I’ll sit out on the porch, maybe smoke a cigarette, or drink a Coke. When someone comes along, I’ll smile like I’m just passing time carefree. But passersby know better. They don’t make eye contact or offer idle chitchat. They’ll quicken their pace, looking at their shoes. The ones who remember I live here, cross the street before they reach my house.
It’s good weather, spring settling in and contemplating summer. I’m now 47. Not old but not young. In the middle. The middle of what? I ponder that and think I might sit on the porch all day, just ducking back inside for lunch. Or I’ll eat on the porch and wave to someone, knowing they won’t wave back. But why not wave anyway? Something to do, I reckon.
It’s a small town. I was its mayor once, nearly ten years ago. It was mostly a ceremonial post with a meager stipend and few duties. I’d walk around and meet everyone and listen to their bitching and moaning but make no promises except to mention it to the village board, where most ideas went to die.
There wasn’t much money in the town budget back then – or now. Promises in a small town cost too much to keep. Used to be, folks saw me on the street and smiled and hailed me as Mr. Mayor. Now they pretend we’ve never met. Now, I’m just Price Ledger, a fixture on his porch. A ticking bomb to many.
I used to have a temper. A bad one, so I was told, and true enough, I knew it was so. Mostly it came out when I was drinking, which is why I finally quit. It was either try and shake the booze monkey off my back or spiral out of control or even die. A runaway train looking for a place to crash. I got voted out as mayor for being drunk at the wrong times. I used to talk a lot of shit to the wrong people. That went on for years after the end of my “political career.”
Quitting the booze took a lot of effort and time, but it came too late to keep my wife from moving back to Montana for good. But at least I finally quit. That’s something, anyway. Not an equal tradeoff to losing a wife, but, hey, it’s a start. But to what, I don’t know. Sometimes, you think you’ve got the decks good and cleared for something, but nothing arrives to justify it.
I do have one friend, Gavin Jones, who still stops when he walks by, usually headed to the tavern. Buck’s Tavern. Just a quick eight blocks down my street, Juniper Street. Buck’s is where this story really starts and where the folks who look away when they see me, are convinced it will end. I don’t know. But I can see why so many believe it. Something happened and folks believe there’s another shoe to drop. That’s why they steer clear.
When Gavin walks by on the way to Buck’s, he stops and it’s always the same thing:
“Maybe today’s the day,” he’ll say in a bright, singsong voice.
“You never can tell.” I remember to smile and play along.
He’ll stand there, hands on hips, smirking. I used to say, c’mon on up to the porch, Gavin, and let’s chill. I’ll get you a beer. You see, I do keep a few in case someone might drop by. A brand I never drank and didn’t care for, which helps me stay sober, I suppose. I like to think having a few on hand but not drinking them means something. Maybe that’s only self-serving bullshit.
At first, I could tell he was tempted to sit a spell on the porch. A free beer’s a free beer to a good old boy like Gavin, who lives off unemployment and in his mother’s basement, waiting for her to die so he can inherit the property, which he’ll just drink away. But he knows not to have anybody see him sitting there with me, like maybe he’s some co-conspirator. Old Gavin is dumb but he’s not stupid.
Every time, he says the same thing before he chuckles like a little girl and heads off to Buck’s.
“So, is it? Is today the day?”
“You just never know, Gavin. Maybe it is.”
I shrug. It’s a game and I reluctantly play along because I can pretend we’re having a conversation. Those are now few and far between. I’ll go inside and get a cigarette just as soon as old Gavin lumbers along the sidewalk again. And every time, I tell him, “Hold up there, pardner, and I’ll get you a Schlitz for the road.”
“It’s a short road,” he says, that girl cackle even shriller than before. “But a free beer’s a free beer, Price.”
“Thought you’d see it my way.”
“No other way to see it, friend.”
I go inside just long enough to fetch his beer and my .38 from a cabinet. I set his Schlitz on the porch railing and sit in my chair and spin the cylinder on the .38, which ain’t loaded, but old Gavin don’t know that. Old Gavin don’t say anything and just pops open his beer and sips, watching me running my hand over that .38.
“That what you’d use?” he says. “If’ you was headed down there, that is.”
“Nothing wrong with a .38,” I say. “It’ll get the job done.”
“Sure it will. You don’t need no cannon, no .45, for what you want to do.”
“Who says I want to, Gavin? Who says I even will?”
He takes a long pull of beer and wipes the corners of his mouth with the back of a hand.
“Won’t you, Price? Half the town says you will.”
“Do they now?”
“Just a matter of time.”
“Oh, is it Gavin? Just a matter of time?”
Gavin stares at me, looking confused, and then finishes his beer and puts the empty can on the railing.
“But he killed your brother. He killed Chase.”
“Well, that’s what they say.”
It’s been near six months since Chase died and, yeah, sometimes it seems like yesterday. He was all the family I had left.
“Ain’t no rumor, Price.” Gavin shakes his head. “He done it — Cliff Royal. You know what’s he capable of.”
“And how do I know that, Gavin?”
I sigh and picture my younger brother, Chase, and look up at the porch ceiling a moment, but Chase’s image dissolves. I’m thankful it doesn’t linger, like it used to. I’ve gotten better at shooing it away. It used to haunt me some, but I decided that like drinking, I wouldn’t let it win. Another of the hard-won fights with plenty of relapses before it finally took hold.
“Maybe he did,” I say. “But the cops said there’s no hard evidence. Where’s the proof?”
“God damnit, Price. He picked on Chase all the time. He never cut Chase no slack down at Buck’s.”
“It wasn’t just Chase he fucked over, Gavin. I seem to remember he picked on you some, too.”
“But I ain’t dead, Price. Chase is.”
I nodded and spun the .38’s cylinder again and then put it on the railing. I get this fleeting thought that old Gavin seems to know more about what happened to Chase than anybody, including the cops. I wonder about that sometimes. Chase was found beaten in the alley behind Buck’s, but there was nothing conclusive other than that.
“A man ought to be pretty damn sure before he sets off someplace with a gun, Gavin.”
“Aren’t you — sure?”
For a long time now, I haven’t been sure about anything except staying sober and that’s day to day.
“No,” I say after a moment. “I’m not.”
“But what if you was?”
“But I’m not, Gavin.”
I suspect Gavin would love me to just up and shoot Cliff Royal down like in some old Western film because it would square things for Chase, but also for him. That’s the kind of friend old Gavin is. He’s a mooch, a leech, but he’s just about the only one speaking to me these days and so I have these ridiculous conversations with him.
“Folks bet you’ll do it, Price.”
‘‘Shoot Cliff Royal? Why are they so sure?”
“I can’t say, but somebody ought to shoot him.”
“Yeah? Is that right? Want to borrow the .38, Gavin old buddy?”
I hold it up for him. He shakes his head and looks away.
“You know me and guns, Price.”
“No, I don’t think I do. I think you own a couple yourself.”
He shrugs and stuffs his hands in his pockets.
“I sold them. I needed the money.”
“Well, that’s too bad. A crying shame. You’ll need a gun if you’re going to shoot Cliff Royal and be the town hero, Gavin.”
He suddenly puts his hands up like he’s fending off somebody.
“No, no, no,” he says. Don’t even say shit like that. Not even as a joke. Don’t let something like that get started around town.”
“But it’s okay if folks think I’ll do it, right? Is that about the size of it, Gavin?”
“Nobody’d blame you. You got every reason to do it.”
“Do I? This ain’t Dodge fucking City in the 1870s, Gavin. What’s wrong with you people? I’m not some fucking Wyatt Earp.”
He looks like a whipped puppy and won’t make eye contact. I go inside to get the miserable bastard another Schlitz, thinking he’ll already have skedaddled when I get back, but he’s still standing there, like he’s lost. I give him the beer and he chugs half it down. I don’t know how he can drink that god awful Schlitz. Even when I was a drunk, I wouldn’t touch that shit.
“You go on down to Buck’s,” I tell him. “You got enough money?”
I press a few bills in his hand. His face lights up. The money will make him remember to stop again the next time he ambles by on the way to get his load on.
“You’re a real gentleman, Price. I always said that about you.”
“Oh, now I’m a gentleman. I guess I’m finally coming up in the world.”
I watch him lurch along the sidewalk. I wonder if the dumb bastard had a gun, would he actually shoot Cliff Royal? It would be no skin off my nose. Nobody would miss Cliff Royal.
But here’s the thing. The cops told me they’re pretty sure it was Cliff Royal who killed Chase and they just can’t prove it yet. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. I’m not sure they’re really trying all that hard. I think like just about everybody else, they’re waiting to see what I’ll do. That’s why old Cliff Royal still roams free and still shoots pool down at Buck’s. I reckon the townspeople all expect me to just take care of the problem since the cops can’t.
Probably everybody would love to see old Cliff Royal get what they figure is coming to him and then Buck’s could go back to being just a shitty honky-tonk with Hank Williams on the jukebox, cheating couples huddled in booths, and minus one bully asshole. And if that costs me a prison term, well, hell, maybe that’s the price of peace, right? What a town. To think I was once mayor of this shit for brains burg.
The sun’s nearly down, the last streaks of crimson slipping over the horizon. By now, Gavin is at Buck’s, my money burning a hole in his pocket, the alcohol burning a hole in his head. Cliff Royal probably is there, too, hustling suckers at pool and drinking off other suckers’ dollars. And my brother is still dead.
Yeah, somebody ought to shoot Cliff Royal. That’s not really in dispute. Not at all. Is it inevitable? I don’t know. Maybe that happens one of these days. But maybe never.
But maybe tomorrow.
Michael Loyd Gray Biography: “My stories have appeared in Alligator Juniper, Arkansas Review, I-70 Review, Westchester Review, Flashpoint! Black River Syllabary, Verdad, Palooka, Hektoen International, Potomac Review, Home Planet News, SORTES, The Zodiac Review, Literary Heist, Evening Street Press & Review, Two Thirds North, JONAH Magazine, and Johnny America. My awards include the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize, the 2005 Writers Place Award for Fiction, the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize, and a grant by the Elizabeth George Foundation. My most recent book, The Armageddon Two Step (Redbat Books, 2019), winner of a Book Excellence Award, is my sixth published work. Other full-length publications include Sort of Still Original in Unoriginal Times (2016), Exile on Kalamazoo Street (2013), King Biscuit (2012), The Canary (2011), Not Famous Anymore (2009), Well Deserved (2008). I earned a M.F.A. in English in 1996 from Western Michigan University, where I was a Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society scholar (3.93 GPA). I was also a fiction editor for Third Coast, the WMU literary magazine. At WMU, I studied with MacArthur Fellow Stuart Dybe”