It wasn't premeditated, really. It just kind of came to him in the bathtub, as he washed between his toes. He had been thinking how cumbersome his toes were, how they seemed to perform no useful function. At best, they served as bony platforms for the thick, blonde hairs that sprouted out of them like ugly toe-pubes. They looked deranged. Threatening somehow. Johnny realized that he hated his toes, that he resented spending precious seconds of his life washing them. And so he decided to kill himself, right in the middle of his daily bubble bath.
The yellow rubber duck seemed to sense what he was thinking and shot a disdainful glare from its fierce-blue rubber duck eyes. Johnny did his best to ignore this, stretching towards his father's medicine cabinet to rummage for the instrument of his demise. As he leaned, he caught a glimpse of himself through the thin patina of moisture that had condensed on the mirror. He had forgotten to shave again, and reddish-blonde stubble was beginning to gallop over what was quickly becoming a second chin. His bloated face looked baggy and limp compared to the rest of his lanky body, and he couldn't help but wonder if his head had simply given up on itself.
"Motivation," he mimicked in a rather good impression of his therapist as he flipped the mirror open to reveal a small army of bottles. Many were his anti-depressants: he had been taking them for almost a year now, ever since he was diagnosed as bipolar, and they stood at attention in a row at the front of the cabinet like soldiers. Setting them at ease, he reached far back into the cabinet toward more interesting specimens, bottles with large colorful pills inside.
Without reading any labels, he grabbed one, filled a Looney Tunes Dixie cup with cool sink water, and returned to the bubbly murk of the tub. The duck bobbed up and down in Johnny's wake.
"Screw you for judging me," he said to the rubber avian, fiddling with the childproof top of the orange plastic bottle. The duck had, of course, done nothing of the sort, but did not take offense. The bath water was cooling now, and the oily syrup that spawned the bubbles was beginning to make Johnny's skin itch. An iceberg of foam crashed into his crotch.
Just as he managed to open the bottle, the phone in the kitchen rang, a piercing noise that penetrated the cheaply painted door of the bathroom and his bones with equal ease. It wasn't very loud, but this was Johnny's first suicide attempt and his nerves were doing jumping jacks beneath his flesh. So as the shrill of the telephone rang up his spine he flinched and the bottle plummeted down into the bubbly mounds of bath foam, landing gently against his thigh.
Attempting to ignore the sudden cacophony, he groped for the bottle, excavated it from the crotch-iceberg, and slung it back bubbles and all.
"Goodbye, cruel world," he pondered aloud to the rubber duck, "how's that for a clichˇ?"
Instead of responding, the duck drifted slowly away in disdain. All throughout the lonely rooms of the two story house the phone continued to ring, and as he closed thin lizard lids over gray eyes Johnny wondered if the teeth-rattling telephone bell would be the last noise he ever heard.
Seconds later, however, it was replaced by something far more threatening.
"Hel-lo," a valley-girl voice called from somewhere down the hall, "is somebody going to get that?"
John cursed the fact that the last voice to grace his ears would be Marcy's, his cheerleader of a little sister. He sunk farther down into the water, as if the bubbles would shelter him from her voice, from the phone, from this Schoenberg orchestra of house sounds. His stomach started to twist, and behind clenched eyelids he envisioned bile mid-coitus with bubble syrup, exploding into fountains of greenish foam that would build and build until his skinny body burst from the pressure. He let out a thin fart of anticipation.
Suddenly, there was a clamor at the door and he could hear his sister's tiny, painted-pink nails rapping the old wood.
"Johnny, I don't know what you're doing in there, you perv, but get your ass out here. Nick's on the phone."
Filling immediately with the overwhelming desire to smite her, he grabbed the nearest object he could find and hurled it in the direction of her voice. The rubber duck bounced off the peeling white paint of the door and landed just shy of the garbage can.
"Tell Nick I'm in the middle of something."
Marcy made a noise of disgust, and he listened as she conveyed his message and dropped the cordless phone onto the thinly carpeted floor.
"You'd better not be whacking off in there," she called, "I need to get ready for the dance tonight."
John's insides were really churning now, and he was beginning to wonder exactly what he had swallowed, besides bubble syrup of course. Retrieving the bottle from the water, his jaw dropped disobediently into open horror as he scanned its dripping label. No sooner had runny black ink spelled out the words: Viagra: 300mg when he began to feel action somewhere besides his stomach.
"If you're not out of there by the time I count to ten," Marcy said as she rattled the doorknob, "I swear to God, I'm coming in."
"No!" he shouted. Scrambling out of the tub, he banged his knee against the commode and sent the toilet paper spinning with his forehead as he careened towards the sticky floor. Letting out a small yelp of pain, he collapsed against the bathroom tiles and, consequentially, onto his newfound erection.
Laying in a crumple on clammy linoleum, he heard Marcy counting, reaching over the door for the makeshift key that his mom kept up there for some reason. Cradling his injured self with one hand, the other reached up and snatched at the towel on the rack so hard that metal and plaster rained down on his naked body. Wrapping the towel around himself, he mustered just enough willpower to thrust his head over the toilet as a soupy mix of partially digested Viagra, bubbles, and bile came gushing out of his protesting stomach.
When his sister unlocked the door, Johnny was passed out with his head in the crapper, a towel that barely concealed a raging boner, and a rubber ducky perching suspiciously nearby.
"Fucking sicko," she muttered, and closed the door again.
"That's the most awful thing I've ever heard," said Nick, after hearing Johnny's account of Friday's bath-time adventures. Nick shoved his hands into his baggy jeans and retrieved a broken cigarette. Cursing, he tossed it out of the open window of Johnny's '94 Chevy Blazer.
"What can I say," John replied, "can't do anything right."
"So what did she do? After she found you choking on your own vomit?"
"Nothing, at first. Then, when I couldn't lift my head out of the toilet long enough for her to take a shower, she called 911."
Johnny turned the wheel hard and his rusty black jeep hurtled into the Anna's Subs parking lot.
"Apparently, you can't die if you puke up all the drugs. Remind me to make a mental note."
The air was thick and heavy, and a warm breeze blasted Johnny as he opened the door. Despite the fact that he knew his friend was a Dean's list student at James Madison University, he still thought Nick looked like a gypsy, some relic of the sixties or a homeless person, or both. His long dark hair was blowing greasily in the wind, sending aromas of reefer and incense streaming into the heat. His unwashed shirt and sandals weren't really helping his image, either.
"What did your folks say, when they found out?"
Johnny slammed his door and began to cross the parking lot over towards Anna's. The sub shop was in a strip mall, just outside of Langley Air Force base. Its red-shingled roof was beginning to come undone, and large flaps of Italian eatery were beginning to blow away in the strong wind. An F-15 roared overhead, cutting through a sky pregnant with storm. He wondered what it was doing, flying when the weather was obviously going to shit.
"We didn't say anything at first," he pulled the door open and let Nick amble through first. "Then, after dinner, my dad came out of the bathroom with both guns blazing. 'Where are my pills, boy?' He thought I was snorting them."
"Snorting them. And then my mom, how did she put it? She told me there are healthier ways to be 'kinky.'"
"If you were doing something kinky with them," Nick said as the bells hanging from the door by a shoestring jingled, "you probably wouldn't have tried to off yourself."
Johnny kept his eyes on the floor.
"Welcome to Anna's. Is it just you two fellas this afternoon?" The hostess didn't sound too enthused. She looked about Marcy's age. Unintentionally looking her up and down, Johnny became entranced with the way her thin white polo shirt struggled to stay tucked in to her tight jeans. A blue wrist brace swallowed the majority of her left arm, and his eyes danced between it and a sliver of brown skin which teased out from beneath it. Her complexion was dark, Mediterranean. Johnny immediately developed an inexplicable craving for falafel.
Suddenly, he had to grimace. His wandering mind had stirred a sore instrument. "Little Johnny" was still tender from its impact with the bathroom floor, followed by a mind-numbing six-hour erection. Fighting to keep his exhausted member down, he closed his eyes and pictured as many horrible things as he could fathom in a disturbing montage, set to Bach's Magnificat in E-flat. Every other image seemed to be of his big, hairy toes.
Nick asked for smoking, even though he didn't have any smokes, and they followed the girl back to a booth by the window. The place was nearly empty on Sundays, its many tables and chairs occupied by a few soldiers and a couple high school kids.
"So what the hell would I do if you had succeeded, man?" Nick had ordered the Vegan special, and while he waited for it to come he bummed a cigarette from a kid who didn't look old enough to buy them yet. It was poorly packed, and some of the tobacco fell in Nick's hair and hid itself against his dirty, brown T-shirt.
"Eating by yourself right now. Can we talk about something else?" Johnny's eyes were drawn outside, away from the quiet restaurant buzz of Anna's subs. The air was deep purple outside, and a great pillar of light was pouring through a crack in the storm clouds above. Johnny thought it looked lonely.
Heavy raindrops were starting to pound against the window in twos. The waitress brought their coffee.
"If you don't want to talk about it," Nick said, about halfway through his smoke, "then I won't bring it up again. Not for a while." He took a long draw from his coffee cup. "But one last thing, before we go back to talking about music, and grass, and how hot your sister is."
"Oh, don't even act," Nick said, and smiled for the first time all afternoon. "You ever try something like that again, I'll kill you."
Johnny didn't feel much like laughing, but smiled despite himself. "Deal. If I ever knock myself off, you can run me over with the smog-hog."
"And screw your sister?" Nick added, eyebrows raised.
"And screw my sister," Johnny said, throwing his pizza crust at Nick's greasy neck.
Johnny hadn't told Nick that his second brush with death had already occurred, only hours after his first.
"He's definitely got, like, extreme self-destructive tendencies."
Marcy and the doctor nested on the end of the bed, and had been talking since John had first regained consciousness. Neither one of them seemed to notice that he was back with them, though even in his semi-delirious state John could notice the physician's blatant interest in his sister's breasts.
"Can't you do anything about that?" his sister pointed to the white pyramid that was forming out of the hospital sheets, looming over the flat desert of Johnny's belly.
"I'm afraid the medicine is just going to have to run its course," he said, a little too cheerfully. He looked fresh out of med school, too young, too handsome, like he belonged on the television more than he did in the ER. Johnny let out a moan to make his presence known and the doctor rose to come examine him.
"I'm going to release you tonight," he announced after asking Johnny a few questions about depression, drug use, and bulimia. He had lied, explaining that he had swallowed the pills hoping to enhance his performance with a date he had planned for later that night. Marcy snickered at this, and when the doctor turned away, Johnny flicked her off with as many digits as possible.
"Next time, try Ginseng," the doctor said, flashing a movie poster smile. His attempts to conceal his gawking at Marcy were invisible as he left to get Johnny a wheelchair.
One elevator trip later, Johnny was discarding the chair in the hospital lobby, and his biggest problem seemed to be where to tuck his penis, so as not to disturb any nearby children and their mothers. Tucking the tender instrument as discretely as possible in the elastic of his shorts, he tugged Marcy away from the doctor and out of the sliding hospital doors. Despite his own disregard for health, as he ambled towards the car Johnny couldn't help but be a little offended about the ease with which he escaped the hospital. Within an hour of waking up in the hospital bed, Marcy was already speeding back home with him, bitching about how she only had forty minutes to get ready for the prom.
"If you want to ruin your life," she shouted, "that's fine by me. But you don't fuck with the prom, Johnny. You don't fuck with me!"
Back in his darkened room, waiting for his parents to get back from work, Johnny stewed in the awkwardness of it all. Like the blank white walls of his room, something felt empty in him, barren somehow. Stretched flat on his back, he watched the headlights of passing cars shooting through his naked blinds, racing geometric patterns across the ceiling. He glanced down at his persistent member, praying that it would retreat soon.
"Is this what it's all about?" he asked aloud. "Is my life nothing more than an unsatisfied woody?"
With that, he pulled the blinds up and opened the window. Stepping outside onto the roof, he looked out across his suburban neighborhood, wedged right into the armpit of the city of Hampton, Virginia. It was a city that smelled faintly of saltwater and fish factories to outsiders, a place that stunk even to long-time residents in the heat of summertime. Every house within sight looked virtually the same to him, with one or two variations; maybe one had a two-car garage, while another had an extra window in the master bedroom. All essentially identical. Each contained 2.5 children, a dog, a dad with Viagra in his medicine cabinet. Dropping his eyes down to the driveway below, he wondered if it was far enough down to do the trick.
"If I'm not careful I'll end up paralyzed in all five limbs," he said as he crouched in the cool night air. He pictured himself in a body cast, mummified up to the neck with a little obelisk shooting out of his crotch. Shuddering, he turned his attention to the silver Mercedes that had just turned the corner.
His sister's date didn't bother to exit his expensive car, but rather honked the horn twice as he pulled into the drive. Not wanting to be seen, Johnny tried to back through his window, only to slam his head against the glass and go rolling off the roof. The bushes below the porch broke his fall, and Marcy didn't seem to notice him there as she walked gracefully out to the car.
"Hey sexy," John heard a voice say through his sister's open car door. "Did somebody just fall out of that window right there?"
"Shut up and drive," she replied, "if you're even thinking about getting any tonight, just shut up and drive."
The windshield wipers beat to the rhythm of a zesty samba, and as the smog-hog Blazer chortled out of the Anna's Subs parking lot, one of the headlights went out. Johnny took this as a sign that the day would only get worse.
Opening up the glove compartment, Nick spied something puzzling which he proceeded to extract with two fingers and hold away from him like dirty laundry.
"Friend of yours?" he inquired, squeaking the duck once for shits and giggles.
"Well, we've been through so much together, I figured I ought to let him hang out with us."
The duck's fierce-blue rubber duck eyes would have rolled, had they not been painted on. Nick placed it in the cup holder.
The barrage of water evaporated as it hit the hot pavement, and a sea of steam rose off the road as Johnny wove through traffic. Where the water wasn't escaping back into the humid atmosphere, it collected along the sidewalks: a sign that the city's deteriorating road and transportation funds had failed to repair the drainage systems again. Nick's driveway was beginning to flood as they pulled into it.
"I'm heading back to school tonight," Nick said, unlocking his door. "I promise to keep in touch, if you promise to keep on breathing."
"I'll see what I can do, buddy."
Nick hesitated a moment before he got out of the car. At first, Johnny thought Nick might be afraid that the heavy storm was too much like a shower. Nick's bathing habits (or lack thereof) had always been a mystery to him. Maybe hippies didn't shower out of some principle. Maybe Nick had experienced some traumatic bath time fiasco: Johnny knew all about those now. Somehow, however, the ambiance in the car was much thicker than mere aqua phobia.
"Look man," Nick began, finally, "you haven't been acting the same lately. You keep saying things you don't usually say. You keep?"
"I know. I'm just," Johnny hesitated, looking away as if his answer lay hidden, shoved under the red rubber floor mat, "I'm just so bored. I think I just feel?"
The rain grew audibly louder in their silence over the next few minutes. Johnny wanted to tell Nick he wasn't going to try it again. He wanted to tell his friend that when he went back to JMU, he wouldn't drive his car into a lake, or slit his wrists during his next bubble bath. Before he could form any words, however, Nick extended his hand and told him to take care of himself.
"You'll be fine man," he said, smoothing his long bangs behind his ears.
"I know," said Johnny, "Now I just have to figure that out."
Sending water flying almost as high as the jeep's roof, John sped out of Nick's neighborhood and back towards town. He knew Nick was right about him not acting right lately. He found himself dreaming in sarcasm, and waking up jaded. Only recently, he had stopped talking back to his father. Thinking back to Friday night, he chuckled at his parents' open-mouthed stares as he marched silently upstairs, nose and boner each turned toward the sky. It wasn't much, but it was certainly something his therapist would call an "indicator." What it indicated, he wasn't sure. It wasn't rational, and yet he didn't feel the need to be rational anymore. Grinning, he turned off his windshield wipers.
Johnny didn't feel much like going home tonight, and even though he had to work tomorrow he decided to see how long he could drink before he threw up again.
"You don't have to kill yourself all at once," Johnny declared to the duck as water began to blur the scenery outside the windshield beyond recognition. The duck wasn't paying much attention, since it had never considered killing itself at all. Not even for a second.
"Besides," Johnny continued, "once the bartender kicks me out, maybe I'll crash into a telephone pole on the way home. What do you say?"
The duck, of course, said nothing.
The Body Politic was a saloon with a hell of an attitude problem and great deals on domestic beer. It consisted of one room that was about as big as a gym locker, and smelled about half as nice. Johnny told everyone it was his favorite, and the duck was no exception as he pulled up a stool for each of them at the bar.
"I'll have a Coors, my good lady," Johnny said, "and he'll take a shot of vodka."
The bartender was a skinny old woman who looked like she liked other skinny old women. There was something mannish, almost intimidating about her. Maybe it was the way she walked around with a burning cigarette filter in her tight, dry lips, or her overalls, or the way her graying hair was shaved off into a military buzz-cut. Maybe it was the eye patch.
"Rail, or top shelf?" she barked at them without checking either of their IDs.
Johnny was forced to consider this for a moment. The duck had never been to a bar before, and since it was their first date, he ordered Grey Goose.
"I hope you're not racist," he warned his companion.
A good portion of the night was spent listening to the thunderstorm outside, staring at himself in the smoky mirror mounted behind a small metropolis of liquor bottles, and pulling down Coors. The televisions mounted in every corner of the room were each displaying a different sports event, and as the rain continued to pour outside, more and more men shuffled in looking for a quick respite from their lives. A group of lawyers occupied the bar on his left side, arguing amongst themselves, pointing at the highlights of a baseball game on the TV above the bar. One of them was smoking a big, stinky cigar that made Johnny's eyes water. At the table directly behind his back, a group of old men doted on a blonde that looked like she could have been a super model, or a prostitute, or both. Johnny listened in on their conversation whenever he wasn't lost in his own thoughts, or staring at the motor cross competition on the screen in the far corner.
By about eleven o'clock, he was well on his way to getting cut off by the old dyke behind the counter.
"You ain't driving, are you son?"
The old bag shot a caustic glance at the duck from her good eye, and tromped off to help the lawyer with the stinky cigar. There was a warm draft from the doorway, and for about the eightieth time that night, Johnny turned around to see who it was.
To his surprise, he recognized the young couple who shuffled into the bar, shaking the rain off of their umbrellas. The young man looked like he was in his late twenties, almost six and a half feet tall, and was wearing fatigues. He had been at Anna's Subs earlier that day, and the young woman with him had been Johnny's hostess. He found himself wondering if she came in here often. She didn't look quite old enough, not that the old bar mistress seemed to care about such things.
Halfway hoping they would sit down within listening range, he was disappointed when they took a small table in the corner, underneath the Motocross tournament on ESPN 2. The soldier took her hand in his, and simultaneously a bright blue Yamaha sent its rider face-first into the mud on the screen above. She wriggled free and called for the waiter.
Still wearing her Anna's uniform, John remembered his captivation with her exotic features earlier that day. She was slender and mysterious, with curves like a question mark.
He struggled to avoid the exclamation point that was quickly rising under his khakis as he forced himself from her soft brown curls and sapphire eyes. Raising his hand for another beer, he was disappointed when the old lesbian walked right past him. Looking over to the duck, who hadn't touched its drink all night, he removed the shot glass from the sticky-with-grenadine bar.
"Do you mind?" he asked. The duck didn't say anything, so he slung it back like a bottle of Viagra and felt as it burned down his throat.
It wasn't long before the need to pee was tickling at his psyche, and so he told the duck to save his seat while he went to break the seal. It had been four hours since he ambled in, and he had yet to visit his favorite room in the house. The door to the bathroom swung open, and a quick zip later, Johnny was standing on a heap of dampened toilet paper, unloading his night's work all over the stall.
When the bathroom door slammed open again, Johnny was so startled he almost caught himself in his zipper. Just drunk and lethargic enough to keep his composure, however, he managed to stay quiet, to hear some intruder stomp into the tiny bathroom. From the safety of the stall, he listened as World War III erupted in the men's bathroom of the Body Politic. Loose rolls of toilet paper tumbled like hand grenades under the wall as the unseen berserker assaulted various inanimate objects around the room. The flimsy grey Formica stall door shuddered under a barrage of angry fists, and Johnny was considering an escape over the grungy, graffiti-ridden wall just as the sliding door lock buckled and then gave way, revealing the attacker at last.
"Whoa, buddy," said Johnny to the young soldier from Anna's as his chest rose and fell in heavy heaves beneath his fatigues. His knuckles were swollen and red, and a blood dripped from where it coalesced between his fingers onto the sick blue tiles of the floor, soaked up by urine-scented toilet paper.
Johnny's gaze froze on the man's fists, too drunk or intimidated to make eye contact. A quick glance revealed the soldier's name, "Foster," which was stitched over his left breast in black and tan. Unsure of where to go from here, Johnny flushed the toilet, perhaps as a peace offering.
"Uh," said Johnny, forcing a smile, "did you need to use this?"
The soldier's thick brow line wrinkled, and seconds or days later he turned away without acknowledging his question. As Johnny emerged quietly from the stall the man stood hunched over the sink, his neck muscles taut and clenching the base of his skull. Briefly, he considered asking the man what the girl from Anna's had done to set him off so. Then, remembering the noise of stall door lock's screws sheering, the fit of rage echoed in the thunder sound of the Formica door crashing into Formica wall, he decided not to push his luck and crept out of the bathroom as the soldier flipped on the sink and began to nurse his wounds.
The Sunday night crowd began to disperse as he returned to his seat. As he arrived, the Cyclops lesbian hobbled up, arms crossed.
"Last call," she declared, "you got money or what?"
Careful to move slowly so as not to startle her, Johnny peeled a significant number of bills out of his wallet and slid them over to her.
"One more?" he asked, the need for a drink seeming reasonable after another near-death experience in the crapper.
Screwing up her face, the old lady snatched a beer out of the freezer and opened it with her teeth.
"You ain't driving are ya, mister?"
"Then drink up and get the hell outta my bar."
Downing half the bottle in one intimidated gulp, Johnny let loose a melancholy belch and slumped back down next to the duck.
"I thought I recognized you," said a tiny voice as a delicate hand tapped him on the shoulder.
The girl from Anna's wore a teal linen jacket, and the way she held it wrapped tightly around her made her seem vulnerable. She appeared to be waiting to leave. Despite her apparent vulnerability, he noticed that she always looked directly into his eyes when she spoke to him. They were almost too much to look at, and though Johnny opened his mouth, he closed it again moments later without successfully pushing any words out. Instead he nodded by way of acknowledgment, wondering if he should move the duck so she could sit down.
"Fancy meeting you here, right?" She glanced over her shoulder towards the bathroom door. "You didn't happen to notice anyone go into the bathroom while you were in there, did you?"
Again his mouth opened, and again he closed it as he was reeled in by a renegade tendril of her hair that dangled across her carefully maintained eyebrows.
"I saw your boyfriend," he managed at last, remembering Foster's harsh features, some evil spawn of Frankenstein and GI Joe, "he seemed . . . upset." Lifting his glass to his lips, he remembered too late that it was empty, and blushed as he quickly set it down again. Almost as an afterthought, he asked, "Is everything okay?"
She nodded absently and nearly sat on the duck, only to catch herself at the last second. Picking it up, she placed it on the bar quietly and fiddled with her wrist brace.
"If you don't mind me asking," Johnny said, slowly regaining his composure, "what happened to your arm?"
She bit her thumbnail, but nevertheless continued to stare him down. Her seemingly jumbled broadcast of confidence and vulnerability was driving Johnny wild. He wanted to reach out and touch her face, but as his hand rose, he quickly folded it under his other arm to hide the motion.
"I hurt it playing tennis," she said looking momentarily away, and he knew she was lying.
The bathroom door opened, and the young soldier emerged into the now quiet room. Tissue paper was wrapped around his bloody fist, and he almost resembled a boxer, injured and proud. One by one, each television went out in each corner of the room, making the silence complete except for the man's heavy footsteps in his rubber boots. As he approached, he glanced briefly at Johnny, and as he put his arm around the girl he stood between them rather deliberately.
"Lets get, Deanna," said Foster, his voice a deep, southern draw.
"What took you so long?" she asked, twisting her hair around one long finger as she stared at the empty television screen above the bar.
Ignoring her question, he held up a fifty to the old woman, which she snatched up and took to the back room without asking if he wanted change. They were alone in the place now, and Johnny was desperately wishing he had a little more beer, any legitimate excuse to finish listening to the rest of their conversation.
"What happened to your hand?"
"What the hell business of it is yours?" he snapped, slamming his palm on the bar. If Johnny had a beer, or some pretzels, he might have been able to put something, anything in his mouth to stop what came next. But the old woman had cut him off, and the alcohol was hitchhiking throughout his bloodstream, loosening his tongue.
"I think it's kind of cute," remarked Johnny, pointing despite his best efforts at restraint at her blue wrist brace, and then to the soldier's battered fists.
"You kind of match now."
The fear that paralyzed him in the stall had vanished, gone to where ever inhibitions go when one's been drinking. Perhaps it was that final beer. Perhaps it was courage. But it was more than mere inebriation. It was as if there was someone else inside of him, calling all the shots, making smart-ass remarks to large soldiers. He wondered briefly if this inexplicable force had inspired his recent conversations with the rubber duck, was the thing inside of him that turning off his windshield wipers, driving his self destruction. At any rate, talking back to this soldier probably comprised the best suicide attempt Johnny had made all week. Straightening his back to display his full six and a half feet, Foster turned, glaring all the way.
"What the hell did you say to me?"
Johnny decided to shut up.
And then the alcohol said:
"Oh, are you angry? You gonna break my arm like you broke hers?"
Johnny's face made a thud sound as it smacked into the floor. The man threw heavy, twisting punches, perfectly timed to hit on the most powerful point of their arch. Johnny grabbed his Coors bottle, which had rolled onto the floor, and tried to break it like they do in movie bar fights. Instead the brown glass shattered, cutting up his soft palms.
A kick to the stomach knocked his wind out, and the soldier loomed over him, ignoring Deanna's pleas. Johnny's face and T-shirt were covered with blood, blood from the soldier's busted hands, blood from his own busted lips. He tried to punch him in the shin, of all places, a useless endeavor that only resulted on getting his forearm stepped on as the soldier knelt at his side.
"You messed with the wrong cowboy," the man said, lifting John's head by his hair.
"And you picked the wrong place to cause trouble," said the eye-patched bartender, thrusting something into the back of the soldier's neck, "Freeze! Or I'll blow your friggin' head off!"
Johnny's hair was released, and he turned to see the old woman cackling behind her eye patch, holding the soldier hostage. He wasn't surprised to find this barkeep packing. He wouldn't be surprised to learn that she'd killed a few in her day, either.
"I already called the cops," she said, "and you've got about ten seconds to get the hell out of my bar. One!"
"Listen, lady, calm down—"
"Nine!" she said, her conviction tangible as the cigar flavored air.
With that, the soldier bolted out of the place, smashing into the door that clearly read, "Pull," on the handle. Johnny was shaken, but managed to stand himself up and wipe the blood from his lips as air rushed back into his lungs.
"Fucker," the lady said, "fifty bucks on a forty-nine dollar tab."
Her mouth agape, Deanna pulled a quivering ten dollar bill out of her purse and offered it to the woman.
"You're too young for me, sweetie, and I ain't that cheap," she said, "besides, I thought I told you both to get the hell out!"
Johnny tried to thank her, and went to shake her hand. Suddenly remembering that she was holding a weapon, however, he thought twice about it. He didn't want his fingerprints on anything that could be used to kill someone. Nothing of this old lady's, anyhow.
As he and Deanna left the bar, however, he couldn't help but chuckle. For in her hand, she wasn't sporting any kind of pistol, as Johnny had suspected.
He decided to let the old dyke keep his rubber ducky, seeing as how she had used it to save his life.
"Are you sure you want to be driving right now?" Deanna asked, glancing nervously as the curb crept closer to the wheels of Johnny's Blazer.
"I've never been so sure of anything in my life," he responded. Nothing sobers you up like a good fight, and even though he hadn't put up much of one, Johnny felt alive as they plowed through the rain-slicked streets of the city. He tasted the blood that was still seeping from his busted lip and hands.
It was sweet.
"I'm sorry things ended up how they did," Johnny said. "If I've caused any trouble between you and Rambo."
She giggled at that.
"Rambo, huh?" She reclined in her seat and put her arms behind her head. "I'm not sorry, Jonathan. Not at all. I think it's safe to say that things were over between us before you even stepped in."
The clouds hadn't broken up all the way, but patches of sky speckled the humid night with bright clusters of stars. Johnny ran a red light and made a turn onto Deanna's road.
"You didn't hurt your arm, playing tennis, did you?"
John slowed the smog-hog down to a crawl, and this time it was his turn to stare into her eyes. They were bright even in the shadows, and she returned his stare evenly. Without speaking, she unbuckled the wrist brace.
"It's not what you think. Mark Foster," she swallowed, "was an asshole, but he never hurt me. Only I hurt me."
With that she removed the brace, and in the dim streetlight Johnny could make out a series of scars running up her arm, like rungs on a ladder.
"I don't know why I'm showing you this. I think, for some reason, I feel like you understand. Please don't tell anyone."
The jeep was quiet except for its own sputterings for a second, and then her laughter broke the still.
"That's ridiculous though, who would you tell? You must think I'm silly," she said, diverting her gave out the window.
"Jesus," he said again.
"Look," she said, "I don't know what I was thinking when I did this to myself. I didn't mean to scare you, I just— here, this my house over there. Right here. Just let me out."
"Wait," Johnny grabbed her arm as she was opening the door, unintentionally gripping the cuts on her arms. "That's not . . . that's not what I meant."
"What," she said quietly, "you meant, 'Jesus: there's a well adjusted girl?' Or was it more like 'Jesus: maybe she's feeling vulnerable right now? Jesus, maybe I can get some ass?'"
"It was more like 'Jesus, I never thought anyone as beautiful you could feel as bad about stuff as I do.'"
Her house was several feet behind them already, but she pulled her foot back into the slowly moving car and closed the door. Her eyes softened, and she put her other hand in the lap of her jeans. She made no effort to remove her arm from Johnny's grip. A silence of several heartbeats stretched between them, and then slowly she slipped her arm through his fingers. He thought she might be pulling away from him, but instead she stopped when their hands met, and she closed her fingers around his.
"You feel bad about stuff too?" she asked.
Johnny nodded, and then it was quiet.
He rounded the corner and headed back to Mercury Boulevard, towards the interstate. Through three or four stop lights, the silence was tangible in the car. But still she refused to let go of him, and still he drove on, unsure of where they would go, or what they would do when they got there. Finally, he ventured an experimental comment.
"You know," he said, feeding the engine gas, suddenly coasting fifteen over the speed limit, "pills is really the way to go."
Deanna looked a bit taken aback. For a second, Johnny thought she might ask to be let out. To his surprise, she buckled her seatbelt again instead.
"Oh yeah. I swallowed a whole bottle of pills once. It was . . . altering."
"Maybe you're right. Wrist slicing is so last autumn," she replied, venturing a smile.
As the Blazer pulled onto the interstate at a speed that nearly flipped the jeep over, Deanna unbuckled her seatbelt again, and pulled her legs up into her chair. Opening her purse, she pulled out a crumpled carton of cigarettes and offered one to Johnny. Taking one, he held it before himself in both hands as he steered with his knees.
"You know, I don't really smoke. I've been thinking about starting though."
"You really, really should," she said, sheltering her lighter from the draft of the open windows. "You don't have to kill yourself all at once."
The vehicle picked up speed, and before they realized it they were going eighty, eighty-five, one hundred and five miles per hour. One by one, Hampton Road's generic neighborhoods with two-car garages, 2.5 children, and Viagra in the medicine cabinets flew by. As the clock on Johnny's radio flipped to 5:00 AM, they rolled out of the fish stench of the city heading south, and he finally understood what Nick enjoyed so much about smoking.
"Maybe," Johnny speculated, "I should stop bathing too?"
Soon they were crashing across the state line into North Carolina, passing cars by driving in the emergency lane, switching drivers at high speeds. The cool morning air blasted through their open windows, scattering their hair. They laughed and tickled each other, and as the jeep glided over pavement she revealed to him dark things about her life, and he used them to fill the empty spaces in his soul. His fingers climbed up the ladder of her scars, her mouse-like digits tangled within, climbing too. They swerved closer and closer to telephone poles, joking about flying through the windshield when they finally hit one, about their guts mingling together on the pavement. And as their laughter and the sun pushed the day into motion, she spoke for the first time in miles:
"Jonathan, we're fucking sickos."
He didn't answer her just yet, but he knew it was true. Maybe someday it wouldn't be. But for now, everything felt just as it should.
And he was loving every minute.
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson