Thirty Nine.

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A Shot of Whiskey.

On Monday night, Joe came to The Well without Sadie. I hadn’t seen them for days.

“Hey Joe, where’s Sadie?” I looked toward the door.

“Went to meet some friend. They’ll be back later.” He took a drink of beer and sat with me at our table. I got there early and was trying to write. I closed my journal and looked into Joe’s eyes. He seemed tired. “You ok?”

“Yeah, Mann.” He smiled, then sat silent, staring at the table.

I shifted to get his attention. “What’s up, Joe?”

“Huh? Oh, nothing. I’m gonna shoot some pool. Wanna?”

“Sure.” I followed him to the table. He stopped at the bar for another beer, then ordered a shot from Nick. He knew better than to ask Gina. She refused to sell him whiskey. Nick was afraid not to. When Joe slammed the shot and tapped the glass on the bar for another, I knew something was wrong. Joe stopped whiskey years ago, made him too crazy and not in the “Joe” way.

We didn’t speak the whole game. Every time I looked at Joe he was staring at the table and mumbling. He was thinking so hard I had to keep reminding him to shoot. It wasn’t like the time we sat on the hood of his El Camino staring at the stars. That night he seemed content, almost happy. Now he seemed agitated and distracted. He twitched around and mumbled some more, like he was arguing with himself. I really knew something was wrong when I won. I dropped the eight ball and Joe dropped his stick and left.

I racked our sticks and went out after him, but he was gone. I heard the El Camino a block away. He got it when he moved in with Sadie, but still hadn’t fixed the muffler. Actually, he hadn’t swapped the tags, either. I wasn’t sure it was really his. He just showed driving it one night. It was that or ride on the back of Sadie’s bike, and that wasn’t going to happen.

I went back in The Well to talk to Gina. She came in a few minutes earlier and was just starting her shift. “Do you know what’s up with Joe?”

“No. But him and Sadie been fighting.”

“About what?”

“Everything, pretty much. He’s staying at his mom’s.”

“What? Why? What happened?” It felt like I just slept through part of a movie. “I don’t get it. What happened?”

Gina smiled and shook her head. “Mann, you live in a dream world. No offense, but, you only see what you wanna see.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know.” But I didn’t. It felt like she was talking to someone else. I checked the stool next to me, but there was no one there. When I looked back, she was still looking at me. “I’ve seen them together,” I said. “They’re happy.”

“Joe’s happy. Or at least he was.” Someone called for a beer. Gina served it and came back. She leaned onto the bar and whispered, “Have you talked to Joe lately, I mean, really talked to him?”

“Well…no, not really, not since he got out, at least…and hooked up with Sadie.”

“I hear ya. He doesn’t talk to no one. The only way I know anything is from Sadie. In fact,” she stared at me for a second, “the only way I know anything about anything around here is from Sadie.” She paused for a moment. “Anyway, Joe puts up a front, but he don’t say how he feels. I don’t even think he knows. I mean, think about it. Has he ever talked to you about his feelings?” She raised her eyebrows, “Or about women? Has he ever talked to you about a girlfriend?”

“We talk.” I was feeling a little defensive for Joe. “We’ve talked.” But that was all I could say. I wanted to tell Gina that Joe and I were just discussing feelings the other night on the hood of his El Camino, but I knew better. And I’m sure Gina would too. Of course, if I had told her we were staring at the stars together, contemplating life, she wouldn’t have believed that either. “No,” I answered, “I guess not. But none of his relationships were serious.”

“Oh really? Did he tell you he got my friend pregnant, back when he was running from juvy?” She watched me for a moment. “Why do you think he stopped running away?”

“I thought it was because he hooked up with Loni.”

“Loni? Who’s Loni?” She shrugged. “All I know is, soon as she told him she was pregnant, he disappeared.” She paused again, then added, “Don’t get me wrong. I love Joe, but sometimes…” She shook her fist, then grabbed a rag to wipe the bar.

Gina nodded to someone across the room and started mixing a drink. “I’ll be back. Creepy chick needs a gin and tonic.” I watched as Gina delivered the drink and returned. “That chick creeps me the fuck out. She’s like a vampire Stevie Nicks over there in that flowy, white dress. I don’t know why she comes here.” I glanced over. Creepy chick smiled and her sapphire eyes sparkled from the shadows. I didn’t tell Gina I thought she was sexy. But Gina was right, she was too fucking creepy to talk to.

I sat at the bar and considered what Gina said about Joe. I thought through all the stuff we’d been through. I thought I knew Joe better than anyone, even Gina, but now I started to wonder. Gina came back and said a few more things, but I couldn’t pay attention. I tried. I could hear her words but I couldn’t focus. Words like “liar,” made no sense at all. I mean, of course Joe was a liar. We all were. We were criminals. That’s what criminals do. But we didn’t lie to each other, or call each other liars.

When I repeated the word in my head, Liar, Liar, Liar, it sounded strange. It started to lose meaning. It softened up and sounded less insulting. After enough repetitions, the cadence put me adrift in a row boat, bobbing with the waves: Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Yeah, it wasn’t such a tough word. It was the kind of word that really needed to be barked to be effective, no matter how hard you leaned on the “L”. Not like “Fuck” or “Cunt.” Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck is like a machine gun. No matter how fast or slow. And, Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. is an idling Harley. Everyone thinks it’s Potato, but it’s really Cunt.

“Mann. Mann, are you listening to me?” Gina waved her hand in my face. “He’s a fuck-cunt liar.” And together they’re a combination punch from Mike Tyson. “He probably lied to you too,” she said before walking off. Gina was really pissed about something.

I went out to the parking lot and kicked rocks at the light post. I didn’t want to be someone Joe had to lie to. That made me feel like shit. I considered the people we lied to: cops, principals, parents, and I wondered if Joe grouped me there. Fuck that. Gina’s wrong. Joe wouldn’t lie to me. Gina’s the liar. But, in the back of my head I knew better. She loved Joe as much as I did. And she cared about Sadie, too. Then I thought about Sadie. She would tell the truth. She wouldn’t lie. Sadie wouldn’t lie to anyone. If she didn’t want you to know, she’d just tell you to fuck off. If she and Gina had been talking, Gina wouldn’t lie about it. Of course, I really knew that Gina wouldn’t lie to me anyway. But neither would Joe.

The more I thought about it, the more confused I got. It was a vicious circle. And even though I got information only from Gina, I didn’t know whose side to believe. But I guess, deep down, I did know.

I started to fog over with doubts about Joe and about myself. I wanted to talk to him, but fuck only knew where he was. I needed to talk to someone, and Gina wasn’t helping. I thought about Sadie again. Maybe she was back. Joe said she was meeting a friend. Maybe they were at the motel and I could hang a while. I really needed to get away from The Well. Besides, I was curious about Sadie’s friend.

I didn’t mind the hour walk to the motel. I had plenty to think about on the way. Maybe Gina was right. Maybe I did only see what I wanted. Maybe I did sometimes get lost in my own thoughts. Maybe I really was a million miles away, or maybe I was just headed that way. It reminded me of the fever dreams.

When I was little I got really high fevers. I dreamed that hot, wet concrete was flowing toward me like lava. I remember not fearing it, but thinking it was a river that would take me away, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are. I wanted to go. I wanted to sail some place new. I looked forward to the fever dreams, and I resisted Mom every time she pulled me back by submerging me in the bath tub to cool the convulsions.

When I was slightly older, the fevers stopped but the dreams didn’t. I was always sailing somewhere in my head, on a river of flowing lava. Mom worried I’d forget where I was going, just keep walking, and never come back. She believed I was destined for someplace else, and she sang songs of Valhalla. I thought it was in California.

The first time I walked to school alone was in first grade. Mom watched from the porch as I walked the half block to the crossing guard. But before I left the porch I was on a Viking ship, sailing the vast, deep sea. When I got to the cross walk, I forgot to cross, just kept walking. When I got to 7-Eleven, I knew I was too far. From the bow of the ship, I heard Mom calling, her voice, like a siren, penetrating the fog. When I looked back, she was running toward me, in a bathrobe, waving her hands and pleading, “Come back.”

Joe called it checking out. Gina called it slipping off the map. They teased me about it but I think they envied it, too. Joe needed drugs to escape. Otherwise he got anxious and couldn’t sit still. His mom even had him on Ritalin for a while, back before it was cool, until he mastered the art of self-medication.

Joe was the showman, the circus barker, and I envied that in him. He was fun and exciting, while I was the quiet observer, always thinking and writing. And because of that, everyone thought I was intense, until they got to know me.

And before I knew it, I was at the Shack. I walked past it every day, but this time I thought about our first B&E. Joe and I ended up here, with Billy Bear and his gang. They were gone now, but the Shack was still there. I looked in as I walked by. There was a blanket, empty beer cans, a candle, and a red milk crate.

When I crossed the stream at the end of the woods a crawfish skirted beneath a rock. When I was a kid I played here, collecting cattails and catching crawfish. There were hundreds then. Now there was one. And fewer cattails. And the stream was smaller, too.

By the time I neared the motel, the sun was starting to set. I stopped beside the Bel Loc and looked over at the parking lot. Sadie’s Harley wasn’t there. I decided to get apple pie and wait a while. When I got to the entrance I looked over again. From that angle, I could see the whole parking lot. Joe’s El Camino was sitting in the far corner, next to the dumpster. And Joe was in it.

I started to walk over, to find out what was wrong earlier. I needed to know what was bothering him. Joe was never one to walk away. He was a fighter. He didn’t let shit get to him. I needed to know. I let go of the diner door and turned to the parking lot. I took one step and got a weird feeling about the whole scene. I looked over at Joe again. He just sat there, slouched at the wheel, staring at Sadie’s door. It felt weird and I got self-conscious. I decided to skip pie and get the fuck out of there before he saw me.

A couple hours later he stopped by. I was lifting weights in my basement when he knocked. I could tell he needed to talk but I didn’t know how to start. “So, where’d you run off to? I thought something was wrong.”

He glanced down. “Naw,” then he looked directly at me and smiled. “I just had to meet some dudes.” He’s lying. At least, I think he’s lying. I saw him at the motel. Maybe he had time to meet someone. I don’t know. What the fuck. Is he lying? I couldn’t tell. If he was, that was a bullshit smile I’ve seen a million times before. I confused it for sincerity, but maybe it masked his lies. I wasn’t sure what to think so I just got angry, at myself, at Joe, but mostly at Gina. I wished she hadn’t told me. I wished I hadn’t gone to Sadie’s and seen Joe sitting there. I wished I didn’t know that Joe might have lied to me. I just wish I didn’t know.

And when I said it to myself, Joe lied to me, I felt something crack inside me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but something definitely cracked and peeled a little, and underneath was raw. It felt like a punch in the nose from Duke. It was cold, tingly, and warm, all at the same time. Joe must have felt it too, must have sensed that I was hurting, because something softened in him, just for an instant, something in his eyes. Maybe something cracked in him too. Then, just as quickly, his mask slid back into place.

I turned away, “I gotta finish my set.” Joe stepped back. He leaned over and turned up Iron Maiden. I picked up the bar and starting curling. I wondered what other lies he might have told. I wondered why he needed to lie to me. I wanted to believe that if he did, he had good reason. I glanced at him.

He nodded, “You got this.” He looked different from the Joe I saw brooding behind the wheel at the motel. He looked like the old Joe again, the Joe I knew, the Joe I grew up with.

It wasn’t a big lie, really…wasn’t much of a lie at all (Curl). I’m sure he had reasons. Maybe he did meet someone (Curl). Maybe I just need to give him slack. He just got out of jail, for Christ’s sake (Curl). You forget how to trust in there. The edges get blurred in there (Curl). Gina just had me pumped up, worrying about shit (Curl).

Joe stood by and encouraged me. “Good rep. Make it burn. Good job,” like nothing had changed between us. And maybe it hadn’t. I looked at him while I pumped the last rep. It stuck midpoint. I squeezed hard but couldn’t curl it. “You got this.” He put his hands near the bar to spot, but he didn’t touch it. “Come on,” he grunted. “Come on, my man, you got this.” He smiled that Crazy Joe smile. A wave of energy flowed into me, either from his words or through his hands. Wherever it came from, it worked. Whatever was causing that bar to stick just melted away and I finished the rep like it was nothing.

“Fuck yeah.” Joe took the bar from me and banged out fifteen reps. My biceps were solid and I was sweating. My arms were shaking but my anger was gone. I stood near Joe to offer a spot, but he didn’t need it. When he finished he dropped the bar and pulled off his shirt.

It felt like old times again, just the two of us, pumping weights in the basement, listening to Iron Maiden. Joe wiped his brow with his shirt and looked at me, “You know, Mann. I missed you when you got out of prison.” He grabbed the bar for another set.

“Yeah,” I said, watching him curl. “I know what you mean.”