Just Talk | Charles Venable

Contains reference to racism, homophobia and slurs relating to both

The door closed in my face, and the paint peeling in the corners blurred through tears. My ears rang: shouting always got to me, slamming doors too. The brass handle and the wooden frame stopped vibrating, and the silence filled with cars rumbling past through pools of dim street light. A moth floundered into my cheek, and darted away. I wiped away the chalky scales, and my hand came away damp.

At the center of the door, the little glass peephole darkened: someone looking through, and just as quickly, the pale light returned. The door did not open; it did not even shake with the tell-tale pressure of a hand or shoulder touching wood.

Three concrete steps descended to the sidewalk, and I stood in the pool of the lamp light. A car appeared; light gleamed off black paint before disappearing into the night. I imagined them staring at me as they passed, wondering why the boy in a stained t-shirt and pajama pants cried on the street at midnight.

I followed the car; the shimmer of tail lights faded into the night, and I walked between the pools of light alone. Moths occasionally descended from their lamps to spiral around me before abandoning me as a lost cause. The smell of oil and asphalt rose in hot waves from the road. Even though night fell, the air was warm. Summer lingered in the city where concrete and glass and tar held the heat.

My path carried me down the road, past the old townhomes lining the street into the corners packed with pharmacies and bakeries and bars, but only the last was open, neon signs shining, inviting in the night amid the unwelcoming light of the street lamps. The smell of oil and gasoline waned among the stench of piss and vomit, and as I drew closer to the bar, where a half dozen drunks leaned against the building sipping beer from bottles, the sharp tang of alcohol joined the medley. In the shadow of the building, in the light of blue and green neons, it didn’t feel so hot. The only bugs here were black flies buzzing around puddles of vomit or spilled liquor.

One of the drunks saw me approach. He nudged his friend and pointed his bottle at me.

“Hey, you lost, kid?” He asked.

“He’s sleepwalking,” The other slurred, “Look at his yammies… jammies.”

They laughed, and I pushed past them into the bar. A bell chimed above the door, but the soft clink of metal was lost in the throb of bass and casual chatter. Above my head, more signs buzzed, and a few flies chased me inside, only to snap in a shower of sparks when they flew too close to a bug zapper hidden among the beer logos.

A few more drunks noticed me in my odd outfit, but they only pointed quietly: no comments like the assholes outside. I shoved my way through the crowd to the bar. The smell of piss and vomit gave way to sweat and sugary drinks. Even though smoking wasn’t allowed, cigarette and pot smoke curled in the air.

The bartender was a middle aged man who looked as young as me. His dark skin gave away to wispy curls around his chin and lips, but the top of his head was bald, and the lights reflected back at me. I could almost read the letters in the shine. Three skimpily dressed girls gaggled away from the bar, and I filled their space. The tender shifted over to me and squinted.

“Jake?” He asked, “The hell are you doing here so late? On a Tuesday?” His eyes shifted down to my pajamas, “Dressed like you rolled out of bed.” 

I sat down on the stool, “My dad kicked me out.”

He drew a bottle of my usual beer from beneath the bar, but before he popped the cap, I held up a hand and pointed over his shoulder to the hard liquor bottles lining the wall. Lights reflected in the brown liquid like they did in his head. He raised a brow.

“You sure, kid?”

I nodded.

He didn’t put the beer bottle back. Instead, he set it on the counter, within reach of my hand, and turned to pour me a shot glass full of silvery tequila. His hand rested on the coke nozzle questioningly. 

“Just the tequila.”

He shrugged and pushed the shot glass in front of me. The smell of liquor turned my stomach, but I downed the shot in one drink. It burned my throat, my lips, my tongue, and I coughed twice while he pulled the glass away; I motioned for another. This time, when his hand paused over the soda, I nodded. He added a bit of Sprite. It bubbled up, the sound of sizzling water loud enough to hear over the din of the bar.

I didn’t drink it, “Thanks, Frank.”

He nodded once, “What happened with your dad?”

“He was on my computer… found my, uh, history…”

Frank raised a brow, “Hell of a way to come out to your dad. What’d he say?”

“Shouted a lot. Kicked me out.”

As the memory of the night returned, I grabbed the glass and downed it. The bite of the tequila hid behind the tang of lemon-lime, but the burn remained. I didn’t cough this time. My fingers and toes tingled, numb. The bottle of light beer bled condensation; I wasn’t used to hard liquor. I pointed to it. Frank sighed and popped the cap. When he handed it off, I traded it for the shot glass. 

“Another?” He asked, “Slow down, kid.”

“Another,” I said, “Open a tab.”

“Did you try talking to him?” Frank asked. 

He filled another shot glass with tequila and sprite, but he didn’t push it towards me while I sipped the beer. It tasted like wheat, like someone shoved a loaf of bread inside the bottle and let it ferment for a few weeks before filling it with water. 

I frowned. The bottle was already empty. I set it down, stomach heavy with booze and beer, and I downed the next shot. Frank let out a breath.

“I tried,” I said. My tongue and lips tingled now too. It was nice. “He kept shouting. He slammed my bedroom door, and when I came out, he said he didn’t want to see me. He didn’t even know me.”

A dark finger stole the glass away before I asked for another. I stared at the empty bartop. Drops of condensation settled there. I took a breath, but my nose felt numb; there was no smell anymore. My head throbbed with each thrum of the bass and behind Frank’s head, I saw the speaker pulsing. The bottles quivered, ripples running through the liquor.

“You should try to talk to him again,” Frank said, his voice as deep as the rumble in my chest. My chest felt numb too.

“No,” I slurred. My tongue was heavy, “He told me to get out. He doesn’t want me.”

Frank’s lips flattened into a thin line, but he didn’t say anything. Across the bar, the bell clinked as the door opened. I glanced over, half-expecting to see my father coming into the bar, but through the shifting crowd, I only saw the two drunks from outside stumbling in with empty beer bottles.

They carved the same path through the crowd I had moments before… was it moments? I glanced down at the bar as Frank pushed another shot of bubbling tequila to me. I didn’t remember asking for it, nor did I remember how long I’d been here drinking. I couldn’t smell anything anymore, and the murmur of the crowd faded into the throbbing bass. The numbness spread to my belly, even the biting nausea of liquor on an empty stomach forgotten.

I sat alone at the counter with two empty stools on either side. Most gave me a wide berth with my mustard-stained t-shirt and wrinkled sweatpants, but the two men, too drunk to care, slid into the seats on either side of me. One placed his empty beer bottle on the counter; there was a crack in the base.

“Hit us with another round,” The man slurred.

Frank approached the bar again, his hand reaching for the bottle, but he paused, a bushy brow raised. His eyes flashed with frustration and anger. I sipped my shot, pretended not to listen.

“Cut you off an hour ago.”

“Was an hour ago,” The man said, “We’re sobered up now. Right?”

The other man cackled and bobbed his head an exaggerated nod. Frank glanced between them incredulously. 

A heavy hand settled on my shoulder. His chin speckled with spittle. I was glad I was too drunk to smell his breath; the hot air touching my cheeks felt rank. His eyes were distant and dull.

“No drunker than this fucker… hey, you jammies boy.”

“Yammies boy,” The other laughed.

“Didn’t answer us outside. Why you wearing jammies to the bar? You sleepwalking?”

“Sleepwalking,” The other laughed. 

They kept talking over me: insults and jibes and jokes never quite directed at me, but to each other, with me and caught in the middle. The numbness in my chest and stomach turned hot, and I felt anger welling up in me. It was the anger my father felt; I wanted to slam doors and shout. My cheeks flushed.

“Jammie boy’s blushing,” The man on my left said, “Think we embarrassed him.”

While they continued their jokes, my shoulders slumped, and I watched Frank bring two more beers to them, despite his better judgement. They were light beers, like the ones I drank, and as he popped the caps, a third joined them, shoved towards me. I scowled, but when I sipped my shot glass, I discovered it was empty. He slid the beer over with a sigh, and my hands curled around the glass, so tight the condensation and cold dug deeper than my numbed nerves and chilled bones.

“Anything else?” Frank asked.

“Why is jammies boy special?” 

“Family friend,” Frank said.

“Ew, who wants to be friends with a n—”

I swung my fist at him reflexively, all my anger boiling up. It was one thing to insult me. It was one thing for my dad to shout at me and call me gay and fag, but for this stranger to call Frank…

But the bottle of beer was still in my hand. It didn’t break when it cracked against his jaw, like in the movies; it stayed whole, a solid crack of glass on bone, and the man spun out of the stool onto the floor. Gasps rose from the patrons as they scattered, and I stood over him. He groaned on the floor; a nasty bruise bloomed on his cheek, but thankfully, no blood.

Something hit my back, and I tumbled forward, over the friend’s body. On my hands and knees on the floor, the other kicked over and over. A searing pain in my ribs pierced the numbness, and I collapsed, arms curling over my head like a child crying in the corner. He kicked again. Around me, patrons pointed and shouted. Frank rounded the bar, rushing over to me. I looked up at him, but when my arms left my head, the man’s foot took their place. A vicious kick to the temple blurred my vision. My head throbbed in tandem with the bass, and the neons turned black.

“Jake,” Frank’s voice sounded distant, “Jake, you okay…?”

When I woke, the throb of bass was replaced with the twang of acoustic guitars. A soft blues melody sang from the speakers. It settled on the empty floor of the bar, now devoid of drunks and dancers. Pools of spilled liquor pooled in low spots among the floorboards. I groaned and lifted my head.

The neons were turned off, and the overhead lights, dim fluorescents, like street lights, illuminated the bar in a dingy orange-yellow, the color of a bronze door knob that hasn’t been cleaned in years. 

I never realized how empty the bar was without people in it. There were only a few sparse tables pushed against the wall with vast, open spaces for dancing and walking and standing. The floorboards were worn thin in the high-traffic spots, and there was a strip of bare concrete in front of the bar where the stools grated against the floor. There, Frank wiped down the bartop. When he heard my groan, he turned. I was laid out in the bench of a booth in the corner by the bathroom.

He flipped the rag over his shoulder and walked over, “How are you feeling?”

My head pounded, and I missed the rumble of the bass to accompany me; it made it easier to pretend nothing was wrong. Among the soft notes of the blues, my head felt like it was stumbling along, trying to catch up. My ribs hurt too, and every other breath was chased by a sharp pain. My stomach flipped and turned: it was hard to tell where the bruises ended and the hangover began.

“I’m okay,” I said.

“Let me drive you home, kid.”

“My dad…”

“I told you,” Frank set the rag on the table. It stank of liquor and lemon-cleaner. “You need to talk to him proper. Sit him down. Talk to him.”

“What if he shouts?” I asked.

“Let him. Let him shout til he’s hoarse. And when he can’t shout no more, you talk to him. Make him hear you. You love your dad, don’t you? Don’t run away, Jake. You only got one father.”

When I didn’t respond, he reached for the rag again, lips curling in a frown, but I reached out and put my hand on his arm.

“I’ll take the ride,” I said.

He didn’t smile; Frank rarely smiled. He dropped the rag and pointed his thumb towards the front door. I struggled to my feet, a sharp pain in my chest, a tangled knot in my stomach. I resisted the urge to vomit on his floor: more for him to clean. One step forward, then another, and I walked across the bar, leaning to-and-fro, until I reached the door. Frank followed, keys rattling in his hand.

The corner around the bar was dim without the neon beer signs. The only light came from the street lights, the fluorescents within, and the flicker of the lone ‘Closed’ sign: a deep crimson against the yellow, like the sidewalk was on fire. I waited in the flames while Frank got his car. When it pulled up to the curb, the engine rumbling, I pulled myself inside and settled into the seat. The cab stank of cigarettes; I never knew Frank smoked.

We drove the block back to my dad’s place in silence. Frank’s eyes flicked between the road and the mirrors, and sometimes, I felt he was checking on me, but I stared ahead, doing my best to keep the sloshing in my stomach from ending up on his dash. Maybe he knew; maybe he was ready to stop if I started puking up tequila and beer.

But it never came; it felt like nothing ever came up when I tried to get it out. Suddenly, the car paused in front of the narrow townhome my dad and I shared. I stared out the window: a moth fluttered past, bounced against the glass and disappeared into the night.

“Well?” Frank asked.

“Any tips?” I asked. 

A soft hiss followed by the smell of cigarette smoke. Frank rolled down his window and let warm night air carry the ash away. He watched it spiral into the night sky before turning to look at me.

“Don’t play games. Just speak your mind. He’ll appreciate that.”

My fingers curled around the door handle, and I nodded, “Thanks, Frank.”

“Let me know how it goes.”

I stepped out of the car, the smell of cigarettes replaced with the stink of oil and gasoline. Behind me, the window slid down. I glanced back and saw Frank leaning over the console.

“And don’t forget to pay your tab, kid.”

My lips curled into a small smile, but before I said anything, he shifted the car into gear and drove away. I watched his tail lights fade into the night, and when I was sure he was gone, I turned to face my dad’s house.

span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Three concrete steps ascended onto the landing, and I was face-to-face with the old door and its peeling paint again, for the second time tonight. I took a deep breath and knocked, a low thrum, like the throbbing in my head or the bass at the bar or the rumble of Frank’s car. A moment passed, and I thought my dad might be asleep. Then, at the center of the door, the little glass peephole darkened: someone looking through, and just as quickly, the pale light returned.

The sharp pain in my chest returned, and I swallowed back a mouthful of a bile. When I turned around, the door creaked open, and a hoarse voice called out to me.

Charles Venable is a storyteller from the Southeastern United States with a love of nature and a passion for writing. He believes stories and poems are about getting there, not being there, and he enjoys those tales that take their time getting to the point.

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