As promised, I’m going to post a short story I wrote for a competition earlier this year. I’ll post it in two parts between now and next Friday. Feel free to leave thoughts and comments. Cheers 🙂
Stained: Part One
It wasn’t that we were afraid of him. If fear was the main concern, he’d have been gone by now, toted away by the cops in the time it took to dial the number—flailing the whole way and denying he was a problem, probably. That’s the way it usually went down with these things.
But no, it wasn’t that we were afraid.
It was something else. A dark something, like a deep, washed in stain that couldn’t be soaped out. Lather and rinse, lather and rinse to your heart’s content, but it never seemed to do a damn thing.
Maybe we were wrong to not be afraid. Maybe the greasy allure he emanated with a battered walk was something that should’ve set our hairs on end. Maybe he was a killer—one skilled in trades enough to make a living off cash jobs and thoughtful folk. Or maybe he was simply lonesome: misunderstood, a quiet sort of menace who’d never felt at ease, and so he tried his best to fit in in all the wrong ways.
To all the people that mattered, though, the ones in the business of deciding things—who chose who went where and who did what—he was welcomed and given a fair set of second chances based on the integrity of his work.
It was in this very manner of decision making that mistakes were made. Vital mistakes that would set into motion a slew of changes. And in the telling of this story, you’re going to make mistakes, too. The biggest one being who you pay attention to. Me and my big mouth? Or Davis Junior? Maybe if I tell it the way it happened, you’ll see why it happened as it did. Maybe then you’ll understand. Or maybe you’ll simply become just another part of the story.
There’s something to be said for a man who can hold his own. There’s an air of respect that glows around him. He makes people take notice, tip their proverbial hats, and shake their literal hands. He had that—that sort of gait that made a girl stop and look, that sort of smile that curled the corners of your lips without your meaning them to. So, when he showed up for work on that very first day, a box of Bear Claws in his hand, passed around to share, I knew immediately he’d do well here.
Just One More wasn’t just a dingy pub with a clever name. Maybe it was and we all just didn’t know we’d been duped, but it wasn’t the type of place you could buy your way into. We judged people, plain and simple. If you came off the street without looking the right part, we’d find a reason not to hire you, not to treat you well, not to like you. And before you raise your nose, it’s important to know they almost passed up on me. My face wasn’t right is what I hear from everyone now, but of course it’s said in jest to spare my feelings. I know the truth, though, and after three years’ slavery in this liquor slinging dive, I know who is right and who is wrong.
He was both. He had all the charismatic cues of the upper class, as if he’d been raised in manners and wealth, yet he wore coveralls and permanent rings of dirt around his wrists and ankles like shackles to the hard-working man. The first time he tried to shake my hand I snapped it away like he’d burned me, scolding him for lack of hygiene in the bar I kept so clean that that’s what it was known for. He wasn’t offended though, that’s the thing. He never was. You could tell him he was a dirty, grubby, thief and he’d just laugh and ask if he was as handsome and memorable as Jean Valjean.
He wasn’t, for the record, but he wasn’t hideous either. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world to see him bent over a pipe fitting in the bathroom, fabric stretched taut over his behind as he fixed the leaky sink. And it wasn’t terribly uncomfortable to have to work around him as he lied on his back, shirt slipping up over his stomach as he fixed the coolers behind the bar. No, he wasn’t hard on the eyes, and he was kind, polite, even-tempered. Every girl employed at Just One More fell under his spell, and the female patronage began to grow significantly the longer he stayed. It wasn’t long before he had become a sort of permanent fixture in the dimly lit tavern—drinking discounted shots of Jameson and chatting up a different woman every moment that he wasn’t changing light bulbs and fixing faulty plumbing.
Marie loved him. Everyone loved him, but Marie was the boss and what Marie says goes. So, when he didn’t show up to work for three days, without a call, text, or smoke signal, she was more concerned than angry. On day four, he strolled in with a cut down his arm and a limp to his stride, and Marie ran to him like he was the prodigal son.
For days she wouldn’t let him work. For half a week he sat and drank tequila and slurred his complements through steak and French fries he’d been cooked by patrons and employees alike. No one asked him where he’d been, just simply gushed endlessly over how much he’d been missed. No one, that is, except for me.
I timed my question well, in the pregnant pause of his persistent chewing of a steak too well done by a patron incapable of cooking. Five verbal slaps and ten beady eyes scolded me for my rudeness, but their reaction wasn’t the one I was after. No, I was after something much more subtle, and he did not disappoint. He didn’t stop chewing, not until he’d swallowed, and when he finally spoke it was the perfectly orchestrated response. Yet, it wasn’t. He had planned it all flawlessly—sheer perfection—save the tightness of his eyes, the stiffness of his upper lip that only I could see, but it was more than enough.
He kept his gaze on me as he spoke carefully, artfully, of the brutal car accident that left him battered, stranded, and amnesia-stricken. I nodded and sighed, letting out hmm’s and oh dear’s at all the right pauses, and the part was played perfectly. We were two Oscar-worthy actors in a room full of ignorant spectators and no one suspected a thing.
A week passed before the first questions began to swarm. It was quiet at first—private and respectful. That first detective came in dressed in street clothes and ordering a coke, asking about Davis in a friendly, inquisitive tone.
We used to go to college together, he’d said and winked, making me grimace and raise my eyebrows.
Of course, that was a lie. It was easy to see Davis hadn’t graduated High School let alone gone on to secure an Alma Mater, but still, the girls that overheard gushed over this faux collegiate and begged to know what the handsome handyman was like in his formative years.
He’s just gone out for an errand. Marie came out from the office in the back, sipping coffee and tapping the ceramic mug the way she did when she lied.
It got him away, at least, and it was quiet again for about twenty-four hours.
The next day there were two. Only, this time, they weren’t disguised and phishing—two blue uniforms filled in by skinny-legged, large-bellied men. Davis was sitting at the bar, on a Jameson and seven break, downing the clear liquid like he’d die of thirst before I could make another.
They brought him down for questioning and he went willingly. Someone had died, they’d said. Someone he’d known well.
You would think that Davis Junior himself had died the way those patrons held vigil over that bar.
That poor dear, they all ruminated with feeling and heartache, taking pain that wasn’t theirs and making it their own. The way they all hugged me, each too long and too tightly, made my lungs ache and nerves twitch. But the role I filled seemed a necessary one until I got down to the bottom of whom, or what, this man truly was.
For twenty-four hours the Federal Bureau of Investigation held that grease-ringed man, and I found myself, I must admit, smirking at the idea of him charming them with winking smiles.
How could these baby blues take a life? I could hear the words like they’d come right out of the man’s mouth.
The frightening thing was, it worked, whatever he’d said. And maybe he was innocent, maybe he was not. He had no less than fifty people willing to vouch for him at any given moment, declare him incapable of unspeakable acts such as this, and set him free on good nature alone. Perhaps that’s the way it ought to be. It really made you wonder. Made you think. Made me think, anyway, for everyone else was sure he was as bleached white and holy-spirited as they came, ready to wrap him in robes and call him Christ.
It was a while before he came back into the tavern, and I have to say, I flinched when I saw him. At six-foot-four, muscle-bound, two-fifty, he wasn’t a small creature by any means. His looks and spirit, though, made him seem neighborly and approachable—every man’s best friend. That day, though, everyone’s opinion shifted. He was dirty, and I don’t mean he had grease on his hands and dirt under his nails, but he looked as if he’d rolled in filth and skipped his showers for weeks. His baby blues that had looked on in crystal clear glory were now cloudy and troubled, angry eyes with a battered conscience. Suddenly, everyone’s favorite jack of all trades was gone, replaced by this man that stood before us now.
What if he did it? What if he killed that girl? They said there was a skirmish. They said she fought back, scratched him up, tried to get away.
He looked me square in the eyes now when he sat down, ordering drinks through his teeth and sipping on them like he had something to say but couldn’t quite form the thought. No one else saw it, the way his lip twitched when I smiled, the way his eyes hardened when I laughed. The man who’d previously held such a poised and perfect persona in this place now could barely hold his composure, and all that pent up rage and discontent he’d kept buried so long underneath the calm exterior was simmering, just shy of boiling over.
Another drink? I’d cock my head to the side and he’d grunt once for yes, twice for no. Soon, we had ourselves a rudimentary language, birthed in my very bar between two people who wanted nothing to do with the other.
They said she was his lover.
The whisper was too loud. Someone had been careless in their subtlety, or perhaps they’d meant for him to hear. And hear he did. The glass he held tightly in his fist shattered. Superhuman strength surpassed pain and physics. Blood and ice and booze exploded all over the counter, but that wasn’t what most people were looking at. Davis Junior was on his feet, barstool on the floor, fire in his eyes, striding in four seconds to the face of the offender.
I didn’t kill anyone. He growled—low, quiet, hushed. The way a biblical man would depict the voice of the other side—the dark one, where the demons lie in wait.
Break it up! That was me, but no one flinched.
No one moved. This was a stare down, the weaker being determined in the ability to hold the look. Like wolves, this was domination. Alpha versus Beta.
A slam of my baton—the kind for breaking knees and splitting skulls—onto the bar and all eyes were on me, the spell broken.
And he did. He didn’t want trouble, not with legal eyes on him. The answer of strength was just given, and I’d won the fight. This was my bar. I was Alpha, and now they all looked at me with wide eyes and a measure of respect. The threat was gone; I had taken care of it.
To be continued…