Thursday, 30 April 2015
“So I hear you're the condemned man?” Barkus turned to the speaker, who sat himself down on the empty barstool beside him. “Usual please Jim.”
“I guess I am,” Barkus replied ruefully, turning back to his beer. Funny he hadn't had a beer in nearly ten years –spirits and cigars for him, yes sir!-- but once he set foot in the smoky, badly-lit honky-tonk, he craved a beer. And the barkeeper had turned out a few dusty bottles of what he used to drink back in the day, which is what he really craved. So he had one, after wiping the cobwebs off it of course. He took a pull, then made the universal gesture for another bottle as a glass of whiskey was put on the counter by Jim, the bartender.
“How's it suit you?” the stranger asked, as Jim obligingly placed a cleaned-off bottle in front of Barkus and took away the empty.
“Tastes good," Barkus replying, prying off the patina-ed cap. "Just what I need.” The stranger glanced at Jim who shrugged.
“Whatever floats your boat stranger.” Presently, a pouch of tobacco and a raggedy pack of papers were produced, from which appeared a professionally thin rollie. Jim wordlessly handed the stranger a lighter just as the man started patting his pockets. Nodding his thanks, the stranger lit up and handed it back. Jim replaced the the lighter right in front of an ancient, yellowed “No Smoking” sign and went to another customer.
“I take it that my story is in every smoke signal by now,” Barkus said after a while. It bothered him, he had never been a very public person, but had grown up in a small, rural town and knew full well that whenever anything any way out of the ordinary happened, it was pounced on with relish.
“Oh, the carrion eaters started circling not long after you drove through the first flowerbed, I think the press office opened up right about the time you kicked your way through the second flowerbed and the APBs were being issued when you started yelling and cursing at George and Levi, that's the Police Sergeant and Constable,' he added. "In case you didn't catch their names.” Barkus winced and took another pull of beer. “So of course, when you sat down in front of the squad car and refused to move, it just made everyone's day.” The stranger laughed at Barkus' sudden bewilderment. “You do know that stories tend to mate and produce bizarre offspring, don't you?”
“Thanks for reminding me.” Barkus smiled ruefully and stuck out his hand. “John Barkus, gossip-maker extraordinaire.”
“Sol Mantic, Banjo player and general jack of all trades.”
“Hey Sol,” a guy down the back of the bar called out. “When are you gonna give us something to listen to besides that damned jukebox?”
“Now Marc, you know that my joints need lubricating first,” Sol replied and exaggerated taking a pull of whiskey. “Aaah, that's better.” He lifted a banjo case from the floor and extracted an old, but obviously well cared for banjo. He plucked a few strings, grimaced, turned a knob slightly and seemed pleased with the result, though Barkus was damned if he could hear the difference. Then he played a merry little riff that got everybody's toes tapping without prior instruction from any brains. Then he looked fondly at his banjo, put it back into the case and went back to his drink. “What?” he asked in mock surprise at the groans and aahs from the audience. “Told you guys I need lubrication first.”
About an hour after this, a tall, lean, bearded man strode into the bar, absently puffing on a rollie, twirling a short chain with a single key around his finger. The man set down on the empty stool beside Barkus, on the opposite side from Sol.
“How're you doin' Jim?” the man asked as Jim put a glass of clear liquid in front of him.
“Not too bad now Gus,” Jim replied.
“You hear about the goings-on today?” Sol enquired. Gus snorted.
“Who didn't? That idiot must really need attention to get up to that stuff in a town this size.” Barkus felt his face turn red.
“Well, introduce yourself and ask the idiot what he was thinking then,” Sol told him, taking a sip from his drink, never once looking to his left.
Gus turned towards Barkus and subjected him to a calculating gaze. Underneath the attention of those piercing steel-blue eyes, Barkus felt that his soul was being weighed and if found wanting, he would never know why...
“Well,” Gus volunteered eventually. “At least my ears wont be full of the newest babies in town for a while. The gossips are talking about you now boy.” He lifted his hat slightly in mock salute before resettling it on his shock of iron-grey hair. “Which saves me a whole lot of hassle. Gus Gunan, and I already know your name John Barkus.”
“Thought you were going to be a good boy this year,” Sol said in severe reprimand, with a wink at Barkus. Gus shrugged.
“I am good, that's the problem.”
Some time later, Gus looked around at the low stage in the back corner of the bar.
“How's them joints Ol' One?” he asked, while taking two slim sticks out of the pocket of his long-worn leather coat. Sol shrugged with one shoulder, finished his drink and picked up his case.
“Still good enough to show you, Ol' One.” The pair strolled over to the stage where Gus gently removed a tarp from what Barkus had assumed was a lump of junk. He sat behind the shiny drum kit that was revealed and, after checking the tuning on the drums, twirled his drumsticks around his fingers while Sol puttered around, exaggerating every groan and moan as he lifted his banjo from its case and checked the small microphone.
A quick glance between the pair and Gus started a throbbing heartbeat that made you want to get up and move. Sol joined with a simple but compelling riff that he built and elaborated until everybody was up and dancing. At some apparent signal, a late-middleaged woman with silver shining proudly through her blonde hair, jumped up and supplied words to the melodies. Barkus didn't know what was happening or how many women he was dancing with but goddamn he was enjoying it! After what felt like hours, Sol and Gus relinquished the stage to a group of 20-somethings, Sol clutching his precious banjo, just in case anyone dared to ask for a lend. Gus had a quiet word with the enthusiastic 'drummer' of the group, after which the lad looked less enthusiastic and more interested in an instrument change. They got ambushed by the crowd on the way back to their seats, so Barkus took the opportunity to ask Jim something that had started to nag at him.
“Why did they each call the other 'Ol' One' earlier? Surely one is older than the other.” Jim, whilst polishing a glass in the finest of barkeeping tradition, shrugged.
“They were both born on the same day in the same year,” he rumbled at last. “Dunno what the times were so they're each as old as the other.” Barkus looked at the pair. The short, ever-smiling Sol, looking like he got a joke that no-one else even knew existed, and the tall, stoic Gus who seemed like a thunderstorm could break on his back and he wouldn't turn a hair.
“Proof that Astrology doesn't mean squat then,” he laughed, turning back. Jim's hands ceased their polishing on a glass that gleamed.
“Well no-one knows where they came from, much less their birthplace and apparently even they don't know what time they were born,” Jim told him with a frown that Barkus didn't see as he tried to keep a bug from getting into his beer and resorted to smooshing it on the side of the bottle.
“They're not from here?” he asked in surprise as he wiped his hand on his jeans. He looked back at the slowly-advancing pair. In his tiny hometown at least, 'strangers' had to be really special to get treatment like that and he expected it was the same here.
“Nope, they're blow-ins,” Jim acknowledged another customer and started pouring out a rum and coke -by eye of course- but continued talking to Barkus. “Sol arrived in one day about 20 years ago from the south somewhere and about a week later, Gus arrived out of the north. Neither ever said where they'd come from despite all the gossip's questions and I never asked. None of my business. They're here now and they're good men.” Barkus frowned.
“But how do you know what they got up to before they arrived up here?” Jim's frown returned with emphasis, but the words were out of Barkus' mouth before he could bite them back. “How do you know what they're running from?” Jim looked over at Sol and Gus in the middle of his bar, laughing and joking with his customers, then looked at Barkus, then leaned over the counter. It was all Barkus could do not to scuttle backwards. Jim was b-i-i-ig.
“Who said they're running? And as I said,” Jim growled a bare six inches from Barkus' face. “They're good men.” He pulled back, shook his head and carried the rum and coke to its waiting recipient while Barkus tried not to look relieved as Sol and Gus returned.
“So what did Jim have to say then?” Sol asked as they sat back down on either side of Barkus.
“Jim's not into Astrology, is he?” Barkus asked instead, taking a slug of beer, for some reason his throat was very dry. Sol whistled and Gus grimaced.
“You didn't get into that did you?” Gus shook his head. “You poor bastard.”
Wednesday, 29 April 2015
“And your punishment, Mr. Barkus,” intoned the Police Staff Sergeant. “For public intoxication, damages to public property, public disorder and general disrespect to officers of the law is an indefinite amount of community hours.”
“Indefinite amount of,” Barkus cried out, knees reflexively carrying him upwards, before the ham-like hand of the officer behind him, also acting on reflex, slammed onto the top of his shoulder, reseating him before the desk with a jolt. The staff sergeant looked over his glasses at Barkus before leaving down the judge's statement, faxed in from, Barkus didn't catch the name and frankly didn't care.
“ 'Indefinite community hours' means whatever length of time it takes you to re-do the flower beds in the public spaces,” the staff sergeant summarized, removing his half-moon glasses and carefully placing them into a case which immediately went into his shirt pocket. “Her honour prefers to put people working for the common good and in ways other than picking cans along the highway. For a start, we got darn few highways.” He said it like a joke but clearly expected no other response than a slight grin from his colleague. Barkus meanwhile, was glowering. “So she had a look into your background and, lo and behold, she finds a horticulturist hiding behind that suit. So you're gonna make the public gardens pretty again. Two birds, one stone, as they say.”
“And if I refuse?” Barkus growled. “I'll get my lawyer down here by the day after tomorrow. He'll tear that notion apart.” The officer looked at him, then put his feet up on the corner of the desk, put his hands behind his head and slid his hat down over his eyes.
“You know, it's a funny thing, timing,” he stated, just as Barkus was opening his mouth in fury. “The prison bus passes through here in about 2 hours. I say funny 'cause it also happens to stop here, top up the water for the chains and all of that. Gotta look after them now you know. Driver's my cousin's husband too, nice guy, doesn't do too much,” disapproving sniff, “handling, not like some of the others, you know. But the reason why I mention this is, as I said it passes through in about 2 hours,” here he paused to lift his hat and glance at the main clock in the office, and Barkus felt ice trickle down his spine despite the heat. “Beg your pardon Mr. Barkus, one and a half hours.” He put the hat back and slouched a bit lower in his chair to get comfortable. “I always have a little chat with my cousin's husband, he's from around here you know and sometimes, well sometimes we get a bad 'un in town, whether he came in on his own power or someone else's. And sometimes, not very often mind but sometimes, we just can't do anything with 'em and in cases like that, well, it's very handy having that prison bus passing through.”
“My lawyer,” Barkus began in a voice that didn't mean to sound so squeaky. The staff sergeant lifted his hat with one finger.
“You remember that guy don't you George?” he said to the other officer, seemingly ignoring Barkus. “Real city gent, nice, fancy suit. Said that helping out with the re-painting of the Community Hall was demeaning and he'd insisted on getting his lawyer in.”
“I remember,” George rumbled. “Took the lawyer two days to get here, just missed him by 6 hours. But with paperwork being the way it is, it took four days to get him out of there.” A meaningful glance passed between the two uniforms and Barkus felt the shadows get darker.
“Got his shiny suit ripped,” the staff sergeant continued. “But he didn't seem to mind painting after that.”
“So long as someone put the paint on a shelf for him,” George pointed out.
“Yes,” the senior officer replied, watching Barkus turn pale. “There was that.”
There was silence for a moment before John Barkus, Architect, owner of several homes, numerous luxury cars and one-time garden centre assistant for weekend money, cleared his throat.
“Has anyone thought of a colour scheme yet?”
“I hear you can put a half-decent days work in,” Jim commented without looking up as Barkus took the same stool he had the night before. “For a city boy that is.” Barkus snorted. After Lyn had left, Arthur almost sprightly at the notion of dinner, he pulled up every single plant in the bed -be it a weed or not- and put them into another bag, making a mental note to find out where the nearest compost pile was. He then thoroughly picked, hoed and raked over the ground, unrolled a God-only-knew how old tarp and covered the bare soil with it. After tidying everything away and dropping off the refuse, the street lights were well and truely alight and the early stars were a-twinkling. Barkus had walked into Jim's Place thirsty.
“I've gotten soft over the years I guess,” he replied as Jim placed a beer in front of him and went back to his crossword.
The Place was pretty quiet, there were a few tables occupied, another patron down the end of the bar and Jim. The jukebox was playing away to itself, Barkus savoured his beer and took stock of the day. His back ached dully, his hands were hot and stung until he soothed them with the beerglass, his face and neck felt tight with the sun that he had neglected to properly protect himself against. And he was tired, in a way that he hadn't been in years. The kind of tired that only comes from working hard in the fresh air, indeed the kind of work that he had not done in a long time.
When is the last time that you put in what your father would call a 'Good days work', eh John? His inner voice prompted. Barkus thought about this, it must have been when he was last on the family farm. He and his brothers went out into the fields every day at sun-up, his brothers laughing good-naturedly at his muttered complaints of aches and pains as they sat together on the porch and watched the sunset, drinking beer and swapping stories, the sounds and smells of his childhood wrapping him up in a thick blanket. He envied them completely then, had begun hatching plans to leave the city and set up an office in the town nearby. His wife's laughter, lighter than in a long time, had drifted out of the kitchen, sparking happy images of he and she getting out of the rat-race. Endless possibilities had danced in the air. No it's not, it was the week after that, remember? Barkus slammed the voice behind a door in the back of his mind as his hands tightened imperceptively on the beerglass.
“Coveted plant that needs fungus to grow,” Jim said. Barkus blinked. “Six letters”
“Orchid,” he replied, rubbing his forehead, suprised to feel moisture. Dear God, when he had last thought about that? Jim was shaking his head.
“Doesn't fit.” Barkus thought for a minute, glad for the distraction, then moved up the bar. Jim slanted the newspaper towards him and rested the point of his pencil by the offending space. “See? Needs an 'H' in the beginning.” They both studied the crossword for a few minutes, Jim pencilled in a different clue.
“Well, if this is 'goats' instead of 'sheep' then it fits,” Barkus pointed out slowly. Jim considered this, then nodded, made the change and filled in 'orchid'. “So in that case,” Barkus began. “This one is...”
“My crossword,” Jim stated gruffly, turning the paper back to him. “Thanks.” Barkus stood taken aback for a moment, before smiling and going back to his beer.
“Any time Jim.”
End Chapter 1
“Yes, but you've forgotten about the armed guards again.” Barkus looked over as the door swung open and Gus strode in, followed by Sol, both men waving to various people who had trickled in as the evening wore on.
“Nah,” Sol replied merrily. “I would just take the elastic band, the pen and the coins and take them out, McGyver style.” Gus laughed.
“Before the first guard hit the ground, the other three would open fire. Dead again.”
“McGyver would laugh at such a threat, eh Barkus?” Sol winked at Barkus as he sat down.
“Nah,” he disagreed. “McGyver would make bulletproof armour by folding popcans, then take his sweet time and take out the guards hero style.”
“Making sure the last guard had an imprint on his forehead, of course,” Gus pointed out.
“Of course.” By now Jim had set their drinks in front of them and was handing a fresh beer to Barkus.
“So how did you do today then city boy?” Sol asked after settling in.
“Working through it,” Barkus replied. “One small flowerbed finished, three small and four large to go.” There were nods all round. “How much time do I need to give the planning commission to get a design together?” All three men snorted in unison.
“Unless you want to be here till Judgement Day,” Jim shook his head, unnoticed Sol and Gus glanced at each other before putting noses to glasses. “You put your own design in place.”
“It'll take them three months to agree that the beds have to be done, then no matter what gets decided, they'll be wrangling about it until three years after it goes to seed, and then they'll be moaning about the state of it again,” Gus elaborated with a heartfelt sigh.
“Poor Gussy here made the mistake of offering to do the beds last time,” Sol explained as Gus put his head on the bar and made strange noises.
“You did that, design?” Barkus asked incredulous. “I thought even drummers had better taste than that.”
There was a warning finger before Gus lifted his head.
“One of these days you'll know who designed those beds and nobody will have to point him out to you.” Sol and Jim nodded agreement. “Believe me, you'll come up against him and not too long in the future either.”
“Do I need to be afraid?” Barkus joked. Gus shook his head, Sol made a rocking motion with his hand and Jim did a one-shoulder shrug. The three men regarded each other as Barkus' eyebrows rose. Sol turned to him.
“I would be wary.”
“Wii-iild horses,” crooned the jukebox before an ominous skipping noise interrupted the peace. Sol and Gus groaned and put their fingers in their ears as Jim suddenly lunged for the circuit board. Before his fingers could trip the switch however, a burst of static and a piercing whistle erupted out of the speakers. “Dead man's hand again!” blasted out of the speakers at almost physical volume before Jim cut the juice. The silence was a solid thing.
“Well,” Barkus said, moving his jaw to try and stop the whining in his ears. “At least we know the speakers work.”
“That's why it's called the Damned Jukebox,” Gus stated, twisting a little finger in his ear with a grimace. Sol threw him a dark look.
“There is nothing wrong with the guts of that machine,” he protested, massaging his ears. “I've opened that thing up five times and the all the connections are fine.” Jim made his way back to them, acknowledging the mock derison from his other customers with a wave of his finger.
“I say we get the Padre to scatter some wine over it,” Gus answered, to a snort from Jim.
“You know full well what his reaction would be if I asked him to preform an excorcism on that, Thing,” he stated flatly.
“Yeah,” Sol agreed while finishing his drink and handing the glass to Jim who promptly started refilling it. “It would also be pure comedy though.”
“I take it that you still haven't managed to fix the Thing then Jim,” came a female voice from the door. Jim looked up with a faint frown, which melted into a smile once he saw who it was. “I see that you've managed to fall in with the worst crowd in town Barkus,” Lyn continued as she advanced, but her warm smile belied her words.
“Marlyn.” Gus greeted her with a hug. “How are you doing these days?”
“I'm doing okay,” she replied as Sol made sure he got his hug too. “You know how it is.” The three men nodded, they did know. Barkus of course didn't have a clue but picked up enough cues from the others to know not to ask right now. “But I got the night off so I immediately knew where I was headed.” Jim placed a large rum and coke on the bar and waved off her money.
“This one's on me, Li'l Girl.” Lyn smiled her thanks as she pocketed the note and took a pull from the drink.
“Mmm, vanilla rum,” she enthused. “You're the best Jim.” Jim shrugged, smiling faintly.
“That's what it says on my business cards.”
“Still got the pool table?”
“You know it.”
“Anyone up for a set?” she looked from Sol to Gus to Barkus.
“I'm game,” Barkus offered.
“Alright,” she beamed. “Wanna make it a foursome?” she asked the other two. Gus shook his head and smiled.
“Tempting idea,” Sol considered with a wink. “But I'll pass this time.”
“Fair enough,” she turned to Barkus. “I warn you; I'm a bad winner.”
“I guess I'd better make sure you don't win then.” Laughing and joking, they made their way to the pool table in the corner. Jim went to serve another customer and flicked the Thing's switch on the way. A quick burst of static caused a general wince before the Wild Horses started up again.
“Are you sure you didn't, meddle, with that Thing,” Gus grumbled at Sol, who raised his hands in denial.
“Innocent as charged, honest.” A stern look from under bushy grey eyebrows made him reconsider. “With regards to the jukebox anyway.” Gus rolled his eyes and took a drink.
“Somehow I find that hard to believe,” he stated dryly.
“Yeah well, that's your problem.” There was a few minutes of silence as both men regarded the pool table and what had swiftly dissolved into an epic battle, complete with warcries. “You heard anything yet?” Sol asked as Lyn sank her last solid ball with a whoop. There was no need to clarify.
Gus shook his head. “Not yet.” Sol watched Lyn line up on the black as Barkus tried to distract her. Despite the laughter, he could see where the strain had marked her face, the set of her shoulders told him of her exhaustion. It had been a long year for Marlyn Roberts.
“That's one thing I've always pitied them for,” he said so quietly that Barkus would have strained to hear from right beside him. Gus, two stools over, nodded slightly.
“Me too.” A groan from the table illustrated how Lyn's shot went and Barkus tried to make the most of his chance but missed the last stripe by a hair. Lyn made sure her shot was good.
“Alright, alright, best of three,” Barkus insisted as Lyn began a victory dance.
“Rack 'em up,” was the only reply.
Sol and Gus watched in silence as the game was played and Barkus narrowly sank the black. His victory dance was not as graceful as Lyn's but did the trick.
“Alright buddy,” Lyn stated, rolling up an invisible pair of sleeves. “It's getting serious now.” With no further ado, she broke and sank three stripes. Barkus' jaw dropped further as she promptly worked her way around the table, not missing a single shot.
“You've been hustling me,” he protested with a laugh as she lined up on the black. She grinned cheekily as it was pocketed.
“Only a little. And in any case,” she added, swigging back the last of her drink. “I'm running dry”
“I'm buying,” he stated, reaching for his wallet. He over-rode her protests by using the extra length in his legs to get to Jim quicker. “No, put it away. This is not a chauvinist gesture, you won fair and square and where I come from that means I buy you a drink.” Lyn shot a chagrined look at Jim who grinned and flicked a thumb toward the trophy behind him.
“I'm not so sure it's fair, since my name's on that thing five times,” Lyn told him. Barkus raised an eyebrow and made a show of inspecting the trophy that Jim helpfully placed on the bar.
“I'm not so sure I believe that,” he said at last, with a glance at Jim. “I mean, could you even reach the table ten years ago?” Jim guffawed as Lyn waved a threatening finger at him.
“You better watch yourself mister,” she told him, but the pink in her cheeks took a while to recede.
“Sure. So in that case, a beer and a rum and coke please Jim.” Still chuckling, Jim poured the beer and gripped a glass for Lyn before pausing.
“You got a ride home?” he asked her. Lyn, in the middle of pulling her copper curls back off her face, nodded and glanced at the clock.
“Johnny Red is calling through about 11, he said he'd drop me off on the way.” Jim seemed satisfied with this as he poured her a stiff measure. Barkus handed Jim a note and pocketed his change. Lyn led the way back to Gus and Sol who had moved to a table.
“Thanks for moving guys,” Lyn sighed as she sat down. “Those backless stools really kill my back.” Barkus decided to reserve comment on her footwear and settled for;
“Why don't you get a massage then?” Lyn laughed.
“In this town? All I'd get for my troubles is a line-up of men outside my door with baggies of cooking oil and a hopeful grin.” She twisted and a series of audible pops made her audience wince. “Aaah, that's better. No I definitely need one but it'll have to wait. By the way,” she held up a finger as something occurred to her. “Before I forget, I have the colour scheme for the flowerbeds.”
“Now how on earth did you do that?” Gus asked in astonishment as Sol laughed out loud. “It took weeks for them to tell me that they wanted some purple in it.”
“Well the fact that Paul is out of town helps, so does the fact that the school is coming up to 50 this year.” She nodded as Gus rolled his eyes. “So the colours they want are blue and yellow with red accent,” she told Barkus.
“Any particular shade?”
“Try and get royal blue but it's not essential.”
Gus snorted and muttered into his drink, “Until Paul gets back anyway.” Lyn's eyeroll and sigh combo told Barkus that he'd want to have the beds planted before this Paul got back. I dont want to be here forever after all
“And just a bright shade of yellow,' she continued.
“Do they have an actual design in mind or should I make one up?” Lyn shook her head and made a face as she swallowed rum and coke.
“Ugh, I think Jim's trying to get me drunk,” she said before taking another pull. “Make a design, submit it for consideration and if there are no objections after an hour or two, start on it.”
“An hour or two?” Barkus asked eyebrows raised. Three grim nods answered him.
“Trust me,” Sol said, to a barely audible snort from Gus. “You don't want to give those idiots any more time to throw the whole thing out of whack.”
“My cousin Annie's chairperson you know,” Lyn reminded him, with a wink at Barkus.
“And how she hasn't smashed every brainless skull in there against the wall I don't know.”
“Yet,” Lyn emphasised with her glass. “She hasn't smashed every brainless skull in there yet.”