out crater with flowers. They just rot and die. But the bad… let me tell you, only bad can balance bad on the scale. It keeps you walking tall and strong—strong enough to choke the beast when it tries to swallow you whole.
I almost worked up the nerve to walk past my parent’s old house—my house for the first seventeen years of my life, but I couldn’t do it. You see, it’s really the burned out remnant of a house nobody cares to rebuild. The last renter had a meth lab in the basement. Boom. Shit happens. It wasn’t ours anymore, but I heard about it from Ike—his email tunneling through to me on the other side of the world. I don’t know why, but all I could think about was that Tom Waits song, the one where a guy lights his house on fire and sits across the street watching it burn, “all Halloween orange and chimney red.” Even though my old man was already dead, I pictured him watching from the park bench, a fire glowing in his eyes—that beautiful Halloween orange.
And when I closed my eyes, I could see the whole place burning all the way from that Baghdad morgue. It was as real to me as the stacks of bodies I was guarding from the eyes of the world. I’d seen enough shit burn by then… I’d seen it all. I’d peeked inside the body bags filled with school kids and old women, studied the open eyes of tortured men, their fingers and skin sliced away on the road to paradise. It’s like I’d seen the whole fucking world burn by then. I knew the color and smell of a long good burn. There wasn’t anything beautiful about it.
But right now, I don’t care because a fresh beer just found me, and there’s a new song spilling out of the jukebox like an old friend. Is that what I think it is? I hear the train a comin’ it’s rolling round the bend… Hell-yeah, “Folsom Prison Blues”—God-damn, Johnny Cash… fuck, how I love Johnny Cash. Reminds me of my old man—the good parts of him—the parts I choose to remember.
And everyone’s lost in the moment, smiling together, mumbling the words and humming along ‘cause we know Johnny’s right here with us, playing to his favorite crowd. We’re all at one with the Man in Black. It’s the truest thing I’ve ever seen.
Shots of Wild Turkey from the girl behind the bar, Trista, who slaps ’em down with a smile at Ike. Her look practically sings her thoughts to me, Me and Ike meet in your house to fuck… in the shower, closet or family room… in that cottage you’re dying to sell… It’s what we call, a showing.
Another beer while Trista and Ike get all smiley about what they think I don’t know. And I start looking for somebody—anybody I might recognize. It’s what I do—search for a face to ground me, some guy from high school, a relative or some chick I’ve boned before, but I don’t recognize a soul. Beyond a handful of spoiled college bitches and a few used cougars looking for some backseat action, there’s nothing to tempt me. A good thing, I tell myself—a damn good thing.
Donny and Rich are long gone. A steak and two beers before they beat feet back home to their wives in time for SportsCenter. They gave me that slap on the back, thanks for your service bullshit that hits me like a hand job from your grandma, and then they picked up the check—the least they could do. Weak-dicks. I’m in town one night, and they can’t step it up a notch. But what do I expect, a fucking parade? I never wanted that god-damn parade of lies.
None of us did.
The guys who wanted parades were the fucks who’d said we were there for whatever fill-in-the-blank reason they wanted it to be. The Colonel said it was for the Vietnam Vets as much as us, the guys who never had their chance, and how we should keep that in mind.
And I tried, I really did, but it was crazy surreal. They gave us these fresh Humvees to ride in—Humvees that hadn’t burned in the desert sun or felt the gritty dust and sand in their engines. And it was this slow, stop and go. All of us in pressed fatigues waving to the crowd. I’m talkin’ lawn chairs and lemonade stands, people in sunglasses lining the roads to watch. The whole time it was like riding on the back of an invisible serpent, this giant thing slithering through the streets, its tongue flicking in and out, little kids waving flags, women in tears, and those old Vets in hats, blinded by the years—the guys I’d hoped could somehow know or see it, but I guess to see it, you have to want to see it.
On the TV above the bar, the sports announcers are recapping the Cardinals baseball game—a rare loss to the Cubs. I brush it off as sloppy play and poor pitching by a team that’s been getting by with the big hit when they need it—too much luck to sustain for the long haul. Trista’s eyes dance between the screen and me, and she shakes her head. “They ain’t the same without Pujols,” she says. “I just can’t feel it.” And she’s right. Despite being stacked with young talent and leading the division, they seem to be coasting without any clear direction.
She winks at me and then pours two pints of Guinness before dropping a shot of Jaeger inside of each. “Kaboom.” I manage a smile, and then I see him, or someone that looks like him at the far end of the bar.
I maneuver in his direction, and yeah, it’s Will, or at least what’s left of him, one leg replaced by something tucked into an old tennis shoe. I saddle up beside him at the bar, and he looks at me through these thin razor sharp eyes, and the gaze cuts into me. Four years together playing football, but all I can see now is the dark hole of him, the way his mouth tucks into himself as if he was being swallowed by something inside. “Fallujah,” he tells me, motioning toward his leg. Enough said. More drinks and more shit about the real shit, and he talks on and on, though I’m not asking to know anything specific, telling me how it happened, one thing and then another. Hints of what we know, but don’t talk about—the burning skies, the charcoal bodies, and the slick stain of death beneath our wheels as we rolled on from one place to the next. He keeps twitching and rubbing his hands together between small talk about how it all seemed like a game at first, his days at Walter Reed, and then coming back home, the cocktails of drugs they doled out like candy, and how he finally got up into it and almost died.
I pound my drink, and Trista slides another round toward us. I look away, but Will just keeps on talking, half mumbling at times, and I don’t know which story is which, or what’s real and isn’t anymore, everything coming together into a single heartbeat and a shared breath. And somewhere inside it all is a strange apology to the whole world and me, as if anyone could forgive anyone for what we’d seen and done.
We raise our drinks and look into each other’s eyes. It’s finished, they say, our soldiers are all back home. No more combat troops in Iraq, no boots on the ground, and I want it all to be true. No more sandstorms or stinking sewers to choke on, no more looks from the people who want you gone or dead, no more bodies to retrieve from the alleys and rivers, no more roadside bombs or…
And suddenly everything begins to slow down. Maybe it’s the kaboom of that drink finally catching up with me, who knows, but I get that pit in the stomach, hard-sinking sensation that a bomb is about to go off somewhere, or an ambush is waiting close by.
And then the whole place explodes inside my mind.
It’s all clear, and I let the music take hold of me. I close my eyes and mouth the words to songs we once knew by heart, songs telling us what life was supposed to be like—songs that got it all wrong. I check out the girls that shouldn’t be here, the ones with the fake IDs who just stumbled in, eighteen or nineteen at best, eye-candy, and higher than a kite. A wannabe redhead glances my way, and I swear she can see into me, her eyes begging me to make her night right.
And I push back against it… that thing inside me clawing to get out…yeah, she just might do the trick—an apple ready to bite. We lock eyes, and I feel the slow turn of Will in his bar stool as he looks at them and nods, a hint of recognition on his face. He licks his lips, and does a half laugh before returning to his beer.
I try to smile, dropping down the backside of an adrenaline rush. I’ve got nothing left to add or say, no story to complete the night, and that’s when Will twists his whole body toward me and gives me a look I haven’t seen before. He scratches the back of his ear, and I see the pockmarked hands in the light, the wrists scarred from the blade and that Semper Fi tattoo etched on his forearm, faded and gray.
It’s just the two of us, sitting in the cornered space, no one else who can see it, know or care what’s right here with us. He looks seventy instead of twenty-seven, eyes falling into the cave of him, a hundred and twenty pounds of bone and gristle, a wisp of an old linebacker—a soldier on his back.
He puts his hand on the bar and looks through me. Says he knew he’d reached the bottom when the only place left to fall was in a grave. “And you know how I came to quit it,” he goes on. “Really knew, I mean, really fuckin’ knew the shit had taken me down?” He leans in and pauses, half-green, half-black teeth behind a cocked-chin grin. “I knowed I had to quit it when the taste of fifteen year-old pussy wadn’t cuttin’ it anymore. When I started lookin’ at my little sister’s friends and thought maybe… oh… yeah… just maybe that twelve-year old bitch could do it for me… You know how it is,” he says, and I nod, not knowing, and yet knowing I always will.
No more words, just a twitch or two from Will, his right hand wrapped around the tall can of Pabst, pinching deep into the center. We’ve nothing left to convey, just a last drink and our goodbyes lost somewhere between the empty dreams, music and nightmares. I slap a wad of bills on the bar and maneuver past the redhead, and then past Ike and Trista as if I’m a ghost they can’t see. I search for the exit as the music falls away, images coming back to life with each step I take.
Sometimes the bad doesn’t have to be yours. It doesn’t have to bite you. Sometimes you ride the wave of it or feel the weight in the pack on your back—that thing you bear into forever, a poison tongue hissing its warning, fangs just waiting to draw blood. You step aside and brush against the skin of it, and then you know.
And when I finally stumble from the bar, a cool mist clings to the night. My footsteps echo back to me from the wet asphalt. They said a handful of kids burned up in the basement and a few more upstairs—teenagers turned into torches, and I have to know that place again. I have to touch the burned out foundation. I have to feel what’s real and isn’t. So I walk on past Hit and Run, past First Baptist and the row of chain link fences dividing lives. I want to find it again, linger there and close my eyes. I want to hear my mom’s voice, back when she used to sing and dance in the kitchen. I want to hear my sister scream when the car hits her, my old man pounding his fist against the wall until it gave in. I need to remember how we all surrendered to the anger and fear until it tore us apart and turned that house into something it wasn’t meant to be.
A soft rain begins to fall, and I quicken my pace, jogging, faster and faster now down the empty streets as if the whole world is chasing me. A car glides by, the driver slowing down to study me before gunning the engine. I turn down an alley, the gravel loose beneath my feet, and I slip and fall before getting back up. On and on I run until I turn the corner and stop, my hands and knees bleeding as I train my eyes on the empty bench, trash, and weeds. And here on the perimeter, I feel the weight of all those eyes upon me—the lost, the dead, and the broken. I inch toward the park, faces lingering in the shadows, their silent screams reminding me of what we’ve all forgotten.
I want to go back.
I find the ground beside the bench, dirt clinging to my hands and knees, the gravel burning within my palms. I stare into the darkness. We’re all here together now, and I reach out toward that place.
I want to torch the night with light and set the sky ablaze. I want the fire to spread. I want the world to watch us burn all Halloween orange and chimney red.
I want it all to be beautiful again.