McRib is Back

"Interchange" by Shannon Ellis

“Interchange” by Shannon Ellis

Rich Chavez emerged from Albertson’s to find a boy with a toy gun aimed at the storefront, going pew, pew, pew, shooting up the whole joint. Rich played along, grimaced and thrust back his neck and put up his hands. The bag he held slid down his arm. The boy leveled the gun at Rich’s heart and went pew.

Rich grabbed his heart and said, “You got me.”

The boy’s dad appeared and yanked the boy by the arm, stooped, and said, “Don’t you shoot at nobody but daddy.” The dad turned to Rich and smiled. “Sorry,” he said. He tugged the boy’s arm. “Say sorry.” But the boy wouldn’t speak, just looked up at his dad, tearful, a look that said, This is what you taught me. The dad shook his head at the boy and smiled at Rich, “Sorry,” giving Rich a look that said, I don’t know what to tell you.

Rich shrugged and said, “He was just playing.” He pulled his hand out as a gun, and pointed it at the boy.

The boy nuzzled his dad’s pant leg, dropped the gun to his hip, and moped alongside and they entered. The doors gasped open. Rich stood aside and watched them enter. The boy’s fist clasped at his daddy’s pants, the dad’s hand at his back.

For the past six months, more or less straight, Rich’d been on the road. Six months since his own son dematerialized in the Iraqi desert, since the closed casket ceremony and the presentation of the folded triangle flag. He’d spent more time on the road than with his own grieving wife—grieving in hollowed-out silence. The road soothed him, numbed him, buzzed below his feet. November along the I-10. He’d run the route for years. Whole cities constructed to hide—San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson—to blend in, adobe to be lost against sand, rock walls, dust and scrub. The desert dried and dormant. Disorienting, soothing like the first falling shadows of a blindfold. He watched the road hoping any moment his son might appear on the fizzling edge of asphalt in the distance or from amongst the roadside blur.

Earlier that afternoon, stymied, lurching west into El Paso in a snarl of traffic, he spilled a Gatorade bottle full of chew spit on the passenger-side floorboard. It was a mess. The jittering puddle stunk of rotted leaves—two weeks’ worth of thick spit darkened with tobacco grains. He pulled off the highway and hauled up Mesa. With everyone going home, it was hard to find space for the rig. He ended up tunneling his way to the farthest edge of the Albertson’s parking lot.

Now, on his way back to the rig, crossing the lot, he almost stepped on a pound of ground beef someone had dropped on the ground. The shrink-wrap was torn and the meat lay on a Styrofoam shell in a pool of thinned blood. The meat shimmered purple and grey and pink. He nudged it with his foot and strolled on. The bag—towels and 409 he’d bought to mop up the mess—dangled from his hand.

“We’ll get this done,” he said. He squinted at the sun going down.

Some of the chew spit had dripped down into the console. He kept a package his son had sent in there. A T-shirt. A note came with it, written on an index that read, Hope it fits. No name. No “love you, Dad.” This was after the funeral. He didn’t tell his wife. The Service was supposed to catch that sort of thing, but mistakes were made. Maybe it wasn’t even his son who’d sent it, or his son in the closed casket. It was hard for him to believe the boy would never come back. He closed the console, the package untouched, and cracked the windows.

He decided to let the rig air awhile longer and wait out traffic at McDonald’s, downhill a couple blocks. He saw the banner on his way into town, McRib Is Back. He took a stool overlooking the street and watched the cars go by. If it wasn’t for all these people, he’d have been halfway to Tucson. A drive he could make with his eyes shut.

The last time Rich had a McRib was with his son, before he’d shipped out. He removed the bun, and peeled off the pickles and onions. The pork patty was pink and white and glassy. Furrows, dark gouges of deep pink, and rises meant to be bone, slathered in barbecue sauce. Pig innards, scalded stomach: Rematerialized meat formed in a mold. There are some things in this world, he thought, you do not want to know. He and his son had joked, if he could stomach a McRib, nothing could touch him, and even if it did, some mystical quality of its ingestion would bring him back to life. There was nothing to worry about, he assured his son. He would come back in one piece.

The sky darkened. All along the day had meant to be night.

On his way back to the rig, he passed some bars. The wind whistled, and dust cut and swirled over the street. He stopped before a bar and considered it. Beams poked from the walls of a mud-style adobe. The freight didn’t have to be in Phoenix till noon the next day. He had time. He liked to drive at night. Anyway, he thought, he’d let the truck air out some.

Inside, the furniture was rustic. Tabletops of crosscut trunk slabs and chairs made from stripped branches. The bar cut from a single log, its edge rough and winding. A streak of sunlight ran across the bar. The last daylight snuck in from the window, where at the end of the bar, the bartender served a group of boys. The light made them shade their eyes. Rich sat down at the bar, near the tap, and put his hands in and out of the sunlight as if testing hot water. Johnny Cash played on the juke box. Ring of Fire.

Whenever Rich entered a place, a hospital waiting room or a baseball stadium, he sized everyone up, judged who was harmless, who might put up a fight. Five, six boys bellied up at the end of the bar, dressed in jerseys for the Cowboy’s game. He figured he could take them, if it came to that, at least one at a time. At a hospital he tried to match a person to their disease. Sickness could tell a lot. At a bar, he could pick out the amateur drinkers (those who drink to get drunk, drunk before they knew it), the drunks (those who never sobered), and the innocents (those who had no business at a bar, who mistook drunks for friends). These boys were amateurs, well on their way to getting drunk. One of them watched him as he sat down. The boy’s face shone with sweat, and his jaw stuck out on either side of his neck. His eyes fixed on Rich like he knew him or hated him.

A girl worked the bar. Blonde, with her hair pulled back and a flap of bangs. She wore a black shirt that was bunched up and sewn. On the chubby side, if he had to say. Pellets like double-ought buckshot pinched her earlobes. Could have been his daughter-in-law under different circumstances. When she came over, he ordered a Bud Light for starters and asked for a cup to spit in, in case he felt like a dip. She asked for his ID but only glanced—he was past the years of scrutiny.

“You’re from Arizona,” she said. “Me too.”

“No kidding?” he said. “What part?” A puddle from someone else’s drink stained the bar. He fingered it in a circle with his middle finger.

“Phoenix—Mesa.” Arms crossed, she leaned against the counter on the other side of the bar. She was young. Everyone there was young.

“No kidding,” he said. “We’re practically neighbors. I live in Gilbert. What brings you out here? To El Paso, and this?” He shoved his thumb out toward the window, and the desert and all the impossible, prickled cacti. “Nothing good I bet.” He smiled. He drank his beer.

“My husband’s military.” She pushed herself back from the counter. “He’s off. In Afghanistan,” she whispered and glanced at the end of the bar. She leaned back and looked again toward the end of the bar and those boys in front of the TV screen, Sunday Night Football, Cowboys at Eagles. She turned back and looked at him.

Rich drank, nodded and swallowed. “You know, my son was in the Marines. Iraq. Two tours.” He smiled, meaning to say, It’s not so bad. He’ll be fine. “It’s a good cause what they’re fighting for. They put their lives on the line so we can live like we do.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Let me know if you need anything else.” Amber Lee it said on her nametag.

“I might,” he said. Lee was his son’s name. A military wife is a delicate matter, he thought.

 

The opening kickoff saw the Cowboys pinned deep after a clipping penalty. The boys at the end of the bar ordered up another round. Rich watched Amber Lee set glasses on a tray below the tap. One by one, she tipped the glasses, poured, and righted them when nearing full. A thin layer of foam settled at the top of each glass and dissolved into a ring along its edge. She smiled at Rich when she caught him watching—a smile to keep from crying, he thought. It seemed to Rich like she knew the boys at the end of the bar. They called her by name. They got their beers and drank before setting them down. Her back to the bar, she watched the game a while and chatted with a girl who was with them.

That wide-jawed boy at the end of the bar kept on with that look. The sort of look that tells you who you are, like he knew what Rich was up to—but what? He didn’t know. The boy squinted, red faced—either drunk or sunburned. His face was heavy in the jaw like ground beef sagging in a Ziploc bag—and shiny. Maybe it was a mask, he thought. Every few minutes, the boy’d squeeze eye drops into his eyes. Rich tried to ignore him, but he swore, even when the boy wasn’t looking, he meant something with the angle of his head.

Next time Rich ordered, he told Amber Lee about the coincidence of her name and his son’s. That was two coincidences—three if he counted the military. Girls love coincidence because it was God that made it that way. Everything happens for a reason. When you have a son, a husband, a brother at war—they can’t die. Death was a superstition. “You know everything you do,” he said, “everyday, affects what happens on the battlefield. Tie your shoes the wrong way, and their lives are in danger.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “You don’t believe that.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Why not?”

“You think everything happens for a reason? You got a stain on your shirt. What about that?” She pointed at his chest.

“I’m not falling for that one.”

“I swear.”

He looked down at his chest. It was the barbeque sauce from the McRib, the spot where the boy had leveled his toy gun. “What do you know? I don’t think that stain will wipe off,” he said.

“Here.” Amber Lee offered up a moist paper towel.

He wiped at the stain, but it wouldn’t budge. “It’s McRib.”

She clicked her tongue against her teeth and grimaced. “Are those any good?” She cradled her stomach.

“I’m a fan,” he said. “I could grab you one. It’s just across the street.”

“No,” she said. She turned and looked at the end of the bar.

One of the boys swirled a finger for another round. The boy watched him, a grin on his face.

“Sorry,” she said.

 

Rich looked up at Amber. Her arms crossed and seemed to be propped up by her belly.

“What about you,” Amber Lee asked. “What are you doing out here?”

“Running some freight from San Antonio and into Phoenix tomorrow.” He didn’t want to burden the girl about the struggles with his wife, about his son, about the silences. “I drive and I drive,” he said. “You have to pay the bills.”

“Don’t I know it.”

He looked up at the wall above the bar. Between the sports memorabilia and neon beer signs hung a collection of shotguns and rifles. Blackened, rusted bayonets fanned out like a sunburst. “I saw the bar,” he said, “and thought I’d loosen up, stretch my legs. Too much driving all day, you get stiff. You need to stretch and loosen up.” This reminded him to drink. He gulped and held out his beer and sloshed it around. The beer turned and turned. He looked through the glass toward the end of the bar and found the boy watching him through whirlpool.

Rich told Amber Lee he’d been in the reserves before the wars, in the eighties. He told her how he didn’t get much out of it, how he worked as a truck driver now and had always meant to go back to school to take advantage, to make the time he gave pay. He always said this but never bothered to pick up a book. “Who am I kidding?” He smiled at Amber Lee and shrugged.

A military wife is a delicate matter, so Rich didn’t mention her husband, or what could happen to him, or how obviously lonely she was. She said she was worried. So he told her they—her husband, soldiers—were having fun, just playing around. He didn’t tell her about his son or how he died. About the circumstances, about how, whatever it was that happened, was undisclosed. That in war, boys die without any explanation. Disappeared in a ring of smoke.

His son had sent him a t-shirt, he told her. It was funny, but of course, he didn’t tell her how it arrived a month after his son’d died. The shirt read: OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM: CAMEL PATROL UNIT. A soldier manned a turret gun. He was saddled atop a camel wearing night vision goggles. They faced opposite directions, the soldier guarding the rear. The camel strapped with ammunition, missiles, grenades. A Wolf Pack medallion dangled from its neck. It looked like fun to him, riding a camel. A souvenir of war.

Amber Lee was a good listener. “That’s funny,” she said. “Gotta have a sense of humor.”

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked for so long with somebody, even his wife. Most people wouldn’t listen.

The boy at the end of the bar kept giving him that look. The window was black behind him. Rich smiled at him. When you’re young, you have to be hard.

Amber Lee noticed. “I’ll be right back,” she said. “They need a drink.” She looked toward the end of the bar and then went there.

The boy stared at him, pink faced, smirked—or maybe it was just the lighting. When Amber Lee came with the beer the boy said, “About time.” He reached over the bar and slid his hand down her back and then gave her a smack on the ass. He was obviously something to her, with his hands all over her, and right out in front of everybody, if not her husband then a son of a bitch, taking advantage of a military wife like that. Rich looked up from the hand, and the boy wore the same smirk.

When she came back, Rich said, “Don’t worry about it, honey. He’ll be fine, your husband.”

“It’s all right,” Amber Lee said, looking down at the counter. She glanced at the end of the bar. “You get use to it.” One of the boys yelled out bam, you like that, you like that, followed by a clatter of high fives. She turned to the clatter, and looked like she was about to tear up. “It’s hard. I was just twenty when we got married, and the second time he went,” she stopped, looked over at the boys, and hushed her voice. “When I was little, me and my sisters, we played this game. We practiced fighting for when we got married.” She put her fists up, threatening to punch, and then threw her hands up and shrugged as if to say, I don’t know. She looked down at her stomach and her hand swirled over it.

“You can never start too young,” he said. He thought he might have yelled this, but he couldn’t tell. He hadn’t drunk this much in some time. He pulled a face of understanding. He pulled his jeans up and spread his legs, resting his boots on the stool rail. “Well, men like to play as much as boys, but when they’re gone, you got to fight for yourself. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. If that guy’s giving you trouble…”

“And when they’re here?” she said. She gestured with her head. “That’s him and his buddies over there. He’s the one with the…” She brought her hands to her face like she was measuring the width of her jaw. “He likes to come in when I work. I didn’t want to say anything.”

At this Rich threw up his eyebrows and looked their way. He thought a moment. “Well, I feel like I should thank him.”

“Don’t,” she said and looked at the guys at the end of the bar. She pulled her blouse up from her chest and shoulders, and spread it down over her belly.

 

Rich watched the game distractedly, remembering a game he played as a kid with his brothers and cousins. Blind Man’s Bluff, they called it. Whoever was it got blindfolded. Helpless, hands out, he wandered around trying to catch somebody, and when he did, he had to guess who he’d caught, by hair, by face, by grunts or laughter. They played in garages with the windows blacked out. Absolute darkness, towels bunched up under doors. Garages with concrete floors, cluttered with dismantled ping-pong tables, bench presses, exercise cycles, radial arm saws—hard things that gashed shins or jammed fingers. It was a brutal, game and they loved it. They took up weapons: broom sticks, pool cues, ankle weights. They set out traps: intricate snares, speaker wires running from one side of the room to the other, buckets of old tools set on the edges of benches—one time Rich lost a toe nail. They played dirty. Jabs, smacks, a kick to the back of the knee. He’d let loose with ankle weights. The sand added force, and the metal buckles left welts. Without fail, somebody ended up crying and ran indoors. Between get-togethers they’d forget how bad it was. And they never knew for certain who to blame.

Their kids picked up the game—must’ve had it in their DNA, Rich liked to joke. They played in some of the same garages. One Thanksgiving, when Lee was nine, one of the cousins—none will admit to it—had set out tacks on the floor. They played in their socks. When Lee was it, he stepped on them. Who knows, maybe he’d put them out. But with the pain, the rage, he took off his blindfold and tackled the first cousin he saw. He wrapped his hands around his neck, and before the others could pull him off, he’d strangled him till he stopped breathing.

They found Lee hours later, panting out tears in the shed, covered in saw dust, crouched down behind bins of sports gear and stacks of firewood. He thought they were going to send him to prison because he’d killed his cousin. His cousin had faked it, but Lee wouldn’t believe he was alive, not the same as before. “Leave me alone,” he said, snuffling with tears. But he came around. When he got up and took his first few steps, the tacks clicked. Lee hopped on one foot and grabbed at Rich to hold himself up. His son stopped and showed him his foot. Each tack, red or blue or yellow, circled with blood.

 

Rich propped his arm against the condom dispenser when the piss wouldn’t stop coming. He flushed and left. On the TV, sports casters analyzed the replays and showed them again. The Cowboys got handled. Most of the bar had cleared out. The ceiling fan circled, and the juke box had long gone silent. The boys rattled on at the end of the bar. Amber Lee’s husband, the one with the look, eyeballed him as he passed. Rich was suddenly aware he felt drunk. The floor seemed to buckle and warp below and before him.

Water hissed from the faucet behind the bar where Amber Lee stood washing glasses.

Rich took a seat, tapped the bar with a finger, and asked Amber Lee: “How about something to settle my stomach. What do you got? Something smooth.”

She straightened up and dried her hands on a towel. “Well, we got Sprite, ginger ale. Coffee if you’re thinking of making the drive tonight.”

“No. I mean, something to get me feeling good,” he said. “You got Jack Daniels?”

She laughed. “This is a bar.” She glanced at the boys who’d now taken a table near the window. She sighed and said, “You sure? Just, you know, with you having to drive and all.”

Just fill the glass, he thought. “I’m a grown man.”

She clanked the bottles and poured the shot. Her hands were puffy, and her knuckles made dimples. The light shone on her face. A rash of pimples burned on her cheeks. “Here you go.” She placed the shot before him on the bar and wiped both hands on her blouse.

He raised the shot glass. He smiled to show her it wasn’t the end, that there was no need to feel so lonely. It would all work out. The shot burned and went down like a raw egg. “How about one for yourself? My treat.”

“I can’t,” she said. She frowned and glanced at the end of the bar. She looked down at her stomach. She swirled a hand over her belly.

Damn, he thought. The bunchiness of her shirt hid the bump. “I guess not,” he said. He went on sipping his beer, washing down the mess. He felt the blood in the tips of his ears, closed his eyes. The shot settled deep. He scraped his face, rubbed the stubble—the sound of ripping Velcro. He opened his eyes wide and jerked his head a good shake.

“After the shot,” she said, “you’re supposed to yell, bam.”

“One more time then,” he said.

She fixed the drink and told him to be careful.

He held it up to her and said, “Bam.”

“No, after,” she said. She smiled and shook her head and looked to the end of the bar. Her smile disappeared.

He swallowed. “Bam,” he said. He put the glass down and paid little mind to the worried glances she cast. He went on to tell her about his son and how their long-planned business was going, at least how he thought it would’ve went. They had scoped out a storefront on Eliot Road. A neon sign would’ve read: Chavez Sound Systems. His son loved those shows where they pimped your ride: cars reupholstered with Louis Vitton or alligator skin and holographic paint jobs. They’d start with car stereos, move on to interiors, and expand to a full-on detail shop. “But for now,” he said, “I got to keep on trucking,” and laughed.

“You know that’s…” She paused and put the back of her hand to her head. “Remember the McRib you were talking about? I’m really hungry.” She smiled drowsily. “Would you mind?”

“No. You got it, young lady.” He turned and held his finger up. “My treat.”

“And some fries.”

“You bet. The whole spread.” He smiled at her. She cradled her belly. Her blouse was all bunched up and sewn in vertical lines over and over. He thought of what was inside her.

 

When Rich returned, he found the boys cackling and making a ruckus. Two sat wearing red bandanas over their eyes. Light splintered between them. Unopened beers were set out in a circle on the table. The rest of the boys, five or six, surrounded the table, outside the light. The one with the heavy jaw watched him, his face shiny as shrink-wrap.

Rich decided maybe he didn’t mean anything by it. When Amber Lee handed him his beer he lifted it and nodded—salud, arriba, abajo, al centro y pa’ dentro—and downed it. The boy’s lips stretched in a smirk.

“Ignore them,” Amber Lee said. She ate the McRib with her back to them, taking small bites like she was ashamed. “It’s a game they play. It’s stupid.”

He caught bits of conversation from the dark corner: I’ll get paid; Do it, do it; You gonna get fucked up, and other senseless chatter. He felt like he was watching a dubbed movie. Mouths moved, but the sound didn’t match. One of the boys smacked the table and yelled, “No, no. No.” He smacked the table again and said, “You pay.” The voices seemed to come from behind him. One of the two at the table cracked a beer close to his face and downed it straight off. He crumpled the can and threw it.

Rich asked Amber Lee about the game.

“It’s stupid,” she said.

They called it Beer Hunter. Two players are blindfolded, and six beers placed on the table. One beer gets shaken and mixed in with the rest. Everyone else stakes drinks, wagering on who picks the shaken beer. The players pick one beer at a time, hold it to their face like it’s a revolver, and open it. If it explodes, that player loses and chugs all the beers left on the table. If it doesn’t explode, the opponent chugs, and they keep playing. The only way out is to lose.

“You mean, like Deer Hunter?”

“Like what?”

“The movie?”

Amber Lee nibbled at the McRib and shrugged her shoulders.

He watched a couple rounds from his seat at the bar. Amber Lee went back and forth, restocking the beers whenever someone lost. She told Rich to just ignore them. One had his beer explode the first try. His face dripped with foam. They made him drink the one that had exploded and then the five left over. About half way through the third, when the boy started burping and swallowing hard, Amber Lee told them the boy had had enough and they told her to get a trashcan in case. He had to drink, they said. It was part of the game, puking too, if it came to that.

A matter of pride, Rich thought.

He moved closer to the circle. He could tell the one with the cellophane face and heavy jaw had been in some kind of accident. He wore a mask of his own skin, thick with ridged scars. The skin looked trowelled on. No lips or eyebrows. He wore a Cowboys hat, but had no hair to cover. His eyelids didn’t seem to work. He squeezed in eye drops but didn’t blink.

“Baby,” he said to Amber Lee, “let us have our fun.”

“Danny,” she said, “don’t do this.”

“What? It’s just some fun.”

Amber Lee went to the ice chest and came back to their table with another round of beers. She hesitated as she passed Rich and whispered, “Don’t get involved.”

“What?” he said.

Jesus, he thought, if you couldn’t close your eyes. It’d be a shame to see everything. The husband came up behind her and looked at Rich. Dark gauges of deep-pink skin surrounded his blue eyes and puckered up against the irises. The whites of his eyes were covered. His face shone pink and white. Flesh clumped at his jaws and looked like wax hands stretching the skin off his face.

“Well?” he said. “My name’s Danny. What? Do you want to play? Is that it?” He stuck his hand out. “You game?”

“I’m Rich,” he said. He took Danny’s hand. “I wasn’t planning on it, but sure. I’ll play.”

“All right. Give him a seat.”

Amber Lee flicked up her bangs and glared at Danny and shook her head. She stomped off and threw open the cooler door.

The circle of boys opened up for him. The table was a thick cross-cut slab of pine still edged with bark. Empty beers, smashed or tipped over, covered the table, and rings of foam marked where they had sat. He and Danny sat down across from each other. The bandanas were crumpled up in front of them.

The boy who had just lost opened a beer and said, “Number four.” He drank and hiccupped.

Amber Lee came back with the beers on a tray and a trash can she let drop to the ground. “Just in case,” she said. She left the tray on the end of the bar.

The boys cleared the table.

“Who’s God?” Danny said, pointing at the beers on the tray. He looked at the others. One of the boys said he’d do it. Danny turned to Rich. “Whoever’s God picks a beer and shakes it up. He’s like a referee. Now, put on your blindfold. We can’t see him do it.” Danny removed his hat, his skull bald and pink, and took out a pair of dark tinted ski goggles. He put them on and wrapped the blindfold over that.

Rich put on his blindfold.

The boys who’d been so loud were quiet now. He could hear the slosh of a beer being shaken. Someone had opened a can of chew. The air smelled of Copenhagen and stale beer. He heard the beers being shuffled on the table. Sand pattered at the window.

“All right,” the boy who was God said, “take off the blindfolds. And Remember,” he pointed at Rich, “the only way out is to lose.”

He and Danny took off the blindfolds. The six beers were set out in a circle. The boy who was God put a beer in the circle and set it spinning. Rich had no strategy for this game, but it turned out he didn’t have to worry. The can stopped with the mouth end facing Danny.

He still wore the goggles. “Come on, man,” he said. “You got to be fucking kidding.”

Rich didn’t know if it was the goggles, but he had a vision of Danny going berserk, picking up all the beers and chucking them, upending the table, throwing chairs through the window and into to the black night, the rustling dust. Rich could see himself on the floor, hands wrapped around his neck.

“I’ll go first,” Rich said.

“What?” someone shouted. “You gonna let this old man show you up?”

“Shit,” Danny said, “I go when it’s my turn. I ain’t no bitch.” He stood. The arm he hovered over the cans was thick and muscled. The other, drawn up into his sleeve, was shriveled, the same trowelled-over skin graft as his face. It dangled at his side. Danny picked a beer, set it down, and then picked out another. He trapped it against his shoulder and contorted his arm up to crack it open. “Is this what you want?” he asked Rich.

“What?”

The beer exploded, spritzed and foamed down Danny’s shirt. “Fuck,” he said, long and drawn out, like gravel crushed on pavement.

The boy who was God held his hand as a gun at Danny, pulled the trigger, and said, “One to the head. K-I-A.”

The wind whipped, and dust scoured the window.

Rich watched Danny who now sat with his good arm over an unopened beer. His finger circled over it.

“How’d you do that?” Danny said. “You got good luck.”

Rich looked at the goggles. “Sure,” he said with a sort of grin. “Luck, right.”

Amber Lee stood at the end of the bar. “Danny,” she said, “it’s time to close.”

“We’ll finish,” Danny said. He cracked a beer and lifted it to the hole where his mouth was. He could barely tip back his neck when he went to drink. He rested the lip of the can on his teeth. His throat pulsed as the beer went down. He downed another and then another. A thread of beer slid from his mouth and down his neck.

Rich saw his own reflection in the ski goggles. His reflection swirled in a holograph of color. The pale pink bald head.

“Jesus, Danny,” Amber Lee said. “Give me a break.”

Danny cracked another beer. Rich thought he might be smiling.

“I think you’re done,” Amber Lee said. She picked up a towel, wiped her hands, and took off toward the other end of the bar.

Rich looked at the boy, but he could only bear the sight of the goggles. There are some things, he thought, you don’t want to know. Rich closed his eyes. He could reach out and touch him, take his hand, and wait until the words came. It’s not your fault.

He reached over and took the beer out of Danny’s hand and said, “Hope you don’t mind, son.” The goggles presented a blank and pitiless gaze, but no resistance. Rich smiled, and raised the beer as if to give thanks. He chugged. It burned at first like a clump of tacks, but smoothed as it went down. He drank another and then another. He watched himself with one eye on the goggles. The reflection of himself, his neck thrust back, the can up, the colors swirling.

 

By Jonathan Nehls

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