The TV is mumbling nonsense. Martin sits in his blue recliner clicking aimlessly from channel to channel. One channel has a commercial about double cheese burgers and fries. An ice-filled cup is filled with dark, crackling soda. A woman takes a satisfying drink. A man bites a massive hunk out of the burger. Martin's chin drops and his hand goes to his belly.
Suddenly he is up and in the kitchen. He picks up his wallet to inspect it: a few receipts and now three one-dollar bills. Three dollars. The bank statement might not offer much more. He looks across the counter top items and their sticky note dollar amounts. He quickly estimates how much money he would have if he sold everything for its asking price. The thought of having all that money makes him hopeful. But then, realizing that even selling all of these things and getting full price would barely cover Juliette's Portland trip, the glimmer of hope goes out.
He grabs his keys.
Martin pulls forward and surveys the drive-thru menu. He shuts his eyes and grimaces against the squeal of his brakes.
The intercom crackles to life. A tired teenage boy speaks.
“Welcome to Tuco's Tacos, order whenever you're ready.”
Martin leans his head out the window.
“Hi, yeah, can I get three bean and beef burritos, please? No lettuce and no sour cream.”
“Alright, would you like to try one of our cinnamon crispy twisters?”
The question dribbles out of the speaker like it is being read from a card for the first time, and like the teenager is reading it against his will.
“No, thank you,” Martin says.
“Okay. Then your total will be $1.77.”
“Did you get the no lettuce and no sour cream?” Martin asks.
The voice continues, garbled, and Martin hears the word “window” near the end.
After pulling forward and giving the kid two of the three dollar bills from his wallet, Martin takes the bag. He circles around through the parking lot to a shadowy space under two of the six trees in the lot. The parking space doesn't have any street lights near it, and what light does reach the area is mostly blocked by the trees. It is dark, quiet, and it isn't the first time Martin has parked here.
Martin takes the first burrito out of the bag, the smell of warmed flour tortilla already filling the truck before he even unwraps it. As he peels the wrapping open, more smells emerge. He can smell the beans, black beans pressed into refried bean paste. He can smell the sauce, sharp, lots of tomato to it. Then other smells pass through and he lets out a sigh through his nostrils. He lays the burrito down on his leg and opens one end. He knows what he will find before he sees it.
Lettuce. Shredded green strands stuck together by globs of thick white sour cream. Not only are there the two things he wanted to avoid, but the burrito appears to have more of each item than usual. Martin puts the burrito on the center console and removes the second. It is the same, loaded with extra lettuce and sour cream. The third burrito is a chicken fajita burrito, with lettuce, sour cream, and a corn tortilla. He leans back in the driver's seat, lets his head press into the head rest. He considers walking back into the shop and telling whoever is working the counter his problem. He considers doing so loudly, obnoxiously, tipping over chairs and flipping tables and jamming any spare lettuce he can find up the drive-thru worker's ass. He smiles at the thought before it disappears.
He picks up the first burrito and takes a bite. He spent two of his last three dollars buying burritos that aren't right and he doesn't have the strength to do anything about it. He just takes his frustration out on the two beef burritos, chewing without mercy. The burrito and carrots at lunch and the three burritos here in the parking lot are the only things Martin has eaten today. Ever since he ate the fajita mixture from Javier's restaurant salad bar in second grade, he has tried to avoid cooked peppers and onions. Folded over one of Javier's toilets, he tried to focus on the clear and clean water and not on the stickiness of the toilet seat, or the hints of yellow under the lid and at the edges. He tried not to breathe through his nose. When the first heaves rolled up through his stomach and chest and the first tube of vomit sprayed into the once clean water below, he tried to ignore the spray hitting his face. Three heaves later, his knees sore against the bright red and yellow tile floor, his puke an unnatural, shining yellow illuminated by the intense overhead lights, he swore a silent oath to never eat fajitas, especially the grilled peppers and onions therein, ever again. For decades he kept this promise.
With his taste buds and stomach already offended at his allowance of sour cream and lettuce, the chicken fajita burrito is non-negotiable. His hunger permitted the canceling effects of the amazing beans and beef against the terrible lettuce and sour cream. The health benefits of lettuce and the calories in the sour cream make them more bearable. But as he unwraps the chicken fajita burrito, he doesn't even take a bite. He paid most of his limited money to get nothing he wanted, but he still can't walk back into Tuco's to complain. Instead, he rolls down his driver side window to throw the burrito into a nearby bush.
Before he can throw it, he notices movement across the parking lot. In a lot of hundreds of parking spaces, he is in his truck, another pair of cars far off to his right sit next to each other, and a final car, by itself, is sitting at the curb in front of a closed craft shop. There is someone in the lone car. It was the person's movement that drew Martin's attention. The car is an older Cadillac, long and wide and low to the road. It is a car that men would've driven with pride originally, a symbol of buying power and financial security. It would've showed support for American manufacturing. It is a car old women would come to drive, as the price dropped, due to its size and structural integrity, and the connection to a bygone era. A classic gas-guzzling tank of a car that, when given a few thousand dollars of shining rims and monstrous speakers, with a hydraulic lift system thrown in for extra pimp status, would come to be stereo-typically associated with a different group of people.
The Cadillac is low on its lift, the undercarriage only a few inches from the asphalt. The lights are off, but a nearby street lamp is shining enough light into the driver side window that Martin can see the driver is wearing a blue shirt, possibly a jersey. The driver's forearm appears, shining in the street lamp light, when he reaches for something across the top of his dashboard.
Headlights glare at Martin from the lot entrance. Another car, a black Honda Civic, pulls in and slows to a stop. The headlights go out, but after a few seconds the car moves again, in a long circle, around the edges of the parking lot until it gets to the Cadillac. The car pulls up alongside the Cadillac so both drivers' doors face each other. It stops only briefly, long enough for windows to go down and items to be passed back and forth between the two drivers.
Martin puts the fajita burrito on the center console and stares.
“What the hell?”
Once the items are passed, the Cadillac stays and the second car continues its long circle around the rest of the lot before heading back onto the street and back in the direction from where it came.
The Cadillac driver isn't moving. He is sitting and waiting, and it only takes three minutes for another car to enter the lot and take the same route as the first. Another exchange, this one taking a few seconds longer, and then the car leaves. As it is leaving, Martin catches more movement, a man walking on foot from a side alley between stores. The man stops, looks around the lot, and continues along the sidewalk toward the craft store. He stops and turns, looking in the crafts store window, until the man in the Cadillac rolls down the passenger window and calls out to him. The man looks left and right before stepping to the window. Martin watches the man drop something onto the passenger seat. The man leans into the window and the two exchange a few words. The man takes something jams it deep into his pocket, pockets his other hand, and walks away with his head down. He disappears back into the alley.
Martin looks around. He wonders if he is watching drugs deals take place, if they can be this obvious and out in the open and not draw attention. He turns to look behind him, half expecting to see a SWAT team moving in, rifles and shotguns ready. He listens for approaching sirens, waits to see the flashing of blue and red in the night air.
Over the next twelve minutes, two more exchanges take place. Nothing, no sirens, no lights, no police response of any kind. No one is seeing what Martin is seeing. No one notices. Or if they do notice, they don't care. These men are trading money for illegal drugs and none of them have gone to jail or prison, yet. Martin shakes his head at how easy it is.
Looking at the Cadillac, Martin wonders what else is in the car. He wonders if it has anything like the car from the news, half a million dollars, guns, drugs? Maybe there are bags and bags of cash and cocaine in the trunk. Maybe there is a body.
Martin freezes. He hears the footsteps before he sees who is making them, but there is suddenly a figure on the sidewalk to his left, less than twenty feet from the car. The first thing his eyes see is orange. It's a man, or maybe a teenager, walking along the RiteAid store front and surveying the lot the way the others did. But while the others wore dark, nondescript clothing, things that would be hard to pinpoint by a witness, the teenager is wearing a bright red and black flat-billed hat, baggy red pants, and a fiery orange hoodie. When the kid pulls his sagging pants up, Martin can see bright white shoes. Martin has two quick judgments: the boy is either a gang member or he is trying to be.
Or maybe a clown.
Gang-banging peacock flashes in his mind.
Martin leans over to his glove box. It opens and he fumbles his hand through it looking for a pen and a piece of paper. He looks at the license plate of the Cadillac. He isn't even sure why, and as his pen touches the paper he considers putting it all back in the glove box and driving back to his apartment and sitting in his recliner with his friend Jack Daniels and whatever pacifying TV shows happen to be on tonight.
The peacock approaches the Cadillac's passenger window and leans in. The forearms move across the dashboard again. This exchange is different. The peacock doesn't give anything and doesn't get anything. He steps back, his arms out to his side, asking a question, “What was I supposed to do?” The driver is saying something and the peacock shakes his head. He is embarrassed. He is being scolded. As the boy's head drops slightly, Martin can hear his own father's voice chastising him, questioning his work ethic, his decisions. He shakes his head and forces his eyes back to the license plate. He squints against the darkness. The first three symbols are numbers, he thinks, maybe a six and then an eight. They might both be sixes or they might both be eights. He curls his hands together to form a spyglass and squints a little harder. He closes his left eye. His right eye is stronger. Narrowing the field of vision helps and he is almost certain, six-eight-one, then E-T-N. Oregon plates.
Martin drops the chicken burrito out the window onto the ground. As he does, the peacock leans back into the Cadillac's window. His hands are moving as he talks. He is trying to explain himself, trying to find mercy. He pulls his hand out of the window and points in Martin's direction. Martin stiffens. The boy walked right by him on the sidewalk, maybe he saw Martin and wants to let the driver know. Maybe he thought Martin was a lookout, or a cop.
The Cadillac's headlights go on and Martin jolts upright, kicking his feet into the gas pedal and brake. He grabs for his keys and jams them clumsily into the hard plastic around the truck's ignition. He is still watching the Cadillac when he finds the ignition slot. He stabs the key into the metal but it won't go. He pushes harder, frantically, and hears the Cadillac's engine turn over. The peacock stands up and turns toward Martin. The Cadillac drops into gear and pulls forward.
“Shit,” Martin hisses, “no no no no!” The key still won't go. He finally looks down and realizes he is trying with the wrong key. He switches over to the correct key and jams it in. When he looks up, the Cadillac has covered half the distance between them, now about fifty feet away. Martin turns the key. The engine whines twice before starting, but it is too late. The Cadillac's beams are shining directly into the cab now. Before Martin can throw the truck into reverse, flashing blue and red erupt from his rear view mirrors.
Two police cruisers appear from a nearby side street and screech into the parking lot. The Cadillac makes a hard left and accelerates across the empty parking spots toward the lot's other exit. Martin watches the Cadillac turn and sees an orange and red blur running toward the alley between stores. In the rush, the teenager loses one of his shoes. It tumbles white and shining onto the pavement. The boy turns and starts back to get it, but the cruisers split and one has him framed by its headlights. He leaves the shoe and scrambles back to the alley and disappears. The cruiser mounts the curb and follows the boy into the alley.
The Cadillac fishtails into the street. Oncoming traffic has to slam on their brakes and swerve to avoid colliding head on, and the night air fills with screeching tires and revving engines and the piercing cry of the cruiser's sirens as the chase tears off into the city.
Martin finally moves. He's been rigid, a motionless prey hiding from swirling predators. He breathes out suddenly. He was holding his breath. His body shudders and cries out for air and he gasps to appease it. The adrenaline surge is overwhelming. He can feel his pulse in his eyes, in his hands and feet, and the two burritos with their sour cream-covered lettuce suddenly try to make their way back up from his stomach and reappear. He grabs his mouth, clenches. He can feel the acid bubbling up in the back of his throat. But the rebellion stops. He breathes through his nose in long hisses and the food returns slowly back down into his stomach.
When the Cadillac was rolling toward him, Martin envisioned it drifting slowly by as a shotgun or an Uzi barrel appeared from one of the windows. He imagined flashes of light and deafening booms and bullets and broken glass and twisting metal crashing all around him. But thinking back on that moment, that exact moment when he realized the boy pointed him out and the car was rolling toward him with violent purpose, he froze but he wasn't scared. He didn't know what was going to happen but he wasn't scared. He was curious. He grips the steering wheel and squeezes. There is a deep and low hum rising in his ears. It is a dull bellow from somewhere dark, a charge of readiness rippling through his muscles and senses and mind. He recognizes it. He has felt it before. He was twelve. He and his father had hiked eight miles up from their hunting camp into the higher elevation barren ridges and peaks of the mountains of eastern Oregon. They were following elk, rifles on their backs, in the light snow of late fall. It was Martin's first big hunt. When he and his father sat down on a ridge, Martin was tasked with scoping the ridge one thousand meters across the valley. He had stiffened up then, too. He had held his breath. He had wondered if he would see an elk, and what would happen if he saw one. He peered through the binoculars and knew he would see one. He felt it, the way tonight he'd felt something was going on in the parking lot. Before the elk appeared in his sights, the deep and low hum rose from somewhere in his head. The sizzle touched every part of his body and widened his eyes and opened his ears and then there, behind a long gray boulder, antlers moved. They shook back and forth, and then floated gradually forward until a fully grown bull elk appeared. Off to the right a few meters, two females were following. He whispered to his father what he could see. His own words sounded strange in his ears, as did his father's excited response. The air itself seemed to shift in color and tone, darkening around him at the edges of his vision. Sounds began to warp and merge together into a strange new language Martin had never heard before, and the ridge line and sky pulsed and swayed in color-mixing waves until nothing he had seen or thought he'd seen seemed trustworthy. Later, even when pulling the sled with the elk's hind quarters, it didn't feel real. Even when his lungs burned in the cold mountain air and his legs and back doubled him over with pain, he couldn't stop asking himself if it was all real.
Martin looks around. The parking lot is silent now and all other cars have gone. Martin wonders if there was a Cadillac or a series of drugs deals or a police chase at all. The rush is still there, fading into the many hidden caverns of his awareness, but with so much something and now so much nothing, he wonders if he went home and finished the bottle of Jack and fell asleep in the recliner. He wonders if any of this is real.
He starts the truck. When the headlights click on, the Rite Aid and craft store windows light up, reflecting some of the light back toward Martin and reflecting some onto the sidewalk and asphalt. Martin is suddenly certain he didn't imagine the drug dealers and car chases. In the middle of the sidewalk, now bright and white under the glow of the headlights, is the boy's white shoe. Martin shifts into gear and eases forward along the curb. He watches the lot entrances, checks his rear view mirror, listens for the sound of returning sirens. He hears and sees nothing as he pulls up alongside the white shoe. He knows he should leave it. Even as he is opening his door he knows he should simply drive home and forget about all of this. When he walks over and reaches down for the shoe, he is wondering what he is doing. When he tosses the shoe onto the passenger seat and drives out of the lot, he is still shaking his head, confused at this other person he is watching live through his body. He curses into the rear view mirror. The reflection smiles back.
Martin is back on the jack hammer. The sight of workers entering the trailer and leaving in a fury is commonplace now. The remaining crew members have stopped watching the dramas unfold. It barely warrants a look or a shake of the head.
Jerry walks up as one of the many layoffs of the day makes his way down the trailer stairs and toward the parking lot.
“It's brutal, man. It's goddamned ruthless and brutal.”
Martin nods, but the nod is empty. He is numb to it. Whatever happens, happens.
“Hey man,” Jerry continues, “some of the guys are going to meet at Bailey's tonight, try to drink our troubles away. You interested?”
Martin lays the jack hammer down and takes off his helmet to wipe his brow.
“Eh, I don't know, Jerry. The thought of hanging out in a bar with a bunch of sad guys doesn't sound super appealing.”
“What? You have a date with a dude or something? Come on, Marty, come out with the guys, have a drink, shoot the shit, it will be good for you.”
“Come on, man...”
“No we get it, it's cool. You've been acting super weird lately, weirder than usual and now it all makes sense. You've met someone, a tall, dark, handsome stranger who has shown you a love deeper and more powerful than you ever thought possible.”
“That's,” Martin starts.
“You two are in love and you're getting ready to run away together.”
“That's exactly it,” Martin finishes.
“And tonight is the night you both leave this town and all your troubles behind... tonight is the night you begin your new life together?”
“It's just a few drinks with your friends, Marty. Come have a drink with your friends.”
The man stomping down the stairs from the trailer now is Carl Sims. Martin isn't sure how many years Carl has been with the company, but he knows it is more than ten. Carl was there when it was Bell Construction.
Martin puts his helmet back on.
“I'm really just not feeling up to it.
“Come on, just a few drinks. You're a bachelor now, start acting like one.”
“Dude, don't be a little bitch.”
“First drink is on me.”
“I said no, Jerry, Jesus! You do still understand the word no, right? N... O... It's what adults say when someone asks if they want to do something they don't want to do...”
“Whoa dude, easy...”
“They say no and then normal people say okay and get a clue and move on. Just move on, Jerry. Move on.”
Jerry is caught staring, wondering if Martin is playing some sort of game. He smiles and when Martin doesn't smile back, he has his answer. He starts to say something else. Martin's eyes tell him that wouldn't be a good idea. When the thoughts settle and his options dwindle down to the obvious that there is nothing more to say, he walks away. Martin is reaching the end of some invisible rope. His birthday, his relationships, his job, his life, nothing is as he wants it to be.
When he turns back to his ditch he checks his watch... 3:56. Almost quitting time, almost the survival of another day. A voice calls to Martin from behind him. It is one of the two big men in dark suits.
“Martin Bell?” the man asks, raising his chin toward Martin. When Martin nods the man waves him over. “Please come with me.”
This is it, he's being called in. It's over. When he checked his bank account online, he found thirty-eight dollars left in his account. He still has his single dollar bill in his wallet. Thirty-nine dollars to his name. He's at the end of his money, his job, his caring. He drops the jack hammer and follows the man to the trailer.
Inside the office, a small table has been set up for the site manager and the other two suits Martin saw step out of the big black SUV a few days ago. They each have a stack of files and paperwork laid out before them. The woman, Susan, speaks first.
“Hi, Martin, please have a seat.”
A single chair has been set in front of their head table. It has all the delicacy and care of an all-cement interrogation room. But this is not an interrogation or a trial. This is the sentencing.
Martin looks to the only other man not wearing a suit – his boss, Mark Bowman.
“My dad would be proud of you, Mark. You're doing a bang-up job with the company he built.”
“Just hear us out, Martin, before you get too emotional here. This is a tough time for us, for all of us. There are factors in play here that no one could have predicted. Banks are closing, our lenders are cutting off lines of credit...”
Mark's voice fades in Martin's mind. He hears the deep hum inside his head returning. It drowns out the voices of the panel members almost completely. Susan's mouth moves, then Mark's, then the other man in the suit, then Mark's again. Occasionally, a word slips through and Martin hears things like “leverage” and “personnel” and “retention” and the voices slowly fade back in. He hears “Would that be helpful for you, Martin? Martin?”
“Does that make sense, Martin?” Susan asks.
Martin comes back to full attention.
“Sure. You are firing me.”
“Well, we wanted to give you some time to look at other options and...”
“Oh sorry, you are firing me, but out of respect for me or my dad or something, you want me to keep working for a few more weeks. Is that right?”
“We will really need your help as we finish up this site,” Susan says.
Martin looks at her. He smiles, lets out a single laugh. He holds his stare, straight into her eyes, and waits for her to look away or be quiet.
“Marty... we're trying to help you,” Mark says.
“Help me, well... thank you so much. I feel so... helped. You don't know it but you are actually helping me. This is something I wasn't willing to do myself, but now... here we are. I know a lot of people stormed out of here violently, pissed off, but believe me when I say this... thank you. Thank you all. I look forward to our continued success as we work together toward excellence, with discipline and integrity, as we finish up this site.”
The three shift in their seats, confused. They glance to each other because looking at Martin's awkward, frozen grin and stare is too uncomfortable. He is a prisoner thanking the Warden for his abuse, and it is hard to tell if he is being violently sarcastic or insanely sincere.
“Well...” Susan starts, clearing her throat and stalling with a few “ums” before she continues. “We are... very glad to hear that, Martin. And let me just say that your work ethic and service to this company...”
Martin doesn't keep listening. While Susan continues her empty sentiments, Martin rises from his seat and steps toward the desk. The three flinch slightly and go to get up. One of the large security guards steps forward, ready to grab Martin if he tries anything violent.
Martin doesn't try anything violent. He grabs his paperwork from the desk. He turns without a word. He walks out, away from Susan's comments, away from Mark's calls for him to come back. He walks quietly out into the warm fall air. He walks down the trailer steps past Jerry.
“What did they say?” Jerry asks.
Martin ignores him. Jerry calls after him. Martin hears nothing. He sees only the pavement directly in front of him. He hears only the scream in his own head.
Martin stands in his kitchen. He is surveying his craigslist items. He has a legal pad and he crosses off his heater. He crosses off the “$40” and writes in “$30.” Then he crosses out the “$30.” Then he crosses it out a little more. His pencil scribbles wildly until the number sinks into the shining gray graphite. He keeps scribbling. Even after that part of the paper is thinning and warping, he is still scribbling, harder and faster and more violently, until the pressure is too great. The pencil tip breaks. He stops, motionless. Thirty dollars use to be less than about an hour's worth of work. Thirty dollars used to be nothing. Martin thinks about the number of times he threw away thirty dollars on nothing. He runs through a list of five things quickly, then presses the broken pencil tip back into the paper. He leans into the counter top, presses his hand into the pencil, drives his fingers down with all of his weight. The end of the pencil breaks off and tumbles off the edge of the counter. He joins the rest of the pencil with the notepad and turns, hurling them at the refrigerator. Magnets fall to the floor and the pictures they were holding follow. The pencil plinks to the linoleum and rolls up against the living room carpet. The pad falls on its face with a slap, and the refrigerator's compressor kicks on.
A primal growl rises from Martin's chest. He wants to let it out, wants to open the growl up into a snarl, into a roar, into the cleansing desolation of an angry god. He wants to destroy the world.
He brings it back down. He calms the bubbling magma beneath the volcano once again. This was another tremor. This was the mountain warning the villagers to evacuate, to seek shelter elsewhere. The real eruption is still to come.
Martin drops into his recliner. He hits the remote's power button without putting down his bottle of Jack. A car commercial appears. When the announcer gets to his punchline, about how this car will change the world and save humanity and redefine what it means to be human, Martin takes another drink. His termination papers are crumpled in between his hand and the bottle. He likes feeling the paper as he drinks, likes feeling it slide across the bottle's weirdly shaped neck. The papers crinkle as his grip tightens. He pictures the bottle giving in to his pressure and popping. He imagines it spilling the rest of the whiskey on him while the jagged edges of the bottle's broken neck dive into the flesh of his hands, in between fingers, under skin and tendon and through veins and capillaries and nerves. He imagines the leading edge of glass digging deepest, hitting bone. He will bleed into the paper. He will blot out whatever the ink says now with his own deep crimson story.
He is drinking like a man being forced by his arm and hand to drink, like it's not his arm and not his pain and not his anger and fear. A force is driving the bottle up to his lips and up again. The alcohol is quieting a distant voice that is telling him to stop, that is telling him this isn't the way through to better times. That voice is being smothered under a blanket of broken conversations with Victoria, smothered like their love for each other. He has given in to this other force and he wants to obey. The bottle hits his lips every few seconds, but the drinking isn't making the buzz in his head go away. If anything, the sound is growing. It is spreading through his mind and scratching out all of the unwanted thoughts. But there are so many and the pencil is growing dull. Another pull from the bottle sharpens it a little and the stain spreads. His conversation with Victoria blackens under the alcohol. Thoughts of the money for Jules, the money for rent and for food and for life, all get scribbled over. The dark pencil is carving long furrows in the paper of Martin's mind. It carves out trenches in memories of Jerry and Bruce and the times they shared on the site and in bars and while watching fights. It digs into the loss of dad's company, the end of a lifetime of work. It blackens the image of his mother's body in the hospital bed. It blackens the image of the flowers on her chest in her pale blue dress in that dark brown casket. The alcohol swallows up the outline of her headstone, of Victoria and Jules and Hillary holding hands in the grass beside it.
The bottle hits his lips, bangs against his teeth. He spills some of it down his chin and onto his shirt and sighs the drinker's sigh. The darkness is nearly complete. The black will take him soon, take him into the morning of a new day where he will have to face all of these things again and again.
Before the edges of his vision close in, Hillary's face is there. She holds up her bracelet and smiles. She goes in for a hug and squeezes the air from Martin's chest. She dances away and looks back, tells him not to be sad on his birthday. She holds a fishing rod with a fish on the hook. She dances around a fire and sings to him.
“No,” Martin says, shaking his head.
She climbs into his lap and plays with the scruff on his chin. She falls asleep in his arms.
“No,” he growls.
The dark edges of his vision move in. They bleed into Hillary's smooth white skin, clouding the beauty and pulling her below the surface of the rising waters of Martin's anger. Her hair floats. The water crawls up her neck, up her cheeks to her ears and her chin and wraps itself around her. Martin squeezes the bottle and the growl rises again and Hillary's mouth is gone, then her cheeks and eyes, then her nose. She slips below the surface and Martin can't pull her back.
He roars to his feet, flinging the crossword puzzle from his lap to the wall and down onto the unfinished bookshelf and its pile of random books. He throws the recliner over, breaks the lamp. He spots the TV, spots the commercial and the uselessness of the thing and knows the perfect place for his useless bottle. His arm winds back and he steps into a vicious throw, and the bottle rolls through the air leaving a spray of whiskey splashing behind it. The bottle flips end over end and slams into the wall behind the TV. The bottom end rips through the drywall and the bottle sticks there, its spout leaning out over the TV's many open ports and exposed electrical ingredients. When the whiskey leaks out and into the device, Martin heaves and clenches his fists. When the first smoke tails wave in the hidden breezes of the front speakers, Martin knows what is coming. He let the bottle go hoping for an explosion of glass and fire and destruction. He wanted sparks and flames, wanted to know that the bottle would never again give him whiskey and the TV would never pacify his boredom. But all he got was the thunk of the bottle going through the painted sheet rock. The commercial is still playing, and once the bottle's down turned spout pours enough fluid into the TV's electrical components, a series of crackles and hisses send the screen to black.
The hum in Martin's head peaks. He hears nothing else. He sees nothing but the TV's reflective glass surface warping his features and telling him what a clown he is, what a monster he is. He sees his image, backlit by the kitchen light, warped by the curved glass so he is pinched at the ends of his body and thick in the middle.
Martin steps toward the mocking glass and crouches down. He wraps his hands around the TV's base and bends his legs so he can drive the TV up off of its platform. He positions his hands and drops his chin on the top of the TV. He winces against the weight on his sore back but he doesn't stop until the glass and plastic beast is up at chin level. The lift brings the TV's electrical cord beyond its reach capacity and it pops free from the wall, and in that moment of freedom, Martin lunges forward. His stomach flexes and his chest and shoulders drop, bending him over at the waste and sending the massive TV crashing through the entertainment center. The wood cracks and splinters, the DVD player bursts under the crush, and the thick glass screen shatters. The sound of bursting plastic and glass doesn't have a chance to settle before Martin presses his palms into the wall for balance and begins to stomp. His boot smashes the TV's plastic casing. He feels the wood splinter and crumble, feels the glass shards grind into the floor and fight back against the rubber of his boots. He feels a few shards lodge in the rubber and the thought that they might go through the sole of his boots and into his foot only makes him stomp harder.
Let it come, he thinks. Let it jam into my foot and sever an artery and leave me be.
He rips the whiskey bottle from the wall and slams it down into the carnage. Again, the bottle doesn't break, not until Martin stomps into it. Its shards mix with the TV until the paper label on the neck and the body are twisted and crumpled reminders of what had been.
It is less than a minute before Martin is forcing hot air out through wheezing gasps and stomping through the crushed plastic and wires into the carpet below. He notices the booming sound and the walls shaking and realizes the noise is from him. He peels his hands off the wall and gives one upturned corner of the TV one more obliterating stomp before stepping back to survey what he has done.
Martin rips his keys off of the counter and is out in his truck, slamming the door and cranking it into gear, before the TV stops smoking.
He clicks on the headlights. He ignores the red light telling him to fasten his seat belt. His fingers are tingling and he isn't sure if it's from the whiskey or the rage. He punches the power button on the stereo system, quieting the cackling DJ. He doesn't stop at the four stop signs on his way toward the bar. The two traffic lights are green. Martin dares them to turn red before he gets to them. He wants them to turn red. The roar of the engine is nothing against the roar in his head.
The whiskey is playing with his sense of time and he is still going too fast when he sees the turn into Bailey's Pub. He locks up the brakes and sets the tires screaming against the asphalt. The truck is still sliding when he pulls the wheel to the right, thumping up over the entrance rise and fishtailing into the lot. He nearly clips the back end of a Ford F-150 and a small Nissan. Two people jump back in fear, and then wave their hands at Martin. He can't make out what they yell, but he doesn't care. The tires grab and roll smoothly again and Martin guides the truck into a parking space near the back door of the bar. The sign is illuminated, “Bailey's Pub,” with a small “Open” sigh flashing beneath it. There are enough cars in the lot to tell Martin the place is busy tonight.
It doesn't matter. One person or a hundred people, it doesn't matter. As he walks to the door he sees his online bank statement blinking in his mind again. Thirty-eight dollars. Thirty-eight dollars.
He opens the door.
When he steps inside, before the door can shut, Jerry and Bruce spot him. Jerry waves him over to their table.
“Well look who it is, Mr. quiet psycho,” Jerry says. As the greeting leaves his mouth, he sees Martin's face. He tries to laugh off the psycho part and he slaps Martin on the shoulder and gives it a squeeze. He grins at Martin, and waves his free hand over toward one of the free seats at the table. “I'm glad you came buddy, I was a little worried about you when you left the site.”
“But we knew the free drink offer would be too good to pass up,” Bruce says. His eyes meet Jerry's and as Martin sinks into the booth, they raise their eyebrows at each other.
“Yeah, I knew the offer of a free drink would get you down here,” Jerry echoes.
“Turns out your offer was too good to pass up,” Martin says. The whiskey smell hits Jerry first, hard enough that he has to clear his throat as he sits down.
“So what's the word, Mr. Bell?” Bruce asks, just as Martin's breath hits him. He sees Martin's eyes, dilated and slow in their scanning. He sees Martin's head swaying slightly. Martin isn't usually the one to get wasted with the guys, especially in public. He tries to stop himself from asking his question but it's been ready to come out all evening and he is trying to remember the last time he saw Martin Bell drunk.
“What did they tell you in the office?” he asks.
Jerry chokes on his beer.
“Jesus, Bruce, the man just walked in. Chill out for a second. Marty, whatcha drinking tonight?”
“Something dark and strong,” Martin says.
Jerry lets out a single burst of forced laughter. “Just the way I like my women, Frank? Frank? Can we get a round of whiskey Cokes?” He waves again and calls out his order again. Frank, behind the bar, finally sees him and waves his acknowledgment.
“Oh we are gonna have fun tonight, boys. Martin freakin Bell is out, he looks ready to party, and this place is going to oblige him!”
“You guys get called in yet?” Martin asks.
The question takes the air out of Jerry's deflecting celebration.
“Nope, not yet. As of tonight we are still employed. Like we said, we're the friggin best. There is always room for the best, amen?”
“Amen!” Bruce yells.
Martin shrugs and drinks to that. He won't tell them he's been fired just yet. His quiet reaction after leaving the little corporate trailer powwow could have been a sign that he was angry, that he was frustrated, that he was fired. But he is always quiet. People often ask him if he is mad when he isn't mad, it is a vibe he gives off now. He was quiet but he was calm. He didn't throw anything, break anything, swear or scream or attack anyone, he simply walked to his car and drove away. In the tangled haze of his rage-filled whiskey thoughts, he decides to keep them in the dark a little while longer.
Bruce and Jerry slam their glasses down on the table and growl out the whiskey burn. Martin sets his glass down and sighs. As they slam their glasses down, the bell at the front door rings. Martin and Bruce can see who it is walking in. It is Shawn Mackay, Big Mack, scanning the room. The way the door swings over into the wall next to it, and the way Shawn is swaying from foot to foot, he is either angry or drunk. He looks a little like Martin.
His scanning stops at the bar and he stomps over and joins two other men there. He orders his first drink. He demands it, loudly. Martin watches him and smirks. He isn't the only one looking to retake some measure of power tonight.
“Oh Lord, here we go,” Bruce says.
Jerry turns to look.
“Big Mack,” he says, shaking his head. He turns back to the table. “He doesn't seem to be his normal, cheerful self tonight, does he?”
Martin and Bruce both nod, but Martin's eyes stay on Shawn longer than the others. He watches Shawn demand his drink, watches as his friends try to agree with everything he says and try not to anger him further. He watches as Shawn gulps down the drink and immediately demands another.
Bruce hits his beer again.
“Some guys can't handle doing their job and can't handle losing their job.”
“You ladies behave while I'm gone,” Jerry says, standing and grabbing his crotch, “I gotta take a piss.”
“Hurry back or you'll miss the circle-jerk,” Bruce calls after him.
Martin is still watching Shawn when he asks Bruce, “Hey man, does your wife still work at the DMV?”
“Yep, eleven years and she hasn't killed anyone yet.”
Martin glances sideways. He sees a red Cadillac swerving away from police cars.
“Is she allowed to look up license plates, like... track down a car's owner?”
Bruce puts his drink down. He is confused by the question, a little worried.
“Some guy cut you off on your way to work this morning or something?”
“No, nothing like that, it's just I...” Martin stops, his sober brain poking through. This is not the time to be asking these sorts of questions. He reconsiders and decides he probably shouldn't be drunk and pissed off when he tries to get his friend's wife to break the law for his own personal drug dealer hunt.
“Yeah, you know what?” he starts, “sorry, never mind. That can't be legal. Sorry I asked.”
“Now wait a minute,” Bruce says, putting his hands up. “I didn't say she couldn't do it. I don't really know, actually, but I can ask her. Just who is it we're hunting down, here?”
“No, no, forget it, it's stupid. I don't want to get Sheila in trouble. Forget I brought it up.”
Now Bruce is getting curious.
“Wait a second, wait... now Marty, is this search for... a woman's license plate number and address and maybe, I don't know, phone number, by chance?”
Martin smiles. Bruce offered a perfect alibi. Martin hadn't even considered an alibi, hadn't considered what excuse he was going to use for needing the license plate number looked up before asking the question. He shakes his head at how stupid he is. But Bruce's excuse works, he will take it.
“You saucy minx, you met a girl and didn't even get her number or anything, didn't you? Didn't you?”
“Well, you know, it all happened so fast, she was there and then she was gone. I saw her at Safeway and before I could...”
“Say no more, my friend, say no more.”
“I saw her license plate and it kind of just, stuck in my head, so...”
“She was good enough to get you memorizing license plate numbers? Heh, you got something stuck in your head.”
“Come on man, it's probably nothing. She's probably happily married with three kids and a dog and her husband is a underwear model doctor and she lives in a mansion.”
Bruce finishes off his beer and brings it down to the table like a judge with a gavel.
“It's fate, totally. I get it, dude, I totally get it!” Bruce laughs and slaps Martin on the back. “I love it, I friggin love it! Martin Bell, back on the prowl. Good for you, dude, after the couple of years you've had, good for you. My man, back on the hunt, I love it. Sounds like you're a little out of practice but you'll get it back. Those muscles never go away, it's like riding a bike. We'll solve this mystery. We'll find out who your Cinderella is.”
“You don't think a woman would find it weird, like I'm a stalker? Because I feel like a stalker.”
“Well that's because you are a stalker. All men are stalkers. We track, we hunt, we chase, we subdue. See the prey,” he picks up his whiskey and Coke, “catch the prey. Man shit, hell yeah. But you know what? Chicks dig it. Yeah they friggin dig it, dude, they love being chased. I say chase on, my friend. I'll find out what Sheila can do and let you know.”
“Thanks, man,” Martin says. The hum behind his eyes ebbs for a moment.
Shawn is getting louder. His ranting is spreading throughout the bar. He wants everyone to hear how abused he is, how stupid the people who fired him are. Bruce and Martin tune back in as the ranting grows. Everyone in the bar is tuning in, whether they want to or not.
“They think they're gonna find another man like me?” Shawn yells. He bangs an open hand into his chest two times. “Another badass tough-as-shit guy like me? Yeah good luck, there's no one in this shitty town who can hang with me. No one. No one in the state. Jim, tell me I'm wrong. Tell me I'm wrong, is there anyone who can out work me in this whole gay-ass state?”
Jim Kreuger, Shawn's friend, has stopped trying to shut him up. Jim is nodding and agreeing with everything he says to try to get him to calm down. The other man is Art Delper. Both men are putting hands on Shawn, trying to comfort and quiet him. They are trying to contain the fire. But when they touch him he smacks their hands away. Frank behind the bar has been through this many times. He is taking his time making drinks, and trying to be very cordial in the meantime.
Most faces in the bar have turned downward. Shawn's drunken ranting is destroying all of the conversations, and draining the fun from the dance floor. Smiles are fading, the chatter is gone, and the only two people still dancing are drunker than Shawn is.
There is one slightly happy face in the bar. No one sees it, but Martin is grinning. He is enjoying this. This is what he came for.
Shawn slams his beer bottle into the floor and a woman gasps when it shatters. The other people near the bar move away.
“I guess some people are too damn good. Some work so hard it makes other people look bad. Is it my fault that I'm the best damn employee they ever had?”
Jerry is headed back from the bathrooms. He hasn't been listening to the ranting and raving. He is walking in blind. As he passes the bar, Shawn is punctuating his last ranted sentence by waving his arms to the side. He touches Jerry's arm. He turns.
“Hey, you should probably watch yourself around me tonight, little man. You bump into me again and you might regret it.”
“Whoa, sorry Shawn, I didn't mean to,” Jerry says.
“Yeah you look sorry. You'll be sorry if you touch me again.”
Jerry waves an apologetic hand and continues back toward Martin and Bruce.
“Hey, I heard you still have your job there, Jerry. Is that true, Jerry? You still have your job?”
“So far, man, so far. But tomorrow? Who knows.”
“Yeah, who knows? Who knows? I know. You're gonna keep your job, Jerry, for sure. You know how I know?”
Shawn's friends know what's coming. They try to talk him off the ledge but Shawn isn't listening. This is what he came here for tonight, to release that anger on as many people as possible. He came to spread his pain and he finds his first easy target.
“Must be nice... being a Mexican. Sometimes it pays to be a little darker than the rest of us, hey Jerry?”
Jerry sits back down with Bruce and Martin. He doesn't care, he knows Shawn is drunk and is content to ignore him and let the flames burn themselves out. He's dealt with this most of his life, and he sees Shawn's friends are really moving in to help stop him now. They are making a much stronger effort to guide him toward the door and take him somewhere else.
“Yeah, you know it's true. No company wants to fire minorities. They're scared they'll get sued, scared you'll cry about how racist everyone is. How does that feel, knowing you will keep your job because you're brown?”
Before Jim and Art can get him to the door, Shawn shakes free of their grip. He steps forward, sensing a way into an altercation. Jerry isn't fighting back, but Shawn thinks he can change that if he keeps pushing. This is what Shawn came here for.
But this is also what Martin came here for.
“It's not his fault you got fired,” Martin says.
Shawn's voice had been such a dominant focus of everyone's attention that hearing Martin's voice, low and calm, silences the room. It breaks one tension and quickly replaces it with another. The question vibrates through the room: someone is actually going to engage with this monster? But the surprise that someone is going to stand up and the fear of what Shawn might do are replaced by a different fear. Martin's voice is lower, calmer, but somehow more intimidating than Shawn's loud drunken voice has been. There is a darkness in Martin's voice, in his posture, like the hooded hangman. He is the tiger, quietly crouched behind the squawking baboon.
“What was that?” Shawn asks.
“It's not his fault you got fired,” Martin says again, even calmer. He doesn't even look up from his beer this time.
Shawn steps forward. He waves toward the bar without looking.
“Hey Frank, turn that music off, we all need to hear something.”
“Come on, Shawn, we don't need to...”
“I said turn it off!” Shawn yells. He points and stares until Frank makes his way to the stereo deck. He turns the music down.
“Lower,” Shawn says.
Frank cuts the music completely.
“Better,” Shawn says. He takes a few more steps toward Martin's table.
“Now, what was it you were saying?”
“It's not Jerry's fault you got fired.”
“Is that right?”
“It's not his fault, it's not Frank's fault, it's not any of our faults. So maybe just, dial it down a little bit.”
Shawn relaxes. He straightens up and steps back, turning to the rest of the bar patrons with a smile. His shoulders shrug and a flash of true happiness crosses his face.
“Oh, thank you, not his fault, not your fault, no one's fault, got it. That is very helpful, Martin.”
Shawn has found what he's been looking for. He thinks he has found a vessel for his rage.
“So tell me, helpful little Martin, whose fault is it that I got fired?”
Martin turns in his chair to face Shawn. He looks up, calmly.
“Well, you could blame the market tanking. You could blame Wall Street, or the banks, or the politicians who caused it. You could blame Three Peaks Construction.”
“Oh I do,” Shawn says, “I do blame them, all of them. If they were here with us right now, I would let them know just how I feel.”
“Since they're not here, is any of this helping you feel better?”
Shawn steps closer.
“You know what? It's starting to.”
“Doesn't seem like it's helping much.”
“Well maybe since the bankers and brokers aren't here I can find someone else to feel my pain.”
“If you want to blame someone for your pain, there is really only one person to blame.”
Shawn steps closer, anticipating what is about to be said. He has been waiting all night, waiting for the starter pistol to go off and for someone to challenge him. In his mind, when challenged, fighting back would be necessary. It would be their fault for challenging. The beating he would put on them would be their fault. He didn't think that person would be Martin Bell. He is genuinely surprised at Martin, usually so soft spoken, and so much smaller, for being the guy to force the violence.
The guys around them stop and watch, also anticipating the shit that's about to go down. Marty is calm. He is numb from the alcohol, the helplessness, the shambles of his life. He isn't afraid because he doesn't care anymore. Shawn is just a shitty old TV that is ready to be shattered.
“It's your fault, Shawn. If you'd been worth keeping they would have kept you. If you were the best worker in the state, you'd still have a job. But when they looked at the bottom line and weighed their expenses against your worth, you came up...”
Martin holds up his thumb and forefinger so they measure about an inch apart. He closes one eye and aims the inch measurement at Shawn's head.
There is no stopping Shawn now. His rage overtakes him and he lunges at Martin at full speed. His hands slam into Martin's chest and he grips Martin's shirt while he pushes him backward into a wall. Martin's back slams into the wall with a nasty thud, and then he takes an overhand right to the face, just above his left eyebrow. A cut opens up and Shawn tries to hit him again but Martin goes down to one knee and Shawn's fist hits the wall above Martin's head. This doesn't slow him down and the next punch hits Martin in the back of the head.
Even though he knew what he was doing, the attack was still surprising. Martin's arms go up to his face at first, purely on instinct, but all they do is block his own vision of Shawn's punches. When the second punch lands on the back of his head, an old system reboots. Other than working as an assistant coach for a few years with the high school wrestling team, it has been a long time since Martin Bell shot a double leg take down, but here in the bar, down on one knee, the wrestler returns. He grabs Shawn's legs and tries to lift him. Shawn is six-foot three and over two hundred and thirty pounds. He now has a good layer of fat covering the systems of muscle and tendon that tie his body together, but he is still massive and strong. Even with the two solid punches to the head and the big size disadvantage, Martin's powerful lifting breaks Shawn's balance for a moment and he has to stop punching to regain it. He gets his balance back and continues dropping right hands. They are rabid, winging punches to the side of the body and down onto Martin's back.
Martin plants both feet and dives his shoulder and head into Shawn's hip. He winces slightly at the punches, but uses the opportunity to bull rush Shawn backwards into the edge of the bar, knocking over a few stools and sending the patrons scattering. Everyone moves outward to clear a central space for the men to fight. No one steps in to break it up. In this bar, everyone knows the drill.
After taking a few more blows to his ribs and back, Martin lets go of Shawn's legs. He arches his back and drives his head straight up and the back of his head crashes into Shawn's face with a crunch. Shawn grabs his nose and stumbles backward. He is stunned, but only for a moment, and once he sees his own blood on his fingertips, he charges back in, fists ready. This time, his fists will destroy Martin's face. This time, he aims to finish it. But this time, Martin is ready for the first punch. He ducks down under it, and as the punch scatters the air above Martin's head, Martin's shoulder slams into Shawn's pelvis. Shawn sprawls out over Martin's back, giving Martin the leverage he needs to get underneath Shawn and elevate him. He grabs handfuls of Shawn's pants and scoops both of Shawn's legs up. As Martin stands, Shawn folds around his back and shoulders and hangs in the air. Martin lifts him over his shoulder, and before Shawn can break free, he is hurtling through space toward a far corner of the bar. Martin runs him forward and slings him down, slamming him over a table and onto the bar's rough hardwood floors.
The crash silences the room. The patrons screaming and pleading with the men to stop cut out completely. There is no music playing, no one is talking, and a few horrified gasps rise and fall in the seconds before and after the slam. Then everyone and everything is quiet.
Except for Martin's fists.
The slam obviously knocked Shawn unconscious. He is motionless, except for the sudden jerking of his head from side to side as Martin mounts him and begins punching him in the face. Left hand, then right hand, then left, then right. After a few devastating punches, Martin clutches Shawn's throat with his left hand and punches only with his right. It is the only sound in the bar, the hard, cold smack of knuckles on flesh and bone. Martin's face is frozen in disconnected disgust. He get's at least five nasty shots in before Bruce and Jerry move in to pull him away. Martin has a cut over his eye brow from Shawn's first punch. It is bleeding down his cheek and jaw onto his neck and shirt, but he is on his feet, his chest heaving and his breaths hissing through his nose. Shawn is unconscious with his eyes open. He is missing a few teeth and has gashes over his nose and both eyebrows. His breathing is forced and raspy, and he sprays blood with each labored exhale.
The crowd is silenced by their change of mind. At first, hearing Martin speak up against a drunk and belligerent Shawn made them happy. It made them hopeful that maybe Martin would stop Shawn's tirade, one way or another. Then they felt fear for Martin as the two squared off and faced each other. Martin, being so much shorter and generally smaller, shouldn't have stood a chance. Their fears were realized when it seemed that Shawn would make quick work of Martin. Then Martin surprised them again by holding his own, and again by taking the fight back to Shawn. But no one was ready for the body slam. No one was ready for the sound of Shawn's head hitting the floor, or of his ribs breaking. No one was ready for the sounds he made. While they were processing the violence of the slam, they realized they were even less prepared for the violent snapping of Shawn's head from side to side as each new punch connected. The sprays of blood, the moans from Shawn, and maybe most disturbing, Martin's cold face and silent rage. He didn't make a sound, didn't growl or yell, just stared down at his opponent.
When Bruce and Jerry pulled Martin away, and the crowd could see, unobstructed, the extent of the beating, they couldn't help but feel sorry for Shawn. Martin had broken him. The way he was lying on the floor, one arm twitching at his side and the other waving limply in the air for help, the crowd couldn't hate him anymore. He looked as though Martin had ruined him, like he would never be the same. Any cheering, out loud or internal, stopped.
When the police arrive, Martin doesn't resist the handcuffs. He doesn't see the eyes of the people watching the cops take him away. He doesn't see the fear in their eyes, the confusion at this suddenly revealed secret violence, this hidden rage they'd never known. When the officer pushes Martin's head down into the cruiser and closes the door, Jerry and Bruce are there yelling words at him. They are asking him if they should call someone, a lawyer, or maybe Victoria?
Martin doesn't hear them. The hum in his head is gone. Now, he hears nothing.
He writes his name on a form an officer slides over to him during processing. He stands for his mug shots, follows the directions. He quietly rubs his wrists when they remove his handcuffs and close him into the holding cell with five other guys. He doesn't hear the first questions from the other inmates. When they see he isn't going to respond to their questions, they return to their seats and go back to their conversations.
Martin's eyes aren't seeing shapes. Everything is a smear mixed in with everything else around it. His life has been soaked and smudged together. Nothing is singular now, it has all fallen to his anger. In the blur, across the cell, is a bright red and orange spot. He can't make out the form, but the colors bring him back to earlier in the night. Red and orange? The thought creeps in, around the chaos and rage. Didn't I see red and orange earlier tonight?
The red and orange smudge shifts. It swirls at the corners and becomes a little clearer.
Red and orange clothes on a person. Martin is nearly there. The figure shifts again and he can see dyed blonde hair. He knows that isn't what he saw before, he saw a big red and black hat. The police must have taken his hat. When he looks down the memory twists into sudden, sharp focus. The figure is wearing a bright white shoe. One bright white shoe and one dirty white sock.
It is the kid from the parking lot, the gangster peacock. The kid is looking down at his hands as they twist and writhe in his lap. The bright white shoe is tapping manically on the cement.
It's the drug dealer's friend from Tuco's.
Martin looks down at his own hands. They are bruised and bloody. There is a gash on his knuckle, probably from Shawn's teeth. He reaches up to his swollen eyebrow. He brings the finger tips back into view and they are wet with fresh blood.
Bruised, bloody, his body coming down from the adrenaline high into the aching pains across his face and arms and legs, Martin sits back against the cement wall of the holding cell and smiles.