Listen to Tamara Linse read 'A Dangerous Shine'
When Shine told people she bartended at the Buckhorn, their eyes widened. "What's a nice girl like you," they said, and then their voices trailed off. "I heard somebody got shot," they said. There was a real bullet hole in the mirror, but it was ancient history—part of the bar's character, like the heads on the walls and the smell of stale beer. To Shine, it felt safe, like sitting on a gargantuan comfy couch with all your cousins—sunk into the softness, everyone good-naturedly elbowing everyone else.
Not only that. As the bartender, Shine was the center of everything. She entertained the loners, introduced people, facilitated everyone's good time, and decided who stayed and who went. It was the next best thing to being on TV. Maybe someday she'd walk back through that door and everyone would whisper, "That's Shine. She used to work here."
Someday. Shine flipped a beer glass upside down and stuck it onto the brushes in the sink full of hot soapy water. She worked it up and down, rinsed it, then put it on the metal drainboard. "Who's the most famous person who's come through that door?" she asked Doc, a forever regular who walked like a ship rolling on the high seas. Doc sat with his elbows resting on the edge of the bar, framing his draft of Bud.
"In the old days, this was a tent," Doc said, "and everybody stopped here because right out there was the railroad depot." He lifted his right elbow toward the tracks a half a block a way. "Before they moved it on down."
"Even you weren't alive for that," One-ball Paul said. Paul stood watching the door, leaning with his back against the bar and his thin elbows hooked over the edge. Everybody knew he was waiting for Serita, only everybody also knew Serita was over at Coppers Corners with Lee Mangus, the UPS guy.
"I don't know," Shine said and winked at Doc. "I heard the reason Doc got his nickname was because he doctored up at Crow Agency when Custer had his last stand." The real reason Doc had his nickname was because he was a medic in Vietnam.
Doc's eyes squinted a smile. "The most famous person to walk through that door is going to be Shine."
"Yeah," Paul said. "She's going to replace Kathy Lee as America's top anchor, once she gets that TV degree."
Shine shook her head. "I'll be lucky to bring coffee to Geha over at KGWN in Cheyenne."
Doc shook his head and Paul turned around and looked at Shine. Paul said, "It's going to be you, Shine. You're beautiful and smart and ... and ..." He blushed and glanced at Doc. Doc was nodding his head.
"If Regis hits on you, pressures you, you let me know," Doc said, his face serious.
"Naw," Nance said and raised her head off the bar. Nance, who was married to Tommy Jon the trucker, was drunk on Gin Rickies. "That's Kelly what's-her-name. Kathy Lee hasn't been there for ages."
"We'll put your ... Seven-Up can? ... up there on the Wall of Fame," Paul said. The Wall of Fame was empty cans and bottles—Coors Light and Mickey's Big Mouth, McGillicuddy's and Jack Daniels Green Label—resting on little shelves with names on wooden plaques underneath them. They were tributes to regulars who had died.
As they talked, Shine watched a big man with a face like a boot walk along the sidewalk outside. He walked with his shoulders back but with his head curled forward like he was trying to be bigger and smaller at the same time. The door creaked as he pushed through. He stepped in and shrugged off his coat. The big man had arm muscles that strained the seams of his green long-sleeved t-shirt, and his waste narrowed as it disappeared into a pair of tan Carhart overalls. His face was broad and leathery brown with the prominent jaw that reminded Shine of a cartoon character.
Shine laughed and said to Doc and Paul, "You guys. If that happens, I'll drink Courvoisier." She turned and walked down the bar to take the big guy's order. The plastic mat squished under her feet, and her soles stuck and pulled with a k-k-k-k-k, k-k-k-k-k.
As he made his way to the bar, the big man craned his head to look at all the taxidermy mounts on the walls. The Buck was lined with the heads of buffalo, moose, elk, and antelope and full mounts of fish and fox and even a dwarf calf, but it was most famous for its full mount of a two-headed colt. The mounts always felt like blessings to Shine, like the spirits of all the people and animals were here in this room, looking after them—sort of like Noah's Ark, or Yoda and Obi Wan in the last of the first three Star Wars.
The big man pushed aside a stool with his thigh, put his meaty hands with black-rimmed fingernails spread-eagle on the bar, and lowered his head. His eyes were so pale they looked white, wide open and guileless like a child's.
"What can I get you?" Shine said.
"Fuzzy Navel," the big man said.
Shine didn't react, even though he looked like a beer-and-shot-of-whiskey kind of guy. She nodded. In smooth motions, she scooped a tumbler full of ice from the well and poured the peach schnapps and the orange juice. She stuck in a straw. "That'll be three bucks," she said, as she placed the drink on a napkin in front of him.
The big man pulled a curled brown leather wallet on a chain from his back pocket and paid with a twenty. She took the bill and rang it up on the till and gave him his change. She nodded to him and then turned and walked back down the bar.
"I don't think it's right," Martin was saying from the end stool next to the wall. He was hunched over with his two-fingered hands cupping his beer glass. Martin came in every day shortly after four, right after his last class, and had exactly two pitchers of Coors Light—one he paid for and the second free because of Happy Hour. "Tug's last can fell down, and they didn't put it back up. They just stuck it up there." He nodded toward the Buckhorn Beer can stuck under the bear trap on the high shelf above the bar. On the Wall of Fame where Tug's last can had rested now stood a picture of a young man in uniform with laughing eyes and a medal, a congressional gold star.
"Mo got that Pulling a Marine in Vietnam," Doc said, a growl in his voice.
"I'm not saying he shouldn't be up there too," Martin said. "I'm not saying that at all. But Tug died right here in the bar—heck, maybe on this stool—and he was way before Mo's time. His takes precedence."
Paul had turned back around and was watching the door again. "No," he said and pointed the other direction down the bar. "It was the fifth stool from that end."
"Shut the fuck up, Martin," Doc said.
Shine considered whether she should say anything. A good bartender keeps the peace, but you have to know when to step in and when it's best to let things be. Doc was a good guy so generally he was unlikely to pursue things, but now he was a little drunk and they were talking about Vietnam. You had to watch yourself on that subject around Doc. Martin was a good guy too, a soft computer geek who loved science fiction and fantasy novels—he wasn't the confrontational type.
Shine decided it would peter out. With one ear on their discussion, Shine walked back down the bar to where the big guy sat. He'd left a tip on the inner rail, a fiver. Shine raised her eyebrows. She picked it up and put it in the tip jar. "Another?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said.
"What's your name?" Shine said as she made his drink.
He raised his eyebrows.
"Short for Shineha," she said, "the sun in the Book of Abraham—my parents are hippies."
"Some people call me Big John, like the song."
"All right, Big John," Shine said.
He nodded to the long shelf above the bar. "That horse have two heads?" The two-headed colt lay on its belly with its eyes closed and its necks and legs splayed forward like it'd just been born. One head fanned up behind the other.
"Yeah," Shine said and placed the second drink in front of him. When he reached for his wallet, she said, "That's okay. It's free," and pointed to the Happy Hour sign.
"Is it real?" Big John said, looking at the colt.
"Yes," Shine said. At first, Shine had wondered, too, whether a clever taxidermist had created the creature, like putting spike deer horns on the head of a large jackrabbit to create the jackalope that was mounted among the plaques on the Wall of Fame. But the two-headed colt was real. It'd been born over by Wheatland. It'd lived, some people said, for a couple of weeks before it passed on. When it was born, both heads stuck out at the same time, and the vet was called because everybody thought the horse was having twins and they were caught shoulder to shoulder in the birth canal. When they pulled it out, though, there was only one body.
"The sad thing is," Shine said, "it couldn't eat. It couldn't coordinate its legs well enough to go to its mother to suck. Pretty much starved to death."
Shine thought she could still see the thinness of it under all that dust, the manginess of the hide from not eating, the expression on its face. She knew that the mount was largely the creation of the taxidermist. Still, it was all there, and it made her stomach upset if she thought about it.
"What'd the mother do?" Big John said. "Reject the freak?"
"The freak? Oh, the colt. No. In fact, she'd nudge it, trying to get it to latch on. She was all upset when they finally put it out of its misery."
"Most mothers would've given up on someone as fucked up as that."
"Aah," Shine said and nodded to him and then moved back down the bar.
Afternoon slipped toward evening. Most of the Happy Hour regulars were drunk on their stools and the bar was filling up with college kids and pool leaguers. Three college guys in low-slung dockers and layered t-shirts slouched in the corner booth and played quarters. There was the low hum of voices and the Kink! of pool balls and every once in a while someone put money in the juke box. Neil, the other night bartender, clocked in. He was a stocky guy who had played football, and everybody called Armstrong because he had taken an astronomy class once.
Martin had gone home and Nance was propped in the corner of a booth passed out. Nance's husband Tommy Jon, still in dirty overalls, came in. Big John and Paul started talking, and then he, Doc, Paul, and Tommy Jon played pool up front because league had the table in the back.
Shine took a round of drinks out to them. Doc was saying to Tommy Jon, "You hear about that gal raped in the ally, right out the back door here?" He nodded. "Four in the morning."
Big John wasn't saying anything, but his head was cocked to the side and his forehead was bunched up. Shine couldn't read his expression.
"Someone was raped?" Tommy Jon said.
"Yep," Doc said, "Skinny Marie. After, they had to pull her out of the dumpster, half-frozen and hysterical."
Shine pulled the empty drink tray to her chest. Before the rape, the alley hadn't bothered Shine at all, but now when she took the garbage out, even in broad daylight, she kept her eyes open, her body tense. She glanced over to Big John. There was something about his presence—solid as the immense granite boulders up at Vedauwoo—that made her feel better, safer.
"Cattle Kate took her home, I heard," Shine said.
"Somebody said they were college boys," Doc continued, "but I don't think so. That time of night, college boys are drunk off their asses passed out at home."
Shine glanced over at the three college guys in the booth. Their heads were together, and they were talking rapid-fire in low voices.
"Could be a drifter, someone coming through with the railroad," Paul said.
"People don't do that any more," Tommy Jon said. "Ride the rails."
"Do too," Big John said. "I ran from Albuquerque to Denver one time a couple of years ago." He handed Shine a fifty for the drinks. She went behind the bar and rang it up and brought back the change. He nodded to her and gave her a twenty for a tip. She smiled and nodded to him in thanks. He smiled back and she thought he even blushed a little.
"It wasn't in the paper. Rapes, things like that never get in the papers," Paul said. "I personally saw a guy shot and killed in those trailers out on 230. Not a peep. Might as well not've happened."
"Well," Shine said, "did you tell them it happened? How're they going to report it if no one tells them?"
Paul shook his head. "I'm not going to be the one." He looked at Doc, who shrugged.
"That was meth, I heard," Doc said.
"Meth?" Big John said.
"Naw," Tommy Jon said. "That was what's-her-name, sleeping with her husband's best friend. Don't you remember? She was a fat chick who never took a bath. You remember."
"I was there," Paul said. "Weren't no fat chick. I'm not denying anything else."
Shine turned to go back to the bar.
"Speaking as a member of the medical profession," Doc said, a smirk on his face, "that stuff'll kill you."
"Live fast and die young, I always say," Shine heard Paul say as she went behind the bar.
Doc, Paul, Tommy Jon, and Big John continued playing pool till the night wound down. Right before last call, Tommy Jon warmed up his car and then woke Nance up and helped her out to it. Shine was wiping down tables when Doc left, drunk and rolling like an ocean. "Shine on," he said and cackled. When Armstrong called last call at two, Paul and Big John were sitting on stools, their heads bent together, talking. Big John caught Shine's eye and pointed to their shot glasses. Shine pulled the Yukon Jack from the back bar and filled them. They drank them down and then got up together to leave. Big John tucked a tip on the back of the bar as he left, saying, "Pretty lady."
Shine and Armstrong closed up. Shine wiped down the bar while Armstrong brought up beer from downstairs to stock the cooler. As she swiped by, she picked up Big John's tip. It was a one hundred dollar bill. She looked up to the door and held up the bill. No one was there. She hesitated for a minute and then pocketed the bill.
Her first thought was, now I can pay off that credit card! Her second thought was, I shouldn't take this. Her third thought was, where did he get the money to tip like that? Her fourth thought was, is he going to want anything in return?
The next day, Paul and Big John came in at three thirty. They looked like they hadn't slept but they were in good spirits. They came up to the bar and ordered. Paul ordered a Pabst and a shot of Yukon, and Big John ordered a Fuzzy Navel.
"Sweeten your disposition?" Paul said.
"Damn straight," Big John said.
"Spent the night together, did you?" Shine said as she made the drinks.
Paul made a comic sheepish face and pulled his shoulders up to his ears. "Saw the sun rise, didn't we, honey?" he said.
Big John didn't say anything.
Shine set the drinks in front of them. When Big John started to pay, Shine looked into his eyes and smiled and shook her head. He smiled and nodded. When Paul went to the bathroom, Shine ducked into the back room and grabbed the plate of chocolate chip cookies she'd baked that morning. She put them in front of Big John. "Thanks," she said.
He shrugged and eyed the cookies.
"These are my dad's recipe," she said. "He's the best cook." She leaned forward and rested her forearms on the bar. "Try one."
Using his finger tips, he tried to pull the cellophane off the plate. It stuck tight. Shine reached forward to help him. She said, "Here, let—" He jerked back and brushed her hands. The edges of his fingers rasped Shine's palm like warm sandpaper. He took a step back. Shine felt herself redden but she reached forward and yanked the cellophane open. It ripped and then stretched into a long ribbon. She held the plate out to him.
He took a step forward and then gently pulled a cookie from the plate. He closed his eyes and took a bite. He chewed and swallowed and opened his eyes. Then he nodded his head. "Thank you, Shine," he said. When he said her name, it sounded of the south, like he was saying moonshine. Shine set the plate in front of him and stepped back from the bar.
Without saying anything, Big John unbuttoned the right sleeve of his yellow and green plaid flannel shirt and slowly rolled it up his arm, making sure the folds were straight. When it was past the elbow he pushed it up to his armpit. It took some doing because his biceps were so big they strained the shirt material.
Then he held out his arm. His biceps were huge. They looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger's in Conan. The veins bulged blue and the muscles were like smooth stones under the skin, which was marred with an angry slantwise patch down the side of his arm—a wide ropelike ridge, four inches long and an inch wide. It was paler than the surrounding skin and protruded like cancer.
"My dad took a chainsaw to me when I was twelve," Big John said. There was no expression on his face. He didn't eye her face for a reaction. He didn't avoid her eyes like he was ashamed. It was just a fact.
Involuntarily, Shine's arms folded across her body. "That's awful," Shine said, trying to keep the intenseness of her emotion out of her voice.
"Is it?" he said. He rolled his sleeve back down.
"Well, I made you these cookies," she said. She looked from his arm to the plate of cookies and then back to his face. She fought an impulse to grab back the plate of cookies and hug them to her chest.
Paul returned from the bathroom. "What's this?" he said.
Big John put his palm on top of the plate of cookies.
Paul looked at Shine.
Shine shrugged. "I made cookies," she said.
"Can I have one?" Paul said.
"They're John's," Shine said. She looked at him and raised her eyebrows. "Can he have one?"
Big John let his hand rest on top of the cookies and then slowly pulled it back. "Sure," he said.
"Thanks," Paul said and grabbed a cookie from the pile and took a big bite. "Yum," he said and took a drink of his Pabst. He looked at Big John. "What makes you so special? She's never baked cookies for us."
"My sweet disposition," John said.
Big John and Paul left shortly after. Big John held the cookies close to his body as he left.
Shine couldn't get the image of that angry welt out of her mind. Proud flesh, her mom called it. Shine had always thought it meant you could brag about your scars, but now she wasn't so sure. Big John hadn't bragged. It was fact. Had it gone so deep, he didn't even realize what it meant? Was the violence down there, not just on him but in him too?
The next day, Shine called Cattle Kate to cover for her, claiming cramps, but Friday Shine had to go in because Kate always went to the Moose on Fridays for prime rib and hell would freeze over before Kate missed that.
It was cold. Shine's breath was ghost white as she pushed at the Buck's door. It stuck for a minute, and she had to plant both her feet and push with both gloved hands to get it open. It groaned as it scraped across the floor. As she stepped in, heat blasted her face and the smell enveloped her—piss and vomit and piney cleaning fluid, and under that something wild and earthy. She stopped and looked around. Big John wasn't there—thank goodness, she thought—still, though, something wasn't right. Call it bartender's intuition. The people were edgy, she could feel it. Was it a full moon? Every bartender knows to watch for the full moon.
Armstrong was on his knees by the radiator with a bucket and some rags.
"What's up?" Shine said.
"Nance puked her nachos," Armstrong said.
"I'm sorry," Shine said.
"The humidity," Armstrong said and smiled. "It's not you."
"The door. It makes the door stick."
"Oh, yeah," Shine said and walked behind the bar.
Doc was there, a pitcher in front of him. "What's the matter?" Doc said, "You ain't got your usual shine."
Shine shrugged and went down the bar to clock in.
As the night wore on, Shine kept her eye on the door. Big John wasn't there for Happy Hour, and he wasn't there later when Paul got mouthy with Armstrong and got eighty-sixed for life for the hundredth time. He wasn't there when Nance started crying on her stool and was helped to the bathroom by Constance, who had a beautiful body but a face like a brick.
If John came in, Shine told herself, she'd treat him with respect but be distant. She'd discourage him, if he did have any ideas. He couldn't buy her. She had no obligation to him. He gave the money of his own free will, and she took it, but nothing was agreed. It wasn't a transaction. She did not feel guilty.
About one in the morning, things started to wind down. People were leaving. An older guy was in a booth in the back necking with Constance. Doc had gotten drunk, passed out, woken up, went to the bathroom, eaten a hot dog, and was sober again.
Shine leaned into the cooler to get a beer. There was a loud rattling Bang! Shine pushed herself up in time to see the door wide open and rebounding from the wall and Big John hurling across the room knocking over tables and chairs.
Armstrong can't handle him, Shine thought, even if he used to play football. She whirled and ran down to the gate by the end of the bar and grabbed the baseball bat that was propped there in case of emergency. She looked up in time to see Armstrong standing with one arm up and one arm out like he was a policeman directing traffic.
Big John jerked to a stop and then stood swaying. His mouth hung open and spit dribbled down his chin. His eyes were wide and rolling in the sockets. "Uuuuunnnnhh," he said.
Is he on something? Does meth do that? Cocaine?
"Call the cops," Armstrong said over his shoulder.
"Nnnnnnnnnnnnh," Big John said. He never closed his mouth, just stood drooling. Then he looked at Shine. His eyes were pools of water that began to seep down his face. "Aaaaah," he said.
Doc said something.
"What?" Armstrong said.
"His jaw's broken," Doc said. "Fucking hanging by the skin."
Then Shine saw the red starting to shade to purple on Big John's huge jaw. She saw the spit was mingled with blood. "Shit," Shine said and dropped the bat. She sprinted down the bar and dialed 911.
There was a pause on the line and then the dispatcher picked up. "What is the nature of your emergency?" the woman said.
"It's Shine at the Buckhorn. John, a guy, he's been hurt. Someone here, a doctor, thinks his jaw's broken."
"Is there an altercation in progress?"
"No. It happened—I don't know—outside, I think."
There was a pause. "Police officers are on their way. I'll send an ambulance too."
"Thanks. Thank you," Shine said.
"Please stay on the line so I can get your information," the dispatcher said.
Shine hesitated. Her first impulse was to withhold the information, as if not telling would pull her out of the situation. She felt guilty, dirty. With the palm of her free hand, she rubbed the skin on the arm that held the phone. Then she gave her name and home phone number.
As Shine talked, Armstrong and Doc each took one of Big John's arms and pulled him down into a chair. Then Armstrong came behind the bar and filled a bar rag with ice and walked back around. He tried to put it on John's jaw, but John batted it away. All the while, Doc sat in a chair next to John and talked into his ear. Shine saw the look in Doc's eyes—he'd been there before and he knew what he was doing. This somehow made Shine feel a little better.
Within three minutes, police cars pulled up out front and three cops came in, their hands on their belts, their chests puffed out, and their voices deep. After they looked at John and talked with Doc, two of them ran out the door and down the street toward the railroad tracks. An ambulance pulled up and two EMTs came in with a trolley. John refused to be put on the stretcher, so the cop and one of the EMTs took his arms and walked him out to the ambulance. The last Shine saw of Big John was his bulging arms as he pulled himself into the ambulance.
All of a sudden, Shine felt weak. Only then did she realize the adrenalin shooting through her. She took a deep breath.
Armstrong gave last call, and then fifteen minutes later, just as Shine and Armstrong pushed everyone out the door, Paul pushed in through the door. "I saw 'em," he said. "All three of them had pipes—I saw 'em. They had big-ass pipes. They really did." Paul had followed the cops as they ran down to the tracks and found the three college guys with pipes. One guy confessed right away that they'd jumped Big John and beat him. Not for money, he'd said. They were just messing around.
Just messing around? Big John standing there, his face wild and open like a child's, and they'd just been messing around.
Soon the bar was empty and the door was locked and it was just her and Armstrong to close up. "Well," Armstrong said as he went to the basement to get cases of beer.
After he'd gone, Shine slumped into the bar. She was so exposed, standing there. Anyone could see her pale face glowing through those huge windows, its dangerous shine. The bullet hole in the mirror—that's how he'd done it. The guy was jealous of a woman, so he hid in the alley across the street with a thirty ought six and shot into the bar full of people. Anybody could be there right now, watching her, and she wouldn't know it. She shivered and crouched down on the mat behind the bar. It smelled like death.
She glanced up at the walls and the taxidermy mounts. There was something she hadn't noticed before—age had pulled the animals' lips back from their shiny teeth. They were all staring at her and snarling.
About the author:
Tamara Linse lives in Wyoming, where she writes short stories and novels. To support her writing habit, she also edits, freelances, and occasionally teaches. Her husband Steve thought he was marrying a "normal person," and then he discovered, to his chagrin, he'd married a writer. Her website is www.tamaralinse.com.
© 2013 Word Riot