Elvis McCullers aimed his stick and struck the cue, scattering balls across the felt. It was a Wednesday night at The Blue Rose, slow, the half dozen cars and trucks in the gravel lot belonging to Ray the bartender and a small group of men and women posted up at the hightops along the back wall. The men all dressed in work wear, the women in high heels, jeans, and low-cut tops. Cigarette smoke hazed the low neon glow and gathered in a swirling cloud above the pool table.
One of the men crossed the room and stacked his quarters on the rail. “We got next game,” he said.
Elvis was playing alone, just shooting around, but took his time. Pool had never been his game, but he enjoyed the meditative quality of it. It placed him in the present moment, with nothing else on his mind except the balls in front of him. And tonight he was on his way to starting over, wanted to forget what was behind him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working. He was still a little hung up about his old man.
As he worked his way around the table, the men grew irritated waiting for him to finish. They’d already been talking loudly, but increased their volume even more, competing with the jukebox, which currently played some indistinct pop-country garbage one of the women had put on.
“Hey, Slick,” he said, “how’s about you wrap it up, huh?”
Elvis was bent over, lining up a shot. He didn’t move but raised his eyes to the man. A single curl of Elvis’s greased back hair hung like an apostrophe down his forehead, and he blew it from his eyes with a puff of his lower lip. He didn’t respond to the man.
Elvis hadn’t come to the tavern with the mind to socialize. He’d come to make a delivery to Ray, who was now at the far end of the long bar wiping out an ashtray with a wet rag.
Ray dealt pills and the occasional teener of crank between schlepping drinks. Though the place was dead tonight, Fridays and Saturdays drew every kind of degenerate one could imagine from around the county to see the live bands that played out back when the weather was nice, and crowded the bar like a feed lot when it wasn’t. Ray was their solitary supplier at The Blue Rose, but he got his goods from Elvis, who’d not long ago expanded his inventory. The supply of meth had begun to exceed the demand in his little pocket of Ohio. Everyone seemed to be on pain pills now, and Elvis could accommodate. Oxy. Vicodin. Fentanyl patches. Morphine lollipops. It all sold like water to a man dying of thirst. Elvis was a businessman and prided himself in his entrepreneurial initiative. He knew only fools were rigid and tried to control the market. A wise man remained flexible, bent whichever way the market moved.
He’d had a damn good thing going with a doctor across the state line in West Virginia, who ran a pill mill outside of Wheeling. The man was a back specialist, and he had some rather hefty debts he wouldn’t disclose when he and Elvis had set up their first deal. He only said he needed a lot of money fast. And again, Elvis could accommodate. But after only a few lucrative months working with the man, he and a dozen other doctors on either side of the Ohio River had gone down in a DEA sting and now resided in the federal pen in Morgantown. This left Elvis in the lurch, between the proverbial rock and the wall.
The way it was now, wholesale acquisition of pharmaceuticals had become near impossible. When suburban white kids started dying, the government put the kibosh on willy-nilly dispensing of pretty much anything stronger than Tylenol. And certain doctors got hot. The best Elvis could hope for now would be buying scripts from folks who hadn’t yet been cut off by their physicians or their insurance companies. And that felt a little too much like moving backward. No, he figured it was time to take his stash of cash—in the neighborhood of a hundred grand after tonight’s last delivery—and hit the road. He’d always planned to go places, and though he’d never given much thought to where, he knew the time had come.
He really had nothing keeping him in Shale Run anymore. His mama had spent the better part of the last decade strapped to a bed up in Locust Grove with what was left of her mind blowing around her skull like autumn leaves. His baby brother, Seth, had ended an eight day meth bender by eating a bullet. That had only left his old man, all rods and pins from the waist down after a mine collapsed on him. Now he spent his days idling away in front of the television and berating Elvis at every turn, even though Henry McCullers relied on his son for the dope that kept him comfortable. Nothing and no one else remained. So Elvis had decided only a few hours ago to start a new chapter—no, a new story altogether.
By now, the fire department would have found his father melted to the La-Z-Boy in what had been the living room. He’d been a lifelong smoker. The only time he didn’t have a coffin nail clamped between his wrinkled lips was when he was sucking off the oxygen tank beside his chair. It was only a matter of time before the poor old bastard burned the place to the ground, they’d say. But despite the ill will he’d harbored for his father most of his life, now that it was done, Elvis felt a nagging remorse that was hard to reconcile.
He’d parted with the last hundred Oxys he had to his name, with no more on the horizon, and tossed the bag of cash Ray had handed over into the trunk of his Caddy before returning to the bar to down a few drinks and shoot around for a while. He still didn’t know where to go from here, so he had nothing but time. But the whiskey hadn’t had the desired effect. Instead of brightening his outlook, it had left Elvis stuck in a brooding mood, reflecting on things he’d rather leave behind.
“Hey, I’m talking to you, Slick,” the man said.
Elvis sunk the 8 ball and stood up straight. He stared at the man.
“It’s all yours, partner,” he said, tossing the pool cue onto the mottled green.
The four men, gathered around the table to play doubles while the women remained where they were. One of them, a redhead with tight, high-waisted jeans and a sleeveless blouse, kept sending glances and grins in his direction as Elvis stood with his elbows on the bar. The men horsed around and grab-assed one another like high school kids, though Elvis suspected they were in their thirties like he was.
Ray shook his head and poured Elvis another shot of whiskey. “They been coming in a few times a week,” he said. Ever since the fracking started, seems like these dipshits been showing up by the busload. They’re working the fields over in Cedarville. Buncha loudmouths, but their money spends the same as the rest, so . . .” Ray shrugged.
Elvis went over to the internet juke and put on a trio of gospel tunes. He loved himself some gospel. He began singing along with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the redhead who’d been eyeing him off and on fixed her gaze and tilted her head, as if she were trying to decipher something. The other women snickered and whispered behind their hands.
“What the good goddamn is this shit?” one of the men said, looking around and then over at Ray, who just shrugged again and went back to wiping down the bar. The man turned toward Elvis, who was still singing along.
Elvis walked past him and back over to the bar. Already the gospel had done what the liquor had not, and he grinned at the redhead, staring right past the man, who just looked at Elvis with a disgusted expression.
“What are we in fucking Sunday school all the sudden?” the man said. He snapped his fingers in Elvis’s face to get his attention, but Ray spoke up.
“When it’s done, you can play whatever the hell you like, buddy, so calm yourself down.”
The man grunted and went back to the game. The four of them grumbled and glared at Elvis between shots.
When “Peace in the Valley” came on next, the man started up again. “Are you fucking serious?” he said. “Huh-uh, no goddamn way, not gonna happen. This shit is killing my fucking buzz.” He stomped over to the juke box with a hand thrust into his pocket. He came out with a handful of change, and plunked in some quarters. These types of jukes had a feature that allowed you to skip songs for a price, and Elvis knew that was what this man was aiming to do.
“My songs ain’t over, partner,” Elvis said without turning away from the bar.
The man acted as if he hadn’t heard and punched in some numbers. The gospel was cut short and replaced by the opening bars of Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.”
“Now that’s more fucking like it,” the man said, doing a little shuffling dance back toward the pool table. They all laughed and began woo-hooing as they high-fived.
“Elvis,” Ray said, “don’t go making a mess of the place, all right?” He poured Elvis another shooter. “Here, this one’s on the house.”
But Elvis no longer had the taste for whiskey.
He approached the men. “I said the song weren’t over.”
The man snickered, his patchy beard clinging to his face like a fungus. “What you plan to do about it, Slick?”
The man slapped his thigh and laughed. “Of course it is. Nice hair, by the way.” He turned toward his friends and gained approval for the slight with more laughs. The only one who wasn’t laughing was the redhead, who looked a little irritated but interested in what might happen.
Elvis returned to the jukebox and put in four more quarters.
“You better think twice there, Hound Dog,” the man said.
Elvis cut off the music with the same gospel tune that had been on before the man had hijacked it. He started singing along. “There will be / peace in the valley . . .”
“You believe this asshole?” the guy said, turning to his buddies again. When he turned back, Elvis brought the pool cue he’d plucked from the wall rack beside the juke down across the man’s face, opening his cheek like a soft potato.
The man dropped to one knee, and Elvis whirled the toe of his cowboy boot in a roundhouse that caved in the man’s temple as it snapped his head to the side and laid him flat on the wooden planks of the floor.
The redhead just watched while the other three women gasped. Two of the other three men closed in on him from either side, and Elvis helicoptered the pool cue, missing one man as he ducked but catching the other across the jaw. The man stumbled back as his buddy came in low. Elvis grabbed the back of the man’s head and brought his face down into his knee with a dull crunch. The man he’d caught with the cue held a hand over his bleeding mouth. Now he and the last man moved in.
The gospel music came through the bar’s sound system like a choir of angels, and Elvis pulled the gold-plated Walther PPK with mother of pearl inlays from the small of his back. One man stopped short while his buddy was almost on Elvis, who aimed and took out the man’s left knee in a spray of blood and bone.
Now three of the women were screaming. The man who’d been shot let loose a high-pitched string of motherfuckers toward Elvis. The redhead looked surprised but cocked a half smile. Ray just shook his head with a hand over his eyes. The last man stood there with his hands raised looking unsure.
Elvis gestured the man to his knees and stuck the barrel of the pistol between his teeth. He began to sing again while the man emptied his bladder and tears cascaded down his cheeks.
When the song ended, Elvis removed the gun from the man’s mouth, slapped him across the face with it, and went to the bar. While he downed the shot Ray had poured him, the man scrambled to his feet and fled the bar, leaving the women and his buddies behind. A moment later, a truck engine roared to life and there was the sound of rubber biting gravel as he tore out of the parking lot.
Three of the women remained crouched and crying over the men’s bodies, one of them fumbling with her cell phone. It fell from her shaking hands before she could dial the police and skittered across the floor. Elvis eyed her and she made no move to retrieve it.
The redhead walked over. “Buy a lady a drink?” she said.
He grinned and nodded to Ray, who looked frustrated but resigned. He poured them each a shot. They clinked the glasses together and tossed them back.
“What’s say you and me take a drive?” he said.
She smiled and hooked her arm through his. The other three women stared in disbelief through teary red eyes.
Elvis laid two twenties on the bar. “Nice knowing you, Ray,” he said. “You take care now.”
Outside, Elvis opened the door of his restored, pink ’55 Fleetwood and helped her into the passenger seat. On his way around the car, he spotted a set of fuzzy white dice slung over a pickup truck’s rearview mirror. He reached through the open window and took them, then climbed behind the wheel of his Caddy and draped the dice over his own rearview.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Bobbie Anne,” she said.
“You sure it ain’t Priscilla? ‘Cause you sure look like a Priscilla.”
She only smiled.
He turned the key and the V8 awoke with a growl. He rolled to the edge of the lot to where it met the asphalt of Highway 52.
“Where we driving to?”
Elvis adjusted the radio dial. Another gospel song, “Lead Me, Guide Me,” filled the air and washed over them.
“Wherever we want in the whole wide world, darlin’.”
He winked at her, and the tires spit gravel as he cut the wheel onto the road, no past behind them, just dust.