Sunday, October 6, 2019

Bar Bet, fiction by JM Taylor

That early in the day, not many drinkers slunk into the dark of the Drinking Hole. In the far corner, cheap-ass Larry Stover nursed his beer so fiercely it was more likely to evaporate than get drunk. At the far end of the bar, Ced surrounded his beer like a fortress. Brown as the walnut bar top, he had a brilliant white scar splashed across his face like he was the missing member of KISS. Molly Finnegan leaned spread-legged with her elbows on the bar, so she’d be the first thing anyone saw coming in. Not that the pose enticed any paying customers for her or for me. It wasn’t worth my while to fill the peanut bowls yet.

I dropped a cricket from the jar into the terrarium and turned to slicing limes, not that many of my patrons got so fancy. I stopped buying maraschino cherries a decade ago.

By lunch time, the place had started to fill up. The only food I sold was bags of chips and pickled eggs, but it wasn’t the cuisine folks came in for. With a television that showed only sports with no audio and a juke last updated when John and June visited Folsom, the Hole is a place for quiet contemplation. Couple years ago, I had to put up a sign in the window, saying “no colors.” At first, it was for the different bikers who come in. Club members got too loud for the rest of the drinkers to stew in peace. But really it turned out to be the young punks in town, the ones who buy into that crap on cable and on-line “news” who think “free speech” means you can say what you want without repercussion.

After the second one got bounced off the floor, I put that sign up. But no sign is going to stop a rising tide. Try it yourself.

So the place was getting busy, but Molly had left for greener pastures and no one noticed when the door opened, shining a spotlight on nothing in particular. I looked up and saw two kids come in. With the light behind them, all I saw was the high and tight hair cuts and squared shoulders like they owned the place. When the door closed behind them, the darkness revealed that one had dark hair and a face covered with acne he should have grown out of five years ago. The other, slightly taller, wore a smirk that begged you to punch it. They both wore white shirts with some triangle logo I’d never seen. But after carding them, I had no real reason to deny them the cheap beers they ordered. But I never lost track of them.

Ced lifted his finger at the same time the kids called for another round. Some say you should prioritize the new faces, try to build your customer base, but I believe in loyalty first. Ced, Larry, even Molly the whore, would always get served before a line of newcomers. I walked past them to deliver Ced’s beer. I should’ve known something would come of it, and maybe I did.

The pimply one spoke up first. He was almost polite, just saying, “Hey, we were first!”

I ignored him. The complaint made me want to ask Ced how his day was. “Not as bad as yesterday,” he said. “Probably better than tomorrow, though.”

Then the other got more forceful. “I thought your sign said no coloreds.”

I locked eyes with Ced, but he didn’t give me any other indication of how he felt about that. I gritted my teeth, took the three steps to their spot deliberately. Along the way, I decided not to discuss spelling with them.

“You’re cut off,” I said. “First round’s on me, so hoof it.”

It’s never that easy to scrape shit from your shoe, though.

“I get it’s not the fifties anymore, we can’t have segregated counters no more, but damned if I’m going to let you serve him before me. I’m an American, for God’s sake.”

“And he’s a veteran, for country’s sake. I don’t deal with your bullshit in my bar. Beat it, fashy.”

I glanced at Ced, who hadn’t moved, except to sip his beer. But he had the beginnings of his own smirk, and I wondered why. The rest of the place was watching me, and I didn’t like it.

Pock-face said, “I just want to know why you think that one’s better than me. I love my country, that’s why we need to keep the undesirables out. We built this country, we fought and died for it, and we don’t need outsiders and illegals sucking off America’s tit.”

“That’s a sick image,” Ced mumbled. I felt the weight of everyone’s eyes shift off me onto him, like at a tennis match. Still, he didn’t move, his elbows gripped by the varnish of the wood.

The boys pushed away from the bar and sauntered over to Ced, one at each shoulder. If he was worried about a two-on-one match, he didn’t show it.

“We didn’t ask for your literary analysis,” the tall one said. “Like he said, we want to know why you think you’re better than us.”

“You serve? All that building and fighting and dying? What branch?”

The pimply one balled his fists. “I’ll show—”

But his friend cut him off. It was only from this angle that he saw Ced’s scars. “What’d you do? Try to bleach yourself like Michael Jackson?”

The two of them laughed like a pair of rabid hyenas, but the air went out the room. I said my customers like quiet contemplation, but I didn’t say they don’t know and respect each other.

“IED,” Ced told him. “Fallujah. Bet you can’t even spell it.” Then he looked at me and grinned. “I can see that you won’t back off, and I don’t want to fight, so maybe we should leave this to Oliver!.”

“Who’s Oliver?” the tall one said.

“No, it’s ‘Oliver!’,” I said. “With the exclamation point.” I showed him the terrarium. The heat lamp burned beneath the liquor bottles, giving them a hellish glow.

“Why’s he called that?” zit-face asked. As if he knew who “he” was.

I checked with Ced, to make sure he was serious. Ced nodded, so I shrugged, unclipped the lamp and moved the glass case to the bar. Except for the sand-colored rocks, a bowl of water, and the grinning human skull, it looked empty. The glass was warm in my hands.

The two punks leaned in close, and a few others looked over their shoulders, but Oliver! was nowhere to be seen. I knew he was hiding in the skull, working on the cricket I’d given him for lunch. I unlocked the lid and folded it back. Then I lifted the skull.

Oliver!’s tail curled up over his head. “Lookit this,” I said, and reached under the bar for the blacklight I kept for checking IDs. I shined it on Oliver! and he changed from black to blue. He held the cricket in his pincers the way Larry held his evaporating beer.

“What the fuck is that?” the tall one said.

“That is Androctonus bicolor,” I said, putting the black light away. “Fat-tailed scorpion. Also known as Oliver!. You want to get technical, he’s an illegal, smuggled over in Ced’s gear. As his name implies, a mixture of colors. He also has a hell of a sting.”

The two boys stepped back. “You’re out of your mind,” the tall one breathed.

“Watch,” Ced told them. He pushed away his beer and reached his right hand into the tank. He hovered over Oliver!, then, in one quick movement nabbed him by the end of his tail. The cricket dropped to the gravel and he arched and snapped in anger.

The circle around Ced and Oliver grew by three feet.

Oliver! writhed beneath Ced’s hand. The arachnid wasn’t pleased at all, and reached in vain towards the fingers that imprisoned him from above.

“What were you saying about who’s better? Ced asked, smooth as silk. “Let’s make a bet. We’ll let Oliver! vent his anger on each of us. Whoever gives up first has to admit the other is the best.”

The smirk came back to the face of the one with the triangle logo. “If that…” I glared at him. “One can take it, so can I.”

“Fuck no,” said pimple boy. “That’ll kill us.”

I shook my head. “Oliver! don’t kill, at least not if you’re as healthy as you look.” I put a rubber-topped glass vial on the bar. “And this is antivenin if either of you passes out. It’ll keep your heart pumping, more or less. This is my place, so I make the rules: if you win, I’ll declare you’re the master race and banish Ced from my establishment. If he wins, you hand over that piece of shit shirt you’re wearing so I can wipe the john with it.”

“Not me,” the first one said.

“No one’s getting this shirt,” smirky said. But he took a seat next to Ced. I gotta give it to him, even as Oliver! dangled near his face, he held his ground.

Ced was whispering something to the scorpion, like he was putting some kind of spell on him. I thought of snake charmers and horse whisperers. He locked eyes with his opponent. Then, without breaking the stare, he tucked Oliver!’s pincers beneath his left hand, held them there tight, and let his tail go. Oliver! nailed him on the thumb.

Ced blinked, as if he’d gotten a mild shock. “Your turn,” he said.

He daintily nabbed the scorpion’s tail and held it out for the other to take. The son of a bitch had turned whiter than even he might have wanted the country to be, and sweat covered his forehead.

“Go ahead,” Ced urged him, with the same conjuring tone he’d used on Oliver!. “He can’t hurt you if you hold him by the tail.”

“Don’t do it, Mitch. Let’s just leave.”

But that seemed only to egg him on. “Lemme have that,” he said. To be honest, he seemed more worried about touching Ced than he did the scorpion.

Once he had the tail, he put the body under his hand, just like Ced had done.

“Don’t hurt him,” I said.

He glowered at me. “Shut up. I won’t kill your pet.”

I shook my head and stepped back. “I was talking to Oliver!”

He held that pose another few seconds. Deciding, I guess, whether he was really going to go through with it. Finally, he let loose.

It looked like he’d been shocked with a live wire. His whole body went rigid and I swear he levitated off the stool. Ced’s hand flashed out and caught Oliver! before he could scuttle away. Mitch’s red-faced friend was crying, the twerp. Within seconds, a bruise the size and color of a football had spread across Mitch’s wrist and arm. Snot poured out of his nose.

“That’s round one,” I said.

“How many rounds?” the friend gasped.

“Until one of them gives in,” I said.

Ced mumbled another spell.

“What’s he shaying?” Mitch said with a husky voice.

“‘Please sir, I want some more,’” Ced told him more loudly. Then he lodged Oliver! under his right hand, took another stab. This time, his nose twitched, but nothing else. Gingerly, he took Oliver by the tail and offered him to Mitch.

He didn’t look too good. The tendons stood out on his neck, and drool streamed out of the corners of his mouth. “I get ish,” he said. “You got shtung so often you’re immune.”

Ced nodded. “Something like that. Let’s see what you got, white boy.”

It took Mitch two or three tries to take Oliver! by the tail, and he grimaced as he put the pincers beneath his swollen hand. But he didn’t hesitate and this time kept his seat, though he howled loud and long enough to drown out half of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” I did the honors and caught up Oliver! once he’d done his thing.

“Another round?” I asked, as if I were offering beer.

“Hit me,” Ced told me, and he let Oliver! zap him.

Mitch was slumped in his chair. I think his partner was keeping him from hitting the floor. But he managed to say, “Pleashe zhur,” with something approaching humor. But it was the humor of the defeated. He swiped at Oliver! twice, three times, then collapsed on the bar.

Ced dropped Oliver! back in his terrarium. The scorpion darted back under the skull to eat his cricket in peace. I replaced the tank on its shelf and reattached the heat lamp.

By the time I turned around, Mitch was half awake again, scrabbling at his shirt. He was honest enough about that. But he needed help just to get his arms over his head. Larry took it and disappeared into the closet we called the men’s room. Meanwhile, I loaded a syringe with the antivenin. I can’t lie, it felt good to stab him with the needle, though less good to hit the plunger.

“Is he gonna die?” the other kid said. He’d lost his shirt, too. I could now cite the “No shirt, no service” rule if I needed to.

“We all do, eventually,” I replied. “So make the best of it.”

Larry came out zipping up his pants. “I left ’em in the urinal,” he said.

Suddenly, there was a line, and not just men: Molly had come back and charmed her way to the front.

Mitch fought to keep his feet. “Thash a lot to shtink abou’,” he said. “You got shum balls.”

“I’d give my right arm to know how you did that,” his friend said as they limped out the door.

Ced shrugged and drank his beer. He took a napkin to the dripping venom on the smooth area along his plastic wrist and thumb, careful not to let it touch his skin.

“I did,” he said, in his snake charmer’s voice.


JM Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. His work has appeared in such mags and zines as Thuglit, Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Out of the Gutter. His novel *Night of the Furies*, was listed in Spinetingler's Best of 2013. He's currently working on a young adult spy thriller. When he's not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name.