Monday, September 2, 2019

The Tavern Brawler, by Robb T. White

First Dallas, then at the canning plant in Bryan. Now here . . . Fuck me and fuck a duck.

Beaumont was hotter than Dallas and muggier than Houston. Ten in the morning, Shane Laurie’s shirt was plastered to his back. He hadn’t planned to work his way down to southeastern Texas, the asshole of the state. It just happened that way. You go to a bar, a guy says they’re hiring here or there. You go.

He didn’t find work here, it was off to Louisiana again for another goddamned bayou job on a shrimp boat or mucking around with crab traps, and he’d had enough of that. He didn’t know what it was about shellfish. He didn’t eat them—they looked like big bugs to him. He’d worked in Baltimore shucking oysters, fished for blue crab in Louisiana swamps and worked as a deckhand on a shrimp boat in Galveston Bay. Yet that cunt of a receptionist made him check the box “Unskilled Labor” on his application.

Fuck her. He had half a mind to head that her off tonight on her way home, her and her ugly face, homelier than a slit-faced bat, and see just how she likes his unskilled labor after she gargles his jizz. He’d make her check the “unskilled” box she didn’t do it right. Write an F on her fat ass with a Magic Marker.

Shane took a city cab to a roadhouse tavern off the highway near the Neches River. The dumbass driver turned around to look at him, waiting for a tip. Shane told him to get a real job and that was the best tip he’d get today.

Lordy, another redneck dump—his kind of place.

His eyes boxed the room on the lookout for three things: women, women with men (he’d separated his share of them from the girls in bar fights), and three, men who had “that look.”

The look was important. Size didn’t mean shit. Everybody carried down here. A bowie in the boot was as common as a hooker with a grudge. A pipsqueak with a gun was more dangerous than a man his size because a man his size expected Shane to fight fair. Shane didn’t fight fair. A man only had to tangle assholes with him one time to learn that. He’d use his boots as well as his fists, kick balls, gouge eyes, bite anything his teeth could get close to if it came to a ground-and-pound contest. He didn’t believe in stopping once you had your opponent down, neither, and punching the guy after he was out cold or done quit was enough to make him hard. Shane had grown up in a raucous household in Baton Rouge but he didn’t blame his upbringing for his love of violence. Some men like him, it just stuck to. You knew it when you threw that first punch. It wasn’t enough to beat a man half to death, he wanted to make him suffer. He wanted that man to carry scars and think of Shane Laurie from Louisiana for the rest of his sorry-assed life.

This place looked OK so far. The men looked like nobodies, drugstore cowboys, all hat and no cattle, and a couple women looked like they could use a ride on Jumbo. First, he had to find some guy drinking alone at the bar, make friends with him, be a good ol’ boy for a while, so he could get the sucker to buy the drinks. Shane believed his stories of sleeping rough, traveling all over and “doing dirt,” as he liked to call it, made up for his alligator arms when it came to buying rounds. Then he’d eye one of the babes and make a move. Get laid, get a place to sleep. Shane could write a book on hustling by now—that is, if he could write anything longer than a sentence with more than six words in it. Writing was for homos anyway, so fuck that shit.

The bartender was tall, lanky dude in a black leather vest, arms all inked up in a scattershot of tattoos blending into each other, a sure sign of a man who’d done time in a big house somewhere. Shane knew some of that kind, too. Mostly crazies looking for a reason to go back. He’d joined up with a few in his thirty-six years, made some money with some, and figured he knew the difference between the psychos and the hard boys. He couldn’t read the patch from where he sat at the bar and some ex-bikers were pussies, but still, best to be a little careful until he knew for sure. A few minutes of small talk and Shane was being called “brother” by this loser, so he knew he had all the time he needed to plan his next move.

And there she was, hot damn . . . a tricked-out blonde, yee-haw!

Walking past on her way to the can. Big, sassy-looking dyed blonde with a big rack. A little long in the tooth—past 40, he reckoned—but he couldn’t be choosy tonight. On her way back, she cut her eyes to him and she got that teensy smile in return. An hour later, he separated her from her skank girlfriends and the two of them were rubbing thighs and feeling each other out from a back table. His “buddy” at the bar was still sending over drinks, too, so things were working out well for later.

Later was after the bar closed at two-thirty. She drove him in her pickup to a lover’s lane. Somewhere close to the river, he guessed, because the smell of swamp muck was thick in the humid air. His idea of foreplay was to push her head into his lap. He had to give this one credit, though. She knew how to play a decent tune on a man’s flute, did her best not to gag when he made her take it all the way in so her cheeks bulged. He liked that look on a woman’s face.

Back in her double-wide—a “present” from a dead husband who got hisself blown up in a factory explosion—he gave the old girl her money’s worth in bed. He slapped her hands away from her bouncing tits when he plowed into her. He liked to watch them jiggle. She was shaved down there and a natural squirter. Shane finished up, rolled over, and silently complimented himself on a job well done. This old gal should be good for a couple days, maybe a week. Who could say? She played her cards right, Shane would consider letting her keep him around while he looked for work.

Shane snored like a buzz saw out of kilter. He never dreamed, or told all the women he slept with that. He figured that meant he would never get ass cancer or heart attacks like men who tossed and turned all night, worrying about shit.

In the morning, he thought about giving her another ride with some morning wood. But he couldn’t get out of bed.

Maybe I’m still asleep and this is one of them dreams. What the fuck—

When he shook off the booze fog, he saw it was no dream at all. He was roped hands and feet to the bed railing. He was about to bellow something, figured the crazy old bitch was into kinky sex when she came out of the bathroom. Her heavy funbags swayed from side to side. She avoided looking at him. When she did, the look on her face, however, was not one he expected to see. He expected to see gratitude. . . what was all this shit?

“George was hopin’ he’d live long enough to see this,” she said.

“Who the fuck is George, why you got me tied up?”

“George was my husband, remember? I told you about him last night at the bar.”

“Got kilt in a factory explosion, you said.”

“I lied,” she said. “He got pancreatic cancer.”

She stretched out the word, as if she was proud of herself for saying it right.

“So fuckin’ what? Untie me right now, God damn it!”

She sat at the end of the bed and stroked his leg.

“Honey, you got a big whang on you but George, he was much better in the sack than you.”

“Take these ropes offen me, and I’ll change your mind about that.”

Shane began to worry. She was too calm—way too calm.

She lit up, inhaled deep, and blew out the smoke. She stretched over him her cigarette extended to give him a puff, her fat titties rolling over his chest.

“Naw, he didn’t work in no factory,” she resumed, as if they were having a normal conversation. “He worked at the alligator processing farm yonder by the river over to Benson Road—you know, skins for fashion, the meat for agricultural animals, that sort of thing.”

“So fuckin’ what? What’s that got to do with me?”

“Nothing—to me, but that’s how I met him. He come lookin’ around the bar before you showed up, askin’ questions, spreadin’ his money around.”

Shane’s heartbeat rose a notch. Woman’s plumb fuckin’ crazy . . .

He squirmed but the ropes bit into his wrists and ankles. He twisted his head. She had him tied off with an anchor hitch or a bowline, some kind of good knot he wouldn’t pull out of.

“Bitch, you best untie me right now and I’ll forget all about this—this whatever the fuck it is.”

“Oh no,” she said, testing the knots securing his legs, “”can’t do that, sweetie pie. My instructions was simple. First, I’m gonna get me some clothes on and make a phone call.”

Instructions? What instructions? What was this goofy old broad talking about?

“You behave yourself now.” She gave his thigh a gentle pat.

Shane’s heart thumped in his chest now. He stopped twisting; it wasted strength and moving against the ropes burned as well as cut off circulation. His hands and legs were going numb. He had to plan his own attack . . . rip this bitch’s head off just as soon as he could get free . . .

The buzzer rang. He heard her greet someone at the door. He heard talking in low voices. Hers wasn’t like the night before, all flirty. Maybe she spiked his beer when he went off to piss. He recalled feeling a little dizzy when they left the bar. Trouble was, he was thinking with his dick and didn’t pay it no mind—just the miserable heat, he thought. Besides, his sights were set on pussy. The man’s voice sounded younger. Someone his age.

Then, whoever the guy was, he was standing right above him looking down at Shane. His face blank, no expression. Just a man, a nobody. Average size—Shane could bust him up in a minute. Thinning brown hair parted on one side, brown eyes, a face you wouldn’t remember in a crowd.

“Do you remember me?” the man asked him.

“No., motherfucker,” Shane said. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’ve been following you all over Southeastern Texas,” he said. “I’m surprised you never saw me. I remember once time you were coming out of a bar in Crockett—no, hold up a sec. It was Lovelady. I remember you looked right across the street at me standing there.”

The man smiled down at him but it wasn’t a friendly smile.

“I don’t remember you,” Shane replied.

“I’ll take it from here,” the man said, suddenly turning to face the woman, who stood at the foot of the bed watching them both.

“Where’s my money?”

The man reached inside his jeans pocket and handed her an envelope.

“It’s all there,” he told her.

“I’m gonna count it anyway,” she said and left the room. “I don’t want this comin’ back on me. Y’all promised that.”

The man was looking at Shane again. His brown eyes stared into Shane’s eyes, unblinking, as if he saw something remarkable in Shane’s irises.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “It’s all taken care of.”

“Who the fuck are you people!” Spittle flecked Shane’s chest from the outburst. His voice cracked.

The man said, “Shane Laurie, bar brawler. . . . Shane, you by any chance recall a man you fought outside a tavern in Dallas about eight, nine weeks ago?”

Shane remembered a couple bar fights up that way. He was doing a lot of meth at the time, ornery as a wasp.

“No, I fuckin’ don’t, motherfucker.”

“Well,” the man said, “it was you up in Dallas. You beat up a man in a parking lot outside a bar called Shenanigan’s. That man later died from a brain hemorrhage two days later. You started the fight with another man, but the man who came outside to protect his friend, he was the one you beat up.”

“I don’t remember no fuckin’ bar in Dallas nor no fight, neither, motherfucker,” Shane said.

He did, though. It wasn’t much of a fight. Dim images of his triumph behind that bar filtered back, like water seeking its equilibrium, tickling the memory cells.

“That was a fair fight—”

“No, it wasn’t,” the man interjected. “No . . . no, it wasn’t a fair fight. You stomped his head when he went down.”

“I tole you, I don’t remember no fight up in Dallas,” Shane said. “I wasn’t even in Dallas eight weeks ago. What the hell is this?”

“This is Texas justice,” the man said and brought the fish billy down on Shane’s head with a loud crack that Shane never heard but it sent him plummeting into a black void.

***


Shane woke to the sound of crickets chirping, the smell of swamp muck deep in his nostrils. He lay on his back. He was still nude, his ass itched from chigger bites or something, his head weighed a ton. He sat up and almost vomited.

Nothing to see swamp, cypress trees, and lily pads.

Better’n being shot, he thought, but Gawd damn, my head hurts. I’ll find that motherfucker and kill him, Shane thought.

Shane started to get up and fell over at once. What the fuck now, for Christ’s sweet sake?

Shane’s leg was attached to a thick nylon rope that was attached to a limb hanging out over the waterline. It was tied with a fancy knot he did recognize because he’d tied it on the decks of bayou trawlers often enough: a rat-tail stopper.

He shouted. Nothing. His voice echoed across the murky water. His throat was parched but the water looked too putrid to drink. Swamp birds cried out, insects made a variety of buzzing, whirring sounds all around.

If this don’t beat fuckin’ all, he thought. The whole episode from trailer to swamp was so bizarre he almost laughed. A good story to tell the next sucker in a bar to spring for drinks. But, first, he was gonna find that rat-fucking , no-good, brown-eyed son of a whore and choke the life out of him—after he stomped every drop of yellow shit out of him.

Then a thought crept in. Maybe he was dragged out here so far no one ever came by, not even swamp people or fishermen.

Then he spied something behind him. A damned wooden sign. Maybe a jogger’s trail sign or a park sign. It was just a few feet beyond the limit of his rope. His anxiety subsided. That sign meant civilization. He wasn’t going to die out here in some shithole swamp.

Worth a look to read what it said, he thought, since I ain’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon.

Shane found a crooked stick near the waterline and used it to hook the sign post. He jerked and pulled until the letters started to reflect the light. He could make out a few letters. B-E-A-U.

Well, hell’s bells, I know I’m in Beaumont.

He was never much for reading in school before he dropped out of tenth grade but the rest of the sign’s message eluded him.

“Fuck it,” he said.

Shane sat down and slapped the stick at the ground in frustration: sandy soil, not overgrown but graded, someone had cleared this patch of ground into a rough semicircle stretching thirty yards across and sanded it down with a grader. Shane let his mind drift, listening to the insect and bird calls. Eight caws of a crow somewhere above in the branches. Eight, a warning to the other crows, four would be a call to dinner.

He got up stretched, scratched his belly. He was being feasted upon by bugs and flying insects while he sat. He slapped at a tiny red spider crawling up his forearm. “Lucky I don’t get bugs in my asshole,” he muttered. Somebody’s got to find me soon . . .

He grabbed his stick and made another effort to twist the sign around to read it. The light had shifted, dappled the leaves of the cypress and probed the tufts of hanging moss, giving the entire swamp a lime-green phosphorescence.

There, by God, got you.

The sign reflected the afternoon light, filled out the missing letters after BEAUMONT and each one etched itself into Shane’s brain as comprehension completed the neocortex’s circuit.

BEAUMONT ALLIGATOR FARM.

Oh fuck, no—

Beneath it, in smaller letters:

Danger !!! Do NOT Feed the Alligators!!

Oh my fucking God Almighty—

When he turned back around to look out over the water, he saw them gathering in the dusky light: hundreds of pairs of eyes like cat’s-eye marbles spread out just beneath the surface. Eyes as far as he could see.

Then the massive snouts, the ancient dragon spikes breaking the surface here and there. They moved en masse toward the shoreline. Ripples fanned outward from their massive tails moving side to side like a metronome set to larghissimo. Some bulls weighed a thousand pounds. Like dragons from mythology, they rolled in, ever closer, no hurry, but steadfast on the mark. Each moved in a motion like one pack. They were crueler than any man, indifferent to all pain or remorse, underwater brawlers, oblivious to everything in the universe but mating and eating.

‘Texas justice’, the brown-eyed man had said, the words tolling like a bell of doom in Shane Laurie’s head.

Robb White lives in Ashtabula, Ohio. He writes, noir, crime, and hardboiled stories and novels featuring series character Thomas Haftmann. A recent collection of crime stories is Dangerous Women: Stories of Crime, Mystery, and Mayhem. Crowood Press published White’s Perfect Killer in 2018. Fahrenheit Press, another U.K. publisher, released Northtown Eclipse that year. “Inside Man” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019. His website is http://tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite.

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