Like a meteor or some lesser Satan flung casually out of heaven, the cigarette, already stained a queasy brown by fingers that had rubbed, crushed, and worried it through four or five long minutes of staring at the second hand on a rusty watch face, flared one last time as it lapped the tainted air below the bar, arced through the lowest yard of booze fumes and boot stench, and died with an unheard fizzle on the damp and oily floor of the Dockyard.
Billy thrummed the fingers of his right hand, now empty and nervous as the yellowish foam that clung to the inside of his pint glass. Whatever he’d been drinking looked like it had been through once already. He didn’t like to think which end they’d tapped to get it out again. He’d heard they stored it in an open pit in the basement, a hole in the dirt floor ringed with the remains of rats who’d picked the wrong oasis. He’d had worse. He craned his neck to scan the room, muttered some halfhearted vulgarity, and lit another one.
In a darker corner, two children squabbled over a splintered piece of wood with a nail through one end that the younger, a blonde and unpleasantly freckled boy with a head shaped like a radish, had found under their table. It was Pancake Sunday, which meant someone in the kitchen had spread a tub of yellow paste onto the grill still seasoned with bits of last night’s hamburger patties. It wouldn’t matter after the syrup. Two years older if a little less vicious, his sister had the slight advantage of a firm grip on the end without the nail. One of their father’s arms lay across the table, cutting their head-sized discs of paste into manageable squares with the edge of his fork, carefully, as though each were a field on whose proper cultivation the life of the village depended. His other hand dug at the stubble under his chin, the color of pancakes.
Behind the bar, as far as possible from Billy, Thin Eddie leaned with his back against the taps and his chin on his ribs, wheezing through one nostril, arms crossed, dirty rag in one hand, long nails of the other hand digging into his calloused palm, foot tapping to what would have been on the radio if the speakers hadn’t blown out last Thursday. He hadn’t slept in a week and he didn’t miss it. Every Saturday night was a nightmare anyway, clumsy tongues yawping names of drinks unknown to the living, empty lips sucking down whatever swill he poured them.
Waking was enough. He hated them all.
In the kitchen, the man in the stained apron wiped his chin and turned the dial to high. The front door opened, admitting a gust of air that stirred up several weeks of odors from nooks that had never known the mop. Billy twisted half around, hope and panic folded together in the dry creases of his face. He squinted hard, checked his watch again, tossed his cigarette on the floor just in case, and waited. He didn’t want glasses. The constant blur he lived in was stark enough, realer than he liked. Either it was her or it wasn’t. She’d come over and sit down, or someone else wouldn’t. He waggled his hand toward Thin Eddie. He wanted a prop, and the beer, or whatever it was, was cheap enough.
Radish-head brought his heel down hard on his sister’s toes. It was a dirty move but it worked. She squealed in pain and he wrested the club away from her, giggling like a hysterical imp. Their father’s fork rose from the pancake plate, shaking a little, saying more than words.
“You two,” he said, and paused to sniffle, “behave.” He didn’t look them in the eyes. The sister glared down at the splinters in her palm, swearing revenge.
“Same thing,” asked Thin Eddie behind the bar, his voice flat, gummy. Billy didn’t bother nodding. The tap opened, spurting pale yellow liquid and bits of foam into the cloudy glass. “Another pint of the finest,” he said, and slid it down the bar. He crossed his arms again, closed his eyes. Better than dreaming, he thought. This dark room with its dirt floor was too full of dreams already. The diners dreamed each other, the drinkers dreamed themselves, the old and leaky building dreamed them all. When Thin Eddie closed his eyes he thought of the sun and fresh crabmeat, white pines and bobcats and no one left in the world, not even himself. His foot tapped on, oblivious.
In the kitchen, the man in the shredded apron dumped the devastated remnants of several potatoes into the boiling oil and laughed as it splattered his face.
Stepping inside, she spotted him right away. The back of his head was more familiar than his face. It wasn’t his fault. It was just a nothing face, empty and expressionless, made for turning away from things and losing curiosity. She breathed through her mouth and tried not to think about pancakes as she crossed from the front door to the bar, examined the surface of a vacant stool, thought better of sitting on it. “Hello, Billy,” she said.
The father of two put down his fork, thrust the plate toward his kids, and dug under his chair for the newspaper that someone had left there on—he picked it up, wiped his hands, checked—Wednesday. He opened to the Television section, scanned the page, grunted. Radish- head swung his club like a hammer, a wet red smile widening across his face with each gouge he cut in the wooden table. His sister picked out the soggiest piece of pancake, lifted it with bare fingers, carefully tested its weight, and took aim.
Billy looked up through his anesthetized haze. So it was her. He didn’t think she’d come. She usually slept in on Sundays. He tried to smile, coughed instead, and lit another cigarette. “We gotta talk,” he managed.
“There’s nothing left to talk about, Billy,” she said, holding her nose shut against the tobacco fumes.
“There’s always something,” he said.
In the kitchen, black smoke rose from the fryer. The man in the stained, shredded apron laughed as he grabbed everything within reach—an onion, the paring knife, a chipped porcelain angel, a canister of salt, next week’s shift schedule—and dropped each one with a round and satisfying plop into the boiling oil.
“Here,” said Billy, “I bought you something. Real nice something.” He reached inside his coat.
Thin Eddie sniffed at the air. It smelled more wrong than usual. He thought about opening his eyes, then dug his chin deeper into his collarbone.
Billy opened his hand. A silver chain, a tarnished pendant, someone’s face in profile,dirty white against a background black as soot.
The pancake hit Radish-head’s face with a wet smack. He howled in rage, eyes clenched shut against the blinding syrup. His sister roared in triumph. The newspaper crashed to the table and their father’s eyes burned like hellfire. “That’s it,” he said. No one listened.
“Dammit, Billy,” she said, shoving his hand away. “You didn’t buy that. That’s Mom’s.”
“You can’t just take whatever you want. There are rules, Billy.”
In the kitchen, the tired old cook in the worn-out apron roared with mad laughter as he lifted an armful of bottles from a case of high-proof vodka in the corner. One last test. One final recipe. He’d always wondered . . .
Billy shrugged. “I was broke.” He knocked his empty glass over, dropped the pale, dead cameo onto the bar, and hoisted himself mostly to his feet. “Worth more than the damn beer anyway,” he said. “Real silver—stuff.”
Thin Eddie heard the rattle of bottles in the kitchen, muffled by a low roar like wet dough plunging down a well. Something was definitely wrong. He’d count to ten and then he’d open his eyes. He’d count to nine—
Reeling, berserk, Radish-head slammed his club blindly downward. It stopped with a damp thud and then it wouldn’t move. His sister’s eyes widened, impressed. Their father looked down to where his own hand lay nailed to the table in a widening pool of cheap ketchup. Shock held off the pain for several seconds.
She left her brother half standing and started for the door, her teeth clenched fast against the fury inside her. Never again.
In the kitchen, the madman stood on the counter above the fryer, breathing the black smoke in great lungfuls, two bottles clutched by their necks in each of his broad hands. He opened his mouth wide to let out a bellow of triumph. He counted to three, and then he let go.
Heavy heels dug tracks in the floor. A pierced hand oozed. Two eyes shot open. A river of yellow foam rolled over a featureless and forgotten face. A great plop, a shatter of glass, the bright hiss of sudden rising fire. All the air rose together in a scream like the birth pains of the world, and everything vanished in light.