Chapter 1: The Punchline

Walking through the glass door, I trade the chilly night air for the smoky din that is “The Ellipses.” It’s early enough that one of the booths against the back wall of this narrow dive is still open, but I make my way to the bar first.

“My man,” Elton, the bartender with the old time pompadour, greets me.

I order my beer and ask him how his night is going.

“Right here is good, Wex. You know, put me behind a bar and stuff makes sense.”

“And the rest of your life . . .” I lift my glass.

“Is complicated.” Elton pulls a towel from a belt loop on his denim jumpsuit, the kind gas station attendants wore fifty years ago, and wipes wet rings and dirty ash from the counter top. “And I fucking hate ‘complicated’.”

I watch him and wait, take another drink. Finally I say, “You need help with something.” It’s not a question.

He makes this half shrug and meanders down the far side of the bar. Spends the next few minutes dumping more ash trays, clearing empty bottles and mugs, pours a beer for a young hipster straining to evoke Elvis Costello with his plastic black frames.

I take another drink and continue to wait for him to work his way back here. Checking my watch I see it’s still early enough.

Elton wastes a little more of my time. He pours a few more drinks and changes a couple of bills for the guys hogging the pool table, so I let myself enjoy the music. This is the only bar I know of that ditched jukeboxes and in-house DJs for the radio. Not just any station, though, but 89.1 KXYZ, “The End.” And I don’t tell Elton this, but that’s easily the best part of his bar.

I’m halfway through my beer when he finally finds his way back. He points at my drink.

“Now you see your glass there,” he says. “Some people would see that and think it’s half full. Others, they think half empty.”

“Okay.”

“Me, I look at that glass and what I’m thinking is my accountant’s fucking me over.”

And now we’ve gotten somewhere. You spend enough time around the same sort of people and it doesn’t take much, but eventually the little stories paint a picture for them of who you are. For people like Elton, I’m the sort of guy that can maybe help him out.

“I see,” I say.

Elton bought this bar about two years ago. Before he did so I knew him only as the likeable rockabilly bartender with unrealistic superstar dreams. Truth is I didn’t care too much for this place back then, before Elton took it over. I’d only stop in occasionally to meet someone for work. The Ellipsis was too trendy, too busy, packed with the sort of college kids that spent too much time in the gym and not enough in the classroom. It was an annoying crowd, bad music, simply your shitty and generic college bar. But that changed when Elton quit his band and bought this place. He yanked out the Top 40 infested jukebox, got rid of the weekly karaoke train wreck and the nightly drink specials, basically made it customer unfriendly.

Now, I love it.

Sure, it may have cost him half his business, but it made me a regular. Well, that and the music.

“I mean, I know I’m not making money hand over fist here,” he says, “but Christ, Wex, something ain’t right.” He leans forward and lowers his voice. “I’ve got checks bouncing. Beer distributors getting pissed. If I can’t pay those guys . . .”

“You tried talking to him?”

“Sure, but he’s got excuses and I got no proof.”

“Maybe you should do your own books.”

“Shit, man, that’s not really my thing, you know? Me and numbers? Beside, I’m already parked behind this rail fifty hours a week as it is.”

“Fire him. Hire someone new.” I tip the mug back, finish it off, watch him fidget, see he doesn’t like that idea. “But how would you know you could trust the new guy?”

“Plus, you know, this fucker, way I figure it, he owes me. I don’t know how much, but I figure it’s gotta be plenty by now.”

“So you want me to talk him?”

“Talk? Shit man, if that’s all it takes. I don’t know what to do, just thought that you might, maybe you might know.”

There’s part of me that wants to look him in his needy hound dog eyes and simply say, “What’s in it for me?” But I don’t. Not because I’m a giver, but because those desperate eyes say plenty, beginning with how I’ll never pay for another drink in this place again. So I give him a nod and tap my empty mug, wait for him to refill it before telling him that I’m going to need to know who he’s talking about. Elton answers by pulling the man’s business card from his pocket. The fact that he had it ready like that pisses me off a little bit, but I take it and move to the empty booth. The sound of thank-yous bounce off my back as I go.

I’m still early so I wait, but it’s not so bad. I planned it this way. Besides The End is here to keep me company. I sit and wait, sip my drink, making it last, and as the songs shift from The Jesus and Mary Chain to The Walkmen I check out the rest of the people in the bar, always staying conscious of the door.

It’s not too long before Jumble walks in, and I’m a little surprised to see he’s still wearing the jacket and cap. He sees me and smiles and anyone else would look in his eyes and swear he’s high on something. But I know what it is, young kid like that, night like his, it’s pure adrenaline.

You can tell he’s trying to play it cool but he’s a hell of a lot closer to giddy than smooth by the time he sits across from me.

“S’up, Wex?”

Hell, he’s practically beaming.

“Take off that hat,” I say under my breath.

“K.” Underneath it his bleached and brittle blonde hair juts in all directions. He runs his hand quickly back and forth over it a few more times to get the look just how he likes it. “Better?”

“You kept on the hat and jacket?”

“It’s cold outside. Like, twenty degrees, man.”

“You couldn’t find anything more distinctive, anything else that might stay in people’s minds?” His smile starts to fade and I stop. Not because I’m harshing his buzz but because lessons are pointless now. “Take it off.”

Jumble strips off the red satin jacket with the big pizza on the back and lays it over the bright red ball cap next to him on the bench. “Sorry, Wex. You wanna know how it went?”

“If you’re here now, with me, there had better be no doubt as to how it went.”

Tina walks by and glances at me so I order for the kid. When she comes back I tip her a five for the free drink. Just because Elton owes me now doesn’t mean Tina does.

After glancing around to make sure there’s nobody that might overhear us, Jumble says, “That was my first, Wex.”

“I know it was, kid.”

The kid’s name is Maxwell Besson, Junior. His dad had been a co-worker of mine for quite some time, and all of us at the office got to know his son with the stammer, Little Max, which is what we called him when he really was just a kid. But that eventually became Junior, and then Junior became June, and then one of Bobby’s meaner twists took to calling him Jumble because of the way the kid used to stutter and “jumble up” his words when he was nervous. His dad hated that name, so of course it’s the one that stuck. See, the kid’s dad, Maxwell Besson the Senior, he was a prick.

After Jumble’s dad died he kept coming around. He’s one of those kids that spent so much time around adults, not being taken particularly seriously. All he ever wanted was to be liked and accepted, so he tried real hard, smiled, took lots of shit, and eventually became respected as a highly functioning lap-dog.

Lately Jumble has started getting more legit jobs to handle, and ever since he’s become a little bit annoying. His eyes a little too bright, his tail a little too bushy. It’s not unique to him, it’s what happens to pretty much anyone once they start getting real work from the higher ups. A real assignment and you start to feel some self worth. Plus, the work itself can be exciting.

But eager beaver behavior like that annoys us longer term guys because it reminds us of the way we were, of the enthusiasm we no longer have. See, our job can be quite a grind, and the work we do, like anything I suppose, eventually grows old. Eventually the novelty wears off and the adrenaline rush stops its flow. So you examine yourself and this load you carry around, and you realize that the old novelty had been doing most of the heavy lifting.

At this stage, professionalism is the key. You may not like what you do anymore, may even hate who you’ve become, but you hide those sentiments from guys like Bobby, from your coworkers, and definitely from yourself. You hide it with booze or whores, whatever it takes. Because if you can’t it’s bound to turn into loathing. And from there it’s a short trip to an early and forced retirement, and to a hole in the ground alongside Maxwell Besson, Sr.

We see it a few times each year, a guy that used to be efficient and reliable suddenly loses his stomach for it. You try not to watch as dark rings grow under his suddenly hollow eyes. But soon you open up the morning paper and find a story about your former coworker, about where they found his body, what the accident was, what the circumstances seemed to be. So no, you don’t have to love your job, you just can’t let yourself hate it.

Lie to yourself if you must, but do not hate it.

***

It was five days ago when Bobby called me into his office. Bobby’s about fifty years old but doesn’t have the good sense to go by Bob or Robert yet, still likes to be called Bobby. It may be a Southern thing; Bobby’s got some Texas in him. Or it could be an asshole thing; Bobby’s got some asshole in him, too.

“Sit down, Charles.”

He says it and I do it. Unfortunately a pretty decent analogy of our relationship right there.

“What do you know about Harlan McCready?”

***

It’s during Jumble’s second drink that I can see it all start to bother him. To his credit, he fights it off, holds it back, says nothing and hides it a while longer. Later, in the middle of drink number three, the alcohol punches enough holes in his wall to let words through.

“I suppose he had it coming, huh Wex?”

The right thing would be to tell him to be quiet. The wrong thing would be to answer him and discuss what he just did. But, being a Tuesday, the bar is still pretty empty and probably won’t fill up much. Still I should tell him to be a professional and shut up, but problem is I like him. He’s a good kid, can’t exactly say he never hurt anyone, but all he’s ever wanted was to be liked and accepted and god, haven’t we all had a favorite dog like that?

“I suppose he did.”

“Only makes sense, right? This doesn’t happen just by chance. He must’ve done something to someone, right?”

I feel like telling him that we all have. That we all earn it eventually, one way or another. But that won’t help him, because then he’ll see that he’s part of the club now, too.

He fiddles with the straw in his glass, swirling the ice cubes around some.

“You know this was my first job, right. First real one.”

“I do.”

“Sorry about the jacket. And the hat. You were right.”

Tina starts our way again so I give a subtle shake of my head. She picks up on it and continues by without stopping. The kid’s good and numb now, and just starting to feel the effects. I don’t want him sloppy.

“What,” Jumble asks, “What do you think he did?”

“The judge?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t know. Don’t even bother asking anymore. S’pose you’d have to see Bobby about that.”

***

“Harlan McCready?” I repeat. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

Bobby puts his feet up on his desk. Black cowboy boots now between us. Boots and a suit, slight southern twang, Bobby may be a bit of a cliché but he likes it, thinks it works for him. Myself, I’m waiting for him to go the full nine one of these days, stick a hayseed in his mouth, maybe start whittling, perhaps don a black hat.

He shoves a manila folder across his desk. Before opening it I steel myself against what’s inside. Whatever it makes me feel can’t be shown on my face. Surprise, shock, scorn, dismay, those aren’t the sorts of emotions you show to a boss like Bobby. He wants his men cold, calculating, professional. So I calm myself, open the folder, and within I find a brief packet on Harlan McCready. There’s a detailed itinerary, a hotel room number listed, and a plastic key card I’m sure will open the right door at the right time. I flip through color photos of a vaguely familiar face and then come across one of him in a long, black robe. “That’s why I know him.”

“The honorable one,” Bobby says.

I set the folder back on the table. “Should be easy enough.”

“S’pose that’s why it’s not yours.”

“Then why show it to me?”

Bobby picks up his letter opener and slides the tip of it under one of his fingernails.

“Who’s doing the job?” I ask him.

***

Jumble spits an ice cube back into his glass.

“I just figure, you know, that if I knew why, if I had a reason, well, it’d make more sense. You know?”

I nod my head, agreeing with him. Even though he’s wrong.

“Not that I’m upset about it. Hey, a job’s a job, right?” He lowers his voice, says, “And we all gotta die sometime. But, I don’t know, not knowing the why, it’s like having the joke but not the punch line, right?”

“No,” I say. “It’s the punch line, but not the joke.”

He thinks about it for a second, then says, “Right, exactly, exactly. Because, yeah. Exactly.”

I figure it’s about time to get our little show on the road so the next time Tina looks in my direction I nod and she brings us two more. It’s getting to be that time where having Jumble slow and drunk isn’t going to be such a bad thing.

“Thanks, Wex.”

“Drink up, kid.” Kid, I call him, even though he’s barely ten years younger than my thirty, because no way am I going to call him Jumble to his face. Especially not tonight. “You earned it.”

***

“You think you can trust him with this, Bobby?”

He’s still digging under his nail.

“Trust isn’t really much of an issue, Charlie. Jobs don’t come much easier than this.”

“True. So what do you want me to do? Hold his hand?”

“Not quite.”

As he tells me my job I keep my steady, stony faced exterior. It’s harder to maintain this time.

***

It’s almost midnight when we leave and head to my car. During the hours inside the night has grown mean, the annoying slush of then has become the sneaky fast ice of now. Jumble is slipping and stumbling around a bit, having had seven drinks to my three, and I’m a little worried he’s going to fall.

It takes an arm around his shoulders to get him safely to my car, but we eventually make it. Once inside he’s still shivering so I let him put the jacket back on. Then I start to drive.

It’s either the alcohol or trust that lulls him, because he doesn’t pay attention to where we’re going. When I slow down and pull over to the curb we’re in one of the seedier, abandoned neighborhoods just south of the old train yards.

I slap him on his chest, rousing him from his stupor. “Come on, get out.”

“Where we going?”

“Follow,” I say, and lead him across the street to one of this area’s handy, dandy dark alleys.

When he speaks next, his teeth are chattering. From cold or fear, I can’t say.

“Wh-what’re we doing, Wex?”

I continue into the alley, stopping next to an old, metal drum. Slowly, the kid follows me. I stop and wait for him to catch up.

“How much money’d you get off of McCready?”

“Wh-what, man? I d-don’t . . .” He’s nervous and rubbing his hands together now in the cold. “Hey, shouldn’t we get back, check in or whatever?”

“We’re not going back. Now how much money?” He just stares blankly at me so I repeat. “In your pockets, kid. Altogether. Right now.”

His lower lip quivers as he plunges his hands in, starts fishing around. In his left he comes out with a few ones and some quarters. No doubt what he had on him at the start of the night. His right fist opens to reveal a thick fold of twenties inside a silver money clip shaped like a gavel. Probably close to three hundred dollars. That would be what he took from the judge tonight to give his assignment the flavor of a robbery. He extends both hands, offering it all to me.

I shake my head. “That’s not going to be enough.” I reach into my back pocket. He lets out a small yelp and flinches before he sees my hand come out holding my wallet.

“What? What’s the deal, Wex?”

I pull out a couple hundred more in twenties and hold them out to him. “You gotta go, kid.”

“Go? Did I do something wrong? Was it the jacket? Are you mad at me?”

“It’s not me. It’s Bobby. You’ve been used up. There was surveillance all over that room. He set you up, sent you out to be seen. Tonight. With the judge.” I wave the money again. “So take it.”

There’s basically two ways a person reacts to this sort of news. They either get pissed and fight back, blindly and immediately or coldly and calculating; or it crushes them. When they find out that their coworkers, their own extended family, set them up to take a fall, it changes their view of the world. Of themselves. Simply put, they get mad or they get sad. Now, Jumble being the sort he is, which route do you think he takes?

“Aw, aw shit, man . . .”

I really think he might cry.

“What now, Wex?”

“‘What now’ is I’m supposed to kill you. I’m supposed to take the cash and leave the judge’s money clip so it’s all so much easier for the men in blue to piece together.”

“Dude . . .”

“Or,” I tell him, “Or you take this money and walk back to my car and you leave. You leave the city, the state, maybe even the country if you want to be really safe. And you do it right now, kid.”

He looks at me and the money and back at me again.

“Take it. The car’s still running, keys still in it. Get out of here.”

“But I don’t wanna go.”

“It’s either go and live or stay and die. Be smart.”

He’s hesitating, which isn’t exactly a character fault on his part. His whole life just got fucked. “Man, it’s like some bad joke.”

“I know it is, but now you gotta go before we reach the punch line, right?”

“Right,” he says but still doesn’t move.

“Got to get going, kid.” I look him in the eyes and begin to nod slowly. After a few of my nods he picks up on the motion, starts nodding to himself, and finally takes the cash from my hand. “It’s not much, but it’ll get you on the road.”

“Wex, man, thank you. This is . . . thank you, man.” Then he stops and a look of apprehension comes across his face. “But what about you? What are you gonna do?”

“You don’t worry about that.”

“Man, how are you gonna get away with this? Bobby’s gonna be pissed.”

“I can handle Bobby. There are ways to beat the system, you know. You just get out of here.”

“Okay, thanks again, man, I won’t forget what you—”

“Go. Now.” I say.

So he smiles a sloppy little smile and does. And as he turns to walk back to the car I pull my gun from the small of my back and fire one neat round right into the back of his skull, because that’s my job. A little cloud of pink mist peppered with small chunks of bone and brain erupts from a new hole in his face. His legs spasm, flopping about as if he just lost his footing on the ice, and then Jumble collapses. I wait for him to get done jerking about before I pull the cash from his limp hand, leaving only Judge McCready’s silver money clip.

See, I lied when I said I could handle Bobby. When I said there were ways to beat the system. I shove the money in my pocket and get back in my car, turn the radio on and let The End keep me company on my way home. As I drive through dark streets I listen to the music and try to focus on it, try to forget. I wait at a stoplight at the intersection of two empty streets until the little pool of red reflected on the icy road becomes green. Later, when The Cure’s “Prayers For Rain” is followed up by a commercial, I switch the radio off.

In the silence I’m forced to face it: I’ve begun to hate my job.


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