Carrie put down her glass hard on the bar desk.
Doris crossed her arms. “You’re gonna kill yourself if you keep drinking like a bloody lumberjack.”
Anaconda Bar’s resident matron was a plump 40-something Aussie immigrant with fiery red hair, who had a fondness for playing her native CD collection of insipidly PC rock music from Midnight Oil—over and over again.
She had just changed tracks and now she looked determined to change Carrie’s evening plans, or at least pretended to look determined.
Carrie for her part had no intention of even pretending to react to another of Doris’ sermons. She kept her mouth shut and waited until Doris turned away. Then she could go at it again.
The Anaconda Bar was one of the most run-down bars in which Carrie had ever tried to douse the black acid feeling inside with generous amounts of whiskey, and she had tried this in many bars.
Beer splotches and cigarette ash littered the plank floor, and stains of an unknown origin dotted the vomit-green wallpaper like pimples. In a corner near the front door stood an empty jukebox, which now served as an extra shelf for a row of brazier candles on tin foil.
The only redeeming feature of the room was the framed black and white photograph above the jukebox, showing two young GIs smiling broadly to the camera with an idyllic Mediterranean village and sea vista in the background. One of them was an American Indian, looking slightly out of place in the World War II US Army uniform.
There was a faded writing on the photograph. ‘Salerno 1943’.
Although she liked looking at the photo now and then, the two men’s confident smiles barely distracted Carrie from the flaming feeling in her throat each time she gulped a bit of whiskey.
She had a mission. And so, she returned to the Anaconda Bar every night.
A little while ago, she had heard the roar of the motorcycles outside the bar and the booming voices of Jonah and the gang, and she had wondered if she would make it home in one piece tonight—or if that also didn’t matter anymore?
She glanced back over her shoulder. Yup, Jonah and his friends were still out there, chain-smoking, bragging loudly about something to do with their sparkling Harleys—and they had all the time in the world. Was Jonah still pissed about last Friday, when she had given him the cold shoulder?
She would know any moment now.
They sounded drunk already. There was also something in their laugh—maybe the volume, or the amount of time it took for it to subside—which unnerved her. Why did they laugh in that high-pitched, creepy way?
Carrie had a solution for that as well. She reached for the whiskey bottle on the bar desk.
Doris’ hand came down on hers immediately.
“I think that’s enough,” she said firmly.
“You’re going to ruin your sales.” Carrie tried to pull her hand back but Doris held it down.
“Look—I appreciate selling liquor—but not to people who don’t know when to stop. I don’t want to have to call Sheriff Jenkins to come and carry you away in a couple of hours.”
“Yeah, this isn’t exactly a place you’d like to let the sheriff in too often, is it?” Carrie pulled her hand away.
Doris’ voice took on a softer tone, as she peeked over her shoulder in the direction of the grinning bikers out in the parking lot.
“You can slip out the kitchen door before they make up their tiny minds and decide to come in.” She added a meaningful glance in the direction of the front door.
“I’m not afraid of Jonah.”
Doris took a deep breath. “You should be. I bet I know what he’s been planning for you in return for the insult you gave him last time. The only reason he didn’t do anything about it Friday was that Paul—Sheriff Jenkins—had come down to water, too.”
“Determination is good,” Doris said, frowning. “But you don’t play like that with Jonah.”
Carrie just shook her head, but in truth, she had already begun to consider her options.
Then suddenly it sounded as if the bikers were walking … away. After half a minute or so there was no sound from them at all.
Both Doris and Carrie strained to hear.
There was nothing, just the distant surf-like whoosh when a car or a truck passed out on the highway.
Then Carrie slowly turned to look. It was difficult to see through the windows, though. There was one on each side of the bar’s front door, but the glass hadn’t been polished for ages and it was pitch black outside.
However, now Carrie wasn’t in doubt either. Jonah and the others had chosen a different hunting ground—for whatever reason.
“Do you think … they went down to Harry’s?” Carrie asked hesitantly.
Doris looked straight at her again. “I don’t know but I know where I think you should go. They’ll be back for their bikes.”
“I think they went down to Harry’s,” Carrie said, but more to herself than to Doris. “That’s their preferred hang-out. They won’t be back for hours at least. And I really, really need one more, Dorrie—then I’ll go.”
Doris looked uncertain about what to say. Then she went around the bar, to look through one of the windows. She surveyed the night-filled parking lot for almost a minute.
“All is clear,” she then noted and withdrew from the window. “They must have gone to Harry’s instead. Dunno why the hell they parked here, though.”
“Me neither, but I know I have time for one more,” Carrie said.
Doris sighed and went back to the bar. “Just one more then.”
Carrie received a new glass of whiskey. “You’re an angel.”
“Either that or I’m a greedy bitch who’s just made a mistake you’ll be sorry for,” Doris said in a resigned voice.
“I can’t blame you,” Carrie said.
“I don’t want to have to give that as a reason to the sheriff,” Doris said, “for why you got yourself in a real bad fix.” She put away the sparkling glass but immediately took up another and started polishing it instead.
“You won’t have to,” Carrie assured her.
Nevertheless, she felt an indeterminable chill in the bar now, one which hadn’t been there before. Even more reason, she figured, to make this glass of firewater the very last. Or maybe just make it last?
After all, she didn’t care to think about the prospect of sitting alone back in her shady motel room now. Right now that somehow felt more frightening than anything else.
“You should take Dorrie’s advice,” a hoarse, sandpaper-like voice came from down in the corner, breaking off Carrie’s reverie.
It was old man Eisenhower.
Well, everybody called him Eisenhower, because he kept blabbering about how things would be better all around if only old Dwight D. Eisenhower—“Ike”—was still president. Carrie knew soon enough that wasn’t his real name, though.
Abel “Eisenhower” Battenberg was 82. He had made a living as an electrician after the war. He lived in a small trailer community a few miles out, not far from Silver Lake. He had done and still did a lot of work for free, especially for people who couldn’t afford much.
He came down to the Anaconda Bar every evening out of personal allegiance to his brother, Billy, who’d started the bar before Doris became proprietor. Billy had left Abel all his money after Billy himself died in a car accident. At least that was what Ike had made quite sure to tell Carrie on the first night she came in to drink.
Carrie had told him about her brother and that mine in Afghanistan which meant she would never see him again. She had meant for it to be a slap. ‘I’m just as bad off as you, old man, perhaps even worse.’ What’s worse – a mine or a car? The end result is the same. And that is that even if it shakes you out of your stupor, and forces you to make some changes, ultimately you can’t change yourself. That’s what she wanted to tell him.
But, of course, she ended up talking half the night about Tim. And then Lin. And her father. All the people she had lost. One way or another. Abel was that kind of man, whom you told such things. It was infuriating but she couldn’t walk away from him, either. So she stayed. Like tonight.
Carrie tried to smile at the old man. “I can take care of myself, Abel.”
“Sure you can,” the old man replied drily, “only I wish you would try harder.”
Carrie didn’t say anything to that.
Eisenhower kept smiling genuinely at Carrie instead. His teeth were surprisingly healthy for a man his age. Their pristine whiteness made a strange contrast to his sunburned, wrinkled face.
“I don’t wanna see you in trouble again with Jonah,” he then said quietly. “He is a goddamn redneck.”
“What’s it to you?” Carrie asked, not trying to feign enough surprise to please him. “You hardly know me. I only came to your little town two weeks ago.”
“Then it’d be a shame if they have to carry you out in your third week, one piece at a time, wouldn’t it?” Eisenhower’s bright smile made the rather serious question seem less ominous than it actually was.
“You’re already fussing about me,” Carrie retorted, “as if I was a ten-year-old or something.”
“When my daughter was ten years old she was considerably wiser than you.” Eisenhower smiled smugly. “She knew when to fight and when to run from the bullies at school.”
Then he shook his head and stared into his drink for a few moments as if there was some memory he had to put to rest before being able to find out what to say next.
“Look—don’t worry about me, okay?” Carrie said, seizing the opening that arose from his hesitation. “Jonah may be a big shot here, but he is not stupid. He is not going to barge in here and do something he’ll regret.”
She quickly turned back to lean against the bar counter, so she didn’t have to look Eisenhower directly in the eyes anymore. They were as blue and intense as any set of eyes she had ever seen on a younger man, and she felt uneasy looking into them for too long.
Eisenhower had taken a special interest in her from the first night on, but not in any lewd way. In fact, it seemed more as if she had reignited a fatherly, or perhaps grandfatherly, mission for him, which he had given up on long ago.
So after only a week she knew about how he had a daughter out of marriage who now lived in Phoenix, worked as a dentist, and didn’t want to answer his letters, because he didn’t answer hers for the first ten years of her adult life because of some misunderstanding, or depression, or whatever. It was never entirely clear.
However, what was clear was that she knew that he regretted this course of events much more than anything else. Even the war.
The war. There was a cue to a lot of other memories. Sometimes Carrie wasn’t sure he was telling her everything, though. She suspected he was at least modifying the old war stories because she had already caught him in two or three inconsistencies.
However, she didn’t say anything. Maybe the inconsistencies were just due to the usual lapse in memory that comes when you have 60 years to remember, she thought.
Some of the other regulars certainly didn’t seem to believe a word that Eisenhower said, though. They just rolled their eyes, when he began talking to her and gave her looks that resembled pity as if they were going to say, ‘There, old Ike has snatched another one’.
It didn’t matter to Carrie. It didn’t matter what was pure truth and what was just imagined truth. The fact that Eisenhower so obviously, and sometimes clumsily, wanted to protect her from herself—that mattered.
It mattered even more because she knew she wasn’t going to give him the chance. She couldn’t let him. The latter was a decision that felt like cutting oneself with a razor blade, but as with people who committed just this kind of self-mutilation it couldn’t always be helped.
For a while nobody said anything. Then she heard the scraping of a chair against the dirty floor. She glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, he was coming over. Carrie tried to remain indifferent.
Ike chose his spot at the bar—but in a respectful distance from Carrie. Even so, she felt that he was standing too close to her by any measure. Perhaps that kitchen door was still a good idea? But she really, really needed that last drink …
“Another one for you, too?” Doris droned, not even looking at Ike.
He nodded. “Yeah. Make it a big one.”
Carrie allowed herself a discreet glance at him.
“I think our lady-friend here has drunk most of my whiskey,” Doris then said, sending Carrie ‘that glance’.
“I’ll take one from your hidden reserve,” Ike said.
“I’ll see what’s left.” Doris turned towards her rather limited collection of bottles.
The night before a traveling salesman had come in and asked for gin and Carrie had immediately heard Dorrie snap. “If you want a fuckin’ martini, head to New York. This is a whiskey bar.”
So Carrie had found out, too, when she landed here less than two weeks ago, but that was a smaller problem for her than it had been for the salesman.
Doris searched a little more and then found a half-empty ‘Old Thompson’ on the lowest shelf. With a professional twist of the bottle, she poured exactly the right amount in a tiny glass, which she then passed to Ike.
He took it and turned towards Carrie, leaning on the bar counter with one elbow.
“Since Doris is too kind to seem to kick you out on your ass, I thought I should make a final attempt to convince you not to hang around here anymore.”
Carrie bit her lips and didn’t look at him. “Everybody’s so concerned about my health tonight.”
“It seems a shame to waste it,” Ike said, “for such poor reasons.”
“You thinking about booze or Jonah?”
She nodded and looked at her glass, wanting to take another gulp but felt something in her resist. “Look,” she said, after long seconds of silence, “believe it or not, I do appreciate the concern. But I’m really not sure I should be concerned about myself. Not anymore. I’m not going to back down for such a type as Jonah.”
“He is dangerous,” Ike said.
“Yeah,” Carrie said reluctantly, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know.”
“So you got some other reason for staying then?” Eisenhower asked mildly.
Carrie held her breath for a moment, and then she said. “Let’s just say that I’ve got lots of reasons …”
“You’ve told me some of them.”
“Not all of them. For example, there was this guy I was with. He was just as bad company as Jonah, maybe worse. Then there was the … snow, a lot of booze, and a lot of other guys who were bad company, too. I don’t feel like talking about it, but that’s what it’s about. And I should never have been in it.”
She hesitated. Something suddenly stung in her throat. “I should have been better than that,” she then managed to say through firm lips. “I should not have let them treat me like … There’s no excuse. Not for that.”
“I know how you feel,” he said.
“You do?” Carrie smiled weakly at his attempt to show sympathy.
Even if he was every bit as clumsy at expressing understanding with a young blonde woman as one would expect a lonely guy his age to be, she didn’t mind. At least not right now.
But he surprised her. “Back in the Big One,” he said calmly. “My first battle and we got our asses handed to us by the Krauts. I think I shit my pants.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It’s war. Here and back then.”
He turned to look directly at her. She thought he was about to chuckle at her bewilderment, but instead, he just said, in a very firm voice. “Sometimes you gotta know when it’s time to fight. We’d get both bigger and better than them eventually, but in 1943 Rommel and his bunch—they were tough customers. We were greenhorns. Our generals should not have let that happen. It was called the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. It’s in Tunisia if you want to look it up.”
“Not Italy?” Carrie glanced at the photo on the far-away wall.
Eisenhower smiled a wicked smile. “Told ya, we got better soon enough. But that first time. All of us should have been killed. It was pure luck we didn’t.”
He looked at his drink for several long moments. “My buddy up there on the pic, he didn’t make it. The trick is always to know when to fight—and, of course, what to fight for. So if you die, it’s for the right cause.”
“Your war stories really suck,” Carrie said and downed her drink. “If you fight Nazis it’s always a good fight. And Jonah’s little better than that. Nor was—”
Carrie shuddered. She dared not look at him.
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” he said quickly. “It’s none of my damn business anyway.”
“No …” she said, her voice very thin now, “I think I should … ”
Somehow, she managed.
She started telling what she had sworn several times she would not tell anyone—especially not someone like him. She couldn’t make herself talk about everything. But Ike had given her an opening and she felt obliged to give him something in return. So she did—in bits and pieces, with many pauses and many more gulps of whiskey in between.
“I … hitch-hiked from Ohio to Florida and nothing bad happened, until I made a really bad call. I got together with a man who hit me whenever he felt like it, but since I felt I deserved it I stayed with him. It didn’t help matters that meanwhile I had done some coke myself, starting one night at one of my boyfriend’s infamous parties. It was a night when I was particularly angry and wanted to ‘prove’ that … someone I once knew who had … left me … that she had been weak, that she should have been able to cope … or some other idiotic reason.”
She looked at Ike hesitantly. “This makes no sense at all, does it?”
“On the contrary,” he said. “It makes too much sense. My daughter was married to an asshole, too. He beat her. She tried to get out several times but … ” He shook his head. “Eventually the police had to take care of it.”
“I … couldn’t go to the police.” Carrie swallowed hard, but she forced herself to relax. Or at least look like it.
“So …” she said, almost regretting it but then going on anyway, “… this single really piss-poor decision I made to ‘just do it’ led to another and another, and it all continued as a weekend escape and ended in full-blown addiction. My boyfriend was the only one with the money to pay for it. I tried to get clean three times, and one of them nearly killed me. But I failed each time, and wound up with him again … and his abuses. And now here we are again—with Jonah.”
“You two are not together,” Ike said. “Remember that.”
“He sure as hell wants that.”
Ike nodded but stayed silent. He didn’t comment any further but he didn’t look as if what she had said made him look at her in a different way than he had done the whole time.
He was just … there.
Doris had retreated to a corner of her bar and looked as if she was checking something at the register.
Outside there was only the grumble of a big truck as it drove back and forth at the adjacent lot for large vehicles, apparently trying to find a place to fit but without much luck. She had actually left the bottle, totally forgetting herself from before. Or was it on purpose?
Carrie didn’t care. She poured another one. But she found she couldn’t drink it.
Carrie stared hard into her drink. “One day I found a little spark of … something … inside myself which I didn’t even know I had left … perhaps it was desperation? Perhaps it’s because my mom finally got ahold of me and told me what had happened to Timothy. Anyway, I finally slammed the door on him. I got away. I got clean, too—in my fourth attempt—or as clean as you can get if you’re me. I hadn’t stopped drinking, for I felt more than ever before that I had been a fucking coward … that I had let Jeremy and his damn friends do everything they had done to me, and that I had nothing left to offer anyone anymore. So I kept on drinking.”
“You’re not drinking now,” Eisenhower said.
Carrie turned to look straight at him. “So you see, Abel, why I’m not worth your time. I always go back into the pit. And so it will probably be with Johan. So I think you’ll do yourself a favor if you split before he comes back. He hates guys hitting on ‘his’ woman.”
Eisenhower shrugged. “Oh, Jonah hates a lot of things.”
Then he shook his head with something resembling sadness and emptied his whiskey in one gulp. “In fact—” he concluded after placing the glass firmly back on the bar desk “—I’m not even sure he would stop hating even if you and he were an item.”
He smiled and for a moment Carrie thought she saw a young, suntanned soldier readying his rifle. “Fortunately that future is not going to happen.”
She didn’t react to his attempt at cheering her up, though. Instead, she just stared hard at nothing in particular in front of her; as if there was a mist there she was trying to see through.
Suddenly she felt bad again, although the conversation had managed to cheer her up a little before. She raised her glass, then stopped halfway and placed it gently on the counter again without touching its content. Her voice was thin again. “My future is easy to divine. There is none.”
“You could have fooled me.” Ike breathed deeply. He frowned, too, as if his mood had also shifted. Then he poured another whiskey. There was something in his tone, which left her feeling guilty for that last remark. She tried to make up for it. She didn’t want to sound like a whiner.
“Look,” she then said, “It’s been nice talking to you, again. It’s nice of you to take interest every evening but …”
“—But you’re gonna stay here and drink the rest of that bottle after all?” Ike finished for her.
“Something like it.”
“You’re not the least bit worried about Jonah and his boys?”
“I am … but then again, I shouldn’t be. As I said, there have been worse things. And … what if I went back to my motel room? What then?”
He looked directly at her again. “You tell me. What then?”
“Then I’d just drink there!” she blurted. “I’ve got a little sample of absinth in my bag—” she nodded towards her handbag, which was placed on the floor, under her legs “—but back there, in my room, I got the whole stock, if you know what I mean?”
“I think I do.”
“And I don’t think there’s much preventing me from going overboard in that, too, if you know what I mean?”
He nodded gravely now. “I still think I do.”
“So you see, it doesn’t really matter where I am,” she concluded. “There’s no reason whatsoever for me not to just … finish it.”
“I see,” he said quietly. Then, after a few moments, it was as if he had reached a decision.
“You’ve been through some pretty rough times. I can only say this again. There are good times to fight and bad times to fight, good reasons and bad reasons. There are no reasons tonight, though … and … I think you’re worth more.”
She shook her head as if he had just slapped her in the face. “No,” she said firmly. “I am not.”
For a while none of them said anything. It was as if the air had gone heavy, a lot heavier than it usually was in the damp bar. Doris looked at Carrie from the register, her lips a thin line now. She had put the CD back on, from the beginning. Somebody was singing about rusty-red cliffs, Aboriginal land rights, and dream worlds lost and found—again.
“Aren’t you ever gonna play a different one?” Carrie snapped, feeling both sorry for herself and angry now.
“No,” Doris snapped back. “If you don’t like the music in this bar, go to New York. They got plenty of boring American rock’n’ roll in New York.”
“You always say that,” Carrie said, a rising antagonism in her voice. “You always—”
“Don’t sidestep the topic of the evening, lady,” Doris cut her off immediately, her eyes narrowing. “Ike here is actually trying to help. I think it’s the last genuine offer you’ll get tonight.”
Carrie looked at Doris, then at Eisenhower. He returned her glance briefly, but quickly refocused on the bottles on the shelf as if he was searching for a specific one. His brow looked extra furrowed now, however.
“Okay,” Carrie said mutedly. “I’ll go now.”
Ike didn’t say anything. A faint relaxation of the lines on his brow seemed to show for a moment, but that was all. Carrie turned to walk around the bar to get to the little swing door at the end of it, so she could slip out the back. And that’s when she almost … dropped like a dead tree.
Ike and Doris were there immediately, trying to help her to her feet. They managed barely, but it was Doris doing most of the lifting. When Carrie was on her feet, Eisenhower kept an arm around her, even if he probably couldn’t prevent her from falling by himself.
However, at that moment the main door to the Anaconda Bar swung open and the real chill from the Montana night came stomping in.
The bikers greeted Doris with a couple of worn-out obscenities, and then demanded a “shitload of vodka”. The frontman was Jonah himself. He was a giant. Almost 7 feet tall, muscles straining his black leather vest and the t-shirt underneath.
Next was a big fat wrestler-type, dome-headed, who sported an enormous red beard. He wore the usual black leather motorcycle outfit as well but without the skulls.
Last up was a smaller, wiry guy with pale blonde hair. Of the three she had only seen Jonah before.
Jonah looked at Carrie and Ike and grinned rustily. “Hey—hey! What have we missed, guys? Huh? What have we fuckin’ missed?”
“I say we missed a fuckin’ old perv carrying away your girl, Jonah,” the wrestler-type answered in a voice so gravelly and muffled that Carrie couldn’t help but imagine that his huge beard was growing from inside of his mouth as well as all over the lower part of his face.
Carrie staggered and Ike’s grip tightened around her waist, but it was obvious he couldn’t hold her.
Jonah strode towards them, and the others fanned out so Carrie couldn’t run past them, even if she had been able to run.
She thought for a split second about the kitchen door, but her legs felt too much like jelly to move her anywhere now. She doubted she could reach the end of the bar, to get around it and reach the door, before Jonah blocked her way. She doubted even more she could jump over the bar.
For the moment, just standing upright was a main priority. On Doris’ vintage CD player a bitter, defiant vocal reached a crescendo.
Jonah now hovered over the elderly man and the shabbily dressed young woman, regarding both with perverse relish.
“So where you goin’ with my girl?” he bellowed.
His two companions laughed hoarsely from behind him.. Doris had retreated to the bar and stood frozen.
“—I asked ya sump’n, ya old piece of shit!” Jonah spat.
But Ike just stood there, his surprisingly strong right arm still around Carrie’s waist, lending her that at least some balance.
“ … I, uh, asked him to help me home,” Carrie managed to croak.
“Izzat so?” Jonah smiled coldly. “I didn’t know you liked old timers so much, Carrie.”
“Yeah, you like me better. Isn’t that right?”
Carrie cast her glance down.
Jonah looked directly at Ike now, smiling. “I thought so. This old fart is below even your standards.”
Jonah obviously meant that last remark to be a threat, but Eisenhower still just stood there, looking through the big biker as if he was made of air.
“I know what you’re going to do,” Ike said calmly. “You’re going to beat up an old geezer who might as well be six feet under, and you are right. I am old and useless and might as well be dead.”
Jonah’s mouth opened a bit, but then it closed again. His mates even stopped laughing for a moment, as if they had to cough something up before they could go on.
Jonah found his mettle first. “Yeah, you got that right.” His arm shot forth and he grabbed Ike by the throat. The huge biker pulled in the spindly old man, like a fish on a hook. Then he whirled Ike around and caught him in a chokehold. Obviously, Ike couldn’t hold on to Carrie and she reeled, barely managing to grab onto the bar instead.
“—Jonaaah!!” Doris wailed, coming out of her trance. “I’m gonna call the Sheriff—”
“I’m so afraid … ” Jonah snarled “ … that I don’t give a shit.”
He tightened his grip around Ike’s throat.
“So you were gonna shove your dick into my fine little girl, weren’t you?” he went on, holding the old man in a steel grip. “Don’t lie to me, motherfucker.”
Eisenhower couldn’t lie, since he couldn’t breathe. His face began to turn blue.
Now it dawned on Carrie. Jonah was crazy tonight. Artificially crazy, that was. She of all people should know the signs … the way his smelly breathing was into overdrive—almost hyperventilating. She could hear it in the way he bellowed and roared, like a maniac, seemingly for no reason at all. He was high on something.
Probably crack, she thought. I should know …
From the creepy, tick-like way his mates laughed, Carrie also gathered they all had shared a big pot of candy before coming here. In other words, they had already had their ‘Carrie’.
She was high herself, but it was all adrenaline. No one was choking her yet, but she still felt like she could not get another mouthful of air into her lungs.
With an effort she didn’t know she was capable of, Carrie got the lump in her throat out.
Jonah regarded her slightly amused, but unsurprisingly didn’t let go of Eisenhower.
“– D-do anything you want to me,” Carrie heard herself say, shaking. “Just let him go.”
“Who sez I want you anymore, Carrie?” Jonah drawled coldly. “You look like you’ve seen better days.”
“Hey, I’ll fuck her!” Beard Mouth yelled, and immediately the follower lapsed into nigh-hysterical laughter.
“I’ll fuck all of you … all night,” Carrie blurted again, trying desperately to sound calm and not pathetic. “Just let Ike go.”
Now both Beard Mouth and the follower seemed on the verge of collapse from laughter. Doris, who until now had been standing almost frozen behind the bar, couldn’t help herself any longer. She began to sob.
“—Shut up!” Jonah looked at her menacingly.
“I mean it …” Carrie tried again “—I’ll do whatever you want.” However, while she said it she felt infinitely weaker. The fear she was trying to fight had begun to infect her again. Moreover, she had to cling to the bar once more, because the floor seemed like it was constantly trying to move without her permission.
“I’m not sure I would like to fuck anyone who stinks so much,” Jonah said, still regarding Carrie with wild bloodshot eyes. “Maybe I should just put this old perv away for good and then fuck you anyway, though. That would be a better deal, wouldn’t it?”
Carrie had seen such eyes before. There was no doubt now what they had gone away to do right before they waded into the bar.
She had little doubt about what they would do from here on. Jeremy always hit her the most when he had snorted coke.
“You … should … just kill me …” Ike managed to rasp.
“Shut up!” Carrie cried “—I’m going to give them what they want—so shut up!”
“They don’t … want you,” Ike kept on, his hoarse voice straining more and more. “ … they feel sure nobody’s ever going to want anything … valuable from them … that’s why they decided … might as well just … kill everything—urgh—”
Jonah squeezed Ike’s throat so hard the old man almost went limp. And the words disappeared like they had never been there.
“Do it, for fuck’s sake!” Beard Mouth bellowed. “Snap his fucking neck!”
The follower found this remark so amusing that he almost fell over on his ass from just laughing. He didn’t fall, though.
Suddenly Eisenhower gasped loudly and his arms flew from Jonah’s chokehold and down to his chest. For an instant, it looked as if he was trying to cry out something … but the gasp was all that came from him. Then his body finally lost all strength and he dropped in Jonah’s hold, like a ragdoll.
“Shut the fuck up!” Jonah snarled. “Mason—get over there!” He let go of Eisenhower who dropped to the floor.
Beard Mouth lumbered past Jonah and stopped at the lifeless old man.
“ … A heart attack …” Doris whimpered. “Ohmygodhehashada—”
“Wha—?” Jonah began, for the first time looking genuinely human and not like a wild animal.
“He’s having a heart attack, you asshole!” Carrie cried. “He already has a condition. He—”
“I’m—g-going to c-call an ambulance …” Doris got a grip on herself and reached for her cell phone, which she had put on its usual shelf below the counter.
“You do no fuckin’ thing, Dorrie!” Jonah interjected with venom in his voice. That stopped Doris again, as effectively as if he had thrown a real rattlesnake between her and the phone. Jonah turned to Beard Mouth.
Mason was on his knees before the fallen old man, looking positively out of his element. “—The old geezer’s not … breathing,” he said like it was a baffling discovery.
“We have to call an ambulance!” Carrie tried again “—or he’ll die!” She still clutched the bar desk, her knuckles almost white.
“He’s already dead,” Jonah said, his gaze beginning to flicker.
“No—” Doris cried “—Eisenhower can’t be dead!”
“He is dead,” Mason Beard Mouth said and heaved his blob-body up from a kneeling position.
“‘Eisenhower’? ‘Dead’…?” Jonah shook his head like somebody had punched him.
“At least we won’t have to hear about his bullshit stories anymore,” the follower commented coldly.
“It wasn’t bullshit,” Doris retorted, through several sobs. “H-he showed me a picture once, of how he met Eisenhower and got a medal …”
“Well, he’s gonna meet Eisenhower again now!” the follower chuckled.
“Shut up, Rex!” Mason barked.
“Let me help.” With an effort of will Carrie let go of the bar. But she couldn’t make herself move yet.
“You can do … that CPR-shit?” Jonah asked, looking directly at her now.
“Yes.” Carrie took a step forward. She had to.
“Shiit …!” Mason blurted.
“—What the fuck is it now?” Jonah was slowly coming out of his stupor and the coke-induced frenzy glowed again in his red eyes.
Mason pulled something from the vest of Eisenhower.
“He wore this …” Mason mumbled “… this medal. The old fart did get one.”
Carrie felt a rising panic, raw and real, but couldn’t help herself. She let go of the bar and dropped down beside Eisenhower as if somebody had pushed her.
She couldn’t determine if he was breathing. She was on her knees now, cradling his head in her arms, frantically searching for a sign—she thought he might still be breathing, but she was not sure.
“Get up, bitch.” Jonah commanded through gritted teeth.
She just shook her head, as if in a daze.
Jonah hesitated. Mason still dangled the brightly polished medal that he had snatched, looking at it like it was something a UFO had dropped.
“—Boss—uh—what do we—” he began.
“Shut up, Mase! Just shut the fuck up!! Let me think, okay!”
Jonah then turned slowly towards Carrie. And in the next moment, there was a switchblade in his hand.
Carrie had torn open Eisenhower’s shirt and was trying to find the place to give CPR. In reality, she didn’t have any training. She had only seen movies.
“Get away from him!” Jonah commanded.
For a moment, Carrie froze. Then she shook her head as if awakening from a bad dream.
Ike was there, but he was dying. Or maybe already dead. He was the only good thing to happen to her in a long time, and like everything else that was just the least bit of good and passed her life … he was gone.
“Noo!” She screamed and began punching and pumping the old man’s chest with her hands, and then occasionally leaning over to breathe into his mouth.
This was when Doris moved as if she had been hit by one of Carrie’s punches. “I’m gonna call the fuckin’ sheriff—gonna call—” She almost stumbled as she flew into the backroom behind the bar and slammed the door shut.
Nobody had the wherewithal to do anything to stop her.
“Shiit!” Rex the follower squeaked, like the gravity of the situation that his friends were responsible for finally dawned on him. He hesitated for about two seconds, then turned and ran for the door, too. Jonah yelled at him, but it was too late.
Jonah stood frozen for exactly one second. Then he kicked Carrie hard in the head, and she fell back on the grimy floor, away from Eisenhower.
“When I tell you what to do, you do it!” He snarled. “I don’t care what’s the problem. You fucking obey me!”
Carrie wiped blood from her nose with her sleeve. “No.”
She got to her feet, barely. And started moving for Eisenhower again.
Jonah hit her again, and she staggered back. But despite all the whiskey in her blood something kept her up.
“You just do … what I say … ” Jonah’s voice was like gravel.
That was when Mason also split. There was a brief clank, as he dropped Eisenhower’s medal on the stained floor.
Jonah eyed him for a millisecond then it was Carrie once again.
Jonah flung open a switchblade. “When I tell someone to obey—they fucking do it!”
Carrie saw herself, as if from a distance. She felt … light. Maybe she was already dead and on the way … somewhere else?
She saw Eisenhower, cold and still, his eyes looking wide open into emptiness. Did he see anything anymore? Were there any lingering memories of sunny liberated beaches and laughing Italian girls and dust and sweat and everything that had come after, or was it all gone now?
“I’m going to help Eisenhower,” she heard herself say. “If you want to stop me … you will have to kill me.”
She took another step forward. Jonah lifted the knife.
And that’s when Doris slammed open the door to the backroom. And she had company.
“Stop this shit, right now, Jonah! I’ve called the Sheriff!” She aimed the gun at Jonah with uncanny expertise. It was apparently not the first time.
Jonah looked as if he was going to take another step forward and gut Carrie for her insolence, but in the last second he lowered the knife.
“Put it down on the floor!” Doris almost screamed.
Jonah didn’t say a word. He put down the knife and held up his hands, then he slowly backed towards the door. Carrie saw that his eyes were almost completely red now, but not red enough it seemed. If they had been, he would have made another choice, she knew. Cocaine did that to you. Whatever brain you had got switched to a different mode, and sometimes that mode was not human at all.
Carrie took a deep breath. Then she ran to Eisenhower’s lifeless body. She felt the tears on her hands, as she pumped his chest once more to start his old heart again.
The aftermath was strangely muted. Eisenhower never came back. It had been his last battle and he had chosen it for reasons that probably seemed right to him. At least that was what Carrie tried to think as she rocked back and forth on a chair, looking at the spot where the medics had taken his body. She knew she would not come to the funeral. She was not family. And he would likely be flown to Phoenix so his wayward daughter could take care of it. At least that was what the Sheriff said.
Sheriff Jenkins didn’t say much more than that. He didn’t ask many questions, once he realized who she was.
“So you’re going back to L.A.?” That was how he ended the brief interview, and it almost sounded as casual as he intended it to be.
“I don’t know,” Carrie said, “I don’t have a home anymore.”
“But your family lives there.”
“My mother does.”
“Okay. That will be all then.” He packed away his pad and pencil. “I’ve talked to Doris and you can stay here until we get a hold of Jonah and his boys. You’re not going back to the motel. My deputy will go over there and get your things.”
“There’s only a rucksack.”
“Then he will get the rucksack.”
“Okay.” Carrie fiddled with an empty glass on the table beside her, and the Sheriff looked as if he was going to say something more, but he left it at that.
Doris came out from the backroom. She had been trying to straighten her make-up but it looked as if she had stopped halfway.
“I’ll go up and make your room ready,” she said, addressed to Carrie. There wasn’t any real warmth in her voice, but it was not cold either. Just neutral, bland even. Like she had spent all her capability for feeling something for one evening, perhaps more.
Before Carrie could answer she was already up the stairs to the first floor. Sheriff Jenkins had also left. Carrie was alone in the bar.
On the desk, there was still the bottle of whiskey.
Carrie took a breath, much like someone who was about to run a marathon after they had just finished one. Short and sharp. She raised herself slowly from the chair. She grabbed the empty glass to bring it over to the bar desk and the solution which awaited.
She needed it now more than ever.
Then halfway across the dirty floor, she saw something lying in a corner.
It was Eisenhower’s medal.
She stared at it for a long time. It was a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with a single word.
The word was “Valor”.
After a while, she put down the glass.
Last edited 2 Aug 2023
Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash