This Love Story Has a Zombie in It
Fiction by Daniel Crocker
It’s a little after nine at the Shamrock. It’s just the workers — me; the bartender, Trish; Linda, tonight’s waitress; the cook, Charlie; and our boss, Hunky. I’m taking a break from the dishes, having a cigarette at the bar and talking to Trish, when my brother’s fiancée walks in. My brother has been dead for almost twenty years, so she has a man with her. I recognize Vicki right away. Her blond hair is still a wall of Aqua Net. A scar like a starfish on the left of her chin, starting just under the lips and stretching to the middle of her neck. I put out my cigarette, get off of my bar stool, and go back to the kitchen, looking for dishes to wash. We’re slow, and there aren’t any. I take a wire scouring pad and scrub the grime off of the dishwasher. It doesn’t take long. I’m good at my job, and I keep the place pretty clean.
I’ve already changed the grease in the fryers and stocked the walk-in. Charlie is out back in his “office” getting high. It’s June, a Friday night, the kitchen is hot, and we’re dead. Hunky will want me to clock out soon. I walk to the door separating the kitchen and the bar — the green paint is flaking off of it — and look out the small, greasy window we use to make sure we don’t hit each other on the way in and out. It doesn’t always work — I’ve been knocked in the head several times with it. Vicki is sitting at the bar, a Bud Light in front of her, smoking a menthol alone.
“Boo,” Charlie says, squeezing my sides in his big hands.
I jump. “Holy fuck,” I say. Charlie is burnt, marble-eyed. He’s wearing a sleeveless shirt, and he has a fucked-up American flag tattoo on his left arm. The lines aren’t even straight, and we counted the stars on it at 49 one night.
“Let’s have a beer,” he says. We always get a few free after work, more if Hunky is drunk, which he usually is.
I don’t want to go to the bar, don’t want to see Vicki, and don’t want to talk about my brother, but I can’t stay in the kitchen all night. “Let’s go,” I say.
The only difference between the bar and the dining room is that the floor of the bar is covered in linoleum and the dining room with worn green carpet. Tonight the dining room is empty, and the bar isn’t much better off. The Shamrock is old. It seems like all we can do to keep it standing sometimes, but what keeps it from being a dive is that most of the customers are old, as well. Heavy drinkers, but we don’t get meth-heads or violent types. The most violent episode I remember is Hunky asking some woman we’d never seen before to show him her tits. Apparently she was a martial arts expert, or so she said. She went outside, did the splits on the hood of her car, started breathing deeply in and out, punctuating the punches she threw at the air with a Kiiiiya!, and yelling for Hunky to come outside so she could kick his fat ass. He locked the door and kept drinking until she left.
I sit down. Vicki notices me right away.
“Cracker,” she says, cocking her head and smiling. She stands up, hugs me, squeezes me hard — I’m madly aware of her breasts pressing against me — and kisses my cheek.
“I didn’t know you worked here,” she says in a Southern Missouri twang. “If I’d known, I’d have come in before.”
“I only work on the weekends.” I sit down beside her. Charlie goes to play the juke.
“Let me buy you a beer,” she says.
“It’s okay. I get a few free.”
Hunky lifts his flabby bulldog face. “If a pretty girl wants to buy you a drink, you take it, you lazy prick.”
I will be thirty years old in three months, have been working on and off at the Shamrock since fifteen, and Hunky still calls me a lazy prick every chance he gets. It doesn’t matter that he’s stopped keeping two dishwashers on the weekends because I can keep up with the dishes myself. I’ll pay you an extra two dollars an hour, he’d said. I took it.
“Sure,” I say. “I’ll take a Miller Lite.”
Vicki is still pretty. She’s gained some weight, mostly in the hips. There are wrinkles visible even under the makeup, but she still looks better than most girls half her age. At least, the ones we get in the Shamrock. We’d go to the drag races when I was a kid, seven or eight. I’d sit on her lap and try to kiss her because it made everyone laugh. He’s gonna be a real ladies’ man, Vicki said. I never turned into a real ladies’ man. I turned into a thirty-year-old dishwasher.
Trish hands me a beer and Vicki a shot, house whiskey, and a beer to chase it.
“Not often,” she says. Suddenly, I’m ten years old, and my brother is driving me around the back Cherryville roads, handing me sips of Jack and Coke. It’s late, I know that, and I’m not supposed to be out with him, but I am. He asks me if I have a girlfriend. I’m a fat kid; I don’t point this out, but I tell him no.
In the bar, we’re listening to Jim Croce. We listen to that a lot, but not really. Charlie has just played something by AC/DC — who knows what; they all sound the same.
“Son of a bitch,” Hunky says, “play some country. I can’t stand this thump, thump, thump bullshit.” He slams his fat hand into the bar to punctuate every thump.
I don’t know where Vicki’s man is. Hunky is on one side of me, a stool between us, and Vicki is on the other side. I have a new beer. Charlie claps me on the shoulder.
“Go play the rest of those songs,” he says. “I don’t know anything about country music.” He sits down next to Linda — She’s too thin, but Charlie says he likes them that way.
I think about asking Vicki if she wants to go with me, help pick out some songs, but I don’t ask. I’m particular about my drinking music. There are five plays left. I feel Vicki staring at me, burning a hole in my back, as I pick the songs. I realize I might be imagining this, that I probably am. My brother’s friend, Eddie, once showed me a Dixie flag. There was something dried and flaky on it. He pointed it out to me. “I’ve gut a lot of fish on this,” he said. It wasn’t until years later, once I’d started masturbating, that I finally figured out what the hell he was talking about.
I’m dying, I think. This is too much. I’m going to have a panic attack, so I down my beer in one swallow. I pick songs and tell myself that, like every Friday night, I’m going to have a few beers and go home to read or to play video games. The new Stephen King book is waiting for me, and I have a few comics I’ve not read yet. My wife will want me home by midnight.
There is another beer waiting for me when I sit back down. My stool is closer to Vicki now, I think. We are shoulder to shoulder. Charlie’s songs are still playing — Tom Petty, not bad; Hunky isn’t even complaining. He’s singing along, quietly and badly, to “American Girl,” his flabby jowls trembling like blinds in a shallow wind. Charlie has made Linda laugh. It makes her prettier — maybe he’ll get lucky. Sometimes he does.
“So,” I say.
“So,” Vicki says. She sounds cheerful, but if I remember right, she always sounds cheerful.
“Who’s that guy that came in with you?” I’ve made two mistakes. First, I’ve gotten personal.
“You saw me come in?”
“Yeah, but I had to hurry to the back and finish cleaning up.”
I order a whiskey. Trish hesitates, but she brings me one.
“Where is he?” I ask.
“His friend picked him up. They’re going to get some stuff.”
“Stuff,” she says.
Charlie’s hand is on Linda’s bony knee. A good sign for him. He’s my only friend — a metal head from St. Louis who moved to the country after leaving his second wife. He works sixty hours a week, and most of it goes to child support. I am explaining to Vicki that I am married, too. We are living in an apartment. My wife works at the mental hospital. Good benefits. I’m going to school.
“Aren’t you too old for school?”
I try to imagine her thinking I’m old. Then, I remember I’m nine years older than she was when she and Billy were in the automobile accident. “I can only go half time,” I say. “Have to work.”
“This isn’t the sort of job I pictured you for,” she says. “You never did like to get your hands dirty.”
“In this job, your hands are never dirty long.”
“You know what I mean.” She wasn’t smiling. “You were always the one with the brains. Remember that poem you wrote for me when I was in the hospital? And your Aunt Martha swore you were going to be a preacher. We all thought so.”
I’m just going to go home, maybe get a soda and a candy bar on the way, read some comic books or something. The sort of thing I used to do. But Vicki orders us a beer and whiskey.
“You haven’t even heard your songs yet, have you?” She wants to know.
I tell her I haven’t.
“Good, then,” she says.
I shouldn’t be drinking whiskey. My wife will be upset. She’ll show me the scar on her lip, maybe go to her mother’s for a few days and take the girl with her. I drink the whiskey anyway. It’s cheap, but it doesn’t taste like it to me. It tastes like something I’ve been missing.
“What are you going to school for?”
“The lazy prick has been going to school for as long as I can remember,” Hunky says.
Charlie tells him to leave me the fuck alone, and he gets away with it because he’s a good cook who works cheap, and he’s a big guy. Even bigger than Hunky, who is over six feet and big bellied. Only his belly and face are fat — his arms and legs are thin, and he has no ass. It’s like somebody stuck a plum on a grapefruit, then put some toothpicks in it and called it a man. Hunky looks at Charlie for a second, like he’s going to say something, then goes back to his beer. Charlie is still hitting up Linda and bobbing his head to something or other by Pantera, I’m not sure what. I’m with Hunky on this one. I can’t understand this music.
“Anyway,” Vicki says, rolling her eyes, “what are you going to school for?”
She doesn’t even contemplate this. Instead, she leans closer, her mouth almost touching my neck, and inhales. “You smell like soap and hamburgers,” she says.
“You’d be surprised how many women dig that.”
Linda laughs. She’s got her hand on Charlie’s leg, and he’s whispering something to her. I imagine he’s telling her he has a little pot left and asking if they can go back to her place. Of course, he could be saying something heartbreaking and beautiful.
“Get these bastards a beer,” Hunky says, pointing to Charlie and me. Hunky is here every night, usually drunk by this time. There was a period of about a month when he wasn’t around much. He would call me down to his trailer, only about 100 yards from the Shamrock, to get money for the bar or to pick up the checks or to ask me to pour bleach into his septic tank. His Chow, sixty pounds overweight and shaved, would start growling at me before I even made it to the portable iron stairs he called a porch. I’d stand out in his dirt yard and yell for him until he opened the door and calmed the dog with a steak bone or a kick in the ribs. This dog ain’t going to bite you, he’d say. You chicken shit, he’d say. Then he’d invite me in. He was almost always shirtless, and his trailer would be cluttered with empty microwave food containers, gun and cooking magazines, dirty dishes. I finally asked him where the hell he’d been and why he wasn’t spending any time at the bar. He said, Only reason I ever drank was so I could sleep. Been drinking Nyquil.
Vicki’s head is on my shoulder. Her face looks green, but it’s from the neon Shamrock above the bar.
“Is she drunk?” Trish asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I’m not,” she says. “I’m tired. Plumb worn out.”
Finally my songs start. Hank Williams first, “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry.”
“That’s music,” Hunky says. Charlie rolls his eyes, but I’m pretty sure he really doesn’t mind. We always share our jukebox money, and he always plays metal, and I always play country. Sometimes, I’ll throw in Springsteen, CCR, or even Jerry Lee, and he’ll throw in Tom Petty or Elvis. We get along fine like that.
“You have a daughter?”
“How old is she?” Vicki puts her hand on my forearm.
“Does she look like you or the wife?”
She’s straining to sound cheerful. I could, of course, be seeing something that isn’t there. She may actually be interested. She probably is. She’s a good girl, I can see that. But then, I remember this image, and it’s just an image: We’re camping. I’m very young. Everyone is sitting around the campfire. It’s still daylight, but they are drinking. I wander off. Vicki is behind the camper, arms crossed — she’s crying. My brother, Billy, is on his knees in front of her, begging something of her. I can’t hear what. I think now about asking Vicki, but I don’t want to know. She might not even remember, probably wouldn’t remember, but I’ve spent many nights wondering. I think, Maybe that’s when he asked her to marry him, but I know that’s not true. I can see it clearly, and he was asking forgiveness for something. Maybe he’d cheated on her. I don’t know.
Vicki pokes me in the ribs. “You or the wife?” she says again.
“Me,” I say.
“Let me see a picture.”
I pull out my wallet and give the only one I have. It’s about a year old.
“She looks like Billy.”
Oh Jesus, I think. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. I ask for another shot of whiskey, but Trish doesn’t give it to me. She gives me a beer instead.
“You don’t drink whiskey,” she says, “remember?” She says that because every time anyone has asked to buy me a shot of whiskey, I’ve turned him down. I don’t drink whiskey, I say, and finally anyone who comes in there regularly enough to ask has stopped asking.
“You know this boy?” Hunky asks Vicki.
“I wouldn’t call him a boy anymore,” she says. “But, yeah, I do.”
“I practically raised this boy.” He points a gun-barrel finger at me.
“I know that’s not true,” Vicki says.
It is an exaggeration, of course. But Hunky’s own son is in the pen, so I let it slide. “I’ve been working here a long time,” I say.
“Best dishwasher we’ve ever had.”
“Yeah,” Charlie says. “He’s the Michael Jordan of dishwashing.”
I think about all that time in school, how long it’s taking. I want to explain this to Vicki. That I write, that I am going to be a teacher, that it really doesn’t matter, and that I’m never as happy as I am when I’m washing dishes. That if it wasn’t for the wife, the kid, that’s where I’d stay. It’s just not the kind of thing you tell a person, though, at least not a person who has some sort of stake, no matter how shallow, in how you turn out.
“You know that night,” Vicki says.
And I know she’s drunk, that she wouldn’t be starting off a sentence like that if she weren’t drunk. That, like I, she’s probably been spending most of her life trying her best not to start off a sentence like that. Unless she’s drunk. And I understand that I’m going to listen to her, although I’d rather not. I’d rather go home. Read. Kiss my girl goodnight and lay down next to a wife who will hate me for the next few days.
“It was a good night,” she says.
“I don’t mean the accident, Cracker. I mean the before that.” She sounds like a woman who hasn’t had many good nights.
“I can’t remember. I just know that it was.”
“Were you guys drunk?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I can’t remember the accident, either. We probably were. I would bet we were.”
I nod. I had pieced together enough of what I could remember objectively about my brother to figure that much out. The time he showed me the gun and the Jack bottle in a box under the seat of his truck. The time I was sleeping in the living room where it was cooler in the summer, and he came home late, laid down by me, and told me about the girl who’d played the “slobbery-me blues on his meat horn.” All those times he took me up to Abe’s and bought me a candy bar and a soda. When some guy pulled into our driveway asking for him, and he walked outside in nothing but his underwear (mostly just the band) and grabbed the guy by the back of his hair and slammed his head over and over into the driver’s side window of his car. When we watched Phantasm together, and he left the bedroom light on so I could sleep. That he was one week away from marrying this woman who now had her hand on my inner thigh.
“You have the same eyes,” she says.
“I know,” I say.
“Since I Don’t Have You,” the original by the Skyliners, blares from the jukebox. I ask Charlie if he played it. I certainly didn’t.
“Are you kidding?” he asks.
“I didn’t even know that it was on there,” I say. “Good tune, though.”
“Want to dance?” Vicki asks. I think about it. It wouldn’t be the first time a few drunks have cut a rug in the Shamrock, but it doesn’t happen often, either.
“Cracker’s going to get him some jaws,” Hunky says.
“What’s the jaws?”
“Fuck you, Hunky,” I say.
“What’s the jaws?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“You know,” Hunky says. “The jaws.” He moves his hand up and down in front of his mouth — universal blow job sign. I hit him in the face with my beer bottle. It doesn’t break like it would in a movie; it’s just a thud. Vicki and Linda scream. Trish stands still, mouth open.
“Damn,” Charlie says. “Rock on, bro.”
Hunky is face down on the bar, mouth open and bleeding. There is a pool of blood on the bar with a tooth in it. I figure his jaw is broken. He’s out cold but breathing. The jukebox has stopped.
Vicki’s husband walks in. He’s thin; there are dark circles under his eyes, bad teeth. He’s a tweaker, if I ever saw one. He starts walking toward Vicki. Then, he assesses the situation.
“Holy shit,” he says. “We have got to get the fuck out of here.” The front door rattles again. The doorknob turns left and right, left and right, until finally whatever is behind it, by trial and error or accident, gets it open. Billy shambles in. His chest is caved in, a rib sticking out above his left tit, and one of his eyes hangs out of its socket. The husband waves to Vicki to come on, but she shakes her head no. Hunky’s head is still on the bar, although he’s talking.
“You’re fired,” he says.
“I figured,” I say. “Now, go home. Get some sleep, you fat fuck, and learn how to treat people, or next time I’ll slit your fat turkey neck.”
Billy sits down at the bar. “Braaainnnsh,” he says. No one pays him any mind. “Braiinnnsh.” Finally, Trish hands him a whiskey.
“Damn it, Vicki,” the husband says. She finally moves. She leaves the bar with her husband. Billy stays. I look him in his dead eyes. Slowly his feet start to move back and forth, a slow, slow waltz. I look into his one good eye. We dance.
The 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this story as a finalist for the 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Daniel Crocker’s last book was Like a Fish, from Sundress Publications. He teaches at Southeast Missouri State University and was the first ever winner of the Gerald Locklin Award for Poetry given by The Mas Tequila Review. His work has appeared in Hobart, Night Train, The Los Angeles Review, and many other journals.
This story was originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 6/5/13.