Cage Around the Sun

I woke up in my clothes, which was odd because I was pretty sure I took Cindy home from the bar the night before. I blinked my eyes and turned to my right, and sure enough, there she was. A skinny little thing, barely any tits to speak of, even wore braces. She sort of reminded me of a shorter Fiona Apple, if Fiona Apple had a boyish haircut and a mouthful of metal and rubber bands.  I’m not sure what I initially found attractive about her, but goddamned if she wasn’t a wildcat in the sack. Uninhibited. A little crazy, obviously, as the best fucks almost always are. She scared me some, but if I knew anything, it was how to get rid of them, no matter how crazy.

She was still asleep, which gave me a chance to get to the bathroom and take care of business before she woke up. I liked to joke with people that I hadn’t taken a solid shit in years, and it’d be much funnier if it weren’t the truth. There’s nothing all that funny about your ass exploding most mornings.

Somebody once told me that a “Jersey Salute” was spraying ass water all over a public toilet, but I’m not sure what to call it when the victim is your own throne. Wretched nastiness, that’s for sure. But I exorcised some demons there, hopped in a quick shower, and got back into bed like nothing happened.

She was stirring a bit when I got under the covers. The bedclothes needed a wash, as per usual, but I was comfortable so why should I care if some bartender groupie might not be? Cindy rolled over and smiled that metallic smile that I sure as hell didn’t want wrapped around my cock, no matter how much she begged to let her blow me. “You won’t feel them,” she promised. Fucking right I won’t, because you’re not getting that chance, ever.

“Morning, Charlie.” She reached over with her tiny left hand and touched my arm. Her breath smelled like she devoured a bag of assholes for breakfast while I was taking my shit and shower.

“Hey.” I looked at the ceiling, which was turning decidedly yellow around the popcorn edges from my years of smoking.

“You smell all cleaned up. Big day today?”

“Not really.”

She sighed, rolled over on the bed, turning her back to me, thankfully blowing that dragon breath in the opposite direction. “Do you want to go get some breakfast with me?”

I didn’t. “I don’t. No.”

“You don’t know?”

“I said I don’t. I don’t want to get breakfast with you.”

“Why not?” She stretched her back, and her neck gave a series of somewhat sickening popping sounds like a Coke can being smashed.

I gave a heavy sigh. “I don’t need to see you eat.”

Her eyes were wide, mouth agape. It was not unlike her “fuck me harder” look. She put her hand in front of her mouth to cover the braces. “What the hell does that mean, you don’t need to see me eat?”

I hadn’t thought about her taking that comment as a dig at her metal mouth, but now that I could see that’s what she thought it was, I didn’t really give a shit. It was easier to just go with it than to explain that watching women eat was pretty much a prelude to watching them take a dump in my mind. I grinned. “The thought of egg yolks all caught up in that metal is pretty gross, Cindy.”

She sat up, put her feet on the floor, looked over her shoulder at me. “You’re a dickhead.”

It was probable that this would not be the only time such an epithet was hurled my way that day. “And this is a surprise to you?”

She shook her head. “It shouldn’t be. Everyone knows about you.” She made her way to the bedroom door, pulled it open in a huff. “Don’t bother calling me.”

The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. “That won’t be a problem.”

***

Although he was perpetually at least fifteen minutes late to every shift, I thought Ralph was proving himself to be a fairly reliable addition to Bob’s stable of bartenders. Doug, on the other hand, was pissing me off. I had been lining up participants for a card game that night when he called to see if I could cover his double. Some shit about needing to drive to Pinckney to help his girlfriend’s mom move some furniture. I’m sure he could’ve let me know weeks ago, but he had to wait until I’d put some plans in motion for my day off. This was the third or fourth time I’d covered for him over the past six months, and I think Ralph had done the same once or twice.

I’d purposefully pushed Doug into working the double on Tuesdays so I didn’t have to hang around with Phil, the owner, as often. Tuesdays had been Phil’s weeknight to hang out in the bar for the last couple of years, and the bar was usually filled with his fan club of dilettantes and sycophants, people trying to kiss his ass. I got tired of it. But that wasn’t all. It’s hard to explain without sounding like an ungrateful dick, but I was tired of Phil’s happiness. That’s really the only way to put it. Phil’s not the type to rub things into anybody’s face, let alone one of his oldest friends, someone who’d been with him from the beginning. It’s not as though he’d come bounding into the bar, giant grin splitting his face, shouting, “Look at this happy motherfucker, you miserable prick, Charlie. Why, the divergent trajectories of our lives are shocking in every conceivable way.”

I wasn’t in the mood for an afternoon of Phil’s happy tales. I knew that Ray rarely came down when Doug worked on Tuesdays, so I slipped a few dollars into the jukebox and played Superjudge from start to finish, which was an easy way to annoy Phil. After I finished pulling down the stools and wiping down the bar, I poured a pint glass of water and then sat and lit a cigarette, which burned my lips a little, probably because they were still raw from making out with Metal Mouth the previous night.

Just as the title track moved in to “Cage Around the Sun,” Phil came through the side door, sat on the stool closest to the end of the bar and greeted me with a somewhat puzzled expression. “What are you doing here?”

I exhaled my drag in Phil’s general direction. “Nice to see you, too.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.” He got up and opened the cooler door just to my right, and then reached in for a Labatt. He pulled off the cap on the opener fixed to the front of the cooler and sat back down. “Where’s Doug?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “His girlfriend’s mom’s? Something like that. Pinckney.”

Phil shuddered a little. “You know they still have active KKK there?”

“Whatever.”

Phil took a big drink from his beer. “What’s up your ass?”

I dragged on my cigarette, and then rested it in a plastic ashtray on the bar. I took a drink of water. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

“The fuck you are. You’ve got goddamned Monster Magnet cranked up, which you only play when you’re pissed off. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that. You’re acting all pissy, you’re sub-verbal, what’s the deal?”

Phil had been overly concerned with my mental well-being since Colleen had split on me about a year before. I have to admit Phil helped a lot. I was pretty adrift for a little while there, maybe because I’d set up so much of my life to revolve around Colleen. If I had to be on point to make sure she was happy at all times, then there wasn’t much mental space left over to consider my own happiness, or lack thereof. Colleen and I had spent over seven years together, and when she abruptly announced she was going to law school in Chicago, it hit me pretty hard. I didn’t even know she’d taken the LSAT. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself, and Phil looked after me for weeks. He and Pam kept me fed for weeks, and Phil was hanging out at the bar with more frequency when I was working, making sure things went okay. It got to be fun, hanging out so much felt like old times. But eventually Phil assumed I was improving and stopped coming around so much.

Probably within a week I started filling the space left by Colleen and then Phil with a steady string of at-times dubious conquests, like Cindy. Phil didn’t like it; he was concerned that sleeping with women who came to the bar was bad for business, some old crocodile code Ray was always on about too. But fuck both of them; I’d spent almost my entire twenties with the same woman who, in the end, couldn’t even be bothered to have an adult conversation with me about her changing plans. I was making up for lost time because, I’ll tell you what; there’s nothing in this world like that spit second when you slip your hard cock into a new, wet and waiting pussy. You never feel more alive, and I was tired of wishing I was dead.

Phil was waiting for an answer about what was bothering me. “I’m not happy Doug called off again. That’s it.”

“So let’s get rid of him.” Phil finished his beer, threw it into the empty trashcan under the bar with a dull glass-on-plastic thump. He looked at his watch. “You know Ray won’t come down when Doug’s opening. I don’t like that.”

Ever since Ray sold his bar and his house and then moved into one of the upstairs apartments, he’d come down to have a few beers right after opening. I loved Ray, but I was mildly happy not to have to hear his inquiries into my sex life today. I’m not sure why Ray avoided Doug, because Ray was mum on the subject. But actions speak louder than words anyway, and Ray wasn’t in his stool drinking a Stroh’s and smoking a cigarillo, so that was that. Phil was right; we needed to get a replacement in here for Doug, but even though lots of people theoretically wanted to work at Bob’s, the realities of being paid under the table always narrowed the applicant pool. At that moment the pool was dry.

I shook my head. “It’s not the right time. I’ve got no backup right now.”

Phil reached in to the cooler and grabbed a fresh beer. “No one?”

“I’d tell you if there was.”

“Hm. Could you work a skeleton crew for a while?”

Fucking Phil. It was just like him to suggest Ralph and I cover the extra shifts without once thinking of helping out himself. He hadn’t been behind the bar since he got his realtor’s license about eighteen months earlier, unless you counted the ten seconds it took to pry his fat ass off the stool and reach into the cooler for a Labatt. Even before he started selling houses, he worked maybe once a month to cover an emergency or a super busy night. “I was hoping to hit more shows, try and get more bands in here.”

“I know. The problem is…”

“There’s no fucking problem, Phil. Everything’s covered. I’ve got one band that’s ready, and we could start next week.”

“Who is this band?”

“They’re called God, I Love Pie!”

Phil nearly did a spit take with his beer. “What?”

“God, I Love Pie!”

“The fuck kind of name is that?”

“It’s ninety-eight. Long, quirky names are all the rage. Like Today’s My Super Spaceout Day or…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.”

“You’re making these up.”

“Godspeed You Black Emperor? System of a Down?”

“Bush?”

“Please let them never release another record.”

“I liked that one song.” Phil gave me a smirk.

I glared at him.

Phil shrugged. “You know more about this shit than I do.”

That was putting it mildly. Bob’s wouldn’t be Bob’s without the jukebox, and Phil knew that even if he never acknowledged it. I was the one with the taste and the knowledge to put together a hundred discs that would draw Flint’s cool kids downtown. Phil had never even heard of Nick Cave or Creeper Lagoon. He had the money and the connections, but it was my music that created the community, and we both knew it. My ten-percent cash equity in the bar should have been bumped to fifty-fifty after all my input. But here I was battling the absentee owner who liked that one Bush song to let me run this place the way I knew it needed to be run. Live music was the next step in the bar’s evolution.

I pretended that I hadn’t heard Phil. “What did you say?”

“I said you know more about the music stuff than me.”

I smiled, probably for the first time that day. “That’s gotta be worth something.”

***

The night was winding down. I surmised that Doug wasn’t proving to be a rousing success on Tuesdays, as it stayed pretty quiet. If I cover for Ralph, there are a bunch of schmoes asking after him all night, but no one made a peep looking for Doug.

I was down to just a handful of drinkers with no prospects for pulling a one-nighter out when my old card buddy Jason Young popped in. Jason was a good guy; he’d been part of the regular game I had on Wednesdays for a few years. It was competitive and got pretty intense some weeks, and there were nights that the winner was walking out with a couple of Gs. Jason was a pretty good player, but he’d knocked up his girlfriend a while back, so he married her and settled down. He was an assistant manager at the Circuit City in Beecher, and between the wife and the kid and running the store, he’d bowed out of the Wednesday game forever ago, and he was just the first domino. Dudes were dropping out every couple of months until it was no longer a regular game, leaving me scrambling most weeks unless I wanted to join something mobbed-up, which I didn’t. I probably hadn’t seen Jason in six months or so.

“Youngster. What’re you drinking?”

“I’ll take an Anchor.” He tossed a five on the bar and sat on a stool close to the end of the bar. The few people that were left at that hour were concentrated at the other side. “Mind if I play a few tunes? Anything new on there I haven’t heard?”

“I put the newest Grant Lee Buffalo in there since the last time you were here. That’s a good one.”

Jason nodded and then walked over to the jukebox. I watched him slide in a dollar and punch up a few tracks. Soon the quiet in the bar was replaced with the rootsy pop of “Testimony.”

I finished pouring Jason’s Anchor draft and met him at the end of the bar with it. I tapped out the last cigarette from a pack of Reds and lit it. “What brings you in so late on a Tuesday?”

Jason took a sip of the Anchor. “I got your message about the game being canceled, thought I’d stop in and say hello.”

“Right on. It’s been tough getting a regular game together. It gets frustrating.”

“I can imagine.” Jason took a sip from his beer.

I took a drag from my cigarette. “How’s the family?”

Jason smiled. “Melissa’s pregnant. Totally unexpected.”

“That’s great. Mazel tov.” I had no beer with which to toast.

“It’s pretty exciting. Life is funny, you know?” Jason took another sip from his beer.

The only thing funny about my life was my complete refusal to accept any of the trappings of becoming a typical adult, although most people probably thought this more pathetic than funny. “I’m not sure I’m following you.”

“Well, it wasn’t so long ago we had a regular card game, and I was in here four or five nights a week, cooking at Chili’s. Having fun, being young. Feels like a different lifetime.”

He might have been smiling as he said this, but I thought Jason sounded like he’d  rather be dead.

“Remember the night that Kip Healey got pissed off when I bluffed the inside straight and took the biggest pot of the night? He ran into the kitchen and grabbed that rusty steak knife and started jumping around with it?”

I waved him off. “Of course. You don’t need to do a blow-by-blow replay. I was there.”

“You were more than there. You disarmed him.”

“He wasn’t gonna do anything.” That was a lie. Kip Healey was a crazy motherfucker. I’m pretty sure he was going to cut Jason for real. I wasn’t about to let that happen in my kitchen. The cops would be there, then there’d be all sorts of questions about the game that was happening, and I couldn’t have that. So I jumped up, grabbed Kip Healey’s wrist and twisted his arm up behind his back until he settled down. Truthfully, I couldn’t blame him for being pissed. Jason’s bluff cost Kip Healey over eight hundred bucks.

“Even if he wasn’t, I haven’t forgotten what you did for me.”

I did it to protect my game, but whatever. “It’s cool.”

Jason took a sip of his beer as “Testimony” segued into some David Bowie. “I’ve always wanted to pay you back somehow, but I didn’t have any way to do that. Until now.”

I took a last drag from the Red and stubbed it out. “Go ahead.”

“There’s a friend of mine who has an in on some point-shaving. I can’t give you any details about who he is.”

This was the sort of thing I’d heard before. Anytime someone found out I did some gambling, they’d try and buddy up with insider knowledge. I hadn’t fallen for it since I lost a few hundred on a Boston College basketball fix someone told me about a few years earlier. “Okay.”

“I know you’re probably thinking this sounds like bullshit, but it isn’t. I know the whos and whens and whats of this thing, Charlie. There are less than a dozen people who know what I’m telling you. It’s the real deal. Money has been paid to the players who are in. This is happening.”

Jason sure sounded convinced, which intrigued me. “I’m not asking who’s behind this, but what can you tell me?”

He looked over his shoulders as though he was about to tell a racist joke. He leaned in. “It’s the October 24th Toledo at Akron football game.”

“What makes this game so special?”

“Nothing special at all. That’s why it’s so perfect. My friend went to high school with a couple of the Toledo players, who are acting as the go-betweens. Like I said, the key players have their money. The spread should go off at between eighteen and twenty-two, because Akron’s gonna be pretty bad this year. They’re not going to lose, just keep the final score under the spread.”

The more Jason talked about it, the more intriguing it became. There were rumors about Mid-American Conference football teams shaving points in the recent past, so it seemed within the realm of possibility to me. I also thought it was interesting that the Toledo players weren’t throwing the game, they were only agreeing to not cover the spread. I always had a hard time seeing how it’d be possible to get guys to lay down and lose the game, but that wasn’t what was happening here. They just weren’t going to run up the score. I could see easily how it might be done with payoffs to just a handful of players; maybe a linebacker to miss a few tackles, a cornerback to get burned on a key play and a receiver to drop a couple of passes. Maybe an O-lineman to miss a block.

Jason took a sip of his beer, and then tapped on the bar. “You’re awful quiet.”

I shook my head to snap out of my reverie. “Sorry. I just wonder if it isn’t one of those things that’s too good to be true, you know? I’ve been burned before. I’m not accusing you of not having the best intentions.”

Jason shook his head. “Don’t apologize. I understand. I just felt like I owed you after that near-knifing.”

It was best I not let Jason know I believed him. If he didn’t know I was going to place a bet, and who I’d place it with, then what he didn’t know literally couldn’t hurt him. If he did really know the principals involved in this shave, then the less he knew about my bet, the better, especially considering I was going to lay down the bulk of the ten grand I’d saved over the last five years.

Jason finished his beer, and then slid the empty pint glass across the bar. “Too bad I couldn’t convince you.”

I grabbed the glass off the bar and then walked it over to the sink, which was pretty full of glasses, as I hadn’t felt like washing them most of the night. I moved back over to the end of the bar, wiping my hands on the rag in my front pocket. “Don’t sweat it. Consider us even.”

***

It had been a couple of weeks since that last night with Cindy, which meant I was working on my longest dry spell since Colleen left. I wasn’t above looking a gift horse in the mouth, as was evident by hooking up with Brace Face anyway. It was a pretty busy Wednesday night, but the bar cleared out somewhat suddenly around half past midnight, and things were really winding down as the hour slid past one. The pickings were slim, but I settled for an attentive audience with this girl named Marie, who was maybe a little fatter than I’d have picked out willingly, but this was slump buster time. If I were to get myself out of the dry spell, she’d have to do.

She went all moony over me after I’d tossed a guy from the bar a couple of hours before. I felt a little bad about it; it was this kid named Aaron who’d been coming in pretty regularly for a year or two and I liked him okay. He was a good tipper, and tonight he’d brought a new friend who seemed like a cool enough guy. But Aaron has been getting increasingly out of control, and he’d followed suit tonight. I had my eye on a girl wearing a flowered dress at the bar, but as Aaron got drunker he kept creeping up on her and got a little too grabby. She stormed out all disgusted, and I didn’t have any choice but to give him the heave-ho at that point. His friend collected him and was all apologies, but I told him to keep Aaron out of the bar for at least a week.

Marie propped one of her elbows on the bar, resting her head in her hand. She wasn’t too drunk, but she did seem tired. I’d probably just have to say “bed” a few times as I closed up and she’d be in mine. “Did anyone ever physically attack you when you threw them out of the bar?”

I shook my head as I wiped down a glass. “One time a guy said he had a knife and was going to wait for me outside, but a couple of guys heard him and followed him out and made sure he left.”

She may have actually fluttered her eyelashes. “Were you scared?”

No, I wanted to get fucking stabbed. Always wanted to feel a hot blade enter my body. “Not really.”

“I would’ve been scared.” She sipped at her drink, a Maker’s and water on ice that had shifted to largely water as she nursed it and the ice melted.

There were a couple of dudes at the end of the bar who’d been hanging around since about ten, getting slightly sloshed on pitchers of Bell’s Amber. I was headed down to get them a refill when the side door opened and Cindy walked in. She wasn’t alone. Somehow she’d found the only person in Flint skinnier than she was, a dude with close-cropped blonde hair and a small Clash t-shirt that still hung off his shoulders as though they were a wire hanger. She flashed a metallic grin at me and sat near the taps with her new beau.

“What’s up, Dickface?” She slapped her small leather backpack onto the bar. “This is Marcus. Marcus, this is Dickface. Some people call him Charlie. Marcus and I would like a pitcher of Stroh’s.”

I laughed inside at Cindy’s attempt to make me jealous. She told me not to call, I hadn’t called. Clearly she wanted the opposite, and imposed upon Hanger Shoulders here to accompany her and make it look like she was in demand. “First, I’m going to pour a pitcher for these gentlemen.” I gestured with a nod of my head at the two dudes at the end of the bar. “Then I’ll need to see Marcus’ driver’s license.”

She huffed a little, but Marcus did as he was told. I finished pouring the Bell’s for the two dudes at the end of the bar and came back to pour the Stroh’s for Metal Mouth and her boy toy.

I slid the pitcher around the taps and grabbed two pint glasses. “Six bucks for the pitcher.”

“Pay him, Marcus.” Cindy took the pitcher by the handle and poured herself a quick half-pint and then drank it in one gulp. She then poured a full pint, and set the pitcher down without pouring any for Hanger Shoulders. She got up to put a few singles in the jukebox, presumably to play a bunch of songs from Exile in Guyville. Sure enough, “Divorce Song” soon filled the empty spaces of the bar.

I walked back towards Marie, shaking a Red out of the pack in my shirt pocket. “How are you fixed for a drink down here?” I tried to sound affable, but it probably came out more ineffable. Ray was right about one thing; I needed to smile more often.

Marie looked down at her glass. “I’m fine for now.”

I sat on the stool closest to the end of the bar and lit my cigarette. “I’m not sure you told me where you live.” If possible, I liked to try and get them back to their place, as they were usually more comfortable that way and, perhaps more important, then didn’t know where I lived. Of course it left me at the mercy of someone else’s music collection, and it was never pleasant to be balls deep in some broad while being forced to listen to the Dave Matthews Band. Sometimes I had no choice, though. Cindy lived with her folks in Beecher, so that one was unavoidable unless I wanted to say hi to Mr. and Mrs. Metal Mouth before I violated their daughter amongst her stuffed animals, high school play photos and New Kids trifles and trinkets.

“I have a place in Eastside. In the States.”

They’d once been Flint’s nicest area of rental properties, but the state streets were quickly turning rough. The novelty of living on a series of streets named for various states was not cute enough to protect residents from break-ins and the occasional shooting. Not really a place for a single lady.

I nodded. “There are some nice places over there.”

“I’m pretty close to Mott. It’s not so bad. Things are getting worse a little farther north.”

The area near the Community College was probably safer, as she said, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I took a drag from my cigarette. I looked down the bar, and Cindy was staring at me, giving me the finger.

Marie’s eyes followed mine to Cindy’s middle finger. Cindy sat perfectly still, not bothering to hide the fact that she was flicking me off.

“Do you know her?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that one. Yes, biblically? That didn’t seem to be the way to get me into Ms. Chunky-but-Funky’s pants. “She comes in from time to time.”

“Why is she giving you the finger?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I can only speculate.”

Marie looked over at Cindy again, who was still giving me the bird. “Do you always let customers sit there giving you rude finger gestures?”

Actually, I didn’t. I walked over to Cindy and Hanger Shoulders, whose real name I had already forgotten. I looked straight at the kid, but he didn’t want to meet my gaze. This was more than he’d probably bargained for when he agreed to step out for a late-night beverage with Metal Mouth.

She kept her middle finger up as I approached. “What can I do for you, Dickface?”

I smirked. “I was wondering the same thing. What can I do for you?”

“For starters, you can act like you know me instead of sitting down there trying to fuck that heifer.”

“That isn’t any of your business.”

Hanger Shoulders stood. “I think we should just go.”

Cindy snapped at him. “Sit the fuck down, Marcus.” She looked at me, finally putting the middle finger away. “It’s a free country. I can observe whatever I want, say whatever I want.”

I pointed to the sign near the cash register that read “Management Reserves the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone at Anytime for Little or No Reason.”

She read it over. “You’re management in this scenario?”

I nodded.

“You can’t even manage your fucking apartment. That place was a sty, and it smelled.”

I grinned. “That was your pussy.”

She looked at me with wide eyes and an open mouth.

I took a last drag from my cigarette and stubbed it out in an ashtray. “Get the fuck out of here. Don’t come back. Take this fucking beanpole with you.”

Marcus rose from his stool. He looked at me with sort of pleading eyes. “Does this mean I can’t come back too?”

I laughed. “Whatever. Show some better judgment about who you come in here with next time.”

Cindy reached for her pint glass. I knew she was going to throw it at me, so I grabbed her wrist to stop it.

She glared at me. “Let go of my goddamned wrist, you piece of shit.”

I shook my head. “Just get out of here. Don’t make this worse.” My tone was calm.

She pulled her arm from my grasp and narrowed her eyes. “You haven’t seen the last of me.”

Marcus called her name from the doorway, and she turned to storm out. She yelled out “Fucking cocksucker,” as she pushed the door open. Marcus trailed behind her.

Her songs were still queued on the jukebox, and had cycled through more of Exile. I reached for the “Skip” button near the sink, but not before Liz Phair sang “You said things I wouldn’t say, straight to my face, boy.” At least it hadn’t gotten to “Fuck and Run” yet. I needed to get that disc out of there.

The two dudes at the end of the bar sat there as if nothing had happened, their pitcher nearly empty. I pointed to it as a gesture to see if they wanted a refill. They both slowly shook their heads, eyes down at the bar.

I walked back over towards Marie. On the way, I reached into the cooler for a Sam Adams. I popped the cap on the opener fastened to the cooler and sat on my barstool.

Marie didn’t look at me. “Remind me not to give you the finger.”

I smiled. “Another Maker’s?”

“I think I’m headed home.” She stood and grabbed her small purse from off the bar.

I nodded. “I’ll walk you to your car.”

She shook her head and waved me off at the same time. “That isn’t necessary, really.”

This went from a sure thing to a no thing with one middle finger. Fucking Brace Face.

***

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking over my shoulder fairly frequently in response to Cindy’s threat. I’m pretty sure no woman had ever said anything to me like “You haven’t seen the last of me.” In fact, I was really used to the opposite; I’d piss them off, usually intentionally, and they’d storm out and declare I’d never see them again or some shit like that. This was new. But a week turned into two and two into four, and the next thing I knew I had wasted a couple of months in fear of a retaliation that apparently wasn’t going to come.

Autumn was early that year, but it felt like football weather so I didn’t mind. I would normally have around a thousand bucks out in bets on Saturdays, but I was taking it a little easier than normal. I wanted to be sure I had a serious chunk to lay down on the Toledo game Jason Young had told me about over the summer. I hadn’t seen him since that night, which was just as well.

The October sun was strong, but it still felt cold inside the bar as I unlocked the doors to the bar and Ray shuffled in. I greeted him, poured him a beer and sat on the stool nearest his at the end of the bar.

“How are you this afternoon?” Ray tapped out one of his cigarillos from a pack he’d put on the bar.

“I’m good. Not much of a game last night.” I was referring to game one of the American League Championship Series, in which the Yankees had crushed the Cleveland Indians.

Ray shook his head. “I didn’t figure the Indians had much of a shot after the five runs in the first.”

I nodded.

“What are the big games this weekend on the college slate, Charlie?” Ray took a small drag from his cigar and blew it out. It was still a little cool in the bar, and he’d yet to remove his tan Members Only jacket as a consequence.

I couldn’t explain that Akron at Toledo was the game I was watching closely this weekend, even though Ray knew I liked to wager on college football. “Nothing much in the Big Ten looks interesting. It seems like a one-horse race, although Ohio State always finds a way to collapse against Michigan.”

Ray took a sip from his beer. “I thought you’d say Nebraska at A&M for sure.”

Under normal circumstances, he’d be right. I thought Nebraska was overrated, and a road loss wasn’t out of the question. It’d be a solid bet if I were taking more chances. “That’s a good one, no doubt, but I’m not sure I know enough about either team to pick.”

Ray picked up his beer as if to take a drink, and then set it back down. “I almost forgot to ask how your show went last night.”

After a few more weeks of kissing Phil’s absentee ass, I finally cajoled him into agreeing to book God, I Love Pie! I thought a Tuesday would be a good choice, as Doug was still having trouble bringing anybody in and there wouldn’t be much else happening around town to compete. The band had played a couple of shows in Ann Arbor and one in Pontiac by then, but this was to be their first Flint show. I helped the band print a ton of fliers and we pasted them everywhere we could think, and I had Doug and Ralph talking up the show to everyone who came into the bar.

About ten people showed up, which was why I was able to watch game one of the American League Championship Series.

It was a real drag. The band still worked hard, played their guts out. They had a bunch of new songs that sounded like a post-rock band playing power pop. The few people there really liked the band, pogoing around at the front of the bar. A couple of them were even asking if the band had CDs to sell, which they didn’t yet.

None of this prevented me from having to pay three-quarters of the two hundred dollars I’d guaranteed the band out of my own pocket. The only thing keeping me from getting shitty drunk was adding to my expenses for the night. Instead I mostly just sat at the end of the bar, pouting and watching the Yankees rout the Indians.

“It didn’t go well, Ray.”

He took another drag from his cigar. It smelled like burnt peach peels. “I thought I heard a lot of people coming and going while I was watching the game.”

I reached into my shirt pocket for my pack of Reds and shook one out. “Maybe that was just the band loading and unloading equipment.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

Before I had to defend the God, I Love Pie! debacle to Ray, I was saved by the bar’s phone ringing.

I picked it up. “Bob’s.” Over the years, I’d honed my bar phone answering technique to a truncated version of that one syllable that hardly sounded like a word.

“Charlie, it’s Colleen.”

I hadn’t heard from my ex in several months, the last time being to complain that she was getting collection calls because I had let the phone, which was still in her name, be disconnected. I’d taken care of that since, but she still sounded annoyed. “Hey. How are you?”

“I’m fine. Busy.”

“Sure.” I took a drag from my Red. “What’s up?”

“Who is Cindy Glaser?”

I didn’t even know Brace Face’s last name, but I instantly knew that’s who Colleen was talking about. “Why?”

“I’ll tell you why. This crazy person has called me a dozen or more times over the last few days, threatening me, telling me to stay away from you.”

“I’m sorry.” I wanted to kill that little bitch. My ears turned red.

“I’m sure you are. I don’t know what’s going on there. You have your new life going on, I guess banging every skank that comes into that place. It makes me feel really special, Charlie, let me tell you.”

I didn’t see how any of this was Colleen’s business, seeing as how she dumped me with absolutely no warning and didn’t seem to care what happened in her wake. “I said I was sorry.”

“Get your shit together, Charlie. You’re nearly thirty years old. How old was this girl? Eighteen?”

“She’s not eighteen.”

Ray looked up from his beer. I needed to lower my voice.

I turned my back and cupped my hand over the receiver. “This is none of your concern anyway. You’re in Chicago, you made your choice. I can do whatever I want.”

“You don’t get it.” Colleen was yelling now. It hurt my ear a little. “Of course you can do whatever you want, but what should you do, Charlie? Indiscriminately put your dick wherever the fuck so I have to hear about it three hundred miles away?”

“It was a mistake. I’ll take care of it.” I was whispering.

“Why are you being so quiet? Ray’s there?”

“Yes, he is.”

“What does he have to say about your behavior, Charlie?”

“None of this is your business. None of it.”

“You should listen to Ray. He loves you. He cares.”

Truthfully, I felt bad Cindy had harassed Colleen. I know enough Freud to know what he said about accidents, but I really didn’t intend for her to get involved this way. “Maybe you’re right. Again, I’m sorry.”

“Okay, Charlie.” Colleen sounded as though she was a little disappointed that I wasn’t fighting. “Hang in there, alright?”

If I’d been in a different mood, I’d have flown off the handle at that one. Hang in there? What am I, that kitten in the poster? Don’t patronize me. “Yeah. Talk to you later.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone, and then took a drag from my cigarette as I walked back over towards Ray. The theme from Kids in The Hall played through the TV speakers. I normally watched that show for the first hour I was open, and Ray never complained, although I don’t recall him ever laughing at it. Not once.

“That sounded like a serious conversation.” Ray took a sip of his beer. “Not to intrude.”

“No, that’s alright.” I then told Ray everything that had happened with Cindy. I didn’t hold back, I told him she was too young to legally drink in the bar, that I took her home one night and had pretty much the best sex of my life with her and got a little hooked. I told him that we fucked every night for a couple of weeks, but that I’d grown tired of her and tried to get rid of her. I told him about the night she came in with Hanger Shoulders, that she’d call my number sometimes ten or fifteen times in a day, and that she tried to hit on both Ralph and Doug, but they each knew about her and gave her a wide berth. I told him it was Colleen who had called, and that Cindy had tracked her down and was harassing her. I told him that I was ready to call in Doug or Ralph to replace me so I could find her and beat the shit out of her.

Ray was quiet for a moment. “Could I get a little Wild Turkey, Charlie?”

“Of course.” Ray rarely drank liquor. I poured the drink. I watched him tap out another cigarillo and light it. I walked back over with the shot glass, and then sat it in front of him.

“The first thing is you can’t contact this girl.” He drained the whiskey. “This Cindy. That’s exactly what she’s trying to get you to do.”

In my anger, this hadn’t occurred to me. “I’m glad you said that.”

Ray nodded. “She’s trying desperately to get you to interact with her. And you’re going to have to, but in a way that isn’t what she wants.”

I couldn’t imagine she wanted me to punch her in the face, but I could be wrong. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“What she wants is for you to come running to her, to confront her, so that you’ll physically see her. I’m guessing she thinks she still has a chance to be with you if she can just get you in a room with her. Funny thing is, Charlie, I suspect she might be right about that.” Ray smirked and then took a sip of his beer.

I didn’t think that was true, but I wasn’t going to argue. “Then what do you think I should do?”

“First things first, you should stop sleeping with customers.”

This was well-covered territory with Ray. He was forever telling me that taking women home from the bar was bad for business. I didn’t think he was right, but I also hadn’t foreseen the potential danger with someone like Cindy. “I get it, Ray. It’s a problem.”

“As far as Cindy is concerned, you told me she lives with her parents, correct?”

“That’s right.”

Ray took a shallow drag from his mini cigar. “Tell on her.”

“Say what?” I don’t know the last time I said that.

“Call her parents and tell them what she’s been doing. She’s an overgrown brat, she’s used to getting what she wants all the time. I’m sure her parents still treat her like a child. If you align yourself with her parents, then she won’t see you as an object of affection any longer.”

This sounded brilliant, but also too easy. “You don’t mean about us sleeping together, though? I don’t want to tell her folks that.”

Ray shook his head. “Tell them about the phone calls, the threats. I suspect it wouldn’t be the first they’d heard of this sort of behavior.”

Cindy was more than I’d bargained for. She seemed a little unbalanced, but I never expected all this craziness. What Ray was proposing sounded unpleasant, but I couldn’t think of any alternative on my own. I couldn’t imagine a less pleasant phone call, but I had to do something. She’d gone far enough.

It was a good thing Colleen had inadvertently informed me of Cindy’s last name. That saved me some sleuthing.

I’d never called her before. I didn’t know her number. I’d need to call information.

I rose from my stool and walked towards the bar phone.

“No time like the present.”

***

There was no broadcast of the Toledo-Akron game, so I was stuck keeping an eye on the scrolling score ticker for updates while I half-watched Nebraska at Texas A&M. If I won the bet, one of the first things I thought I’d buy would be a desktop computer, maybe one of the new iMacs, so I could avoid exactly these annoyances. I was tired of hearing everyone at the bar talk about various websites and exchanging email addresses while I was living like a Luddite.

I had put together a small card game the night before, and the apartment still smelled like cigar smoke and French onion dip. I needed to clean up, but I was tired and, for some reason, my leg muscles were sore even though I didn’t do much all evening. It wasn’t a huge game, but it was competitive and it felt good to get some players in my apartment again. I managed to lose over three hundred bucks, mostly to Eric Cooper, who bluffed his way to a big night.

Toledo was coming into the game at 4-3, but their losses were not surprising, especially a shellacking in Columbus. Akron’s performance had been less predictable; they were playing better than expected, although they did get skunked at Pitt a few weeks back. Going into the season, the line on the game probably would’ve been upwards of seventeen points, but the teams were proving to be a bit more evenly matched than previously thought. Toledo was giving ten points, which meant that a margin of victory of more than that was a loser for me.

I flipped back and forth between the Nebraska game and Indiana at Michigan, but for obvious reasons neither of them were interesting me. I’d placed a bet one other game so that Dugan, my bookie, didn’t get too suspicious, but I didn’t know anyone else well enough to scatter the Toledo-Akron wagers around, so he had to figure something was going on. I’d watched the line all week, but the needle never moved so, if Jason Young was absolutely correct and this fix was in, they had successfully kept it quiet. I hoped so; I had eight grand out. I zoned in and out of the game. I was mostly studying that ticker, waiting impatiently as the scores cycled all the way through the dregs of 1-AA before catching the updates.

It was not easy to concentrate. The Toledo game seemed like it was tied at zero for the longest time, but it was also possible they weren’t sending the score out, which happened from time to time at the smaller schools. I switched over to Headline News a couple of times, as they often moved through the scores quicker than ESPN, but this only resulted in me missing the score on each channel, as well as missing a touchdown in the Nebraska game. Even though I was predictably anxious, I still managed to nod off at least twice and miss the score that way. The second time I fell asleep, I was awoken by the switch to post-game sounds on ESPN. Michigan had defeated Indiana. The Toledo game would more than likely be finished by now as well.

I watch and wait for the score. My head hurts. I should stop drinking canned beer. Vandy beat South Carolina. Ole Miss over Arkansas State. Clemson lost to Duke, which was the only other game I put money on. I lost. Thought Clemson could handle them. That was only two hundred, though. Still, fuck Clemson. That’ll probably be all she wrote for their coach Tommy West. I’m hungry, but I ate the rest of the pizza from last night for breakfast. I’ll have to order something after I see the score. Maybe I’ll treat myself. Night on the town, paint the town. There are the rest of the ACC scores. I hate the ACC. Maryland has a fucking turtle for a mascot. North Carolina is a foot. Here we go. Cincinnati over Miami of Ohio. The MAC scores should be right behind. Goddamnit, they’re cycling through the Big East again. Tulane over Rutgers. Virginia over UAB. Why does the entire Big East seem to be playing out of conference today? It’s late October. My heart feels like it’s in my stomach. I’m fighting the urge to shit. I really don’t want to shit my pants, but it’ll have to wait until after I see this motherfucking score. The sink in the kitchen is dripping onto the dirty dishes piled inside. I’d get up to turn it off, but the score has to be coming up soon. Okay, here comes the MAC. Shit, they’re previewing the late games in the Big West first? Jesus, is it more important to know that Nevada plays Idaho at 8pm than to end this misery? I haven’t showered. My scalp itches and even I can tell I smell pretty bad. I reach onto the coffee table for my pack of Reds and light one, but that only makes my head pound worse. That’s it, that has to be it. The drip-drip-drip in the kitchen is driving me fucking crazy. Now the MAC scores are starting. Here it is. Bowling Green all over Kent State. Central over Western. Marshall crushes Ball State. No surprise.

And here it is.

Toledo over Akron.

Twenty-four to seventeen.

Seven points.

I win. They beat the spread. I’m eight thousand dollars richer.

I was alone in the apartment, so there was no one to hug or high-five or even smile at. I didn’t really know what to do with myself, so I took an extremely languorous and scalding hot shower. I cleaned up the apartment, bagging a lot of the trash and emptying the ashtrays and collecting the cans and bottles for the deposit. I might have lost three hundred on the game, but it looked like I’d get about five of it back from the empties. It was pretty warm for late October, so after spending nearly two hours cleaning myself and the apartment, I opened the window that overlooked the parking lot to try and clean the air.

I was looking outside, enjoying the autumn sun and the euphoria of my windfall when I noticed a familiar pink Ford Escort pulling into the lot. I didn’t see a lot of those around town, and even fewer of them pulled into my apartment’s parking spaces, so I knew who it had to be.

Cindy.

I watched her get out of her car. My heart started racing, trying to imagine what she was going to do. Slash my tires? Vandalize my car in some way? That seemed overly obvious, and besides, it had been nearly a month since I talked to her parents, so this would seem a little late for such a poorly constructed response. She wasn’t carrying anything besides a small purse, so unless the tools of malfeasance were located within that small bag, maybe she came in peace. I wondered if maybe she was there to see a neighbor of mine, but there were only six units in the building and although I wasn’t very neighborly I thought that the majority of my fellow tenants were either married couples or older people.

She moved toward the front door of the building and pulled it open. I listened for her footsteps on the stairs, which followed about thirty seconds later. Soon she’d be at my door, I assumed, and I had no idea what I’d do when she got there. I thought maybe I could just ignore her and pretend not to be home, but I figured she’d seen my car.

When she knocked I jumped out of my skin with a start, even though I’d been anticipating the sound. My heart was pounding. Her skinny little knuckles rapped on the door, somewhat aggressively. I looked around my apartment, ostensibly for a way out. If I really wanted, I could take out the screen in my bedroom window, climb out and jump down. I lived on the second floor. The landing would hurt, but I put the chances of a broken ankle or two at fifty-fifty. Was it worth it just to avoid whatever Cindy had planned on the other side of that door? I looked around again, this time thinking about grabbing a weapon with which to defend myself, because it seemed possible she’d shown up intending to do some sort of physical harm. Her pounding grew more insistent.

I pulled the door open. There she was. Such a little thing; it was almost hard to believe I had allowed myself to become so intimidated by her. She had a great big grin on her face, metal flashing and reflecting the sunlight that was coming through the building’s front windows. A stray ray caught me in the eye, and I had to turn my head quickly to the left in an attempt to avoid one of those annoying flashspots that you get when someone snaps a picture. I was too late. I’d be chasing that thing for an hour.

Her smile stayed wide. I had no idea what she was thinking. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

I furrowed my brow. “Why would I do that?”

“Charlie.” She sighed. “It’s time we got past this little tiff.”

I wouldn’t classify harassing me at work and stalking my ex-girlfriend a little tiff, but I stepped aside and let her in. There was something about her casual tone that disarmed me. Plus, there was the small matter of the essentially animalistic attraction between us. It was almost as if it was something I could feel just under my skin, an electricity to the promise that if we fucked it would be the sort of in-the-moment sex where you’d cringe if you could later see and hear yourself, where the things you’re saying and the noises you’re making are only possible if you’ve completely given yourself over to what’s happening.

She walked over and plopped down on the couch as though she lived there. “You cleaned.”

I closed the door but I didn’t move away from the entrance area. “What are you doing here?” I tried to sound unfriendly and impatient.

Cindy reached into her purse and pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims. She lit one. “I thought you might be in the mood for a celebration.”

I couldn’t imagine she knew about my bet, but she had tracked down Colleen in Chicago. I probably should stop underestimating her. “What are you talking about? Celebrate what?”

She exhaled a drag from her cigarette and gave me a sideways glance. “You mean you’re not in the mood to celebrate the big Toledo Rockets win?”

My head started spinning. I couldn’t pull down a single clear thought. They raced around, chasing each other’s ends and beginnings and I felt a little light-headed. I’m not sure I had remembered to breathe, so I collected myself as best I could and filled my lungs, although the place was full of Virginia Slims smoke and the breath was at least half smoke instead of all air which is what I needed at the moment and those Virginia Slims were gross and were totally deserving of the name ‘Vagina Slimes’ and their tagline was ‘You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,’ and I think the temperature outside has dropped at least ten degrees since I opened those windows it feels a little cold in here, and damnit just take a breath, a deep breath. “How?” I swallowed. “How do you know about that?”

“Charlie.” Her voice had the same almost-condescending tone that she took before I let her in to the apartment. “Jason Young is my cousin. My mom’s maiden name is Young? You might know this sort of thing if you’d taken the time to get to know me.”

So much for keeping the fix quiet. Jason had told me less than a dozen people knew about this fix, but one of these was your fucking cousin? I should’ve let Kip Healey cut you, you fucking dipshit. “Did you place a bet, too?” It occurred to me I’d done nothing but ask questions of Cindy since I opened the door. She was about fifty steps ahead of me.

She nodded. “I did. With Dugan. You know Dugan, right?”

It couldn’t be. I think my mouth was hanging open.

“Charlie?” Cindy snapped her fingers. “You’re going all Cameron in Ferris Bueller there.”

I couldn’t see anything but Cindy; on her back with her legs spread wide on my dirty sheets, my hips driving into hers; bent over the edge of the bed while I buried my cock deep in her asshole; standing against the wall of the shower, my arm under her left thigh, propping it up, facing her; shoulders pinned to the ground, hips in the air while I thrust into her from above.

I knew I didn’t have any money.

She took another deep drag from her cigarette, then stood and headed towards the kitchen. “I’m going to get a beer, do you want anything?”

I may or may not have answered. I probably didn’t.

She came back into the kitchen with two cans of Black Label, and handed me one. “Drink this.” She took a sip from hers. “You’ll feel better.”

I drained the can in one gulp, and then crushed it in my hand. “You canceled my bet with Dugan?” Still nothing but questions. My head was still pounding.

“Your Clemson bet?” She smiled. “No.”

My legs felt funny. I sat on the couch next to Cindy. I reached onto the coffee table for my Red, shook one out of the pack and lit it.

Cindy took a sip from the can in her left hand. “You’re awfully quiet.”

The nicotine was calming me down, but I still couldn’t really take hold of any of the thoughts swirling around my brain. I ran my hand through my hair, pulled back and up on it, just enough to hurt a little. I suppose you can’t miss what you never had. It’s not as though Cindy walked in here and took eight thousand dollars out of my hand. Without Jason’s tip, I’d have never bet on that game; it had probably been two seasons since I bet on a MAC game, anyway. Easy come, easy go. I couldn’t see anything but Cindy.

“You said something about a celebration?” I took a drag from my cigarette and then exhaled. “What did you have in mind?”

Chris Drabick toiled for years as a rock critic, writing for the Cleveland Free Times, Under the Radar magazine and Pitchfork, among others. Making the move into creative work, Chris is currently completing his MFA in the NEOMFA (the Northeast Ohio consortium). His short story “Ill Building” appears in the most recent print issue of Prick of the Spindle, and his Creative Non-Fiction piece “Something Different, Something Better” is forthcoming in Stoneboat.

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