The Better Angels – Novel Excerpt

If, in the annals of our town of Lacana’s folklore, the archangels Michael and Lucifer settled the whole matter of the apocalypse in town, it would be said thus; that they tucked their rusted iron-tipped wings behind the backs of two time-splintered oak chairs and fought for the souls of seven drunks and two anonymous alcoholics who’d steeled themselves against the drink but not the company.

The air would hold a cloud of sawdust and the slivers of peanut shells kicked up by an industrial air conditioner that kept tempers cool on a night too hot for summer. The seat of battle would be the sweat pressed into a tug-of-war handshake, arms sculpted by the torrid affairs of steel picks and concrete foundations, ligaments tested with the carefree launch of hay bales from the fields to flatbeds trailing grass-green heirloom tractors. Perspiration would expose the divine visceral to the pale light of red pendant lamps, chosen for that night by the prophecy of a mail order discount when the door keys of Hey Jo’s changed hands two decades ago.

They’d stay locked, neither giving an inch lest they sink and their forearm taste the table with the force of the other’s triumph. Eyes would not draw to eyes but to the surface before them, lest one win by seeing harder resolve in the stare of the other and know the battle was concluded already. Michael would be an onyx-eyed man named Samuel Blythe, who would release his free hand from its grip on the table’s edge to pull from a chipped glass mug of stale lager passed on from a hand who’d surely bet on his opponent. Lucifer would be a very inebriated Clive Bosson, who would take the moment to launch his entire will into his grip and push at Samuel’s arm with nuclear desperation, leaving it all in the pitch of his elbow on the hard wood. But Samuel would be waiting for him, and, weathering the onslaught, find his fortune in Clive’s recovery, which would never come.

Sam slammed Clive’s arm down on the table surface hard enough to scatter the peanut shells, but not hard enough to prove anything to Clive, or to anybody, for there was no point to prove upon the end of an apocalypse; only upon the beginning.

Having won the battle, Samuel walked through the bar, collecting his souls. Lonnie Rawlins was the first of many to slap a twenty-dollar bill in his hand.

“No way, buddy boy,” Lonnie said as he rubbed his palm like his twenty was glued to him. “I mean yeah, but no way. I wish I hadn’t seen that.”

“Maybe mom will open you up a tab.” Samuel patted Lonnie on the shoulder as he made his way to the cigarette machine in the corner, to the pinball controls that would dump out a pack of Camels, Newports, or Marlboros if one could tell which was which through the grimy plastic window and if the price was right. Samuel pulled the keys from his pocket and opened up the back, where he found a pack of Marlboro 100s that fit snug in his hand. Joanne Blythe, Jo, the bar owner and mother of Samuel, rolled her eyes from behind the bar at a son that had the keys for everything but her heart that night. He walked over to Clive slumped over the table, his losing arm stretched out and reaching for a beer that Jo hadn’t gotten to, and probably wouldn’t. Samuel pressed the Marlboros into his open hand and curled his fingers around them.

“Cheater,” Clive grumbled. Samuel let it be and walked over to the bar, to his mother, drying out a beer mug with a cotton towel whose washing schedule, if known, wouldn’t have inspired confidence in the patrons.

“You know you’re going to pay for those,” she said, her eyes on the machine.

Samuel wrapped his legs around the barstool and perched. “Take a check?”

“I’m serious. Only the peanuts are free, and you all are lucky I have those.”

“Love you too, ma.”

“What was your bet?”

“Going bet was twenty,” Samuel said.

Jo flicked her towel over to the retired table. “No,” she said. “I mean your bet with Clive.”

Samuel looked back at his opponent, who was in almost the exact same position, only with a cigarette in his mouth.

“I bet him a ride home. So I win, I get to take him home.”

“Some prize.”

“That or he kills someone.”

The crowd carried Mustang Sally as it came on the jukebox, a favorite, a record older than Hey Jo’s had been in the black. Jo nodded, took the beer glass towel and started wiping the bar with it.

“Diedre’s back,” she said. “From Pittsburgh. You visit her yet?”

“Why would I do that?”

“She had surgery, isn’t that enough, Samuel?”

“She had a boob job and a tummy tuck,” Samuel said.

“You don’t know that.”

“Word ‘round town…” Samuel knew he wouldn’t catch a free drink from his mother, so he pulled one of the hard-won twenties from his shirt pocket and planted it on the table.

“Your father made nice with a sheep once,” Jo said. “Word around town…”

“Who said that?”

“Will you just go see her? Damnit, a skull so thick I don’t know how I passed it out my you-know-what.”

The crowd was light for a Thursday, townies. It was usually townies; the college kids on the hill weren’t due for a couple weeks, and even then, Hey Jo’s wasn’t a college bar, didn’t cater to them like the thirty-two other bars that poured in the two mile radius of Main Street. But with the bettors, the night was well shy of twenty patrons, and half of them were tanked and annoying the other half with talk of being best buddies and starting capers or, as the night would progress, starting fights.

“Ben Maxwell got an opossum up his flue,” Jo said. “You feel like going up there?”

“How long’s it been in the flue?”

“I ran into him today at Top Market. He didn’t say.”

“Can’t he get the Baker boys to do it?”

Jo laughed. “Baker boys… Leroy’s a little beachball, he’ll get stuck. Bernie likely to bring the damn flue down. Don’t you do odd jobs?”

“I guess. Ben don’t have any use for me, far as I get.”

“He’s disappointed in you. There’s a difference between that and not having any use for you, Samuel.”

“Yeah, it’s worse.”

“It’s a job. You gonna take it?”

Sam sighed. “Sure. Love to.”

By the end of the night, Sam was itching for a drink that wouldn’t put him over the limit and make the prize of driving Clive home an empty box, since they’d be in about the same shape. He corralled Clive’s pickled limbs into something approximating a walking stance, and led him out the wide wooden double doors of the bar and into the gravel driveway. Getting Clive in his car was a greater feat of strength than besting him at arm wrestling.

Clive came to, of sorts, as they were on their way up the hill, beyond the manicured lawns and shrubbery of the Harwood Dean’s residence, past the painted concrete murals welcoming the students back that hadn’t arrived yet, farther than roads winding up the hill to the parking lots of UPenn, over slopes no different to amateurs than mountains, and after all of that was the true Lacana. The farmland. The trucks filled with lumber or manure that could sit at the side of the road unmolested by vandals, tickets or fines. It was on this road that Clive expressed his deepest desire.

“I gotta puke,” he said. “Pull it over.”

If Sam wasn’t just a hair dashed, he’d like to think he could’ve pulled the car over, got out, and opened the door for Clive, but none of that was to be. Beer and Lacana Italia spaghetti and meatballs made a potent glue that when projected, stuck Clive’s feet to the pickup floor so that when he moved either foot, the sound of the suction threatened to release Sam’s own glue.

Clive eased back in the seat when they were less than a mile from his property.

“You cheated,” he said. “You could have never beat me if I wasn’t drunk.”

“Don’t imagine I could’ve,” Samuel said.

“I’m gonna want a rematch,” Clive said. “I saw Billy Tanner in there laughing it up. He got a big mouth. I can’t have him spreadin’ word around town.”

“I imagine you can’t.”

Clive laughed, his blocky, steel-built frame not giving a bowlful of jelly. “You’re strong like your daddy though. I boxed him once.”

“Do I want to know who won?”

“No. Or maybe I just don’t wanna say on account of pride or respect,” Clive said. “Maybe pride. Those were the days, Sam. You knew where you stood, especially with your dad. And if you ever run afoul of him, he’d let you fight him, win or lose, whatever the beef had been, it was cooked. Squared. Done. Jo’s the closest we got to that, and she don’t want to be bothered with nothin’ ‘cept the bar. And then there’s you but, you know…” Clive cocked his thumb down and blew a raspberry. “No offense.”

“None taken.”

Samuel kept to himself the fact that, when Burkett Blythe was letting people settle their personal accounts with civil combat, both he and Clive were settling their own disputes over the jungle gyms in fourth grade. But suffer a drunk to tell a story.

They pulled up to Clive’s house, a weather-battered Queen Anne with cracked wood siding, ivy climbing the front wall and a giant Gadsden flag on a pole hanging limp in the stale, humid summer air.

“Your dad was one of a kind.” Clive belched. “An angel. Damn us all.”

*****

Liam Sweeny won the 2022 Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Award for Music Journalist of the Year for his work with the regional publication Xperience Monthly. His work has been online and in print, including “So It Goes,” the literary journal for the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. He has books published in the indie publishing circuit, and has one due out in June from Bronzeville Books, another indie publisher.