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The Bar at the End of the World by Brandon Williams

Smiley found this story at Carve Magazine

Brandon Williams is a fiction writer, poet, teacher, and transcriptionist based in Northern, Southern, and Central California; if he's not writing, he's driving. His writing has appeared in Confrontation, The LA Review of Books, Crazyhorse, Black Clock, and Huizache, among others. He is currently furiously working on a novel.

Earvin works the Flyers gas station all day, from an hour after sunup all the way through the evening. While he deals with customers and tries not to fall asleep behind the counter, he watches the Arco station across the street. They have been his singular competition for forty years, and today they are closing to remodel. When they open again, they will be a Chevron. The woman who owned the Arco, Karen Lattimore, sold the property to a slick-talking Reno tycoon, a businessman with interests spanning the whole state. This is the way of things, she told him when she walked from her building to his to tell him the news. This is the way of things, that’s just how it is.

At 6:00 p.m., Earvin goes over to the candy display by the window and looks into the dark. Across the way at the Arco, there’s one solitary truck sitting beside the building, Karen’s Datsun. Earvin shuffles a bag of M&Ms, picks it up and puts it down. The Arco lights go off. He sees Karen step out of the store and walk to her truck. Taillights flicker. She pulls out of the space and settles into the turn lane, merges onto the two-lane highway that splits their stores. He watches her car disappear, then steps outside himself, walking away from the building and the pumps and the highway into the trees, turning his back to civilization so there is only darkness ahead. He lets the night settle around him.

After a few minutes, he calls Gerald to wave off overnight relief. “I’ll take the night shift too,” Earvin says, turning around and staring at the muted yellow light of his store. “I could use the time. I haven’t even started balancing the books this month.”

“You’re not the only one with bills,” Gerald tells him, but doesn’t argue very hard. It’s Saturday night, and Gerald likes to drink. The moon is rising, pale blue. In half an hour, Gerald will be down at Fantasia’s watching the girls swing, or set up on a barstool at the Downhome Brewery, guzzling and giggling and bitching about all the ways that nothing ever goes right and having a grand old time. “But enjoy yourself.”

Earvin grabs a sandwich from the cooler in his truck. Egg salad. He swigs a bottle of Evian, unclasps the tailgate, sits down. The moon climbs a bannister of trees. The glass in his store window is covered with orange-painted letters advertising beef jerky sticks and one-liters of Coca-Cola products, now three for five dollars. In a full hour of sitting, swinging his legs like the kid he barely remembers being, two cars pull up to his pumps. They are both rust-addled, ugly and old and full of character. So are their drivers—bent-backed, beard-bearing men Earvin has known by sight for years, they slide their plastic into the card readers and wave at him. He waves back. And this is how it should be, he thinks. There’s no better moment coming.

When it gets cold, Earvin heads inside. He turns off the electric light that advertises to the highway, turns off the signs in the windows and the pop-up adverts on the end of each aisle. Even the store lights go dark, so that he’s moving entirely to the light of neon candy wrappers. Then, he gets to work.

Behind the store is a stack of old delivery pallets. And beside the dumpster, there are deep tufts of firewood in case the electricity shuts off in a snowstorm and he’s stuck here longer than a generator can hold. Hammer, nails, saw, and tape measure are supplies he keeps in the back of his truck. It’s all been waiting for a night like this, when priorities stand up and make themselves known, reality whittled down by a sharp blade.

He takes a few pallets and measures them out, saws through where he needs them to be, and settles each in place. The firewood he uses as end pieces, thick and sturdy. He is making a table, nothing complicated. Just a table, and two benches, one for each side of the table. A familiar ache takes residence in his marrow as works. He revels in the quick ache that builds—he saws and then hammers, and then does it again.

Still, construction takes longer than he anticipated. He stops for cigarette breaks twice, and for exhaustion three more times, standing still to let his heart calm its racing, to stretch his back and listen to the cracking, silt shifting in his belly. He stops once to use the restroom, walking through the night air to the dingy secondary structure that houses the toilets and car wash. There, he pushes against the wall with one arm to keep himself steady. Sweat blinks into his eyes. He feels weakness in his limbs, and for a moment, everything swirls around him, the bare porcelain and the cracked drab linoleum—he notices a leak where the pipe pushes into the wall, he smells the dampness of the air, the fetid accumulation of so many years of expelled waste. But the moment passes quickly, and when he steps back into the fresh air, he cannot recall what had so disoriented him.

Eventually, though, the work is finished. Earvin allows himself to admire the effort, and the product that he has produced: The wood is shoddy and the work rough, splinters sticking up at odd angles, and an uneven cut leaves one of the benches wobbly, one of its feet scraping air a quarter-inch from the ground. It is perfect, a close replica of his aunt’s crude table in Salinas, where he had dropped to one knee on the second day of a three-week vacation and asked Lorraine to marry him forty-three years ago.

A quick look at his watch finds it nearly two in the morning. Earvin pulls his flannel shirt over his shoulders and steps outside to lean against the cool glass. He tries to catch his breath, and he sees Lorraine in everything. It has been twenty-seven years, and on these dark nights she could be around any corner.

There are streetlights along the highway, burnishing a slight mustard upon the lateness. But he hears them before they walk into his vision, the loud braying of two men in a pissing contest. It could be about anything, although he sees a moment later, as their silhouettes pop from the darkness, that they’re in an actual pissing contest. They’re walking backwards, so he can’t see any feature beside height and width, the night full of the hard sound of urine on gravel. For a moment, it is all he can hear, crinkling like quickly decomposing ice. Then it stops, and he is aware of his own breath slicing the air. “Eat it, bitch,” one says in a nasty exuberant drawl, to which the other replies with a drunken guffaw.

He’s planning to let them pass in a whirl of their own drunkenness, but their pissing contest over, they turn to walk normally and almost immediately notice him. And the Flyers.

The taller man turns first, revealing himself to be Perry Hargrove, all wide shoulders and whipping hair. Earvin knows him a little—knows his dad pretty well, and the son, in the right mood, is just as mean. Big boy, strong and angry and dangerous for knowing exactly how big and strong and angry he is in comparison to everyone around him, but little eyes, heavy-lidded and porcine. “Hey,” he says, staring Earvin down. He talks slowly, with the kind of drawl that keeps people slightly off-balance wondering whether he’s deeply contemplative or deeply ignorant. “Hey, you’re still open.” His words slur, and his penis hangs out in vivid relief against black unzipped-but-buttoned jeans. It flops with his every motion, whorled in on itself like a shell of over-cooked pasta.

“I am,” Earvin says. He pushes off the glass and stands to his fullest height, nowhere close to the towering swath Perry presents.

Perry’s companion has turned as well, and Earvin is not surprised to see Rico Navarro, who also has not zipped himself into propriety. “And you’ve got booze,” Rico says. Both of these young men have been occasional customers at the Flyers since they learned to drive. Their fathers drive up to these pumps, and their grandfathers did the same, and yet they stand in the highway and let their dicks hang out. There’s no concern in them.

“We’re going to drink some,” Perry says, and he’s stepping past Earvin and inside.

“Hell no,” Rico says as he follows his burly friend. “We’re going to drink it all.”

Even with the lights off and running into his twentieth hour behind the register, Earvin’s still running a business, so he doesn’t stop them. But he does have one rule. “Gentlemen,” he says. Rico’s already at the candy display, and Perry is further, by the soda carousel. The darkness and the strangeness of the moment curl around him, and he is lightheaded and sore and feels entirely unlike himself. The sweets and brilliant-colored packaging and the dark and the swirl in his head, bring him to mind of a carnival, and he feels himself filling the role of pitchman. He goes with it. “Gentlemen, I must insist you holster your penises. This is a proper establishment.”

Once they’ve slid their appendages back into the normal resting spot, Earvin leads the boys further inside, past the candy aisle and the chip aisle and the pastry aisle and the serve-yourself hot-dog-nachos-and-donuts to the refrigerated section. The table and benches are where he left them, taking up most of the aisle with their heft. “Look at this,” Rico says. “It’s our own private bar.”

“The hell did we ever go anywhere else?” Perry agrees.

Rico sits down. “Like it’s made for us,” Rico tells the store, and then he laughs and says, “Barkeep! Give me something strong.”

It’s not in any job description, and there’s a sign on the wall above the refrigerated beers that says No Alcohol May Be Consumed On These Premesis that was stapled up there when the Flyers got its liquor license, but Earvin does. He steps over to the hard-liquor shelf and pulls down a bottle of Bushmills, then collects a flagon of paper cups. He pours three cups, including a healthy dollop for himself, and deposits one in front of each of his new customers.

“This bench smells like crack,” Rico says.

“That’s the finest wood grain I could find.” He raises his cup for a toast, and though Rico has already taken a first drink, they both wait for him. “To those who almost made it,” he says, thinking of Karen, and of himself. Lorraine filters through as well. Outside, the wind picks up. He listens to it rattle against the bones of his old store, a conversation he can’t entirely untangle.

Meanwhile, the boys have finished the first drink and are looking for more. Earvin gives them both another dollop and says, “This one’s not free.” Rico pulls out his wallet and hands over his MasterCard, with which he’s bought gas since he was seventeen, coming up on ten years now. Perry follows, passing over a Visa with a close-up shot of the leather exterior of a basketball that Earvin’s fed through the card reader for just as long. They’re still kids to him, bumping up against thirty. He collects both cards and slides them over his counter. If they want to treat this place like a bar, he can do the same right back to them.

Up there on the counter, beside the cards, is a piece of paper he’s been trying to ignore. It has a space at the bottom for his signature, and it has been crumpled two separate times, but each time he has pulled it out of the trash and smoothed it over and reconsidered his decision.

The letter is from a man named Lance. It contains a contract, an offer that he has rejected many times before. Lance is from Reno, Nevada, and he owns multiple Chevrons on the side of the freeway all the way from Reno to Vallejo. He’s bought Karen’s Arco station, and he wants Earvin’s store too. When he walked by to hand Earvin the latest offer sheet, he popped open a Monster Energy Drink and smiled. “I’m gonna tear it down,” he said. He leaned onto the counter and left a waxy, dripping five-dollar bill for the drink. “I’m going to bulldoze it all, and then I’m going to lease the property to the fad of the moment. Togo’s, hot yoga, drive-through all-night smoothies. Just so there’s no confusion.” He stood back up and gulped the rest of his Monster, the piston of his Adam’s apple working feverishly. “Or you keep it, pay me nothing, and I run you out of business in six months. Think about it.”

Karen sold. This is the way of things, that’s just how it is.

“More booze,” Perry says. The bottle is empty, so he grabs a few more off the shelf and brings them over. He pours, then sits beside the men. They are talking basketball, the Sacramento Kings. The question on the table is about fandom.

“If they do leave, who would you root for?”

“They’re not leaving.”

“But if they did.”

“They can’t.”

Earvin has not watched the Kings in years, not since the end of the glory years. Those last playoffs, the Ron Artest/Bonzi Wells battle with the Spurs, broke what was left of his sporting spirit. But he listens to the radio in the store, and he knows the rumors, the Maloofs selling to the highest bidder—Virginia City, Anaheim, Vegas, Seattle. It is, as he understands it, a done deal. “Why not?” he asks.

Perry stares him down and takes another drink. “Because they won’t.” Clearly, he is saying, there is no further explanation necessary—it is not how things are done. Although it is—the Kings are among the most-traveled franchises in basketball, and basketball is so perfectly an example of the larger world around it. Businesses close every day, and open up the next as a Chevron.

He could keep the store, but he doesn’t have the fight he once had. Or he could find someone else to run it, sell to anyone but Lance. Rico and Perry are roughly the same age as his nephew, a boy named Jersey who has long been in the running to inherit the Flyers once Earvin retires. But he hasn’t heard from Jersey in a while, and the kid’s no stand-up citizen. Gerald, who’s worked the overnight shift for more years than Earvin knows what to do with, is in no position to take over either.

“They can’t go away,” Perry says. “Because they’re ours, and it’s not the same without them. Nothing else fills that space.”

Rico nods. “Nobody else gets to own Webber, J-Will, Team Dime. No-Service Pervis. That’s ours.”

Earvin takes a breath before he speaks. “Look,” he says, “I’m giving up the Flyers.”

For a second, he thinks they don’t care. Perry’s staring into his cup, and Rico’s face is inflamed with the booze and the power of his opinions. If this is all it ever is, Earvin lets himself think, it is enough. Then Rico grabs his glass and drains it dry, puts it back on the table hard, and says, “Why?” in a voice so plaintive and screeching it can’t have been faked.

“Because,” he says, and leaves the word there. It hangs, and he lets it, because he does not have an answer. It is an accumulation, his own hang-ups and Karen selling the Arco and Jersey not around and the continued, years-long ache of Lorraine. Instead, he reaches for another bottle, and there’s something in the motion that rips across his chest, so hard he can’t contain the gasp, and he knows why. “Because I’m dying.”

This is the first time he’s said it aloud. No one knows. On the air, his words don’t have the weight he expected. They feel like a broken tooth his tongue can’t stop bothering, like eating a potato chip with a cut on his lip. The words hurt, but not enough to stop him.

“Damn,” Perry says. “You’re having a day.”

Rico nods. “We need more alcohol.”

Earvin fills the plastic cups again. The whiskey goes down quickly, and another round too, then another bottle, and before long he has no idea how much he’s had and he’s not young anymore and he’s only had an egg salad sandwich all day and the room is spinning and so is he. He’s always been a talkative drunk, and there’s a lot on his mind, so he runs down the whole litany. Rico and Perry listen, or at least they drink and do not speak, as he lays it all out for them.

The doctors say there’s no clear timeframe. They couch their possibilities in percentages—nothing is for certain, they tell him. If the disease is aggressive, it could be six to eight months, but if the drugs work like they’re supposed to, and the chemo—he shaved off what was left of his hair immediately, told everyone he was tired of going halfway bald—then he could be home free and have a happy, healthy, productive life in front of him. Years, decades even. But Earvin doesn’t buy that. Lorraine was a strong woman, and breast cancer’s a bitch and it took her away at thirty-four. She wasn’t a smoker and only drank on Friday nights once or twice a month, none of which Earvin can say for himself. He doesn’t have much in the way of hope.

And on top of that, Saturday morning, this happened: He stood in the backyard, well-covered on one side by sunflowers and on the other by the climbing rows of green beans, and he unbuttoned his jeans. He took out his pecker, just like Perry and Rico in the street, and aimed at a spider climbing a stalk of his patty-pan squash. He was in a good mood, the kind that came upon a man inexplicably when the wind blew against his body and the sun warmed his innards. There were birds chittering, a dog howling, and he couldn’t hear a single car. His stream released thick and strong, and he found himself singing “I’m Little, But I’m Loud,” just the chorus over and over again on a loop because it felt so damn good. Then he looked down, and realized that he was pissing blood. Well shit, he thought, this is it.

He pours another round, and tells them that this one is free although he’s long since lost count of the charge anyway. He watches his hand shake as he holds the bottle. It reminds him of Karen, of her arms, so he tells them about her as well, the way he always wondered how muscular she must be—she never had any problem lugging those big bags of ice, cartons of sodas or beer. She nearly always wore a flannel shirt, blue-checkered, though she had red ones that he’d seen a couple times. But mostly she wore the blue, neck to wrist. He finally saw her arms at Marilyn Ruth’s funeral, where they’d sat together in one of the last rows. And all that time, listening to the swell of emotion, Earvin had let the edges of his vision ride across Karen’s bare arms. She’d worn a dress, gray and sedate, had curled a shawl around herself. It had been a revelation to Earvin—she was a woman like any other, her skin smooth and muscles slim but hard. He had shaken her hand, after the service, felt the strength in her, and never seen her arms again. The moment had been exactly that.

Earvin doesn’t remember his wife’s arms. In all these years, he’s never been unfaithful, but the memories he’s lost seem an equal betrayal. Her name was Lorraine. Black hair, brown eyes, five-foot-two. Strong forehead, and a severe smile. These are details, not memories.

Somewhere in his drunken reverie, he peters out and flops his head onto the table. Nobody speaks for a bit. But then, Rico says, “You’re not selling this place.” Perry is shaking his head in agreement.

“I can’t fight anymore,” Earvin says. “Don’t have the stomach for it.”

“Fuck that.” Perry stands up, straight and tall and slightly woozy. “This is our town.”

Rico takes a Coors can out of the frosted glass refrigerated section, pops the top, and downs it in two gulps. There was a time, star outfielder for Marshall High, that Rico owned this town. He stands up as well, empty beer can in his hands. “You and the Sacramento Kings. Ain’t nobody leaving.”

“Me and the Kings.”

Rico winds up southpaw, the can in his left hand. Outside, the rain has begun spitting, waves curling on the wind. It sputters against the glass. It might be cold enough to snow tonight, black ice in the crannies of bridges. Maybe they’ll be snowed in. The snow might rise high enough that they’ll feel themselves alone in the world, like the Schulenburg cabin where a few last members of the Donner Party went insane, just miles away and nearly forgotten by history. Death haunts this land. It puts on a silver coat the color of rain and slides through the shadows. “I’m going to die here,” he says. “Two miles from the place I was born.”

Through with his windup, Rico lets fly, and Earvin thinks of baseball games, five-dollar seats and the way every last person in town came out to watch Rico play his high school games. How sweet that white ball flew, so perfect it hurt the eyes, like another sun. Into that image flies a Coors can that misses the trash can entirely. It clatters onto the floor, a harsh clank that could not have existed in any full stadium in the spring.

“The world I see is not the world I remember,” Earvin says. The words surprise him.

Perry frowns. “What’s that? Line from a song?”

“No, but it could be.”

“Has that feel.”

“Like truth,” Earvin says, “but you can’t quite hold onto it.” He sees the words on the edges of his eyelids, behind the orange-brown shapes created by variations in light.

“There’s something to that,” Perry agrees. “I feel it tapping against my teeth.” He grabs the contract off his counter and puts it on the table between them. Perry takes out a blade and stabs the paper deep into the rotting wood of the table, where it holds, quivering.

Earvin doesn’t feel it against his teeth, he hears it against the glass of the store. Opening his eyes, he sees Karen rapping on the window like knocking on a door, her blue-checked flannel tight to her body and wet in the rain. Beside her is Lorraine, chewing on the side of her cheek in that old emphatic habit he’d nearly forgotten. That is a memory, it is not a simple detail. She is cleaning her bones in the rain.

Earvin looks back to his patrons, but both are staring into their cups. The night has turned grim on them somewhere. It’s just a night, three men gone too far on booze and all with their dicks floating in the wind, but it feels right. The store set up as a bar looks great. Maybe he’ll switch shifts with Gerald permanently, or maybe he’ll wait until next Saturday. There’s something holy about the unlawfulness of the moment butting against the day of communion. Maybe he’ll mention it to his regulars, leave the bench permanently and show it to Sheriff Greenblatt. The old porker’s a libertarian, elected four terms running on a platform of noninvolvement. He’d think drinking while staring at a “No Alcoholic Beverages” sign was absolutely cherry.

Outside, the women are looking at him, peering through the glass and gesturing emphatically in his direction. He can feel the cold rain, the biting wind pulling at him. They’re not looking to come inside. •

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