“Which one was it?” asked the tall one again. He took up almost the whole room, standing there looking down at the still man on the little cot-like bed. He was difficult to see: the lamp lay dark beside the overturned bed-side table, and the bare bulb down the hallway pushed only a half-shadow through the door. “Son of a bitch must have clocked him hard. He’s out cold.”
“He’s breathing?” asked the heavy-set one from just outside the doorway.
“I’m not an idiot, Wade. I’d have told you if he wasn’t breathing.”
“I think it was that little fellow, kept his hat on, didn’t talk to anybody,” said Wade. “I saw them walk back here together. He left in a hurry, too, I saw.”
“What ‘little fellow’?” asked the tall one.
“There’s no ‘little fellow’. That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” said the one with the bloody nose. He started to stand up from his stool in the hall but Wade put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him down.
“Will you hold your horses for a minute, Al, Jesus. What did I say? Keep your head back, and pinch here. It won’t stop otherwise.” Al put his head back and pinched with one hand. With the other he wiped his handkerchief pointlessly over the blood caked under his nostrils and in the tiny cracks in the skin around his mouth. “Where’s the goddamn light in here,” Wade said, pushing his hand around along the wall inside the door. “He was about maybe five-foot-six, grey pinstripe, wash-and-wear. Kind of lingered near the taps.”
“Blue-collar type? Loud tie?”
“Yes,” said Wade, smoothing his own painted tie against his chest. “I think that’s him. We’ll find out more when George comes to. Where’s the light in here? Have you checked his eyes?”
“I can see from here, he still has his eyes.”
“I mean are they rolled up in his head. Is he having a seizure or is he just out.”
“Here’s the water,” said the barman coming down the hall. Al, eyes on the ceiling and bloody handkerchief to his nose, had to turn his knees to let him pass. The barman handed the glass to Wade, who passed it to the tall one, who looked at it with discomfort.
“What do I do? I throw it on him?”
“No, no. For Christ’s sake, you wet his lips.”
“Wet his lips. Don’t you know anything? Here, move.” Some of the water spilled on the tall one’s shoes as Wade took the glass back from him.
“Hey, take it easy.”
“Didn’t they teach you this in basic training? Just get out of my way, now, and will somebody find the goddamn light.” He took the handkerchief from his breast pocket and dipped a corner in the glass of water, then rubbed the wet corner across the lips of the man on the bed.
“We couldn’t all be medics, Wade,” said the tall one. “Somebody had to shoot at things from time to time during the war.” Al started to chuckle but then said, “Ow,” and stopped.
“I don’t need to call the cops, do I? Or an ambulance?” the barman asked. The others responded with an expanding chorus of non-words, and Al rose anxiously. Wade waved his handkerchief in the air. “Okay,” said the barman. “I was just asking. Jesus. Guy’s dead for all I know.” He tucked his towel into his apron and left, and Al sat back down with a sigh.
“I should have asked him to bring a shot and a beer, too,” Al said.
“I think he’s coming around,” said the tall one. “Who was it?” he asked loudly. “Was it that little guy?”
“I’m telling you,” said Al, but Wade said, “Jesus, will everyone be quiet, I can’t hear myself think with all this yacking. And will someone find the goddamn light already, please, for the love of God? I need to check his eyes.”
“Ah, nuts,” said Al.
The tall one hitched up his pants legs and squatted down beside the lamp and the toppled bed-side table. “Just unplugged,” he said.
Wade slid part of a thigh onto the bed beside the unconscious man, who was now groaning. The light came on and the tall one righted the table and set the lamp there. Wade unclipped the shade and for a second they all shut their eyes.
“Don’t move,” said Wade. “Now, look at me. Can you tell me your name?”
“You know my name.”
“I’m not the one we’re worried about. Now: can you tell me your name?”
“My name is George, goddamn it. What the hell happened?”
“Well, it looks like you hit your noggin pretty hard – or someone hit it for you. We were sort of hoping you could tell us. Look at my finger, and don’t move you head. That’s fine, yes. Good.”
“Okay if I sit up?”
“I think so, but take it slowly.”
George inched backwards until his shoulders rested on the wall behind him. “Say, is that water? Can I drink that?” he asked about the glass Wade still held in his left hand.
“Sure, here you go. Do you remember what happened?”
“Listen, I can tell you what happened,” said Al in the hallway.
“Quiet, please. I want to know if he’s concussed. Now let him talk.”
“There was a guy, I hadn’t seen him before.”
“There was no guy,” muttered Al.
“Small fellow?” asked Wade. “Standing by the taps?”
“Right. He didn’t talk to anyone except to order his drink, I don’t think. Just sort of hung back, like. I figured it was his first time, that he hadn’t ever been, you know, with anyone before, or at least not around here, since I didn’t recognize him. So I started to talk to him, but it was loud out there and he didn’t seem to have much to say. Which is fine most of the time, you know, but I felt as if he wasn’t just being quiet, though, I guess, but like he was avoiding talking, if that makes sense. Then when he talked he was really hoarse, and I guess I figured that was why. Sounded like he had laryngitis, practically. Like it hurt.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing, really, just that he was fine, thanks, and no, he wasn’t from out of town, and so on. Things like that.”
“I felt sort of sorry for him, I guess. I said, are you nervous, and he didn’t say anything, just looked at me. His face never changed the whole time, now that I think of it: he looked at me just like that the whole time. Anyway I said, ‘You’re new here, right?’ And he said, ‘I guess.’ So I thought maybe he was just nervous.”
“Sure. I remember how nervous I was first time I came here,” said Wade.
“Well, that’s just what I’m saying,” said George. “I thought he was nervous.”
“Wade’s still nervous,” said Al.
“The hell with that rough shit,” said the tall one. “Slum it, and you see what happens.”
“Just shut the hell up,” said Wade.
“Amen,” said Al.
“Anyhow, I said something like, ‘Let’s go talk in the back’ or something, and he said that would be fine, and we came back here. His face really didn’t change at all. He didn’t look scared or not scared, or excited or not excited. He just had this look, like he was thinking about something else the whole time. Even when he slugged Al.”
“When was that?”
“When did he clock you?” asked the tall one.
“Just let him talk,” said Wade.
“I know,” said the tall one. “You need to read his brainwaves with your pinkie, find out if he has meningitis.”
“All right, one thing at a time, smart guy. So you came back here. And then?” asked Wade.
“So, I figured the crowd made him jumpy, and then that voice of his, you could barely hear him out there by the bar. When we got back here, he didn’t want to touch, and I thought again that he was nervous, so I started asking him about himself, but he didn’t really want to talk, either, or at least not about anything I could think of. After I tried a few things, where are you from and so on, he started acting like my talking was a problem, like he was impatient to get to an idea, and I was slowing him down, and then he kept sort of hinting at something. I got the impression he didn’t want to be here.”
“So why didn’t he leave?”
George looked up at the tall one and shook his head gently. “No, I mean he wanted us not to be here, me and him. I think he wanted me to go back to his place with him, although he wouldn’t come right out and ask. Just said stuff about it being more comfortable at his apartment, having a bottle there of something fancy. Port? Something awful like that. I said we could start here, get to know each other a bit, then maybe some other time.”
“That’s when he started to get really weird. He started talking something about his wife or his girl.”
“That’s rich,” called Al.
“Just keep your head back, Al, please. And pinch.”
“I told him that wasn’t my thing, couples, you know. Why get a woman involved – no offence, Al.”
“None taken, I’m sure,” said Al from the hallway.
“Well, that’s not how it was with the little guy. He got really bent out of shape over it. Put his hat back on, talked about his fancy booze again, and at some point he said something like, ‘I thought you people would do anything,’ something like that. I guess that’s about when Al came in, right before he said that or right after, I don’t know exactly. I had left the door open so the guy didn’t feel pressured or trapped or anything, like to say all we’re going to do is talk if that’s what he wants. So Al comes right in and sits down next to him and the guy looks him over and says something weird to him. He says something like, ‘I only need one.’”
“One what?” asked Wade.
“Right. Well, that’s just what I asked him. He said, ‘I only need one,’ and I asked him: ‘One what?’ and he said, ‘One of you people.’ Or maybe, now I remember – I think he said, ‘One of you pansies.’ Something like that, I don’t know.”
“Perverts,” called Al. “‘I only need one of you perverts.’”
“What it was, pansies or perverts, I saw it was trouble. I was done by then. I figured, ‘To hell with this son of a bitch,’ and I was about to get up to leave, but Al sort of went for the guy. I guess he was trying to be, I don’t know… provocative or something?”
“I was drunk,” said Al from the hallway. “I’m not anymore, though, damn it all. And there is no guy.”
“Al’s talking crazy,” said the tall one. “You want to see if he’s concussed, too?” With his wet handkerchief, Wade waved at him to be quiet. “Let him go on,” Wade said.
“So anyway, Al grabbed for the guy’s cock, and bang: without waiting even a second, he punched Al right in the face. I almost laughed it was so sudden. Well, of course, I didn’t know what in the hell to do, but I guess I stood up, and that’s all I remember.”
“That’s enough for me,” said the tall one. “George is okay. If we leave now and start looking with the cars, maybe we can find the guy.”
“There’s no guy,” said Al.
“Jesus, Al’s delirious. Did you check his eyes, too, while you were at it?”
“I’m not delirious. Will you listen?”
“Al, give me a break. If there’s no guy, who socked you? Sit down, please, and pinch your head back like Wade told you. Jesus.”
“That’s what I’m telling you,” said Al, standing in the doorway. “Who socked me. There isn’t any guy. I didn’t know at first, but then I was really grabbing for it. How many of you are married? Exactly. Well, you ‘confirmed bachelors’ can trust me when I tell you, this wasn’t just a little man with a tiny prick. I put my hand right down in there, really felt around, and there was nothing at all. Get it now?”
“What? What in the hell are you talking about?” asked the tall one. He turned to Wade with a gesture like a hurt child appealing to its mother. “What the hell is he talking about?”
“I think,” said Wade, standing up, “that he’s saying that tonight for a change we had the unusual honor here of a woman’s company. Right?”
“Right.” said Al. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say this whole time. There is no little guy. There’s a broad, who’s dressed like a man. A very strong goddamn broad in an ugly goddamn tie.” He sneezed suddenly, and a chunk of half-dried blood burst from his left nostril, held to his face by a long finger of red mucus.
“Oh, Jesus, Al,” said Wade, smoothing his tie, “Put your head back. And pinch, I told you to pinch.”
“Ah, hell,” said Al, looking at his shirt. “It’s too late anyway. This is ruined. Janice’ll never get that out. It was new, too. I’m not ever going to hear the end of it.”
Tadzio Koelb teaches creative writing at Rutgers. Morasses, his translation of Andre Gide's Paludes, appeared in 2015.