There was a man in one of those bars where the bartenders have worked there since they gave up on finding some other thing to do long ago. The jukebox plays just about whatever you have the mood to play. You can still smoke there and the neighborhood people who’ve fallen down, down somewhere along the way call it home like a beaten old couch that never seems to say goodbye. He was weathered, his face displaying stories from battles he was too happy to tell. He checked his phone over and again. He spoke about his old lady and it seemed present tense. He took two shots with each beer he downed and he told stories of this woman like she might have been a mutual friend. At some point, far enough into the dark that he felt confession, he said she’d gone, and he didn’t mean left so much a he meant there are ways of the world I got no explanation for. The girlfriend’s parents blamed him, he said, for all his poisonous ways about the world, and I saw in the way he looked past me when he said this that he blamed himself, for different reasons, different doorways. I’d see him again, now and then when living in that place, and I never approached him to ask him for a happy ending. The phone stays with me, the way he lingered with it, waiting for a call from her, knowing if you get lost in the woods, you tend to follow the same circle to the left forever unless you know different.
He rode a blue bike around town. I’d see him waiting for the light on corners, the weighted, white plastic bags hanging from each handle, the dark of his jeans, a loose-fitting jacket, and the gray mess of his beard. When I’d sit on my porch in the afternoons, he’d roll up to my drive and stare for a minute as if asking a question. He’d lean his bike against the large tree, the one the college boys’d piss on after the games on Saturdays before they stumbled back to their trucks, their basements, their blustering. His name was Ray—a face with creases that read like the lost letters in a desert post office. He’d have the stub of some crushed cigarette smoldering in his shaky fingers. For weeks I wouldn’t see him, so I’d drive around town, ask folks behind counters. That’s what Ray did—rode his bike from one convenience store to another—asking about days and pulling what he’d found in the dumpsters behind the strip mall from his bag. He gave me a pair of earrings once, white plastic with gold accents. He and I didn’t talk about much beyond what he’d seen that day, but once we shared the thinnest hints of our histories. Twenty years before, he’d hitched a ride to Los Angeles to find the woman who left Oklahoma and left him longing. He’d taken it only a few months before he went looking for her. On the afternoon he got to LA, he stood on a corner when he saw her face through the passenger window of a car being driven by some man. He said her look was the saddest goodbye he’d ever not said.
Inside, men divined their tragedies. The mines gave up their ghosts to iron ore-haunted men long lost on grace. Like so many men up north, he sat hunched forward, eyes searching walls for answers. He spoke of the Ojibwe, his people, and a woman he hadn’t had the nerve to go back to, the woman who could tell his fortunes with no more than a glance. Strangers entered and some sat next to him and each that did became vessel for his soothsaying. One story: he knew that love would wreck him more than any mine ever could, and he got to Florida, then Mexico, then Alaska before he turned around and got home. But, he said, the farthest I ever felt was when I was close enough to touch her. Later, outside with a friend while he smoked, the storyteller came outside and talked to us—two strangers—and talked about the night and the great lake and eventually tumbled into his story of her. I asked what she was like. He joked that she was any old woman, and she was mean. The way his eyebrows raised and his mouth widened as he spoke about her. He laughed, then turned serious. All men need a light to see themselves by, he said, and he said that was her. He lingered on that, as we did, made another joke, then said he had to get on. Couldn’t stay in one place too long. Didn’t want to leave impressions in seats to let others know where he’d been. He stopped and looked to the stars. You know, men used to use those stars to guide them home, he said. But, that only works when there’s someone on the other end waiting for you to come home.
When it’d rain, he’d show up, crumpled beneath a yellow slicker. I’d usually be in the back, leaning against a pool table under the yellowed Coors sign set to bar time, a pitcher of Bud Light on the high table beside me. The bar was just a block away from the university above a set of steep wooden steps. A door in the back opened to a rickety patio, and during those afternoon storms, we all took turns wandering over to the window to stare at the puddles pooling into the grooves of worn tables. He’d straggle from stranger to stranger with an offer to trade a pitcher for the pack of Dorals that he’d pull from his pocket. Most folks shook their heads or turned back to the bar or craned their necks toward the one tv in the corner. The man never said a word except for pitcher and Dorals and trade. He never approached me—just the men, the ones in Carhartts and cowboy hats, always the one I came with, the one who’d pat him on the back and head straight for the bar. No one knew Slicker’s story—maybe he told us in the way he never said. Years later, I drove back to that town to find the bar boarded up and dark. I wondered when it had last rained. The man I’d gone there with all those times gone, too, dead three years. But I could see us there—climbing steep steps, racking and breaking, huddling inside an afternoon of rain—in those years before I learned ghosts follow us, even after everything else has shut down.
About the authors:
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir from Soft Skull Press. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, The Rumpus and listed as Notable in Best American Essays.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty is the Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press and lives in Atlanta. He founded and manages Sundog Lit, is the Fiction Editor for New South, and co-pilots Cartridge Lit—a magazine dedicated to literature inspired by video games.