When control is only an illusion …Gabriel Ricard’s twisted tale of booze, lies and faulty memory.
“Clowns to the left of you?”
John hadn’t expected Colleen to say that, but hearing it didn’t slow him down. And the surprise in her voice made sense. It had been a long time.
He hadn’t even considered the possibility that she would still be working here after so many years. “Yeah,” he said, thinking any old answer would do, “But I managed to sidestep the jokers, so things could certainly be worse.”
“That’s what I always try to tell myself.” The exchange and the reference were as silly now as then, but she seemed to appreciate the same concept of that kind of thing as he had. Or still did. He wasn’t sure.
She set a towel down and looked from where she stood to the end of the empty bar. No one magically appeared in one of the empty seats.
The scene wasn’t completely devoid of people. Three men played pool in the next room, and a woman sat at a table nearby, looking exasperated about something. It was significant enough to make it impossible for her to sit still. He walked towards the seat at the bar directly in front of him, but he didn’t sit down. “And how’s that working out for you?” He wasn’t ready to sit down just yet.
“Not really.” And she laughed at that, but she made sure it was clear that she didn’t mean it. “Anytime I tell myself it could always be worse, I feel like I’m just trying to kid myself.”
“Might not be.” He finally decided to sit down. It didn’t guarantee his next move. It wasn’t a commitment to anything. “Probably depends.”
She sighed, looked down at something at her feet. “Who the hell knows.” She sighed again, laughed sadly again, and picked up the towel again. “What can I get you?” She was looking at him as she said those words very carefully.
The footage of what was coming up over the next few hours was ugly, already old, and very unreliable. “It’s been a while,” he said. “Hasn’t it?”
“It has,” she agreed. “Probably shouldn’t serve you at all,” she said.
He was trying not to get too distracted. Seeing Colleen again for the first time in so many years was nicer than he had thought it would be. “Probably not,” he agreed. This place wasn’t going to calm him down. It wasn’t going to change the dance card. But he wanted to go against the grain of knowing that for a while longer.
She didn’t say anything for another couple of minutes, didn’t move, and didn’t try to stop the way all that silence was robbing the oxygen in the room. Then she poured him a double of Wild Turkey, put a napkin in front of him, and set the drink down on top of it. “I’m going to risk what little health I have left on the faith that this is a special occasion,” she said.
He wondered if Ted would let him in if he just knocked. “And I’ll love you forever for it.”
Until now he hadn’t really thought about the last time he had seen Colleen. Or the time before that. Or that one awful night a few nights behind some of the other bad nights he could barely remember now. He looked down at the drink, because he hadn’t really thought about that until now either. In the car on the way over was different than now.
“How have you been, John?” she asked a million miles over his head.
Thinking about it now meant thinking about things like the scar on the knuckle of his left index finger. It meant coffee that smelled like shit. “I’ve been busy,” he said. It meant thinking every single person in every single self-loathing semi-circle had blown it for him by being spectacular fuckups. “I guess.” He rested two fingers against the glass. “It’s hard to tell.”
She laughed, but she was too busy watching his fingers rest against the glass to mean it. “That’s nice and vague of you.”
No electricity, no fresh memories, nothing passed through him just by touching the glass. “I don’t mean to be,” he said, taking note of the fact that every single hair on his hands was grey. When the fuck did that even happen? “I just don’t feel like busy is the right word.” He faintly grasped the drink. “I keep thinking there’s a better one out there.”
“A better word?” She was multi-tasking, watching his hand on the drink as intently as she was.
“Yeah.” The drink wasn’t as heavy as the dreams had made it out to be. He gave her his full attention. He wondered if Ted would try to deny everything. “Should we drink to something?” he asked. “I keep feeling like we ought to.”
“Does that mean I have to pour one, too?”
He wondered what Ted’s eyes were going to look like while he tried to deny everything. “No peer pressure or anything.”
She poured the same thing she had given him, and then held it up to prove it was really there. “And a one,” she said.
Work had been shitty lately. Or it just seemed like it. “And a two,” he replied
She smiled as though trying to cope with someone dying young. “It’s not cute anymore.”
Work also felt like something distant. He blamed that on all the other thoughts he wanted to keep close tonight. And the whiskey had no interest in chaos or dramatics. Drinking it down in two back-to-back gulps was easy, and he already felt up for another one. He didn’t ask though, instead putting the glass down on the napkin, staring at the droplets that remained, and tapping the rim of the thick glass with his fingers. Those two times when he knew for certain that he had struck Amanda’s mother came to mind. “I guess that went as well as could be expected.”
Her entire body was so tense and cautious that moving would probably reveal that she was made of glass held together with very shoddy glue. “I guess so,” she said. Her glass was empty, too.
He had never laid a hand on Amanda. That thought never made him feel better. She was going to have that terrified, desperate smile of a survivor for the rest of her life. He looked at the glass, and he wondered if the bar still sold cigarettes. He looked at Colleen, and he remembered that one night when he tried a little too hard to get her to come out to the parking lot with him. “I’m surprised you’re not pressing me for details.”
“What do you mean?”
He made a slight gesture towards the empty glass on the napkin. “I just remember you being a lot more prying.”
Her smile wasn’t anything as bad as the one he saw on Amanda’s face, whenever he did get to see her, but it was still anxious to see where this was going. “You really gonna trust your memories?”
That didn’t really strike him as funny, be he chuckled anyway. “What else have I got?” He looked at the glass again, made sure Colleen could see his fingers touching the rim, and tapped the glass three times. “You don’t have to do another one.”
“Christ, John,” she grabbed the glass as though someone was trying to beat her to it. “I’ll have as many as I goddamn please.” She grabbed the Wild Turkey. “Unless this magically stopped being my bar while I wasn’t looking.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he remembered suddenly the time he had come by to pay for all the glasses he broke the night before. “I’m sorry, okay? I wasn’t planning to come in here, and fuck up your whole night like this.”
She laughed. It was so natural and unexpected that he expected her to burst into tears.
“My night was fucked up long before you walked through the door, John.” She wiped her dry eyes as a precautionary measure. “My week, my month, my year.” She picked up her drink. “Things have been pretty goddamn terrible without any help on your part.”
It took two years of AA meetings to get Amanda to believe his promises. And even then she did an understandably terrible job at hiding her contention that his sobriety wasn’t going to last forever. “You can tell me about it if you want,” he said, “But I can’t imagine you’re going to.”
And he wanted to believe he wasn’t going to stop at the ABC store tomorrow on the way home. He really couldn’t say right now.
The drink in her hand was empty, which put her ahead of him on the Turkey scoreboard. A second double in less than ten minutes caused her to make a slight whiskey face. “It’s not worth getting into,” she said, and she looked up at the clock. “I’ll just consider it a privilege to make it to the end of the day alive.” She put her glass down. The bar that divided them wore its many years of existence with marks and scratches that didn’t look as bad in the dark.
Two gulps again for the second drink. “If it helps any,” he said, making sure he really believed what he was about to say in his heart, “I think I’ll be getting out of here pretty soon.” He was waiting for the drink to do more than just create a gentle, soothing buzz in his chest. He imagined his body was still fast enough to kick Ted in the teeth before he screamed. He remembered how not one single teacher in high school was fooled when he, Curtis Hayes, Janice Myers, and Kevin Crandall would show up for first period drunk out of their minds, but pretty certain amongst one another that they were maintaining just fine.
“Places to go?” She had recomposed herself. Booze helped with that.
“I think so,” he said. Amanda’s mother stopped drinking the day she got pregnant. Things before that had been more or less manageable. “I guess so.”
She nodded, and looked at the clock again.
“Do you sell cigarettes still?”
“We do,” she said. “And you can even still smoke at the bar.”
“How’d you manage that?”
She laughed automatically. “We put the non-smoking section right next to the door.” She pointed to her left.
John looked back at a small two-person table that was right next to the door. He hadn’t even noticed it while walking in. And as he looked around he realized that the bar was actually empty now. It had been packed with a delirious, dangerous mix of humanity the last he had stopped in. Colleen’s bar survived for no particular reason. It had on and off nights like any other place. “How cunning.”
“People seem to be getting over it just fine.”
Amanda had no idea he was going to see Ted. He wasn’t even sure if she knew the extent of his awareness of what Ted was doing to her. “Let’s get a pack of lights,” he said, and then he tapped the glass, “Another one of these.”
Colleen delivered both, as well as a book of matches. His third drink was gone in two gulps, and he felt out of nowhere like a cold sweat was about to come on. “I’m giving all my old vices an audience tonight,” he said, and opened the pack of cigarettes to fire one up.
“You quit smoking, too?”
And then she went right back to looking serious, strained. “Planning for the future are we?” she asked slowly. She looked at that damn clock again.
“I guess I’m just developing a keen interest in living longer.” He didn’t want to watch her try so hard to not come apart at the seams, so he studied his glass as though contemplating another drink. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t, but the whole act of drinking again also meant he could debate such matters as much as he wanted. “We’ll call it a hobby in development.” His first cigarette in three years wasn’t that exciting either.
She seized upon his staring at the glass. “Another one then?”
Amanda’s mother had been gone five years, but because they had been apart for much longer than that, it had taken awhile for the loss of her to sink in. “Nah,” he said. And he always felt stupid for not knowing for sure if there was a connection between her death and his quitting smoking. “I don’t think so,” he crushed the cigarette into the ashtray, and put his hand on the pack and matches. “But I think I will just sit here for a minute.”
“Anything for the best customer of the night,” she said, resting hands on the bar.
And quitting smoking hadn’t actually been the ordeal everyone had told him it would be. “Best customer, huh?”
“It’s a purely political award.”
A horrible slideshow of bruises that Amanda was terrible at hiding appeared to him. It made him close his eyes, hard, and take a deep breath.
And he felt Amanda’s hand grasp his as though it was trying to surprise him from some dark corner. “John?” she said, “John?”
He opened his eyes and saw Colleen. It was Colleen. “Fine,” he said. Lying had been easy for a long, long time. “I’m fine.” His hands fortunately didn’t shake when he lifted the cigarettes.
“You’re full of shit, John.”
He looked at her, and for a moment she was the only thing he had to look at. “It’s been awhile since whiskey.” He put a cigarette in his mouth. “Or anything.” His second cigarette being so close behind the first one moved the spiked wheels of the smoke through his throat much more quickly. “Let’s keep this in mind,” the warmth in his hand jumped at her longstanding chill, “And calm down.”
“So you’re definitely done for the night.” This was not a question.
“I’m done for the night.” Amanda was going to hate him forever for what was going to happen later. Her own memories dictated how she felt about the things he did or didn’t do. It was the same with the things she thought he might do. “Promise.” And she was entitled to that.
Wild Turkey didn’t even bother to linger on its goodbye. “I’m done too,” she said. “It’d be great if that could extend to some other things, but you know.”
Visiting Ted was about consoling instinct over common sense for the first time in ages. “You used to tell me everything,” he said. His empty stomach was quietly protesting the whiskey.
“And you used to be fun,” she said, saying goodbye to something in the way she smiled. “And trustworthy.” She put his glass in the sink. “It’s amazing how fast things drop off the map once we know we’re old.”
“Instead of older.”
If the door had opened quietly he probably wouldn’t have summoned the energy to see a stranger coming through. The brisk, tense sound of an inanimate object being surprised wasn’t as jarring as Amanda coming in. She was working on calming herself down in mid-stride.
“Dad,” she said, giving Colleen a quick, furious glance.
“Jesus, honey,” wound up being all he could say.
She had gotten dressed in a hurry. Her whole body was using adrenaline to stay awake. “Let’s go home, dad. The car warmed up.”
Ted’s face looking like one of those old, crazed pro wrestlers from the days of endless blood and guts suddenly became the pipe dream it had been a week ago, a month ago, eight months ago when he had first met the son of a bitch. He found at once that he didn’t have the fight to do anything but get up, and reach into his wallet. “I can drive,” he said simply.
“I know, dad,” she said, “And we’ll talk about it outside.”
He paid with a fifty. The rest would do for a tip. “Colleen, my dear, one of these days I’ll come in just to say hi.”
“Try not to make it so many years between visits then,” she said. “You just never know with me.”
He matched one of her unrealistic smiles from before. “Got it.” He looked at Amanda, and he wasn’t sure why she now looked more relieved than angry. He thought about what he wanted to say to her, nodded, and put the cigarettes into his breast pocket as he went for the door.
Some exchange went on between Amanda and Colleen as his body tried to embrace the weather outside. For the little bit he caught, something about wandering off and gratitude, their voices swirling around each other as the noises outdoors obliterated them both, he felt guilty. Neither one of them deserved horrible surprises after being so sure for so long that they were used to all of this.
The thickness in the air made him feel so old that he used the drowsy lights decorating the building like bad makeup to look at the white hairs on his knuckles again. He was almost certain those hairs hadn’t been there yesterday.
He saw Paul on all fours, his adrenaline making it impossible to adjust the new design of his face, his blackened eyes making him unable to crawl anywhere but towards him. He couldn’t see what he was going to do to Paul at that point. He looked at Amanda’s car. He wondered if he could convince her somehow to let him drive home, but he saw the likelihood of having to leave his car here. He saw a silent man sitting in his daughter’s tiny car for the ride home.
Ted. His name was Ted.
John shook his head.
“Jesus,” he whispered, “Who the fuck is Paul?”