This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Breathing Trouble.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This was one of the first stories I wrote after moving from Nebraska to North Carolina, and it’s my way of making sense out of both worlds… It was first published at The Pedestal Magazine in December 2000.
1. A change of pace is definitely welcome
Five bottles of dollar-fifty beer had come and gone in front of me when I saw her glide into the bar and sit at a booth behind me. Above the bar, the Budweiser horses circled around and around, pulling their plastic wagons of beer into infinity. In my peripheral vision, she moved like time passing, smooth and solitary, wearing a white T-shirt tucked into faded jeans. I limited my sidelong glance at her to exactly one second. Then I went back to my increasingly difficult job of watching the plastic workhorses turn in their lighted globe.
Just taking another breath became hard labor on muggy nights like tonight, and it had been a long, desolate night already. It was eleven o’clock.
I tried to count to sixty, slowly, but my eyes betrayed me, and I looked at her again. With her face hidden in the shadow of the high-backed wooden booth, she sat alone, sipping from a bottle of Bud Light that Bob had carried to her. I’d never had service that quick. She rested her long, thin arms on the table, elbows jutting out at sharp angles, and she slowly unraveled the label from her beer bottle. When she tilted her head in my direction, tossing her long brown hair back out of her eyes, I turned back to the bar as subtly as possible, covered with the prickly feeling that she was looking right at me. I wondered if she was waiting for someone to take her out of this bar, out of this town, out of this state. Since I’d dropped out of school at Wayne State College and took the job at the video store, the only beauty I’d seen in this one-horse Nebraska town was pasted on movie boxes.
At the other end of the bar, grunting and scraping, Bob struggled to slide a keg over the warped floorboards. His pants hung low, and his rear end half-mooned me. Sitting at my stool, a spring poking me in the leg, I realized I could either look at Bob’s ass the rest of the night just, or I could go over and try to lose myself in the best eyes I’d ever glanced at. With the careful toes-down-first walk of a drunk trying to appear sober, I passed by her booth, slanting my eyes towards her and holding my breath. Her lightly-tanned hands continued to tear at the label on her beer bottle.
Then I was past her, the dimly-lit booths and tables blurring like the countryside seen from a speeding car. I dropped my bottle into the garbage can with a hollow clank, and she looked across the room at me. My feet somehow moved towards her table, and the words were out before I could restart my stalled brain.
“You know, you don’t have to take it out on that bottle,” I heard my voice say. “It never did anything to you, and here you are picking it to death.”
“Excuse me?” she asked, with the slightest trace of a Southern accent. A tiny crinkle formed at the corner of those incredible eyes. They were light blue, like the middle of the sky right when the sun hits the Nebraska horizon.
“I was just saying, what are you, I mean, you’re really picking the hell out of that label.”
“Oh!” she said with a half-laugh that made my grin widen even more. “I’m just thinking, is all.”
I backed up a step. “Well, if you’d rather be alone…”
“No. Don’t go. I could use someone to talk to. Sit down, sit down.” She pronounced the last word with two syllables. “You’re not imposing at all,” she said, her eyes bright. “My name’s Andie.”
“Nice to meet you, Andie. I had a neighbor with the same name, but he was a guy and he used to beat me up all the time.” I dropped into the empty seat across from her and kept on talking. “So what brings you into this fine establishment on such a miserably hot summer night?”
“Excuse me again,” Andie said with a smile that was all tanned cheeks and red lips that framed straight white teeth. I was staring. “I think that before you start asking all these questions,” she said, “I should know your name.”
I liked this girl’s style. Leaning close to the table, I raised my right eyebrow in my best Nicholson and muttered, “Call me Joe.” I held my hand out for her to shake. A frayed piece of Bud Light label stuck to her hand as she reached out for my hand. We shook, and the label was passed from her to me.
“Nice to meet you, Joe.”
I let go of her hand slowly, my arm tingling from her touch. My mouth felt dry and my tongue wouldn’t work. Yes, I definitely liked this girl’s style.
* * * * *
2. Getting to know you and your mania
I waved at Bob behind the bar, and he carried over two more beers with only the slightest of smirks. He set the bottles down on the table with a smartass thunk. Andie jumped and grabbed for her purse, then smiled sheepishly at me.
I grinned and passed Bob a crumpled five. “Keep the change, big guy.” It was my last cash until next Friday. Bob hitched up his pants and went back to the keg behind the bar.
“I like his tattoo,” Andie said in a stage whisper that the guys shooting eight-ball in the corner heard.
With some effort, I recalled Bob’s forearm, where a golden hawk was scarred and painted into his skin, ready to attack some unseen prey somewhere around his fingers. I thought it made him look like a redneck, but I respected his willingness to risk infection for the sake of his art. Personally, I believed that only idiots got tattoos.
“Yeah, I have to agree with you. I’ve got a couple tattoos myself, but I’d have to remove some clothing to show them to you, and I really don’t know you well enough to do that. Some of the illustrations are first-rate, trust me.”
“Gosh, Joe, you are so mysterious,” Andie said. “I guess I need to get to know you better, huh?”
“Heh,” I said, not sure where this was going. Someone fed quarters into the jukebox, each coin rattling down the slot as it was swallowed into the guts of the machine and was belched back out as Johnny Cash.
“So how do I get to know you better, Joe the Stranger?”
My arms went up in the air as if it was all too hard to figure out. “Well, I’m a pretty complex kind of guy.” My hands dropped to the scratched table. “I’ve been all over this country — California, Chicago, Florida, D.C., even New York City for a week. And you know what? Everywhere I go, people fill me full of hope and wonder one second, and then in the next second they fill me with hate and contempt.” I paused for breath.
“Go on.” Andie leaned over the table to listen to my suddenly-crafted diatribe, the gentle curve of her breasts pushing against her loose cotton shirt. Her eyes were dark as she moved into the light. My words began to flow out of me like a burst dam whose pressure had been building for over a year.
“I wish I could understand how people can be so stupid, so ignorant of other people’s feelings and emotions. People used to care, but now,” I looked down at the table and the stripped bottles of beer in front of us, “now it’s as if we’re reverting back to animals, just trying to survive, to fill our bellies and be the best in the jungle. It’s like…”
I lost my train of thought when Andie started laughing. I thought her laugh would be much nicer than the harsh sound coming out of her mouth. People turned to look.
“Andie,” I began. Sweat trickled down one side of my chest, like a spider crawling down my skin. Tammy Wynette took up where Johnny Cash left off.
“That was good, Joe. That was a very, very nice speech. I’d clap, but I’ve got to finish my beer, and so do you.”
“Hmmm?” I asked, but she wouldn’t say anything more. I didn’t have room in my stomach for the rest of my beer, but I took a deep breath and finished it anyway.
Andie set her empty bottle on the table and locked her gaze on me. “Let’s go,” she said in a clear voice.
I didn’t have any response to that, so I pulled myself out of the booth and followed her to the door, shaking my head back and forth like a wet dog, trying to get rid of the pounding in my head. Just before I walked out of the bar, I stopped short and looked at the Budweiser horses. I’d expected to see them still circling over and over, almost reaching their destination and the end of their pull, but the display was off and the horses, just like me, weren’t moving.
* * * **