Don’t

I strayed on down the road from ten hours’ worth of labor on the job site. Boy, let me tell you. I could have just fallen right out. I needed a shower and a shave and a hot meal. More than all that, I needed a good night’s sleep. But hey, I ain’t no old codger. So when I saw the sign on the highway that pointed to The Barrel, I turned my Dodge Ram in and squeezed my old beast between two shiny new trucks. Boy, I can just imagine the sweat on the drivers’ faces when they backed out away from my old heap.

Pretty smooth. Huh?

I sprayed on a little Old Spice, combed my mop and five minutes later, I stood at the bar. A husky boy with a mean mug stared at me when I ordered. I nodded and winked at him like I do. He handed me my Jack and Coke and then just kept watching me. I tilted my head. He formed a pistol out of his thick hand, aimed it at me and said, “Bang.”

I pointed at him and nodded. “Yes, sir! Haha.”

After a swallow of my old friend, I stepped over to the dance floor. This little old band played some Skynyrd. So I got to stepping out there. Didn’t take me more than two songs before I had a fine little lady cutting the rug with me. I have that kind of effect, you know. Hell, a few songs and one drink later, another lady joined us. Yes, sir. We had us a little naughty thing going out there, boy. I felt a few looks from some jealous boys but I just closed my eyes, danced and had me a time.

When the crowd flowed out a little, I took me a rest at the bar. I ordered another drink and sipped on it for a spell. I peered over at the ladies who’d danced with me. One of them smiled at me while the other one winked at me with a more determined look. I turned back around. I had to pick one. That much I could tell. I nudged the man next to me. “Say, let me run this by you, boy.”

“Boy?” he said.

I took a better look at him. He wore a baseball cap with the Tennessee emblem on it. A patch of flesh hung from his neck like a bed sheet on a clothesline beneath his block head. I guessed he carried at least fifty years on him. I patted his shoulder. “Excuse me. I meant to say ‘man’. Can I run something by you, man?”

He studied me with little dot-sized pupils. I grinned at him. He took a swig of his Bud heavy and waved a hand. “Go ahead.”

I said, “Well, when you got two women after you and they’re both about the same as far as looks and all, which one would you choose? I mean, how do I pick between a apple and a…apple?”

I laughed for a while at myself. Old jack paddled through my veins at a good pace at this point. The man said, “Just don’t take a wife.”

I turned back toward the ladies. Only I didn’t see either one of them. I stood and scanned the crowd. No, sir. I couldn’t find either one of them. I ambled back out to the dance floor, working my magic. Still, though, I didn’t see them anywhere. “Damn it.”

I returned to the bar stool and the old man. He turned to me with his Bud in hand. “Well, champ? Did you pick the right apple?”

I shook my head. “I reckon not. I took too long I guess. A man’s got to dump or get off the pot around here.”

He shook my hand before I could even agree to it. “I’m Ace.”

I gave him a name but not my real one. You see, I find it’s best to keep a low profile and that way, every time you enter a place, you’re a mystery man, like James Bond. Ladies love a mystery. Still, it looked like my ladies would be the mystery to me. Sue enough, they’d left my charming ways.

Ace said, “Hell, you be glad. You get close and the next thing you know, you got yourself a wife. You don’t want that. My wife just gave me hell when I got home from work today. She ran down my paycheck and told me I should have earned a promotion years ago. Nonsense.”

I shrugged. “Well, a lady does like a provider I guess. No offense.”

Ace spread his hands out. “I make enough to pay the bills. We have some put back. She just wants to nag.”

I sipped my drink and faced the bar. All the females worth stalking must have left. I ran a hand through my hair. Damn, it needed washing. I think a woman likes a natural musk but I ain’t ever met a one that really likes greasy hair.

Ace said, “And just yesterday, she told me to wash the dishes. Hell, a man ain’t made to wash dishes.”

“I don’t know, Ace. I’ve washed a few dishes in my time. It ain’t so bad. She just wants you to help her out is all.”

Ace waved a hand. “Hell, man. It ain’t like she’s in here.”

After taking a long gaze at him, I chuckled. “Aw, I know that. Sorry. I ain’t trying to disagree with you. Just trying to look at it from both sides, man.”

Ace finished his Bud and ordered another. The bartender gave him the same routine he gave me. I laughed, ordered another and pointed at him. He gave me two guns this time. I nearly fell off my stool.

Ace cleared his throat. “And hell, last week, she takes out the trash and just leaves it right outside the door. Damn raccoon tore it all to pieces. How stupid can you be?”

I swallowed. I shouldn’t say anything. I should just let Ace have his say. Still, I reckon old Jack put the devil in me. I said, “She probably thought you’d put it in the can.”

Ace turned to me like a mad bull.

I held up my hands. “Hey, my ex-old lady always did that. All’s I’m saying, hoss. All’s I’m saying.”

Ace kept facing me but his eyes shifted around in thought. I raised my eyebrows at him. He scoffed and faced the TV again. I took a long breath. When I looked over my shoulder, what I saw got me to choking on my drink. Ace looked over at me. “You all right?”

I sucked in a few breaths, set my drink down and patted his back. “Be right back, man.”

I headed over to my two ladies from earlier who sat on either side of this guy who wore a cap high on his head. I think he was paying attention to the game on TV when he threw his arms up and yelled, “Yeah! Hahaha” I took a seat by the one and said, “Hey, darling. When are we getting out of this place?”

I nuzzled up to her but she turned away my affections. I said, “What?”

The other one across the table said, “We walked by you earlier and heard you asking Ace about which one of us you should choose.”

I said, “Yeah and?”

The one next to me said, “We don’t like men who can’t make decisions. A real man would have taken us out of here right from the dance floor.”

The other one said, “Yeah, you think too much, boy. Get out of here.”

I laughed. “Aw, y’all playing hard to get. Okay. Well, I’ll be over here by the bar.”

They both said, “So” at the same time.

I stepped back over by Ace and watched the two of them, giving them equal eye time. Still, they both got up with that loud fellow and out they went.

I turned around, facing the bar again. After ten hours’ work, I didn’t deserve this. Damn women. I definitely didn’t deserve this.

Ace said, “And the other day, my wife…she tells me to shut off the Titans game with just two minutes left.”

I said, “Yeah. What a damn nag.”

Boy, he might be fifty or older even but I’m here to tell you that this son of a gun stood up and clocked me with a fist that must have been a cinder block. I tumbled over but my beating didn’t end there. He whooped me upside the head with his fists and then started slapping me with his cap. I tried to swing back but boy, he lit me up and a few other old boys got me out the door.

I don’t know how I got home but I know ever since my trip to the Barrel, I just can’t look at women with the same zeal anymore. And boy, my wife still hasn’t forgiven me.

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Riled

The highway rolled up and down in all these hills, one right after another like a roller coaster headed into the past before cell phones or i-pads or cars or indoor plumbing even. How did I even get on it? My bladder swelled to the size of a tether ball. So I pulled into the first dive I found- a real rundown joint with a sign that read “The Barrel” over the door.

Hell, I could take a leak beside my car.

No one’s going to notice.

Then again, there might be a rough crowd in there that “don’t take too kindly” to a stranger soiling their parking lot with his foreign waste. Besides, a man should carry himself with class, anywhere. I headed inside.

A thick guy wore a scowl behind the bar. Through the haze, I couldn’t make out any kind of white matter in his eyes around those black pupils. I snapped my fingers and said, “Restroom?”

He looked at me. A row of guys sat at the bar while a couple of folks hovered around the pool table on the right side of the place. I grimaced at the bartender. He pulled a white towel off the bar and stretched it like he would strangle me with it. The bicep on the beast reminded me of a Thanksgiving turkey in the oven that’s cooking on high that you know will burst any moment. I swallowed. Just to the left, a sign read “Men or whatever”. I darted into the room.

Oh, God.

I must have emptied two pots of cappuccino into the dingy bowl. I washed my hands in the sink with cold water since hot water didn’t come as an option. Hhmm. I slipped a moist towelette from my pocket and wiped my hands, neck and face.

“Yeah!! Haha!”

Some ruffian out front yelled with one of those voices that travel. I smeared some chap stick across my lips and winked at the mirror. Of course, there’d be no ladies in this dive to impress but a man must carry himself with class.

I walked toward the front door when the bartender whistled behind me. So I turned toward him. He pointed to a mug of beer on the bar. I smiled. “No thank you. I must be getting back to my business.”

He said, “On the house, stranger.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well…um…”

The other guys at the bar watched a football game on the TV above the bar. It actually looked like it came from five years ago maybe. I shrugged and sat on a bar stool. I took a sip. Ugh. Better beer came out of kegs at college mixers. Still, the gentleman did give it for free and that has to mean something. I grinned at him and raised my glass to him. He gave me a long stare as if he were an ox. I looked away and took another sip. When I turned back toward him, he gave me a nod. Ah, that’s a good man.

“Yeah! Hahaha!!”

I saw the source of the boisterous voice. The man sat in between the other two men at the bar a few stools down from me. He wore a baseball cap but he kept it tilted back with his dark locks sticking out everywhere from underneath it like a wild animal. After he yelled the other two nodded and sipped their bottled beers. I took a drink from my mug but I stopped when someone elbowed my arm.

The guy stood around six feet tall, but leaning on the bar the way he did, he looked small and young, almost like a teenager. His blonde hair stuck up like it had been styled by Einstein. “Say,” he said, “you looking to impress any of the ladies down there?”

I glanced at the pool table crowd. Then I said, “Heavens no.”

“You sure? You have a girl out in the car with you? Maybe she doesn’t think you’re such a man? Maybe you need to prove yourself to her a bit?”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so, Mister?”

He sighed and took a seat beside me. “Ah, that’s okay. I think I’ve taken enough lumps today. Just a little broke is all. Softie. They call me Softie.”

“Oh. Good to meet you, Softie. I’m Drake.”

He shook my hand, giving an even grip. “You got it. What kind of business you in, Drake?”

I said, “I’m in…um…say, bartender.”

Softie leaned toward my ear. “His name’s Beef.”

I cleared my throat. “Oh, all right. Beef, let my friend have a round here and I’ll have a Fat Tire.”

Beef set our beers down. “Tab?”

“Sure,” I said.

Softie got a house beer, half of which he downed in one gulp. I poured the rest of the free beer I’d gotten into his glass. Softie patted me on the back. “You’re one hell of a guy, Drake.”

I took a pull from my Fat Tire. “Ah, yes. So, Softie, I work in the-”

“Yeah! Hahaha!!”

I turned toward the loud one down there. Softie nudged me. “That’s Redbone. Man, he sure can yell. Can’t he?”

I dug in my ear. “Does he have to do that?”

Softie stared into his mug. “I ain’t sure.”

I rubbed my jaw. “Anyway, I work in the insurance industry.”

Softie said, “Aw, man. I ain’t never had insurance. I figure a real man don’t need any. Take life as it comes and buck up!”

I shook my head. “A real man? I understand you may have some stereotypical ideas in your head about manhood, my friend, but-”

Softie chuckled and slapped my shoulder. “You talk funny.”

I said, “No, you see, manhood isn’t defined by-


Softie looked at Beef. “Hey. Don’t he talk funny, Beef?”

Beef paid him no attention, still giving me the ox stare.

“Yeah! Hahaha!!”

That tore it for me. That Beef guy had coerced me into wasting a half an hour with these cretins. No more. I snapped my fingers. “Tab please!”

The guy Softie called “Redbone” yelled, “Keep it down, down there!”

His cohorts chuckled around him. Softie raised his mug into the air. “Here! Here! Peace and quiet!”

I stood and slammed my twenty down on the bar. “You can all get stuffed!”

I took two steps toward the door when Redbone and his two minions surrounded me. I looked them up and down. “Well? What is this?”

Redbone pursed his lips. The other two looked between me and their own filthy boots. Finally, Redbone said, “Now, you a stranger and you talk to us that way. Man, that’s just not courteous, cousin.”

Softie placed a hand on my shoulder. His beer breath crawled into my nostrils. I rubbed my gut. “You people don’t deserve any courtesy. Yelling like crazy and then telling me to be quiet. Such hypocrisy. You would never make it in the insurance business.”

Redbone leaned toward me. “Insurance huh? You got any life insurance?”

“Well, of course-”

“Because you know,” Redbone went on, “insurance is supposed to be about guarantees. Life has no guarantees outside of death, taxes and more taxes. But insurance tells us that we and our loved ones will get a check if we expire. Now you might have a policy all right. But what if we make it so that you can’t be found? Would your loved ones get a check then?”

The two cohorts stepped on the sides of me while Softie stood beside Redbone who stood real close in front of me. I took a step back. Beef stood back there, blocking me. He grumbled, “Easy, little man.”

I closed my eyes, reared back and struck Redbone in the cheek with my finest right-handed punch. Ah, now he’ll know. Now they realize who they’re dealing with. For there is a price to pay for incivility.

The four surrounding men grab my arms. I struggle. Oh God. Redbone holds his cheek while looking at the floor, surely at his cap. He knows my power now. This is why the rascal must depend on his partners in crime. I struggle against them but they are too much. With his unwashed hair hanging in his eyes, Redbone takes a hold of my collar and draws his own fist back. I close my eyes. Beef sealed my fate before I took my first drink. The wretches. Oh, this shouldn’t be happening. I knew better than to risk entering this hovel of a bar. Here it comes.

Tap. Tap.

A hand tapped me lightly on both cheeks. I open my eyes. The ruffians let me go. Redbone sets his cap back on his head, still rubbing his cheek. “You ought to learn how to take it easy.”

The men resume their seats at the bar while Beef gives me his sour glare over his shoulder on his way back around the bar. I rub my cheek. Then I check the mirror behind the bar. I can’t see any blood or bruising. I am free to leave. I walk out the door.

“No.”

I step back inside. With my finger aimed like a pistol of some sort, I say, “This is what’s wrong with the world. Indecency! You are a bunch of lice upon civilized man! You rile me up and then tap me on the jaw? To be insulting no doubt. You want to insult me. I work harder than any of you lowly types and you choose to offend me. Well, I have taken offense, I’ll have you know. I’ve taken offense at your very appearance. You are what keeps the ugly world ugly! I’ll have you know that you are what is wrong. You are the problem and I intend to tell every soul from here to my much more modern city that this place…this barrel…should be fined for…for indecency itself! You’ll be hearing it from me! You can count on that!”

Now that I’d torn them to shreds, I walked back through the door. When I made it back outside, I drew in a long, cleansing breath. As the door closed, I heard Redbone.

“Yeah!! Hahahaha!!”

Working Man

I handed my money to Beef, the bartender. He looked at it with a raised eyebrow. I said, “Little short but I’m working.”

Beef snatched the twenty from hand. “Bills got to be paid.”

I thanked him. He wiped his forearm across his wet upper lip and then filled a mug with the house brew. When he handed it to me, he jerked which caused about a quarter of it to slosh over the side. I watched him. With a chuckle, he said, “Sorry about that.” Then he peered over at the other side of the room, grinning and shaking his head. When he wiped off the bar, he left the foamy contents of mine that he spilled right there for me to see, like a puddle of mockery.

After the first sip, I snickered. “That’s it, right there.”

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I waved them off. The hand then spun my shoulder around until I faced them. They said, “Well?”

I held onto the mug. Not one drop lost. I peered over the mug at this man-handler. A tank top covered his chest while his exposed abdomen wore a field of black hair. I laughed, spewing the beer onto his tank top.

My boots clopped on the bar’s hard floor on the way out while the bartender cackled behind me. The tank top man shoved me out into the parking lot. I kept hold of the mug, still spilling nothing. Tank top loosened up his shoulders and flexed his fists while a crowd of onlookers shuffled outside. I set the mug down by the rear tire of a two-tone blue Chevy Bonanza. Then I strutted to the parking lot’s center and waved Tank Top toward me. He plowed into my gut with a right uppercut. I fell down, moaning out like a desperate hound chained up on a July afternoon with no water bowl. Tank Top raised his hands into the air with the crowd cheering him on. I managed to crawl back to my mug where I took a sip. One of the onlookers laughed but Tank Top’s smile dropped. He stormed over at me and launched a kick at my head, but he only caught the Bonanza’s bumper.

I spun away and got into a fighting stance. Tank Top rushed me but I stepped around and circled him. He bobbed and weaved, knocking his own head back in a “Come on and fight” gesture. So I ventured a right hand at him.

Boom!

Tank Top nailed me on the jaw. Bells clanged inside my head while the onlookers cheered on Tank Top who tossed his tank top onto the cracked pavement and beat his chest. I scraped over toward my beer. “Oh…so close. Oh…just need a…drink…oh…”

Tank Top hovered over me with his hand to his ear. “What’s that? You want a drink? Do you?”

I nodded and pointed at the mug which still wore a hint of frost. Tank Top walked toward the beer. I said, “Yes…yes…”

However, Tank Top then stepped over to his tank top shirt and reached up high and then plowed it right in my face. The beer I’d spewed on him earlier covered my face like afterbirth. His oily fingers explored every centimeter of my face beneath the 1980s relic. His muffled voice shook my ears. “You want a drink? Have a drink then.”

I moved a piece of tank top out of my face. The onlookers made up about half a dozen men. “Ah, come on.”

Tank Top stopped over me. Turning back to the crowd, he said, “Y’all ready for this? Huh? Y’all ready?”

The group remained nothing but men. I gave Tank Top’s calf a quick kick. The crowd stopped, staring and pointing at my retaliation. Tank Top said, “Y’all seeing this?”

The blonde stepped outside among the men. She wore her hair down tonight. The lipstick beamed off her lips in a fiery red. She smacked a piece of gum and nodded at Tank Top. Then he poured my own beer all over the tank top on my face. I lay my head back, dropping my arms.

Tank Top strutted back inside. Through the haze of beer in my eyes, I watched the blonde smile at him when he got to the door. Once the crowd all got back inside, I dragged up to a sitting position and pulled a pack of smokes from my jeans pocket. I smoked the half-cigarette I had left, leaned back on the Bonanza’s bumper. Then I rubbed my head and got to a standing position. I took one look at the “Barrel” sign over the door and shuffled down the road.

I must have been about a mile up the road when I found this bush that stood beneath a hummingbird feeder. I took a seat behind it, listening to the semi trucks blow past me. I fell into a nap where dreams of giants in tank tops all stomped around me but they didn’t see me, like I must have been the size of an ant to them. I would have built a nest or something but even in dreams, I can be awful lazy.

A blue two-tone Bonanza pulled up on the shoulder of the road behind me. Ace walked around the bush and handed me a twenty. Then he helped me to my feet. I rubbed my head. “How did the kid make out?”

Ace patted my shoulder. “He headed home with her a few minutes ago. Told me to thank you.”

“Aw, all right. Bonanza’s sounding a little rough.”

Ace pointed a thumb back at it. “She’s a beauty but I can’t get her a muffler just yet. Wife won’t allow it. We got other costs. No telling what I’ll have to do to convince her it’s important. No telling what we got to do in this life to pay a damn bill. You all right?”

I patted his arm. “You bet, buddy. All this talk of bills has worked up my thirst, though.”

Ace didn’t offer me a ride back. I smiled during the whole walk. Inside, I took me a seat at the bar. Beef spat on the floor but he handed me a fresh mug of house beer and set a basket of chicken wings in front of me. I didn’t thank him. A young fellow walked by me and reached out his hand. I shook my head “no”. He drew the hand back and headed to the restroom. I peered over at the newest flavor. This one kept her raven black hair cut short. Her black stretchy pants would turn any male head though and maybe some female ones, too.

After two rounds and the wings, I wiped my face, drew a breath and took a long pull from my beer before nodding to the young man who chatted with Ms. Raven. He approached me. I turned and spewed my beer all over his striped tie. He grabbed me by the collar and said, “Here we go.”

I flexed my frown muscles on my way out with my boots clopping on the hard floor.

Yes, sir.

Bills got to be paid.

Here we go.