As good a reason as any

As good a reason as any

When the new hire, Hank, started on, the crew didn’t quite alienate him, but they made no effort to really include him in their outings. Hank wasn’t an unpleasant person; he just didn’t mesh well with the rest of the guys. While Tom would be lazing on a mop in a closet off the main corridor of the main building, Hank would be reading a book, and humming a tune that Tom recognized from a Wagner opera. When Dragline or Gambler would be flirting with some pretty young ER nurse, Hank would just stare at his scuffed, aged sneakers nervously. If the nurse smiled at him or tried to make conversation, he would give a terse answer, or barely acknowledge her. So it was during a bull session one night, after a long afternoon and night of shining floors for administrators, that Dragline, Gambler, and Tom were talking shit about people, Hanks name was mentioned, and the men roared with laughter.

“Tom baby, I wouldn’t get too used to him, man. I don’t think he’s going to be here much longer.”

“Whys that, Gambler?”

“He just doesn’t-uh-well, look, man. Me and Drag, we’ve been doing this for years. You’re alright, just took you a little time to come around. But youngblood-“

Gambler pointed upstairs, meaning the third floor, where Hank was vacuuming the carpets that night.

“That boy, there’s just something wrong with him, ya know? He just ain’t a good fit.” Dragline, hearing this, knocked on the table and nodded.

“Now here’s the important question: We drinking tonight?”

Tom agreed it would be a good idea to hit the bar across the street after the shift break at 11. He slipped away to go to the bathroom, and decided to swing upstairs to see how Hank was doing. He got upstairs and spotted him immediately. He looked like a haggard late night accountant, with thin hair and intensely dark eyes. He was focusing intently on the low fiber grey industrial carpet as he pushed the vaccum. Tom walked behind Hank and tapped him on the shoulder, and the vacuum was turned off.

“Hey, Tom.”

“Hey, Hank. The guys and I are going out for a drink after work. Come with, man. Loosen up a little.”

“No thanks. I don’t drink.”

“Why’s that? Come on, one ain’t gonna kill you.”

“I uh-well-…”

“It’ll be fine. One drink, man. I’ll give you a lift afterwards if you need it.”

“Hey, I, um…”

“Tom.”

“I appreciate it, Tom, but I really don’t drink. I have a, uh, bad past with alcohol.”

“Well, it’s your call, man, but I think a drink afterwards would do you some good. Come on, don’t be a bitch about it.”

Hank may have been awkward, but he wasn’t stupid. He thought he heard a sense of urgency in the invitation. He nodded. “Alright, then. See you downstairs.”

When 11 rolled around, the men were putting on their jackets when Hank showed up, pulled on his overcoat, and stood next to Tom. The other men stared for a moment, first at Hank, then at Tom who craned his neck to the lockers.

“Hey, Hank, can you grab my smokes out of the lounge?”

“Sure.” Hank walked back, and Tom quickly turned to the other men. “I invited him out.”

Dragline nearly did a double take. “Why did you do that? He accepted?”

“He did. I just feel bad for the guy, ya know. We were all newbie’s once.”

Gambler sighed. “Well, I ain’t buying him drinks. I don’t do charity cases.”

Dragline nodded and Tom shrugged.

The other men were standing around when Hank came back and handed Tom his smokes. They walked through the basement of the hospital to the access elevators, laughing and talking about the night nurses in the ER, new muscle cars, the latest action flick, and horse racing that weekend. Dragline slapped a heavy hand into Hanks chest.

“Doing anything fun this weekend?”

“Not really. Just spending time around the house this weekend with my dog.”

“That’s good, man, that’s good, and you know sometimes you just need to do that. What kind of dog you got?”

Tom was happy to see Dragline and Hank chatting as they walked out into the bitter cold night, and crossed the street to the bar. They all sat down in a row along the bar, and the woman behind the bar came over and laid down napkins.

Dragline-“Beer”

Gambler-“Beer”

Tom-“Bourbon”

Hank-“What should I get?”

Tom sighed, thought for a minute, and leaned across the bar. “Bring him a Shirley Temple” Gambler and Dragline snickered and looked over at Hank, who suddenly becasue agitated, then smacked the table with his open palm. “Old Crow goddammit!”

Tom, Dragline and Gamber gawked at Hank, who was staring at the table, watching his hand tremble on the aged polished wood. The drinks were brought over, and the men were sipping. Hank, to everyone’s surprise, raised his glass, shot his drink straight back, and held it aloft at the bar to signal for a refill. Tom laughed.

“I thought you didn’t drink, man!”

Hank smiled and lowered his glass. “Well, I don’t drink often. There’s a reason for it.”

“Why’s that?”

Hank pointed to an empty booth at the back of the bar. Dragline gawked at Hank, not knowing what to make of the scene, and Gambler shook his head.

“Nah man, nah. You’re about to lay some heavy on us, and I just finished eight hours of cleaning blood off the floor in the E.D. I don’t know if I can handle it.”

Hank cracked a smile. “It’s not too bad, really. Just trust me on this.”

Tom let out a high, nervous laugh. “Trust me, he says!”

Hank pointed again at the back booth, and the men studied each other for a moment before they scurried over to it and sat down, and Hank leaned in with a smirk.

“Well guys, my dad used to drink Old Crow. Usually killed about a bottle a night, until he moved to the big plastic bottles like what they keep behind the bar.”

Gambler laughed. “Jesus!”

Hank nodded. “Problem was, the old man got violent when he drank. We would get after us with wire coat hangers-“ At that point, Hank lifted his shirt over his head, and turned his back to the guys. There, on his back, were scores of raised, narrow marks all over.

Dragline and Gambler were visibly unsettled by this. Tom cocked his head to the side. “That’s rough, man.”

Hank nodded. “Shit happens.” His second bourbon appeared, and he took a small sip from the glass. “And that’s nothing to what he would do to my mom. She had dentures from him rattling her teeth once too often.”

“So one night, he took to beating on my mom pretty hard, and she was laid up for a couple days, so I had to run errands. Mom sends me to grammas to help her cut back some plants in her vegetable garden down the road. She took one look at me and told me to fetch up some gunny sacks from the basement.”

“As kids we thought that basement was haunted, and for good reason-Gramma had clay skulls stacked up, like Halloween decorations, unlabeled jars full of preservatives and god only knows what. I found about three or four good sized big ones, and brought them up. Gramma was sitting there at the table, smoking a Kool, with a pair of meat shears. She cut those sacks flat and grabbed a bale of clothesline, then went upstairs and talked to my Grampa. They both came downstairs, and Gramma held me by the hand as we walked over to my folk’s house. Gramma had those cut up sacks and twine tucked under her arm and held onto me with her free hand. Grandpa…well, he had his old Marines belt knife and a pistol in his hand.

“Grandma told me to talk to my mom, but to stay away from my dad for the rest of the night. My Grandfather, once he heard this, walked away, toward their room, and my grandmother kissed my mom on her forehead and told her that they were going to take care of this the old fashioned way, and that she should take my sister and I and go stay at their house that night until they came back and told her it was safe to go home. The next day, they came back early, cooked up breakfast for both of us, and send us home. Dad was there, and he begged my mom to forgive him, and never laid hands on her or me or my sister again. Even found Jesus at some point, and had a heart attack shortly after.”

The waitress came over and offered another round of drinks. After the drinks were disperesed off the tray, the waitress put the tray down and looked at glared at Hank.

“You’re not going to say anything, are you?”

Hank smirked. “That was rude of me, wasn’t it?” The waitress leaned in and wrapped her arms around Hank. “It’s been awhile, ya know.”

Hank shrugged. “Well, you COULD call every once in awhile.”

The waitress stuck out her tongue. “Phones work both ways, you ass.” She stood up and Hank cleared his throat.

“Guys, this is Shelly. Her and I…” They glanced at each other for a moment. “Yeah, we go back a little way.”

The men nodded at her, and Gambler held out his hand, and mumbled “ma’am.”

Shelly reached out and squeezed Gamblers hand, and turned back to Hank. “Doing anything tonight?”

“Just this.”

“You want to?”

Hank looked around the table and nodded slightly. Shelly leaned in and whipsered in Hanks ear, and walked away. Tom watched, mesmerized by Shelly’s gunslinger walk as she swung her hips. Dragline gave a low whistle and glanced over at Hank quizzicly.

“What did she say?”

“She told me the next one’s on her.”

Gambler laughed out loud. “You’re full of surprises, baby boy”

Tom and Dragline sipped at their beers. “So what happened to your dad?”

The bourbon appeared at Hanks elbow, along with a new napkin. Tom shot Hank a grin. Hank returned a smirk, picked up, and continued telling his story.

“Mom didn’t say anything until a couple years after the old man died, I guess just making sure that the guy was gonna stay dead.”

Gambler shook his head. Hold on hold on hold on. Did you just…did she…what?”

“Yeah I did.” Hank cleared his throat “So mom sits me down one night and tells me what happened. Turns out her Gramma and grandpa went in their bedroom, and saw my dad passed the hell out. Grampa watched, his old 1911 .45 sitting in his lap, while gramma rolled dad around, wrapping him in this sheet she cut and stitched up out of the sacks. When my dad started to wake up, grampa held his .45 about an inch from my dads left eye, and told him that if he knew what was good for him, he wouldn’t say a fucking word.”

Gambler gagged on his beer. Tom laughed and set down his drink, holding his sides. Draglines eyes were wide. “Jesus Christ!”

Gambler managed to swallow his mouthful of the beer. “Nah. Nah. Hell with that shit. I would’ve kicked, screamed, raised all kinds of hell. Your old man was a pussy if he didn’t.”

Dragline spoke up. “Would you argue with a old man holding a .45 on you telling you to keep still?” He turned to Hank. “Was he former army or something?”

“Marines, 4th division. Active in the Pacific theatre in WWII”

“Oh man.”

“Yeah. They stitched dad up, and my grandfather dragged him by the feet for a mile down Tobacco road over every goddamn rock he could find, down to the river, about a mile and a half, gramma bringing up the rear. He put my dad on the rivers edge and told him they were gonna wait for the river to pick up, and in the meanwhile have a nice, long talk. My old man was changed when he came back.”

Tom, Dragline and Gambler were slackjawed as Hank stared at his empty glass for a quick second, smiled, and got up.

“I think I’ve had my share for now. We’ll have to do this again, guys.” Hank fished out a twenty-dollar bill and laid it on the table. He walked up to Shelly, whispered something in her ear, and walked out. Shelly came over and snapped her gum.

“You guys, I need to bail. Mind settling up with me really quick? I’ll make sure you get someone else to get your orders.”

Inside the bar, the men were sitting in a semi circle. Tom looked up and grinned. “Think we should invite him out again?”

Dragline laughed. “He’s alright. Just needs to find his groove is all.”

Gambler shook his head. “Think the story’s bullshit?”

Dragline shoved his hands in his pocket and shivered. “No. Hell no. You saw those scars all over his back.”

Tom stood up, fished a crumpled twenty out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. “Gotta bounce, fellas. Seeya.” He left the bar without a second look back, knowing that Dragline and Gamber would be there for most of the night anyway with or without him. As he walked through the parking lot, the smell of the autumnal air filled his nostrils.

As he drove home, Tom looked up. The cold air was clear, and magnified the stars, crusting the evening sky. As he lay in bed, he imagined the whole scenario as Hank described it. As he drove, a green sign that could have said Tobacco Road zipped by on the left.

And down Tobacco Road, in North Carolina, in an isolated patch of woods, there’s a river running deep. On the shore of it, there’s a decaying swatch of fabric laying there, almost completely dissolved, and an old Marine Corps issued Ka-Bar knife stuck in a tree, which has started to grow around it, accepting silently that it’s been stuck in there for almost twenty years. The river rose slightly, caught the remains of what could have been a gunnysack, and carried it away on dark, slow tides.

Thanks to Nick S.