This piece represents the author’s first attempt at self-publishing a short story. The work is purely fictional.
I make my way from the ramshackle stage and navigate puddles of spilt beer to get to the back of the room where my merchandise display is set up under a hardware store flood lamp. Shake a few hands with a political smile on the way—from 9pm to midnight, I am the nicest guy in the room. Before I get to my little table home-base, a gnarled old dude with a white beard and a trucker hat slaps me on the back and yells, overly loud because the house music hasn’t started back up, “I lost my Allman Brothers CD!”
I had a buddy in college who always told people that his grandmother had dated Greg Allman in high school. I had no reason to doubt the veracity of that. But that’s about the extent of my Allman knowledge, except that a lady once told me I looked like said Greg. But everyone tells me I look like someone, and it’s nearly never accurate. In the mind of the populus, I look like any vaguely famous man with long blonde hair and a beard: Zakk Wylde, Chris Hemsworth, Rob Zombie. I like the Hemsworth one the most.
Sloppy dopplegangers aside, I have no idea why this hunched stranger is informing me of his loss, so I just sort of laugh and say, man, what are you gonna do.
“It’s okay though. Alice is here. She’s over there right now,” he says, pointing.
I nod knowingly at the empty chair he’s indicated and retreat to my table where my local friends come and give me hugs and maybe buy a disc or two and one lets me hold her baby and dance him around a little bit because apparently they didn’t card him. Or else babies are allowed in dive bars in Wisconsin. Either way, I know I’m an outlier for my gender and age demographic, but I love holding a baby. The top of a baby’s head is the cleanest smell in the world. I dance the little guy around and coo at him a little, and smell his head. I don’t know this baby from anybody, but he’s only two months old and so I ignore all theological speculation on original sin and decide that he’s never done a bad thing in his life and I love him for being so clean. I whisper in his ear and tell him to keep up the good work and don’t ever do anything wrong, ever, and I make the sign of the cross over his little body and give him a fool’s blessing and dance him around a little bit more.
Mom’s leaving and taking baby with her and my friends are about to play their brand of rowdy whisky blues rock on stage and I do want to watch them because their set is tighter every night we’re on the road. Except one night when there were even fewer people in the bar and none of us cared, we just sped through it so we could retreat to whatever hovel we were squatting for the night and let some cheap beers lull us to sleep. But I played poorly that night too.
I decide to step out though before they launch full-bore, and Jake’s lent me a couple Parliaments and I want to burn one because I’ve had two bourbons—that’s how chemistry works. I remember how fit I was four months back before the season of the van, how my traps actually looked impressive in a cut-off shirt, how I was up to running five miles and actually enjoying it, and then I remember that my running shoes are in the van and that I haven’t even laced them all summer. I tick off my excuses, limited wardrobe, ignorance of routes, lack of showers, and I know they’re all fake. I promise myself that I’m putting this behind me as soon as possible and getting really healthy again and I know how wonderful it’s going to feel and I step outside to light up.
Old Allman man is outside pacing and I’m bummed that I might have to actually talk to someone. He looks over at me blankly.
“These lights,” he says. “They’re messing with my genetics.”
I mumble a non-response as I notice that he’s pulling out his own pack of smokes. American Spirits—the only cigarette I actually liked. Organic, American-grown, all that. “No additives does not mean a safer cigarette.” Sure. I think it does. Anyway, my Parliament looks suddenly flaccid and cheap.
I ask him for one.
He opens his pack and I immediately see that the smokes inside are mismatched. He’s just got a box filled with whatever smokes he happened upon. But fortune favors the brave, and mine appears to be a genuine Spirit. I light her and it tastes correct.
“I’m a marine. That’s how I know. I’m a cop,” he says.
“Thanks for serving, man.”
That’s what my mom taught me to say. I’m not really thankful to this soldier’s ghost—in my experience, most folks who hit the military out of high school either didn’t know what else to do, got in trouble and needed some external discipline, or else just wanted the scholarship money. Anyway, I don’t believe in war. One of those music-can-change-the-world imbecilic hippie types. Read a few too many books with the same slant. Nothing against the troops as people; everything against their mission. I couldn’t even shoot a squirrel with a pellet gun these days.
“Doctors messed with my head,” he continues.
I believe that. He pulls up his shorts, way too high for my taste, and shows me an angry bump of scar tissue on his inner thigh.
I grunt, because the conversation makes less sense than any other I’ve been privy to in the past. It’s more of a fever dialectic monologue where I can practice active listening and be rewarded with tobacco.
“Had my throat slit,” he says, pulling his collar down, but I can’t make out anything beneath his stubble.
“Jonny Q. did it ta me. He had to, or otherwise the world was going to explode.”
That made a lot of sense. I kept nodding.
I lose track of what he’s talking about while I inhale slowly, hold, exhale with closed eyes. Always thought of cigarettes as a poor man’s meditation. When you’re smoking, you don’t have to do anything else. It’s the only few minutes of a typical day where you’re just standing still and breathing and not having to specifically interact. Your mind can wander, your hands are engaged. I would often find myself praying.
“But goddam Reagan was the worst.”
A lot of old people loved Reagan, so this one surprises me. Allman looks past me with wide eyes, over my shoulder like the devil’s walking up behind me.
“Get out of here, Reagan!” he shouts. “Get out!”
He pushes past me and begins straight shadowboxing with the movie star president. He’s swinging in the air with clenched fists, panting and beating the air. With a final uppercut, his shoulders sag, tired and victorious, and he steps back, but he’s not done. He spits on Ronald, full and phlegmy, before returning to his original crack in the sidewalk. The glob of saliva hits a bike tied to the rack outside the bar, and he apologizes profusely to the first passing pedestrian for this unfortunate placement.
The blues band has started playing, I hear as the door swings open, and my smoke is down to the cherry where it’s too hot to enjoy. I flick it in the storm drain and begin to excuse myself when he pipes up again.
“Jesus Christ is on that stage right now,” he says, surer than anything in the world.
“Jesus Christ is everywhere, man.”
“Oh, I know,” says Allman, surefooted in his doctrine, “But there’s only one of me. Right here. But in duplicate.”
I hope to God he means he’s schizo. That would make sense. I hope he’s not saying he’s an older version of me, burnt out from wars and loss and psychedelic drugs and lost compact discs and ghosts of women and piss-poor administrations and unshaven necks and mismatched cigarettes.
I think I shudder but I can’t honestly tell whether or not it’s only in my mind, and I look up at the neon beer signs and think about genetics. I thank Allman for the smoke, then ask his name and go to shake his hand. He tells me his name, which I’ve forgotten, but he refuses my extended hand.
“Can’t shake your hand,” he says. “You’ll get the devil on ya.”
I can’t argue with him, so I go in the bar, but I don’t order another drink. I just go straight back to my table and watch the boys play their riff-heavy, overly-loud, gravelly-throated music, and I love them to death. I recite a few of Allman’s Burroughsian trip lines to my buddy, pressing my finger against her ear so she can hear me shout over the music. Her eyes go wide, but she nor I can deny the truth of anything he said to me because neither one of us knows anything really.
I stow my gear and pack up my suitcase, thinking about God and the devil. And Ronald Reagan, about whom I honestly don’t really know anything except something about the New Deal. The boys finish a good show and I’m tired and ready to unroll my sleeping bag somewhere.
Outside, Allman was still talking to the wind. Somewhere, Reagan was still dead. Christ was still everywhere. And I still had a Parliament stuck behind my ear.