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Kyle Jarrard

Fish Night

TOM HAD TAKEN 49 strokes to get through the front nine. Murdock had done it in 39 and burned him for fifty bucks. Heíd kept clear of trouble, hit the greens in regulation, putted like the devil. And when Tom had patted him on the back in the locker room, Murdock had shrugged: No big deal, it was only the first of many 39s to come.

"Kien!"

The pale young man looked out of the room behind the bar with those black eyes. Heíd tell you he had always had those eyes ó ringed black like someone had punched him. It made it hard to guess his age. Twenty-five? Forty?

"Gimme a beer here."

Kien glanced back at the popcorn machine heíd been running, then came and slid open the beer box, pulled one from the ice, wiped and popped the top, wrapped a napkin around it and brought it over.

"Good going, Kien."

Kien nodded and went back to his popper. It was going like a little war back there. Once in a while youíd hear him talking Viet to it.

Tom brought the beer can to his mouth and stared into the bar mirror. Murdock was standing at the bay windows rolling his shoulders, probably counting up his shots again. Tom saw past him down the 18th fairway, which stretched away like a great grass highway to some happy place of freedom. Black thunderheads were moving in and greenskeepers scurried this way and that cutting off sprinklers. There went the back nine, Tom hoped. He couldnít take another round. Heíd have to pat Murdock on the back again.

Besides, it was Fish Night. Kien had already set up the tables. Thereíd be fried catfish, black bass, red snapper. Kienís boys would roll out a salad bar, bring you tons of french fries and tartar sauce, pitchers of beer. Thereíd be a good crowd, and maybe some ladies ó even single, bored ones.

"Going to rain like hell, Murdock. Letís play blackjack. Get over here."

Murdock rolled his shoulders some more. "Damn it, why today?"

The No. 18 flag popped wildly. Whitecaps ran across the little lime-green lake in front of the green.

"See them?"

Murdock looked. "No, not yet."

Tomís ex, Gloria, and her girlfriend Angela had been putting on No. 6 as he and Murdock finished No. 9 and theyíd all waved and smiled like everything was normal. You get into these things for a few years, pay bills, swim in hotel pools with her all over, then something gives and you just walk away. The trick is holding your head up after, not letting your feeling run away with you. This wasnít Tomís strong suit, though, and he knew it.

"Afraid Iíll win my money back?" he shouted at Murdock.

"Pipe down. Hell, no."

"Kien! Cards here. You owe me a chance, Murdock."

"Do I hear you wanting your cash back that bad?"

Kien set the cards on the bar, picked up Tomís beer and shook it like a bell. The liquid sloshed dully. "Mr. Carpenter?"

"Slow me down, Kien."

"Mr. Murdock?"

"Nothing, Kien," he called.

Tom peeled the cellophane off the box, pulled out the cards, tossed the jokers and began shuffling.

Murdock came over and leaned on the bar. "Damn rain. I hate thinking what I couldíve done to that back nine."

"We need the moisture," Tom said. "Cut."

"Letís do this all in one go."

"Whatís your hurry?"

"The whole fifty."

Tom dealt. Murdock had the queen of diamonds showing. He had the three of spades.

Kien was wiping cocktail glasses and watching. When Murdock peeked at his down card, so did Kien. Murdock spun around. "Hey, no giving signals!"

"Whatíre you talking about?" Tom said.

"Yeah, what are you talking about?" Kien said, his face going rosy.

"Re-deal," Murdock demanded.

Tom raked in the cards. "Kien, go stand someplace neutral."

Kien smiled at Tom, shuffled into the back room.

Tom dealt. Murdock showed the five of diamonds. He had the four.

"Card," Murdock said.

Tom threw him the jack of clubs. "Another?"

"Hit me."

Ten of spades.

Murdock swept his cards into the sink, where they sank in suds.

"Hanging out for Fish Night?" Tom asked.

"I might have busted 80 today," said Murdock, going back to the window.

Kien came out with a basket of popcorn. "Fresh."

Tom jammed a fistful in his mouth and stared at the young Vietnamese bartender. "So, howolaryu anyway?"

"Sir?"

"How old are you I asked."

"Ten. I count since coming to America."

"Oh."

"I was born in Tucson in 1975. When I was two I came to Texas. When I was three I got this job. When I was four I learned golf. I had a son when I was five. Now Iím ten."

Tom dug at a popcorn hull in a back tooth. "Very interesting, Kien. But tell me, do you really like it here?"

"Oh yes. Iím studying English. And in astronomy we learned that at the edge of the universe there are these quasars that go on and off like car lights. They are very far away."

"Well, thatís great," Tom said, tiring.

"I just want to know things, Mr. Carpenter."

"Good for you." Tom turned on his stool. Maybe heíd shut up.

"Thatís America!" He said it like heíd just spotted it through binoculars. "Did you ever hear of a black hole? Even light is sucked into them."

"Youíre going way over my head, Kien."

"Black holes might be doors."

"To what?"

"They donít know yet. Maybe I will discover it myself?"

The sky over the course had filled with heavy, ragged clouds. Down at the pool, housewives were waving their white arms and fat children were getting out of the water with sour faces. Gusts knocked down umbrellas, glasses sailed.

"I guess we ought to go out there and get them," Murdock said.

"John Wayne," said Tom. "My hero."

"Mr. Wayne is my hero, too," said Kien, smiling.

"Get us a cart, will you, Kien?" Murdock said.

Kien picked up the phone to call the pro shop.

"Weíll ride together, the three of us," said Tom, mimicking John Wayne. "Weíll find them." He hit the bar for emphasis, then rubbed it. "Whoís afraid of a little wind? Huh, boys?"

"You canít see a thing out there," said Murdock.

Kien spoke Viet in the phone, hung up. "No carts. They say walk."

"Walk?" shouted Tom. "What?"

"Twenty-five thousand dollars to be a member and you canít get a damn cart in an emergency. Who do I need to sick my lawyer on, Tom? Who?"

A siren went off and they all looked around at each other wondering if it meant what they thought. A few seconds later, it went off again, leaving the roar of the rain being blown against the big windows.

Then it was just like some stupid TV show. The bar door opened and in came the girls, hair-dos blown out of shape, clothes dotted with dark raindrops.

"Youíre alive!" Murdock shouted.

"Who says?" Gloria said.

*

MUSIC SANK DOWN from speakers overhead, and a serene male voice said, "K, L, O, V, easy listening."

Angela exhaled. "I was chipping all the damn way over the green today. I got into every single trap out there. I even lost a ball up in a tree. And every time I putted, it ran twice as far past the hole." She put her fat white hands together, pretended to swing a club. "Torture, torture."

Tom downed his beer, crushed the can and chucked it into the bin behind the bar. With this big storm, Fish Night was off ó and there went the evening.

Angela tossed a kernel of popcorn at him. It bounced off his face into his lap. He picked it up and threw it back. "Missed!" Angela shouted.

"Christ," said Gloria. She took her whiskey sour and went to stand with Murdock at the window. They looked like tourists checking out the aquarium.

"Whatís out there, honey?" Tom shouted. "Tornado yet?"

"Cool it, Tom," said Angela.

He looked at her. With a little charm, and lots of his money, he could have just about anything he wanted when he wanted. Hell, that was living, what heíd worked his whole life for. Leisure. "See a man about a dog."

"Be my guest."

When he returned from the menís room, Kien had started in on the astronomy stuff again and Angela was saying, "Kien, youíre so smart. Hell, youíre smarter than almost anybody I know!"

Kien had popcorn planets lined up on the bar. He was showing how they go in circles around the ashtray. For the asteroids heíd sprinkled salt.

Tom listened a while, then drew a big breath and blew the solar system away. "Then there was God. He didnít like the way things were going, so ... "

Angela shrieked with laughter. Kien stared into the shiny black bar.

"Come on, Kien, it was only a joke," Angela said. She patted his face.

He pulled back, red, sweating. "All you people do is joke. Joke after joke after joke. Everything is a joke in America. Nothing counts."

Tom slammed his drink down. "Whatís wrong with that, Kien?"

"Joke, joke, joke."

"Yes, a joke, by damn. I blew away your little diagram. A joke. Youíre going to have to learn how to just let go, Kien, if youíre going to live in America. No one was trying to hurt you or insult you or anything."

"Joke, joke, joke."

"Thatís enough, guys," said Angela.

Kien reached out and turned the basket of popcorn upside down. Then he lifted the basket and let the kernels spread out. "Thereís your universe."

Tom knocked the popcorn away and stood up.

"Tom, now stop it," said Angela.

"You canít act like that, Kien."

"Iím not listening to you, Mr. Carpenter."

"Iím warning you, Kien!"

"Joke, joke, joke. The hell with you unhappy jokers!"

He came around the bar, glared at them all, then burst through the door.

"Great going," Murdock said.

"Did you see that?" Tom cried. "Weíll get him fired for that one!"

"I sort of feel sorry for him," Angela said. "But youíre right. We never had a sassy bartender. They canít just talk to us any way they want. Heís got it coming, whatever happens."

"Right!" Tom said. "So, hey! What say we all go over to my apartment and Iíll fix us up some fish sticks? Who the hell wants to hang around here now?"

"Who would want to eat that?" Gloria said.

"Count me out," Murdock said.

Angela shrugged. "Afraid not, Tom. Maybe next time."

Ah, thought Tom, who were these people anyway. They werenít anybody.

*

HE COULD JUST go on back to the apartment, fix up the fish sticks like he liked, watch TV. He could drive around in the rain. He tried to think of phone numbers of other people he knew, fun people. He tried to remember how you got out to that nice lake and did and thought of catfish swimming in and out of the broken windows of his baby blue Cadillac and his red hair waving around.

"Mr. Carpenter? Are you O.K. in there?"

Tom hit the button to lock the doors, then brought the window down some.

"Can you hear me?"

All Tom could see was the mouth. The glass was fogged. "What is it?"

"Mr. Carpenter," the mouth said, "I just wanted to tell you itís O.K. I know now you were just joking and that joking is not always bad."

Tom wiped away the fog. Kienís black hair hung over his face and his eyes shined like a raccoonís.

"I shouldnít have taken it that way. And my astronomy thing is dumb. Youíre right, Mr. Carpenter. I should listen, not get mad."

Tom wondered if he had a gun or something. He wasnít sure what a foreigner might do in a deal like this. You could never tell.

"Go on, Kien."

Kien stood there. "But Mr. Carpenter ó "

"Go the hell away."

"Weíre friends, Mr. Carpenter. No more fighting between friends, O.K.?"

"All right, all right. But go away."

"Say youíre not mad, Mr. Carpenter. Thatís all Iím asking. I have to keep this job. What will happen to my wife and kids? People donít like Vietnamese. Nobody gives us a job. Mr. Carpenter, please."

"O.K.," said Tom, "consider it over, Kien. Now good night."

He remained there, stuck. Rain pouring down his thin white shirt.

Tom unlocked the doors. "Hell. Get in."

Then Kien was catching bits of hail in his hands.

Tom pushed the door open against him. "Get in if youíre going to."

Kien eased in onto the seat and showed the hail. "Look at this stuff, sir."

"Quit calling me sir. Just Tom."

They sat there.

When the hail had melted, Kien wiped his hands on his pants.

"Thatís all I had to say, Mr. Carpenter. I canít lose my job. Weíre grown-ups, not children. I know you understand. Iím getting your car wet. You have a very nice car. So I must go now. Goodbye."

"Kien?"

"Tom?"

"Look, why donít you come over and eat some fish sticks and talk about astronomy and have a drink or two just like that?"

Kien looked out the windshield. "Iím giving up astronomy."

"Oh no you donít. Youíre going to stick with it. Youíre not going to be like us Americans giving up all the time. Youíre going to do what you dream of doing. And if thatís astronomy, then so be it. No giving up."

Kien grinned. "Are you O.K.?

"Drunk? No."

"Does your phone work?"

"Sure it does." Tom handed it to him. "Everything Iíve got works."

"O.K., we go. I donít have friends either. Iíll call my wife to tell her."

Kien quickly punched in a number.

Tom started the motor. "Weíll have a big time. Hell with everybody else. Youíre going to like my margaritas, too."

Kien cupped the phone. "Tom, do you have any golf videos?"

"Hell, Iíve got a million."

"And, also, what is a fish stick?"

"Youíre joking."

"Joke, joke, joke. No joke, though."

"A fish stick is a stick of frozen fish you stick in the oven."

"Oh, fine. Hello?"

Then he wasnít talking American anymore.

Tom waited.

When Kien finished, he said, "Canít. One of the kids is sick."

Tom turned off the car. "Iím sorry."

"Donít be sorry, Mr. Carpenter. We can eat fish sticks another night."

He reached for the door handle.

"Kien?"

"Sir?"

"Donít get out."

"What?"

"Just stay a minute more."

Kien peered out at the rain. "Itís let up."

Tom reached for his billfold, took out all the cash, plopped it on the dash. There was a thousand dollars, easy.

"Itís yours."

"What?"

"Take it."

"I canít do that."

"Yes you can. Take it for your family, Kien. You need it, I donít. Then you go. And study astronomy or anything else you want." Tom picked up the cash and tossed it into Kienís lap. "Take it."

Kien carefully gathered the bills, then dropped them back on the dash. "Good night, Mr. Carpenter."

"Take it, damn you."

Kien fumbled for the handle, shouldered open the door.

"Kien!"

Kien got out, shoved it shut and started to run. Tom saw his body through his wet shirt and thought about how heíd never seen John Wayne shoot anyone in the back, not even in a war movie. Then he felt himself firing the gun at the enemy again all those years ago and the man falling forward into the mud, his first kill, in the back, from behind, cheaply. His sergeant, Murdock, had slapped him on the back, good going, good shot, you got him good.

Tom turned on the wipers, looked out at the course, down the first hole, long and straight. Lightning was popping all around, thunder shook the car.

Why not. What else was there to do?

So he revved her up and headed out there in the rain, first taking the cart path, even though the wheels wouldnít fit on the little cement road, then cutting out into the fairway, gliding down the slope, fishtailing all the way to the green and up onto the soft plateau. Until the wheels stuck deep.

"Hole in one," he said.

He wondered how he would explain. Then he quit wondering and settled back in his big leather chair. You could tell. It was going to rain all night.

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