By Craig Davis
The back door, the front door, they were both propped open, the screendoors pulled shut. The air conditioning was on. This bar was busy holding back summer, allowing its light going away. It was like when it rains and the sun is shining anyway, somehow, straight down on you. This was in a place where a lot of the niggling things come together quite comfortably, and you allow yourself to forget them on purpose, which is a word. Some of those things I noticed here, and they all happened in a bar and nearby it, and that’s how I know them. Lots of the things I have to tell you about happened in a bar and nearby, and, of course, there are all the usual tropes that you might expect and see coming, I hope. There are all kinds of things we should all see coming, but mostly we allow them to just go away. In this story, also, there is a wigger. But this one is not me. I am not in this at all, but there is at least one woman I know who is, so I hope you will pay attention to these people and this place, this time. All this happened in the last year that rap mattered.
The front door blocked the first booth when it swung in, but nobody was in the first booth. The first breeze after sundown came up in the sycamores and it held in it the smell of good dirt. The lady bartender was named Marla, as far as I’m concerned. The wind travels / until it dies / it unravels / only to pass you by, she sang that old song in a breathy whisper. She was running a carpet sweeper under each booth, save the first, and the rhythm of the work had momentarily overtaken her. She looked to see if the man at the end of the bar had heard her, but he was watching baseball above the bar. They were losing. Nobody was in any of the booths, not even me. The heat of day was easing off and the sky was evening out into night. Occasional headlights, or the off-white noise of tires on the ravelled asphalt slid through the screen. From further north, on the Avenue Bridge, what traffic there was wound its sounds into the wind. Weak basslines through open windows. He was the only customer left. His truck had Indiana plates, so easy to pick out anymore, with their simple white lettering on a plain blue block, like time had passed them by stylishly.
He had big, wavy hair, untrimmed on his neck where the light slunk through the fine, tawny hairs and made it look like there was a perpetual, glowing trace of motion behind the trunk of his throat. He moved only occasionally, to swallow. She was too old to flirt with an obviously lonely young man for her tips. His shoulders, though, were such wonderful humps. The shape of them stirred her, still. She wanted to bake something for him, a fat loaf of simple white bread, and some soft real butter to eat it with. His elbows were on the bar and he rested his chin on his clasped hands, which looked beat to shit. A car pulled into the space directly in front of the door, its headlights not yet turned on. The car was old and low, a sedan. It didn’t surprise any her that it was white kids getting out. That they were so dressed up did.
A girl got out the passenger side, with a pile of thick hair up in a brothy mound. Woven in it were traces of little, bruise-colored flowers and jewels and, O my God, the dress she wore… It was gray and blued around the curves of her flank, slim shimmer on the high scrunch of her rump as she turned to the boy and waved him come on. Her waving arm barely moved her little boobs under the gown’s sheen. The boy was bent into the driver’s seat, fumbling something hidden below the dash. He stood finally and smiled across the roof at her, tugging at different parts of the suit. His hands, Marla was sure, when they palm bills across the bar, are unscarred and his wallet has never been sweated through. His hair was cut up into an approximation of a fade and pomaded in place atop.
Marla leaned the sweeper against the bar as the boy beat the door frame, squinting into the beery dank. He startled when she stepped up close to the screen.
“Damn, you closed, already?” he said.
“Yes. Getting ready to. We’re supposed to close at four.”
He met her gaze, faked a half smile.
“Girl, I told you,” he said to the girl, “This place be, like, lunch only and shit.”
“Dang,” she said to him, “Well, what do you want to do, babe?”
The boy put his hands on the girl’s hips and said something low. She shrugged.
“Alright, then,” he said, turning back to the screen.
“”You all look a little dolled up, anyway,” Marla told him. “Take her out somewhere nice. Is it prom?”
“Naw, we just broke out this wedding. Fitting to get our grub on,” he grinned, “She love this place.”
He puffed his lips out a little on purpose. Still, Marla saw why the girl took his elbow. He looked about like an underwear model. Behind them the sun caught the broad side of the grain elevators and the few downtown buildings tall enough to be seen above the treeline. The beacon on the statehouse throbbed. In the foreground, the side of a crushed old warehouse hawed and geed, seemed to leek piles of brick, and somehow stood still.
I have slept in view of both those buildings, which is how I know what Marla might see through the screen with the sun off to her hard right and I have known business in them both during better days. But I am not part of this. Nor will I be. I am more like a conductor or an engineer. I am only here to tell you when to run. To warn you not to cross my path till I have passed. But I think you should at least know how I know all these things. I have passed them before, and by, and on and on. Believe me, please. Otherwise it’s just words, which aren’t worth reading, really, because they are also already passed.
Marla sighed and began to run the sweeper under the next booth. A train reverberated the porches all down the block, houses already shook out of line by tilt and time and also, I would guess, the guesswork of their original surveyors. Shake the dust up from the lawns and the fields, the old song says, shake it and let it settle and shake it again, into the wind and let it show us all the crannies and crevices and hollows of our vain little constructions. That was my favorite rap song of the era. The train blew loud, suddenly close like it always came, slanting through the brief grid of streets down here. Marla felt that noise tighten in her spine.
“I hate that fucking train,” she said to the man.
He looked a little confused.
“Should I pay up, then?”
“Take your time.”
The trains stopped only for the floods. And the floods could never be stopped entirely. Both of them came and stayed and then went away again anyway like every other God damn thing. Marla’s husband and his people were dead, and the dead had also arrived and remained and passed. She, herself, was not from here, and she no longer lived here, yet here she was, pouring beer for a laborer of some sort after hours, abiding as always. What stays the longest is really just words, which so much people mistake for signs. For instance, the mirror above the bottles still read Jagoda’s Grocery, Polski Pocket’s Premier Purveyors, but they hadn’t sold sundries for decades there.
Another way of thinking about it, though, might be that a place in fact cannot change. The house that John’s family had given them as a wedding present was a flop now for Indians from off of the Reservation. The rest of Polski Pocket wasn’t more than a couple streets, none of which had ever been particularly Polish and never pretended to be posh. Those streets were now littered with only a few shambles houses and trailers, of course, and vacant lots with bum-trails cutting catty corner through the windmill grass. There was only one well-kept place left in the whole neighborhood, and the bar was still there, too — looking okeh, really — filled in the afternoon with lawyers from downtown sipping beer with peanuts in it and local draggards of all stripes. The firemen came through sometimes and bought big jars of the hot pickles and six-packs of canned beer, carrying them to the engine parked in the alley. It used to be when the train came, no one could get out. The railroad pinched the Pocket between the river on two sides and the tracks in a long, straight hypotenuse on the third. Five years ago one of the well-off Perski kids had got the lawyers and the firemen’s union to pressure the city into putting in a new access road off the Avenue Bridge — so they didn’t have to cross the tracks to get in and out — and after that the Pocket wasn’t even really a pocket anymore. They tore down 5 houses to build the road, though, and 3 of them were occupied, plus one of the vacants was a squat for crusty street kids. The new abutment under the bridge got paved and the bums liked it better up under there now than they had with the old rip-rap, so at least it was always occupied now, sometimes a little camp of four or five of them and fires in the cool months. Which begs the question: Hasn’t that always been here? Isn’t that what here really means? Did they need to put up a sign that said:
Augustyn “Gus” Jagoda Underpass
Welcome to Polski Pocket
It didn’t make it anywhere else to not have a name on it. It didn’t make it somewhere to put a word on it that anybody could read. And none of it brought any new bodies, or any new business, and it remained the only road in the Pocket with curbs, and they laid a sidewalk that ended abruptly (is that what that word means?), and the paper called it infrastructure improvements and a ribbon was cut with a speech from a forgettable municipal elected official and he even said it would preserve the unique sense of place but it did fuck all to slow the roll of the sad modern trains with their invisible conductors or to stop the Indians from throwing beer bottles from car windows or to warm the barrels the bums lit under the bridge. It only made it so the lawyers could finish their last beer before they went back from lunch. This train was the same, Marla knew, and we suspected, as it slunk through, piled high with mounds of black coal, which meant only that it would be a long train and slower than the livestock cars or the unidentifiable industrial structures or the double-stacked intermodal cars, and that the noises would go on for longer, too. Some of the cars were new and shimmered in the low sun like the girl’s gown.
“That little girl really wore that dress,” she said to the man at the end of the bar, loud enough to be heard above the train sounds.
He pointed to the door. Marla turned and saw that the two kids were still out there. Marla and the girl both blushed.
“Hey, you care if I burn one while we wait for this train,” the boy asked through the screendoor.
“Sure don’t,” she said. She didn’t mention the new access road. She didn’t use it, herself, even when she had to wait on a train.
The boy leaned against the hood of the car and lit a little joint. Marla unlocked the screen and stepped out into the little gravel lot. The boy passed the joint to the girl. The girl waved it away. He said something to her again and the girl shot Marla a look. She looked right back. The girl giggled and took the joint.
“What time did you close?” the girl asked her.
The girl caught a cough, passed the little thing back to the boy who stood up off the hood of the car. A line of dust rode across his little butt. He looked strong, shiftless.
“You sure?” he smiled.
“Yeah, I worked here a little while. Believe I know the hours pretty good.”
“I mean…” he started, but the girl touched his arm.
“I think she knows what you mean, babe.”
“Yeah, probably she do,” he said, and let his grin open up, true. It wrinkled his forehead and eyes and Marla saw how short-lived his looks would be.
She stepped to the side and held the door for them. He let the girl go in first, flicking the cherry out of his joint and tucking the roach into a prescription pill bottle. Well, hell if he ain’t a half a gentleman after all, Marla thought.
“Pick a table,” she told them, and the girl looked down the bar brief at the man watching the ball game and took a far seat facing the door. The boy slid in across from her, then stood again and wiggled out of his jacket.
“You want food?” Marla asked them. “I could fix something quick.”
“Y’all still got that chili?” the boy asked. “That shit is the bomb.”
“No, sweetie. We don’t start with the chili until October, pretty near.”
“Damn, I guess a sandwich, then?”
“Turkey. If you got it,” said the girl.
“A couple beers, kids?”
“Oh hells yeah. Most definitely,” the boy said, “You want one, girl?”
“Do they have wine?” she asked him.
“It is a bar, hon,” Marla told her.
“Oh. Yeah then, a white wine.”
“I’ll fix up some sandwiches. Grab yourself some chips.” Marla walked past the man and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Will you pour these two their drinks for me? And get yourself one, too. For your trouble.”
“Sure,” he said, letting out a single chuckle. His shoulder was like a ham, she could feel the different muscles in it under her fingers.
The light was through the screen mostly. Clean start of summer light, carrying a little deep color, from the sun steeped in dust. The light here was the same as it’d been when she first came. Her boyfriend had driven them all the way from Pittsburgh and she felt like they’d come up out of a wan, folded world and into an immense expanse of almost pure sky. It was sunset when they arrived. She realized she had never particularly noticed the sky before, and wondered if she would ever understand it. They rented a house right across the river near the Santa Fe yards until he left her for a little Mexican bitch that had two kids already. A year and half later, Marla married “John who worked at the bar.” They joked it was his Indian name. They dated for three months before she learned his last name. She met his family and it seemed like all his family talked about all the time was Polski Pocket and how great it used to be. But even then John was the only Jagoda who actually lived there. She kept her maiden name and never told John it was because she thought the name Jagoda sounded like the word “jagoff,” which was the word Pittsburgh boys mistook for a sign they had reached manhood. And because that was what her yinzer boyfriend had always called the bar: “Jagoff’s.”
Marla looked back from the door to the kitchen, into the light. Above the boy’s careful slick of hair was a marker on the wall showing how high the flood waters had reached. The light caught the flawless stretch of skin across his cheek and lost its sense. He stood up to get the drinks the man had poured.
“My God, I bet the girls love you,” Marla said. The girl shifted in her seat.
Marla laughed from her throat. The man caught her eye and started to pour himself a domestic. She nodded.
The boy set the two drinks on the table and turned back toward her. He filled the narrow aisle between the booths and the barstools. He let his hand drag across the stools as he walked down the bar and set them to spinning not quite silently.
“Can I pour you one, ma’am? Ms….you know what, I didn’t even catch your name. I’m Brian.”
He tugged a towel from its hanger on the side of the bar and pretended to mop the formica top. He winked at his girlfriend and then winked at Marla, too.
“Lord, no,” she said, “But you kids just help yourselves. It’s Marla, and if you think you’re going to flatter me, you ain’t smoked enough of that shit yet.”
“Ha,” the boy said, “I feel you.”
Marla went back to fix the sandwiches. She heard the man talking to them through the window. The girl’s low lilt bubbled up and burst in the air, the boy’s sing-song clouded around and — all together — the noise made its way back to her in the kitchen as pleasant, barish mumbles and static. For a moment the wind of their voices and the TV and the quiet world through the screen wrapped around her about the shoulders and the waist and felt like an embrace and she remembered she loved here. She loved it most of all. She slapped the sandwiches on plates, washed her hands and dried them with the stiff brown paper towels and waited until the feeling fleeted. Then she took the little plates in to the kids, and one to the man with the shoulders, too. When she sat it down in front of him, he pushed some kind of cocktail across the bar to her on a little cardboard coaster.
It was Tim who wanted to see the river.
“I aint seen that river since I was probably you guys’ age,” he told them.
“Shit, dude,” Brian said. “It’s the same, man. Brown and shit.”
Brooke grabbed Tim’s arm and — as drunk as she was — Marla could still see the little panflash of jealousy sneak across Brian’s face, something between a blink and a squint. Men and boys and dogs, she thought, but she didn’t know what that meant.
“Come on,” Brooke said. She was flush with liquor, all of it in her cheeks and her lit-up eyes. She had big, lovely eyes, the guttural laugh of a girl with appetite.
“I’ve never seen the river. And it’s kind of what my name means, like, a little river.”
“Alright, then. Fuck it,” the boy said.
“Let me get on some shoes to walk in,” Marla said, pushing herself up out of the booth she’d been slouching in.
“Oh, shit,” she said when she stood.
“In-fucking-deed,” Tim said, massaging her shoulders from behind. The radio was turned to something new. The ballgame was over and they were replaying it again. They linked arms on the sidewalk and strolled down the short block to where it ended. The sky was a color none of them had ever seen. They came up the steep gravel drive that ran over the levee and paused at the top. The levee road ran out to the south a quarter mile and then arced to the west. To the north it ran under the bridge. The leavings of a small homeless camp peppered the embankment beneath the span. A bum watched them skitter up and then looked back out over the river.
“Come on, babe,” Brooke said, taking Brian’s hand, and tugging him toward the slope where the levee fell to the wide fallows along the bank.
“Here,” Tim said, offering Brian a bottle he’d brung. Brian waved it off, but Brooke reached for it with her other hand. She winked at Tim and spun quickly back around. The smell of her hair eased across him and he heard himself take it in. Brian looked back over his shoulder at him, just once, just a fraction of a second too long, squinting, as though the sun was still up. Brooke tugged him into a trot, then they were running, down the levee and across the field.
Marla sat and drew her knees up under her. She looked younger suddenly. She smiled up at Tim. The dim, her posture, maybe the scent of the young girl still lightly upon his heartish sense. He looked back and watched the kids wade through the high grass and into the wet-footed trees at water’s edge.
“Believe that young man is going to have a good night,” Marla said.
“I wonder if they’re going to make it back to the reception.”
“Covered in muck and cockleburs?” she said. “I’d bet against it.”
The girl pulled her dress over her head. Gray shapes in shadow. The boy hung it from a branch and worked at his own buttons and cuffs. They could hear her peeling off great rips of laughter. It sounded like schoolchildren shrieking delight from a playground. The bum had stepped from under the abutment and was idling about. The pale hump of the girl’s buttocks was just visible above the dark of the water. The boy had ducked under and stood up again. He was hard to make out. Her ass was like a tiny moon on the water. Tim was pretending to try to not leer.
“She’s scared to get her pussy wet,” Marla barked out and beat her palm against the side of her leg with laughter. She tipped back in a fit of it.
“Whoa,” Tim said. Which made her laugh harder. Then the girl stepped up to the boy and her big rump slipped under the water and they embraced and it was too dim to see. Tim looked away across the river. He stood behind Marla and she leaned back against him. After a while she looped her arms behind herself around the backs of his legs and sighed.
“I’m going to go on back.”
“Where?” Marla asked him, “Indiana?”
She sang a little of the song about Indiana.
“Huh? I meant the go back to the bar, I guess. Shit, I don’t know. Home. To the hotel. I don’t know.”
Marla held out her hand and he helped her up. The look he gave her was precious.
“I saw your tags. On your truck there’s Indiana plates.”
“Ah,” he said.
“You could stay, you know. With me. Take me home.”
“I’ll walk you to the bar,” he said.
“Oh. Okeh,” she said. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“You didn’t. It’s alright. Don’t worry about it. I’m not embarrassed. I mean, I’m flattered and I would, but, I don’t think I feel like it.”
“Okeh. Maybe we should just stop now.”
Which they did. And that’s another one of those songs I remember as being of that time, though the actual song was recorded earlier and obviously not from here, but it’s true that we should have just stopped is the kind of phrase or words that later you might sing along with until it could be taken as a sign. The song just keeps repeating I should have just stopped this by now or it’s too late to stop it now, but it doesn’t ever seem to do it. It just goes on and on without changing really, and you can hold that last note and really howl it out until you forget what words you were even singing and it seems like you are just sitting at the stoplight or the railroad crossing with the windows down yelling the “OWWWWWW” part — just vowel noise — and somewhere someone is blaring a on horn trying to get you to get the fuck out of the way and you want to be like, just pass, man. Just pass me by and on and on and on … but I should have stopped this by now, and I will.
Later, by his truck, Tim asked Marla if she’d like a ride home, and she said no. But she told him about the church bells across the river in Oak Park and the little Mexican church, and the trains and the bridge sounds and all the other noises she hated and how at first she hated the bells, too, because they made her think of that little Mexican slut but later she didn’t mind them or didn’t notice them and then even later how she started to love them and how they were the only noise she ever heard at Jagoda’s that wasn’t in some way mechanical. Tim wanted to tell her that bells were a mechanism, but he didn’t want to sound like an asshole, so instead he told her he noticed the smell down here. Of gravel dust and the old beer and the vinegar and dill and the livestock that was in the train that passed and the smell of turbid water. He told her he was from here, just across the river actually. And he told her that he left his wife and their children in Indiana and that’s why he didn’t want to fuck her, but now he kind of did, and about how he had to look for work tomorrow and an apartment and then for no reason he talked some about the light. He had a theory about light in this part of the world and something about dust, too and she felt like maybe he was going off the rails a little, even for how much they drank and how quickly they drank it, even with the boy’s little bit of shitty pot. She got a little scared. It was late. She was old. She didn’t know this guy. They were alone and the kids still hadn’t come back from the river and she usually tried to get the fuck out of Northtown before dark.
The sunset was long over with and nighttime, a time for young people and new things — neon and comfortable bralessness — had come on strong and she was very tired.
“A couple guys came through last week,” she said, but she had to stop because she felt a little bubble in the back of her throat like she might throw up a little.
“Cool,” Tim said.
“No, listen. They were going out west. They were going to sign on to work the summer harvest. Like, of wheat.”
“Do that. If you need work, I mean. You said you did construction, right?”
“Right. Construction. Not farming.”
“But you’re not really farming. It’s not really farming anymore, I don’t think. You’re just driving tractors and combines and trucks. The guys said they were hiring lots cause the harvest is starting late and they pay good and it’s easy to get on and all that.”
“Sure,” said Tim. “I’ll go be a farmer. Thanks for the, uh, tip.”
She frowned. Shrugged it up to drunkenness and the hour.
“So I just drive out to, fucking, a farm or whatever and what, just find some farmers and go to work?”
“Okeh. Okeh. Whatever. Sorry I tried to help.”
“I wasn’t really married,” he said. “I mean, she wasn’t my wife. She had kids, though. Other dudes’ kids. Just like your Mexican slut. White girl, though. Anyways, it didn’t work out. I didn’t do anything to the kids, though, that’s not why she left. It was her dog.”
Marla moved a little. Away a little.
Then he said: “Yoga class, bird bath, travel plans, white women always think they dance so good. Just, you know, just … fucking problems.”
He looked up the street and squinted. He made an effort to quit speaking.
“Hey, the kids are back.”
She followed his gaze. The boy and the girl were walking up the middle of the street. The girl was tip-toeing on bare feet, her shoes hung from her left fingers by their straps. There was two foot of space between them.
Brian turned to Tim when passed by the truck.
“Fuck you staring at, man?” he said.
“Hey,” Brooke said.
“Bitch, quit flirting,” he told her. “I done had about enough of that shit.”
“Fuck you, asshole,” she said.
“Get the fuck in,” he said, and tipped his chin to the car. “And quit fucking staring at me, you old-ass faggot.”
He climbed in to the driver’s seat and started his car, eyeballing Tim the whole time. He rolled the window down.
“Thanks, mam,” he said to Marla, then he jacked his car into reverse, kicked up gravel into the night air — a little cloud of dust seeping into the streetlight — and tore down the street. Tim wasn’t watching. He was considering this kind of dust, and this kind of light, and remembering the other kinds of dust and light, the ones in the afternoon and he was trying to feel like weeping or raping or speaking. He felt Marla’s fingers grab his arm and dig in before he understood what he was hearing. It was a sound almost exactly like a child’s joyful shrieking. He must have heard the train whistle and the sound of it too, but later he could never remember. He could not remember the crunch-noise that there had to be. Had to be. He remembered Marla screaming though. She took in one big suck of air, it sounded like a sigh, he was wondering could he still fuck her, maybe, and then she howled. Just vowel noises and when he looked down from the lunula of gravel dust and sodium light at first he couldn’t see the kids’ car even. The train had knocked it so far down the tracks and spun it way out into the right of way and the dumbass had never even turned his lights on.
Good way to get a fucking DUI, asshole. Was the first thing he thought. Finally the train got stopped and a whole lot of the noise died down but the car horn was blaring still and Marla leaned close to him, her nails digging little shovels of flesh out from the underside of his biceps.
“We got to get the fuck out of here.”
“The train’s got us blocked. I mean, what about those fucking kids?”
“There’s a back way under the bridge,” she said. “There’s no way they lived through that. I saw it. It was like her head exploded. Oh, God. Her head exploded. We got to get the fuck out of here.”
“What back way?” he said, but she was already jerking the handle of his passenger door and he looked one more time up the tracks. Two people had got off the train and one of them was hollering something and reaching into the car and the horn shut off. Tim’s car keys were in his hand already somehow and he pressed the button for the locks and Marla flung the door open and threw herself in. He puked into his own mouth and swallowed it back down. Marla was pounding on the window from the inside.
“Come on. We got to get the fuck out of here right fucking now.”
Which they did. Which was all he did. He got in and she told him where to drive and he did and, sure as shit, the city’d cut a new way into Polski Pocket off of the Avenue Bridge and when they were out of sight of the railroad he cut on his own headlights. They lit up a green reflective sign hung high at the side of road:
Augustyn “Gus” Jagoda Underpass
Thanks for visiting Polski Pocket
In a hasty but clean hand I had amended the sign in silver rattlecan:
“Wow,” one of them said, like that hadn’t always been there.
* * *