Yin and Yang at the
The Hawthorne’s dining room table was as long as the space it inhabited.
monstrous piece of hand-carved solid oak, with a surface polished to the point
reflecting light better than most mirrors. A small army could have sat at it
comfortably lengthwise and it had probably taken that same small army to move
table into the house. Roman thought the mansion might have been built around
table, viewing no visible entrance to fit such a large object through.
chandelier hung a good distance overhead, streaming soft light from its
crystal glass onto the emeralds that sat across from him. Could he ever get
Dr. Hawthorne could not see his wife’s eyes, as they each sat far apart, at
opposite ends of the table. Roman imagined the good doctor using an intercom or
megaphone to talk with his significant other from that distance. Instead he read
medical journal as he ate—the act of eating seeming to be more of a nuisance
anything else. Even on a Sunday evening the man was dressed in a three-piece
Gina wore a silk blouse, skirt, and high heels the likes of which were not
purchased at the Collingston mall. She swirled the gold fork on her plate more
she used it to pick up anything to put in her mouth. A middle-aged woman
Gina didn’t keep her tight figure by being a proud member of the clean-plate
Every once in a while Roman could see the pearls under her lips when she
or maybe smiled, but her eyes stayed back in the distance, hidden from the
of the chandelier. He could feel them though—on his face and clothes,
studying and watching, like two hidden surveillance cameras of the NN. The hair
neck stood up in quills, and suddenly Roman felt uncomfortable in the one
pair of jeans he had to his name. He squirmed a little against the high back
The Hawthorne estate was equipped with a full kitchen staff. Not only did
unfold the silk napkins and place them properly on your lap, and help to serve
five-course meal with sharp deliberate movements, but they also stood waiting
attention behind each of the family member’s chairs. The fellow behind Roman
still as a likeness in a wax museum, but Roman was sure that if even one
fell from his plate, the servant would grab it out of mid-air in lightning
fashion before it hit the floor.
All of it was a far cry from the little kitchen table in an Iowa farmhouse.
table back home had one uneven leg that dad was always fixing. His father ate
he finally came in from the fields, wearing that day’s denim overalls. His
delivered the casserole with his grandmother’s hand-me-down oven mitts
and her dull blue apron tied loosely behind her back. The leftovers were given
The French cuisine Roman had prepared might not have been as impressive
had once imagined. Heather probably ate better for a midnight snack.
Roman’s anxiety lifted as he watched her though. Heather wolfed down her food
the speed and determination unrivaled by any mere mortal. Where did it all
Heather had told him she was a runner—up at six AM five days a week.
wondered if she was a runner because of her eating, or an eater because of
Dr. Hawthorne closed the magazine, set it aside, and patted his mouth with
the finesse of a rich kid who’d just graduated from etiquette classes. He took
glasses off and rubbed the indentions where they’d sat on his nose. “So,
Heather tells us that you’re a genius, Roman.”
Roman sat with his back straight, arms to his sides, trying to maintain his
etiquette, resisting the urge to wipe his brow. He blushed anyway. “I don’t
about that sir. I’m not sure you can put a number on intelligence.”
“Neither am I young man, but Heather says you do things that border on the
“Daddy,” Heather began. “I’m sure Roman didn’t come over here to be put
test like some circus side show”
“It’s fine Heather,” Roman said and then looked back at Dr. Hawthorne. “I
the same things most people do, I just process the information a little
“For instance?” The good doctor was now leaning on the table, rubbing his
“Daddy!” Heather said again.
“It’s perfectly fine.” Roman calmed her. “I see numbers in everything,
all.” Roman’s answer was not specific enough for the doctor. He took a
breath. “For instance, when I walked in your front door the first thing I
noticed was the staircase in the foyer. It has twenty-six steps. The tops of the
fourteenth and the twentieth steps are off a couple degrees; they’re not
perpendicular to the steps before them. I didn’t count them or study them, all
just popped into my head when I looked at them.”
“I see,” Dr. Hawthorne said, still hungry for more.
“The little glass pieces on your chandelier.” All three Hawthornes looked
Roman pointed. “There are exactly three hundred and thirty-nine of them.
are all exactly the same size except for one, which is about an inch and
quarter smaller than the rest.”
Dr. Hawthorne scratched the top of his head, losing count of the pieces
ten or eleven. “That’s amazing.”
“It gets to be a nuisance. I’ve learned to just tune it out, the way someone
color blindness or a walking defect, does.”
“Make no mistake about it Roman, what you have is a gift not a handicap.”
“Thank you sir.”
“And with a powerful gift like that you should be able to write your own
ticket, Roman,” Gina’s voice chimed in finally from the end of the table. “I
could do or be anything you wanted. What are your plans for the future?”
“It’s not that simple, mother,” Heather started to answer for him.
cut her off, sensing the onset of world war three. “I guess, Mrs.
Hawthorne, the problem is I just don’t know what I want to be or do.”
“You’re going to college though right?” Dr. Hawthorne asked.
“Not as of yet sir, no.”
“That’s just a shame Roman.” Gina voice was not particularly kind. “In
world to be somebody, to be anybody, you have to get that degree. Nowadays
even two or three.” Gina dug in again.
“It’s a waste of time for him mother.”
“I’m sure something will come up, Mrs. Hawthorne. But thank you for
“Let’s go out on the balcony and look at the stars Roman,” Heather said.
“It’s overcast.” Roman responded.
“Let’s go look at them anyway.”
“It’s a little cold for the balcony isn’t it?” Gina said rhetorically.
Heather shot Gina a look of disgust Roman would have thought was
impossible on a face as beautiful as hers. Roman’s personal butler pulled the
as he stood, and Dr. Hawthorne gave Roman a firm handshake.
“Thanks for having me sir.”
“The pleasure was all mine, young man.”
Gina continued to sit in her chair.
They stood on the balcony outside Heather’s room. Roman leaned against
railing looking out over the vast Hawthorne estate. The Olympic-size pool
directly below was drained for the season. The Jacuzzi sat to its left bubbling
gurgling, steam escaping its soft brown cover. On the opposite side of the
stood the pool house, a structure that Roman believed his own house could
fit inside of. In the distance was the maintenance shed and servant’s
quarters, both draped in the same beige color as the mansion itself. Beyond that
the tennis court and the gazebo, and on the horizon where the grass ended the
began. The forest went on for as far as the eye could see, and miles away
Dr. Hawthorne’s property ended, the Hollow began.
Heather put her arm through Roman’s, laying her head on his shoulder for
than just warmth. She looked up at the night sky just in case Roman was
about the clouds. But it was gray and thick, matching the mood of the
forest, which now nothing more than bare sticks and branches. The threat of
seemed very weak next to Roman. She could have stood there with him
forever just watching and waiting.
“You have a beautiful home, Heather. I’ve only been to places like this in
“Thanks. It was a great place to grow up. So much room to run and play,
swim every day in the summer. All of it comes with a price though. I would
gladly traded this for life on the farm like yours, if it meant not having to
“She just cares about you.”
“She does care about me but it goes too far. She forgets that we’re two
different people. I’m not her and never will be.”
“Your father seems very nice.”
“He is, but did you catch him reading during dinner? He does that every
Don’t think for a minute he’s catching up on some new medical procedure.
his way of escaping my mother, so he doesn’t have to listen to her nag me.
only one true flaw my father has is not standing up to her. I guess I don’t have
bad though, huh? At least I still have them around.”
"There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my parents. What I
wouldn’t give to just talk to them, even if it was for ten minutes. To hug my
more time, to play catch with dad. There’s never a day that I don’t see their
“They say time heals all things.”
“Agent Johnson wouldn’t agree. And he’s right in a way. I’ve spent that
six years of my life trying not to think about them, about it, because it hurts.
now I’m to the point that I force myself to, just so I can remember what they
like, or how they sounded when they laughed.”
“Do you ever think about him? Johnson I mean.”
“Some days more than others. If he really wanted to, he would have found
now. He’s probably got bigger fish to fry at the moment. He’ll get around
eventually I suppose.”
“What will you do?”
“If you’d asked me that three months ago the answer would have been
simple—run. After I left Bravo I always imagined myself drifting from place to
every few months. I never thought the first place I came to would be the
hardest to leave. But now everything is different. Collingston feels like home,
that might sound. When you come down to it, there’s really only two
options: avoid the problem by running or solve the problem by fighting.”
“I don’t want you to run.”
“And I don’t want to leave you.”
“Can you beat him? The way you fought Johnny that day, I can’t imagine
being able to beat you.”
“We’re talking about two very different people. Johnny’s a bruiser fueled
rage. Johnson’s a trained killer, a master at every kind of warfare. Besides, I
feeling it won’t be just him next time.”
“I thought you said the NN agents always work alone?”
“They do for the most part, to stay invisible. I’m sure the cemetery
incident has him thinking. They’ll risk their cover to complete an objective if
to.” Roman looked into her eyes and smiled. “Let’s talk about good things.
knows, maybe Johnson has decided to let me be.”
For the first time Heather could hear hesitation in his voice, a lack of
confidence in the statement. She brushed it off just as Roman did and kissed
wanting also to think only about good things.
As Roman opened the door to his house, the pain in the back of his neck
unmistakable a familiar pain that dissipated almost as quickly as its inception,
effects first numbing his fingers and toes and then immobilizing his limbs.
This time was different though. His eyes were not heavy and his vision
still intact. Roman lay flat on his back looking at his own ceiling, unable to
his head to see his attacker. It must have been a slightly different cocktail—
taking him all the way to unconsciousness.
The monstrous agent scooped the fragile janitor off the polished hardwood
little effort despite the dead weight of Roman’s arms and legs. Roman
imagined himself swinging and kicking but the poison in his blood had different
even his power of speech was gone. Johnson propped his paralyzed protégé
rocking chair facing away from his bed, careful to prop the janitor’s head so
Roman could see him. As his weight shifted on the wooden chair Roman
a small creak and was surprised his ears were still working.
Satisfied with the positioning, the agent walked backwards eyeing the
incapacitated teenager in front of him. Johnson reached into his suit coat,
producing a case of cigars and plucked one out of the silver case. The flame
lighter was like that of a blowtorch, stretching at least six inches into the
Johnson puffed several times, a thick cloud of smoke billowing around his face;
when the end of the cigar glowed red, he pulled it from his mouth and smiled.
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that during our time
together you’ve never seen me smoke a cigar, much less carry them on my person.
know something’s not right here but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
you’d be correct in your assumption, but I’m not going to give anything
You’re a smart guy right? A so-called genius. I’m confident that you’ll
it out, probably even within the next ten minutes.”
Roman’s eyes wandered away from the agent as he spoke, and focused on
couch next to the agent. On it was a gray blanket that covered two heaps,
Johnson took a drag from the cigar and smiled again.
“On to business then. I’ve brought you a little going away present, a
memento of things past, if you will.”
Johnson ripped back the gray covering exposing the lifeless corpses
beneath. His father’s skull was stapled back together with what looked like
industrial grade steel and his mother’s torso was sewn shut from her midsection
neck, mimicking the look of a zipper. Both with the same frozen looks they
Roman closed his eyes tight and could hear the air blow out of his nose in
“I brought mommy and daddy along to help me prove a point, Roman.
see, the world is full of great injustices, like the ones that killed them. Like
ones that killed my wife and son. The problem is that it seems I haven’t gotten
through to you quite yet. Either you’re part of the solution or you’re part of
problem. Either you’re trying to stop the injustices of the world, or you are
Johnson looked at Roman’s parents on the couch and sucked on his cigar
this time savoring every ounce of the smoke. He squinted through the fog in
of his face and replaced the gray tarp over the corpses. Johnson threw the
half-smoked cigar to the floor and stomped it a second later with the heel of
He walked over to Roman, leaned over the young man and smiled. The
presence of the agent’s torso and shoulders covered Roman with a shadow,
blocking out nay light from the lamp on the stand next to his door. Roman’s
blurred and burned from a drop of sweat from his own forehead.
Johnson’s smile vanished now as he was right in Roman’s face, spit flying
teeth gnashing. “Don’t you see? You have a power to stop evil in the world.
prevent things like this from happening.” Johnson nodded to the couch. “But
instead of that you run and hide like a coward, uncaring or unwilling to help.
to change all that. You will become an agent and fight for the freedom of
who can’t fight for themselves, or everything and everyone around you will
Johnson’s voice quieted to a pleasant tone, like that of father to his child.
“And oh yes, I know about your new friends. Your cafeteria buddy that thinks
the best thing since sliced bread and the oh-so beautiful blond that you can’t
to stick your humper handle into. They’ll be the first to go.”
tried to cry out, but his lips didn’t move.
Johnson stepped back, calming completely to the demeanor Roman had
in their days at Bravo. “Besides, you saw the Jesup File. Whether it was on
purpose or not is immaterial. You saw it. In fact every bit of it is probably
in that computer brain of yours. You can’t be allowed to walk the streets
that knowledge, Roman. You can’t be on the loose with information about
something so powerful. You haven’t told them about it, have you?”
tried to shake his head no, but it was useless.
“I didn’t think so,” Johnson said as if he heard the answer in Roman’s head.
What an awful concept. I know we’ve touched on it before in our
conversations. What a dilemma you’re in. Time, which is supposed to heal all
things. But in your case it never lets you forget—it can’t fast-forward quickly
through your life to wash away the past. You’re still right there in Iowa,
standing on the porch holding that smoking shotgun, aren’t you? On the flip side
coin time is running too fast. Every day you spend here with your friends
be your last. But you can’t slow it down, can you? It just picks up
momentum like that train you jumped from. It’s burning you from both ends,
laughing at you.”
Roman shut his eyes. A lone tear escaped down his cheek. His self-pity
stopped short by commotion on the front porch. There were several knocks on
“You in there, Roman?” Tony asked.
“Is everything all right?” Heather’s voice was worried.
Johnson pulled the Kimber from the holster inside his suit coat.
“It seems time is not done playing tricks on you, my friend. What are the
chances of your friends showing up at this exact instance? The sad part of the
and the end of the story mind you, is that when you fail to answer they’re
to turn the knob and walk right into the room. All because when you got
you failed to realize what was on the other side of your own door. It’s not
you know. I hit you with the dart before you got a chance.”
Johnson gripped the gun with both hands, bent his knees slightly and aimed
“You’re either with us or against us, Roman. Last chance.”
Roman’s will seemed to overtake the effects of the paralyzing agent in his
stream. His lips began to move. I’ll
I’ll go with you.
What were yells
head came out only in puffs of gibberish.
“If you can’t decide, I’ll have to decide for you.”
The door opened.
The silenced shots of the Kimber flicked through the air.
Roman willed his head finally to turn, just in time to see the blood from the
of Tony’s head splatter the lampshade and send a crimson cast through the
Heather stood alone now in the doorway, paralyzed as well, not from the
in a dart, but from fear.
Johnson aimed at her and pulled the trigger.
An instant before the bullet tore through her, Roman’s power of speech
returned enough for him to shout.
It was too late; Heather’s body lay sprawled in the doorway, her legs on the
her once-blonde hair spread out on the living room carpet.
A 1989 Caprice Classic sat parked in the back lot of the Tavern. The car
paintless, primed in gray, with sand marks in several areas around its base and
as evidence of the freshly removed rust. A few scattered cars littered the
parking lot but the busy time had passed, and with it the random foot traffic
its way into the watering hole.
Bobby Dukes sat in the passenger seat of the Caprice and smoked yet
another cigarette. His eyes were fixed on the back door of the Tavern. Sensing
down to the butt, he pulled another white stick from the top of his ear, poked
his mouth without seeming to open his lips, and lit it from the glowing end.
fingers worked on their own, trained by repetition, not needing to see to
perform the task. He took his attention off the door briefly to peek at his
pulled the collar of his black leather coat up around his neck, cold even though
back window was steamed up.
Boochie Anderson sat in the driver’s seat with sweat dripping down the
of his face. The perspiration almost seemed to flow from the tattoo on his
head—a green image that looked like the wild branches of a thorn bush
stretching out in every direction. His huge stomach pressed against the steering
and his lungs pulled hard for oxygen as he struggled to reach for a
handkerchief in his back pocket. He grabbed the steering wheel with his free
leveraging himself to pick his wide bottom off the car seat. After finally
sides of his face, Boochie let out a horrid mucous-filled sigh, a sound that
have come after an average-sized person had been running wind sprints. A
more deep breaths and his air recovered. He reached for the console and
flipped off the heat.
Bobby crossed his arms in front of himself trying to stay warm, but never
his concentration on the back of the brick building. The ash from his cigarette
crumbled to his lap.
“He’s late,” Bobby said keeping his mouth closed tight like a ventriloquist.
“Which one?” Boochie replied.
“Johnny the Killer.”
“He’ll be here.” Boochie’s gaze drifted away, discovering a king-sized
package of Kit-Kats snuggled between the dash and the windshield. The candy
somehow eluded the black hole between his lips for the last day and a half.
“Can you turn the fuckin’ heat back on? Christ. It’s twenty degrees out.
body’s not used to this cold yet. Not even December and it’s freezing. I swear
first chance I get I’m goin’ to Miami.”
Boochie picked up the Kit-Kats, noticing the softness of the once-hard
“Hey, you think these would still be all right to eat? The heater melted
“Since when do ya discriminate between solid and liquid type food? Just
the goddamn heat back on.”
Boochie flicked the heat back on, his pierced tongue licking the dark mushy
chocolate from its wrapper. Boochie’s face could have set off any metal detector
a mile radius—not only did metal occupy his tongue—but his top lip was
pierced in several places, and his eye lids, his chin, and both ears dawned an
silver. Boochie wiped his mouth after consuming the melted chocolate, paying
careful attention to the rings that decorated his face.
A silver Corvette entered the parking lot and pulled up next to Bobby
side of the Chevy. Johnny the Killer rolled down the window.
“You’re late,” Bobby said.
“I had a couple last minute sales. Sorry.”
Bobby reached in his coat pocket, producing a thick wad of money folded
half and held together by a rubber band. He tossed it through both windows
“Not a bad week kid. Freddy likes your progress. Keep up the good
“Is that it?” Johnny said trying to imagine how much money he was
holding without actually counting it.
“No, that’s not it kid. The Flower wants to make sure you’re on the up and
he wants you to hang around and help us with a little problem we got here.”
“Yeah kid, a fuckin’ problem. Like this guy sitting in the Tavern. He owes
Flower some jack.”
The back door of the Tavern opened and out came the last patron of the
wheeling himself down the newly constructed handicapped ramp.
“That’s our man.”
Johnny and Bobby exited their cars. Boochie followed at a snail’s pace,
several times with no success to pull his pants up over his barrel gut. The
the wheelchair was at his van, putting the key in his door, but was stopped
short of unlocking it.
“Joe. How’s it goin’ Joe?”
Joe swallowed hard, eyes big. Johnny had seen that look on freshmen at
high school. But this was an instance he did not welcome the sight.
“Look Bobby,” Joe blurted. “I told Freddy I’d have the money by
Monday. He knows I’m good for it.”
“Being good for it ain’t the problem,” Boochie Anderson said, still winded
the short walk.
“No that ain’t the problem,” said Bobby. “The problem is you’re late. Two
late. Monday makes you five days late. You’re a fuckin’ computer
programmer or some shit aren’t you? And you don’t have the fuckin’ money?”
“Software designer. I design interactive CD-ROMs for kids.”
looked down at the ground and shook his head, wishing himself
“You hear that Boochie?” Bobby asked.
“I hear it.”
“Mr. Computer Man wants sympathy ’cause he makes kids happy. Boo
hoo. Guess what Joe? We’re fresh out of sympathy. But I will make you
deal. If you can walk to that light pole and back we’ll forget the whole thing.”
man in the wheel chair looked down at his abnormally short legs and
his head. “Bobby please. You know I can’t.”
“Boochie,” Bobby said lighting another cigarette.
Boochie grabbed the limp man out of the chair and held him so his stubs
touched the ground.
“Now walk cock sucker,” Bobby said.
Boochie let go and Joe fell to the ground like a normal person faints,
catching himself with his hands against the gravel parking lot. Joe began to
with his arms.
“That don’t look like walkin’ to me Joe. Does it to you Boochie?’
“Take care of him, Johnny.”
Johnny stood still.
“I said beat his ass Johnny. This guy might not be able to use his legs but
ain’t a fuckin’ thing wrong with his head. In fact he uses his head all the time
on football. Lost twelve large last week alone. You shouldn’t feel sorry for
asshole. Nobody’s holding a gun to his head making him bet.”
Johnny walked over and stopped just short of the man’s head.
“Go ahead Johnny,” Boochie encouraged.
Johnny looked at Boochie and then at Bobby. Then at the man.
“I can’t do it Bobby.”
Bobby took the cigarette out of his mouth, and brushed Johnny off to the
“Let me show you how it’s done kid.”
An onslaught of kicks ensued, blood splattered over the gravel and Bobby’s
At the end of it the crippled man picked one of his teeth out of the rocks,
begged for his life. Bobby pulled the gun out of the back of his jeans and
the man’s head up. He shoved the gun in Joe’s mouth and pulled back the
“Come Monday Joe, there ain’t gonna be no walkin’ contests.”
that Bobby let the man’s head fall back into the gravel. He turned and
at Johnny. “It’s alright kid. Nobody can do it the first time. It’ll come
eventually. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Johnny followed Boochie and Bobby to the vehicles, looking back at the
who lay almost lifeless on the ground. Johnny’s legs were jello and his
stomach rested in his throat. Johnny exited the parking lot behind them, but
were out of sight he drove the Corvette back to the Tavern lot and helped Joe
into his van.
Joe refused an ambulance.
The scream itself jolted Roman up into a sitting position. His sheets were
and sweat ran down his face like he had been trapped in a coffin for hours.
thought for sure his heart would beat out of his chest in another couple of
Adrenaline filled his body and made the tips of his fingers and toes tingle.
took a full swing but hit nothing except air.
For five years Roman had never slept more than two hours at time. At
he was still waiting for his eyes to close only to find that the sun was up and
awaited him. As a young child he had problems with sleep as well, but in
days a quick read from part of a story usually eased him into sleep.
Sometimes a powerful mind was a curse as much as it was a blessing. The
insomnia intensified after his parent’s death, of course, a mixture of grief,
the coming of age of a super-charged mind that evidently had no off-switch.
sleeplessness began to let up when he got to Collingston. A new start.
normal life. Roman found himself at first sleeping for three hours and then four
at a time. And when he started spending time with Heather it even became
hours. The last two nights he’d found himself waking only because of the
clock. An event that Roman had thought would never happen in his entire
But now this nightmare barged in at a time in his life that was probably the
happiest, stirring up old feelings and injecting fresh fear into his thoughts of
future. Roman closed his eyes and tried to wish the dream away, only to open his
five minutes later. Was it really a nightmare keeping him from rest? He was
eighteen years old, mommy shouldn’t have to pat his tummy and give him a drink
him to be able to go back to sleep. There’s always truth in dreams though.
had read books on the subject of course, and believed—as many
believed—that dreams are just buried feelings coming to the surface. Was it
Johnson threatening him and killing Heather and Tony? Or was every
character in his dream either some manifestation of himself, or a feeling hidden
somewhere in his head. Was it really cowardliness that kept him from joining the
Roman knew it wasn’t, but maybe somewhere deep inside part of him did
to use his abilities to help people. Would Agent Johnson really kill his
friends given the chance? Only if it kept him from his objective of obtaining
It wasn’t a nightmare at all, more like a blast of reality. He was putting
in danger by being here, by loving them. It wasn’t just about him anymore.
thought made the hairs on his neck stand up. He looked at the picture of
Heather on the stand next to his bed, and then at the baseball cards covering
of his living room.
One of the cards caught his eye. The one he could never make it through
day without looking at. The one he kept right above the headboard of his bed.
a very limited series and yet not worth a penny to a serious card collector. It
been given out at a minor league ballpark some thirty years ago, to the first
fans in attendance. The player on the card was a catcher named Henry
Roman pulled the card from the wall and looked at like it was the first time
seen it. The picture was taken a month before his career-ending collision at
plate. His father had never seemed angry at his misfortune, never had a
problem talking about baseball, or recalling old stories about his teammates.
“Doesn’t it bother you? Being so close to the show and having it taken
because some guy mauled you over at the plate,” Roman recalled asking him
they played catch.
“Things happen for a reason, son. I could’ve rehabbed and gotten back in
game if I really wanted. But I got a better offer—your mother and you.”
happen for a reason.
Roman wasn’t completely sold on this theory. All too often it seemed that
happened for no reason, or even worse, they happened to spite you. Before
turning on his side Roman flipped his pillow, searching for a cooler comfort,
something that would lull him back to sleep. Instead, the pillow only kept his
eye-level with the picture next to his bed. Sleep eluded him, because of the
“Babe Ruth was the best ball player there was or will ever be. End of
story,” Sam Peterman said chewing a mouthful of his chicken sandwich.
“You’re off your fuckin’ rocker,” Pick Bryant started. “The only thing
Ruth could do for a current major league ball club is drive the shuttle bus
the hotel to the airport, and only then if he was sober.”
Here we go. This argument had happened at least once a year at our lunch
for the duration of our incarceration. Nobody ever won the argument; I guess
why it kept popping up from time to time. It was Wednesday, the day before
Thanksgiving and the first real break from school. Students were ready to let
the books aside, and relax. But the anticipation of freedom also caused a few
tempers to flare, probably because that Wednesday seemed to stretch into
endlessness, almost as if God was playing a cruel trick on us. Sam and Pick
currently going at each other was a perfect example.
“I’m going to say one more thing to shut you up once and for all, Bryant,”
Peterman flared up again. “The Babe hit 714 home runs in his career, 60 in one
season. Led the American League in home runs eight times, led RBI’s 6 times, led
slugging percentage 13 times, and basically built the game on his back.”
“He swung a 45- inch bat,” Pick responded.
“So what?” Sam countered.
“Do you see anybody swinging a bat that long today? Hell no you don’t.
know why? Because nobody would ever hit the ball swingin’ a tree trunk like
Ruth got away with it because they didn’t throw as hard as they do now.
assholes out there pitching two ends of a double-header in some cases.
couldn’t do that if they threw as hard as they do today. Their goddamn arms
fall off. Plus those first two statistics you mentioned have both been
broken. The 60 home runs in one season is a joke now. Just like that fat ass
Sam stood up red-faced and grabbed Pick by the collar of his shirt. “That’s
little pencil dick.” Sam raised his fist.
“Whoa. Whoa. Fellas. Can you hear yourselves?” I said. “You’re about
fight over a guy that’s been dead since before your dads were born. You think
really worth it?”
Peterman released Pick’s shirt and sat back down. “My bad Pick.”
“No problem buddy, but I still think...”
“Pick,” I interrupted.
“Shut the fuck up.”
Roman showed up at the end of the conversation, bypassing his usual seat
to Heather and sitting between me and Brunno. Heather was aware of it right
away—all women have the super power of sensing bad karma. Roman sat down,
worried only about the fruit on his tray, and didn’t seem to have that spark
inspired the rest of us. His eyes were red and brown stubble covered his
Heather shot me a glance as if I could read the janitor’s mind.
“You look like shit,” I said, expecting at least a grin.
nodded. “I didn’t sleep well.”
“You missed a good argument between Peterman and Bryant. One thinks
Ruth was Jesus and the other thinks his picture is next to ‘degenerate’ in the
Roman didn’t acknowledge.
I shrugged my shoulders at Heather.
She began to speak, confident that she could talk to Roman. “Do you want
come over to the house for Thanksgiving dinner? My parents said you could.”
“I’ve got plans.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Heather shot back.
“Nothing. I’m just tired.”
Heather let it drop against her better judgment. She watched as Roman ate
lunch, knowing there was something more to it. Tired didn’t make him sit
the table from her. Tired didn’t make her invisible. After watching for
several minutes Heather left the table without a goodbye.
Women always read more into shit than is really necessary. I mean give
guy a break, he’s tired. He’s entitled—more than anybody probably—to have
day or two. That’s the difference between guys and chicks. I could give a
ass if Roman wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels down the hallways. I don’t
care if he’s not his charming self every once in awhile. He didn’t owe me
apologies. Let the man be. But with women, with Heather, I had a feeling
was going to be explaining himself for awhile, apologizing his ass off, and
wouldn’t stop until Heather was satisfied. See that’s the thing, “Sorry” is not
enough. You’ve got to go through the whole “why you’re sorry” part as well.
Roman helped Brunno with some of his business math homework.
Business math is a fancy name for “math for dumb asses” at Collingston High. At
I made it to Algebra. A smile came to my face watching Brunno try to
comprehend the explanations from a guy that was light years ahead of him
intelligence-wise. It was like a cockroach trying to understand Einstein.
My thoughts drifted toward the evening’s events. As I probably mentioned
earlier, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the biggest night of the year at
Tavern. They would take the table and chairs out, and still it was impossible to
one end of the bar to the other on account of the crowd. That was the one
of the year we couldn’t have our regular game in the back room. Don’t get
wrong; there was still a game, but Pick’s dad was running it. The Tavern ran
own blackjack table, and Pick dealt. The poor suckers would stand in line to get
at the table unknowingly begging to be kicked in the nuts. It was a perfect
situation for Pick: he didn’t have to put up his own money, but he still got a
percentage of the house winnings. I felt a plan coming to the surface as I
write down numbers and then answers in Brunno’s notebook. He wrote the
numbers just for Brunno’s benefit; the answers were already there, flashing in
Roman’s head like numbers on a computer screen. Blackjack—the only game that
enlightened player has a mathematical edge over the house in. And I had a
calculator sitting right in front of me.
I grabbed Roman as the bell rang, before he could leave the table. “Whatta
doin’ tonight? You gotta work?”
“How about comin’ down to the Tavern with me and helping me out with
something? I know the Tavern isn’t really your scene but I could really use ya.”
“I don’t know, Tony. I was planning on catching up on some reading.”
“Take a night off for God’s sakes. Last time I checked, the pages of those
don’t change if not read in a certain amount of time. Don’t you ever just
to have some fun?”
fun to me.”
“Look, what I’ve got in store for ya is mental work, so don’t worry about
able to rest that brain of yours. Besides you know if ya stay home Heather’ll
your doorstep before ya get through your first book. And then you’ll be
twenty questions all night.”
“I don’t know. Won’t there be a big crowd there? I can’t stand the
smoke.” Roman paused analyzing even this simple situation.
My only hope was to play the friendship card. “Look I know this isn’t
your scene. I wouldn’t even ask if I didn’t really need your help. If you
absolutely hate it, I’ll never ask you to go back there again.”
Roman gave a sigh. “Fine. What do you have in mind?”
I put my hand on his shoulder as we walked up the stairs. “You ever
counted cards before?”
Since there was no school on Friday, Mr. Buttworst’s sixth hour Calculus
was having their extra credit day in advance. The bearded teacher had
resigned himself to the fact that he was the second-smartest person in the room.
Roman graded papers during the class. He sat at Mr. Buttworst’s desk with
pen in hand, marking not only that class’s papers but every class’s of Mr.
Buttworst’s, speeding though the students’ problems with the same velocity as
he read books. The answer key sat on the desk off to the side, unneeded and
The bell rang, the last bell of the day, releasing the inmates out into the
for their extended weekend furloughs of eating, drinking, and partying.
would go with freedom before them and savor every minute, forgetting their
troubles and deadlines and prison guards, and live to the minute, until that
into Dreadful Monday.
Roman sat in the empty room, still working on the last of Buttworst’s
papers, not noticing the mass exodus, and not running for the doors as his peers
His mind was ultra-focused in another world called mathematics, and that
did not unlock from its focus easily.
Mr. Buttworst poured another cup of coffee from his thermos, looking over
Roman’s shoulder at the papers on the desk. As many times as he encountered it,
Buttworst could never get over the speed of Roman’s grading, twice as fast as
“Forget the rest of those, I’ll do them over the weekend,” Mr. Buttworst
“Are you sure? I’ve only got fifth hour left.”
“I’m sure. Go and enjoy yourself this weekend.” Buttworst threw the
ungraded papers into his brief case and clicked the latches shut. “Say, what do
planned for the holiday? Are you going with Tony or to Heather’s?”
“Actually I’m going across the street to my neighbor’s house. He doesn’t
any family around so...” Roman stopped short, cut off by the picture of Mr.
Buttworst’s wife and daughter staring back at him from atop the desk, and
the teacher was getting at. “...What are your plans?”
“Ah, I don’t know. Just another Thursday for me really. I know I’ll do
hunting in the morning but other than that? There’s football on. I’ll throw a
deer steaks on the grill, drink a few beers.”
Roman grabbed his backpack off the floor and followed Mr. Buttworst into
hallway. Not until the teacher locked the door did Roman realize the emptiness
hallways. Only ten minutes had passed and the school was deserted by
teachers and students alike.
“It’s always like this on Thanksgiving,” Buttworst said, sensing Roman’s
surprise. “First break of the year is always a long time coming. Have a good
The two started in opposite directions down the hall. Roman stopped on
third step and turned back to him. “Mr. Buttworst? How much of that venison
“Enough to last a year. Why?” Buttworst said, stopping to face the janitor.
“I don’t know. It seems like the three us of might have a better time
enjoying each other’s company. That is if you don’t mind....”
“Two o’clock, my place. All you need is your appetites.”
changed directions, and started on the same route out of the
building as the pot-bellied teacher, even though it was a longer route for him.
“I’ve got to warn you, Mr. Buttworst, my buddy Carl is a little on the eccentric
“A friend of yours is a friend of mine Roman. Besides I’ve lived long
that not much of anything surprises me these days.” Mr. Buttworst put his
Roman’s shoulder as they descended the stairs. “I owe you anyway, for
grading the papers. How pissed off do you think the rest of these teachers would
they knew I hadn’t graded a single homework assignment in a month?”
With all of its threats and glimmers of sunshine of certain days, the few
stubborn leaves that refused to let go of their branches, and people out walking
evenings, your occasional football being thrown around in the backyard—the
of seasons had failed to conquer. But now, on this night, there was only one
in charge, one force to reckoned with. He was an old grouchy man, rocking
and forth on a rickety rotten chair, with a white beard down to the floor and
sympathy for even the most righteous of souls, indiscriminate with his wrath.
last name was Winter.
The sky was clear, every star in its grip accounted for. The same as it
on hot summer nights; the same as it looked on fall evenings by the lake.
somehow it was different. It wasn’t the contents of the heavens that had
changed, but what lay beneath them. Now there were frozen ponds and streams.
could be seen from every exhaust on the street. People wore earmuffs and
stocking caps, and blew on their hands even after entering a warm building.
Smokestacks shot their fog into the air in every neighborhood residence. Lights
out early. The absence of young kids’ kickball games was deafening.
There was no snow, not yet anyway. I parked the Pinto on a side street a
half-mile away from the Tavern, the closest I could get. I left my winter coat
and braved the walk without it because I knew there was nowhere to put it once
inside, and I knew that as cold as it was out, it was just that hot in. Roman
flannel, the attire he seemed to wear in all seasons and for all occasions. My
constant warning of how hot it would be in the Tavern did not detour the
I held my hands against my mouth, blowing on them as we walked, trying
lose feeling in my fingertips. Roman walked with his face turned up to the
letting his arms dangle like he was strolling home from school the way I
watched him earlier in the year. Temperature was not high on his list of
Even the cold wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits though. I’d already won
battle. If Roman didn’t win my money back I’d still succeeded in at least
getting him out of the house. I was anxious to see my friend in a new
environment. I was glad he thought enough of me to come.
“You know that counting cards is not a for sure way to win? It only gives
idea of what’s coming next. Even if I know exactly what cards have been
there’s no way of telling what exact card is coming next.”
“I know. I just want you to give it a shot. It’s not like were trying to cheat
someone out of a million dollars or anything. I just want back what I lost to
“How much was that.”
“A hundred and twenty.” I took my hands away from the warm air of my
reached into my pocket, pulled out sixty dollars, and put it in Roman’s
“If you lose that we’re done.”
“And if I don’t lose? Where do you want me stop?”
“Like I said, I’m not greedy.” I pondered the question for a moment. “I
know, if you get up two-twenty or so, that would be good. That makes me a
hundred. Severance pay for losing last time.”
We walked up the ramp to the Tavern’s back door. Amazing how you
couldn’t hear anything. The only barrier between three hundred people, blaring
and us was only a single layer of brick wall.
“What about an ID?” Roman said following behind me.
“Don’t worry. I know everybody in here. It won’t be a problem. You’re
Tony Falcone, man! Have I ever led you astray before?”
Roman didn’t answer.
My face was instantly defrosted as I opened the back door. In a rush of
and noise, I went from chattering teeth to sweat forming on my forehead. I
couldn’t make out one single person in the bar. The floor was wall-to-wall
bodies—a beast with a hundred different heads. Each individual movement set in
a wave through the crowd, a never-ending circle of action and reaction.
The doorman fought for space as well, smashed between the entrance and
restroom line. Only after winning a struggle to maintain his own legroom did I
who it was. It’s amazing that a stream of people hadn’t poured out when I
Larry was a good friend of Pick’s dad. “What’s up, Tony?” he said giving
wink that let me know I was cool.
I started past him, looking for familiar faces and smacking my lips for beer,
then realized I couldn’t feel anybody behind me. Roman was still standing in
doorway, like a kid who was nervous to jump in the water at his first day of
lessons. Larry put his arm in front of my chest halting me before the amoeba
occupying the floor absorbed me.
“Who’s this?” Larry squinted through the smoke and dim lights, sizing
“He’s with me. He’s cool.”
“Yeah, well he doesn’t look cool. He looks twelve. We’ve already got a
of under-agers in here as it is. It’s my ass if something goes bad.”
“I’m tellin’ ya he’s cool.” A line had started to form behind Roman. If he
there much longer the thirsty patrons would trample him. “He doesn’t even
He’s here for the cards. He won’t be a problem. I’m lucky to get three
words out of him myself, and I’m his best friend.”
I swore Larry had one eye peering at me and the other focused on Roman.
“Get him in here then. Let’s go fella you’re holding me up. You’re either
Roman walked in, his reluctant steps seeming never to catch up to mine. I
navigated us through the crowd, dodging beers held above heads, breaking up
conversations, and rubbing up against a few tits in the process, the last being
accident of course.
Roman followed like a running back behind his blocker, careful to avoid
contact with anyone. We made it the length of the bar, just short of making a
the back room when I hit a wall. The person in front of me was walking
opposite direction and I bounced off him like I just hit a trampoline, back
peddling until I was stopped by Roman.
At the turn, it was gridlock, two masses of people trying to go in different
directions, locked at a standstill in a three-foot space between the corner of
the front door. I had an idea of who it was in front of me just by bumping his
If being in good physical shape meant a man had a six-pack for a stomach,
Boochie Anderson had a keg, maybe two. My suspicion was confirmed by the
glimmering off the metal from twenty different places on his face and the
that covered much of his bald head.
Behind the giant marshmallow stood Bobby Dukes and Johnny the Killer.
was an awkward exchange of glances between me and Johnny. Boochie
decided it was time to untie our mangled knot. He pushed me to the side and made
through the crowd with no more effort than just his normal walk.
“Excuse you,” I said after the fat man had passed.
“Whadyou say?” Bobby Dukes asked as he passed on my left.
“I said, enjoy yourself.”
“That’s what I thought,” Bobby said, shifting his glance from me to
He shot a smile at the janitor, something that happened only when bad
thoughts traveled through his head. A smile that had a story behind it, like he
all about the Hollow.
Johnny walked to our left as well, looking away as he came to Roman.
sat in his
chair at the end of the bar, talking to two girls
that seemed to
hanging on his every word. There couldn’t have been a stranger sight. A guy
was probably forty years older than anyone in the bar, sitting on a bar stool
would certainly have his name engraved on it when he finally passed, wearing
lime green army jacket or whatever it was, his ears covered by the flaps on his
talking to two twenty-ish hot bodies that thought he was Socrates himself.
“I’ll go to hell. Got the son of a bitch out the books for one night huh?”
said pointing at Roman.
“It wasn’t easy, let me tell ya. How’s it goin’ anyway?”
looked at the girls’ chests in front of him, took a long drink of his beer,
smiled. “Havin’ a good time. A good night to you fellas as well.”
The pool tables had been removed from the second room, hanging lights
anchored by chains over the tables had been pulled close to the ceiling so no
hit their head, and the usual tables for lounging were absent as well. It
make any difference. This room was worse than the first. Not only were the
jammed into the sardine can—this room was rocking. The girls grinding on
men and on each other. Beer spilled from cups and there was a steady
thumping from people hitting the floor, knocked off their own feet by the
monster they helped to make up. I navigated us through, like Han Solo dodging
ever-changing direction of huge rocks in an asteroid belt.
I saw Sally from the corner of my eye, reminding myself that at some point
the next day, she was one obstacle I couldn’t maneuver around. Way back
Halloween I asked her to go with my family to my grandparents’ house for
Thanksgiving. I knew when the words came out of my mouth I’d regret it. I liked
sure, but December 1st meant it was time to get ready for baseball. And there
time to chase pussy if you were serious about chasing your dream.
Thanksgiving would be more like our last supper I guess. My throat was sand
I needed a beer.
The third room was cooler, there weren’t any bodies gyrating, just eight
players seated for cards and three rows deep of people watching. The damage was
already done however; I was thoroughly soaked from my shirt to my underwear. I
the bottom of my shirt up and wiped the salty sweat dripping from my
forehead into my eyes.
Roman still had his flannel on, standing next to me without a drop of sweat
found, watching the cards on the table. His brain was already focused and
calculating faster than Pick could flip the slick sturdy cards.
Pick had a pile of money behind him already and a permanent smile filled
face, like a kid opening Christmas presents. He wore a towel around his neck,
sipped his beer through a long straw making sure that his hands were occupied
with dealing and collecting. Keep
The last of the six-card deck were dealt. “All right boys, we’re gonna take
minute break so I can drain the dew from the lily.”
The man next to Pick scrounged through the pile of money, separating the
and fives into stacks, and took out the twenties, securing them in a lockbox.
He stood like a secret service agent.
In the back bathroom, I hit my face with a cold splash of water, something
usually only reserved for summers at the ball field. Pick let out a moan
of the urinal next to me as if he were doing something more than peeing.
“Jesus, I feel better. Haven’t took a piss since I got here at five.”
I wiped my face with the brown paper towels and looked in the mirror, still
used to the sight of my eye being normal, half expecting to see the purple or
raccoon circle that’d graced it for the good part of a month.
“I need a favor, Pick.”
“Let me guess, you want me to let you cut in front of everyone waiting for
next seat when somebody gets up.”
“Close, but no. I want you to give that seat to Roman.”
Pick started for the door.
“Aren’t you going to wash your hands? You are dealing. Other people
“Oh, shit yeah. I was just in a hurry to get back in there. So why Swivel?”
turned on the water and looked at me in the reflection in the mirror.
“Roman loves blackjack, but can’t ever play because he’s always got the
janitor’s gig at night. Ya know he’s been through a lot of shit over the last
months. I know it would really make his day if you gave him a seat.”
shook his head back and forth weighing the decision as he grabbed a
towel. “What about you. You not playing or what?”
“I’m broke. You cleaned me out last time.”
Pick smiled, proud of his accomplishment. “Okay. I’ll let him sit. But if
runs out that’s it. I’m not letting him reload. The guys’ll be pissed off enough
let him cut in the first place.”
Sam Peterman hit his sixteen against the dealers six and busted, screwing
table once again, and bankrupting himself. Some people never learn. Adding
insult was the fact the Pick was the dealer and there was more than money
involved, there was the honor of Babe Ruth from earlier that day.
stopped the man trying to grab the seat Sam departed from. “Hold on
That’s not your seat. I’ve had someone waiting longer than anybody.”
Pick motioned for Roman.
“That’s bullshit,” the man said, watching as Roman took the seat.
“No it’s not bullshit. He’s been waiting since six. He just keeps getting
to the back of the line by you fat asses.”
There was rumbling through the crowd but it died off in a matter of
“All right Swivel, whatta ya got?” Pick said winking at Roman.
pulled the three twenties out of the breast pocket of his flannel and
them on the table. “Can you break that first twenty into fives please?”
“Not a problem. Everybody’s got to start somewhere right?”
“Alright gentlemen place your bets, cards coming out.”
On his first five-dollar bet Roman got blackjack.
I left the room to get a beer.
Fate has a strange way of placing you in situations you don’t want to be in.
ended up after taking a twenty-minute swim through two rooms of people,
pressed against the edge of the bar next to none other than Johnny the Killer.
were five bartenders working, but the average wait was still fifteen
minutes for a drink. I ordered two, trading the waiting for the inconvenience of
drinking a warm beer.
“Four shots of Wild Turkey,” Johnny said after I got my beers.
thinking about whiskey made my stomach turn. Too many nights of
and too many days of headaches. Besides that it tastes like shit, like
something that should go in an engine for fuel. In the movies and TV they always
the stuff down like it was sweet, savoring every last drop. It only took me
time drinking it to figure out those actors were drinking tea or diluted pop.
Nothing goes down worse. Nothing.
Johnny slid two of the shots in front of me after he paid the bartender.
“Drink up Tony.” Johnny raised his glass for cheers.
“Fuck that. I’m not shootin’ whiskey.”
“What happened to you man? We used to drink this stuff by the fifth back
day. Remember the time you got all fucked up and my ma found you laying
bushes with puke all over yourself the next morning?”
“You drank it by the fifth. I just took a swig from time to time. And yes I
remember lying in the bushes. That’s exactly why I want no part of it. I
remember a lot of times. A lot of good times.”
“To the good times,” Johnny said, raising his glass once again.
Reluctantly I lifted my own and hit it against the Killer’s. Johnny slammed
and then the other, followed by a huge burp that blew right in my face. The
was unmistakable and made my whole body convulse in a shiver.
“Wild Turkey of all things?”
“It’s not that bad,” the Killer still cringing.
“To good times. I’m such a dumb ass.” I lifted the first shot and poured it
careful not to touch my tongue. Before I took a breath I shot the other. This
splashed around in my mouth a little more, forcing me to taste it. When they
down, I coughed hard and then tried to wash the taste away with beer. It
have been a male thing—the shots I mean—It didn’t take a rocket scientist to
out nothing good ever came from doing them. When your buddy bought
shot, it was an unwritten rule that you took it. Not a good rule but still a
Johnny stood next to me, a dark shadow of his old self. The Ralph Lauren
sweaters and designer jeans traded in for black T-shirts, a complimenting thick
leather coat with numerous silver zippers, and steel-toed boots. For the life of
never seen Johnny in boots until that night. His hair was greased back and
pupils of his eyes danced on their irises like the chromed sphere that bounces
repeatedly between the bumpers in a pinball machine.
There was something else on his jacket too, almost invisible if you weren’t
looking for it, something the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil. I
not to be too obvious. It was pink...a pink... rose. The mark of Freddy
Flowers. It was stitched with care into the thick leather, wanting to be seen,
same time hiding in plain view. A reflection of Freddy’s own psyche—he
the power and respect he had on the street, but he didn’t exactly want to
Me and Johnny stood in silence with our backs pressed against the bar,
watching the scene in front of us. The speakers pounded Marilyn Manson’s
“Beautiful People”, turning normal conversations in the bar into yells between
and ears that were already only inches apart. Individuals with their Jack
Cokes, gin and tonics, and beers, all formed a bigger solitary unit: college
students back for the break, sisters visiting brothers, lovers starting their
watching, dancers and friends. The once dingy green floor of the Tavern
Boochie and Bobby were at the video slot machines that were usually only
steps away but now seemed like a mile. Johnny drank another shot. It went
easy for him now, each drink softening the blow of the next.
“What the hell are you doing?
What’s all this?” I said waving my hand at
Johnny’s new attire. “You look like you’re extra in the movie
“You know how much money I made last week, Tony?”
“Do you know how long you’re going to spend in jail, Johnny?”
“It’ll never happen. The Flower is too tied in, too many of the pigs in his
pocket. He’s squeaky clean.”
squeaky clean. Who do you think goes away when he
pinched. It isn’t gonna be Freddy Flowers. It’ll be you or one of those other
degenerates over there like Bobby Dukes.”
“I’d watch who you are callin’ a degenerate.”
“Look man, I’m not trying to ruffle anybody’s feathers. I’m just shootin’
straight. What about baseball? We need you if we’re going to win state. What
“Fuck all that. Why put myself through it? I’m not going anywhere in
baseball. Maybe some junior college in the middle of a cornfield somewhere. And
graduating? I’m making more money now than I would at any piss poor job in this
“That’s just it. If you decide to go to college, you can go anywhere. You
have to stay here your whole life. I’m just tryin’ to talk to you as a friend.”
“Just like you were being my friend that night in the Hollow.”
“If I remember right, it was you who kicked the shit out of me, not vice
I’m not sure if it was the cold breeze blowing in as the door opened or the
hundred-degree heat escaping, but the temperature dropped for a few seconds, a
welcome relief to the stickiness that covered me. I could see them barely, those
unmistakable long blond curls in the line to get in, stuck in the doorway behind
in front of her. Johnny saw her as well.
“Ask the janitor how my sloppy seconds taste would ya? Remind him
time that he’s down there, it’s the same spot where the best part of me was
Johnny walked off, absorbed by the forest of people.
“I’ll be sure not to tell him that,” I said, talking to myself.
Heather wasn’t a frequenter of bars and I don’t believe she had ever been in
Tavern. She still had that undeniable confidence, walking by Larry like she
the joint. The only action the doorman could muster was his tongue
hanging out of his mouth, like a dog outside without shade in August. Heather
need a fake ID or somebody to get her in. Sure she could have passed for
twenty-five with the make up and all, but Heather had the single greatest
It took our blond friend twenty minutes to go twenty feet, and although she
scanned the crowd looking for Roman, by the time Heather was directly in front
had no idea I was there. I decided to have some fun with her.
whipped around with a shocked look on her face after I pinched her
She gave me a friendly slap on the cheek in return. Heather wore a silky
shirt, the top two buttons of which were undone. She knew how to work the
system, a trait unknowingly passed down to her from Gina I imagine.
heard some commotion in the back room—clapping actually. That was a
sign. It meant the house wasn’t doing well. Hopefully, Roman was reaping
“Is Roman here?”
“Nope haven’t seen him.”
Heather started to dart off from the way she came before I grabbed her arm.
“Damn woman, chill. He’s here. He’s making me some money in the
blackjack room.” I swallowed a couple mouthfuls of beer. “You’re not going to
his balls in there are ya? This isn’t the time or place for it. Like I said he’s
me some money. So if you’re...”
“I get it. I get it. God, are you drunk already?”
“I’m not God. But I may be a little drunk. Come on.”
I took her by the hand, leading her through the other drunks, starting on our
journey of two hundred feet.
Sweating profusely did not describe Pick Bryant accurately enough—sweat
pouring down, one towel already soaked to the point of uselessness. The other
rubbed on his head and hair, with the motion of a cat cleaning its face with its
He picked up a full draft and chugged down the amber liquid like it was
Gatorade. He may have been thirsty, but that wasn’t what was on his mind at the
moment. Pick stared across the table at three evenly stacked skyscrapers of
What used to be the other players’ money, and what was briefly Mr.
Bryant’s money, now sat in front of the lone surviving player at the table. The
mounds sat in front of Roman.
Pick handed his empty glass to his bodyguard—the one that formerly
organized and kept an eye on the house’s money—and in turn the man handed Pick
full draft. Pick drank it in two long swallows.
Roman sat motionless, arms to both sides of the money, still with the
flannel on but without a drop of sweat. I got as close as I could, zigzagging
through the taller crowd until there was nowhere left to zag. I tried to count
stacked in front of my friend. It would’ve been a cinch if it were chips, but
bills were too much, blurring together at their edges. I was starting to wish I
shot the Wild Turkey. Whiskey was a slippery fellow. After getting over
initial bad taste of it, people thought they were home free. But as time passed
brown liquid infected your brain like some kind of sleeper cell. I managed
to refocus and at least see the cards that were lying on the table. The crowd
silent like someone was teeing off at a golf tournament.
Pick had a face card up. Roman had a five. Normally this was cut and
dry—Roman should take a hit. But this wasn’t your everyday blackjack game, and
wasn’t your ordinary player. The deck was down to the last fifteen or so cards
Roman had a fair amount bet.
Pick patted his head with his towel again. “Are you going to hit or what?
real simple, you win this hand and the game’s over cause there’s no fucking
“I understand,” Roman said. “I’m going to stay.”
“Unfucking-beliveable.” Pick flipped his hole card—a five as well. I’ve
seen somebody guess right as many times as you have tonight, Swivel.”
Pick took a card—the queen of clubs.
The crowd burst into applause.
Pick put his head face-down on the table and threw the towel over it. The
blackjack fans poured out of the room on to find some other spectacle.
Heather walked over to Roman. Heather seemed nervous and
didn’t have so much as a glance for her.
“I know we did well, but how well?” I said, rubbing my hands together and
looking at the folded green in front of Roman.
“My dad is going to kill me,” Pick mumbled from underneath his towel.
“Hold on a second,” Roman said to me.
He walked over to Pick, lifted the towel up and whispered something in
Pick jumped out of his seat like he’d been ejected out of an airplane
cockpit, wrapped his arms around Roman, and kissed him on the cheek. Roman
shuffled through the money, counting it as fast as he could flip it, and gave
majority to Pick.
“Hold on. What the hell?” I said, watching Pick run out of the room with
“Relax,” Roman said.
“I don’t want to fuckin’ relax, that’s my money.”
Before Roman could respond a voice came over the speakers. “Attention
Tavern patrons, everyone has two free drinks coming, courtesy of the big winner
blackjack table tonight.”
The bar erupted in cheers—the loudest I’ve ever heard the Tavern.
Roman took the remaining twenties and placed them in my hand. “How
“And how much did you give Pick?”
“I don’t know, eighteen hundred maybe.”
“Eighteen hundred. Are you nuts?”
“No I’m not nuts.” Roman started picking up empty beer bottles and
plastic cups, throwing them into the garbage. I stood there in disbelief. “You
earlier you didn’t want to be greedy. You said you’d be happy with two-twenty.
said that would be enough severance pay for the last time, if I remember
I wanted to rebut, but no words would come to mind. “I need alcohol.”
I put the measly two-twenty in my pocket and left the room.
Roman continued with his trash collecting. Even after a couple hours of
counting cards—something that would make a normal person’s head ache—
could not just stand still. He had to be moving, working, organizing.
Heather saw that she was being ignored and began helping him pick up the
receptacles, following his every move and tracing his path until she was on
heels. Roman literally worked himself into a corner and Heather stood in front
“What did I do to you?” she asked.
Roman lifted the bottle he was holding and shot it at the wastebasket. The
tumbled through the air over Heather’s head and the blackjack table and
in the receptacle, making a loud ting, but not breaking. Roman had run out
garbage to throw away and now there was only Heather.
“You haven’t done anything to me.”
Heather waited for more but there was nothing. “So what, you just ignore
now? You act like you don’t even know me. I think it’s a little rude if nothing
How does something turn from so good to so bad overnight? I think you at
owe me some kind of explanation.”
Heather stared directly at Roman, forcing him to look her in the eyes.
“I think we should stop seeing each other,” he said.
“Stop seeing each other? Is that what you call this? Like some switch you
just turn off?”
Roman brushed her to the side, freeing himself from the corner and from
eyes. He stopped after a couple steps but kept his back to her. “I don’t know
think anymore. I don’t know who I am or where I’m going. It’s not fair to
to drag you through this mess.”
Heather sped in front of him again. “So what? Who does know exactly
they’re going or who they are. I want to be a doctor but that doesn’t mean I
be. Isn’t that what life’s about? Isn’t it about the small moments, the little
pieces, rather than the whole? You said yourself you were happier now than you
been in years. Doesn’t love count for anything?”
Roman focused on the floor, unable to look at the green eyes in front of
He said in a descending voice, “Let me tell you about love. It’s cruel.
Everything I’ve ever come in contact with and cared about is either taken away
me or destroyed. After the smoke clears, the only thing love leaves you with
“So you’re going to go through your whole life not loving anything,
because you’re afraid of losing it. Why even live?”
“I’ve been asking myself that same question for some time now.”
“You’re full of shit, Roman Swivel. You enjoy life more than anybody
ever met. You walk to school every day just to feel the wind in your face.
read fiction by the truckload, which deals with nothing but people’s lives.
care enough about your friend to spend a night at this dump playing a game
don’t even like. You know what this really is about? It’s about you not being
to forgive yourself for what happened to your parents.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
Roman tried to walk off again, but Heather grabbed him, clenching his
flannel in both her fists.
“It wasn’t your fault Roman and never will be. Some mad man broke in
house and because of him your parents are dead. Not because of you.”
Roman broke Heather’s grasp, swiping her arms away with a firm windmill
arm and walked to the doorway. Roman stopped when Heather spoke again.
“Say you don’t love me and I’ll never bother you again.” Heather chewed
ends of her fingernails—a nervous childhood habit she could never shake.
Roman walked through the doorway, disappearing into the crowd without