C. J. Hribal
The Buzz Kill
Get a grip, Porter Atwood tells himself. This is no time to be acting like a fool.
Then again, there’s no time like the present.
Which is why he finds himself seated on a stool just down from Luther Krake and some other men over at the Y-Go-By. Porter, deep in his cups, nods to Luther, who’s well on his way, as Alvin Beyes sets him up again.
“You’re getting married tomorrow, ainna?” Alvin asks Luther. Luther nods this is so. Luther’s nearly sixty. Alvin pours him a shot and pulls him a draft. “This one’s on me.”
Porter’s known people like these men all his life. Men—some women, too, but mostly men—who can’t quite get a grip on their life until they’ve squeezed with the pads of their fingers the fluted wet coolness of a seven ounce glass of beer in the velvety half-dark of a tavern. The word itself, rhymes with cavern. No matter how bright the day, it’s always full shade in a tavern—twilight at mid-day, with electric lighting and the slight buzzing of those neon beer signs. Almost like a different kind of pulse.
Men like Wally Czabek, seated two stools over, a decent man given to periodic failures of focus. Men for whom the world only makes sense here, in the company of other men given to similar failures and weaknesses, men who find a kind of sullen joy in each other’s company, comparing notes on the conspiracy outside. “The world’s a mess,” says Wally Czabek, who orders himself another brandy Old Fashioned with a beer chaser, as though that is somehow going to fix things. In here it’s okay. It’s okay, really. It’s fine. Outside it’s wrack and ruin, and if the sun weren’t such a blinding rectangle of light each time somebody opened the door to join them, they could even forget entirely that that other crazy world existed. And then something would remind them, a wife phoning them or an errand remembered, some destination that required you to get off your barstool, and they’d go home, carrying their unspoken heartache and longing like a disease. Until it was time for the next afternoon’s transfusion, the bolstering of meaning and courage and perseverance that could only be gotten here.
It’s this bolstering Porter’s drawn to. He’s been out of sorts for the last two weeks, ever since that kid drowned in his subdivision. Can’t concentrate, keeps thinking about how that kid ended up pinned beneath some branches in that little creek—barely a creek, really—the water tumbling over him, a bunch of other boys standing around with rocks at their feet and defensive, guilty looks in their faces. No, the two didn’t have to be connected, only they probably were. And Porter made sure, given it was their parents who bought his houses, bought them in his subdivision, and the drowned boy was from some cheap-ass rental unit somewhere else, that nobody, including Police Chief Jones, looked at this as more than an accidental drowning. There’s what you know, and there’s what you feel. What he knew was what was good for his business. What he felt was something else, and he tried not to think about what he felt.
Wally Czabek has it right. Outside it’s a mess. No sense. The world makes no sense out there. You spend all your energy out in the mess, spend it protecting your wife and kids (and other peoples’ kids) from that mess, and if you’re locked into doing that shit anyway, you are fucking owed a place where you can take a little solace and sustenance. And since things had cooled off with Marcie Hintz—okay, ended—and his wife Denice wasn’t speaking to him much, touring Augsbury’s bars was about it in the solace department.
Luther, never much of a drinker—you could probably count on two hands the number of times he’s been in a bar the last decade—throws his head back like he’s a rooster waking up. “Can you believe it? I’m s’posed to be with Matty’s kids right now, seeking their approval. Their goddamn approval!” He says this as though he were surprising himself with this fact, but saying it must make him feel better because he says it again. “Their goddamn approval,” he says. “Don’t that beat all?”
Porter half-swings around. His butt stays planted, but his right shoulder droops so he’s facing Luther. “You ever see somebody drowned?” Porter asks. “I mean, like really dead? Like before their time dead?”
“Her kids are adults,” Luther says, “why should they have anything to say about it?”
“I have,” Porter says.
“What do you have to say about it?” Luther says. “Do you have something to say about it?”
“He was just a kid, Luther. Lots of kids die when they’re just kids, but this kid was just a kid. And the fucker drowned.”
“Are you talking about Dana? Dana, my son? Yeah, okay, I handled that badly all the way around. Some things you just have to take responsibility for. Dana and Norbert were my responsibility after Marion died and I messed it up. But they messed it up, too—Dana getting blind drunk and driving his car into a river, Norbert mostly just blind drunk period. You know what I mean?”
“I remember,” Porter says. “I’m sorry for your loss. But that was years ago, Luther. What I’m saying now—”
“But I started everything with that lack of faith in them, telling them they weren’t going to amount to jack shit. I was right, but Jesus, how stupid was I saying that out loud?”
“I mean,” Porter says, “everybody dies before their time, but this kid was just a kid.”
“Yeah,” Luther agrees, “Dana was, like, twenty. He was just a kid.”
“You should have seen the startled look on his face when they took him out of the river.”
“I was there,” Luther says, remembering from twenty years ago. “I seen it.”
“You were? Jesus, I didn’t see you,” Porter says. “It’s a hell of a thing when a kid dies, ainna? A hell of a way to go. Pinned beneath the water like that,” Porter says. “You can see it coming. Jesus.” Porter shakes his head, polishes off his Chivas, leaves money on the bar for Alvin. Still shaking his head, he heads out. He feels a little better, talking things out to Luther like this, but in a few hours he’ll feel like shit again. He can’t believe he’s let a kid’s death get to him. And he can’t explain it, either. It’s never happened to him before, not once. Not ever. It’s a damn good thing there are thirteen bars on Main Street. There’s usually at least one where you don’t have to be sociable if you don’t feel like it. The trick is finding it. He claps a hand to Luther’s shoulder as he goes by. “Take it easy,” Porter says. “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
“They won’t,” Luther says. “Nobody gets me down if I don’t wanna get down, and I ain’t gettin’ down.”
Porter shakes his head harder as he leaves. He puts his whole body into it, feeling like a dog after a hard rain. Crazy fucker. Then he lists off, heading for the next port in his storm, which, if he remembers correctly, should be Poachers’ Inn. He has an itinerary in his head. He needn’t visit all the stops—Wheezer’s, the Dew Drop Inn, Yosemite Sam’s, Al’s Place, the Dugout, the Augsbury Inn, etc. Three or four should be sufficient for his purposes. Hell, he’s already pretty near where he needs and wants to be—soused, blotto, blitzed, obliterated, buzzed, fried, wasted, tanked, canned, hammered, plastered, skunked, steamed, roasted, toasted, sloshed, wrecked, embalmed— Embalmed. That one stops him. That kid, that kid in the water.
Poachers’ isn’t really an inn at all. It’s just a regular bowling alley-length bar with flickering ceiling fans and pressed tin walls and ceiling above the fake wood paneling that’s nailed over the original wainscotting, and there are neon beer signs and the requisite ten-point buck over the back bar and some mounted fish and other unfortunate animals, including a badger done up in the University of Wisconsin’s strutting Bucky Badger pose with a knitted red and white striped turtleneck and an embroidered white “W” on its chest. There are peanut shells on the floor, and Slim Jims, beef jerky, pickled eggs and packaged cheese curds in big jars behind the bar, along with the pizza oven and a microwave. The pool table is in back, and except for Ricky Nell, the bartender, and one old farmer nursing a boilermaker, the place is empty.
Oh, and Porter Atwood, who’s been there three, four, five hours since he left Luther. Screw the itinerary, this one’s home. Nobody here who might ask him how things are going, nobody who he feels the need to slink away from like a cockroach when he sees them. Two weeks is a long time to be test-driving boilermakers at various watering holes around Augsbury, but Porter has it down now to a science. Chivas Regal has been his chaser of choice. And since Augsbury has a baker’s dozen worth of bars on Main Street, three on Roosevelt, three more on various side streets plus Nate’s Otter Inn and the golf course, he’s had ample opportunity to taste and compare. And the conclusion he’s come to, again and again and again and again, is that that kid had it coming. Anybody who dies like that probably had it coming. In fact, we all have it coming. And this kid especially. No real reason, he just did. Him especially. Him of all people. He had that fucking drowning coming in spades.
Then Porter thinks, No, he didn’t. Nobody has it coming. Nobody deserves to die like that. Christ, he was just a kid. A pudgy-across-the-belly, stick-limbed kid. That kid definitely did not have it coming. But then, who does? Nobody. And yet something like that’s coming for all of us. One way or another, it’s coming like a fucking freight train. So what can we do about it? What can anybody fucking do? What can I—?
But instead of answering that question Porter picks up his bills from the bar, leaves a couple with his change, nods at Ricky, and heads for the next watering hole.
But he keeps seeing that kid with the water rushing over him, keeps seeing him all waxy-looking from when they hauled him out, sees the sleep in his eyes, the puffiness about the lips. And he wonders, Who was kissing this kid even as he was dying? Who would do a thing like that? But that’s a silly question and he knows it. This kid was never kissed, not by anybody except his mother. The real question is, Why would those other kids keep throwing rocks at a kid until he fell unconscious into the water, and why would they let him lie there, and why would they stand around watching, and not lift a goddamn finger to help him? Who would do something like that?
What’s bothering him is that the questions keep popping up. He can’t slink away from them the way he can slink away from a tavern. And why do they keep bothering him? Nothing like this has ever bothered him before. Why should it now? Why, goddamnit, should it now?
Once he’s outside, though, the air rejuvenates him. It’s cooling off, and the coolness seems to get under his eyelids. His neck feels like it’s on a loose spring, and Porter does the stutter-step dance of the inebriated down Jackson Street toward Black Otter Creek. There’s a railing of thick pipe there, painted green, where the street crosses over the creek, and a big black patch in the asphalt where a sinkhole was created one spring when the run-off was so great it tore away the clay from the embankment. It wasn’t noticed till Ernie Ott drove his car into it and cracked his axle. But a cracked axle is nothing. A cracked axle you can walk away from.
Porter rests his hands on the thickly painted guard pipe and looks down into the water. It’s black and you can see the stones that line its banks. Harmless. A harmless little stream you sometimes catch fish out of, though all the real action is on the lake two blocks upstream. But then, Black Otter Creek is not where the boy drowned. That was a different creek. A different creek entirely. Hell, it wasn’t even a named creek. It was a drainage ditch, really, though to the Geological Survey people it was intermittent. A creek that only fills with rain after a good long thunderstorm, after three days of rain, say, or in the spring with runoff. Porter knows this because he keeps in his work trailer—the Winnebago he uses as his office and his bedroom when Denice is pissed at him—geological survey maps of the whole area. He carefully pieces them together and staples them to the cork bulletin board lining one wall. Everything he owns or plans to is carefully coded by color on these maps. And on these maps this intermittent creek, this drainage ditch with aspirations, is marked with a dashed and dotted line. Morse code, map-speak for “no regular water here.” Nothing you can count on. It won’t be a lake yet, hell, not even a pond, till he gets ahold of Wally Czabek’s place and Matty Keeler’s farm—that’s who Luther’s marrying—and rolls that all together into one magnificent subdivision. Now there’s something you can count on.
And yet there was plenty of water the day that kid was found in his bower of leaves and branches. Go figure. Go fucking figure.
Porter’s bladder needs some relief and since Jackson is a dark street, with trees on both sides of the bridge and the houses set back from the banks, Porter opens his pants and starts peeing over the guard pipe. It sounds like water coming out of a garden hose as Porter’s pee drops the eighteen, twenty feet to Black Otter Creek. It feels good. Feels great in fact. But then he thinks of rocks being heaved into the water and he feels lousy again. What is it about this kid that Porter can’t shake him? It’s like the kid has drilling rights to his skull. What gives?
Everything, he thinks. Everything gives.
A car turns onto Jackson from Main and as it nears Porter it switches its lights to high beam. It’s a Buick LeSabre jammed with kids and they start laughing and catcalling as they slow down and creep past. One boy tosses an empty beer can at Porter and it clacks hollowly against the guard piping and skitters away. Another throws a beer bottle, and that one clears the railing. In the creek bed below there’s the muffled poof! shattering of glass that half-filled bottle explosions are known for. Porter whirls like a dancing bear, slow and clumsy, the pee still dribbling out of him, and he screams at the retreating tail lights, the air still buzzing with their laughter. “Fuck you!” he screams. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
It’s some time before he realizes he’s screaming not at the kids in the Buick, but at the boy in the stream.
And at himself.
C. J. Hribal
C.J. Hribal is the author of the novel The Company Car, which received the Anne Powers Book Award, and the novel American Beauty. He’s also the author of the short fiction collections Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis, which won the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and he edited The Boundaries of Twilight: Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World. His story “Do I Look Sick to You?: Notes on How to Make Love to a Cancer Patient” won the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction for 2017, selected by Ha Jin, and was awarded a Puschart Prize. He has held Fellowships from the NEA, the Bush, and from the Guggenheim Foundations. He is the Louise Edna Goeden Professor of English at Marquette University, and is a member of the fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He’s completing work on a new novel, Housebreaking, and a story collection A Guy Walks Into a Bar, A Woman Wades Into the Sea.