Home > From Swerve to Bend > Rubicon Avenue: A Short Story

Rubicon Avenue: A Short Story


Rubicon Avenue                   3,833 words

Stumbling from the bar, stepping from curb to street, Jimmy goes down. Approaching, Kyle grips the shirt collar and with a forearm under the armpit, lifts him up.

“You okay?”

“Back.”

“Huh? Your back?”

“Back to Ruby.”

Kyle contemplates the request as the light changes and cars move toward them.

Who the fuck am I to argue? Where I was headed myself.

Sluffing along, arms around shoulders in a friend’s embrace, they go. Kyle and Jimmy beneath a sky of blinding luminosity, ablaze like a supernova.

###

“I already cut you off Jimmy,” says Tonya as she dries a glass with a towel. Sets it up-side-down beside two others on a towel spread on the bar.

The Ruby Cafe, murky and cool as an autumn dusk while the afternoon August sun broils the pavement outside, heat waves warping your sight, baking all of your senses. Cool Ruby despite the broken air-conditioner. A ceiling fan breeze.

“One more Tonya. Jimmy needs it. I’ll vouch. You’re not going to get him more fucked up than he already is.”

Tonya silently stares at Kyle. Wipes her hands with the towel. The faintest hint of a smile. A scar runs across Tonya’s right cheek. Then an inch of unmarred flesh before the scar turns downward to her throat. It’s an old scar but it’s still angry. Though not as angry as the criminally jealous ex-boyfriend doing time.

Tonya has a soft spot for Kyle. She’d do pretty much anything he asks. He hasn’t asked for much.

“It’s on me,” Kyle says as Tonya sets ‘em up.

“It better be. I’m already running Jimmy a tab. Don’t tell Mike.”

Jimmy’s usual P.B.R and shot of Jameson. Jimmy smiles sheepishly, appreciative of his shepherd. Silent, knowing he can’t harness the tongue that would careen like a bumper car inside his mouth. The Jameson down the gullet before Tonya sets the Burning River in front of Kyle. She tries to make eye contact but Kyle is studying Jimmy. Studying Jimmy’s worried expression. Jimmy worries about his perpetually drunken state, about his empty wallet, about the cat that hasn’t been fed today. Or yesterday.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Jimmy.”

Kyle tips the Burning River longneck to his lips. Looks away from Jimmy to Tonya who has moved to the other side of the horseshoe shaped bar to attend to the only other 3 p.m. customer on what she calls Melancholy Monday. The quiet customer had appeared as if conjured. She doesn’t recall his request for the first beer. Recalls no echo of his voice. The man wears a tan sport coat with jeans. Mature though Tonya can’t get a fix on his age.

Kyle studies Tonya from behind. Firm, fine rump and nicely defined calves.

“Jush got out,” Jimmy finally says mushing forth.

“What this time?”

“Drunk’n d’sorderly.”

“…” Kyle takes another sip.

“an zist’n ‘rest.”

Jimmy can think clearly. The words form perfectly in his mind. They just don’t come out right. And his limbs have turned to jelly. His ears ring. If he hadn’t fallen, he’d be home by now in his studio apartment in Near North.

Shoulda’ kept going.  Home to feed Jinxie. She hates Meeces to pieces. Stop smiling. They already think you’re nuts. Shoulda’ refused the drink. A loser and a mooch is what they think. I’ll show ‘em. Never coming back to Ruby again. This shithole.

Jimmy takes a drag off the P.B.R. Slides off the stool with the cracked vinyl seat, batting peeking out of the wounds. Staggers to the bathroom. A glimpse of himself in the mirror as he passes. Sandy disheveled hair receding. Bleary blue eyes. No comb in his pocket. Closes himself up in the bathroom stall. Sits just in time for the eruption. Releases in a single explosion. Elbows on knees, head bent low. Too despondent to wipe.

###

“He’s been here since I opened,” Tonya says.

“Says he just got out of jail,” Kyle says. “Zistin ‘rest is serious business,” Kyle says. Tonya smiles.

“He came straight here after his release. He said I’d have the honor of being the last bartender to serve him. He’s done after today.”

“We’ve heard that before.”

Tonya hitches a hip on the edge of the cooler, presenting her good side to Kyle. Her slender arm rests atop the shiny bar freshly lacquered a few weeks ago. Refurbishments at the Ruby are infrequent and usually derided by the regulars. Her hands pretty despite all the washing and wiping. Small hands with unpolished nails clipped short, unadorned with rings. Out of the corner of her eye she sees the brown bottle resting in the recessed edge of the bar. She crosses and sets a fresh one in front of the laconic customer. Did he arrive before or after Jimmy? She tries to remember. Clinks the empty into the tall trash can.

###

Clean of ass and retrousered, Jimmy spins around and drops to his knees on the sticky toilet floor, embracing the bowl as the poison gushes forth. Filthy drool hangs from his lips. Jimmy gasps, teary eyed. He feels better instantly despite his disgust at the puke-slick atop shit like the sum total of his existence.

###

A corona enveloped form erupts from the shimmering maw. Before the eclipse of the closing door clarifies the view Kyle knows it is Ted. Laconic man watches like an astronomer observing. Measuring. Calculating mass, trajectory and force.

‘Pull up a seat,” Kyle says.

“Already have,” says Ted.

“Jimmy was sitting there.”

“Jimmy T.?”

Kyle nods. Ted picks up the three-quarter full P.B.R. and moves it to his left.

“Must’ve fallen in,” Kyle says nodding to the bathroom door. Tonya sets a Bud in front of Ted and a fresh Burning River in front of Kyle.

“J.T. working?”

“Doubt it. He just got out of the klink. You’ll have to ask him.”

Stepping from the restroom, Jimmy hesitates.

Asshole’s here. In my seat.

“Hey, Jimmy. How’s it hanging?” asks Ted.

Jimmy acknowledges Ted with a nod but doesn’t speak. Sits at his re-assigned seat and takes a drink of the warming Pabst.

“Here, Jimmy. This will do you good.” Tonya sets a pint glass of ice water with a slice of lemon in front of him.

She moves to the cash register and pulls her purse from the shelf underneath. Rummaging in the bowels, subconsciously looking for a smoke. It has been four months but she still craves, especially when she’s in the bar. She has yet to cheat. She knows if she does she’ll be right back at it again. And she knows that she can’t hide it. The smell gives her away. Kyle would know, not that it fucking matters. He hates smoking and smokers. Disgusting habit he reminds her over and over. “Good for you,” he said lamely at the news of her quitting.

“You playing anywhere, Jimmy?” Ted asks.

Jimmy shakes his head.

“You guys could rock,” Ted says looking back and forth from Jimmy to Kyle. “What happened to the Bangers?”

Kyle shrugs his shoulders and finishes his second beer faster than the first. Jimmy remains mute and solemn. Gulps the cold, citrus flavored water, Adam’s apple bobbing.

“Linda thinks you were the best. Guitarist, I mean. Not so good at other things, huh, Jimmy?”

Ted laughs and punches Jimmy on the shoulder, not hard but enough to nearly push the wavering Jimmy off his stool. Linda is Jimmy’s ex-wife and Ted’s current one.

I’m going to kick your ass as soon as I sober up. I’m going to beat you to a pulp and then I’m going to piss on your Armani suit and shit on your hundred-dollar haircut.

###

“Tonya, will you turn that shit off?” Kyle asks, pointing to the ESPN broadcast on the wall-mounted big-screen T.V. “I want to play the juke box.”

“The T.V.’s muted, it’s close-captioned,” Tonya says.

“I know but it’s distracting. Hey, buddy,” Kyle calls across the bar to laconic man, “mind if we turn the TV off and put on music?”

The drinker shakes his head. Sets his empty into the grooved inner lip of the bar as he turns to gaze at the television. Watches the screen blacken over his shoulder. Turns back to the fresh beer that has materialized.

“Mike’s not going to like having it off,” Tonya says.

“Fuck Mike. Who cares what Mike does or does not like?”

What a question! What’s Kyle doing here on a Monday afternoon anyway? Stay the hell away and let me live my miserable life in peace.

###

The first song starts. Kyle punches in the last of his series. Walks back to his seat. He always plays the same songs.

  • I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire, sings Peggy Lee.

“Lord, help us,” said Tonya when the music started but she sings along anyway in a soft, low voice. When Tonya lets go, when she lets her rip, she sounds like Grace Slick, Kyle has told her.

As Kyle remounts the stool, he says, “Randy Newman…”

“… provided the orchestral arrangement and conducted. You’ve told me a thousand times,” says Tonya.

– Is that all there is, is that all there is?

Kyle with a hurt expression. He likes telling stories about songs.

“And the lyrics were inspired by the Thomas Mann story Disappointment,” says Tonya.

“Disillusionment,” says Kyle.

“Whatever.”

“You always play the same crap,” says Ted. “Why don’t you play some good music for a change?”

“Who are the fucking musicians in the room, asshole?” asks Kyle with an ambiguous smile.

“Yeah,” says Jimmy emerging from a dark, fathomless place. The P.B.R. is warm. He is working on his third glass of water.

“I think a little gratitude is in order here, Bub. Who gave you that cushy job?” asks Ted.

Tonya perches herself back on the cooler and says to Kyle, “Why don’t the Bangers play anymore?”

“No time for it. And look at Jimmy.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re too busy selling ads. Chasing the American dream,” she says and casts a disparaging look at Ted.

“Remember the Riverfest gig?” Jimmy asks with alarming clarity and diction.  The puke has done him good. He talks across Ted who is busy punching at his smart-phone.

“One of our best performances,” Kyle says.

“Nick on drums. Lunatic,” says Jimmy.

“Possessed,” says Kyle.

“And the new song you wrote. Li’l Bruno dances no more.” Jimmy sings the line slightly off-key.

“You gents enjoy your stroll down memory lane,” Ted says standing to leave. He puts a twenty on the bar. “I’m covering the next round for the degenerate arteests. The rest is yours,” he says to Tonya. “I’ll talk to you in the morning.” Ted’s narrowed eyes, finger pointed at Kyle, winking.

“Don’t need your fucking beer,” Jimmy says. He takes a gulp of the water.

“Have it your way,” Ted says as he moves to the door. “I’ll give Linda your regards.”

I’ll cut your balls off if when I get the chance.

“Don’t let him get to you,’ Kyle says as the door closes behind Ted. “He and Linda are on the ropes, anyway.”

Kyle sees Mike’s Cadillac Escalade pass the front window, through the garish beer signs. He’s earlier than usual.

The laconic man follows Kyle’s gaze.

“You know that your stuff is on the box because of me,” says Tonya.

“And because Mike knows that the minute my songs are gone, I am too.”

“Mike doesn’t give a shit if you’re here or not.”

“I don’t think that’s true. For a variety of reasons.”

###

Mike steps into the Ruby. He is a large man but not a jolly one. He’s a spent sun at the center of a dead solar system, providing no warmth to the bodies on the periphery.

Kyle, in a testy mood, asks Mike, “How much does Budweiser pay you to advertise for them?”

With a confused expression Mike says, “The signs are free.”

“You think somebody is going to walk into this dump because you have a free fucking Budweiser sign. Did they offer you a free forehead tattoo?”

“When you own the Ruby you can make the business decisions. How’s that sound?” Mike says before he wanders away to get a case of beer to ice down.

“Sheep,” says Kyle but Mike doesn’t hear.

Mike doesn’t care for Kyle. The feeling is mutual. Mike knows about Tonya’s infatuation. Still, business is business and he’ll tolerate the prick if he keeps drinking the expensive stuff and buying for all his buddies.

The next week Mike will add a Corona Extra sign and a Miller mirror embossed with NFL logos and cheerleaders out of spite.

The room was humming harder,

As the ceiling flew away

###

“How’s the peanut gallery treating you today?” Mike says as he bends to kiss Tonya. She turns and defiantly offers her damaged cheek. He hesitates a moment before giving her a peck. Tonya is self-conscious about the scar. When she is not working, seated at the bar or in a restaurant, she’ll use her hand to hide the scar. Lately, though she has been taunting Mike with it. Mike knows a plastic surgeon who says he can help. The surgeon can’t eliminate the scar but he can soften it, smooth it out. He can also enhance her boobs like Mike wants. The facial procedure is scheduled for next week. The boob job isn’t on the docket yet. Kyle has told Tonya that he loves her little titties and the scar accentuates her beauty. Says the imperfection calls attention to her creamy complexion and delicate jaw-line.

Why the fuck should I care what Kyle thinks? 

“I need you to stay late. I’ve got errands to run this evening,” Mike tells Tonya.

Great. Another double shift.

“I have plans,” she says.

“Cancel them.”

That her face at first just ghostly,

Turned a whiter shade of pale

“I love this song,” Tonya says to Kyle.

“It’s about a drunken seduction,” he tells her.

“So you’ve told me. I love drunken seductions, I guess.”

###

A pretty woman walks in alone. A very pretty woman. She halts after a few steps into the Ruby and looks around. Her eyes adjust to the darkness. Everyone looks, except laconic man who treats her arrival as something inevitable, a prophecy fulfilled. Tonya gauges Kyle’s reaction.

The newbie sits two seats down from Kyle. Kyle studies the young woman, and she, smiling, returns his gaze.

Tonya throws the bar towel on the cooler and tells Mike she’s taking a break. She marches to the cigarette machine and, with a flourish, buys a pack of Capri Menthol 100’s. They thud into the tray. She snatches them up.

Lights up in the blistering heat. Sidewalk like a griddle. She takes a few pulls off the Capri and feels nauseous. Drops the cigarette onto the sidewalk and grinds it with the toe of her old Nike that looks like a club connected to her delicate ankle. Walks toward her car in the un-metered alley. “No Parking” signs but she gets away with it. The meter cops know her and don’t give a shit. She drops the pack of Capri’s into the green garbage can as she turns the corner of Rubicon and Tinsley. The beige Camry has a crease along its side from a hit and run. A Ruby’s customer no doubt. A drunken coward. Inside she cranks the air conditioner to the maximum setting. Begins to cry. Considers driving away.

###

“Christie,” says the pretty woman in response to Mike’s question. She has ordered a Cosmopolitan and Mike is stalling for time. He hates making drinks. Tonya should be back.

Mike learns that Christie is newly arrived in town. She’s getting settled in her apartment in Riverside. She’s looking for a part time job. She’ll start Nursing School in the fall.

There must be some kinda way out of here

Said the joker to the thief

“A Bob Dylan song,” Kyle says, looking at Christie’s slightly equine profile.

“This is Jimi Hendrix,” says Christie.

“Right. But Dylan wrote it.”

“What kind of work do you do?” Mike asks Christie, looking irritably at Kyle.

“Customer service or bar tending.”

“Same thing,” Mike says. He opens the cash register, lifts the cash drawer and takes an employment application from underneath. Hands her the form.

“We know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Kyle says to no one in particular. His mind working on unrelated problems.

Mike glances at his watch. He is furious with Tonya.

Two riders were approaching

And the wind began to howl

Mike sets a drink of dubious quality in front of Christie.

“Hendrix’s guitar builds the anticipation. The shit is about to hit the fan,” Kyle says to the fresh bottle of Burning River.

###

When Tonya returns, Mike glares at her. “Thirty minute fucking break,” he says under his breath. He sees that she has been crying so he’ll save the confrontation for later. Now he has to go.

The Ruby has recently caught the attention of residents in the newly renovated apartments around the park on the border of the Riverside District and Near North. A four-some of “Riversiders” (which refers more to an attitude than a place) have taken a table up front, near the jukebox. Fresh, young shiny faces, like polished apples. Kyle fears they’ll punch up some of the crap music that Michael, desperate to curry favor, has loaded on for them. The young crowd loves the Ruby for its dive atmosphere that they are doing everything they can to ruin.

One of the shiny apples comes to the bar to order drinks. He asks Tonya to turn on sports. Mike has left to run his errands without noticing the dark t.v.. She tells the shiny apple the television is broken. Kyle punches in more songs. Tonya turns up the volume. Kyle takes a thin book from his bag. He found Claire Rabe’s Sicily Enough in The Delirious Dissident used bookstore. He has read it a half dozen times successively. He takes a pile of white bar naps from the plastic container with the Johnny Walker logo. Flipping back and forth between the sections he has highlighted, scribbling on the napkins, crumpling some and throwing them aside. Tonya and Jimmy watch. Laconic man smiles at the act of creation.

###

Kyle shuffles the little napkins into an appropriate order and hands them to Tonya.

“It’s about her isn’t it? Your new inspiration.” Tonya nods to the empty stool. Christie has gone to the Lady’s Room.

“Read it.”

I arrive, dogshadow thin

Broody men watch me bending

Mandolins in the tavern

Desire never ending

He stares at my thighs

Lick, suck, squeeze away loneliness

Hate is better than an empty bed

Desire flares inside me

As the sun on my back

Hot as hell and red in corners

Deep like that

Thick smell of sex everywhere

Lets my name out with his sperm

We make love like religion

Fills my vagina, I fill time

Adored like no virgin

Waiting for an end

Lick, suck, squeeze away loneliness

Hate is better than an empty bed

Some nights I want to be held

The purpose of my being

In a kiss there is not time

Only constant eating

I grow not old, only deeper

Here on my knees in filth

Licking away at my self esteem

Praying at the altar of a groin

What’s it mean?

A witch ensnared by a fool

Lick, suck, squeeze away loneliness

Hate is better than an empty bed

“What’s it mean?” Tonya asks.

“It’s about you. Pretty much everything I have ever written is about you.”

“. . .” She cannot respond.

Kyle takes the napkins from Tonya’s fingers, though she doesn’t want to let go, and hands them to Jimmy. “Set it to music.”

###

“Too many words,” Jimmy says.

“Shorten it.”

“It doesn’t rhyme.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It’s not the kind of stuff we do.”

“Time for a change. Just write it. It’ll occupy your mind while you’re riding the wagon.”

“What wagon?…. Oh!” Jimmy says with a reflective pause.

Jimmy pushes himself away from the bar and the warm beer. He is steady on his feet.

“I didn’t mean right now,” Kyle says but Jimmy doesn’t stop walking.

“Your phone still out?”

Jimmy nods yes and stops just short of the door.

“Come over to my place. This Friday. You too Tonya. We need your voice and your advice.”

Christie returns to witness Jimmy’s departure.

###

In the restroom, Kyle splashes his face with the cool water gurgling from the faucet. Wipes  face and hands with coarse brown paper towels. Rakes a comb through his dark hair, shorter than his rock days but still too long for the corporate world. Looks in the mirror and wonders who is looking back. He takes a small leather case from his breast pocket, containing his business cards. Kyle McGee, Account Manager. He pulls the cards from the sleeves and drops them into the waste can. Fingers the grain on the case before tossing it in after them.

###

Tonya picks up Christie’s application, abandoned by Mike beside the cash register. Pretends to study it.

“You’re hired. You start now.”

“What?” asks Christie, setting down her second Cosmopolitan.

“You have anything better to do?”

“I guess not. But I’ve been drinking.”

“So? Come here and I’ll show you the cash register.” Tonya writes her phone number on the back of a bar check.Takes her Ruby keys from her purse, hands them to Christie.Tommy will be in at 9 to relieve you. Call me if you run into trouble.” Tonya ignores the uncertainty etched on Christie’s brow.

“You’re not staying?”

“For a little while. I’ll stick till you get the hang of it. Trust me. This is the easiest bar tending job in the universe.” Laconic man nods his head and takes a drink.

“What do I tell Mike if he returns?”

“Tell him anything you want. Tell him Tonya said to go fuck himself.”

Tonya takes a seat by Kyle.

“I’ll have a Gin and Tonic,” she says to Christie.

When Christie sets the drink down, Tonya says. “There’s a price list taped above the register. Gin and Tonics are $5.00 but mine are on the house. At least until tomorrow.”

###

The songs and lack of sports have driven the Riversiders away. Kyle leans and whispers into Tonya’s ear. She giggles and blushes. A Whiter Shade of Pale is up again. He stands and offers Tonya his hand. Leads her to an area with space to dance. Her ruined cheek against his.

Tonya notices that laconic man’s seat is empty and there is a $50 tucked under the empty beer bottle.

How did I not see him leave? 

Tonya and Kyle turn and turn. Slowly. Locked in mutual orbit as the cosmos hums around them.

The End

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