A JOKE IN THE WAY THAT WE RUST AND BREATHE AGAIN
The door closed and the window opened and the wisp of air slides in on top of the smell of lavendar and pine trees. Reed watches the door of the bar come into focus—covered in the red and blue neon light from the Miller sign next to it, the pamphlet announcing hunting season knocked slightly to the left. He doesn’t notice the air slide in. Daryl had a way of closing doors so that everything around it vibrated for a few seconds, erasing everything in the world but that vibration. This bar, even now, in the middle of a sunny day, is dark—the booths in shadows, the tables black polka dots, the people fading in and out depending on where they are in relation to a neon beer, sign, the jukebox, the pool table.
Reed listens. The door mumbles under its breath, crabby. He hears the chairs around the tables gossiping to each other, the jukebox philosophizing. Reed works his eyes along the floor to the bar where he’s sitting, where he watches the previously unnoticed wisp of air morph into a woman who is now sitting on the stool next to him. Reed hears the glasses behind the bar giggle, the stack of coasters laugh. He closes his eyes. Opens them. She is still here, her hands around the pint in front of her. She’s spinning it around slowly, like pottery on a wheel that’s moving in slow motion. Reed readjusts himself, accidentally kicks the bar. The bar reprimands him. He apologizes.
“What?” The woman says.
“What did you just say?”
“Nothing. Sorry. I said sorry. To the bar. I kicked it.”
“The bar is easily offended,” she says.
He nods. The bar tsks.
He doesn’t know what to say. He never knows what to say. That’s why Daryl stormed out earlier. All kinds of questions and no answers and Daryl got angrier, more demanding, wanted to know why, why, why, what happened, what happened to Smith, he’s my brother. Might as well be yours too you known us so long, and Reed knew he needed to say something, at the very least try to give Daryl some peace, but he couldn’t find the words, they ran away from him, hid in the shadows, and Reed could only sit there, silent, pointing at the dark corners where the words were hiding, like that would help, and that pissed Daryl off to the point where he was about to smash that Budweiser bottle into Reed’s face, but something stopped Daryl, and he let go of the beer, it rolled across the floor. Then the door closed and the window opened, and the room started talking to Reed.
She taps the back of his hand with her finger. Her face is all soft round, no sharp edges. Eyes like ponds, color swaying from blue to green, back to blue. Hair long, curly, dark. In the light of the bar her hair swims down her back. At the point she touches the back of his hand with her finger, there is a red dot. She watches his eyes, follows them to his hand. “I’m a leaker,” she says more to herself than to him. “Hard to keep it inside.” She points at the pint in front of her. He sees vaguely smeared red stripes where her hands once held the glass. She grabs a napkin, quickly wipes the smears away.
“I can hear the room talking,” Reed whispers.
“Really? Like how?”
“Like, the floor groans and swears when we walk on it. The walls complain about how heavy those beer signs are. The napkins in this stack are fighting with each other about who should be on top.”
“Bet they wouldn’t be fighting about that if they knew first one up is gonna have to stop my leaking.”
Reed waits a second. Looks at the stacks of napkins. Looks at her. “You’re right.”
She laughs. Reed smiles.
Reed sees his memory now, it’s slowly piecing together like a jigsaw puzzle. Daryl barreled into the bar earlier, marched over to Reed without waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Didn’t sit. Knocked Reed’s shoulder. “What the fuck, man?”
Reed couldn’t look at Daryl. Tried to look in his face. Couldn’t do it. Tried to look at his chest. Couldn’t do that either. Settled for looking down, at his shoes.
“Tell me what happened,” Daryl said, voice shaking. Daryl’s voice never shook. In the thirty years Reed knew him, he never heard Daryl’s voice shake.
Daryl huffed. Ordered a beer. Still didn’t sit. Mickey brought the bottle over to him. Daryl chugged. Slammed the bottle on the bar. “You don’t even go to the hospital? Smith’s in a coma, you know. We don’t know what happened. You could at least tell us what happened.”
Reed knew this. Daryl and Smith? Reed knew them so long, he was like their brother. Reed closed his eyes, wished that time would rewind. Instead he saw fingers grasping the edge of the roof, slowly sliding off, then, just the roof. Reed snapped his eyes open. Daryl’s face was there—so like Smith’s Reed for a second thought it was Smith—eyes red, lines around his mouth, a day of growth clustering over his chin. The anger rolled off Daryl thick as fog. Reed moved his mouth, tried desperately to say sorry, wanted desperately to be a bigger man than he was, but his mouth wouldn’t speak.
Daryl grabbed the beer bottle, held the neck like he was holding a knife, glared at Reed. An eternity passed. Daryl took a step back, dropped the bottle. It rolled across the floor. Daryl walked out. This was the last time Reed saw him.
She’s grabbing bunches of napkins and pressing them to her left ear. Reed watches the stack get shorter and leans down the bar and grabs another stack. Sets it in front of her. “Thanks,” she says. “Sometimes, you know, the leaking, it’s worse than other times.”
As she says this, Reed watches a thin red line appear at the base of her right ear and snake its way down her neck. Another one appears on her temple and rolls down her jaw. He grabs a napkin, wipes the lines away. But they keep coming.
The walls start whispering, something he can’t make out. The bar starts in. Then the mirror over the bar, the ceiling fans, the bar stools, the football schedule tacked to corkboard next to the men’s bathroom. The whispering grooves into a hum, then slips into volume, then coalesces into words. Do something. Do something. Do something. Everything in the bar, all of it, telling him—do something.
Reed gets up, walks to the end of the bar, grabs every napkin he sees, walks back to her and as he does grabs the towel. He sits back down on his stool, turns her face to him, then grabs the towel and presses it against her temples and holds. He can feel her blood pulsing, like it’s struggling against strangulation, but he holds tight. Her eyes are wide and knowing. She doesn’t smile. The blood pulses, beats against him. He removes the towel and grabs at the stack of napkins, holds them against her temples. The blood pulses in one last gasp and then he feels it rest. She smiles.
Reed and Smith were at work—construction, on that huge mansion outside of town. On the roof. Smith goofing around as always. Doing some dance. Reed concentrating on the shingle in his hand. Then quiet. Abrupt and menancing quiet. When Reed looked up, he saw Smith’s fingers clutched on the edge of the roof. Smith not making any sounds. Reed froze. Stared at Smith’s fingers. Hands he watched since they were little. And now they were slipping. One by one Smith’s fingers disappeared and Reed couldn’t move, felt like he was encased in concrete.
There was a thud and then someone yelled, “Call the ambulance,” and for Reed the world went black until the moment when he was sitting in the bar and the door closed and the window opened.