Black Petals Issue #105, Autumn, 2023

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Barfly: Fiction by Gene Lass
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Master of Dream: Fiction by Ash Ibrahim
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Red Popsicles: Fiction by Caitlyn Pace
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Time for a Change: Fiction by Lamont A. Turner
Bernie's Friends: Flash Fiction by Phil Temples
Death Visits the Sapling Trust: Flash Fiction by Paul Radcliffe
Monster: Flash Fiction by Zvi A. Sesling
Sleep: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Welcome, Ghouls: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Ode to Chateau Marmont: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Cadaver Dogs: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Phases of the Moon: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Darkest Octave: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Green Man Standing: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Day That Mary Went Away: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Northern Migration of Souls: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
Gone West: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
If I Scream: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Witchery: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Carry On: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
The Song of the Dead: Poem by Ben Huber

Gene Lass #2: Barfly

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Art by Sophia Wiseman-Rose 2023

Barfly

Gene Lass

 

          The bar was busy. It was almost always busy now, which was unusual for any small bar in Montana that wasn’t near Whitefish or Billings. Sure, the oil rig was working again, and the workers there would stop in for a beer before or after work, but it was more than them. People drifted in from all over. People whom D.J. thought really had no business coming to a nothing bar in a flyspeck town, yet there they were. Some came on purpose, others stopped to gas up their car, truck, or private plane, but they all stopped in for a drink or a beer.

          Being busy didn’t make him change his prices any, or his selection, or his specials. Bottle beer was $3, shots were $5, and during the week the shots were $2.50. Rail drinks were $6, and there were no high-end mixed drinks or high-end liquor. Common brands and common drinks for common people, even though uncommon people now frequently came through the door.

          Bar food was also essentially unchanged and mostly snacks. A free basket of popcorn, a bag of chips, pretzels, or nuts for 50 cents. For 2 bucks D.J. would microwave one of the individually-wrapped hamburgers he bought at Wal-Mart, or you could have 2 of the frozen White Castle sliders for $3.

          The only change was the pizza. Frozen pizza, heated up in the toaster oven behind the bar, was now officially offered on the menu, $5 for a personal size, $8 for a 12-inch. Cheap stuff you could get anywhere that he now kept in stock at the personal request of his best customer, Bud.

          Bud came in every day, typically before 5, sometimes as early as 3, and he was always the last one out. Never drunk, never even tipsy or slurring, Bud would come in, wave or say hello to D.J., then take his now-customary seat at the very end of the bar, right near the bathroom. Until about 1992 there had been a cigarette machine in that corner. Until 2015 there had been a pay phone over there, too. Now the only fixture was Bud.

          Bud first came in a little over a month ago, when the business was struggling. He and D.J. had played a few hands of cards. They both played well, but D.J. lost in the only game Bud managed to get him to bet on. The next day, the customers started pouring in, and Bud became a regular.

          D.J. didn’t like coming to work anymore. He was glad he had the business, which brought stability to his life. His bills were paid, and he didn’t worry much about the future, at least not the long-term future. He worried more about the short-term. He jerked every time the door opened until Bud arrived for the day, and he sweated lightly and gritted his teeth until Bud finally went home, or wherever he went after he left the bar.

          It was 3:45 and already two customers were in the bar, sipping beer and watching World Cup Soccer on ESPN. D.J. expected someone would want to change the channel soon, but even soccer was better than daytime shows or CNN. The door opened, letting daylight and a light breeze in. The light splashed across the back and side of the face of Hank, a local regular. Hank was about 80 and a widower. He came in and drank two glasses of beer a day, sitting at roughly the same table, watching whatever was on, talking to whoever would listen. He sat down and D.J. brought him High Life in a frosted mug. Sometimes D.J. brought him other brands of beer to see if he’d notice. He almost never did.

          “Afternoon Hank, want a sandwich or anything?”

          “Maybe later.” He nodded at the screen. “Soccer. You know they call that ‘football’ overseas? That always made more sense to me. Our football, you don’t do enough kicking to really call it that, they mostly throw it and run with it. With soccer they kick the thing all the damned time.”

          D.J. looked at the screen, “Yeah. Still boring though. Field’s too big. They run and run, kick it this way, kick it that way, stand around, and then every once in a while someone takes a shot.”

          One of today’s new customers, a man in a tangerine-colored polo shirt and khakis, spoke from his seat at the bar. Aside from his order, it was the first thing he’d said since coming in. D.J. couldn’t quite place his accent. Not quite British. Not Scottish.

          “Still, it’s the most popular sport in the world. When it’s the World Cup, it’s every country, not like your World Series or Super Bowl or NBA Championship. There it’s just you and maybe the Canadians. Two countries, yet you call it a World Series. The World Cup is truly the world.”

          “Yeah, guess so,” Hank said. “I’d rather watch baseball. The teams might be American teams, but they have guys from other countries in there.”

          “Not many, and even then, your football and baseball are just descendants of rugby and cricket. When I came here from India, where we played cricket constantly in school, it was clear that baseball is cricket with no pads, and football is rugby with more pads.” He laughed.

          The door opened again and D.J. flinched. He heard a smooth, cultured voice behind him.

          “Hello D.J.,” Bud said.

          D.J. stifled a shudder. He stifled many things, closing his eyes tight for a moment. He looked down, walked behind the bar, pasted on a smile and looked at the figure walking toward the end of the bar.

          “Afternoon Bud.”

          Bud looked to be about 50, though he could have been 45 or 60. Thin, dark hair, medium complexion. If he had to guess, D.J. thought he would have looked Spanish, or maybe Iranian. Kind of like Freddie Mercury with better teeth. He was always dressed well. Today he had on a grey suit with white shirt, matching black belt and shoes, no tie. D.J. put a napkin and a basket of pretzels in front of his usual chair.

          “What can I get you?”

          “Red wine to start, pizza later. Wait, scratch the wine. Jameson’s Black Barrel, splash of water. Make sure the glass is clean and the water is cold.”

          D.J. straightened himself and shook his head slightly.

          “Bud. I’m not even sure I have Jameson’s. I might. I’m not sure what Black Barrel is.”

          “Finer than the regular. Triple distilled, single malt, very smooth. There’s a bottle behind you - top middle shelf, left side, behind the Wild Turkey.”

          Bud seemed to know the bar better than D.J. himself, who first sat at this bar in grade school, playing War with his grandad while the old man tended bar. Bud always knew what was where, even if D.J. had never seen it before. This time was no exception.

          The man in the tangerine shirt spoke, “Did you say Jameson’s Black Barrel?”

          “He did,” D.J. said, holding up the bottle.

          “I believe I’ll have one of those, a double, neat.” He picked up his current drink, tilted it at Bud, and said, “I salute your taste sir,” finishing the drink.

          Bud nodded at the man as D.J. placed the drink in front of him. Bud picked up the glass and toasted back.

          “To your health!” He drank.

          D.J. shuddered. Bud smiled at him.

          “Did you catch a chill? Seems warm in here. But, as you know, I’m always warm.”

          “No, I’m fine.”

          Bud nodded. He glanced casually about the room, at the faces.

          “I know what you’re thinking,” he said quietly

          “Of course you do, you’re the Devil,” D.J. muttered.

          Bud put a finger to his lips and chuckled lightly, “Ssh! I have a reputation to uphold! I can’t be seen in a place like this!” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “You’re wondering who’s next. Of course you are.”

          D.J. frowned and picked up a glass. He wiped it with a bar rag. “None of my business.”

          Bud’s smiled broadened. “That glass is already clean, my friend. And of course you’re wondering. You think about it all the time. Every day. You want to know.”

          D.J. put the glass down. Finding no way to busy his hands, he looked across the bar, checking drink levels, watching for signs someone needed him. He found none.

          “That’s just it. I don’t want to know. I know what you do. I know why you’re here. I don’t want to know the details. Just order your drinks and leave me out of it.”

          Bud leaned back and pursed his lips. He touched his hand lightly over where his heart would be if he had one. “So hostile! And me, your best customer! None of these people would be here if it weren’t for me, sir. None. Show some appreciation. Your credit score is looking pretty good now.”

          D.J. looked across the bar again, then at Bud. “You’re wrong. Hank would be here. There are others, but Hank would be here. He’s been coming here since the bar opened.”

          Bud glanced at Hank, smiled, and shook his head, “You’ve got me there. Good ol’ Hank. Not enough to float your business on, but you’ve got him.” He raised his glass. “Here’s to you, Hank!” he said loudly. Hank took no notice.

          “I guess he’s lost in thought. I don’t blame him. Want to know what he’s thinking?”

          “No.”

          “Shame. He has a lot to think about. How about the others? Penny for their thoughts?”

          “Not worth it.”

          “That’s right, you don’t like to spend money on things you don’t need. Don’t like to gamble either. Work for what you have and save for a rainy day. The mark of a good, practical man. Just like the old man.”

          “Leave him out of this.”

          D.J. turned and filled a basket of pretzels near the man from India. This was how the days were now. Bud taunting him, D.J. not giving in. It was tiring, at least for D.J.

          A few minutes later he went to refill Bud’s drink.

          “I’d like an ice cube this time, friend. Just one. Fresh out of the bag, not the bin, please. You need to clean that thing.”

          “I know. Tomorrow.”

          “That’s what you said last week.”

          “Tomorrow is Wednesday. I clean it every Wednesday.”

          “Good for you.” He lifted his chin. “Your friend there in the polo shirt. The accent you’ve been wondering about is upper-class British, but not home-grown. Military brat, raised in India. Hard to find those nowadays. I’ve always found the accent charming, if not the people behind it. He speaks Bengali fluently, as you’d imagine. The last night he was in India he raped a woman, then her 9-year-old child. He knew he was shipping out the next day and would likely never be back. He wanted a memory to look back on, something he had wanted to do and could never do again. He took little enjoyment in raping the woman, she fought too hard. But he thinks back on raping the boy frequently. He enjoyed the screams. It made him feel powerful. He last thought of it 7 minutes ago. He’ll think of it again in an hour or so. Whenever his mind isn’t focused on something else, it goes back to that day. It’s his fondest day, more than his wedding, more than the birth of his own child or any of his personal or professional achievements. He’s quite proud of it, though he mentions it to no one.” He sipped his drink. “The whiskey is quite good, you should try some.”

          D.J. stared at the man in the polo shirt and felt his face flush in disgust. Acid churned in his stomach and seared the back of his throat. “Not when I’m working,” he said absently. He dropped his bar rag on the bar, stepped out from the bar, and went outside.

          The midwinter air chilled and refreshed him. He leaned against the wall next to the door and wondered why he’d never smoked. For most of his life smoke filled the bar as he played, then later worked there. He probably inhaled a pack a day second-hand. As his wife used to say, as he stripped off his shirt and pants at the door when he got home after work, he might as well pick up the habit and get the benefit of it if he’s going to smell that bad every day. But he didn’t. And the habit killed her just as it had his own father, and his mother-in-law. It was a bad habit to have, where the benefit didn’t match the risk. But now he wished he had something to do with his hands. Something to focus on that would make him forget Bud’s face and his words, if for just a few seconds. Instead, he breathed the night air and watched the sky turn from mauve to indigo.

          A star poked out from an indigo cloud and he focused on it. He didn’t know its name. He may have looked at it a thousand times before, or none. He heard that many of the stars in the sky are already burned out, or no longer burn as brightly, but they’re so far away the light is only reaching us now. D.J. wondered if that star was still burning. He suspected it wasn’t. The rest of the sky was too dark to bother looking at, and he had a bar to tend. He opened the door and stepped in.

          D.J. noted that Hank’s glass was empty. The man in the polo shirt lifted his glass as D.J. stepped behind the bar.

          “Could I get another please?”

          “Sure, just a second.” He brought Hank a bottle of High Life and a clean glass, bringing the empties back with him. He tossed Hank’s empty bottle in the trash and put the glass in the sink. A man and a woman walked in the door and sat at the bar. D.J. put napkins in front of them. The man said, “Two beers. I’ll have a Heineken, Pabst for the lady.”

          “Got it,” D.J. said.

          Polo Shirt pushed his glass toward D.J. “As they say in ‘Rope’, there’s too much air in my glass,” He chuckled lightly.

          “I’m getting your drink now. I know, you ordered first.”

          “I’ve been waiting.”

          D.J. flushed again. He felt a single pulse in his forehead and gritted his teeth. “Not long,” He put a fresh tumbler of Jameson’s down on a fresh napkin. “There you go.”

          The man picked up the glass. “I don’t like to wait.”

          D.J. tilted his head, thought of the man holding a boy up by the ankles, smiling as he pounded into him, smiling as the boy screamed. He could almost see the room and smell the hot, stale air. He made a fist so tight his knuckles cracked.

          “Hm.”

          He heard a tap on the bar behind him.

          “Oh bartender?”

          He turned. Still at the end of the bar was Bud. He tapped his glass.

          “When you get a minute. With a twist this time. Lemon. Not really the way to do these things, but I’m a rule breaker at heart. And I’d like that pizza now. Pepperoni. No rush.”

          D.J. nodded. “Sure.”

          He filled the other drink orders, put the pizza in the toaster oven, brought Bud his drink with a twist of lemon hanging on the edge of the glass. Bud squeezed it in and put the lemon down next to the glass.

          “Do you want him to die?”

          “What?”

          Bud lifted his chin to point down the length of the bar. “Him. Our new friend the soccer fan. Do you want him to die?”

          “No. Not worth it.”

          “I’m not asking you as part of a bargain. I’ll do it for nothing. For all you know, it’s going to happen anyway, tonight or another night soon. But I’m offering you my word as a gentleman that it won’t. Though it could. And I’d do it as a favor to you because honestly D.J., I like you. You may actually be my best friend. I like you and I like this bar. The bar is quiet and you amuse and fascinate me. If you want him to die, then tonight or tomorrow, whichever you prefer, he’ll die. I can’t say he’ll go to my realm. That’s not up to me to decide. There are many ways out of my realm, sadly. Forgiveness being one of them, then grace, and certain other loopholes and conditions. He may escape eternal wrath. But his time on Earth would be over. He would assuredly die. Badly, if you wish. Just say so.”

          D.J. continued to stare at the man, clenching his jaw.

          “No. I’m not stupid. How many songs, stories, and movies do there have to be for me to know you’re going to screw me? There’s always the catch. The twist. The shock ending. He’ll save the world or something, and if I say kill him, the world ends. Or he gets killed, and some innocent guy goes to jail. Fuck it. No. I don’t need that on my head.” The toaster oven dinged. “That’s your pizza.”

          A moment later, he came back with Bud’s pizza, sliced into neat squares, right on the cardboard it had been packaged with. “Enjoy.”

          Bud smiled. “Your presentation is impeccable. The staff at Le Cordon Bleu should come here to learn from you.”

          “This is a bar in Montana, not Chez Fou-Fou in New York. You want that, go there.”

          “I am there. Or I might as well be. I’m in many places right now, claiming many souls, tempting many others, doing my work. But this place is more pleasant. I’ll stay, thank you.”

          D.J. grunted and turned to fill more drinks. The bar was getting busy.

          “Oh barkeep?”

          “Yeah?”

          “I admire your integrity, and your consistency. You are ever The Good Man. A rarity.”

          “So you’ve said.”

          A half hour later, the soccer match ended. Polo Shirt paid his tab, rose, used the bathroom, and left. D.J. grabbed the remote, addressed the room:

          “Wheel of Fortune?” A usual favorite. Receiving a significant number of shrugs and nods, he changed the channel.

          “Good deal!” Hank said. “Enough of that world football shit. Brazil, Korea, who gives a damn. Boring as hell.”

          D.J. put down the remote. “You’re welcome.” He brought Hank another Miller and went back behind the bar. Bud was done with his pizza. D.J. cleared the cardboard tray and napkins, then wiped the bar.     

          “You still don’t know. You want to know. I know you do. You want to know whom I’m here for.”

          D.J. looked at him. Bud dabbed the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin, probably for effect. There was nothing there. “I don’t. I assume you’re here for several people. They’re all bad guys, right? Shitheads and scum you’re parading in front of me? Sinners. It’s what you always tell me. There goes the pedophile. What about that guy?” He pointed at a man in a flannel shirt and trucker hat in the corner. “Ax murderer?”

          Bud glanced at the corner. “Adulterer. All too common. Not even interesting. Truck stop waitresses and a girlfriend in Topeka. He loves his wife, he just gets bored. He’ll have a heart attack tonight. He’ll die thinking of the wife.” He looked up at D.J. “Your Indian friend will grow old and never get caught. His wife suspects there’s a dark part of him. She’s never seen it. He’ll never do anything again. Physically. It’s all replayed in his mind, over and over.”

          The bar was at about peak, for mid-week at least. D.J. only recognized a few of the faces.

          “Fine. Who?”

          “Hank. I’m here for Hank. Your regular, your friend, if you think of him that way, Hank, dies tonight. And he’s almost certainly going to Hell. He hates what he did. He thinks of it all the time, with regret. It’s why he’s here, why he drinks. To keep the demons out. But here I am, the chief demon, and I’m coming for him.”

          D.J.’s heart jumped in panic that surprised him. He never thought Hank could do something bad enough to go to Hell, nor that he cared about it one way or the other. He looked back at Bud.

          “What did he do?”

          Bud sipped his whiskey. “Murder. Hank killed his wife, 24 years ago. She had had health problems for years. She wasn’t the woman he married. She couldn’t care for herself or him beyond the ability to get dressed or wash herself, which she didn’t do often enough. She could communicate, feed herself, but her quality of life wasn’t what she wanted. One day he looked in her eyes and he knew. His wife was gone, and the shell in front of him had to die before what quality of life they had got even worse.”

          “How bad was it? He’s lived in this town forever. Nobody knew this.”

          “It was a burden he carried himself, quietly, dutifully. As a good Catholic would. She wasn’t soiling herself yet – not regularly. Sometimes there were accidents. But he knew, and she knew, those days were coming. So, one night, not long after he looked in her eyes and saw only blank pain, while she was asleep and he was spooned up behind her, he put a handkerchief around his hand, pinched her nose gently shut, and put his pillow over her face with his other hand. She woke and fought, as survival instinct kicked in, but she didn’t really damage him. She mainly kicked against the mattress and pulled at the pillow and, when she found it, the sleeve of his flannel pajamas. He still remembers that, it’s what he thinks of most often. Her polished, pink nails curling around and pulling at, then letting go of, his sleeve. He continued to hold the pillow on her face for two minutes after her grip relaxed. He cried the whole time.”

          D.J.’s throat felt thick and his face hot, even though a breeze came in from the briefly opened front door. He looked back at Bud.

          “And you’re coming for him?”

          Bud nodded. “Yes. Tonight. It’s time. And because of what he did – despite all of what he’s done or hasn’t done in the years since then or before then – because of what he did, and the guilt that weighs on his heart, he’ll be in my realm forever.”

          “That’s not right. That other piece of shit is walking around but Hank dies and goes to Hell? That’s not right!”

          “The offer stands. I’ll take the life of the piece of shit if you’d like, but I can’t guarantee what his final fate will be.”

          “No. I have to believe that he’ll get his in the end, and I don’t want my word – some bartender in Montana – to be what kills someone. But I want Hank to go free.”

          “What?”

          “Leave him alone. Hank did what he did out of love. He still loves her. He’s dying inside, torturing himself, out of love. He deserves better. Take me.”

          “Are you serious?”

          “Let him go. Take me.”

          Bud stared at D.J. quietly for a moment, expressionless. He tapped the nails of his left hand on the bar hard, twice quickly, then, with a kind of finality, a third time. He nodded.

          “Fine. The day you die won’t change, but when you do die, at some point in the future, you’ll come with me. Hank will also meet his prescribed end, but he’ll go elsewhere, due to your selfless act of kindness.” He blinked and smiled weakly, D.J. thought sadly.

          “So now what? Do I have to sign something?”

          Bud stood and put several bills on the counter without looking at them. D.J. didn’t look at them either. “No, a handshake or verbal agreement is fine, especially when it’s heartfelt, as yours was. Now, I go home, or elsewhere where I have business. I’m done here for tonight. We all have work to do you know, and yours is serving drinks and cleaning the bar.” He turned to go, then turned back and took a step back toward the bar. “Oh barkeep?”

          “Yeah?”

          Bud leaned toward him. “The cash there is more than enough for my tab, but here’s your tip – a bit of wisdom: As I told you, there are many ways out of Hell, including Grace and Forgiveness. There are only two certain ways to go there forever. One is Divine Judgment. The other is to volunteer. You’re a good man. A foolishly good man. And you volunteered. Good night.”






Gene Lass has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years, working in all forms of media from newspapers and magazines to books and blogs. He has written, edited, co-written, or contributed to more than a dozen books, and has published 9 books of poetry, the most recent of which, American was one of the Amazon Top 100 Books of American Poetry. His poetry has appeared in Every Day Poems and The Albatross. His fiction has appeared in The Albatross, KSquare, Electric Velocipede, Schlock!, Coffin Bell Journal, and Black Petals. His short story, “Fence Sitter” was nominated for Best of the Web in 2020. 




 

 

Sophia Wiseman-Rose is a Paramedic and an Episcopalian nun. Both careers have provided a great deal of exposure to the extremes in life and have provided great inspiration for her.  

 She is currently spending time with her four lovely grown children and making plans to move back to her home in the UK in the Autumn.  

 In addition, Sophia had a few poems in the last edition of Black Petals Horror/Science Fiction Magazine

 

https://www.artstation.com/sophiaw-r6

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