Breaking Even

He shouldered his way through the doorway like lots of guys who stop at their local tavern for a few drinks after the second shift. Every 24 hours the same ritual played out at neighborhood bars all over Barnesville, and that frigid January night was no different. His shabby russet-colored parka was shiny with grease, the hem sprouting wisps of loose thread. A faded black knit beanie covered most of his large head. The moment he pulled the door closed behind him his glasses fogged up from the heat.

The difference between him and other guys who had already come and gone that night in Sheik’s Cafe was the pistol that he yanked out of his pocket and pointed at Augie, who stood behind the bar, drying his hands on a dish towel. “Lock the goddamn door,” the guy shouted. “You’re closed for the night.” Augie scrambled to the door and turned the lock. Aside from Augie, there wasn’t much of an audience. Frank and Screwy Louie were perched on stools at the bar and I sat in a rickety chair at one of the small tables up front next to the picture window which looked out at the deserted intersection of Liberty Street and Union Boulevard.

Right away he started waving the gun around and hollering about his wife, how she was no good, he never should have trusted her, he loved her, his best friend Ronnie was a no good bastard, the cops are probably looking for him, it was all over, he was gonna kill Ronnie and anybody who got in his way. He wasn’t saying anything all that different from what you heard most nights from some schmo at the end of the bar in Sheik’s. But his gun added a freshness to the delivery. I couldn’t tell you the make, only that it was big, with a white handle and a long barrel.

He plopped down on the stool closest to the door, took off his glasses and jammed them into a pocket in his parka. “Give me a shot and a beer and give these guys whatever they’re drinking,” he told Augie, then he pointed the gun at us, one by one. “You guys just stay where you are. I gotta figure this out. You don’t have a problem with that do you?” We answered as a chorus. “Sure thing, buddy. No problem. Thanks for the drink.” He may not have heard me, because he jerked the gun back in my direction. “How about you over there? What do you think?” “I’m cool,” I said. “You don’t have to worry about me.”  “Well, that’s good, Mr. Cool,” he said. “I got enough to worry about.”

He tossed back the shot and swallowed hard, then reached for his beer and told Augie to give us all another round. Augie nodded and did as he was told, but not without ringing the cash register and counting out the exact amount from the bills and loose change scattered on the bar. Not much rattled Augie. Short in a sawed-off kind of way, with a grey complexion, heavy beard and hairy forearms, he had the look of a half-smoked cigar. Always agreeable, he just never seemed a hundred percent awake. His daughter, Loretta, tended bar for him a couple nights a week. If anyone asked about Augie’s whereabouts she’d say he was at home trying to convince her mother that he was still alive.

I heard that Augie bought Sheik’s because he liked the name. He was a big fan of the movie Lawrence of Arabia. His only contribution was to add the apostrophe, which said something about how Augie saw himself. But, punctuation aside, the place was a dive, consisting of one long high-ceilinged room no more than 30 feet wide with a well-worn wooden bar on one side, a juke box and bathrooms on the other side, and a thicket of small tables up front. A back door that no one had ever seen open kept Augie in the good graces of the fire marshal. Next to the door was a pay phone that never got much use either. The most exotic features were a framed painting of a white stallion, presumably an Arabian, that hung above the urinal in the men’s room, and the light blue barber’s smock that, inexplicably, Augie wore while on duty.

“I knew it,” Louie shouted. “I knew I recognized you. Goddamn it. Corky, you’re Corky Flannagan. It’s me, Louie Groff from William Penn High. Gotta be 10 or 12 years. Am I right? How the hell are you, Corky? I guess not so good, huh. Well, you came to the right place, brother.”

Corky stared at Louie, head cocked to the side, as though Louie was far, far away, and Corky was trying to divine what he was looking at off in the distance

Louie was familiar with that look. In his late teens he dropped one too many tabs of LSD and never fully made it back. His eyes were abnormally moist, tear-filled, you might say, and his pudgy face was fitted with a permanent ‘village idiot’ half smile, as though right in the fading seconds of an acid-induced cosmic giggle his face had been flash-frozen. He was a casualty, unable to do much more than hold his position on a barstool in Sheik’s where he spent most of his monthly disability check on 75-cent beers, pickled eggs and beef jerky.

With Corky still studying him, Louie started to fidget. “I know how you feel, man. My mother keeps telling me that if I don’t get it together she’s gonna throw me out, maybe put me in a nursing home. Can you believe that shit? My own mother.”

Elbow propped on the bar, Corky pointed the gun at Louie. “Just shut the fuck up, you goofy bastard! Maybe I should put you out of your misery.”

Louie emitted a high-pitched canine whine, elevated his eyebrows and turned his wobbly smile toward Frank, who was busy shredding a paper coaster on the bar. Frank was an eyes-to-the-floor guy under the best of circumstances. He worked at the chicken processing plant a few miles outside of town. In a nod to the 1970s, he wore a shag haircut a la Rod Stewart, but his layered blonde hair was thinning and patchy, which gave him a plucked look. With a narrow face and a long, curved nose, Frank made a poor first impression on everyone but the chickens. The moment Corky pulled out that gun Frank’s worrying eyes locked onto the coaster and stayed there.

I had been at low tide long before Corky showed up. I was already cursing myself for being in Sheik’s that night, regretting that I was anywhere in Barnesville, for that matter. In the past year I had passed up the chance to attend a small, ‘selective’ college in Maine that liked my test scores and my blue-collar demographic enough to offer me a free ride. My reasoning was that I had everything I wanted right here in Barnesville. Primarily, that meant Vicky, my girlfriend and first true love. Unable to imagine life without her, I claimed that I had no need for higher education, that like many of my friends I was content to work at one of the unionized plants in and around Barnesville. I’d spend every available hour with Vicky, make a good living, buy a nice house in the west end of town, start a family.

That plan exploded in my face a week before Thanksgiving when Vicky announced that she felt suffocated. I was too needy, too jealous, too possessive. And then the coup de grace: we should start seeing other people. Since that evening on her parents’ couch, I was feeling more sorry for myself with every passing hour that I spent in goggles and a hard hat on the assembly line at the John Deere plant. This was my first straight-up rejection and it hit me hard. For the past six weeks, most nights I could be found in self-imposed exile at Sheik’s, alone at this sticky wedge of a table, drinking gin and tonic, chain-smoking Marlboros in the semi-darkness and hating everything and everybody.

But a bad case of the blues was one thing; getting shot to death by some asshole named Corky was a whole different matter.

“Corky, do you mind if I take a leak?”

He turned in his seat and pointed the gun at me. “Go ahead, but don’t do anything stupid.”

I hustled into the bathroom and went straight to the urinal. It was clear to me what had to come next, clear as that idiotic picture of a white horse staring me in the face. I’d burst out of the men’s room and launch myself like a torpedo at Corky, knock him to the floor, grab the gun and tell Augie to call the cops.

Inhaling deeply, then slowly and deliberately exhaling, I replayed my one-punch knockout of a drunken Stevie Kovacks two summers ago in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Moving to the sink, I washed my hands, then carefully dried them on a crusty white towel hanging on a chain, all the while looking at myself in the mirror. “C’mon man, c’mon. You got this.”

Imagining the expression on Vicky’s face when she heard about my heroics, feeling loose and dangerous, I pushed open the door and waded into the purple glow of the juke box, expecting to see Corky sitting where he’d been 90 seconds earlier. But now he was on his feet, his back to the bar, eyeballing me, the gun pointed in the general direction of my head. Coming to a hard stop, I nodded obsequiously at Corky, then sheepishly slow-stepped it to the table, dropped into my chair like it was a foxhole and lit a cigarette.

“You came out of there awful fast, Mr. Cool. Anything wrong?”

“No, no, everything’s fine.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Corky walked back to the end of the bar and took his seat. He kept pounding down the booze and going on about his wife and Ronnie and whatever it was they did, but he started to sound less belligerent, more lost, more dejected. “Why would they do this to me? How the hell could this happen?” Suddenly, he stopped talking, laid the gun flat on the bar, and sat staring at his glass and the gun.

As he usually did toward the end of the night, Augie stationed himself on a tall stool next to the cash register, where he had a view of the entire room. First, he gave me a long look. Next, he surveyed Frank and Louie, then he snuck a peek at himself in the mirror behind the shelves of liquor bottles. Finally, he looked over at Corky and let out an audible sigh.

A few minutes after two on the clock above the mirror, Corky straightened up, grabbed his glass and swallowed what was left of his beer, banged the glass down on the bar and stuffed the gun into his parka.

“Fuck it! That’s what I say. Fuck ‘em all! Get over here and unlock this fuckin’ door.” Which Augie did, and then Corky was gone. No shots fired, no attempt by the hostages to overwhelm their captor . . . He just got up and left.

Augie re-locked the door and looked at us with wide open silver dollar eyes. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “That son of a bitch better never come back here and pull that shit again.”

Augie gave the three of us a final drink on the house and told us to stay put for a few minutes in case Corky was hanging around outside. Calling the police was never mentioned. It was late and we all wanted to go home. Frank and Louie were high-fiving each other and whooping it up like we’d been liberated from a POW camp. As we filed out, Augie told us to have a good night. “Let’s keep this to ourselves, fellas,” he said. “It would be bad for business.”

On the cold walk home, the streets were quiet. I burrowed into the collar of my pea coat and let myself drift, lulled by the cadence of my boots thumping against the pavement. Despite my less than legendary performance at Sheik’s, I was feeling better than I had in a long time. A couple blocks from my apartment, I stopped on the sidewalk in front of one of the brick rowhomes that lined the street. Through the front window I could see the flickering screen of a television, and curled on top of the tv, in a deep luxurious sleep, was the family cat. Somewhere in that cozy room, I imagined, snug under a blanket on the couch, the owner was blissfully snoring. Maybe losing Vicky wasn’t the end of the world, I thought. Maybe it was time to turn in my hard hat and give up my seat at Sheik’s. Tomorrow, I decided, I’ll get in touch with that school in Maine and ask if they still have a spot for me.

Photography CreditJason Rice

Will Broderick lives in northeast Pennsylvania where he writes short stories, essays and poems.Breaking Even is his debut publication story.