I was broke and not drunk enough. I leaned against the bar, arms dangling like bags of fat, worn out by a hundred hefted trash cans. The bar was teeming with congressmen, in town for the Kentucky legislature, giddy and unwatched by the wife back home. Eager, nervous faces pored over karaoke binders. A man onstage tried to keep up with “Ice Ice Baby.”
Everyone maybe smelled garbage on me.
I stood next to a man who was built like a disgraced cop. He waved cash at the bartender and said, “Six bourbons. And my friends will be having…”
“You’re a senator,” I said.
“Hell no. State House. Hey, how’re you doing? Name’s Ted Stibers.”
We shook hands. Behind us, a blonde girl waited for bar space to open. I recognized her from high school. Kristin Something. She cast a fit over Ted. Still holding my hand, he raked her forward, right into me. She grinned, a little toasted, and teased her hair, bumped up like a madhouse movie nurse.
“I used to sort of know you,” I said, my shoulder in her chest.
“Mark, right?” she said, wriggling out of Ted’s grip. He held onto my index finger, which was missing its top two phalanges, a word I learned from the doctor that stitched me up after the garbage disposal incident. Doc said I was lucky to lose just the tip.
“Buddy. What’d you do to this finger?” Ted said. “I know, a shop class injury—”
“Blew it off in Iraq,” I said.
“The doc was like, ‘Buddy, your trigger finger.’ Then he trashed it.”
“Ah guy, I respect you. I respect the mission, the commitment, the service.” Six bourbons sat on the bar. Ted pushed one to me. “Yours. Anything you want, just ask.”
I picked up the shot and said, “Death to my ears.”
Ted bunched the shots to his chest and hurried away. Kristin claimed his spot and swayed. She was not quite drunk enough. My Facebook profile was on her cell phone screen. She said, “You weren’t in the army.”
I backed up to give her space. She maybe smelled garbage on me. She eyed my fingernub. I said, “Really what happened? I went rock climbing and my finger caught in a crevice. I lost hold and my finger went…”
I mimed the tip breaking off.
“Boy is full of it,” she said, then ordered a pitcher of Miller Lite.
“The park ranger said I was to keep the nub.”
She asked to see my phone. And frowned that it wasn’t cool. And frowned when I said cell phones are the devil. She dialed herself on my phone, and then carried the pitcher into the mess of people, and disappeared.
The night’s second rendition of “Crazy on You” began. I stood on the support slats of a stool. An oscillating fan blew in my face and reminded me of riding the garbage truck, hair whipped, arms dead tired and holding on for dear life. Kristin was leaning against the wall by the dart boards, such trust in stranger aim, congressmen all around. I jumped off the stool and headed for the congressional circle. Someone grabbed my shoulder.
“Captain America,” Ted said.
“Men like you keep us fat slobs safe. I’m an open bar. What you want?”
“Bourbon,” I said, then slid through congressmen and wedged myself between Kristin and her friend, Lori Something. They smirked, like Oh cute puppy.
“I don’t really think cell phones are evil,” I said.
“What you saying?” Lori said, drunk and along for the ride, any ride, within reason.
“But they do cause cancer.”
“But it’s the good cancer.”
Kristin squatted eye-level with me. Our breath mingled. “You’ve got the roundest eyes,” she said.
Youngish congressmen, shirts untucked, were smiling at the girls, chatting from mouth-corners. I put my back to the men, forming a fragile wall before the girls. I pointed to Lori’s glass of brown.
“It tastes like nothing,” she said, handing me the glass.
A sip made me wince. “That’s all bourbon.”
“Where’s the rest of that gross finger?”
“Doorbell malfunction. At a party. The host said I was lucky they let me in the house.”
Kristin giggled. I finished the drink and put an arm around her shoulder. Bony like popsicle sticks.
“A Maker’s for my captain,” Ted said, handing me the glass. I counted the ice cubes, even though no one does this. The last-call lights blazed on, interrogated me. I peeled out of the group and sat at a nearby table, hoping Kristin would follow. A sports coat hung on the back of the chair. I slipped it on and staged a suave pose that Kristin didn’t see. Then Ted was sitting next to me, straightening the lapel of my found jacket.
“That’s a helluva fit. My Blackberry better still be in there.”
“Tell your cronies hands off my woman,” I said.
“Hot damn you’re chugging along.”
“Sweet wedding ring.”
“Married fourteen years.”
“Man, you legislative guys. Come to town, pillage our women, take them to hotels.”
Ted left me there muttering. I meant to follow but just sat there, head floating like coral, time passing around me. I watched Ted talk into Kristin’s cheek. They couldn’t stop hugging. I couldn’t look anymore, and when I looked again she was licking Ted’s wrist for shot of tequila. I rolled off the seat and inserted myself between them.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said.
“Ted’s got weed,” Kristin said, eyes just wide of crossed. “Hey, you got my number.”
“We can hang out tonight.” I stole the shot glass from her and tongued out the lens layer of tequila. When I dropped the glass, Kristin was standing at the exit with the congress gang. Lori laughed no matter what the men said. Ted rubbed Kristin’s back. Popsicle sticks. I still had on Ted’s coat.
“Really I lost the finger in a samurai showdown,” I said.
“Me and her’s going with them to Waffle House,” Kristin said.
“I’m tearing it up,” Lori said. Last words before she was pushed out the door.
“Ted’s so cool,” Kristin said. “He said, ‘So what you’re a English major.’ He’ll still hook me up with a clerkship like what.”
“I’m a queenmaker,” Ted said, arms around Kristin’s waist. I pointed with my nub.
Everyone laughed. The party tumbled outside like a cartoon bar fight and was gone. Again I meant to follow, but just stood in the doorway, bitten by January, adrift in exiters. Someone said, “You got to stand right there?” I wanted to smash someone’s skull. I left the bar alone, bitter, discarded. The sidewalk trash can overflowed with bottles and retch and felt like an insult. Tomorrow’s task.
Then chivalry struck.
Kristin drank too much. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.
I hollered her name, part of her name, tough to yell when running. Stars and streetlights shook like a snow globe. From above I looked like a rat in a maze. I wound up outside my apartment, covered in cold sweat.
My hatchback was parked on the street. I crawled into the backseat and shivered, pulled out my key chain, undid the mini pocket knife and used the blade to tap a text to Kristin. The screen went dark. Again with the knife. The screen relit. Again the knife. The screen was blank.
Then I woke up late for work. Morning light like splinters. My teeth were chattering. As I climbed into the front seat, I noticed my pinky bleeding. I clasped it in my hand. Palm grease burned it worse.
I found my cell on the floor, next to the bloody pocket knife. I called Ralph, my boss. He answered, “What?”
“I’m on the way.”
“Why even bother.”
“I’ll make up the time.”
“You’re on a route.”
“I can make the time up.”
“Trash route, dummy. What you gonna do, pick up trash in your car?”
“I can do that?”
He hung up. But I could meet the truck and work in last night’s clothes. The cut wasn’t bad. It barely broke the skin. I started the car and weaved through traffic, sucking the gash, that old tin taste. I forgot to take my pills. My ribs began vibrating. I still wore Ted’s coat. I reached into the breast pocket and pulled out Ted’s phone.
Caller ID: Capitol Office.
I beat Ted. He got the girl, but I got his phone.
“I win,” I yelled, rolling onto the river bridge leading out of downtown. A bird fluttered within inches of the windshield. I beat that dumb bastard. I took aim at the passenger window. Sink the phone in the river. I reeled back and threw.
But the window was rolled up. The phone pinballed off the glass and came flying back. It caught me in the temple, gouged the skin. I wondered if Ted could punch as hard.
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