On the shoulder of a two-lane road through the woods, there was a bar that had once been a garage. After the mechanics left it, for a few years in the seventies, it was just the stripped hulk of a building. A junk crew took down the chrome trim and sold it for smelting. They left the garage a yellow cube at the end of a stained gray concrete lot. The county sold the property at auction in 1980 and got eight thousand dollars for it. The new owner, Richard Laney, put an awning around the building. It was supposed to look like a thatched roof hut. The workers quit halfway through because their checks were always late. Finally Richard left the project undone. He couldn’t change the bank’s mind and that didn’t really matter to him and it didn’t matter to the patrons. The local bikers flocked to the pool table at the ugly oasis on the road and everybody else could go fuck themselves. Richard ran it that way until 1988, when he started blacking out. In the waiting room of the university hospital where he got the news that he was already done, that tumors had spread through his entire body, he took his only son, Roy, for a walk to the drink machine. They walked past the t.v. mounted to the wall, where it was just one short trial after the other. They split a can of fizzly orangeade, and Richard told Roy to take over the bar.
Roy sat in the swivel chair in front of the cash register. He shared his pitcher with a cackling woman in tight jeans. He thought that would be a good way to warm her up for a walk outside with him, but she wouldn’t shut up. He pretended to watch a dart game. A farmhand in overalls and a pressed short-sleeved shirt asked him for a cigarette. Roy got a loose pack from behind the bar and handed it to him. “What’s the matter boss.” “Was working o’er yonder for Mister Henessy. Lost my job for no goddamned reason at all.” “I hear you.” “Not one goddamned reason.” “Sumbitches.” “Son of a bitch.” “There oughta be a way to teach some people a lesson.” “Damn straight.” “Show some people you won’t never take their shit.” In the far corner, a twelve-year-old pool crackerjack propped his left arm on the felt to shoot. He was wearing a cast. The hard elbow made the felt crease. The trucker from California who showed up every few months with a dozen ounces of weed played him. He told the kid, “Watch not to tear it. Or I’ll break your other bones.” The drunk Swedish woman who could never get laid stroked the man’s ass and said “Say it again about the boning.”
Richard Laney died in 1993. Two months later Roy and Belinda got married at the courthouse in Charlotte. Belinda was the statewide roller skating champion in 1981. Roy’d been engaged to her five years.
Random drunk-driving checkpoints started setting up on the county limits. Then Roy spent five hundred dollars for a May Day fish-fry. They didn’t do any advertising for it, though. Roy wasn’t going to be bothered by making photocopies and posters. Belinda thought he would take care of it. Fourteen people showed up. Three weeks later, as they ate catfish from the giant freezer full of filets, she tried to be optimistic.
The death of his father left Roy morose, weak and easily panicked. He was too tired to go out anywhere for weeks, even to the bar. He sat around on his living room couch and let his mind drift like a fog. One night, with sudden urgency, he ran into the yard. He walked down the road to the bar and checked the air conditioners in the back. He remembered one time how he changed the freon tubes. It was like the soldiers who put their rifles together blindfolded. Only Roy didn’t lift a finger and his eyes were open. He took it apart in his head and put it back together. Like solving a Rubik’s cube. He looked at the back of the building and felt invisible.
“It don’t have to be this way forever,” Belinda said. They were at home. She stood in front of the microwave. She picked up a can of low calorie, homestyle cooking spray and fired it at a large iron skillet on the range. The pan sizzled. She clicked the stop button on the microwave, pulled out a thawed piece of fish and threw it in the pan.
Roy sat at the table. It was a wooden picnic table from a kit. Over it, a red and white checked plastic tablecloth spread. Grape jelly stains dotted the cover from breakfast. He twirled a drink mixer, a tiny orange plastic sword, in his fingers and scratched at the spots. “Say again?”
“We gotta get on.”
Roy said nothing.
“It don’t have a mortgage on it. But every month the take home gets littler.”
“What do you mean to say?”
“There ain’t no shame to sellin’ it. We could have a plenty good life.”
Roy tossed the drink mixer onto the table. “What in the hell am I supposed to do without a job?”
“We could take it easy. Buy some trailers. Be landlords. You fixed up this place into a dream castle,” Belinda said.
She flipped the catfish in the pan, leaned and turned around to look at him. She lifted her eyebrow. She was talking about the three-car garage Roy added onto the house. The automatic doors glided up and down like water ballet dancers.
“How long until dinner?” he asked.
“Fifteen or twenty minutes.”
He walked outside and looked around. He had also built the back porch, redone the roof and put plastic siding around the house. He came back into the kitchen and asked her how she’d like a pool.
Their last night as the owners, they had a private party for the regulars. Everyone dressed up. Roy ironed his jeans, polished his boots and buttoned his turquoise Western collar shirt to the top. They ate buffalo wings and played poker until the cards stuck together. They drank until their toes were drunk in their shitkickers. At dawn Roy and Belinda walked down the street to their house with the framed collage of fading snapshots they took in the bar.
A lawyer, an accountant, a real estate agent and a safety inspector examined the plumbing, the roof, the floor, the parking lot, the drainage ditches, the property lines and the ventilation. They walked away with a hundred and fifty thousand dollar quote.
Belinda hung the picture in their den. They hadn’t decided if they wanted to buy trailers or a house to rent. They figured they’d realize which idea was better after they got through all their projects at home. He planned on putting together an above ground pool, a deep one with a six-foot wall around it. She bought three cookbooks to try out all of the recipes. They were going to have their second honeymoon, on time for their first anniversary.
“What the fuck,” Roy muttered to himself. He was in his truck on the way home from buying a case of beer. He revved the engine and honked at the bar, but when one of the workers looked up, Roy kept driving. At home, he sat on the back porch and drank alone. Belinda was out somewhere. She didn’t leave a note. He felt a buzz aready. The lightning bugs came out.
At the bar, workers tore down the awning and hammered together a wide platform for an elevated deck in the parking lot. They struck at the floor and ripped the linoleum off it. They dismantled the mirror taped over with cartoons behind the bar. Lit ceiling fans replaced the low hanging lamps that floated over the pool tables. Finally, the new sign came up by the side of the road. Beside a red silhouette of a palm tree were blue letters in scattered sizes that read “Tropicana.”
A truck came out to their house to deliver the pool kit in a couple of crates. Roy said to leave the boxes in the back yard. They sat diagonally in the grass for weeks. He spent just about every morning watching television without following it. By the time Belinda would prod him to get to work, he’d say it was too hot to work and he’d get started tomorrow. When she called him to eat, he complained that her recipes were fancy, that he couldn’t eat high class food. “Is all you cook for me now food for stuck-up bastards?” he said. “It’s fettucini alfredo. It’s Italian. It ain’t special.” “I-talian. What in the goddamned hell am I supposed to eat if all I ever get is Italian food that ain’t even a goddamned pizza?” She told him to get out of the house. He had to drive out near the highway to find fried chicken and biscuits.
Roy had been drinking since noon. The heat and the constant drone of alcohol gave him a headache. When he saw the melted cheese baked brown across the top of the glass tray filled with lasagna that Belinda brought out of the oven, he said, “Jesus Christ. How many times am I gonna eat one of your experiments?”
“You kissed your mother with that mouth?”
“What? What did you just say?”
“I’ll show you what you deserve,” Belinda said. She put the oven mits back on and picked up the lasagna. She walked into the bathroom and shook the tray into the toilet. Steam rose into her face. She threw the rest into the bathtub. When she hit the latch to flush it, the lasagna clogged the pipes. Rosy water gushed over the rim of the seat. She picked up the plunger and walked back into the kitchen. “Here,” she shouted, holding out the plunger to him. “Take this plunger and eat shit for all I care.”
Roy held a watermelon and a large cutting knife. The fruit lay slashed open. He stared at her while he sucked the seeds from the pink meat. He spit them into his palm and asked, “What did you say I am supposed to do with what?”
“Nothing. Do nothing with it.
That’s all you’re good for, anyway.”
“This was all your idea, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t my idea for you to turn lazier than hell.”
Roy slung the watermelon across the tablecloth. He pushed open the screen door and slammed it behind him. He crossed the yard. Then he heard her scream at him. He turned around. A piece of the watermelon landed at his feet.
Belinda’d got out a blanket she bought at the farmer’s market. She got a real good price on it since it was summertime, and it was handmade. She turned on the a.c., put the fan on high, and set the temperature meter down to fifty eight. She spread the quilt out, and stroked the corners on her bed.
“Godamnit’s fucking chilly.” Roy burst into the bedroom.
“Tryin’ out my blanket. I put the air all the way down to get warm under the blanket,” Belinda held the covers up to welcome him.
“You did what?” Roy went to check the thermostat. “Fifty fucking degrees?” he yelled. “How we gonna pay the sonofabitching power bill?”
“You mean to scold me for using up too much of your hundred and fifty thousand dollars? You can kiss my ass.”
At the foot of the bed, he grinned at her, plucked his boots off and crept around the side of the bed.
Roy took the edge of the quilt and started to lift it up. Belinda swatted it down.
“You’re not sleeping with me you foulmouth.”
“What’re you mad at me for?”
“Go to hell. As long as it’s out of my sight.
You make me sick.”
“You take that back, woman.”
“You’re afraid of your own damn self,” she shouted. “It’s been this way ever since…. It’s the thing keeping us from movin’ on. You cain’t give it up. It’s gone kill you. You got to do something about this. You got to get rid of that place inside of you. You got to do it yourself.”
He stomped out of the room barefoot.
He flicked the cooking spray nozzle. He heard the kissing sound in the dark. He flipped open his bald eagle Zippo. It went out and he had to strike the flint one more time, hold it, work the right hand and not blow out the flame but start slowly, and then a mighty shush of flame and he held it like a flaming sword that’s right in his hand and swooped it down across the vents, watching how it split up and ran through the slits in the metal just like it was cutting straight through it until it caught. It smelled like eggs frying in a pan.
In the woods, he could feel the wet clay soil sucking at his feet. Red feet. He was going to cross over barefoot. He knelt down to watch what he started. It was just glowing now, and then he heard it crackle through the tap of the wet leaves. Now it was all done, and it was going down blazing. It was what he had always wanted to get done with. It was like a jail being torn apart by angels. Before he couldn’t get rid of remembering. And it was her idea. Say fuck it all. When he slipped across the asphalt, his feet didn’t make a sound, just the rush of the air against his clothes.
Daybreak he sat in the yard watching the haze from over the forest. It made a dark gray spot in the clouds moving across. Putting it together reflexively in the dark. Starting in the air conditioners. Vents carried it. Foil stringers. The fire was roiling inside and it took most of the building down in a half hour. Somebody drove by, then another twenty minutes later firemen begin to show up in their own cars. They finally got a truck out there, as the flames burst out of the windows. The blaze was so bright it made the sky pink.
They drove past the blackened frame. One of the walls had collapsed. They could see inside. It looked likes piles of black leaves with smoke rising out of them. They kept driving, not stopping to talk. The police were marking the place off.
At the Baptist church, the point on top of the steeple looked naked in the clearing air. Nobody was there. The pews were empty. He took her hand and they marched up the aisle together. At the foot of the altar, they sat on a red carpet. The edges were stapled to the corners of the steps. He knelt down and took her hand.
“Do you forgive me darlin’?”
She sat down on the step. “You done forgave yourself. You
“I do,” he said.
“I do, too.”
She took her old skates out of the top of the closet, put new laces in she’d bought at the hardware store, and sprayed WD-40 on the wheels. At the counter of the roller skating rink, he rented a pair for himself. They were drinking Cheerwine and having smokes in the parking lot, gliding in circles in the rink, taking one another hand in hand, rotating around each other, moonwalking and winding counterclockwise.
“I want you to turn around and look at me.” The six of tall boys bounced in the water.
“You’re an outlaw.”
A purple float slid over them. He thrashed it into the yard, where it landed standing up against the ladder into the pool. “Look now. Can you see me now?”
Blake Radcliffe is a novelist and an editor at Words Without Borders, wordswithoutborders.org. He lives in Brooklyn.
Blake Radcliffe in an editor at The Other Press. He is at work on a novel and lives in Park Slope.