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Sheldon Lee Compton ~ Almost Alone in Dark Valleys

The Mark IV sits behind and just to the right of the Lodge Pin Hotel. I’m in the park­ing lot between the two, sway­ing a step to the right and then a step to the left. It’s nice the way alcohol’s been work­ing on me faster since I went back to drink­ing a few weeks ago. I used to buy a thir­ty pack of beer a day. Within a month, my tongue went yel­low and had a lay­er of yeast buildup about a half inch thick start­ing from around my ton­sils and end­ing at the tip. That was pret­ty ear­ly on. I went to white liquor not long after that. White liquor end­ed up being the rea­son for every­thing, the way I see it.

The door to the club opens fast and a gig­gling cou­ple come out hold­ing to each oth­er. From inside comes a thump­ing beat, the kind that you feel right in your heart. Whump, whump, whump. The sound, big and elec­tric, hyper, don’t fit these parts. The way it car­ries out across the ridge so that you can almost hear it echo­ing off the cliffs as far as Lover’s Leap both­ers me. The man and woman don’t show it if they notice me when they walk by. They take the glass ele­va­tor to the third floor of the Lodge Pin.

The Mark IV is one place I can drink and not be alone. The itch to start buy­ing cheap pints of vod­ka again and drink at home is some­thing else that both­ers me. If it takes sit­ting in a club with some flashy lights and bad music to get a good buzz with­out hav­ing to face the skid I’ve hit, then it’s worth it. This is what I’m think­ing about when I head in.

The breeze feath­er­ing through the val­ley out­side is replaced with the slow rolling heav­i­ness inside the Mark. The feel is like every­body in the club breathed out their souls all at once and left behind these danc­ing, swag­ger­ing water bags with teeth. But not everybody’s danc­ing. The bar is about three quar­ters full. Sophie’s spot is emp­ty and three oth­ers. I sit down at a stool away from the dance floor. Whump, whump, whump is the whole world now and I ache for a juke­box and a qui­et, old song. The throb­bing whump does no favors for my head. The whole main room has me feel­ing off bal­ance, which is easy to do since the wreck, or what Sophie’s fam­i­ly calls The Day. There’s all this busi­ness with my head, the seizures, the CAT scans, meds when I can afford them. But at least the room is wide open, maybe a hun­dred feet by a hun­dred, with tables stur­dy enough to lean my weight into. It helps.

What can I get you?” the bar­tender asks. I don’t know him. He puts me off with his neat beard like some Bowes Edition rich boy and dia­monds in both ears. There’s a lit­tle fake scar he’s shaved through his eye­brow with a trim­mer. Not every­body would be able to tell the dif­fer­ence, but scars are like birth­marks for me. I ask for a Bud Light and he brings one then tries some friend­ly talk. I take big drinks, two, three, so he floats off to anoth­er sec­tion. Sophie’s spot is still emp­ty.

I’m watch­ing now from a table with a pitch­er sweat­ing a big ring in the mid­dle. The same as notic­ing a fake eye­brow scar, there’s an art to sit­ting at a table alone in the Mark, if you care about that sort of thing. I got it down pat back when I was one of those who did care. It’s not a series of things like check­ing your watch or ask­ing for a cou­ple extra glass­es to set around the pitch­er. It’s more in the way you project your­self. That’s what Sophie would say. Projecting. The idea always came off as sci­ence fic­tion to me.

I gauge my lev­el of drunk by how often I think of Sophie. The more drunk, the less I think of her. So I fin­ish off the pitch­er. The dance floor is a mess, the bod­ies mov­ing inside one big shad­ow. All you can see is an arm now and again, legs bend­ing and straight­en­ing, the flash of a girl’s smile, the dumb­found­ed face of some guy try­ing to keep up. Out of the heap of shad­ow comes a famil­iar face. David Hudson sees me and waves, starts over.

Before I say any­thing to him, I lift the emp­ty pitch­er. “Grab anoth­er one?”

Hell yes I’ll grab anoth­er one,” David says. He moves past me and heads to the bar. When he gets back he’s got two pitch­ers.

That’ll work,” I say.

Hell yes, that’ll work, Bill Boy.” David’s got sweat dap­pling his fore­head and upper lip. He’s prob­a­bly here alone and been busy mov­ing around the floor weasel­ing in for dances. He nev­er was much of a look­er, but he worked hard. Even took Sophie out a cou­ple times before me and her got togeth­er. Nothing major. For all the sweat and hard work, he was pret­ty much harm­less.

What’s David been up to?”

Same shit dif­fer­ent day. Working,” — he hooks his thumb toward the dance floor — “danc­ing, stay­ing low.”

Staying low?”

Hell yes, stay­ing low. I got a cousin on pro­ba­tion looks just like me. If I ain’t been pulled over a half a dozen times this past week I ain’t been pulled over once. It’s a has­sle. Half the time I fig­ure I might as well been the one tapped that Marathon.”

I remem­bered the busi­ness with David’s cousin. Matt Hudson. Robbed the Marathon sta­tion over on Hurricane Creek with a box cut­ter. Not actu­al­ly with a box cut­ter. Word was he just for­got he had a set of cut­ters in his pock­et when he went in and asked for the reg­is­ter. Got caught and when they searched him it was all of a sud­den armed rob­bery. The law will stretch a blan­ket like that some­times. David and Matt did favor — the ears most­ly, the way they stuck out a lit­tle past their hair. Things go qui­et and we drink off our glass­es, refill.

With the sleeve of his but­ton up, David wipes his fore­head. “Hot as a whore’s dream in here.”

Maybe shed that flan­nel there, lum­ber­jack.”

He grins, nods in the cowlicked way he always nods, and takes the but­ton up off. His arms are thin. Thinner than usu­al. When his grin widens into a smile, I see he’s miss­ing most of his top row of teeth. Things stay qui­et and we keep drink­ing, but I’m pon­der­ing that blacked out smile and his arms, how the veins look like some­body drew them on with a fad­ing blue mark­er. It’s not been that long since I last saw David. He smoked and drank then but that’s all. He turned the cor­ner at some point, went deep­er.

Seen Sophie late­ly?” I ask.

David swivels his head on his shoul­ders like an ath­lete and stares up at the ceil­ing. Then he low­ers his head and fix­es me with his eyes real seri­ous like. “When you gonna stop ask­ing that, man?”

I guess I prob­a­bly won’t stop ask­ing,” I say.

There’s some kind of break hap­pen­ing on the dance floor. The lights are back on. It’s a harsh moment, adjust­ing to the sur­round­ings with­out shad­ows to hide the ugly real­ness. The ugly keeps me from want­i­ng to talk about Sophie, but I want to all the same.

Here’s the thing,” I say. “You know how she went and got a EPO on me. I told you about that.” David’s look­ing at the ceil­ing again like it’s the one talk­ing. “Well, I ain’t giv­ing up the Mark. If I get here before she does, I fig­ure I don’t have to go. Ain’t a judge in the world would make me do that, I don’t think.”

They turn the lights back off as we’re mak­ing our way out and they’ve slowed things down from the whump whump to a soft and rolling R&B sound.

David sucks in air through his teeth. “Well I’m gonna set this one out. I ain’t got no urge to be the bear­er of bad news either way.” He makes a smok­ing motion with his fin­gers and leans toward the front door. “Let’s burn one.”

It’s got a lot cold­er since I came in. The wind is slic­ing down off the hill­top and mov­ing through town like a com­bi­na­tion of full-body slaps. David’s still talk­ing but I’m focused on get­ting sit­u­at­ed in the alcove near the entrance enough to light my cig­a­rette. Once I get lit, I’m still not focus­ing in on whatever’s he’d going on about. I’m just stand­ing and freez­ing and smok­ing. I half-hear him men­tion troop­ers. Last year I had my own run in with the state police, the kind of police in Kentucky that don’t care who you’re kin to or who you know in the cour­t­house because none of them run for elec­tion, not even the com­mis­sion­er. These boys had con­stant hard-ons for some­thing elec­tric to hap­pen; they want you to take a big swing, cuss them to their face. They want, more than any­thing, to be giv­en a rea­son to crack your head. My run in came about due to the com­pa­ny I kept at the time — name­ly Luke and Megan Bell, broth­er and sis­ter, and the biggest set of thieves in Pike County.

The Bells went through pain pills fast as a doc­tor could set them up, smoked pot like cig­a­rettes, did a lit­tle coke when they could get their hands on it, and hit the shit-bot­tle meth when all else failed. What’s got me to think­ing about them is their bright yel­low Nissan RAV4 is parked cat­ty cor­ner in a hand­i­cap spot. The yel­low is a cus­tom paint job from a straight up trade for some crazy amount of coke they stole out of Michigan back in 2003. Luke and Megan are stand­ing in front of the RAV with their arms crossed. If David looked unhealthy, the Bells are the rank demons sent to get him. Both are ragged and pale and are cov­ered with bones —  shoul­der blades, ribs, clav­i­cles — show­ing through their shirts. Just see­ing them shak­ing in the wind as cold as it is makes my mus­cles draw up and shake too.

Bill Boy.”

Luke.” I nod and keep my voice steady and neu­tral. Best thing to do with the Bells is to keep an even keel, show no sur­prise. Because they are always try­ing to sur­prise some­body one way or anoth­er. I light anoth­er cig­a­rette the way we all do around each oth­er when there’s an awk­ward moment or two. Luke lights one for his­self and then in short order Megan does the same.

Megan still has them pret­ty blue rep­til­ian eyes. She squints at me and says, “Having a big time tonight, Bill?”

I’m doing all right.”

Hell, yes, he’s doing all right,” David offers. “And don’t get any ideas for messin it up.”

Wouldn’t do that for the world,” Luke says, hold­ing up his hands like he’s at gun­point. “Just try­ing to move some tools. Grade A tools. I think we even got a band saw in there. Least I think it’s a band saw.” He motions to the back of the RAV.

It is,” Megan comes in with the har­mo­ny. “A Grizzly nine inch bench­top.”

Helly damn, Bill Boy. These two are look­ing to sell us some hot screw­drivers.” David turns to Luke. Gets up close. “Where you been? Up Ratliff’s Creek? Lykens? I hear Colly Branham’s got a lot of good tools in his truck garage there over in Lykens.”

This is doing noth­ing good for my head. All of a sud­den I’d rather be back in the Mark look­ing at Sophie’s emp­ty bar stool. I have as much use for the Bells as I do David as I do any of them, all of it. So I do what I do some­times when it gets like this. The stu­pid thing.

Okay, let’s see what you got,” I say.

David looks at me like I just grew a tail and long ears. He storms off back inside. The Bells go into the RAV, bring out the bench­top. I step clos­er to get a look inside at the rest and see they got a Igloo. Where there’s a cool­er, there’s beer. I ask for one and Luke reach­es in and hands one over. We go through the stash and drink and talk about prices for about a half hour before I final­ly give them twen­ty dol­lars for a plan­er I’ll nev­er use, but it’s a Dewalt and been redone nice. I can turn twen­ty into fifty easy at Good Boys Gun and Pawn tomor­row. Pay for my drinks tonight.

I’m feel real­ly low about buy­ing the plan­er, but for now all I can do is file it under stu­pid with all the oth­er black­out fool­ish­ness I’ve done since The Day. In dark­ness so com­plete­ly black even the flashy Mark sign can’t lift it away, I lean over at the back of my truck and heave up a good deal of alco­hol across the pave­ment. I’m bal­anc­ing the Dewalt on the tail­gate and just let it drop over into the bed. In the cab I get ready to start the truck and stop. Sophie’s com­ing across the park­ing lot. It’s got to be past two in the morn­ing by now and Sophie is walk­ing into the club.

Maybe cause it’s ear­ly in the morn­ing and I’ve been drink­ing since about lunch but it looks like she’s on fire or glow­ing. She’s more here than here some­how. She’s all the way here, like above every­thing else, float­ing just a lit­tle across the ground. And it’s all the same, exact­ly the same. She’s wear­ing a pair of red Levis. Rolled at the cuffs old-time style. A pair of run­ning shoes. Adidas, with red strings in one shoe and white strings in the oth­er. The blouse is her favorite, a sort of pais­ley print, she called it, with swirls across it like fish mov­ing upstream, a home for every­thing. There’s a white rib­bon tying her hair up into this half pony­tail, half bun. When she moves, the bounc­ing shows how there’s dif­fer­ent shades of red all through it like auburn and straw­ber­ry blonde, like a sun­set. It’s only six sec­onds or so but I can see how her lips look swelled in the moon­light, the way they used to look after she’d been cry­ing for a while. There’s six freck­les on her arms, some paint chipped away on one fin­ger­nail, a tiny dif­fer­ence in the size of her left eye, a lit­tle bit big­ger when she smiles, a curl in the hips that moves her body in that sweet and easy strut, sev­en fake inset dia­monds on her ring fin­ger.

There’s six freck­les on her arms, some paint chipped away on one fin­ger­nail, a tiny dif­fer­ence in the size of her left eye, a lit­tle bit big­ger when she smiles, a curl in her hips that moves her body in that sweet and easy strut, sev­en fake dia­monds inset on her ring fin­ger.

Freckles on arms, paint and a fin­ger­nail, her left eye when she smiles, her body mov­ing, dia­monds on her fin­ger.

Arms, fin­ger­nail, eye, hips, fin­ger. She’s a sun­set, a home for every­thing.

~

Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of five books of fic­tion and poet­ry. His third nov­el, Dysphoria, will be pub­lished in the spring of 2019 by Cowboy Jamboree Press. He is now work­ing on his first book of non­fic­tion, a hybrid memoir/biography about the writer Breece D’J Pancake, for West Virginia University Press.