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.”
“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.
“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.