J. Andrew Goss is a writer and artist living in the wine country of the Missouri River Hills. His work has appeared in Lunaris Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and Entropy Squared.
Flickers and Remains
The solitary neon sign perched above Carmike’s Tavern had been plagued with a constant flicker since the day it was hung for the grand opening. Through the magic of small town boredom, the light’s erratic glow transcended its crippled status and was now considered a hallmark of the riverfront district. This town made a habit of celebrating its brokenness. Elliot sat at his usual corner table at the far end of the bar where he could watch the light flicker and pulse as the remaining gas inside struggled to fulfill its purpose. There was something about the light’s longevity that comforted him. Despite being in a perennially defective state, Mike, the bartender and proprietor of Carmike’s, still refused to replace it—mostly due to his miserly nature. Still, Elliot took comfort in knowing something so broken could still be useful.
Carmike’s sat mostly empty, which was typical. Aside from Elliot and Mike, the only other person was a man in a dark leather jacket that Elliot didn’t recognize but he knew the type. The man had come in, chest puffed out, didn’t look around much, and sat down at the bar and began ordering shots of tequila. The stranger downed three rounds in rapid succession, and after each he regarded the bartender with a “My dude, thank you,” in a slick, southern drawl. After a few minutes for the drinks to take effect, the man began to look around and take stock of the bar as if he hadn’t remembered where he was. Elliot tugged on the bill of his camo hat, settling it low over his eyes, and prayed that the man wouldn’t notice him. A lofty prayer since they were the only two patrons in the bar.
Elliot felt the familiar itch on his left foot but made no motion to scratch it. Instead, he downed the rest of his Jameson and hoped the burn would dull the sensation. Some itches just can’t be scratched. His arm fell back onto the table heavier than intended, causing the empty glass to clank loud enough that the man in the leather jacket turned to look at him. The house phone rang behind the bar and the man turned back around at the noise. Mike answered the line and kept glancing over at Elliot. The man strained to hear what was being said but Mike’s whispers were drown out by the Allman Brother’s streaming out of the old, worn out jukebox.
Mike grabbed the bottle of Jameson from the rack and maneuvered his way around the bar toward Elliot and filled his glass again. The entire event came together like a well-rehearsed skit, nobody saying a word. Elliot simply tipped his hat without saying a word and Mike returned to the bar.
The man at the bar raised his eyebrows and chuckled obnoxiously at the scene. He glanced at Mike, then to Elliot, and back at Mike again. The bartender shook his head at the man, as if to say “Just leave him be” but the man rose from his barstool and made a straight line for Elliot.
“That’s some trick. I am the only one at the bar and I’ve got to practically beg for my drinks,” the man said in a thick, Texas accent. “The name’s Boyd.” The man stuck his giant paw out and let it hang in the air.
Elliot drew in a slow and steady breath, wishing the man would just leave. Even in a dive bar in a one-stoplight town, he couldn’t find peace. “Elliot,” he replied but made no motion to shake the man’s hand. After a long moment, the man retracted his hand and took the seat across from Elliot.
“I’m guessing you’re a local, right? What time do the ladies start showing up?” A smile covered the man’s face but Elliot could see through it. It was the kind of smile a man makes when he is intentionally trying to disarm you.
“Look, I just want to drink alone. So if you don’t mind…” Elliot let the sentence hang in the air as he motioned toward the bar where the man had been sitting.
“Woman problems, huh?” the man said. “Hell, I got ‘em too. Don’t we all. So what is it? Wife not putting out? Found out about a side piece or something?”
Elliot slid his right hand under the table and into the side cargo pocket of his pants, where it rested on the handle of an old .38 service pistol. The steel was cold and the revolver’s wooden grips were worn smooth from the decades that his father had carried it on duty. The pistol and a two-packs-a-day habit were the only things that he inherited from his father.
Elliot ran his thumb along the ridge of the grip, as if the weapon were some worry stone that could calm his nerves. The action proved effective as Elliot felt the heat that flushed through his body dissipate. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and placed it back on his drink.
“I don’t want to be rude but I would like to drink alone,” Elliot managed in a calm, even tone. Again, he gestured for the man to leave but he knew where this was heading.
“You don’t mean to be rude? First, you don’t shake my hand. Then you refuse to even…” The man stopped talking when Elliot stood from the table. With a slight waver to his first step, Elliot started toward the restroom without acknowledging the man. “What’s that guy’s problem?” Elliot could hear the man say over his shoulder.
Once in the bathroom, Elliot splashed cold water up onto his face and stared at the mirror but a grey-yellow film blurred and distorted the glass. He knew his reflection was there but his mind was in another world. He began to feel the hot, humid desert air beating down on him. He could sense the weight of his helmet and vest as he leaned against the sink. The faint, familiar noises started to come back to him and just as quickly they vanished. The dull shadows and blurs of his involuntary reverie were replaced by the bathroom’s cold blue lights and bleach smell.
A large hand on his shoulder spun him around. In a fluid motion, Elliot raised the revolver and leveled it at the man in the leather jacket. Elliot could see the man say something, his mouth moving imperceptibly fast, but his ears were ringing too much to hear the man’s plea. Elliot looked beyond the man to a picture on the wall of a man in a plaid shirt and tan cargo pants. The man in the picture was sporting a long beard and holding a revolver straight out in front of him. The man looked so familiar, he thought.
Elliot stepped out of the front door of Carmike’s and under the electric crackle of the pulsating sign. Clouds hung still in the air and reduced the moon’s light to a dull glow and the air smelled of rain. Elliot looked left in the direction of his house, only a half hour walk away. Teresa, his wife, was sure to be up pacing the living room. He hadn’t told her he was stopping for a quick drink. He turned right and started up the sidewalk, every step taking him farther than where he should be. He walked with an unnatural limp to his step not uncommon of patrons leaving the tavern at this hour. Anyone watching would think he was just another drunk stumbling out into the night. Except the streets were empty, with no one to see Elliot stagger along.
Elliot made it ten paces out the door and turned to look at the flickering sign. That damn, half broken sign. What was it clinging to? It should give up and just fade out already. Elliot braced himself against the old brick building, stooped down, and grabbed a large chunk of broken concrete. He hurled it at the sign, missing wide right. He tried again and missed again. Over and over, he slung rocks at the sign not once getting close. Maybe it was the whiskey throwing off his aim. Or some deep part of him that couldn’t let him do it.
“You’re useless,” he shouted at the sign. Then he turned headed off into the night.
As he approached the Christopher S. Thompson Memorial Bridge, a slight drizzle began to fall. The soft rain created a fuzzy halo around the streetlamps, whose yellow glow did little to illuminate the somber night. Despite the rain, Elliot trudged along up the gradual incline of the bridge. He knew what he had to do. There was no turning back.
Under his feet, the Missouri River flowed eastward, its muddy water barely visible in the dark night. Elliot’s fingers gripped the railing and he leaned out farther than he should have. He stared hard down below trying to judge the distance but the darkness made it nearly impossible. He moved his left leg forward and it banged against the lower guard rail, sending out a metallic ring of metal on metal. The sound was sharp and Elliot realized just how quiet it had been.
He shoved his hand into his cargo pocket and rooted around until his fingers wrapped around the revolver’s grip. He pulled it free and without even looking at it, he threw it as far as he could out over the water. Even as it flew through the air, he clung to it. It was his way. He didn’t have the fondest memories of his father, but the revolver was all he had left. Now it was gone. A pain shot through Elliot as he realized that this last piece of his father was gone. Still, he knew he couldn’t keep it. It was far too dangerous to have around.
Elliot stayed that way for several long minutes and stared out into the ink black water. He kept thinking he could see the revolver suspended in the air but knew that it was impossible. It was down at the bottom by now. It’s strange what the mind wants to see, he thought. Anything can become reality if you mind believes it.
An amber glow slowly lit the old metal braces of the bridge around Elliot. He turned to see a pair of yellow headlights coming up the bridge. Just before the it reached him, the car burst out in a magnificent display of blues, reds, and whites. The light show was accompanied with a short blip and squabble of a siren being momentarily turned on and off in rapid succession.
“Great,” Elliot said to himself.
The car came to a stop about twenty paces away and, even though he couldn’t see anything behind the blinding spectacle, Elliot sensed the door opening. His suspicions were confirmed when he heard the officer call to him.
“Sir, please back away from the railing. You have every reason to…” There was a momentary pause. “Jesus, Elliot is that you. What the hell are you doing here?” The officer was Patrolman Robert McAllister, or Little Robbie as most people in town called him in part because his enormous size and the fact that his father’s was also named Robert. In grade school, Elliot took Robbie, who was a year younger, under his wing and had taught him the ropes on the playground and how to write test answers in places on the desk so that teachers wouldn’t see. Over the years, the two became inseparable up until Elliot enlisted. Elliot hadn’t seen him since he got back in town and he didn’t want to see him now.
“Just go away,” mumbled Elliot.
“What? I can’t hear you man, just get in the car out of the rain,” Robbie said, now standing halfway between Elliot and the car.
Elliot knew there was no getting out of it. “Yeah. Okay.” As they walked back to the car, Elliot looked back out into the open expanse of darkness above the river. He knew he should feel something more, but he didn’t know what it was. It was as if there were too many emotions so he just shut them all out.
Once they were inside the car, the officer wiped his face with a towel and then handed it to Elliot who took it and just set it onto his lap.
“Damn, Elliot, it’s good to see you. I meant to catch you after the parade but it was pretty crazy. I drew the short straw and had to pull crowd security for the whole damn thing. I bet Teresa is glad to have you back. Hell, we all are.” The officer killed the lights and started across the bridge. “So how’s it going, man?”
Elliot didn’t say anything. There was something that hung in the air. Not tension. There was no bad blood between the two but there was something that kept Elliot from attempting to talk. It was as if the two spoke completely separate languages. Elliot wanted to tell him about everything, but he couldn’t find the words to even start. Elliot felt like the man sitting next to him, his lifelong friend, were somehow a complete stranger now.
Sensing the awkwardness in the air and wanting to fill it with anything, Robbie said, “I’m sorry I never came and saw you in the hospital. Teresa told me not to make the trip. That you would be home soon anyway.” He paused. “I just want to say that I am proud of you. For everything. You got a raw deal. And I guess thanks. Thanks for your sacrifice. It means a lot to the people here. And to me.”
It was weird to see such a large, powerful man open up this way and Elliot was tired of having the same conversation with people. No matter how many times people thanked him for his sacrifice or his service, he didn’t know what to say. There was a time when he felt proud, but that pride had slowly faded over the years and was replaced with a bitterness that only few people could relate to. People’s thanks meant little to him nowadays and for a while Elliot would tell people as much. His sharp responses would usually be met with a shocked expression of someone being betrayed. Soon, their taking offense became meaningless to him as well. Now when people thanked him, he wouldn’t say a word. If it made people feel better to thank him, he would let them. He just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. He glanced at Robbie for a minute and said nothing.
Robbie could now see the state that Elliot was in and the smell of the whiskey was unmistakable. “Hey, Elliot. What were you doing on the bridge? You weren’t going to, you know, jump, were you?”
Hearing Robbie ask made Elliot want to shout out in open defiance against such an accusation. But would he be lying? He hadn’t thought about it while he was clutching the rail. Looking back now, there was a definite pull on him. A longing for the water below. It’s violent, swift current so enticing both for its steadiness and its perpetual change.
“Look, you don’t look so good so I’m just going to take you home to Teresa. I know you wouldn’t have jumped, man. I can’t imagine what you are going through. Just know that I am here, brother.” The officer turned the car and headed toward Elliot’s house. They rode the rest of the way like that, two foreigners unable to break the language barrier between them.
Standing at the end of his driveway, Elliot stared at his two-story brick colonial and marveled at how foreign it seemed. The house before him had been the base camp for all his childhood adventures, where he would escape from during his teenager years, where his father’s wake was held, and most recently, where his wife lay sleeping. Still, the towering structure seemed so estranged to him. It might as well have been a medieval castle, with its century-old oaks standing guard over the impenetrable fortress.
He trudged along the path, up the wide steps, and onto the porch. Twice he dropped his keys as tried to unlock the front door. He eased the door in a few inches and listened for Teresa. Nothing. He slowly swung the door open just wide enough to slip inside, and turned to close it behind him. Suddenly, WHOOF, WHOOF!
“Damn it, Gunner! It’s just me!” he whispered to the German Shepherd that had watched his every step from the bottom of the staircase. If Teresa wasn’t awake before, she certainly would be now. Gunner came up and, recognizing his owner, nuzzled up against his leg. “Not now. Go lay down.”
There was no point in covert actions now so Elliot walked to the kitchen and grabbed a glass from the cupboard, filled it with water, drank the entire contents in one massive gulp, and then performed the whole act a second time. He moved about the kitchen, performing several meaningless tasks, anything to avoid going upstairs. Which was strange because going upstairs to be with his wife was the only thing he really wanted to do. He wanted to curl beside her and forget the world had ever even existed.
“Elliot, baby, is that you?”
“Yeah, I’ll be up in a minute.”
“Don’t forget to take your pills. Doc said you shouldn’t miss a dose.” Bless her heart, he thought. She was one hell of a woman and the most selfless and sincerest person Elliot had ever known. After he had been evacuated to Germany, she had flown out and never left his side through the entire recovery. Months of grueling physical therapy and joint manipulations. She had been there the whole time. Stood by him. She was a true partner.
“Sure thing,” he said. Elliot picked up the pill bottle off the window sill behind the sink and held it up. He rattled the pills around inside, pulled one from the bottle, and tossed it down the drain. What the hell was one little pill going to do for him anyway. He went to set the bottle back and thought of Teresa again. He pulled another pill out and downed it with a yet another glass of water.
Elliot made his way upstairs and with little struggle managed to get himself into bed next to Teresa. As soon as his head hit the pillow, she rolled over and put her arm across his chest.
“You been drinking?” Teresa asked. There wasn’t the slightest hint of accusation in her tone, more curiosity than anything.
“Yeah, I had a few drinks after work. In town.”
“Really, I called Carmike’s and Mikey said you weren’t there.”
“Oh, I ran into Robbie. We downed a couple at his place. He drove me home.” Elliot didn’t know why he lied. Teresa wouldn’t have cared if he was at Carmike’s. She never rode him about going out because she knew he wasn’t the type to mess around.
“Good. He said he wanted to catch up with you.” After a short pause, she continued, “You know, when you were in the hospital. I mean right after. He called almost every day to see how you were. You boys catch up?” She curled her body tighter to his, like she was trying to anchor him down from floating away.
He wanted to tell her how awkward it had been trying to talk to Robbie. How awkward this entire life seemed now. “Yeah, we just shot the bull for a while.”
Teresa lifted her head and kissed him on the cheek. “Baby, I want to ask you something but I don’t want to you to get mad.” Her tone became flat, serious.
How could I get mad at you? he thought. “Okay, shoot,” he said.
“I was packing up some of the old winter clothes today and I noticed that your dad’s gun was gone. Did you move it? I thought it was on the top shelf in the closet.”
Elliot’s heart began to race. He wanted to tell her about everything. About the jerk in the bar, the bridge, how he lost control of himself. How could he lie to her? This beautiful, understanding woman. He wouldn’t lie anymore. He was going to tell her everything. That was the only way he would be able to cope with this strange new world he found himself in. He needed her to understand. Yes, he would tell her everything.
Elliot rolled over to face Teresa and said, “I got rid of it last week. I sold it down at Jacob’s place.” The words sounded like they came from someone else.
“But you loved that gun. It was your dad’s.”
“I just didn’t want it in the house. You know…”
“Oh, ok. Maybe we can go get it in the morning if it’s still there. Robbie can hold onto it for a while. I know how much it meant to you.”
So understanding, he thought. So compassionate. He desperately wanted to tell her the truth. “Yeah, maybe tomorrow.”