Ice and frozen slush crackled loudly beneath my tires as I swung into the parking lot of the local dive bar. After easing the brake and sliding the gear in park, I leaned back in my seat for a moment, enjoying the rest from driving. I drew a cigarette from the pack beneath the passenger seat and lit it before sliding to my left and out onto the slippery concrete.

I strode with purpose passed the other cars, old clankers and beat-up trucks, but not too many; there were far more empty spaces than occupied ones at The Whiskey Jack. Swinging saloon-style doors marked the entrance to the bar proper, a shithole if I’d ever seen one, but I’d found pussy in worse places. Anything served better than the dark, endless snow and the long road ahead.

My eyes scanned the bar for local talent, a long-practiced habit I repeated anytime I found myself in a new location. My gaze settled on a pretty little thing, a country bimbo if you will. She landed halfway to forty from thirty, and possessed tits the size of cannonballs. I found my feet pulling me towards her, drawn like magnets to clink together.

I sat myself down next to the woman. Other than her, only a small handful of people filled the bar; a group of thick men at a corner table, an old half-conscious geezer just down the bar, and a young lady bartender texting while leaning against a counter.

“You come here much?”I asked, mashing out my cigarette in the nearby ashtray, which overflowed with butts.

The woman smiled and shook her head. “No, not much. Usually just to meet my boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend, hey? Not a wise guy, I take it, he’d be daft to leave you here unattended,” I said.

“Unattended?” The woman said, smirking. “Interesting choice of words.”

I coughed and nodded apologetically. “Sorry, I’m trying to say that you’re very beautiful, and if you were mine, I don’t think I’d let you out of my sight.”

I focused an intense, hot look on her. This is usually when I would see physical changes in the ladies; they might look away and smile, then peek back to check I was still there; they might bite a lip and grin, they might even gasp subtly, a sharp inhalation of breath, a swelling of the breasts, but that’s not how it went this time.

The woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Are you serious man?”

I looked down at my clothes to make sure I hadn’t spilled anything on myself, but no, my outfit remained neat and clean. “What?” I asked.

“Man, that’s fake as shit. Any girl who falls for that -“ she examined me again. “Well, I guess you are a pretty boy.”

I smiled warmly, all the more attracted to her for having been rejected. It didn’t happen often. “Lots of girls fall for it,” I said. “I’m a fun guy to fall for.”

The woman barked a laugh and gave me a hard look. “I bet you are.” She sat up and I admired the view as she whistled for the bartender’s attention.

“Hey Kelly get off your phone or I’ma tell Tom you’re being a lazy bitch. Now do your job, and get us a drink.” She turned to me. “What’ll you have?”

“Triple Jameson. Neat,” I said.

She rolled her eyes and then ordered her drink; a whiskey and ginger.

“Okay, so what’s your name big shot?” She asked.

I laughed. “The name’s Calvin, and the ladies’ name is?”

“Kate,” she said, offering a hand.

I clasped her wrist and leaned forward to kiss her hand, but she slapped me across the face, hard.

Our drinks arrived with a thump. I stared in shock at Kate,  buxom, blond, with a ‘can’t-touch-me’ spirit and, to top it all off, she had the balls to smack me across the face. I liked this one.

“No touching, I’m a taken woman,” Kate said. “I know you think you’re somethin’ special there with your wounded wanderer act but I already have a man, thank you very much, and any woman who messes around on a good man aint no woman at all.”

For the first time in a very long time, perhaps since that incident with the chickens in Iowa, words failed me. Insecurity melted my resolve, so I reached up and touched my face, checking my features fit in their proper places.

“No, you’re handsome as ever doll, but I genuinely have a man I believe is better than you. Especially better than a single night in the sack, even with you.”

“What is this guy? Like a ‘professional athlete’ or something?” I asked.

Kate laughed so hard she almost fell off her chair, just managing to stop herself with a well-placed foot. “Man you are such a wreck. Proud as a peacock on the surface, but soft and scared as a wet kitten underneath. What do you do?”

I sighed and turned away from her, taking my whiskey and throwing it down the hatch, swallowing flame and coughing.

“You are handsome,” she said. “Hell, you’re gorgeous. It’s the only reason I’m talking to you right now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why what?”

“Why is it the only reason?”

“Cause you’re an ass,” she said. “But hey, you’re easy on the eyes.”

My shoulders slumped at her words and I fought down a wave of anger. “Nothing more than a pretty face, huh?” I asked.

“No, you’ve also got one hell of a self-centered streak,” she said. I almost got up and walked out of there, but she laid a hand on my arm. “Listen, that’s okay. You’re young, you’ve got time. I’m just saying, stop hitting on me because my husband is going to be here soon and he’s my guy, not you.”

My back straightened a bit. “Is that it?”

“Is what it?”

“He’s the controlling type? You’re in over your head with a good man driven insane by passion?”

“Oh my god no, I genuinely love him. You’re amusing, but honestly, pretty shallow. Maybe ten years ago, we could’ve fooled around,” she said. Her tone dismissed the possibility.

“Ten years ago, huh? Well-“

Kate shushed me with a hand, turning to the front door as it swung open. I lowered my eyes to my drink, Kate knew my game. I played the sexy stealth agent on approach, but once caught, scrutiny transformed me into a useless twat.

“Baby,” said Kate, standing. “Come, I got us a table.”

I rolled my gaze to the door and eyed the man walking towards our table, eager to meet my supposed better. What the fuck? Kate’s husband stood maybe five foot seven, a small guy. He wore heavy snow-dusted jeans, and his hood poked out from one of those plaid checkered jackets you’d expect a hunter to wear. I originally imagined Kate’s husband as a lawyer, or a doctor; regardless, a rich sop that she wound around her finger like tattered string until she had used him to decorate the house and buy her all new threads.

When his eyes met mine, I actually gasped, because this babe married an ugly piece of shit. His face reminded Willie of a wallet – for it’s wrinkled and unshapely character. His eyes hung at different heights on his face and his thin-lipped smile revealed crooked and yellow teeth.

“Hey there, love,” he said. He bent, kissing Kate on the lips. Her eyes closed, breath catching as their lips touched. My confusion deepened.

“Hey there, bud,” he said to me, offering a hand and a smile. “Name’s Grant.” He took my hand in a limp grip, and I felt the rough pads of his palms. I got stuck on his smile for a moment. Seeing such a loving expression on his ugly face felt like seeing a piece of art in a puddle of mud.

“Hey,” I said. Grant sat down next to Kate.

“I must say,” I said, but Kate shot me a look and shook her head no. Apparently, any lingering interest I held vanished with the appearance of her man.

“What’s that?” Grant asked.

“You are not what I expected,” I said, uncaring with drink. I whistled at Kelly, the bartender, and signalled to bring another triple whiskey.

“I was expected?” Grant asked. He smiled at Kate, who smiled back sheepishly.

“Well, I was talking to your beautiful wife, putting on the charms as I’m known to do, when she said she’s not at all interested and that she has a great husband,” I said.

Grant smiled softly, “That’s so sweet babe,” and kissed her gently, a hand on her lower back.

“It’s the truth,” Kate said.

“Yes, well, you’re not exactly easy on the eyes man,” I said.

“It ain’t all about looks kiddo.”

Kelly brought us a round of drinks and then slouched off. Grant picked up his pint and drank.

“What do you do kid?” Grant asked me. No judgement, no hate or anger in the question, just plain-old good-natured curiousity.

“Nothin’ at the moment,” I said.

“Everyone does somethin’,” Kate said.

“Well right now, I guess I wander. I’ve been drivin’ to California from New York,” I said.

“California?” asked Grant. “What’s there?”

“More of the same, I s’pose,” I said.

“Women, whiskey and trouble,” said Kate with a smile.

“The very same,” I said. “I mean, I’ve only travelled halfway and I’ve been with a couple dozen women.”

Grant chuckled.

“I mean it,” I said heatedly, unappreciative of the man’s humour at my expense. “I can walk in just about anywhere and pull just about any woman. I mean, I done it enough times to be sure, I’m not just talkin’ steam here.”

“I bet you’re not,” Grant said.

“I’ve been with wives of Senators, wives of oil tycoons, you name it. But then I come in here, and you – wife to the ugliest man I’ve ever seen, won’t give me the time of day.”

“Well just because a woman’s married to a rich, powerful man doesn’t mean she’s happy,” said Kate.

“True,” I said, “most women are fun and eager to play, but not you. The beauty who married beast.”

“You know, you remind me of someone,” Kate said. “I’ve been married twice before. Once to an actor, a guy like you. He loved himself more than he loved me.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Life with him became too damn neurotic for my tastes. I prefer a man who’s comfortable in his skin, no matter how that skin looks on his bones.”

“Yeah, Grant, your skin hangs haggard on your bones.”

“Ugly I am, but at least I know what I want kiddo,” said Grant.

“You want to discuss this more outside?”

“Not particularly,” Grant said.

“What is it about him that you love so much?” I said. Other eyes watched us now, the guys from the corner table observed silently.

“How can you expect me to explain?” Kate asked. “I don’t know how to explain my love. It’s not a thing you find in a cardboard box at the supermarket. What do you want?”

My stool wobbled beneath me now, and I looked back and forth. “A goddamn explanation – of – of how an ugly man can possibly satisfy such a beautiful woman.”

Shaking his head forlornly, Grant stood and walked over to me. He rested a hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay kid-“ but I pushed him away and stumbled back, the stool toppling to the floor with a bang.

“It’s the one – the one thing I have,” I said, looking straight at the pair of them. “But now it’s gone. What good is the charm? What good is it, if ugly beasts can steal the pretty ones?” I started to cry, too drunk to care and too emotional to hide it.

“Jesus Christ,” said one of the men from the corner. “It’s a full on existential crisis.” The group laughed roughly. “Just show ‘m Grant. You might be saving a life tonight.”

I met Grant’s eyes, and he met my gaze meaningfully. Finally, he nodded and stood, walking to a stage at the front of the dank bar. He slid the microphone free with a single hand, and his eyes settled on me.

A deep, bass voice rolled from his mouth and an ethereal stillness settled over that dive bar, transforming it into Carnegie Hall, just for a second. I looked at Kate, who positively beamed at her husband as Grant sang the words to Lean on Me. The man’s voice proved the poetry of sound; an oral expression of beauty. His lips brought nirvana, and with it, bliss.

I stumbled as I turned away from the ugly man – the wretched creature with the soul of an angel, and I fell to the floor, smacking my head on the hard, carpeted ground. I stood with the assistance of a nearby patron, and wobbled my way to the door.

I discovered the parking lot remained a slippery surface when my feet flew out from beneath me and I landed hard on my back. The impact crunched all the air from my chest and I stared up at the clear night’s sky, sparkling with stars. I was so alone in the universe. Just me – a tiny construct of skin, bone, muscle and blood, all powered by a machine the size of a fist.

I rose again, determined to make it to my car. I need to get out of this fucking town. Fuck this place, fuck these stupid sentimental people. Better get to the city. Bright, fresh, laughing girls, pretty lights and anonymity in the crowd. This never would have happened there.

It took a bit of swimming to get my key into my car door, and a bit of labour to turn the key, but I finally sat behind the thin plastic-red wheel of my car.

I threw my keys aside and reached under the passenger’s seat, awkwardly feeling around until my hand settled on a small cardboard square that shook with tall thin friends. A box of Premium brand cigarettes, king-sized and half-empty.

Then I remembered cigs add ruddiness to skin and accelerate aging. Tobacco speeds up the appearance of wrinkles on the corners of your eyes and they dry you out like a raisin. The cig flopped out of my mouth and fell to the floor beneath my feet.

I grabbed ineffectively at the passenger seat, reaching for my keys until my fingers clasped cold metal in the dark and I guided my keys into the ignition. Heat, flame and momentum granted distance from the ugly duckling songbird.

The road was dark, cold and lined with bumpers of snow and sleet, but I kept on. It’s all I knew; the empty road, the beautiful void and the next stop.

 

Eric Purcell

Eric is a manic writer: he authored upcoming literary horror novel Becoming Monsters, wrote the screenplay for Black Lung Lullaby, a short horror film, and penned a series of flash fiction stories to collaborate with ambient/electronic project Planck Epoch. Follow Eric on Twitter @ConcreteFiction for new stories and check out Eric’s blog www.concretedreamsfiction.com for more fiction you can feel.

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