If You Hear It Coming It's Already Gone
I’d been looking for a temp gig to keep the beer fridge full through the summer, and Boss was the only one hiring back then. He had me answer three questions:
1) You a junkie? Never touched anything that can’t be poured.
2) Do you have all your faculties? As much as a person can.
3) Got a woman likely to make you leave town overnight? Man, if only.
This qualified me to work on Boss’ crew, breaking up quarry rock with a jackhammer for who the hell knows what reason. Another casino, maybe. Red tape or something was holding the whole thing up, so I stuck with it until summer circled back around. I saved most everything I made to get out of town when the time came. Why and where I was going I didn’t know, but I figured when it was right it’d be right.
Boss had me meet him in the office up top. July had a stick up its ass, so by the time I got there I was sweat-drenched and aching like my body had never known pain before.
“Can I be frank with you?” Boss said, launching right into it.
“Only if I can still be Greg, Boss.”
He roared, a whole body shudder. “I love that movie,” he said, playing a little air guitar. “We’re the wiiiiiild stallions, maaaaan.”
He looked so free and Santa-happy that I didn’t want to tell him he had the wrong movie.
He moved behind the fold-up desk, fell into the black pleather office chair with its foam insides bursting out. From his bag he pulled out a huge Thermos, unscrewed the lid.
“Want a hot one?” he asked. I held my hands up like nah, I’m good. It must have been a buck ten outside. He poured out a cup of steaming tomato soup then grabbed a handful of Splenda sachets from the desk to dump in, stirring with his finger.
“Got a wife yet?” he asked.
“That’s the road less travelled, right there.”
“Right. Well, mine, she keeps yammerin’ like you’re not getting any younger, George. Where’s that honeymoon cruise you promised twenty years ago, George. Bless her beautiful soul.”
He walked over to the porta-cabin window, took a long gulp of soup, ahhhhh’d loud, shifted from his heels to his toes and back again.
“You wanted something, Boss?”
“Right. Didn’t just haul y’in to shoot the shit,” he said, not turning around. “So listen. The job, it’s killin’ me, man. They keep knocking zeroes off my budget and expecting me to deliver in half the time. I gotta get in at five AM just to keep the lights on.”
“It’s rough out there.”
“That ain’t even the half of it. So listen, I got what they call a proposition for you. An opportunity.”
On the wall beside the window was a framed picture of a sunset with the words Motivation, Persistence, Progress written underneath. I folded my arms though I had no idea why. Maybe it was late-night gangster movies where propositions are thinly-veiled threats. Maybe it was the sun making a creepy silhouette out of Boss, who still hadn’t turned around.
“Got a daughter you need marrying off?”
He laughed. “Actually there’s some blood diamonds I need shifting. Got any experience in that field?”
“Fell into human trafficking a few years back, but decided I didn’t much like people.”
“You got a quick wit, son. We need more A-plus minds in management.”
Right then, there was a huge crash outside.
“Goddammit,” Boss yelled. “Remind me why I ever took on that freakin’ moron?” He slammed the thermos down, soup spilling over the sides like a gushing wound.
I’d never been in the office alone before. The electrics hummed, like I was surrounded by a swarm of sleeping hornets. The sound was making me sweat again, my guts getting all twisted. I walked a lap, passing the shelves of employee handbooks and site regulation ring binders, a white plastic patio table and two chairs screened off behind a white board on wheels. I circled back round to the desk, half-hidden underneath sheets of paper, their corners flapping as the fan nailed to the wall did its one-eighty turn. I pulled out the chair as I tried to make sense of the spreadsheet left open on the dirty beige CRT monitor. As I went to sit down, I froze, like I’d spied a tack just in time.
Outside, Boss was screaming himself into a heart attack. The young guy, Barney, had tipped the dump truck again. I got out of there double-quick and avoided Boss for the rest of the shift.
Rats and Jaw were already three beers deep when I rolled up to On the Rocks.
“Lookie, lookie, Rat-man. Big Boss came to party with the common folk.”
Rats sank the twelve in the corner pocket. “Janey,” he shouted over to the bar, “three more if it’s no trouble.”
“How did you know?” I asked them.
“There’s no way you were getting shit-canned before us mongrels,” Jaw said, shoving a pool cue into my chest. “Plus, Boss has had a stiffy for you for months now.”
“News to me,” I said.
“Well some of us got the smarts and others got the luck,” Jaw said, sinking another stripe.
“You didn’t hear Boss was packing it up?” Rats said.
“Figured that was just pit talk.”
Jaw made a clucking sound and threw his pool cue down on the felt, knocking the balls every which way.
“I gotta take a piss,” he said, walking my way to get to the bathroom. Right in front of me he stopped and turned. “Sometimes, man,” he said, lumbering off. Out the corner of my eye I saw him and Janey exchange a look.
“What’s his deal?” I asked Rats.
“Mommy didn’t hug him enough? Hell if I know. Hey, right quick, show me how you make the ball spin back.”
I told him to imagine a line cutting the ball in half like a horizon, then aim to hit right below it. He hit a few and each time the cue ball stopped dead instead of spinning. Commit and hit hard, I told him.
He lined up a shot and stopped. “You gonna do it?” he asked, all quiet.
“I gotta think on it,” I said.
Rats nodded like he understood and that was that. He hit another shot and it missed everything but the cushions.
I couldn’t make one damn shot all night. Every ball bounced around the pocket and popped right back out. At some point I just started hitting every ball as hard as I could. I was thinking about the job I hadn’t actually been offered. I was picturing myself in that chair with that fan and the red ribbon flicking at me all day like a rattler’s tongue, that humming sound that got me all knotted up, the idiot dump truck drivers, the minor uptick in pay versus the 100 pounds of weight and worry I was bound to put on trying to put down roots in a portable cabin. The answer seemed clear but I couldn’t get the question out my head.
We were all pretty loaded when Jaw lined one up, then paused to finally spew his thoughts.
“So, Big Boss Man, we gotta start calling you siryessir or what?”
“Nothing’s official yet.”
Jaw raised his head just enough to lock eyes with me. “Don’t play me like I’m some bed-ridden vegetable dribbling apple sauce down my chin.”
“I’m not doing a damn thing but takin’ time.”
Jaw sank his shot. “What’s to think on?”
“Do I really want to be boss to you clowns?” I said, nodding over at Rats. He laughed, which seemed to piss Jaw off something fierce.
“With you as boss we could rock up at noon and get out in time for happy hour. Plus there’s all that extra coin.”
“It ain’t all about cash.”
“Bullshit. If you got cash you got everything you need all damn day.”
Jaw was the guy you liked well enough but stayed wary of. It felt like he always had his finger on the trigger. Rats gave him the name for his tendency to oblige bikers looking to kick up a little dust as they passed through. He had a sixth sense for trouble when it walked in, like a storm chaser driving right for the tornado as it starts to get all riled up. He was a get-it-done-any-way-any-how kind of fighter, not above an elbow to the balls or kidney shots with whatever object he could grab. Huge biker dudes have left here with their insides bleeding out. Each squabble was different, but one thing was always the same: he never shut up throughout the whole thing.
As it was getting harder to see the cueball through a beer haze, Oklahoma City and Golden State tipped off on the TV. Jaw made us stop everything to watch the first quarter. He seemed awful interested in the NBA all of a sudden, and it hit me that his old habit of betting on the dogs had switched gears. The game was close until midway through the third, when Russell Westbrook got himself tossed for arguing a call, and the Warriors went on a 15-0 run. The game was getting away from OKC, and Jaw was losing it too.
“Just post Durant up, you goddamn piece of shit coach,” he kept screaming at the TV. “Give it to the fuckin’ MVP.” With eight minutes to go in the game and nothing but miles of empty road between them and Golden State, OKC gave up. The coach cleared the bench of third-string players, the camera glancing over the starting five looking beat down, pissed off, ready to go home.
“Great,” Jaw shouted, jumping off his stool, too many beers in the hole to climb out without stumbling. “Just perfect.”
We’d all seen this dance before. Buying him another drink usually gave him enough happy to make him forget what he was mad about, but this time he was more fired up than I’d seen him outside a tussle.
“Let’s go get some eats, huh?” I said. My mistake was grabbing his forearm as I said it. He was just waiting for an excuse to lose the last of his thread.
“Get yer paws off me, you ass-sniffing bitch!”
“Cool down, Jaw,” Janey shouted from behind the bar.
“Cool down nothin’. This guy is getting corporate cash handed to him and he’s saying no? Fuck that. Y’all wouldn’t know a silver platter if it fell out your cereal box.”
“What do you care if I take this job, Jaw?” I said.
Rats handed Jaw his beer before he could answer. “Let’s go again, Jaw. I reckon I could take you with my new spin shot.”
Jaw jabbed a finger in my direction. “This guy, he’s got a play he ain’t made yet, Rats. He’s looking to screw us out of something, I can feel it.”
Me and Jaw were friendly n’ all, mostly cause of Rats, but me and Rats went way back to smoking in the school basement during classes. Long story short, a rat ran over his shoe and he screamed like a little girl who just ate dirt on her first bicycle ride without training wheels. People got wind of it, and shit sticks to you at school like nowhere else. By the time we left it behind at sixteen I think he was just happy to be one of the gang with his own nickname n’ all.
“You want me to get Buck or what?” Janey shouted over.
Buck owned the bar, mostly hanging out watching Charlton Heston movies in the office out back. He was ex-Semper Fi, ex-war vet, ex-fulltime badass, and the only person I’d seen Jaw back down from. Janey could handle most anyone so most nights he didn’t feel the need to play bodyguard.
But Jaw was all the way gone. He smashed the bottle on the table and shouted go bring his ass here.
From the other side of the pool table, I spoke as plain and as slow and deliberate as I could while wanting to ram Jaw’s greasy head through the TV. “Listen. If Buck comes out here he’s gonna turn you inside out in a way you ain’t never been turnt.”
“Yeah he’d mess you up real bad,” Rats added, wide-eyed.
Jaw stared me down hard without blinking, just narrowed his gaze a little like we were about to draw guns. He moved his tongue around the inside of his mouth and spat on the table.
“Pussies, all y’all,” he said, letting the bottle smash on the ground before leaving.
Janey came over carrying a broom and fresh beers for me and Rats. Rats took the broom and started sweeping.
“My hero,” she said to me, flat.
“Just doing my part for the community, ma’am.”
“He keeps pulling this shit, Buck’s either gonna ban him or cripple him.”
“I know it.”
“If you know already then get shot of it.”
“A change is gonna come,” I said. She looked me up and down, nodded at my beer.
“You’re such a sweetheart, Rats,” she said, slow-pecking him on the cheek as she walked away, knowing full well where our eyes were at. While Rats swept, I unwrapped a napkin from my bottle.
Buck ain’t even here tonight, so really thank you.
I gotta close up so use your key later.
Tonight’s the night we figure out how this ends.
“Gonna have to wrap this up, Rats,” I said, meaning to head to the store for some smoked bacon, pancake mix, and stuff to throw together Bloody Marys in the morning.
“I’ll just be but a minute,” he said.
Leaning against the pool table, I downed my beer and watched Rats sweep until he’d formed a neat pyre of broken glass, torn up beermats, and dirt. He never once stopped smiling.
No one heard from Jaw that weekend, but it wasn’t unusual for him to take off, then appear at the site real early a couple days later to make it up to Boss. I hadn’t been home since that night he flipped out. Janey wanted to talk until we had no more choices to make. She wanted me to commit, not to rings and picket fences but to hopping the border with her into Colorado. She had family in Boulder and a gotta-be-now job offer at a used car lot as a secretary or something. The guy who ran it was buddies with her dad and had held the job open longer than he wanted to already. I couldn’t keep sayin’ I wanted more time, she told me. She said I was the only thing she wanted to take from this town, so I either chose her or Jaw and all the shit he’d drag me into. I dug Janey a whole lot. She held a beer bottle loose between two fingers like a black-and-white movie star with a cigarette. Hell, she was the best looking girl in town by no small measure. And she saw right through my shit. Until we first hooked up a few months ago, I figured to skip town alone. Janey complicated matters, and I wasn’t sure if I all the way liked it.
On Sunday, we ordered takeout from every menu we had and watched TV all day. She was wrapped around me and it felt damn near like home. In the early hours her arms started twitching, which meant she was near asleep. I told her OK, I’m in. She said finally, all cute-groggy, then drifted off. In the morning I’d scoop up my stuff and we’d just go. No goodbyes, no forwarding address. A clean break. I carried her to bed, lay down beside her, and fell into the deepest sleep I think I’d ever known.
I sat mummified in red tape, reading spreadsheets written in Chinese. Casino punters shoved quarter after quarter into a bank of slot machines, pulling the levers all at once. The hum got louder until Jaw handed me a revolver with the barrel open and empty. He pulled a bullet from his mouth and loaded it in. I snapped it shut, gave it a spin like they do in the movies, held the muzzle flush against my temple. Jaw matched the electrics’ pitch as they both hmmmmmmmmm’d and muted everything else to the point that I didn’t realize my cell phone was vibrating on the cabinet and Janey was elbowing me back to reality, saying make it stop, over and over.
“Yeah?” I answered.
“Jaw’s gone,” the voice said. It sounded like Rats’, only higher.
“Jaw’s gone where?”
“I dunno. Gone. Like, split gone. I don’t think he’s coming back this time.”
“Who cares? You’re better off.”
“I don’t got no family. You know that. You’re leaving for the suits so I ain’t got no choice but to care.”
“Right. Where are you?”
“At his door.”
“Have you knocked?”
“Yeah, I knocked. I went round back and knocked there too. His pickup’s gone and there’s no new tracks.”
“Well what do you need me for?”
“I dunno, I’m all fucked up. You’re not at home and your clothes are everywhere and Jaw’s gone and everything’s changing real quick. What do we do, Greg?”
I pulled the phone away from my ear to look at the time.
“Rats, it’s hardly even Monday yet.”
“Like I said, I’m all, like, fucked up. Frazzled. Can I come pick you up at Janey’s?”
I paused. My faculties had come back in time to not say anything dumb. “Why would I be at Janey’s?” I said. We’d kept it quiet at her urging. She could handle drunken advances all night, but if folks knew about us they would wanna go through me first. I didn’t much mind a scuffle, but she wanted my nose kept clean for the move across the state line.
“C’mon, man. We all see how she looks at you, and she’s always passing you notes like we’re still in class.”
“I’m not into Janey at all.” I glanced over and she peered out from under the covers, rolled her eyes. I mouthed sorry and squeezed her bare ass. She smiled and rolled over.
“Look, I know I ain’t shit. I sure as hell ain’t no sweetheart, and I got no call trying to get in on a man’s secrets, but don’t bullshit me, Greg.”
He was a good guy, Rats. I didn’t like to lie to him, especially when he knew it.
“All right, you’re right,” I said, swinging my legs to the floor and reaching down for the shirt I’d worn all weekend.
“Wait,” I said. “What did you say about my clothes?”
“Your back door was open, so I went in. Don’t be mad but I took a beer to take the edge off. I’ll buy you a round come payday, I promise. Your clothes were all over the floor anyways so I reckoned you’d packed to stay at Janey’s a while. It’s a real shit-heap in there. Drawers and cupboards open, couch cushions all torn up. Did you have a rager in there after the bar and not invite us?”
When I was a kid, my dad would bring shady-lookin’ men down to the basement and lock the door behind them. In the morning there’d always be something missing from the house: I’d come downstairs to find a dust outline where the TV had been, mom would quietly complain that her jewelry box felt lighter, I’d find my piggybank smashed. I’d had to learn what two plus two meant at a young age.
“You there, Greg?
“Just go home. I’ll see you in a couple hours,” I said, hanging up.
“What is it?” Janey asked.
“Yeah he’s definitely not right in the head.”
“Gone gone. Blew town gone.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Yeah. Real good. Real fuckin’ good.”
“You can’t seriously be upset about that shit-brick.”
I told her this was good news, that this was just life’s way of clearing the runway before we take off together. I told her to go back to sleep while I went home to gather my things.
I tore out to the highway, guessing Jaw would head toward Texas where the girls got cheaper. After a couple hours the sun came up and I couldn’t tell what was what anymore. I wasn’t exactly jazzed about spending the next few weeks chasing Jaw’s ghost around shitty backwater towns. I could tell Janey about the money and she’d tell Buck, who’d be itching for a hunt down. Especially if the prey was Jaw. Might only cost me a few hundred too. And I could maybe get most of my cash back depending on how wild Jaw had gone on his way outside the city limits. But then I’d be admitting that I had it in the first place, that I lied or at least didn’t offer the truth to her about having near five grand in a bag in a secret compartment I’d built into my closet to keep guys like Jaw from finding it. I should’ve known better than thinking I had the one secret that would never find its way out. Janey would know I'd had thoughts that didn’t include her. Rats would find out and it’d about break his heart. I couldn’t give Janey a damn thing she deserved with no cash. Maybe the Colorado job would still be there in a few months.
The Texas exit was coming up quick. I liked the job, truth be told. It was uncomplicated, the pay was okay, and Boss was actually a decent guy. In a little while the fellas would be smoking hand-rolled cigs in the dump truck shade, Rats dumping whiskey in his coke can on the quiet. Janey would be packing her bags to “Son of a Preacher Man,” calling Colorado to tell them we’re on our way, we’re ready to leave all our troubles behind.
Matthew Paul has published words in other places. If you're so inclined, you can find these things on his website.
Athena Frances Harden was born in rural SW Pennsylvania in 1989 and received a BFA from Point Park University in 2013. Using an array of mediums from photography to videography and paper collage, Athena intends on evoking deep emotion with the earthy, delicate, and intimate style presented. Bringing awareness to simple detail and relationships, making visual art to better understand self and the world we are all inhabiting. Currently residing in Pittsburgh PA, traveling often and breathing carefully.